Wrestling the Octopus: how to avoid writing a novel

At a certain point, a novel-in-progress starts to get a tad unwieldy. When you begin, you have a blank screen and the boundless enthusiasm of a puppy. After a few months you have a mountain of scrap paper scrawled with half-finished paragraphs and synopsis drafts, screeds of ideas jotted down and pinned all over the walls in your office, song lyrics playing over and over in your head, ideas giving birth to ideas giving birth to delusions of grandeur, drafts one, two and three spread all over the bed, numerous reference books piled up by the door, emails advising you that the 97 books you ordered in the interests of research have all arrived at once, flowcharts, a gorilla, genograms, tabulated excel spreadsheets, and a migraine.

I just threw the gorilla in there to check you were still with me.

Let’s stay with the animal theme. You know that hilarious scene in the movie Love Actually where Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon try to squeeze into the back seat of a car with a little boy dressed up as an octopus? Just as they tuck in one tentacle up pops another. They try to shut the door when three more fall out and another winds its way around Hugh’s neck. And then they can hardly see the road in front of them because of all the waving tentacles.

That’s how it feels when you get past the opening chapter and find yourself actually writing a novel. It grows. And grows. And grows. Sub-plots sprout from nowhere. Characters appear and demand to be written in. Existing characters throw a hissy fit if they’re not developed enough. (You realise you can’t just get away with writing “He had brown eyes and black hair and murderous intent.”) You have to keep track of what you wrote in the third sentence in the second paragraph on page 15 so that the thematic metaphor in paragraph four on page 356 makes sense. Narrative structure, character arc, and back story are no longer just reference terms in your “How to Write a Novel” handbook. You realise that if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to do it right and you can’t take shortcuts.

(Just as an aside, I once attended a church service during which the Minister declared that sin was “spreading its evil testicles far and wide.” As you can imagine this rather bewildering image has stayed with me for some time.)

Now I know why novelists take brooding walks along cliff tops and waft around in cafes looking tortured and make guest appearances at festivals. They’re escaping the office because the whole business is making them go slightly doolally. Either that or they can’t find their desks because they’re covered in scrap paper.

This tortured author is not seeking inspiration for his next novel. He just can’t be arsed writing chapter Twenty-Frigging-Whatever today.

All my avoidance techniques came into play when I sat down to write my novel (which, I’m happy to say, is now in the final stages of being edited and will soon be ready to submit to publishers). Suddenly my toenails needed clipping and my entire wardrobe was crying out to be re-organised according to colour and/or season. “Hmmm, I’ll just clean out the paper clip box,” I mused as I sat at my desk. “And goodness, would you look at that speck of dust floating by the window. I must away and water blast the entire house exterior right this minute.”

But let me tell you about the novel writer’s best procrastination technique. It’s called: “Fuck this, I’m going to write a short story.”

I get it. The satisfaction involved in starting and finishing something in a relatively short period is undeniable – even if it’s crying out for a rewrite and some serious editing. Already it’s a whole piece of work that just needs improving upon (or binning, perhaps.) It’s not eternally unfinished, which is how I sometimes felt about my novel.

Joking aside, writing shorter pieces such as poems, short stories, blog posts and even just snippets here and there as they come to you can be a valid and necessary escape from the onerous, long-term commitment required by a novel.

The key is to keep on writing so that you stay in the habit. But don’t be fooled by those experts who say you have to write every single day for this amount of time and in this way. Find your own rhythm. If that’s writing furiously for a week then nothing for a fortnight, or writing short stories for a year and then going back to attempt that abandoned novel again, or ditching the novel entirely and writing occasional limericks for the rest of your life, then that’s fine. This is supposed to be fun after all, and an expression of ourselves, not of the latest “expert” or author who is lecturing us on How To.

Having said that, if your dream really is to be a writer, and a published one, a certain amount of discipline is required. Just ensure that you are disciplining yourself to do something that feels truly “you”, and that ultimately, it makes your heart sing.

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