A Novel Update

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I haven’t posted an update on my novel-in-progress for quite some time because – drumroll – I have been too busy writing it. Twenty-five thousand words and counting.

I am finding the novel writing process fun, fascinating, boring, difficult and addictive (sometimes all in one afternoon.) But most important of all – it’s happening. A part of me thought I would have given up by now. I am delighted to find that I have persevered. I could no more stop now than I could stop talking (and as my long-suffering partner would attest, that’s a powerful comparison.)

My greatest challenge so far has been writing the middle chapters – the bits you want to skip because they’re all a bit too hard and you just want to rush your way to the exciting climax. (Ah, isn’t that true for so many things in life.)

Starting isn’t a problem. You set off with a whizz and a bang, embarking on your writing journey with a full tank, virgin pages and the tantalising promise of adventures to come. You’re excited. You dream about your ten-book publishing deal and the literary awards that will inevitably rain down upon you. At your internationally publicised book launch, Salmon Rushdie will shake your hand. A bitter Stephanie Meyer will try to slip a mushy vol-au-vent into your handbag at the after party. J. K. Rowling will send you brilliant and vaguely magical hate mail. Publishing magnates will gauge competitors’ eyes out with letter openers in an undignified scrap over the discarded drafts of your next novel. You can see the movie credits rolling already, and you fantasise about your teary but dignified walk to the stage to receive your Oscar for Best Novel Ever to be Turned into a Movie (Even Better Than Harry Potter.)

You introduce characters. You set the scene. You establish what’s what. Everyone is enthusiastic (apart from your friends / colleagues / the chap in the corner shop whose eyes glaze over as you tell them for the twentieth time that you’re “writing a novel. No really, I am.”)

At the end, the relief at finally finishing the bloody thing makes you want to weep.

But the middle? Think of Sam and Frodo half-way to Mordor. Or that bit in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they get lost in the fog. Or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Day after day, day after day, / We stuck, nor breath nor motion; / As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean.) Geez. He could have been writing about me.

Like a vindicated hypochondriac, I felt enormously relieved when a rather wise author friend told me that my condition actually had a name. The phenomenon is called the “Second Act Sag.” (Relieved as in: Thank God, it’s not just because I’m total gobshite. This is a writer’s condition. Made me feel part of the club, actually.) He explained the simple concept:

You start with a hiss and a roar, establishing key roles, setting up conflict, introducing themes. That’s Act One. Act Two is like the end of the honeymoon period. The wheels, previously whizzing around in well-oiled smugness, start to wobble. Then loosen. Then fall off. You turn this way and that, unable to get your bearings. Confused and disorientated, you end up meandering in a literary desert, or (and please forgive the rather clumsy mix of metaphors), struggling through a swamp of dead-end paragraphs, redundant ideas and incomplete phrases. By Act Three you’re back on solid ground, tackling the classic Crisis – Climax – Resolution arc with renewed vigour.

At one point I didn’t just sag, I came to a grinding halt. I was completely and utterly stuck; interned in plot la-la land, not knowing what the f#!k was going to happen next, or how I was going to move my characters towards the already determined finale.

So I took a step back and decided to write a detailed plot synopsis to get everything clear in my head. I followed the same rather wise author’s advice that everything should be driven by character (i.e. if you are unsure what happens next, make sure you know your characters well enough so that when they come to a fork in the road, you know instinctively which fork they would choose.)

By Jove, it worked! I had needed a road map; something solid and tangible to guide me as I continued. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for writing as the spirit leads and seeing where your pen takes you. When I started I had a vague idea of the overall plot and where I was headed, but most days I just sat down and started writing, without referencing forward or back. All very well, but at this stage, it was clear that I needed some kind of “anchoring” to feel confident enough to push on.

So here I am at 25,000 words and I can’t stop thinking about my characters and my chapters and how I’m going to craft the next sentence, establish the next scene or pull the next heart string. So often now I find myself in that sweet spot where the words flow, the images pop and I know instinctively what should come next. Sometimes I look at a section I’ve written and I get a bit teary because it is what I wanted to write, but didn’t think I could. (And sometimes I move the whole lot to the Trash because it is so cringe-inducingly awful. But hey! You win some…)

When I started writing my novel I had no idea it would turn into such a major undertaking. Remember my earlier post (A Novel Ambition) in which I blithely declared I was aiming to finish it in October? Baaaaaaahahahaha. Ah, those Halcyon days. That Age of Innocence. That….anyway. I know better now. I’m going to get this thing written and professionally assessed and edited and published (either by one of those clamouring publishing magnates or by myself), but my timeline has gone out the window.

Be sure to keep an eye out in the next week for a short extract, and for more hints and tantalising tidbits over the summer (or winter, depending on where you’re reading this). It’s about time I teased you just a little.

Excited? Ah, never mind. I am.

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