As a writer or in truth in whatever you do, at any moment ‘The Twitch’ could strike. Don’t ever ignore the instinct that you have gone astray, because your doubt will niggle in the back of your mind until you confront your errors.
In the writing process in these last few months, as I’ve been planning the longer term prospects for my series of fantasy novels, I have learnt that you need to be really stubborn to persevere with the entire process of being a writer. Sometimes you just have to force the ideas to come to you; my muse frequently leaves to go on vacation at awkward moments and comes back when the house isn’t clean, I need to go to work and until recently I really needed to get on with my university work instead. When the muse is away and you need to write, you just have to stubbornly persevere with the writing and the ideas. It takes practice but eventually knowing what to write next comes as second nature.
And then, you have to edit, a process that is completely different from writing. You aren’t creating anymore, you’re in a way destroying your work and putting it back together again in a smoother, more defined shape than the original composition. Trust me, you have to be stubborn with yourself to get through editing and you have to be tough. Any notions that you might have that writers are whimsical and dreamy, think again; to write means to edit, and to edit means being ruthless. To be a writer you have to be stubborn.
But not too stubborn. I’ve been working on my first novel of the series ‘The Phoenix Spell’, for years. In my previous post, The Inner Fear, I wrote about how my first chapter required work, which is an understatement. I was crushed at how bad my first chapter had been when I’d returned to it after years of not working on it. I’ve been working on my story for the last couple of months now as a rest bite from my dissertation, and in that time I’ve had several clear things in mind. I knew I had a slightly altered first chapter; I knew I had some better ideas about character development throughout the story; and I un-categorically knew where the story was going to end. I have been stubbornly working towards that end for years. Yesterday, when I was totting up the word count, I came to the conclusion that my ending is not the ending of my first book, but the ending of my second. Fantasy traditionally is a longer form of fiction; but there is long and then there is the possibility that in writing one book you’ve accidently written two.
The first half has a different tone from the second, it is a journey towards finding out what love is and understanding acceptance of one’s self. The second half, which is rougher, having only been written in its current form in the last few months, is how that acceptance transforms what my characters are willing to do and risk in the name of love. They are two different books, but it took me letting go of a little bit of stubbornness to admit that where I wanted by first novel to end isn’t where my first novel naturally ends.
So it’s good to be stubborn, but not too stubborn.
I will admit that occasionally when it comes to my writing, I don’t get everything right the first time around. This is known as the shoddy first draft. No writer in the history of writing gets everything right the first time around. If such a writer does happen to exist, they sure as hell haven’t shared the secret on the web. That and they also cannot possibly be around every time I accidently hit the wrong key on the keyboard, usually the vowels, and it’s not picked up by spellchecker because technically I have spelt a real word if not the one I’d intended to spell. If humans can’t programme computers to help write the perfect first draft, then it simply doesn’t exist.
For the longest time in my writing career I was an isolated writer. I wrote stories, normally in my free time in school. I remember once being sat alone writing in a classroom while the England football team were playing in some important match or other in the Football World Cup, while everyone else sat in the common room because the teachers had arranged a special session near the end of the school year for everyone to watch the game. I opted out and finished the first draft of the first novel I ever attempted to write. England lost, and I was too happy to care (not that I was very bothered in the first place anyway, but that’s beside the point). This was in the days before Facebook, Twitter and all the guys in the band came and gathered the writing world together in social media. The minuteI joined up though and began to take writing more seriously and looked at platforms to launch myself from, the first bit of solid unwavering advice I got was about the fact you can’t always get it right. It still shocks me now that I thought I had got it right all those years ago.
That first draft I finished in my geography classroom is on loose paper and is truly, utterly very shoddy; it doesn’t make me any less proud of the fact I finished it, even though I doubt I will ever make it into a proper novel one day. The complexity of my fantasy compositions have developed beyond those characters and that story; quite frankly so have the audience. The issues I deal with in my books now are not just about getting the characters from A to B, I have tangents in my character development, and the current rewriting of my novel is testimony to the fact tangents can make characters more interesting especially in the long run. As an epic fantasy writer this is very important, but as I’ve been finding out it isn’t any easier to write despite having a great deal more practice since those school days.
However, I’ve been recently working long shifts doing event catering, and I’ve had a lot of time stood on my feet trying not to think about the fact I felt as if my feet were going to fall off in the pain. Other than thinking about my MA dissertation that I’m outlining and writing in the next month, I’ve let my mind wander into my own fantasy world, especially about the fact I’m not convinced that I have done the right thing.
There, holding my hands up and admitting I’ve gone wrong. This is certainly not the first draft of the novel (far bloody from it), but I still get what I call ‘the twitch’ every now and then in the back of my mind. Even through I am writing about a completely different world, where social rules and norms are different from ours, and are so for fundamental reasons, every now and then something just does not feel right.
It usually starts when I’ve finished writing what I wasn’t convinced was right for the novel in the first place but I decided to try it anyway: sometimes it works spectacularly well, and then those other times…well I’m sure you can imagine. The twitch in the back of my mind gets worse when I realise I don’t know how to write the very next scene after I’ve done something that doesn’t feel right. Then instead of attempting to move forwards I move backwards in the novel and rewrite scenes to justify and set up the action that I’m not convinced should happen in the first place. For me this can take a few attempts, and instead of justifying the action, I end up ruining previous scenes and beautiful moments in an attempt to ensure I don’t surprise my reader in a few pages time.
When that happens, my gut instinct that something is wrong kicks me out of trying to justify it and instead think about how to fix it. In the particular case that’s been bothering me for the last week or so I can surprise the reader, but not because the two characters in question do something, but rather, it works better for the book and the long term that they surprise everyone in my little world and in the real world that they choose not to do something. It requires no set up (thank goodness for track changes and back up copies to re-fix my justifications) and I now know how to write the next scene. All it required was to let myself lean up against a wall in a ladies toilet and zone out for a few moments to realise that, one I had a problem, and two it was really very easy to fix, especially if I just stopped being stubborn for a second and listen to my gut instinct.
It is not always that easy, but that is what the shoddy first draft is there to help you do sometimes. It helps you to learn how ‘not’ to write your novels. Learning to admit you got it wrong though is a lot harder to learn and develop, but if you let ‘the twitch’ in the back of your mind guide you to realising something is wrong, then it makes it a lot easier to accept that you are not a perfect writer.
And if you are that perfect writer the first time, each and every time, come on already and let the rest of us in on the secret.
I know doctors, and I know the immense pressure of responsibility that they have in their work. Doubts about competence when it comes to practice is understandable, and the many thousands of doctors in this world who put themselves through that pressure on a daily basis have my utmost respect. What I found very strange when I was watching the television series, was how much I could relate to Radcliffe’s character and his fears concerning that which he is, in theory, competent to carry out. In theory I am a competent writer, but in practice I have an inner fear; a terror that I might not be. At my stage in my writing career I don’t write to make sure I don’t disappoint my audience, mainly because I don’t have one yet; the only people I write for is my characters. I know they aren’t real; I know that they are only alive in my head and in the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written of their story over the years. But I have absolute responsibility for them, and my fear is that I will let them down if I can’t prove my competence.
My fear is utterly justifiable, as I discovered recently. I have been working on my novel, ‘From the Ashes’, for many years on and off between university and work commitments. I have developed my writing with this book as it has gone under several drafts. The influences on it have evolved as I’ve grown from a GCSE student at 16 when I first started developing the characters, into a very different, more mature, in-depth creation that at 25 I have more control over. As a student of history, I have studied the consequences of human decision, but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks that I truly understood and realised the flexibility that can exist in a writer’s set of decisions.
I plotted my book about 7 years ago, but it took me 7 years to realise that I hadn’t etched that plot into stone: I’d just put ink to paper. I will admit for the last 14 or 15 months my postgraduate degree and my work commitments have reduced the spare time available to work on my novel, which is good, writers need to step away from their work. Why it lasted so long though is because of the inner fear, the doubt in the back of my mind that I would never really get my novel to work, because no matter how many times I would re-write there would always be something not quite right.
About 6 weeks ago I combined courage with enough desire to write and finally returned to ‘From the Ashes’ and read through the story. In truth the vast majority of the novel captivated me, but it took time for me to get interested, and the reason it took time is because my first chapter was awful. Over the years the only thing I have honestly never changed from my first draft, is the first chapter. It’s been revised a few times just for grammar and the like, but I never touched the characters, the action, and I never changed the plot. Quite genuinely I really do not know why it had never occurred to me before that the first chapter was bad. I’d sat and read through it, and I had to put the book away for the day because the doubt I’d had that I could never make the book work completely overwhelmed me. Thankfully, I’m not a doctor with a dying patient on my hands, I am only a writer, but my heart was crushed at the thought that I had proof sat in front of me that I’m not a competent writer, and that the characters I had lovingly created for nine years had no hope of living their full lives. I couldn’t even introduce them to each other properly, so how, I thought could I weave their entire tale if I couldn’t even manage that was like a knife to the heart. The fear of not being what I dream of being made me curl up in a ball.
My only true vice is tea, not morphine, and I can’t make tea curled up in a frightened ball. I simply wouldn’t be able to reach the kettle. A great deal of what I want my characters to experience is the truth that sometimes to life, means having to overcome what you are afraid of, and if I ever wanted a cup of tea again I’d have to drag myself up to be able to reach over the kitchen counter. So I made a cup of tea, several in fact, and I have ripped my first chapter completely apart, with the same grit and determination that Radcliffe portrayed when ripping apart a man’s jaw. Except for me, I did it on purpose, and the new draft I have for my first chapter, fills me with an inner confidence that I’m not letting my characters down anymore, but without the inner fear, I would have no doubt about my ability, and I would be a bad writer.