Last week saw me break 10,000 words with my MA novel. I thought my completing 1/8th of my target word-count for the first draft would be a reasonable time for me to reflect on my process so far and what I have learnt about tackling a project like this.

The first thing I have had to let go of is any idea that I might be able to achieve a regular amount of words per day or week. Having three kids, part-time job and an ironing pile that seems to be attempting to build itself into a sentient creature (amongst my other household chores), means it is not always possible to expect me to find time to write. Don’t get me wrong, I grab every minute I can, it’s just I have had to become far more tolerant of the times when I simply cannot get any words down. I go easy on myself then. If there’s no time, there’s no time.

The other broad change to my way of working is more of a switch of perspective, one brought on by the long-term nature of tackling a novel. Where previously I was working on short fiction (or even short short fiction), that meant the goal was never really very far away. A novel, by definition, is a big thing (even a small novel) and as such requires a large time investment. I’ve found that not thinking about the size of the project helps me keep going while avoiding feeling overwhelmed. I have been writing key chunks of the novel in the form of linked short stories thus far. While the final product may be vastly different, this is first draft/blood on the page territory here after all, I have found that doing so keeps me focused on a short-term goal; ‘One word at a time’ as A. L. Kennedy prescribes. In this way I have currently finished two key chapters of the book, which, though wildly disparate in the chronology of my story, are very closely connected as both focus on a particular character and the changes between two distinct periods of his life. Currently I have clear ideas of at least four more chapters/stories that touch on key characters from my wider cast and am making my way through a chapter dealing with the day before my inciting incident, through the eyes of one of the two characters most closely involved.

Now this might mean that my finished product might end up looking something like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, with it’s jumping of time period and p.o.v between each chapter/story, but it may not. Hell, if the book turnes out even a fraction as good as Egan’s book, I’ll be happy. At the moment structure is very fluid. I am trying to get words on the page, key bits of the overall story covered, in the hope that a structure presents itself. In the meantime, I am reading novels with interesting uses of p.o.v. and structure to tell a story about large(ish) casts to find the best fit for mine, most recently Christos Tsilokas’s excellent The Slap. Jackie Kay’s Trumpet is next up. If any of you can recommend interesting novels or linked short fiction collections that do innovative stuff with structure and p.o.v. please post recommendations in the comments. I am trying to keep myself open, hoping the book will present itself to me as I assemble the fragments sprouting from the tip-tapping of my keyboard. After all, any work of fiction is really written in the redraft.

Looking back at my novel journal (I’ve been tapping notes into One Day at the end of every writing day to keep a record of what I achieved, what I thought of it and where I planned to go next), here are the key things that leap out from the first eight weeks of (sporadic) writing:

  • the importance of turning off email, twitter and facebook before writing
  • set a weekly goal, but don’t carry over the deficit otherwise starting a week ‘in the hole’ can be demoralising before you begin
  • some days, though no new words are added, will be productive all the same – 3rd Feb I added 0 words but while doing my chores I came up with 6 new ideas/solutions for problems with the structure, some chapter level, some character.
  • the need to keep a separate notebook for my novel notes, that way they are easily accessible, AND the need to make sure I carry that notebook, or at least, transfer any errant notes into the novel notebook at the first opportunity
  • don’t plan to do much the week before a school holiday as the kids always seem to get ill, or something will go wrong with the car, or the tumble dryer, or I’ll be bound to be called in to work those few mornings remaining
  • my MA writing workshop sessions have highlighted the need for me to give any of my first drafts a really brutal edit into second draft – cut, cut, cutting the word count really does improve what’s there

Other than that, nothing much has changed. Music remains a key feature of my process. My iTunes playlist for the novel ‘soundtrack’ is even broken down into characters and distinct periods of their lives. The following tracks are part of one of my main character’s soundtracks.

The first is a track that resonates with his situation during the build up of the novel to the key dramatic incident at the centre of all the action. While the lyrics are not 100% fitting (my character does not have a son fighting in a war) the rest is fairly close to where he finds himself in middle-age:

The second resonates with his feelings just prior to the central event of the novel and after; where his unhappiness leads him. In fact, the Shearwater album, Everybody Makes Mistakes has provided a number of tracks for various characters’ soundtracks and a chapter title for one key character’s section.

These tracks should give you some idea of the tone I am aiming for this character’s sections of the book. Poor bloke. He is not going to have an easy ride. But then who wants to read about people being happy. Here’s hoping I can pull off something in prose that comes close to capturing the kinds of emotions in these two tracks. As ever though, I am still in the early stages of first draft territory. Everything is fluid. Everything could and probably will change. Which is what makes things so very exciting.

I’m on an Arvon residential next week, run by my MA course tutors. Should shift some serious words. I’ll provide a progress update once back home, assuming you guys want to hear more wittering about my writing process for this book and more tracks from the novel’s ‘soundtrack.’

In the meantime, what’s the key thing you’ve discovered about your writing process recently?