The blog has been silent for a while now. This is partly due to several weeks of very low mood, partly due to having a lot of work to do, and partly due to the fact July was Camp NaNo and I’ve been working on Death Becomes Me. I have been feeling utterly exhausted and generally run down for some time, and today discovered this was due to having a bacterial infection, a viral infection, and a trapped nerve in my right arm. I’m right handed. These are all unrelated, and symptomatic of my general broken state.
I haven’t been keeping a daily blog of my NaNo efforts, as I’ve been too busy to do this on top of everything else – any time spent blogging was time not spent on my novel. Not a trade I was willing to make. My target word count for Camp was 30K. I’m sad to report I didn’t reach this (final count was 16.5K), however there were some fairly major revelations during the course of the month.
The first of these drove home to me a quote which I have always known to be true. The extent of this truth, however, has never been so clear to me as it is now. Terry Pratchett once said that ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. I have always known this to be true, for the first draft of anything is you getting down what happens. The essentials. The basics. In my case I generally write an awful lot more than is needed. I end up cutting vast swathes of it in editing, and totally re-writing the rest. First drafts are not for perfect, elegant prose. They are for nuts and bolts and figuring out what the various parts of the story are. They are not, I have found, even for figuring out what order things go in. Order comes later.
First drafts are inevitably going to be a jumbled mass of nonsense that barely makes sense. There will be so many plot holes you’ll wonder how the thing is actually being held together. It will require a lot more in terms of development, and it just barely passes in terms of being literate.
I know this. I have known this for many, many years.
What I hadn’t realised until this last month is that first drafts are also for truly finding the story, because I think at heart, when I sit down to write something I always know what’s going to happen, or at least think I do.
Death Becomes Me is a book I’ve been thinking about for around six years. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of it here and there for just as long. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what happened in the third quarter, and I couldn’t figure out what the thread of the book was. By that I mean, what connected the beginning, to the middle, to the end, and held all the points between running seamlessly from point to point to point, in order to form a cohesive whole, rather than a mish mash of bits. I always knew what was going down in the first half, and the end. It was clear in my head.
I knew exactly where the book started.
I knew exactly where the book ended.
I knew the story by heart, for it was a story very close to my heart.
But over the course of this last month, as I have worked feverishly on this novel of mine, I have realised several things:
- The book doesn’t begin where I thought it did. It begins about seven years prior to that.
- There is only room in this book for one flashback chapter, the most important chapter in the main character’s life. To include more of her story in this fashion would not only diminish the importance and devastation of this huge event, but it would also be a bloody annoying read. Seven years of backstory? Unless you happen to be writing The Time Traveller’s Wife, skipping back and forth in time constantly gets very tedious, very quickly. I utilised flashbacks in Chasing Azrael, but only to retell the events of one specific night. They were brief, giving a quick flash of events at relevant points in the narrative. I felt it worked very well, but I do not way to repeat this pattern in DBM. It is a very different book, and has a LOT more backstory to tell.
- Finally, I realised that I didn’t know the story half as well as I thought I did. I originally thought it was a love story. A warped, fucked up, twisted love story, because lets face it, anything I write is bound to go that way, but a love story none the less. I thought the story was about this girl and this guy and everything that happened between them. Damn was I wrong about that. The story has nothing to do with the guy, the guy is incidental. The story is about the girl, her life, her feelings, her reactions. In short, it is about everything that happens to a person when something fucks them up far too young.
A while ago I was musing on the character of Evelyn Dempsey and wondering where the hell she’d come from. I had started DBM with a rough idea of exploring a particular relationship from my past and the profound impact it had upon me. As such it seemed natural to me that the book be about that relationship. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to make it about anything else. Over the course of writing it, however, which I must say I have found to be an agonising process, I have discovered many things. First and foremost, my view of that particular relationship has changed drastically in the last year as a result of finally getting some one-to-one therapy to treat my Bipolar Disorder.
A relationship which, at one point, seemed to me to be the most important thing in the world, now seems incidental. A love I had once through to be great beyond measure, to supersede all else in my life, to be so great that the loss of it had killed me in spirit if not in fact, suddenly became pale.
The person I was with was not who I had always imagined him to be. My feelings concerning him, and everything that happened while I was with him, were far more complex than a simple teenage love affair.
It wasn’t about him.
It was about me.
This was a fairly major revelation, one which has left me exhausted and drained but oddly hopeful. The knock-on effect however was that during camp I approached DBM with a different perspective, and realised that Evelyn’s great love is not the point of her story. It’s not the heart of her story. It is a result of her story, a side effect, the end point of a much longer and far more profound journey.
The novel is not about teenage romance. Even had the relationship remained the focal point of the novel, it would never have been a conventional romance due to the way in which it is structured, and the fact that the object of Evelyn’s affections was barely in it. This really should have told me everything I needed to know from the start. I was writing a love story in which one of the main parties was conspicuously absent. There was a reason for that.
It wasn’t his story.
It was Evelyn’s.
And Evelyn’s story is far from being one about love – although there is a great deal of love within it. At its heart, Evelyn’s story is one of abuse: abusive things done to her, by her, for her, and to herself.
Once I figured that out, everything made a lot more sense. The whole thing came together in a way I had never foreseen and there, suddenly, was my thread, the thing connecting all the dots. There too was the section I had been missing, the part I had been unable to figure out, but it wasn’t the third quarter of the novel, it was the first part, it was the beginning, it was the seven years I had been planning to miss out and only allude to, because I didn’t think the book was about those seven years. I thought it was a love story.
Honestly I should have known better. I’m far too cynical to ever write a love story.
And so July passed, with each day spent writing or working on these new found discoveries. I came far short of my 30K goal for Camp NaNo, but I feel I’ve achieved far more than I could have done by simply churning out words.
Words do not a novel make.
To craft a novel, you must carve out your own heart. Then you must take the bloody knife, and turn it on your characters.