This is a difficult question to answer at the moment because the book I am currently writing has, 40,000 words into it, been anything but tough. It’s been a joy to write, a gift, something I can’t wait to sit down and work away at, to the extent that I get cranky when I have a day where kids and other jobs make writing impossible. Ideas rush at me anywhere and everywhere; I have pages full of scribble, an entire plot outline – I even, for the first time ever, know how the book is gong to end before I get to the end.
But it’s not always like this. Motivation does flag, words get stuck, procrastinations like Twitter and Facebook beckon and seem so much more appealing than adding to the daily word count. Getting 40,000 words into a book without this happening is something of a miracle, and I am thankful to the writing Gods that this book, so far is blessed.
Trouble at the start
On the other hand, If I Should Lose You, my second book, took a long time to get started. I wrote a couple of short stories, toying around with the idea, and then I had my second child. She had a series of health complications which meant spending some time in hospital and so I didn’t write anything more on the book until she was about nine months old and in the clear. I picked up the short stories and wondered how the hell I was going to go on with the story, but luckily I was still as interested in the idea behind the book – organ donation – as I had been when I started over a year before. And the time off had caused some more ideas to gather in my mind about the story.
The most difficult part at that point was finding a voice. I wrote lots of bits that were okay, but just didn’t sound right. It wasn’t flowing. I find reading to be the most helpful thing to do at this point. Reading widely, reading lots of books, because suddenly , a sentence in a book will sound to me just like the voice I am trying to capture. I’ll use that sentence as the starting point for a scene. And I’ll make sure I read several pages of the book every time I sit down to write, just to keep the voice in my head. In this case, the book was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Something about the stubbornness in Didion’s voice in that book, the questioning, the refusal to accept grief, felt right for my character.
Then, a blessing. I was awarded a residency at Varuna, The Writers House on the strength of the fifty pages I had written. A residency is a wonderful boost. It made me feel that the work must have something good in it to have been selected above all the other submissions, and it gave me one whole week of tranquil and focussed writing time to get the first draft down. I wrote 5000 words each day at that residency, to finished the first draft, which is a significant hurdle to soar across.
Trouble in the middle
My next book, which has not yet seen the light of day, has been the most problematic. So even writers with two published books under their belts, like me, have trouble. After finishing If I Should Lose You and before starting on the book I’m currently writing, I wrote another book. Let’s call it book three. I got to about 20,000 words into book three and hated it. I told myself I just had to push on because the worst thing to do is to stop. So I pushed on until I had a draft, sitting down each day, forcing myself to write when honestly I would have rather eaten my own fingernails. Something wasn’t right and I had no idea what. I sent the first draft to my agent and she was ho-hum about it. Let me tell you there is nothing more dispiriting than having your agent be non-committal about the 65,000 odd words you’ve just sent her.
So I put the book away. Let it rest. And a few months later I had a revelation. The reason I hated it, the reason it wasn’t right, the reason it lacked spark was because I’d broken my own cardinal rule about research. I don’t usually research a book properly until I’ve finished the first draft because I don’t want the research to get in the way of the story. But for this book, because I was writing it for a PhD, I did lots of research as I wrote. The research began to dictate the book. The story and the characters became secondary to what the research was telling me the book should be about.
I thought all was lost, that it was unrecoverable. So I continued to let it sit. I started writing my new book. And I continued to read. Then I read a book that suddenly opened up to me the possibilities for my own book three. That I could play around with the structure a whole lot more. I could stop being so damn serious. I could relax a bit more with it, throw out three-quarters of the research and see what my characters would do, if I just let them be themselves.
I won’t get back to book three until I’ve finished the book I’m currently writing, book four. Book four has the energy and where the energy is, is where I need to be. Maybe book three will become book four when it comes to publication and vice versa, who knows. But the big lesson I learned was that if I hate writing a book as much again as I hated writing book three, I need to stop and work out what is wrong before I keep going.
Well, Annabel Smith will fill you in on all the reasons why killing off your main character is not such a good idea if you want to be able to continue writing your book. Emma Chapman discusses her feelings of doubt when writing How to be a Good Wife, and the need for self belief here. I love the way Dawn Barker describes the “expansive, manic phase” of excitement when things are going well, which I can certainly relate to at the moment! Amanda Curtin delves into the scary unknown of writing without a plan and I can absolutely relate to what Sara Foster says about starting a book being the hardest thing.
I hop you’ve enjoyed this month’s Writers Ask Writers Post. We’ll be back again next month with a whole new topic. If there’s something you’d like us to tackle, please let me know in the comments. Or if you have your own way of working through times when the writing isn’t flowing, I’d love to hear about it.