I cannot quite believe I am writing this – I have finished a book! Writing one, I mean. It’s been a while – around five years since I wrote ‘The End’ on anything longer than a few pages. I’ve been writing all that time – I never really stopped – but I haven’t been finishing anything much, and my definition of a writer is not so much ‘Someone who writes’ as ‘Someone who finishes writing something’.
I’ve mentioned this before and don’t want to bore you with it all again, but five years ago my writing career, if I can call it that, took a huge knock when a publisher commissioned me to write a series of children’s books and then, after I’d done quite a lot of work, pulled the rug. It probably shouldn’t have upset me as much as it did, but it did. It knocked my confidence, such as it was, clean out of me. At around the same time my father died, and although losing him was much, much worse, the whole thing got mixed up in my mind and somehow made it impossible for me to write properly again, no matter how hard I tried. And I did try – I filled notebook after notebook with my scribbles, but I seemed to have completely lost the ability to give any overall shape or form to what I wrote and every new idea fizzled out and lay around on my desktops, real and virtual, to mock me for my ineptitude.
I thought of giving up but it seems I have to write in the way I have to read – I can’t imagine life without either. A few months ago, as reported here, I had the idea of writing a diary entry every day for an imaginary person, part-me, part definitely not me. She kept me company for a while, but then her story fizzled out too, though I may well go back to it sometime. But alongside the fizzling, a new little flame caught light. It was a return to something I’d started a while back and abandoned, but I was delighted to find my ‘people’ (I’ve decided to stop calling them characters… see below*) still alive and with plenty to say and do for themselves. I was back to writing two or three pages a day and these people were determined to be seen and heard. Lots of them – members of a writing group (I think I can say that now the first draft is done), of various ages and with all kinds of experiences, many of them bad, in the writing world (yes, one or two of them may be based just a little bit on me). I kept going, and recently totted up my word count at about 64,000. Almost if not quite a novel, though the problem was it showed no sign of coming to an end and I knew no way to finish it. Then one morning a few days later it finished itself. It was over, complete – not fizzled out or chopped off before its time, but a finished book. A first draft, of course, and needing lots of editing, but nonetheless something that seems, at least to me, complete. Who knows what changes will suggest themselves, but the point is, I was able to write ‘The End’, and what a moment of joy and accomplishment that was.
I hate it when people claim to have discovered a magical secret formula that helped them solve a problem. Maybe it sometimes happens that way, but I’m never convinced. I think in my case it was probably just the time I took to recover from my disappointment. Idiotic, perhaps, but that was how it was. I will mention one other thing, however. I stopped thinking about my novel when I wasn’t actually writing it. I’m not sure whether I’d read that advice somewhere or whether it was something I thought of – but instead of thinking and planning and worrying and fretting between writing sessions, and waking in the night to draw fancy plot shapes, I stopped all that and simply wrote down each day whatever came into my head. Funnily enough, I was reading yesterday a selection of quotations on writing by Ernest Hemingway and he recommends exactly that (Phillips 1986, p.43**). Let your subconscious work on it, he says. Read something by someone else or go out and do things to take your mind off it.
Years ago, when I longed to write but had a job and two children, that’s what I had to do anyway. No time to make fancy plans. Then I read books on How to Write and became fixated on planning, maybe not at the start but at some stage of the process. Perhaps it suits some people, but I seem to do better without it, at least for now.
Hemingway’s other great piece of advice for me is to stop while the tank still has something in it. Don’t run yourself dry. Leave off work for the day while you still have something to say. Again, that's almost unavoidable when you’re writing with children pulling at your sleeves; less obvious when you’re a retiree.
|The best books have yellowed pages and a musty fragrance, and can be bought for a song in delightful secondhand bookshops on sunny May afternoons|
Or perhaps my success in finally writing ‘The End’ has nothing to do with either of those things. I really don’t know, and I’m always wary of pairing up ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ without any sound evidence. I don’t really care, however. It feels good to have finished and to have earned a break before starting on the second draft.
* Hemingway prefers to call his characters his 'people', for interesting reasons. A person is a person; a character is a construct or even a caricature. I like this, so I've decided to do the same.
**‘Ernest Hemingway on Writing’, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Grafton Books, London, 1986.