Saturday, 13 August 2011
Halfway up the Hill
After 7 and a half years, I have finally achieved something I thought might never happen. I have completed the first draft of my novel. As achievements go, it's not that impressive. I still haven't finished the book or found an agent, let alone a publisher. And as my daughter kindly pointed out - if it's taken you this long to write the first draft, how long will the second take you?
Still, it's worth taking a breather, halfway up the hill, and reflecting where I've come from. Way back at the bottom of the slopes, when the idea for Echo Hall first presented itself, I was a stay-at-home mother, with three children of five and under. My writing time was pretty limited, though my thinking time wasn’t. As a result, I was able to work out the core of the plot and a few key characters, but didn't have any opportunity to write it down. I meandered along the lower slopes for the next three years. Training for the London Marathon in 2005 took up all my spare time for quite a while, though long runs helped clarify plot and character development. Moving to Oxford at the end of that year, and returning to work in 2006 pretty much did for my writing that year, though by then I'd at least worked out the narrative structure.
It wasn't till the beginning of 2007 that I carved out some time and took my first faltering steps up the path to the summit. At last I set down my first five chapters (embarrassingly over the top from this distance, but quite pleasing at the time). Later that year I started a writing course, which I hoped would help me progress, but which often had the reverse effect. The relentless treadmill of constant assignments trapped me in many a thorn bush and several dispiriting dead-ends. When I made the mistake of trying to submit parts of the novel as coursework, the resultant marks and critique sent me spiralling into despair. Still, I perservered with my story, and, thanks to a term sharing chapters with my course friend, Rachel Crowther (who has since published her novel, The Partridge and the Pelican) by the end of the course, I had drafts for 3 out of 5 sections. I was also encouraged by the very lovely Dennis Hamley, whose support for my portfolio (a re-worked beginning) gave me the hope that I was beginning to get somewhere.
When I graduated, I had high hopes that I'd be able to storm off to the summit in no time. After all, I was in a regular rhythm of writing and the discipline of submitting assignments had at least helped me work to deadlines. But, alas, it hasn't been that easy. I spent the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 mired in a bog of complex work issues. Dealing with that and looking after my family meant my writing had no chance. I discovered #fridayflash around then, which kept my hand in (& at least helped my writing improve), but novels need space and energy and I had very little to give. Last July, thanks to my lovely husband Chris, I got away for a beautiful weekend of writing and surged forward to complete a draft of part 4. But immediately afterwards, I was thrown off course by the death of my lovely friend Pip. After that happened, I literally froze and couldn't write a word for a couple of months. When I was able to go back to it, the novel seemed too daunting, so I stuck to my weekly #fridayflash stories instead. By Christmas, I was preparing for the London Marathon again. Once more, I found long runs useful times for working out plot and character, but I was just too exhausted with that, work pressure and family life to actually do any writing.
Since completing the Marathon, I've found the going slow. Having had such a big focus for the winter, it has taken a while for me to put my energies into something else. Part 5 has progressed chapter, by painful chapter, up a dusty scree slope, slipping back 3 feet for every 2 feet forward. It's taken the relaxation of a fortnight's holiday to give me the impetus to throw down the last 2,000 words and drag myself to this plateau where I am now resting in quiet triumph.
And yes, the path ahead is daunting. Of the 65,000 words written, I'd say only about 15,000 are any good (and even these need re-working). I need more words, and better ones. I will have to write and re-write again, and again and again, before the language is of sufficient quality to do my story justice. I have characters who are half formed, or too stereotypical, who need shaping and developing in complexity. I have to fix period, place and editorial detail. Far too many people change names half way through, and there are huge blank spots where my inspiration ran dry for a moment but I let the story run on anyway. I fear my book is both too elitest and too shallow. Too polemic, yet not stating it's case clearly enough. I have a lot more work to do.
But, the top doesn't look an impossible target anymore. It may have taken years to get here, and possibly a few more before I'm done. Yet I'm eager to continue and I can see what I need to do to reach my goal. For the moment though, I'm taking the opportunity to put my weary feet up and enjoy a piece of Kendal Mint Cake in the sunshine.
Tomorrow, I'm heading for the top.