A couple of weeks ago I completed the first draft of my first novel. Everyone tells you writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint. After what I have been through over the past year I understand why.
The novel was part of the MA in Novel Writing which I have been completing at City, University of London. So it hasn’t been all about the book. There has also been workshops, lectures, tutorials and other assignments to complete, but it was the novel that nearly finished me off.
In the last three months I have visited my doctor more times than I have done in the past three years.
I am lucky I have a doctors’ surgery that is patient with patients and open at weekends. There was a particularly dark moment one Sunday morning. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. Gripping pain in my left arm, dizziness and palpitations. It turned out to be an anxiety attack.
‘But I don’t get stressed,’ I said to the doctor.
‘Do you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest?’ he calmly asked, unfolding the blood pressure cuff and unclipping the oxygen monitor from my finger.
‘Not so much an elephant,’ I said, although I did want to point out that if an elephant was sitting on my chest I probably wouldn’t be feeling anything, ‘Just a novel.’
I was physically manifesting symptoms of stress. The characters, structure and plot issues of my book had invaded my head and were causing anxiety attacks, night terrors and palpitations. Combine this with back pain and a frozen shoulder from sitting at a computer for hours at a time. I was a wreck.
I came out of the surgery with a handwritten five point check-list of what the warning signs of an actual heart attack are and a promise to my doctor that, if my book ever got published, I would send him a copy.
Writing a book – even the shaky first draft that is my book has been hard. It wasn’t made easier by having a full-time job. Finding the mental energy to be creative after eight hours in the office was a challenge. But it was often the intensive periods when I took leave from work to focus on the writing, that I really felt I was losing the plot and not just the one on the page.
After one such week, locked away on my own, writing eighteen hours a day with no other company than my fictional characters, a close friend became concerned about my rambling online messages. He decided to mount a rescue mission and turned up on my doorstep. There he discovered a deranged writer who hadn’t slept properly for six days.
He insisted on taking me out for dinner but only after I’d taken a shower, found some clean clothes and brushed my hair. After an hour in the restaurant, and once I’d re-engaged with verbal communication, I tried to explain to him the frustrations of it all.
‘It’s like banging your head against a wall,’ I said.
‘I had an image of you sitting on your terrace, wearing floaty dresses, sipping martinis, and typing away,’ he said.
I thought about the night before when I’d lain on the sofa, weeping, a pillow over my head, willing the neurons in my brain to come up with a solution to the crater sized plot hole I’d just discovered 60k into my book.
‘Not exactly,’ I said.
‘Then why are you doing it?’
He had a point. Why was I doing it? I couldn’t give him an answer.
In fact not until I typed the last word on the last page did I have an answer. Then I knew. I love stories, always have done, whatever form they come in, plays, films, books or day dreams. And to have my story unfold in 398 pages felt pretty special. Building up every agonising twist and turn of my plot, creating my characters and then colouring them in – the process might be hard but when it comes together it is magical.
So now what?
I have submitted my first draft as part of my degree. The manuscript is saggy and baggy like its author, but I am hoping we can both firm up in the second draft, and yes I am going back for more.
But in the meantime I am taking Stephen King’s advice in his book ‘On Writing’ – walk away from your first draft. In the UK, October is the month for pausing. Go Sober for October. Stoptober. For me it is going to be ‘Take a break from writing your book October’. I am going to use the time to rest, recuperate and get ready for round two.
I end with a short clip.
Often when I was writing, I would play this. It reminded me that as a writer, along with your protagonist, you have to keep pushing through those walls to get to the end.