Today marks three years since I started writing my novel. Well, it’s three years since I began tracking my progress. Well, today marks the day I first acknowledged the writing process. I actually started thinking about it sometime in November after a drink with a friend. And although I still haven’t finished it, I have no regrets. I’ve learnt so much, and read so many fantastic books, it’s like a new lease of life that I never would have experienced if I’d never started writing my novel.
What the Fuck Did I Know
I’ve dedicated my life to writing in some form or other. Before I started writing my novel, I wrote poetry, and while a style of creative writing, it varies considerably from fiction. I had no idea about storytelling, other than a beginning, middle and end. But what constituted a story beyond that, I didn’t know. I sat down at my laptop and typed a working title, hit enter, and began chapter one. All I knew was I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it.
It’s not that I didn’t read or enjoy stories. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but I spent my time devouring non-fiction titles. And I love a good TV series, I once watched the entire 6 seasons of Lost in my first week off from University. The problem was, how do I tell my story within the narrative of a book. Until then, I’d read about 5 fictional titles, all of them from my childhood.
Sensing my ignorance, I began researching the basics of storytelling and writing in general. I tried to resist the advice surrounding the importance of reading. I knew how o write, right? Then I thought about it. How good would I be at writing poetry, if I didn’t base my style on what I enjoyed? What if I’d never listened to poets such as Eminem, Tupac or Nas. That’s when I started reading, no, studying.
The first fiction novel I read was a free title on Kindle unlimited, it wasn’t a literary classic, but it sowed the seeds for a bookshelf that’s still growing. Next, was the Harry Potter series, and a lot more authors, using many varied techniques in which to tell their story. I was confused and unsure which one would work best for my project.
My story began with numerous perspectives, but not in the successful way that books with multiple character viewpoints have done. Usually, a narrator follows a character for an entire scene, and should this viewpoint change then a scene break is necessary. However, I switched perspectives in the middle of a scene. So instead of getting the mindset of a focused character, I wrote the viewpoint of everyone. An omniscient narrator.
The problem, I learned, with erratic viewpoint changes in the middle of a scene was readability. Confusion. The paragraphs filled with explanations of what every character felt, not only drew potential readers from the story and made my prose feel sloppy, it also caused a lot of he said, she said moments.
The first change I made was to focus on one character in one scene. However, my current first chapter, which is currently around 2500 words, was almost double. There were many scenes, and a lot of unnecessary dialogue preventing me from getting to the heart of the story. Before I’d even finished a draft, I decided it was best to start fresh.
The Life and Times of a Narrator
The early drafts began with a 1st person narrative. I used the pronoun I, but after reading Harry Potter, amongst others, I switched to a third-person point of view. This was when the differing perspectives began to become an issue. To combat this, I told the point of view from a one-character perspective, switching between first- and third-person narration with each successive rewrite.
This made no sense, and again, before finishing a draft, I switched perspectives. I decided on the first person because it made sense to the story. One of the main themes of my novel is our individual reactions to our perceived identities when who we are is threatened. First-person made sense. The irony, my story about identity, led to me, the writer, having an identity crisis, albeit with a fictional narrator.
It wasn’t plain sailing from there, though. Like any good story, tension and doubt are required. My writing journey had that by the bucket load, excuse the cliched phrase. I think fatigue is starting to kick in as I’m writing this. The next problem was tense. Is my novel set in the past or the present? Is the narrator recounting the story or telling it as it happens? These were all question I’d answered when I thought I knew what writing was, but I’d read a lot more by now.
So, for draft four, I rewrote my previous past tense narrative into an as it happens kind of story. The problem with this seems obvious now, but then it just seemed like an exciting thing to do. My narrator knows what’s going to happen, and the scenes he describes are essential to the story’s finale. If it was happening in the present tense, what reason would he have to tell the story? It probably makes no difference, but my narrator needs a reason to tell this story. From then on, I stuck to the past tense, because it made sense.
One of the biggest struggles throughout my early drafts was dialogue. I didn’t know where to begin with it and started typing out whole conversations as though dialogue and conversations were interchangeable. My first manuscript began looking like a transcript. I’d cut out most of the conversational type language such as “hello” and “how are you?” phrases, but it took me several months o editing to really make my dialogue sound as though I knew what I was doing as an author. However, it’s still one of the biggest concerns, blocking me from seeking a publisher.
Backstory and Narrative
One of the earliest problems with the narrative was my heavy reliance on showing the complete backstory. I found myself going off-topic and taking the characters out of the scene and looking back at the past. One or two sentences in a paragraph of a scene of about 1500 words don’t seem like much. But there were scenes filled with exposition and dialogue all based around things that had happened before the story began. As soon as I started cutting the irrelevant information, I noticed a vast improvement to the narrative. The moral here; kill your darlings.
The Curse of Ian McEwan
The first book of Ian McEwan’s I read was Nutshell. A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the viewpoint of an unborn child. It shocked me. Zadie Smith dispelled the myth with White Teeth, but I still held on to some false belief that excellent writing is intricate and complicated. It’s one of the main things that put me off fiction in the first place. However, Nutshell was well-written, captivating, descriptive, and incredibly easy to keep up with the narrative.
However, that’s not always the case. A Child in Time nearly destroyed my writing career before it had begun. The novel was quite tricky to follow at times as McEwan explored the mind of a couple who had lost their only daughter. I started rewriting my story as soon as I closed the book for the last time. I never felt as though I’d ever make it as an author.
In fact, I told my friend, it was pointless carrying on, because I could never be this good. Thankfully, I’ve read terrible books too, and I realised comparing myself to one of Britain’s finest writers after one years’ worth of writing, was pretty stupid. Ian McEwan’s writing inspired me to take my novel to another level, or at least try, and delayed the completion of my manuscript until now because, after A Child in Time, it was Atonement. But that’s another story.
For the Love of Writing
Since I started writing my novel, I’ve visited 8 different countries, doubled the number of people I call good friends, and changed jobs three times, including two promotions. It’s remarkable to think, at least to me, that I managed to write a single draft, let alone rewrite it as much as I have done.
If I could get by without working, then I’d either be published or rewritten my manuscript three times the amount I have now. But the thought of writing has dragged me through some of the worst days, it’s kept me going and kept me sane during some of the longest and roughest days of my career.
Writing my novel has kept me focused and given a new purpose to a hobby. Unlike every other aspect of my writing, such as poetry, this project has a defined end goal. To be published. I think one of the biggest reasons underlying my repeated rewriting may be a fear of never seeing that outcome. Besides, if I declare it a complete manuscript, what would I do next?