For years, I was the living embodiment of that classic Private Eye cartoon by (I think) Barry Fantoni: Two men. One says: ‘I’m writing a book’. The other replies: ‘Neither am I.’
The Book lived in my head as a fantastic possibility. I could do it any time, and it would be amazing. Any time. All I had to do was sit in front of a keyboard and the gilded prose would flow and flow and flow.
Well, I sat in front of a keyboard a lot, and words did flow. Unfortunately, they mainly flowed into Twitter, in the form of stupid gags, endless variations on the same Brexit diatribe and updates about my pets.
If there was a market for books about smart-arse pets who hate Brexit, I could’ve had at least three novels gathering dust at Waterstones by now.
Just over two weeks into a break from Twitter, though, and my Great Idea has already turned into 30,000 words of a projected 90,000-word novel. They’re good words, too, some of them, and my initial Great Idea has spawned dozens of other Reasonably Good Ideas which have joined hands and become an actual plot, about proper characters in a real place.
The big breakthrough was the realisation – which doesn’t seem to have dawned over years of reading it in numerous articles, blogs and books – that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to exist. Instead of toiling away at the same four or five hundred words, prodding and poking them in the hope they’ll suddenly start to sparkle, I’ve just been chucking words on the page. Piling them up until there are paragraphs of the things, turning into pages and then chapters.
That approach – built up over the structure of a detailed-but-flexible plan and lots of research – has paid dividends. The spontaneity has freed my brain to inject into the story ideas and characters which have grown from small asides into important parts of the work. It turns out that endless Neither Am I tinkering is no match for actually creating on the hoof.
I’m prepared for the shock when I finish the first draft and realise how much rubbish I’ve put down. It’s part of the deal. Second, third and fourth draft (and beyond) will probably deliver similar but hopefully diminishing shocks, until I eventually have something to show people. I’m already excited about that bit.
This isn’t my first attempt. There have been a few, none good. My previous effort dented my confidence and gave me the perfect excuse to give up on writing for a long time when it turned out that agents and publishers weren’t clamouring to get their mitts on a lumpy mess of under-revised Neil Gaiman pastiche. Who knew?
This time feels different. The Great Idea still feels great. The writing is rough, but it’s got energy and direction – and will hopefully develop some polish and better grammatical manners in the next few drafts. The characters are breathing and beginning to do things that surprise me.
Meanwhile, Twitter seems to be getting along just fine without regular interjections from me about the absolute fuckery of Boris Johnson and his pals and paymasters. Every day I feel less urge to reach for my phone each time an inane gag floats through my subconscious.
I think I’ll stay in the world of The Book for a bit longer. It’s a lot more fun than the real world right now and, despite the bizarre things going on in my imaginary world, a good deal safer.