Construction of a Novel: First Pages

So, I’ve been debating a new series of blog posts for a while. I’m still not completely convinced by this idea, but I’m going to go ahead with it for now and see where it takes me. If I feel it’s not working I can always ditch the notion after a few posts, right?

I’ve been on the verge of starting a new novel for some time, and it occurred to me that I could blog about its various stages along the way, from start to eventual finish. Embarking on a novel is very different from embarking on a shorter work. You know you’re facing a long, convoluted path, and no matter how prepared you are, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Not really. Even the most meticulously planned novel evolves along the way. It’s part of what I enjoy about the process. (Or at least, I’ve enjoyed it the last two – and only – times I’ve done it.) So I thought it might be interesting to document that evolution, at least in vague writing terms. This is the start of that documentation… so I guess we’ll see where it goes.

I now have 842 words of a brand new novel. I wrote the first 341 words a few months ago. I wasn’t ready to start the thing properly then, but the first line worked its way onto the screen and the next few introductory paragraphs followed. Then I put it aside to continue focusing on short stories. The idea for this novel has been burgeoning for a long time now. I’ve wanted to write certain elements of it for years, and the rest began to come together in my mind earlier this year. I have a few pages of scrawled notes in my trusty little black notebook, images of the characters in my mind, and most of their names. That’s about it.

I’ve just written the next 501 words. (I promise not to give a continuing rundown of precise word counts in these posts… it just feels kind of appropriate right now, at the very start of this thing. 842 words means it’s really happening.) The scene in question has suddenly made these characters real. It’s left me with this feeling of amazing warmth towards them. Like my previous novel characters, I’ve known these guys forever, somehow, and it’s like I finally got them onto the page and said “Wow! There you are!”

I have mixed feelings, as always when starting a new piece of writing, especially a longer work. It’s all sweet and comforting at the beginning, and I have a sense of mild guilt at the fact that I’ll be taking these characters to some very dark places. There’s huge anticipation of the writing ahead of me. I’m excited and nervous and feeling slightly daunted. I’m anxious about being able to pull this story off, but really happy that I’m finally starting to tell it. I’ve set myself up for some complex situations and politics, and I’m hoping I can handle them and create something riveting and meaningful in the process.

So… here’s to beginnings. I’m off to see where the words take me.

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The Waiting Room

A lot of this writing malarkey involves waiting. Specifically, waiting for replies to submissions. You’re waiting to hear if your stories have been accepted. You’re waiting to send the rejected ones on to the next stop on their journey to publication. Once a story is complete (or at least in its most polished draft to date), you send it out there… and then you wait. You wait for months, weeks if you’re lucky (days if you’ve submitted to the rare publications with lightning-fast turnaround). Most publications don’t want simultaneous submissions, so you can’t send the story to anyone else until they’ve rejected it.

If you let it, all that waiting can get mighty frustrating. You check your inbox several times a day. You check their submission guidelines to remind yourself how much longer you have to wait before you can query. Or… you find ways to occupy that time. The great thing about the submission waiting room is that it’s full of exciting possibilities to fill your time. No dog-eared, months-old magazines in this place. No pile of tired-looking toys in the corner. Here are my personal favourite options:

1. Write something new. There’s always a new writing project in the back of my mind, or a partly-completed one that needs some revision. I can start a new story, filled with all the potential of the ones I’ve submitted, except that the new ones are alive, growing, changing. Works in progress don’t yet have the satisfaction of completed ones, but they’re where all the fun lies. And writing is fun. We wouldn’t spend so much time in this damned waiting room if it wasn’t. I can also get polishing that piece that’s had a niggly plot point to sort out, or an annoying neglected detail I haven’t got round to rectifying. Either way, I’m creating something else whilst waiting for the fruits of my previous labours to ripen.

2. Submit more work. This is sort of part 2 of the first option. Once a story’s ready to fly the coop, I might as well set it free and see what happens. Waiting is more bearable when you’re waiting for lots of things to happen as opposed to just one or two. The odds of a reply in your inbox increase with every story you send out.

3. Research markets. There are so many potential markets out there. Brand new ones, full of enthusiasm. Old stalwarts that have been fonts of great storytelling for decades. Publications with unique angles that might be worth exploring. Places that publish the stuff you love reading and the genres you have yet to explore. Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store, looking at all these great magazines and websites offering a wealth of possible homes for my stories. Yeah, I know in the back of my mind that the likelihood of rejection always outweighs the likelihood of success, but at the research point, that’s irrelevant. I can forget all that and just enjoy the scent of possibility and the knowledge that there’s always another market to try when the previous one says ‘no, thanks’.

4. Read! Reading is my favourite pastime in any waiting room scenario, and this one’s no different. I prioritise writing, but I often remind myself that reading is almost as important. Reading far and wide exposes me to new writing styles and different ideas. I rarely read without a critical eye, but sometimes that’s half the enjoyment. I love being able to pinpoint exactly what I love about a certain book and dislike about another. For me, it’s not enough to say ‘I loved that’ or ‘I hated it’. If I can’t specify why I felt a certain way about a certain writer’s work, then I can’t apply it to my own writing. Reading is a learning process in that regard. Seeing how other writers construct a story helps me understand my own techniques and gives me inspiration to try new ones. Reading the stories that are getting published right now helps me figure out which direction to take mine. Plus, it’s reading. Reading is my favourite thing.

5. Do something else. Sometimes it’s just as important to take a break, forget about the story a publication’s had for months (does that mean they’re seriously considering it, or are they just really slow? Argh. Shut up, brain. Stop wondering about it), and think about something entirely different. Gaze into the well stocked, beautifully maintained aquarium in the waiting room (the fish are always thriving and happy here). Go for a walk. Smell the roses. Throw a ball for your dog. Cook a meal. Play a musical instrument. Watch some TV (but not too much). Knit a hat. Have coffee with a friend. Play Scrabble. Take a luxurious bath. This particular waiting room is full of options. They’re how you stay sane while waiting for that eventual nod of acceptance.

Pedantics #1

So, I think we’re due a little pedantry. Look away now if precision bothers you, bores you, or gets in the way of your art. Personally, one of the things I love about writing is that it’s a lovely combination of science and art. Yes, it’s all about creativity, expressing yourself, painting pictures and materialising characters and situations with words. But there is method in that creation which is precise, with rules and rights and wrongs. The construction of language is scientific in nature – if you ignore all the rules, your words will be unintelligible. The artistic side of writing allows for occasional breaking of those rules, but artistic licence only works if, for the most part, you observe the rule you’re about to break. Otherwise it’s just a mistake.

Anyway. My occasional bouts of pedantry will stem from my love of language and its precision, and from the fact that the rules do serve a purpose, which is to give writing clarity. Clarity allows readers to see what you see when you’re putting those words on the page… and surely that’s the whole point?

Today I’m feeling pedantic about a pair of words, one of which is misused all over the place. The other, which would love to be used as frequently as its mistaken homophone, rarely shows up at all in comparison. And it bugs me.

I’m trying to be discreet about this, but there’s no way round it. I’m willing to bet there are people who’d read the previous sentence and go ‘that doesn’t look right…’ They’d say, ‘don’t you mean “discrete”?’ And I would say, ‘no. “Discreet” is discrete from “discrete”, in that they are both words in their own right with completely different meanings.’

And they have each been used correctly in the above paragraph. For some reason, which I can only assume stems from the fact that ‘discreet’ looks like a less sophisticated (and therefore assumed incorrect) spelling of ‘discrete’, ‘discreet’ rarely appears. I see people acting ‘discretely’ all the time when I’m sure the writer intends for them to be ‘discreet’. ‘Discrete’ in its correct usage isn’t a word non-scientists come across very often. It’s usually used to distinguish types of data or other examples of categories which are separate from one another. It is also a type of mathematics. Its definition, according to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors is ‘distinct, separate’. ‘Discreet’, on the other hand, is defined as ‘tactful, judicious’.

The two are absolutely not interchangeable. They don’t even have similar meanings. Yet ‘discrete’ is bandied about in sentences it has no business occupying, while poor little ‘discreet’ sits abandoned on the sidelines while a usurper takes its place. They’re both great words with excellent uses… I just wish ‘discrete’ was put back in its distinct place and ‘discreet’ was no longer unobtrusive and neglected.

It’s That Month Again

So. It’s November. How did that happen? Seems like it was March five minutes ago.

You know how I know it’s November? (Apart from the fact that all my calendars say it is. And that leaves are falling everywhere. And that my neighbours have been letting off fireworks all evening.)

Short answer: NaNoWriMo.

Yes, it’s that time of year when NaNo is the word on everyone’s lips. I won’t be participating. I never have, actually. And while I wish the best of luck to all who are, and admire you all for your insanity determination, it’s just not a challenge that has ever really appealed to me. I think it’s probably great for anyone who has always wanted to write a novel but never finds the time. I guess NaNo forces you to stop procrastinating and just get on with it, and it fosters a certain amount of discipline that can only be a good thing. But whenever November rolls around again and people start talking about it, all I can think of are the existing (or potential) writing projects I’m working on, and how much constructive time I could put into those instead of engaging in a writing marathon for the sake of it. I’ve got a new novel at the planning stages, and I’m really looking forward to starting it properly, but I don’t want to race through it. Once I knuckle down and get on with a story, the story itself becomes my motivation. And although I do work best under pressure, I hate having a ticking clock counting down the hours to a deadline.

I regularly set my own deadlines, and I stick to them. If I’ve decided that I’m going to get this story draft complete or that set of revisions done within a few days, I’ll do it. I always work better once I’ve made up my mind to finish something by a set time, even if no one’s looking over my shoulder to make sure I complete it. If I set deadlines and ignore them, they lose all their meaning. I guess that ability to discipline yourself and make good use of your time is an essential part of being a writer. But NaNo just doesn’t crack it for me. Maybe it’s because I prefer to go against the flow. Maybe it’s because I can’t see the appeal of rushing through 50,000 words I’ll have to edit to death when I could linger over 20,000 that I might stand a chance of being proud of. Maybe it’s because my writing pace varies so much depending on what I’m writing. I can pour out 4000 words one day only to agonise over 150 the next. In novel writing, some scenes flow with the lightest of effort and others are eked out a word at a time. As long as I’m happy with what I’ve produced at the end of the day, the actual word count is secondary. Perhaps that’s it… NaNoWriMo has always seemed to be all about the word count. And while word count can indeed be a satisfactory way to measure your progress, isn’t it better to aim for quality rather than quantity?

I’m not knocking anyone who’s participating or who has participated in the past. I’ve read some great stuff that’s come from NaNo, and I think if it’s a challenge that really appeals to you and makes you get on with a project you’d otherwise never get round to, go for it. I’m fairly certain I won’t write 50,000 words this month. But I might just get one story finished and ready to submit, write a draft for a new one, and transfer that first novel chapter from my head and onto the page. That would be most satisfactory.