It’s been a year since I worked on the first draft of a novel. In the interim, I’ve been busy with rewrites of the most recent book; completing a play; writing several short stories, and, in general, keeping busy.
All the while, I knew this novel was waiting for me to get the other things out of the way. It was patient; it knew its time would come, and come it did. A couple of weeks ago I sat at my desk and opened a new file titled Return to Reichenbach and I was off.
It’s funny, but even though I’ve done this before, I forgot how different it is to start a brand new novel. It’s nothing like a short story or even a play, though there are commonalities, of course. It’s even far removed from working on the second- or third-draft of a novel.
I’m no athlete. Seriously. But I imagine this must be how it feels to start a marathon after being a sprinter for a long time. Yes, you’re still running, but you have to learn to pace yourself. You have to work up the stamina.
Starting a brand new novel from scratch is very much a marathon. Lots of things can happen along the journey.
I’m not an outliner or a plotter. I like the story to be organic. I can’t stand it when screenwriters, for instance, make a character act completely contrary to their nature just so they, the writer, can arrive at a certain climax.
Get your minds out of the gutter. This is a classy blog!
When I started writing Return to Reichenbach I knew very little about the story except that Sherlock Holmes would, at some point, return to the Reichenbach Falls where he had apparently fallen to his apparent death. Well, duh, right?
I knew the story would take place in 1899. Beyond that… nope, not much. That is to say, the front part of my brain, the bit that takes all the credit, was still making daisy chains and trying to remember the lyrics to Alice’s Restaurant. In the meantime, that back part of my head was doing all the heavy lifting.
I don’t know much, but I know how to trust the real powerhouse. I’ve learned how to listen when it speaks to me. My brain likes to mess with my head… so to speak. And one of the ways it does that is by having me make mistakes.
I’m cruising along and the story is going well. I think I have a handle on it. And then, out of nowhere something happens in the plot and BAM! I’m derailed.
Why did this character say that? What do you mean, he’s dead? You want to do what now?
And there’s the back brain tapping its fingers saying, “Uh-huh. Gotcha!”
Sometimes the unexpected moment is so far from what I thought the story was about, I start to panic.
I stall. I rant. I whine to my mate Jane about how I’m blocked and will never be able to write again. Eventually, I remember to breathe and I calm down. Then something amazing happens.
I see the possibilities.
All of a sudden, all the weird things my characters were doing right from the beginning suddenly make sense. I know where the story is going and it’s a hundred times better than that hack, front brain, could have dreamed up.
And there’s back brain tapping its fingers and saying, “I know, I know. Where’s the trust, eh?”
That’s the thing: trust. I’ve been here often enough I ought to relax and trust the process instead of curling into a metaphorical foetal state. Back brain doesn’t make mistakes, no matter what I may think.
Now, I wouldn’t want you to think I was casting aspersions upon those people who map out every scene of their novels before they start to write. In a way, I envy them. There must be a certain security in knowing exactly what you’re doing from one day to the next. In comparison, my approach must seem like tightrope walking.
But by not knowing what’s about to happen, I share the reader’s suspense. I’m often stunned by the way the story develops. I hope the reader shares my surprise.
That’s not to say back-brain is irreproachable. Sometimes, for its own amusement, it lets me write 20-30,000 words that have to be scrapped. There can be any number of reasons for this. Sometimes the resolution is too short and I end up with a novella or a short story instead of a novel. Occasionally, the plot is just wrong and is unsustainable. Or it is a huge detour from where the story ought to be going.
The trick here is to recognise the difference between happy mistakes that enhance the work, and the culs-de-sac that stop it cold. This is part of the challenge of seat-of-the-pants writing.
I’m not going to lie to you. There are times when I have to delete huge chunks of my work and I fall into a deep, dark hole of depression. I’ve lost control of the novel and I can’t figure out where it went wrong. Then, slowly, I figure it out and, like someone suffering a bereavement, I try to bargain my way out of the inevitable. Those three chapters are fabulous. They’re well written. There are some great lines and character development in there.
They have to go.
Eventually I woman up to the task. I highlight the poor, unloved section and cut it. As a comfort to myself, I save the deleted scenes in a file cleverly called ‘Deleted Scenes’. That way, if I later change my mind and feel I can rescue them later. I’ve never restored a deleted scene, but it’s a comfort to know it’s there if I want it.
But here’s something interesting: even when a scene or a chapter need to be deleted, I learn something from the writing. I discover a character’s motivation, or their backstory. The section may not work for the reader, but it’s important for the writer, me, to hash it out.
The thing is, you have to be willing to make mistakes. All of art is founded on the making of wonderful, glorious mistakes. Yes, you’ll get bruised. You’ll fail. You’ll have to cut your losses and start over. But how many jobs can you think of where screwing up is a good thing?
So go ahead. Make some mistakes. The results can be pure genius.