The Diary of a Ninety Day Novelist.

The Diary of a Ninety Day Novelist.

May 06, 2018

So, as the Miss Jean Brodie of my creme de creme of writers, I am going ahead of my tribe, or the Kritikme Krew as they are known, and beginning to write my novel in ninety days, having completed planning it using the Classic course. When you're creating a second world - either historical, Sci-Fi or fantasy adventure, you need to work out your system and its logic and language before you begin and there are some rules to these novels which we cover in the course. Break one, because you mean to, not by accident, and don't break more than one!

The planning method I teach in the Classic course is similar to my second book of historical fiction 'This Human Season' and the story is quite thought out but most importantly I have my premise or hook sorted enough to begin writing. 

I thought I would share some highlights - and lowlights - from my working journal so that other writers might see it's never the right time, and it's always work, but where there's a will there's a way. A couple of salutary lessons and overdue reminders for this old writer this week. 

By the way, this was the week I pledged I'd begin - I took a week off from the day job. It was also the week I decided to get a dog. The puppy's called Blue, he is half Pomeranian, half Bichon Frise, and joy with a tail. It was unwise, but as my writers know, my mantra is 'if it's hard, make it harder.'

Day One

Word count: 979

I begin the new Moleskine and write Orwell's words - prose like a window pane - on its first page. I know this story now, so it's just a case of patient delivery (and definitively and deliberately setting aside doubts and fears.

Today is trying in that there are so many people around with children at home, and Blue and Jinx (the cat) up for fun at sun up, and a kitchen to clear (thanks boys!) Then my aunt's birthday. So we drive to see her. To sit across from her and see her eyes reminded me of goodness and what it looks like.

Sat down at 16.11 giving me 45 minutes to round up the day before next appointment with collecting daughter. 45 minutes! 


So I end day one, much slower paced than I anticipated - given existing material - with 979, Whilst I follow Orwell on prose I know in my heart I want to fly with JM Barrie.

Now to duties, laundry, kids, animals and cooking, and I feel that this is a good start. I wish I had time, and was not always so overlooked and harried and hurried by everybody but that wishing is idle. (You didn't seriously think it would happen in a croft on a remote island, did you?)

Day Two.

Word count: 5451

'The conditions are always impossible' per Doris Lessing but today's conditions are well beyond a joke. Mayhem at home. I'm up at 6 and keen. Wasted zeal. Cat, dog, Kid A (late), Kid C, (sweet), everyone sorted. Door closes at 8. Phone rings, doorbell goes endlessly. It's now 13.15 and the phone hasn't stopped ringing from the day job. Tomorrow I will turn the bastard thing off. I have 15 minutes now before we go to the vets. Then Kid C comes home, then Kid B, then Kid A and I have to cook etc and tend to them.

So what have I achieved in the midst of the chaos? 

6.45 am start. New material created by 7.30 am. 1125 words. Happy with it. Looks like I'm writing at about 1000 a scene. Revised scraps of existing material . Snatched writing in bursts but ok.

5451 words in the can and God knows how. I'm going to get a candle in my room and try and work at night and zombie-walk the days.

Doris, you had nothing on this.

Day Three.

Word count: 3737

I had to give myself a stern talking to last night. Something was wrong. I reached out to my Kritikme writing buddy. It's so crucial to establish the right tone from the get-go, plus this time I know what the story's about, so I thought it wise to get an opinion. And it was. The tone was not at all clear and I was equivocating between one heart's desire (polemic/allegory) and the desire to write in quaint authorial voice a la Tolkien and Lewis. Which would it be? The two were rubbing each other badly the wrong way with grown up content against 'Now look here young fella...'. Ouch. My buddy reminded me about writing to a person. Perfect advice, perfect timing. 

Now, I could see my issue lay within the very hook of my concept and I'd seen the splinter and squinted past it. Back to the drawing board! Such an elementary mistake. I wrote to myself in my journal to remember I'm writing to lead a reader safely into another world. The cynicism had to go along with the authorial voice, so in a way I was ridding this first go of its excesses in two highly divergent directions and finding that windowpane prose middle of plain writing.

I went to bed with a dog and 'The Alchemist'. Jesus is that plainly written. It is very close third-person perspective 'Maybe we're all that way, he thought.' The writing so purpose-built. The gipsy's room is described as 'a table, an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and two chairs.' Job done.

This is as far as he goes with authorial didacticism: 'Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives but none about their own.' (And these observations are few and spare.)

Ok, I went to bed thinking, so it's authorial narrated prose (Tolkien, CS Lewis etc) OR it's spartan, transparent and active (Coelho, Orwell.)

Everything cute and knowing would need to go from my fable which is more adult than the cosy authorial voice allows for.

But that was not going to be enough, I realized when I woke feeling very sad. I went back to bed with puppy and read 'Animal Farm',  the beginning. 

I decided my first two or three chapters written would GO. I would plunge into the precipitating incident!

So from 5451 I slash down to 4374 by 6.49am. Then after chores and duties at 8am I cut right down to 1382 words without art or artifice.

After that it's time to build again on the burning embers, using other material and combining it quite differently. I hold my nose and start to write the all-important scene which I'm afraid of writing. I put on music - loud. By 11.12 I have 851 for the scene.

I end at a total manuscript count of 5119 words. I had thought it would be end of the week before I had the nerve to get to this scene, but I pushed myself through.

I'm completely terrified. I feel like I'm a faker, taking ridiculous liberties. While puppy sleeps.

Day Four.

Word count: 3115

So it was a 'classic' beginning - bloody hard work made harder, to rub my nose in how you get it done DESPITE everyone and everything. It's work, right. So you work. Then you get what Heaney called the 'unexpected reward'. Day Four payback time!

5am. Blue is bouncing. Blue sleeps. I dream. Blue is bouncing. 6am discover the opposite of wonderland that is my kitchen. Cat chases mouse, dog chases cat chasing mouse. But 6.15 I have put mouse safely in backyard and fed the other two animals. By 6.39 the kitchen is clear. But daughter rises at 7 and I like to spend an hour with her.

So I have 20 minutes. 20 minutes? POINTLESS I would have said Monday. But it's Wednesday so I say - LET'S WRITE!

6.58 - 618 words. Good ones. Daughter eats, scrolls through phone. With puppy on lap I surreptitiously make notes in Moleskine. Daughter leaves at 8.

By 8.48 I have 1833 words.

I then read through what is chapter 4 now. It's REALLY come alive thanks to the unexpected nature of the dialogue.

By 11.20 my word count total for the book is 7332. 

Lots of playing with puppy in between, or rather puppy hinders laundry and dishwashing exercises. My boys comes and go. At 11.20 I decide best not to push on - it's stick rather than twist and I write on my Moleskine 'Do I go on or not?'

The boys are out....

I'll just do 500 on the approach to the tricky part, I tell myself.

I do 901. By 13.08 I'm at 8234.

It's Day Four and I've got a book happening! Beginnings are hard and have to be pushed through. By 7k you should have cracked it. I am as surprised by all of this as if it turns out I can rollerskate.

Day Five.

Word count: 2046

I've noticed with my writers that often one good day is immediately followed by one bad one, and you'd think I'd be used to this myself. Perhaps we never really get used to it and yet it's the stark contrast that somehow propels us. Maybe there's a mystical energy in the conflict of one day versus another?

Puppy Blue wakes at 5-ish and that would be fine if I could write but his increasing confidence and excitement wreaks havoc this morning with my daughter none too pleased to be woken by him when I sit down for a moment to write and he nips off to tour the premises. So I'm not able to start until close to 9am when he finally settles  down.

It's a hard writing day because I'm tired from troubles on the home front and with too little sleep I've lost my nerve a little bit; my brain just isn't working well. (Like a hangover, where you feel defeated before you even start. This is why I don't drink when I'm writing books.) But I say to myself - let's just get a first wash down. 

So it goes until midday, just slow uninspiring progress. I go back to planning, remembering the old back and forth nature of this work, and consider again the material of the next chapters and the point of them in story terms. It's not good enough to introduce characters and tour the secondary world, there must be a trail to follow, a mystery being unravelled clue by clue of course. What I love in 'Animal Farm' is the off-camera activities of the sneaky pigs - the milk that goes missing. We feel clever as readers for catching on and I think it's important that you understand as a writer that it's the reader who must be clever in your work and not you. It's an odd thing, but once you let go of the need to be clever (and it rather bedevils the first chapter) then you can do the work.

Blue shows his bottom teeth in a winning Hollywood grin when I rub his tummy and sing to him, and this is enough for this writer to go back into the scenes again and warm them up.

I get 2000 down and arrive at the first important 'manifesto' scene in which the 'good' put forwards the credos for good versus evil, which will be slightly unpicked or questioned in the coming chapters of this part two of five. There are a lot of characters to introduce which will require deft strokes but I am recalling how helpful dialogue and what is said or not said can be to deliver that without strain. 

This brings me to 10,280. Tomorrow I hope to be rested to do a big scene with a cast of hundreds.

I'm not 'purple prose -ing' it and everything feels necessary right now but of course I won't quite know whether it is or not until I get to the end and in second draft I can play Jack Sticks and take out some sticks and make it all look smart.

The week off has proved by Thursday to be less relaxing than a week working, but in a way that's good news. In a way.

Day Six.

Word count: 2272

All hail, great Blue who sleeps the good sleep!

We wake at 6.30 and I decide to actually enjoy Blue and Jinx the cat and breakfast outside with them in the early morning sunshine and await my daughter's breakfast and exit at 8.

Last night's journal concluded with the woeful 'No time, no space.' Under which I wrote:
'Make time, make space.'

So I wear Blue out a bit and pop him into the basket next to me and after several excursions and returns via the staircase, he goes to sleep, so I go for it with the writing. All week it's been a case of 'there's never a perfect time' just drop the bucket down the well and see what comes up.

Within the hour, I have 1970 words. Not bad ones, and not all the same and I find a new extra villain, entirely unexpectedly, and happen upon a version of the theme which I had not foreseen which is  ironic and gives a twist and a dimension of imperfection to my heroine's point of view which I like.

It's a big scene; orchestrated pandemonium. It moved just fine.

I conclude at 12,552.

I have done better than I hoped for the week and had I known what it would throw at me on the home front with a full on cast here and just the one mother, I'd have been pleased with one thousand words.

The writing. It just HAS to happen, by hook or by damn crook, but setting up the hook really helps you return to the focus of 'where are we going here and why' daily.

I can see my hook will change. There's a dialectic between the target and the actual throwing of the dart and you don't know what the arc will be.

You do not know the truth of you or what's in your heart, until you start. And see.

You let others speak for you and you just keep turning the torch on and off.

It's been helpful to try NOT to fret when I'm not writing and my boy Blue has been here to remind me that you can just bounce, on all fours. If in doubt, bounce.

Somehow the gift he gives me of an hour seems magnificent. 

The upshot is; find the rhythm, find the routine, turn up, and get stuck in. You're too well schooled now - my writers - to write rubbish. And with your planning in place, you'll be good.

Week One - 12,552

Maybe a little more tomorrow, Blue willing, and I'll be seeing my writers for a glass on the seventh day at our seasonal writers' cocktails in London.

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