Persevere

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View from rest and be thankful pass, Scotland

View from rest and be thankful pass, Scotland

I believe that one of the skills of a good writer is knowing when a novel is done. Since last year I have thought my novel to be finished 3 or more times; yet each time events and/or my readers’ opinions have proved me wrong. So I have learnt to persevere, to cast my eyes and thoughts again over sentences I really hoped I had written for the last time.

So now, rather weary of revisions, this question of ‘When will it be finished?’ arises in my thoughts on an almost daily basis – one sentence changed here, a little bit more explanation there. It gets a bit boring, or at least a chore, like French homework. When will I have edited sufficiently? … nobody knows, not even me (not yet a good enough writer to say).

Persevere, that’s what I just have to do and hope that, as when one approaches the peak of the mountain, the end of my journey will be plain to see.

Blogs I’ll no longer follow

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Are the badly written ones, usually with no sense of their audience and sometimes just no sense in them at all! And my, there are an awful lot of these.

My favourite animal

My favourite animal

My experience of blogging so far has taught me that bloggers capable of writing entries that interest and inform me tend to be reviewers of novels, not those who purport to be writing novels.

So I will no longer follow the guy who has already written 4 plays, 8 screenplays and 22 stories (funnily enough he’s not a household name), nor those writers of post-apocalyptic netherworld trilogies, nor the woman who posts 500 plus words daily from her ‘rite of passage’ novel that has, based on the excerpts I forced myself to read, all the narrative magnetism of a shopping list.

What seems to unite such writers is their complete lack of self reflection or any acquaintance with the concept of editing. Last November the blogosphere (is that right? I am still quite new to this) was plagued with ‘NaNoWriMo’* posts. I understood the concept of this American phenomenon long before I worked out the exact meaning of the drawly title – just write loads of words every day and see if you can get to 50,000 in a month! You get a chart to track your progress! And you will get a certificate if you reach that goal!

Yes I appreciate the benefits of word count when writing – as a marker of progress – but I thought it was a given that it’s the good, right words of the draft that are counted not every jot and scribble penned along the way. I would have written my novel in two months if I had followed the ‘NaNo’ principal – na, no indeed.

As it is I have taken 5 years to write my novel – my handful of followers will know that I finished the piece late last year and sent it away to a woman who truly does knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the written word.

Overall the verdict was favourable and the advice generous. So I continue with my reworks, turning the screws on my narrative structure, plumbing new depths in characters’ motivations. On a daily basis there is little that I allow myself to accept into the work, small fruit of many hours thought. I am content with this, it works, the picture builds.

I came across this quote today from Joan Didion, which encapsulates the process so well:

“To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed…The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

Why I Write (1976)

*National November Writing Month – in case you really needed to know

Life in a Paragraph

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So, buoyed by the positive response I received from my reader, I’ve decided to apply for a writers’ mentoring programme. I have a week to get together a submission of my work, a statement on why I think I would benefit from the programme and a short biography.

The first two I can manage but the third, well how does one sum up one’s life so far? Or rather to summarise the years in a way that a stranger would find interesting. On paper one life looks very like another – just as on a train, in a restaurant, or a shopping centre we all pretty much blend into the background, into one another.

My life in a paragraph or three, here goes:

I was born in 1963 near the coast of Southern England, the second one of four girls. I grew up happy, my childhood visited neither by trauma nor fear. I went to university in London and studied English and Drama and decided to stay. I’ve never lived anywhere else but South East London for the last 30 years. I loafed about, I tried to be a set designer for about two months. I ran out of money and inspiration at roughly the same time. Took some holidays and some temporary jobs; office job after office job after office job. And then I took a permanent job with British Telecom. I signed The Official Secrets Act. I was good at my job, got promoted, earnt lots of money but didn’t feel it was me – serving the money god all day long. I packed off mobile phones when they cost £3000 and looked like bricks. I got married, I had a daughter. I ran a warehouse for a while, learnt to drive a fork lift truck, spied on my colleagues  during a fraud investigation – but I can’t tell you about that because I’ve signed The Official Secrets Act.

I stopped working when I got a redundancy cheque, bought a car and a holiday. I had another daughter. I came out, much to everyone’s surprise including mine. I trained to be a speech and language therapist and after two years I left my husband and I got a job. That was 12 years ago. Same job, same house since then. Children grown and still wonderful. The writing, that has always been my secret ambition, rekindled in 2010.

A happy life but unremarkable, I wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.

Just to lure in the animal lovers

Just to lure in the animal lovers

I miss her

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comma butterfly

comma butterfly

So it’s been about a week since I finished writing my novel. I spent 3 days or so reading through the final draft and struggling with my punctuation which I am not confident about. (I blame having attended secondary school in the seventies). I had to execute a comma cull, every other sentence seemed to have at least two! I probably went too far but never mind.

I do miss her, my central character. We have nothing more to say to each other and that’s a bit sad. Sometimes in the evening I open up her folder again and look through her story but it’s not the same. I let her go and she is seeing other people now.

In spite of the majority of my posts having no animal content whatsoever it seems that searchers of the interweb are rather keen on them. My most popular search term is ‘elephant’ and specifically ‘how to draw an elephant’. Therefore I am determined to weave in some animal reference to each of my posts from now on. Hence the lovely butterfly.

Done

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Yesterday I finished writing the story. 80,000 words done, two years in earnest and longer than that if I count all the time thinking about it. Writing the final words was not a magic ‘ta dah!’ moment. Just a smile, a satisfied sigh. I went out into the pouring rain to buy some milk, came back home and cooked dinner – life goes on. But walking back down the dark street I smiled, I almost skipped, lightened by my private joy. It’s done. I did it, only me, from start to finish, every word, every sentence drafted, revised, accepted – all mine.

Georges Simenon is quoted as naming writing ‘a vocation of unhappiness’. I used to think that true but these past two years have made me change my mind. Writing makes me happy, yet it is the product of being alone.

Still eating

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..my metaphorical elephant. I would say I have worked my way down to just below the knees, if elephants have them.

Ten pages at a time, slow work but I should meet my deadline of the 30th. Then I hand over my manuscript to a knowledgeable stranger who will read it and tell me what she thinks. And she will be the first person who will do so objectively. That is a daunting thought.

Editing every line of a novel makes one strangely reclusive or at least disassociated from ‘reality’. These words greatly occupy my thoughts, leaving little room for conversation, blogs and the like. I think I may have a dose of temporary insanity.

What I’ve learnt from the endeavour thus far is that I actually do have the  required determination to see things through, which is marvellous.  I’m a great starter and a poor finisher, at least I used to think I was. Nice to know that at my age it’s still possible to make good on flaws of personality. I’ve also learnt that it’s easier to edit a printed page than one on the screen. Doodling helps a lot when sifting through my brain for the right word. Ticking off the last scribbled revision on the tenth page of type is very gratifying. But I know that the warm glow is soon enough dispersed as I turn to the next set of ten.

I’d imagined, before I started editing the second draft, that my blog would be a fascinating online diary of the editorial process (note to self – delusions of grandeur is another personality flaw to work on). That has not been the case as the posts, or lack of them, prove. Mine has been more of a monkish (or can I say nunnish? Probably not) occupation; silent and private, lots of sitting.

Eating the Elephant

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Can it make you sick I wonder? Talking of the metaphorical beast here of course.

one bite at a time

This last week I’ve been close-editing the story – ten pages at a time. So I have 21 bites to chew down on, so to speak.

The first ten pages completed with a sense of great satisfaction – that really wasn’t so bad after all and yes I feel better. With the second ten completed I have a reassurance that I can sustain the process. The third – well here is where trouble begins. I realise by page 32 that my detailed revision is a mammoth business, ha ha. I now understand it’s no fluke that ten pages takes 6 hours to work through, I’m weary and fractious, conscious also that after the weekend I have to return to ‘proper’ work and my time will be diminished.

By yesterday evening everything aches. I’ve over-indulged it seems. Mrs Elephant looks no smaller either.

There’s no way round it, this is going to take a good long while. I know I have to  put in time every day. It’s the only way to remain immersed in the story, the only way to feel as well as see what’s required to maintain veracity. I know I have to pay attention to detail, no bolting down allowed. I could do less, cut my portions in half, or even quarter size.

Ok Nelly let’s have another bite.

I get paid to lose

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Early Learning Centre Picture lotto

Not football or cricket matches you understand but most days I will deliberately lose at lotto or throw a game of pairs.

Playing a simple board game with a child can be a great ice-breaker, and deliberately losing is an easy way of creating rapport with a shy child. But do so with care lest the child detects your intentions, for then they’ll feel slighted. I am as adept as any card shark at reading the backs of lotto cards, memorising slight discolourations and hairline creases to assist my selection of the wrong card.

This lotto set is 12 years old and I must have used it a thousand times. It’s amazing how much conversation you can weave around a set of nine pictures. It’s my most trusted tool. Children I haven’t seen for months will ask excitedly for that game, the magic game they never seem to lose. That’s ok in my opinion; yes we all have to learn to cope with failing but the kids I see come to me because their language development has stalled and will know quite a bit already, even those not long past their third birthday, of frustration and of disappointment. So it’s nice for that boy or girl to win a game of lotto and then try some other games that aren’t so much about winning or losing, rather vehicles for acquiring the skills they need to be understood, to tell stories, and make friends. For me losing signals a successful start to a session.

Quiet Reading

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Somerset levels at dawn

Somerset Levels at Dawn – Philip Lambert, http://philiplambertpaintings.co.uk/

I have been doing a lot of this recently, of my own work. The fourth draft (were I a more experienced writer this would be my first) is the ‘start to finish story’ that I envisaged a very long time ago. Completed just before the summer holiday, left to rest whilst I went away and now I’m reading it. The first time I just read, admirably suspending judgement, from page one through to the end. It took me three days – I’m a famously slow reader. I felt quite dazed and yes, amazed by the close. Not because I think I’ve done a fantastic job, but because I have a whole, viable narrative right in front of me.

But the quiet reading has begun again, my strategy this time is to read ten pages and then make notes on what I need to improve, to add depth to, or to take away. To be honest this was the part I dreaded – having frequently experienced the horrors of rereading passages written in a state of self-critical panic, which tends to result in stylistically stunted and at times nonsensical prose – I imagined that I would be tempted to consign it all to the recycling bin (furiously torn up into little pieces first of course).

It hasn’t been like that so far. I have become a bemused student of my own work. It’s almost as if someone else wrote this not me, I’m discovering it anew. Which is why I chose the title ‘quiet reading’ – that stage when children magically learn to read in their heads and thereby fully enter the landscape of the imagined world – I feel like a newly skilled seven year old set down in a place of wonders.

And this far in to the second reading (about 100 pages to go) I’m curiously undaunted by the perceptions, nuances and descriptions I’ll have to add in. I’m excited, ready to get going, it feels like my reward.

Once is probably enough

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Yesterday, looking for a particular scene in my manuscript, I typed a simile that I am rather proud of into the ‘search’ field. I stared disbelieving at two results, a heinous crime, non?  Of course I corrected it but my curiosity was aroused, so in went an adjective that I know I am fond of – 5 results – ouch. How irritating for my potential reader! Yet I draw some comfort from knowing that even published novelists can succumb to over indulgence; my enjoyment of a recently read  novel was marred by encountering the word ‘heft’ 4 times (yes I counted, pedant that I am).

So just to give myself a few more winces of shame I typed in other words that I have tried to edit from previous drafts; clearly there is still more crossing out to do:

  • ‘seemed’ – 32 results
  • ‘looked’ – 173 results (it’s quite a visual novel)
  • ‘looked down’ – 21 results, oh dear
  • ‘a little’ – 64 results, oh dear oh dear
  • ‘stood’ – 65 results (yes, its quite a static novel too)

Then, because by now it was late at night and too hot to sleep, things got a little silly. I pondered on word frequency and what it might tell one about narrative or character. I tried some  pairings -

  • 77 results for ‘floor’ but only 12 for ‘ceiling’ – characters  fall down a lot? Bit miserable maybe?
  • ‘soft’ 39 results and only 15 for ‘hard’ – ah it’s a romance perhaps
  • ‘question’ 14 results, ‘answer’ 26 – indecision is a central theme, or main character in a debating society
  • ‘ask’ 16 results and ‘tell’ 42 results- lots of disclosure, not very good at keeping secrets possibly.

And, still not sleeping, some groups:

  • Fruit – apple 3, orange 6 (not distinguishing between colour and fruit), grapes 2 and just 1 for pineapple (tinned).
  • Animals – dog 2, rabbit 1, birds 8, penguin 1 (the biscuit)
  • Body parts – eyes 135 (visual novel again), ears 9, hair 7, elbows 2, hands 19, knees 4 and penis 1 – but that is incidental.
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