Friday 25 March 2016

Knowing when to stop

I am not very good at washing my kitchen floor. No, actually, I am good at it, but I like to do it thoroughly and I loathe doing it, so, since it is of a colour and material that doesn’t really show the dirt (or so I kid myself) I make do with hoovering it regularly (actually that’s a child’s job) and it gets washed maybe (whisper it) four times a year… 

What is the relevance of my kitchen floor in this blog about books and writing? It’s about getting on with things you know you need to do. Specifically the novel – Cupcake – I’m currently working on the third draft of.

Again? I hear. Yet another whinge about how you’re prevaricating?


Because that’s what writers do, isn’t it? They moan about how hard it is to do the thing they love to do. It’s right up there with papering walls with rejection letters and wondering how to answer people who ask where ideas come from.

So – to continue:

Cupcake is too long. It’s too long because I keep adding more words in the hope that it’ll magically sort out all the problems instead of stepping back and fixing it. Which is rather like the way I find myself ironing tea towels or cleaning out the fridge when what really needs doing is that the floor needs washing! (Side note: there are other people in this house who could also wash the floor but who seem to have an imperviousness to the necessity of housework). Also, bear in mind that if I wash the floor, the fact that the windows need cleaning will come into focus, not to speak of the unfathomable problem of dust.

There is a distinct possibility that my 500-words-a-day target isn’t helping with my Cupcake problem. When I’ve been out all day and then I’ve made dinner and answered my emails and taken some child somewhere and hung around for them, it’s much easier to write another 500 words of the thing I’ve been writing anyway than wrangle plot holes and inconsistencies, let alone tackle something new. Although, hey, here are today’s words, they’re all new, and I’m writing these first thing in the morning because today is going to be one of those days when otherwise I won’t have a chance until 10.30 and then who knows what gibberish I’d be writing. Today is the eighty-third day of the year and I have 47,000 words under my belt this year – but it’s entirely possible that 15 to 20,000 of those will have to go from Cupcake when I have a chance and the courage to get ruthless with it.

Of course, it is also entirely possible that having written these words only to lose them will be no bad thing. In the past, I have tended to write short and then when editing I’ve seen the holes and filled them. Writing long and cutting’s a thing, though, isn’t it? Just because I will have to get rid of words doesn’t mean writing them has been a waste of time. It doesn’t feel like a waste of time. It feels like a different way of writing. I was much less sure of the story of Cupcake before I started than I have been with previous books. I knew more-or-less where I was going but much less about how I was going to get there or why. Which is odd for me, because generally it’s the why that gets me going, some underlying idea that I’m out to explore. Maybe with Cupcake I needed to do the writing to discover it.

Two days later. Another 1,000 words added. Floor still unwashed.

What I fear, what all writers fear, I suspect, is that when I stop and take the time to look at what I’ve done, I’m going to find out it’s worthless. By which I mean worse than rubbish. Rubbish can be reused and recycled, shaped to form something useful and worthwhile. But what if nothing I’ve written is salvageable?

On the positive side, I always think this. As I work, I’m often pleased with the last little bit I’ve written, but disappointed in the whole and terrified that I’m just wasting words on something that has no substance. But so far, when I’ve put a bit of space between myself and the writing, I’ve always found what I’ve written better than I thought: clearer, wholer. I think most writers do find this, and as long as there’s no publisher breathing down your neck, a couple of months of drawer time is certainly a good idea. You could go on for years, working on your novel, sticking it in a drawer and bringing it out again and still not be satisfied. The trick is to know when you’ve done enough. Not being able to do that is one reason why most writers will never read their own published books again. That and the fact that they already know the story…

To get on with Cupcake, what I actually need to do is to stop. I need to finish reading the last couple of chapters and filling in my spreadsheet of what happens where. I need to tweak the obvious things and leave myself some signposts about how I’m going to fix the things that definitely still need fixing. And then I must force myself to stop, put it away. I’m giving myself a week. Come the first of April, Cupcake is in the drawer.

There’s still the matter of my 500 words a day, of course. But fortunately I happen to have something else up my sleeve. It’s something I’ve been trying very hard not to write for the past few months, though a few pieces have sneaked in because I just couldn’t stop them (9,500 words actually). This time, I’m going for a different approach (see my last blog). I’m going to make a very precise plan before I start in the hope that I can avoid some of this fannying around wondering if what I’m writing works or not when I’m nearly at the end. In fact, I’m going to devote several whole child-free days to my plan. Though I’m also going to have to keep up the 500 words, so the book’ll probably be growing at the same time.

I like a plan.

Maybe I’ll get the kitchen floor washed too.

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Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. 
Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? 
You can read the first chapter here.

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