Writing the first draft of my first novel has been like diving free-fall from a plane without a working parachute. But I can't let it go. About 3 years ago, I woke up one day and started to write a story about a burnt out social worker and found myself at 15,000 words within a few weeks. I relished the complete bliss of being absorbed in story and words. I had no idea what I was doing (and still don't really!), I was just writing. It was big fun.
A couple of months in to my writing, my lovely Dad had a severe stroke and sadly passed away 11 months later. My writing got well and truly interrupted until Summer 2017. But the story was still inside me and wanted to come out. I re-discovered my mojo and wrote another 30,000 words.
Then I hit the floppy middlings of 45,000 words and started searching for advice and inspiration. I felt utterly lost but was determined to finish this first draft. How do you finish a first draft? I had no idea about technique or form. I struggled with textbooks.
At this point I will say this - be careful where you go for your advice. Some advice and some people can derail you, trample over you and walk away without giving your delicate writer-being a second thought. This happened to me on a week long writing retreat and I didn't write again for over 3 months.
And then there are others who will make your writerly heart feel big, overflowing and make you believe you can write a whole big novel - bit by bit. No matter where you're starting out or where you're stuck. The moment I booked on to Mike Gayle's workshop, something started flowing. I started working on the first draft again. Just seeing his smiling face on the workshop page lifted my spirits and self belief!
Here are some of the bits of wisdom I took away from his 1 day workshop in the motherland of Leicester a few weeks ago:
* Read dreadful books at the beginning. Seriously, Mike said this! The conventional advice is to read all the literary greats to improve your own writing (and Mike agrees with that...) but he stressed the need to read widely and to read 'dreadful books' because that will give us the self-belief that we can write better than that. I get this. Totally. Mike wanted us to believe that we actually have the ability to write and complete a novel. Reading Nabokov is great but also intimidating - how many of us can write like that? Especially at the beginning of our writing paths?
* Get to the END of of writing our novel and write THE END. Mike told us our only job is to 'carry on'. We just need to finish our books. To keep writing and finish our first draft. It might be rubbish and all over the place. But we can edit the s**t out of it after. Then after that, it might still be s**t (I'm saying that, not Mike!) but you've written a novel. A book. Fulfilled that lifelong dream. Done it. Forever changed by the process of writing it. How many people say they want to write a book but never put arse to chair and just write the damn thing? A LOT. It takes courage, determination, grit and endurance to write a novel.
* The first draft is just a sketch...a skeleton. Re-writes are the fleshing out, the veins, the blood, the muscle. I can tell you, my first draft is ALL OVER THE PLACE. That is because I've been highly unplanned and self-indulgent - and loved it. I've also eaten far too much whilst writing it. And I think that's what I've needed for this first novel (not the food bit). A plan would've been too intimidating. Mike started out like this. Then he re-drafted his first novel, My Legendary Girlfriend 6 times before showing it to an agent. And then he had several more rounds of editing before it hit the bookshelf. Now he plans his novels meticulously, from log-lines, to chapter synopsis and story grids - and this clear plan means he's more 'efficient' in his writing particularly when he's under deadlines.
* New novel ideas are buried deep within you! Mike asked us to generate three brand new novel ideas, create log lines and an outline for the first act during the workshop. It's amazing what you can achieve when under pressure. I emptied my mind and came up with three new novel ideas. One of the ideas has really stuck in my head, a modern ghost story set in a high rise flat. Woooooooooo! Mike told us that he will spend a whole day just generating novel ideas and writing log-lines. It's all there inside us. We just need to excavate deeply.
WE ARE BURSTING WITH IDEAS.
I learnt more in one day with Mike Gayle than a whole week with 2 Booker-prize short-listers. As well as the stuff above, we covered first act structure and the creation of loglines and I picked Mike's brain about his novel-planning techniques whilst in the queue for the loo.
I left with a handful of techniques that I put in to practice straightaway and they have honestly made a difference to my writing, plotting and structure, giving me the much needed clarity I sought three months ago.
But maybe what I needed most of all and got, was permission to just finish the damn thing. Even to finish badly is a success. Mike demystified writing a novel. There was no ponce or literary pretence or elitism. Mike made it sound possible. Hard work - yes. Possible - abso-bloody-lutely.
57,000 words and rising!
A big THANK YOU to Writing East Midlands for putting on this workshop and making it affordable.