Why writing a new novel is suddenly proving harder than writing my first
Around four years ago, a debilitating bout of pneumonia successfully flattened me for the better part of three weeks. I was definitely on the mend but still too drained to contemplate more than the odd slice of toast. Reading took too much concentration, and venturing downstairs for a change of scene incurred the risk of being unable to climb back up. In short, I was comfortably resigned to spending my foreseeable future tucked up with Twitter.
And then I read a quote on Facebook that jolted me right out of my sick bed. When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, “I used everything you gave me.”
Hold up! What about my “one day, I’m gonna write a book” plan? My bucket book, if you will. What if I’d actually kicked the bucket without ever writing down my story? Without ever sniffing a book with my name on the cover? Pneumonia had never put me in mortal danger but, for heaven’s sake, gasping for breath did pop things into perspective.
They say a shot of adrenaline can work wonders. When my husband returned from dog walking, I was pacing the hallway and honing my plan to step away from copywriting and start work on my novel. Immediately.
Life as a commercial copywriter had served me well. In addition to possessing a decent desk and MacBook, I knew I could write texts that people appreciated. And I had a story to tell. So, I dived in.
Every aspect of the process excited me. From the historical research to plotting to starting the first draft. Each element held its own charm. Page after page began to form a storyline with proper chapters and scenes. Novel writing was no longer a novelty; it was a necessity for my wellbeing. I needed to write.
My knowledge of the publishing industry, however, was still a blank page. I joined Writer’s Digest to find out more and flew across the world to a conference in LA. That conference proved to be my first reality check. The magic remained, but any preconceived notion I’d had of my ability to write a novel evaporated during the keynote speech. Correction. Any preconceived notion I’d had on the quality of my work in progress evaporated. I flew home with a much clearer understanding of the tools and techniques required. And of how much I had yet to learn.
Four years later, my shelves house some 100+ writing craft books on numerous elements including plotting and outlining, and a whole book on nailing the first fifty pages. One book makes an excellent case for writing a novel from the middle out, others focus on character and point of view. I’ve attended more conferences and learned from some of the best in the business. I’ve listened to lectures and attended workshops, leaving each time with more nuggets of excellent and interesting advice.
And suddenly, starting my next novel is proving a completely different animal. It’s harder, much harder. It’s not for a lack of ideas — I’ve tons of beautiful threads in my research files that are just waiting to be woven into intricate story tapestries. It’s the knowing how much there is to get right
I’m too conscious of pacing and theme. The dos and don’ts of dialogue, voice, setting. A critic sits on one shoulder, an editor on the other. They’re waiting to count the story beats, quality control metaphors and roll eyes at plot twists. They smother snorts and yawns. But I can hear them. And they’re putting me off.
Romance writer Nora Roberts told us that she vomits up the first draft. A bad page can be fixed later, Ms. Roberts correctly pointed out, but a blank page can’t. Fixing the draft is her stage two, followed by polishing. She’s right, of course, but I’m wagering that Nora’s brand of vomit is little short of gourmet compared with my last-night’s regurgitated pizza.
Her approach, however, does tally with Stephen King’s advice: First write for yourself, and then worry about your audience. But what if you are also your own private audience and the crowd has started a slow clap?
Is this hesitation the elusive writer’s block or simple procrastination? I pondered this question last week and ultimately concluded that this reluctance to crack on could be explained by another King quote: fear is the root of most bad writing. And rather than fall into that trap — I’m better than that — I’m avoiding the risk by skirting around it. Hmm.
So once again I’m turning to a Mr. King quote to dig me out of my conundrum: the work is always accomplished one word at a time.
And dithering is futile.
I think the time has come for my inner critic and I to get our toes wet again.
I’ll let you know how we get on.