Sunday 29 September 2013

The lonely novelist

I’ve been telling people for nearly a month now that I’m on “about 40,000 words”, which was and is true. I’m roughly halfway through the novel, or just under. However, until recently I was more accurately on about 38,000 words and had somewhat run into the sand.

Two things combined to make progress incredibly slow.
How novelists see themselves may not be a
particularly accurate representation of  reality

First, even though my summer in Oxford was almost entirely devoted to novel writing, I found that the longer I had been without a ‘proper’ job, the harder I found it to maintain discipline and keep writing. No matter how much I told myself this was the best opportunity I would probably ever have to make progress, by the end of the three months I was hardly writing anything.

Going back to work, while coming with its own set of drawbacks (more on that story later) has helped remind me that writing is actually very satisfying and enjoyable and not a chore at all.

Second, the further I got with the writing, and the more I felt I was onto something decent, the more I got The Fear. I recognised it – I’ve had it before – but I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. The Fear derives from thinking that a) the book you’re writing is pretty good, particularly in your head, and b) if you put those thoughts down on paper it is going to instantly become an irredeemable heap of horse manure because you have no idea how to write novels. No one actually knows how to write novels, but what does reality matter to the minds of the insane?

I stumbled on a cure for this affliction mostly by accident. Here’s an excerpt from a post on the National Novel Writing Month blog, written by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty. The post urges authors not to plan too much; if anything, I have the opposite problem, but then I came across this:

Every year during National Novel Writing Month, I get emails from people jubilantly informing me that they’re dropping out of the contest because they’ve found a story that they love, and they want to work on it slowly enough to do it justice.

When I check in with these people six months later, they’ve inevitably stopped working on the book entirely. Why? Because they’ve become afraid of ruining their book by actually sitting down and writing it.

Damn! You mean I’m not the only one struggling with this?

Rather pathetically, this was something of a revelation for me. It’s completely blatantly patently obvious that I’m nothing special and people the world over are wrestling with the same problems as me, but this was the first time I properly recognised it, at least in relation to The Fear.

And then I thought: well, those people are pretty silly. I’m not like them.

And then I sat down at my computer and I wrote, and I easily made my target word count. And I did the same the next day and the next. The writing has been going smoothly ever since. It’s funny how we humans tie ourselves up in these psychological knots, and they usually turn out to be utterly straightforward to unpick, if we can just figure out how.

I’m now on 41,120 words.

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