Writing a book part 41 - eight weeks to go

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This is the usually the bit when I admit missing my timetable deadlines almost as soon as I wrote them. Last month, for the third or fourth time in the forty months that I’ve been writing this novel, I set myself a target for completion. But this time I’ve stuck to it.

In fact, I’m running ahead of schedule. The plan was to rewrite ten chapters a week (with two weeks off) between 7 January and 5 April, when the Easter holiday starts. By the beginning of February, I should have finished working on chapter 22, but I’m already half-way through chapter 23 - and there are two reasons for this progress.

Firstly, I’ve been finding it generally quicker and easier to write. Since I started this novel, there have been plenty of mornings when progress was painfully slow. For no apparent reason, I might struggle to write anything at all, or just continually delete whatever I came up with. So far this year, however, the writing has flowed freely and I’ve been able to make good natural progress. Perhaps this has just been good luck.

The second reason is more significant: I’ve made extra time available. For the first time, I have deliberately prioritised the novel over other potential work. Because my objective is to finish the novel and have ample time to pitch it to agents and publishers before I relocate to Singapore in late July, I have the perfect motivation: an immovable deadline.

Incremental improvements

As I work through the final part of the book, I have been trying to improve the style of writing. Some of these chapters were written years ago, and I feel as if I have been getting better as the process has continued. I’ve noticed two particular things that need improvement. One is using the weather at the beginning of a chapter to set a scene - this is a literary cliché; a default trope that signals predictable writing, and I’ve done it embarrassingly often.

The second is the style of speech. I frequently write conversations that are too naturalistic and literal, full of superfluous words. In fiction, speech is not usually transcribed word for word, but condensed down to its most essential form. In practice, that has meant deleting small exchanges that serve no practical purpose (for example, a scene in a café doesn’t need four or five lines in which the order is taken - presuming it is irrelevant to the main action, that is). I’ve also found lots of speech that starts with ‘So’ or ‘Well’, which might be a realistic depiction of how the characters talk, but soon becomes irritating to read.

The shame of sharing

‘Don’t get it right, get it written’ is one of the mantras of fiction. I’m well aware that despite the improvements I am making and no matter how much I work on it, an agent, publisher and editor are bound to suggest further changes to my ‘finished’ manuscript (assuming it gets that far). To a certain extent, therefore, I feel equable about the quality of my writing. There are some bits I’m proud of, and some bits I know are pretty average - but in my situation now, it is more important to get the novel finished on schedule than it is to waste time trying to make it perfect.

Regardless of how good I think it is, however, the next stage is to start sharing my work and taking feedback. It’s a horrifying thought - what if people think my writing is laughably bad? This is something I think most writers experience - I remember hearing Charlie Brooker (whose writing I admire greatly) on Desert Island Discs saying that nobody on earth could think his work is worse than he does. Self-doubt is entirely natural, I tell myself - and Jamie Goode evidently thinks likewise.

There is something that feels especially vulnerable about sharing fiction writing. Reading a book is a very personal experience, and it is impossible to please everyone’s preferences. My greatest fear is that the emotional peaks will come across as contrived or awkward. Writing about emotion is where an author’s personality is most exposed, it seems to me. It is probably quite similar to how a winemaker feels when someone like me tastes their wine and gives it a poor review.

Ultimately, accepting that some people won’t like my writing is just something I will have to get used to. Therefore, my intention is to share a passage, or possibly an entire chapter, here on the blog at some point over the next few months - but I will be trying to find an excuse not to!

Richard HemmingnovelComment