It’s a seriously long slog. Early on I set myself a goal of a thousand words a day, at least four days a week. Some days that comes easy; some days it’s like pulling a thousand teeth, each with the root pulp still attached. Very quickly, though, I realised that the daily word count was a distraction, that it’s possible to shit out several hundred words just to make up the numbers. There’s just not much point if you have to trash them all the next day. The word-goal advice is mostly to help baby writers establish patterns of discipline and productivity, but these aren’t my personal areas of weakness. (Mine are to do with clarity of vision. Also unevenness of tone, and figuring out how to make characters convincingly complex rather than simply schizophrenic. In the colloquial rather than the diagnostic sense.)
Still, most days I manage it. And it feels like a small triumph to have passed, a week or so ago, the 50K mark. I’ll probably end up deleting twenty thousand of them, and the remaining thirty are in the wrong order. But it seems like a significant body of work to have accrued: a hundred-plus single-spaced pages of 10-point American Typewriter, lurking in the dark like an embarrassing but pleasing secret, like having just lost your virginity to the weird guy at school. And with it comes a little quickening of excitement that there could be something there that might, one day, given enough revision, actually work.
All of which explains the long abstinences from blogging – a practice that feels self-indulgent and time-profligate at the best of times. Lately, with all my writing mojo channelled into bashing out words on my ‘thesis’ (it has seemed far too grandiose, until very recently, to call anything so nascent and half-baked [more on mixed metaphors ((and tortured grammar)) in a moment] a ‘novel’), I’ve had no energy left for writing something even less useful than my MCW project. But this blog is a diary of the journey as much as anything else; so from time to time I need to get something on record to mark the latest phase of the experience.
Over the last three months, along with the daily struggle to string words into sentences, I’ve endured many challenging new processes: sharing extracts of my work well before the point of readiness; attempting, squirming, to feed back constructively on the work of others, who presumably feel just as raw and exposed as me; being grilled about the depth, direction, theme and symbolism of my hopelessly woolly project by my beady-eyed advisor; subjecting what Martin Amis would call my ‘empurpled prose’ to the puritanical disapproval of good creative writing advice: Don’t overwrite. Avoid adverbs. Use metaphors sparingly.
But this is me, unleashed from years of key messages and brand voice and an average audience reading age of 12. I’m like a dog let loose in a field full of smells; I need to run panting all over the paddock, digging and peeing and squatting and rolling in it. I need to savour all the joyous abandon of mixing my metaphors, layering up my modifiers and torturing my grammar, before I slink back to my desk, sit up straight with my serious face on and rein it all in.
I am actually looking forward to the pruning stage, where I get to practise the pleasures of topiary, or perhaps bonsai. One famous author says that once you’ve written the entire first draft, read it all the way through and slashed it to pieces with your red pen, that’s when the real work of writing a book starts. I think that in some ways that bit, the sentence-crafting bit, will come more naturally to me than this messy story-haemorrhaging bit, with its endless daily demands to make stuff up.
Getting up some real momentum on the novel (see, I can drop the inverted commas) has brought the additional satisfaction of feeling like I have a genuine mission in life. If an unclaimed hour presents itself, I seize the opportunity to squeeze out a few more words, or delete a few of the crap ones. It’s liberating to be able to blithely ignore, week after week, the yellow rind around the toilet rim and the thick furring of dust coating the furniture. It’s a personal triumph to look at the deeply layered mess of my children’s bedrooms and think, ‘Nup. Better things to do. If I’ve got time to sort that shit out I’ve got time to lie on the floor and dream up the next bit of dialogue.”
Speaking of which, I need to go and stare at the ceiling now. I’m supposed to pull another thousand words out of my arse tomorrow.