Stuck In The Middle: 10 tips for writing a novel in 2 weeks

I haven’t updated for a while, but trust me, I’ve got a good excuse. I’ve just been buffeted through the busiest but also perhaps the most amazing week of my life. I’ve been in York, Birmingham, Leamington Spa, Istanbul and back to York again over the space of five days.  I’ve seen, by my last count, almost a hundred friends from a dozen different cities and three different time zones.  I’ve had both my first book launch, and my first review in a national newspaper. I’m thus utterly knackered, and have hardly had a moment to pause and reflect on events since the whole whirlwind began. Today is the first day I’ve had fully to myself; the visiting friends have all departed from York, the holiday washing is folded and the spare bedding put back in the cupboard, and the gorgeous presents have been picked up from Waterstones. The cumulative hangover has finally receded. I am once again curled up on my sofa in my flat , getting my affairs in order and able to turn my attention to this blog. Rites is well and truly launched.

I’m not going to say much about the launch itself, because my friends are probably sick to death of the subject and hopefully there’ll be a brief video available soon which will give a much better flavour of the thing for anyone who missed it. Suffice to say it was the most bizarre, overwhelming and almost painfully proud evening of my life. My cheeks are still a bit achey from smiling so much and so widely; I have memories that will last a lifetime; and I have learned – a most valuable lesson – that I am not remotely photogenic when reading aloud. I apparently have a very animated face.

Neither am I going to say much about the first national review of Rites, which appeared in the Sunday Express the day after the launch. Not that I’m not sickeningly proud (and if you want to see why, head over to the ‘Press and Reviews of Rites‘ section). It’s just that I reckon at the moment it would sound a lot like unadulterated (not to mention prescient) smugitude, and I think I could get a much beefier, more interesting post once out of the idea of reviews once I’ve had a few more, of varying timbre (should I be so lucky).

Instead, I thought I might write a bit about being Stuck in the Middle. The middle of a book, that is. Because for my speech at the launch  I spoke a bit about the beginning of the book, much as I outlined it in a previous post here, but I had to stop at the same bit of the writing process as before, and that reminded me of my earlier promise, to come back to what you do when you’ve written those first striking / gripping / explosive few chapters. What do you do when the novelty wears off? When you find that you’re finished setting the scene and you have to actually make something happen? Something that will actually sustain the reader’s interest? How do you come up with the events, and how do you pattern them so that they have the right kind of narrative arc, a kind that feels good to you and hopefully also to the reader? And how the dirty devil do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing, to keep getting them down on paper, when you’re so brain-sick of the whole thing that the very sight of your embryonic masterpiece makes you want to projectile vomit grey matter out through your nostrils? (trust me, this is a Thing. If you’ve never had a feeling of deep loathing for your own work, I’m not sure you’re really a writer).

Well, these are all big questions, and I don’t think I can answer them comprehensively.  After all, I’ve only done it once. But if it helps, I can not only tell you what the Middle felt like for me, that one time. I can show you what it looked like.

The circumstances under which I wrote the middle to Rites were, well, unusual. After I’d sent off the start of the novel for the competition Route were running, I wiped my brow with relief and took a break from writing it. Quite a long break. Okay, a very long break. Weeks. Months. If ‘m honest, I assumed I was’t going to get anywhere, and I forgot about it. Then one day I got a phone call – I think I was on a train – and I heard the news that I was on the shortlist of five. And they wanted the rest of the novel.

Hmm.

I said I’d send it to them in two weeks. Then I went home and sat in the flat by myself, very quietly, for a little while, and wondered what the hell I was going to do. Eventually I just decided that I’d have to write the rest in two weeks.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: this is not the ideal way to write a novel. Good writing benefits from lots of time, revision and loving perfectionism – indeed, that’s exactly what the first draft of Rites received once I started working with Route a few months later (that’s another story). But for focusing the mind, for that first draft, for the actual creation of something tangible and coherent out of a vacuum of nothingness, I do think that nothing works quite like blind panic and an unforgiving deadline. I give you, therefore,

Coulombeau’s Top Ten Tips To A Middle In Two Weeks

1. Budget your time. Yep. Budget it. Just like you budget money.

This was one point where my training as a student of literature came in handy. Or rather, a professional essay writer. Essays train you, you see, to do this, to meet a deadline. This process started off just the same as that of writing an essay. I needed forty thousand words (not including the 10,000 I’d already written) in 14 days. I worked it out at four 10,000 word chunks. 4,000 words a day for two days, and then on the third day I could stop at 2,000, and spend the rest of the day editing my 10,000 word chunk. Then start again the next morning. That would give me the requisite number in 12 days, leaving a 2-day safety buffer zone for overall editing. ‘Perfect’.

2. Equip yourself. Plan.

I am a great believer in the visuals of essay / novel planning. See Exhibit A above. I got hold of paper, coloured pens, pins and post-its. I drew a timeline for the novel, divided it into four sections. I dredged up all the notes I’d scribbled down for themes, scenes, dialogue, suggestive ideas that I’d thought in the past I might like to fit into the narrative, and I started to write them in on the timeline, roughly where I thought I’d like them to occur. If I wasn’t really sure then I put the idea on a post-it and moved it around in different places, trying different things out. I also noted problems as they arose, and stuck them around the edges of the timeline, so I wouldn’t forget a crucial plot tangle or inconsistency and be buggered at the end, so that my mind would always be sort of working away at them. When I had got the first half planned out to my satisfaction – the second looked and still looks rather bare – I stuck it on the cork board above my desk.

Oh, and coffee. You’ll need lots and lots of coffee.

3. Use people #1

Every novel needs research. The delicate subject matter of Rites meant that it needed research – accurate research – perhaps more than most. I figured out that, at the very least, I needed to speak to a doctor, a lawyer familiar with out-of-date sexual offences legislation, and a police officer. I also needed to speak to somebody who was very familiar with Class A drugs. So I sent some emails off  to friends who worked in these fields, or have these experiences, or who might know someone who did, and begged for a phone conversation. They were unbelievably helpful. (Incidentally, other bizarre research experiences involved asking male friends about the gory specifics of their teenage sexual awakening, and reading a Roman Catholic Missal cover to cover).

4. Use People #2

Asking people to read your work in progress is horrible. It’s like asking someone to comment on your looks when you’ve just crawled out of bed with a hangover; you haven’t prepared yourself, you haven’t made it the best it can be, IT’S NOT READY. Tough, when you’re on a tight schedule. You need people to tell you exactly how and why you look terrible – that your hair needs washing, where your smudged mascara is, how to pluck those eyebrows. Because – here’s the thing – YOU DON’T HAVE A MIRROR.

Bearing this in mind, I asked four friends – four very wonderful, very generous friends with totally different taste from one another in fiction – to read my draft and send me comments, to a ludicrously tight schedule. Ten thousand words every two-and-a-half-days with a  twelve-hour turnaround. They did it, every time. They buoyed me up with encouragement and suggestions. Because of them, I sent in a more controlled, thoughtful, consistent, polished text in the end. They have my eternal gratitude.

5. Write.

Simply that. Look at your plan, look at the first event on it. Think, “How do I want to present this? Who’s narrating it? Where does it happen? What kind of tone?” Once a reasonably solid idea has come into your head – prod it a few times to see – write it down. GO. Keep writing. When you’re done, look at the next event on your plan. Do the same. Write for as long as you can. Do not read over what you’ve written, or you will crumple and die.

6. Become a split personality

The best how-to book I have ever read about the craft of creative writing was first published in 1934 by a woman called Dorothea Brande. It’s called ‘Becoming A Writer’, and is seen as something of a cult classic by many in the fiction field. It’s worthy of a blog post by itself, but for now I’ll just paraphrase the best piece of advice from it, the piece that got me through those insane two weeks:

“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer – the craftsman and the critic in him – are actually hostile to the good of the unconscious, the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”

She’s right. You basically need, in my experience, to be able to separate the writer part of you from the critic. To write very freely and desperately and craply, without censoring or self-editing at all – which is what I did for 2 1/2 days – and then to become a pedantic, severe editor and Track Change the whole thing – which I did for half a day, before sending it on to my other editors. If you try to do both at once, you’re doomed to failure and will end up huddled in a corner gnashing your teeth and rending your garments in despair.

7. Don’t be afraid to change things.

As I progressed, and my characters began to take on a life of their own, I realized I had been very mistaken about  some of their traits. For example, one character had been bisexual, but I realized halfway through that he simply wasn’t. Another character had a drinking problem, but I realized near the end that she simply didn’t. It was then a question of going back and painstakingly sifting out all references to these errors. But it was a good sign, I think. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean it’s good, or right.

8. Lean on the Plan to start with, but learn to stand without it.

If you look at Exhibit A above, you’ll see that the final section of the Plan is pretty blank. I found that, whereas I needed the Plan almost like a crutch when I was writing the earlier sections, as my manuscript amassed weight I found myself deviating from it more and more, until eventually I hardly needed it at all. I still jotted the odd thing down, but in general the narrtive now had momentum and I knew where it was going. I preferred to spend my rapidly dwindling time writing than developing a plan I didn’t need.

9. Anticipate the Dark Night Of The Soul

Dorothea Brande, talking about fiction, calls it The Slough Of Despond. The late and great Professor Jane Moody, talking about PhDs, called it The Dark Night Of The Soul. It is that moment when you hit a mental roadblock and gently, soothingly, depression wraps itself around you like the snuggliest of duvets, and a little voice whispers to you that you should just give up. It’s rubbish. What did you think you were trying to do? Save face now. Quit before you embarrass yourself any further.

If I had foolproof advice about how to deal with this, I’d basically be able to save the world. My own strategy was to go on a very long run, have a very long sleep, and go back to writing the next day, stubbornly ignoring the problem that had occasioned my Dark Night. I told myself I’d figure it out subconsciously. I did, in the end.

10. Promise yourself something amazing at the end of it all.

No, not the finished manuscript. That goes without saying. Promise yourself that when you’ve reached target, you can have what you most want (within reason) in the world. My own incentive was a camping trip with friends away to How Stean Gorge. When I hit 50,000 words, I promised myself, I would go somewhere for two days where I couldn’t even see a computer screen if I wanted to, where I wouldn’t even think about books, where I would just eat burned sausages and drink cold beer under a starry sky. I hit 50,000 words about 90 minutes before my lift left.

The ending, of course, hadn’t been written yet. I was saving that for when I came back, because endings are superimportant. But that’s another story.

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8 thoughts on “Stuck In The Middle: 10 tips for writing a novel in 2 weeks

  1. This is a marvellous post, thanks Sophie! I’m in the chaotic middle of book two, and this was really helpful. Consider RITES firmly on my list of books to read when I’ve made sufficient progress with my own.

  2. Budgeting your time is rightfully at the top of the list. I’m learning to better use free time to write; oddly enough, my phone is helping me focus more on my writing. I’ve found the Notepad icon on my iPhone very helpful for writing notes, then emailing them for further editing on my computer.

    • That’s interesting, hadn’t thought of using the phone before – I’m still a bit of a dinosaur, carrying around a notebook and pen everywhere in case inspiration strikes. If I get caught without them, I borrow a pen and tattoo my hand. The phone is probably a far more sensible option, and a bit less painful.

  3. Pingback: Rewards for hard work | Lakeland Writers

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