The set up was right.
NaNoWriMo 2014 was upcoming, and I had no intention of writing another novel. It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter, my first NaNo story, had been very well received, and pretty much anyone who wanted a copy had one, but I told myself I wouldn’t write another book unless I had a really good idea.
Then, a week before November was due to commence, I woke up from a dream and thought “I bet pet owners wish they could talk to their pets”. That was it – the lightbulb moment. Suddenly NaNo was on.
I had the formula from last time. It worked then and it would work again. But this time, I would carry on writing 1700 words a day into December as well, with the word count target being 70,000 – not 50,000.
November 1st – up at 6am for an hour’s writing before the family awoke.
December 15th rolled around and I had the pleasure of that wonderful, sweeping tsunami of emotion that comes with typing THE END. Relief, mainly, pride and a good helping of dread knowing this time that the hard work was just beginning. The first draft, of course, is your raw material. You chip, hone and sculpt in the edit, and hope that something joyous is hiding within.
I had learned so much during the edit of ILLYWAL. I was a much better writer this time. All the people who enjoyed the first book were waiting for this one, I must not disappoint. I couldn’t.
I left it fallow for three months.
Then the edit. Polishing Hemingway-esque brusque sentences. Removing all passive voice. Not a single adverb in the whole 70,000 word manuscript. Nothing happened ‘suddenly’. I was ticking ALL the boxes.
This went on for a year. On and off, draft after draft. I trimmed and excised and cropped and killed off darling characters and clippy snippy dialogue. I worked HARD.
It got to the point where I felt my wife Lucy should read it. Always nerve-wracking, because while Lucy is always fantastically supportive, she’s also the first one to tell me I’ve fucked up.
She loved it. She had some questions and some comments and I scurried off back to my MacBook to hastily plug the gaps.
A while later, I sent it to my editor – a friend who edited ILLYWAL and was most instrumental in my development. She said it was good. She had some more comments. The paper manuscript came back covered in purple pen. I made the adjustments. She said this was the one I should submit to publishers and agents.
I tweaked further, rewrote the opening chapter again.
This was where the love started to fade.
Imperceptibly, gnawing doubt grew in the back of my mind. Was it just because it was longer – was that why I couldn’t seem to keep the whole plot in my mind? Maybe.
I sent it to another trusted friend, her feedback wasn’t as glowing, but it was all justifiable and of course, when you ask someone for their opinion, that’s what you should expect to get. One more friend, a measured response, good but not quite there yet.
If it ever lived, I had killed it.
Overthought, overwrought. I’d let some characters just fill space and be two dimensional because I was focussing on others, who wound up being quite dull in the end despite this. The themes I wanted to talk about were lost in another chase sequence, obscure references to the First Earth Battalion and a hamfisted exploration of anxiety and mental illness.
Too much fiddling with something that was probably flawed all along. It now lives, literally, on a shelf with a page of A4 notes of all the things that would need fixing if I ever come back to it. I probably never will. Just thinking about it gives me a nauseous burn in my stomach.
But I don’t regret the year and half of work, or a single one of the 70,000 words. Not at all. And here’s why. I’m a better writer for having NOT released this book. Believe it or not – if I put something out there, it’s because I’m proud of it and I know I’ve done the best I can do. Some days you just don’t win – you swing and you miss. Recognising that you’ve missed is a skill in itself and a very valuable one.
I’ve got other ideas for books. I’ve also got ideas for short stories, plays, screenplays and lots of other things. I’d rather move onto those, so I will.
Sometimes, the journey is the destination.