In this series of posts charting the road to my novel The Art Trip, I’ve arrived at the sharp end of things. After sharing how I was first drawn to writing and how I found my voice, this time I’m going to be getting down to the writing itself, looking back on the happy months when I took my ideas and turned them into something very material, my novel.
It’ll probably come as no surprise, but this was the phase of work I loved the most. It’s the part I imagine most writers live for. When I was in the midst of writing The Art Trip, most of the time, I wanted to do little else but write. It was a time to cocoon with my ideas, my words and a ready supply of tea. It was a time I really felt was for me. Whilst the overall experience was wonderful, there were particular peaks within it. Now and then, for half an hour, an hour, occasionally an afternoon, I’d hit a patch where the words would simply flow onto the page, and when I did, that was a truly joyous feeling, a pure creative high. It was like riding a current downstream.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. At other times, far from feeling in my flow, I’d find myself beached on a particular issue or problem chapter. Whilst immersing myself in writing was a pleasure, the act of producing the tens of thousands words that make up a novel was no mean feat. Producing work of the quality I wanted in that kind of quantity was even harder. So in this post I want to think about both the rough and smooth parts of my experience, and consider what might have led to those marvelous flowing moments.
I published The Art Trip just recently and I’m now starting to write what I hope will be my second published novel, so reflecting on what I’ve learned and capturing it in this post should help me, at least! Perhaps I can take a take a few lessons for this time around. I don’t expect writing my next novel to be easy, but maybe it can be a little easier. If my experience is of any use to you as another writer or creator, or even of interest as a reader, then sharing it with you will hopefully be worthwhile as well.
So, in a series of posts about writing a novel, it’s post number five before I arrive in the heart of the writing itself. In my view, the fact that there was so much I had to do before I got to the bulk of the writing was no bad thing. Why? Because writing a novel takes stamina. The first draft of The Art Trip took me about six months to write – that’s writing around my day job then through a period when, unexpectedly, I had a lot of spare time. Although some writers are speedier and more prolific than others, to finish a novel (and after the first draft, let’s not forget the re-writing and editing!) will always take commitment. It’s a labour of love, with definite labour involved. So, before I begin, I want to be sure I’m really up for the challenge, and as ready as I can be.
By the time I came to write my first draft, I’d already lived with my idea for The Art Trip for quite a while. I was thinking about it whilst getting on with life, and sometimes life took over, as it will. So sometimes I’d get distracted, but when I came back to it, my idea was still there, still vivid, and still exciting to me. Gradually, in spare moments, I managed to flesh out my lead characters to the point where I could picture them entirely, and hear how they’d speak. I had ideas for several key scenes, turning points, and where they’d take place, and from that I sketched a kind of timeline. All this, I scrawled in a notebook I kept to hand for whenever inspiration struck, on a train or in the night. When it did, I scribbled my thoughts, sometimes hardly legibly. My notes were scrappy, they weren’t exactly a masterplan, but I’m very glad I had them.
They gave me confidence. That I could sketch out how my story and characters would unfold told me my project had legs. I felt there was enough in my idea to make a novel, and I had a notebook full of raw material to back up that feeling. What’s more, those scruffy notes would be my trusty guide through the months of writing ahead. Before I began to write for the day, out came the notes to remind me where I was headed, and provide little bits of raw material, building blocks. If I was writing away and had an idea that didn’t fit just there, it was squirreled away in my notes. So really, the first draft of The Art Trip started there, as fragments in a notebook, not even sentences, but essential fuel. Notes are important, I should keep more!
The other thing I had before starting out was a target. I’d given myself about four months to complete my draft. It was quite artificial, but I knew from my previous writing projects (not to say from my student days and my working life!) that that a deadline really helps me to progress. I’m not the world’s worst procrastinator, but I work so much more efficiently under a little pressure. Some people break their targets down into daily word counts, or an amount of time spent writing per day but I didn’t get into that much detail. For me, my chapters were enough of a structure to work to.
I turned my timeline of events into a provisional list of chapters. As I began work on each successive chapter, I set myself a date by when I’d like to finish it, as a little interim goal. I didn’t beat myself up if I missed those targets, but I might write for longer another day to try to make up for it, especially if I was enjoying one of those flowing times. I turned that list of chapters into a spreadsheet, so I could track my word count as I went, and as it turned out later, it was very handy to be able to be able to play around with my timeline and chapter list too. That spreadsheet would become my plotting tool. Equipped with my notes and my targets, I got to work.
What did writing actually look like for me? Well, I went back to basics and wrote freehand, pen on paper. It’s something I’ve learned works for me at this first draft stage, and if you’re a writer and haven’t tried it, I can’t recommend it enough! When I type, I have a tendency to polish every sentence as I go, so it’s one step forwards and two steps back. That’s exactly what I want to be doing in the re-write or editing phases, but not in the first draft. When I write by hand, I put my head down and go for it. If I’m alone, I often speak what I want to write out loud. That helps me to write in my voice. I try to craft good sentences, but I don’t get hung up on finding the perfect word if it won’t come to me just then.
I look on my first draft as a process of generation. It takes an awful lot of raw material to make a novel, and my view is I can hardly have too much. When I write by hand, I write more than when I type, and that’s important. When I talk about feeling my writing flow, I’m almost always writing by hand. I write today much as I did back at school or university, on chunky A4 lined pads with a cheap fountain pen, nothing fancy. Yes, my education was largely pre-digital, I’m showing my age here! When I write this way, ink on paper, I do feel some kind of connection to my younger self, and since in those days my mind was probably more agile than it might be now, it can’t be a bad thing!
So writing by hand helps, but where did I write and did that help my writing flow? Well, at that first draft stage, I wrote anywhere, whenever I had spare time and the mood took me. I mentioned in an earlier post that I find it quite helpful to write away from home. That’s one thing I think helps me to connect with my voice. I wrote several draft chapters of The Art Trip whilst I was away on holiday. At the end of the day, in my hotel room, I’d stretch out on the bed, get out my pen and paper and write as much or as little as I felt like. On my return, stuffed in my rucksack alongside my worn clothes and some little souvenirs, I brought back a precious bundle of pages and a sense of satisfaction that I’d kept up my writing momentum.
The bulk of my writing was still at home, though, on my dining table or at the desk in my spare room. There, I have a battered but beautiful old writing slope which is a joy to use, and that’s another of my strong recommendations. If you’re a writer, you simply must try a writing slope! I bought mine a few years ago, as a nice object and a curiosity. I like old things, and I had romantic notions of using it occasionally for writing cards or the odd poem. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so practical! It boosts up the height of my desk and angles my work perfectly towards me, saving my back a great deal of the strain that can come with long periods of writing. There – writing slopes – something to hunt for in your your local second-hand shop or flea market, and gift idea for a writer! Anyway, I digress.
Were there any particular times it suited me to write? Did that flowing feeling come more readily at certain hours? Not really. On the whole I’m not a fan of routine. I tend to feel I have enough routine in my life already. Writing when I want to is important I think. For me those flowing moments are about enjoyment not obligation. Whilst I have goals, this is one of the main reasons I don’t set a daily word count or time target. In a working week, by necessity most of my writing time would be in the evening, usually late evening, after dinner. I’m more of an owl than a lark, so that worked all right for me. It was an escape from the concerns of the day, a late-night treat to look forward to.
Then, partway through drafting The Art Trip, something unexpected happened. I lost my job. Of course, on a broader level, that wasn’t great news. But for The Art Trip, frankly it was a bit of a boon, and it certainly enabled me to finish my first draft faster. I still had things to do, job-hunting uppermost among them, but suddenly I had more time than I remember. I could write whenever I liked, for almost as long as I liked. In some ways, I had too much time. Some of that pressure I find helpful was gone, and I was probably less efficient. Still, having my novel to work on was a real help to me in structuring my days, giving me a sense of purpose and a release in a slightly stressful time. I’d start to write in the morning, hunt for jobs in the afternoon, then write again in the evening, or vice versa. A chunk of a few hours writing is enough for me, after that I’m worn out!
How did I progress? Well, I tried to work logically through my novel, chapter by chapter, from beginning to end, but I didn’t always. Of course, it seems to make the most sense to write a story in sequence, because the way your characters and events unfold affect what comes later. There’s no avoiding that. There were days, though, when writing in sequence didn’t make sense for me. The Art Trip follows three main characters, Beverley and Ken, my rather unlikely romantic leads, and Jessica, Beverley’s daughter, wrestling with teen angst and a secret crush. Each chapter focuses on one of them in a rough rotation, to see their different points of view. To help me build my character arcs, sometimes it seemed best to follow one of my leads through several of their chapters.
Another reason I jumped about a bit was more mundane. Sometimes, I’d just get stuck! There were days when I looked at my list of chapters, and the one I really wanted to write wasn’t the next on the list. On those days, I cut myself some slack. I took the view that it was better to be productive, writing and enjoying it, hopefully writing my way into those wonderful flowing moments, rather than slowly struggling on. I’d take this approach again. Writing what I could to keep my flow going, that worked for me. Returning to that problem passage later with fresh eyes it was often easier to see a way through too.
Fairly early on, I made one particularly important choice to work out of sequence. Before I got very far into writing The Art Trip, I wrote the final chapter. It may seem illogical, but it really worked for me, so that’s another of my recommendations. I can’t exactly say why I did it, perhaps it was just greed or excitement – it felt a bit like eating the best chocolate in the box first, instead of saving it! More rationally, though, I think I wanted to know exactly where Beverley, Ken and Jessica were going. Seeing their characters changed at the end of the story gave me something to write towards, and I think that helped my writing flow towards that point. So, starting from the end? Not a bad thing. Eating the best chocolate first? I’m not sorry, and I’d do it again!
So much for the good times. If this post is going to help me with my next and future projects, and maybe help others too, I also need to look at what didn’t work so well. What about those times my flow was interrupted, or I really struggled? What caused that and is there anything I could do about it? Well, one thing that tripped me up was research, and the other, the more substantial of the two, was plotting. From this, you might get a sense that I’m not always the most logical thinker, and all right, I admit it!
The Art Trip is a light-hearted romantic comedy, so I knew my readers wouldn’t be looking for a lot of factual detail, but the setting of any story, both in location and time, is an important part of its appeal. The Art Trip is a work of fiction, but it’s set in real places, largely Rome and Florence, and at a specific time, February 1998. For my readers and myself, I wouldn’t have wanted to get references wrong, or write anything that just couldn’t be true. Because I was writing a comedy too, and humour often lies in little observations, having a good grasp of details was all the more important. As I wrote, mid-flow, I kept finding I needed to know far more than I’d expected or prepared for.
Now, I was lucky to have visited Italy in the few years before I wrote the novel, so I had my travels in mind, and that was undeniably helpful. (You can check out my favourite places in Rome and Florence – my attempt at a little travel blogging!). Still, when I came to write a scene set in a particular piazza or church, say, I couldn’t remember things in the fine detail I felt I needed. I wanted to be sure that Botticelli’s paintings really did all hang in the same room of the Uffizi gallery so my characters really could move from one to the other in conversation. I wanted to know which door of the Duomo in Florence my characters should use to begin the climb up to the great dome.
Then, because The Art Trip is set around a school sixth form trip for students of art and history, there’s a certain amount of teaching going on as a backdrop to the story. When art teacher Ken references the work of an artist or an architect, of course he needs to get his facts straight. He’s a dedicated teacher, passionate about his subject – he can’t mislead his students! The same goes for Beverley, when she shares snippets of Renaissance history. For the most part, I was able to draw on things I studied myself at school or university, but that’s a long time ago, so I had to refresh myself.
I wanted my novel to be true to its time too, February 1998. Music is a passion for my teenage lead Jessica, so I had to know what songs were in the charts, not just that year, but in that month. When Beverley turns on the radio in her car, I needed to know what might be in the news. Nineties fashion trends are having another moment now, but fashion reinvents itself each time around, so what were teenagers really wearing back then? Could I rely on my own memories? If I wanted to describe Jessica and her friends properly, I needed to check.
All these things needed looking up, sometimes in books, but most often online. I enjoyed that research, immersing myself in those places and that time, but it could disrupt my flow. As we all know, once you’re on the internet, one thing leads to another and time can run away before you know it. So in retrospect, I wish I’d done more research in advance. I could have fleshed out my notes much more in terms of location and the world around my characters. I could even have created little maps or visual collages for myself to reference. This time round, I’ll promise myself that I will.
As for plotting, I mentioned that before I began to write I had a kind of timeline, with key events and turning points mapped onto it. Well, that was a great tool, but it only got me so far. As I began to write my way through my chapters, fairly soon, by about chapter five, I think, I realized that I’d left gaps. There were things that needed to happen and needed to be said before I could arrive at the next key turning point.
The fact that in The Art Trip I’d chosen to follow three lead characters instead of one made this even more challenging. Sometimes, part way through writing a chapter focusing on Jessica, I’d discover that just at that point I really needed the reader to be following Beverley instead, to develop her plot line. That meant I did far more re-writing than I would have liked to in that first draft phase.
There are lots of schools of thought on how to plot and even whether to plot or not and I can see why. I love it and I hate it, and that’s probably why I’d done half a job of plotting before I began to write in earnest. Even if you’re not writing a crime thriller, with a puzzle intentionally at its heart, there’s a technical aspect to plotting which doesn’t come so easily to me. All over the internet and in books on writing, there are story archetypes frameworks you can read and consider, like the Three or Five Act Structure, and I’d done that. It had informed my character arcs and my initial timeline. What I hadn’t done was flesh out all the steps between.
Even with all my preparation, I was still too eager to get to the fun part, the writing. When I hit a gap, or a knot in my plot, I turned to my original notes and then my spreadsheet. What had been a fairly neat list of chapters became pretty messy on paper, and more and more I relied on my spreadsheet as a flexible way to try out different routes through my plot. There were times I got quite lost, moving one chapter had a knock-on effect on so many others, and everything felt up in the air. Of course, looking back, this experimentation is exactly what I should have done at the start, before writing.
Well, lesson learned! I walked myself down a few blind allies, and spent quite a long time retracing my steps. I think I can do better this time around. I’ve made a draft timeline for my next novel, but looking at it now, I think I can see gaps. So, another promise to myself, to go back and strengthen my plotting outline before I do any more writing. Even then, I have a feeling I might not write in a completely linear way, because as I mentioned, jumping around a little helps me to manage my energy levels and keep up momentum. But if I can be even slightly more systematic this time, it’ll be a relief!
In among things, when I felt I deserved a break but still wanted to do something constructive, I’d take on the fairly mindless task of typing up what I’d already written. I say mindless, because I deliberately didn’t edit as I went. If I’d missed out a word I put it in, but as a rule I tried to type with the flow with which I’d written. Sometimes, if I saw a problem I thought would need major attention, I’d add a comment to my document to go back and fix it later. I didn’t want those problems messing with my flow just then! Typing always gave me a boost, because at the end of each chapter, I could check the word count, put it in my spreadsheet, and look at the total mounting up.
So, along the road to drafting The Art Trip, I enjoyed some wonderful times, some minutes or even hours of uninterrupted, flowing writing. I also tripped myself up more often than I needed to with gaps in my research and some patchy plotting. I learned some important lessons. I’m afraid the first is highly unoriginal, but it’s preparation. I thought I’d done a lot, with my notebook full of raw material, my timeline and list of chapters, but it wasn’t quite enough. This time round I’m really going to test my plot before I start, and I need to know much more of the detail of my settings. The second thing I learned was to try to write my way into my flow rather than follow a routine. Working where and when I felt I wanted to, tackling what I wanted to that day, even out of sequence, and writing the end first, they all helped me, and I’d do them again. The third lesson, I suppose, is keeping things simple. Pen and paper, supported by my writing slope, is what works best for me, and momentum, not perfection is what’s important.
In the end, my first draft took six months and not four, and that’s with the extra free time of a period of unemployment. Was I disappointed to have missed my target? Only a little. The main thing was, I’d done it, and in the big scheme of things, not all that slowly. Without a deadline I expect it would have taken me at least twice as long! So that was my first draft done. I had a lovely thick sheaf of handwritten chapters, typed up as a neat set of documents on my laptop, my plot all worked out and a word count of nearly 120,000 words – more than enough to work with later. It all looked good, I was pretty pleased. I put my notes away, backed up my documents, then for about a month, I walked away.
I took a well-deserved break from writing, and that’s my last hot tip for this post. Finishing the draft of a novel is an achievement worth taking some time to enjoy. To me, it felt like emerging from hibernation. After a long spell of sitting (or reclining!) and writing, I had a real urge to stretch, move, go places and see different things. I put my own work from my mind and caught up on some reading, enjoying the work of others. I made sure to savour that time and that feeling of achievement, because I already knew it wouldn’t last. After the flowing first draft, I’d be plunged into the woods, hacking my way back through my work, tackling the brutal business of re-writing and editing, but that’s a story for next time!
The Art Trip
If you’ve enjoyed my writing and would like to take a look at The Art Trip, that’d be lovely! It’s available on Amazon in paperback, ebook and within Kindle Unlimited subscriptions, with a free sample available here. I’d love to hear what you think!