I had an exciting development this week.
I know this blog has been deathly quiet but that’s because I have been intent on writing a manuscript.
And this week, I took three days away from my day job at Media Giants to really concentrate on the final stages of creating ‘Let It Slide‘, my working title for the Roll With It sequel.
In a landmark moment, on Wednesday, I moved everything into a master document. Actually, I feel like that needs to be A Master Document. (With an ominous musical sting).
This doesn’t sound like much of a thing, but it is. I always mentally acknowledge this moment as the equivalent of tackling the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. If you don’t know what that is, just look up, more than eight kilometres into the air. Apparently if you’re crazy enough to get that high on Mount Everest, you’ll be nearing the summit and confronted by one last, sheer rock wall just before the top. It’s named for New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary who, with Tenzing Norgay, was the first to officially summit Everest. The Step is the fearsome final hurdle before you get to stroll to the summit and take future Instagram showstoppers from the roof of the world.
I’ve often used the tortured and over-worked analogy that every time I set out to write a novel it’s like climbing Everest. Cliche or not, this truth stands, for me. It has the same epic feel, the sheer impossibility of the task when you start. Which of course is part of the fun of it, and the adventure. But it has the potential to go horribly horribly wrong, even if it’s probably not as life-threatening as something going wrong up the top of the actual Everest.
The fact is that every time I start out on a manuscript first draft, I don’t know if I will finish; if I can reach this summit. ‘Let it Slide‘ will be my sixth completed and published book, if it gets published. But there have been other attempts where the mountain beat me before I could finish the job. My computers and files are home to the potential books that I lost my way in, or couldn’t solve problems in the plot, or lost interest in (which means the reader would too) or have been forced to put aside until I have a lightbulb moment that leads to progress. This can sometimes take years – witness 20 years off-and-on completing Roll With It. I have at least five young adult or adult projects that are currently in that limbo, and may be forever.
So I don’t take the challenge of starting a new book or script lightly, ever.
I was reading recently that they’re considering installing ladders on the real Hillary Step because, you know, with the hundreds of rich westerners now paying to get an easier trip up the mountain every year, Everest guides think it would be better just to get rid of that pesky Step challenge. It might make it easier to cart the raw materials to the Starbucks on the summit as well, I guess, if things keep going that way.
Unfortunately, in novel writing, there are no ladders over this part of the project. Not even a hand up from a fellow climber. This is a part of the mountain that a novelist faces alone.
So what am I on about? It actually sounds simple, but it isn’t. I’ve approached the act of writing from many directions over the years and I guess my techniques have matured and evolved. I don’t necessarily write in a linear fashion any more (start at page one, then page two …) and I have become more thorough in sketching the plot and the characters, setting landmarks in the story, before I even attempt to write a word. Writing crime fiction has made this much more so, as I can’t necessarily help rescue Tony Laver by having Zucchini Spacestation pull something magical out of his bottomless jacket pockets. Crime readers seem to need something slightly more feasible than Frongle magic to solve a crime. I’m not saying I like this rule, but I respect it.
For this book, I’ve been using a writing program called Scrivener, ahead of a Word document. But I also write scenes or thoughts or character traits or entire sequences in Word, or Evernote, or my phone’s Note function, or the trusty Moleskine notebook that continues to be lugged everywhere with me at all times (except when playing ice hockey or scuba diving), or on a scrap of whatever paper is handy, if all else fails
Scrivener is cool because it’s sort of designed to write movies, not novels. You create scenes and put a title on each scene.
So I can create a chapter, and then a scene, say: ‘Laver meets a lawyer’. And basically set out the entire spine and flow of the book. Then tinker with that order.
Usually on the actual page of that scene, I’ll write a couple of sentences: ‘This is where Rocket speaks to the lawyer about … don’t forget to add that piece of important info re…‘
Once this is all in place, I contemplate it for a while. Look for holes in the plot. Think about which characters have been missing for a lot of scenes, and how I can make sure we stay in touch with them. Most of these issues will shake out as I write, because it’s natural for characters to emerge and fade back into the story at different times, but I like the helicopter view Scrivener has given me.
But the thing is, as my first attempt using this program, at some point I needed to bring the whole thing together into an actual manuscript, not just a collection of scenes. The book has mutated a lot, with four or five scenes added to some titled scenes, which is also standard for me, so that ‘Laver meets lawyer’ might actually now also include a body found, a romantic interlude, a new character being introduced, and so on.
But at some point, it all needed to come together. And on Wednesday, I hit ‘select all‘.
And there it is: the entire mountain revealed for the first time as a whole. A 100,000 word jigsaw that now needs to be negotiated to reach the summit.
This is where I have to try and hold the complete novel in my head for the first time in a lot of respects. There’s no more ‘I might have already mentioned that, but I’ll pick it up later.’ Or ‘I haven’t really fleshed out that minor character but I can later’.
Now is later.
So, as I break from that task to write this, my brain feels overwhelmed. I’m terrified that characters are cliches or superficial, that plot points don’t work, that the flow of the novel is wrong, that scenes are overwritten, or underwritten, that I have written the same concepts five different ways without realising it in the draft … and so on. Most of all, at this stage, I fear that the book simply isn’t very good; that I will somehow manage to complete my task and summit, only to discover that it’s not even a very impressive mountain I’ve created.
But screw self-doubt. It’s not useful at this point. For now, it’s hands to the pickaxe. Just me and the mountain. The wind is horizontal and right into my eyes and I’m tired and don’t know if I have the strength to get over that sheer vertical rock face, without any ladders to help. But you know what? I also know, having done this five times, that the summit is right there, just over this challenge.
In other words, I’m pushed to my limits and having fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Next time I write, I’ll be showing off photos from the summit.
Note: the pic at the top of this post, of the Hillary Step, is for sale, for charity, I believe. Click here.