On a good writing day, I write 2,000 words. When I’m working well, that’s fairly consistent. Whether it’s 1,800 or 2,500, I always seem to end up in the ballpark of 2,000. In terms of quantity alone, a month of 2,000 word days is a 60,000 word manuscript (which is the philosophy of NaNoWriMo, of course).
Obviously there’s an awful lot more to it than that – 2,000 a day doesn’t include all the back-peddling, redrafting, tea, editing, notes, research, cursing, blogging (!), procrastination and rewriting – and it doesn’t include the bad days, when it’s a struggle to carve out 400 words. I have plenty of bad days as well, especially at the start of a new project, when I’m still feeling out my way, finding the right path. For context, I don’t believe that the key to good writing is simply writing and writing and writing until something mystic clicks and the good stuff comes pouring out – check out J. Robert Lennon’s ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’.
When I started writing The Visitors, it was completely plotted out. There were about thirty chapters, and each chapter had a paragraph, or maybe just a line, detailing what would happen. That plan became redundant within weeks, if not days. By the time I was even a quarter of the way through, my chief antagonist had switched to someone completely new, and the plot expanded hugely – the final draft has around sixty chapters. But the biggest changes lay in how the characters escaped me. As I wrote them – as I spent more time with them, and came to know them better – I realised they were evolving. They were doing things I hadn’t expected, but those things became inevitable and essential as their personalities developed. Their autonomy dictated their story. Once that happened, and they were set upon a path of their own making, the manuscript generated a momentum that I could not control. In the final two or three months, I’d regularly write 4,000 or 5,000 words in a session. On the last day of writing, I wrote 11,000 words in 14 hours. That surge, that flow, was intoxicating. I drowned in my characters, drowned in the island I’d created. The story became a gyre, and I was tumbled in the centre.
I’m now about 16,000 words into The Hollows. On each of my last four writing sessions, I’ve cut around 1,000 words, and written around new 1,000 words. The overall count isn’t changing much, but I think I’m making progress. I’ve learned a number of things along the way, about writing, and about myself. Because I had to go through such an excruciating redraft with The Visitors, I originally tried to plot out The Hollows as tightly as I could. Each chapter had multiple paragraphs and notes, with detailed ideas about the how the story would unfold. It was comprehensive. I was decided: this time round, the novel was going to write itself.
I should have known better. I raced off to a strong start, writing the first 10,000 words in three days. Then I applied to the Northern Writers’ Awards for funding towards a research trip. As part of the application, I had to include a synopsis of The Hollows. Seeing the plot condensed into a single page, I realised at once that the story was too tight. It had no room to breathe – I’d strangled it with structure. It was far too dense. I ditched all my planning and rewrote the synopsis for the purest story I wanted to tell – about a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them – and sent it off. I haven’t heard back yet, but regardless of how my application turns out, the process of writing a new synopsis was revelatory, and for that alone I’m grateful.
I want to start The Hollows right. Unravelling some of my first draft has been heavy going, but it’s important to me to know I’m on a better path. I’m getting there. I’m starting to meet my characters. I’d forgotten that I didn’t always know Flora, and Izzy, and Ailsa, and John – it took time to find out who they were. I’d forgotten, in the dizzying exhilaration of finishing The Visitors, that it wasn’t always so easy to write. The flow comes only after all the hard graft has been done.
On Friday, I finished my novella The Year of the Whale. That’s been five years in the making, including sessions when I’d struggle to chip away at 200 rotten words. But on Thursday, the day before my deadline, I soared through 5,000 words with joy in my heart. That was the flow, and I’d forgotten how it felt. I’d forgotten that I could feel so engrossed in my stories – that I could drown. That’s where I want to get to with The Hollows. That’s how I want to finish, whether it’s in six months or one year or two years’ time. But I know, now, that all the graft comes first.
My friend Ali Shaw believes you can’t know if a novel will go all the way until you hit 20,000 words. Author Matt Haig feels the same, but his mark is 40,000. Word counts only matter for the person counting. Like climbing grades, they measure nothing but an individual’s own sense of progress. They are a poor measure, perhaps, but they are all I have to mark my way: yan, tan, tethera.
The Hollows has been stuck on 16,000 words for weeks, despite long, hard days of work. I haven’t enjoyed that. I crave that sense of flow, when everything makes perfect sense. When I had that moment in The Visitors, I described it as a ‘glittering open highway’. I suspect I’m still a long way off reaching that highway in The Hollows, but it has truly settled me, on completing The Year of the Whale, to remember that the flow comes from the writing – not from the writer. From the story, and not the storyteller. For all the times I beat myself up about not working hard enough, not writing fast enough, not doing more – finishing that novella has been a gift. It has helped me remember why I write. I write to drown. To drown, I need the gyre. To make the gyre, first I have to fill an ocean.