I have almost finished my novel.
Let me put that into perspective: the book that I started writing on or around the 10th of October 2004 is almost complete. So why has it taken me so long? What – you may ask – have I been doing for the last six and half years?
Let’s back up a bit. First you need to know that I never intended to write a novel. Originally it was just a short story that amused my wife. And that was fatal, because having made her laugh she then suggested that I ought to continue the story, and turn it into a book.
Easy for her to say! This was the woman who would read a novel a week, sometimes two! This was the woman who would pack at least half a dozen books in our joint luggage, and supplement those with two or three tomes that she’d purchase at the airport. As far as my wife was concerned telling me to write a novel was akin to suggesting I put the kettle on and make a brew – whereas from my perspective she may as well have asked me to walk to India to pick the tea-leaves, and fetch the water from the frozen glaciers of Tibet on my way home.
But then, curiosity got the better of me. Maybe I could write a book. And maybe the way to tackle the task at hand was to treat it as a series of linking short stories? Write a chapter, and when I was satisfied that it was the absolute best it could be, move onto the next chapter?
And that was my first mistake. After three long years I’d written half a dozen chapters of utter rubbish. They were indeed ‘the best that I could do’, but the truth of the matter is, ‘my best’ just wasn’t very good.
Fortunately, around this time Apple invented the iPod. And soon after someone invented the podcast. And as a direct consequence Mur Laffety became a regular part of my car journeys. It was she who gave me (and the other listeners of her excellent podcast ‘I should be writing‘) the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever had: when writing a novel, write the WHOLE book – start to finish – BEFORE going back to edit. And in the absence of anything that was working, that is exactly what I did. A year and a bit later (29th of March 2009 to be precise), I’d finished the FIRST draft.
Several other things had happened too. I’d joined a writer’s group. I was reading and listening to every bit of writing advice I could lay my hands and ears on. And most important of all, I was a much better writer.
This, it turns out, was the power of Mur’s advice. There’s something about putting one word in front of another that makes you better at writing, just as putting one foot in front of another makes you better at walking, or running. Have you ever watched a toddler learning to walk? Right after they’ve fallen flat on their face, they pick themselves up and try again. They don’t analyse the last few steps, or wait for feedback from their peers, they keep moving forward. It’s how they get better at walking. And it’s how I got, and continue to get, better at writing. Just a year or so after I churned out diabolical chapter number six, I was two hundred thousand words better equipped to fix it. That, and the other forty four chapters.
The last two and a bit years have been spent editing. Yes I know what you’re thinking. Two and a bit years!! Only now am I getting to a point where I think I might have a handle on what proper editing involves – that however, will have to be the topic of a future post. What I’m keen to know is if this tale rings any bells. How long did it take you to finish your first novel? Why was that? And what lessons did you learn along the way? Post your comments below – I look forward to reading them. In the meantime, I’ve got a book to finish.
Originally written for amwriting.org