Justina Hart author editing December 2016

Diary: Noodling on novelling Week 4

Last year I realised I needed to rewrite my novel from scratch again – all 140,000 words of it – before I’d be happy sending it to agents. I’m not a natural completer-finisher, so concluding a very long project is a journey through darkness into (hopefully) light. This is me noodling after each novelling session about how it went.

5-11 December 2016

Wednesday 7 December (writing time: 10.30-13.00, words edited: 0, words rewritten: 0)

The smart alecs among you will realise there’s been a gap of five weeks between ‘Week 3’ in this blog and ‘Week 4’. I took this time out to complete in my allocated writing slots (I don’t do this full-time, you know), a commission to write a sequence of poems for a project called Weatherfronts. It’s an Arts Council-funded project about climate change, and the commissioning partners are The Free Word Centre in London, arts and climate change charity Tipping Point, and Durham University.

Not only have I thoroughly enjoyed the project, but it’s been a welcome break from my novel – a taste of how fired up my imagination can be when researching a new project – oh for a new project (laughs hysterically). I’ve been deep diving into the southern North Sea to write about our Mesolithic ancestors who lived there 9,500 to 9,000 years ago, and I don’t want to come home.

After a day’s break yesterday to have a ‘weekend’ between submitting the poems at 9.30pm this Monday, I took a deep breath and opened up my novel file in Scrivener (my working title for the book is Crossing the Bar). Surprisingly, I’d lost the plot – not literally, thank goodness – but I could barely remember what was going on in my book. I looked back over the summaries of my chapter summaries to get the lie of the land. ‘That’s good – Who thought of that?’ kept flashing through my head. It may only be me it inspires, but it’s a good sign if you’re on the edge of your seat about what happens next in your own book. It was as though someone else had created it. I’m sure that feeling will soon pall once I’m in it again.

Neither could I remember which chapter I’d reached, but I did some sleuth work using my ‘novel schedule spreadsheet’. Then I skim-read a couple of chapters nearing the point where I’d temporarily abandoned the rewrite: some were much better than others: plus ça change. There was a panicky moment when I thought I’d made my job now doubly awful by leaving myself in the lurch to rewrite the huge climax scene of the book where all the strands of the main plot come together. But I’d edited that one, phew. Turns out I couldn’t have left off at a better place.

Where I’m at is with just one chapter to go before I finish this whole climactic / main plot section of the book, then there are nine more chapters to do and that’s this epic rewrite done. Two of these I intend to cut because they’re naff and belong to an earlier incarnation of the book, which leaves a total of seven. If I get my head down and with a fair wind and if I take just Christmas and Boxing Day off, I could still just about finish my ginormous rewrite by the end of the year.

Are you with me? Please fashion a cuddly good luck gonk, tip me a fiver to ease stress about my pre-Christmas overdraft, send positive vibes, or reply to this post.

Thursday 8 December (writing time: 10.40-12.40, words edited: various (didn’t count), words rewritten: 304)

Today I dived in and started rewriting a chapter, and like a diver (or long jumper? No Christmas cracker jokes please), I needed a good run up. To soak facts and feelings into me, I read back through preceding scenes, tinkering with them as I went. Happily, I’d already annotated this chapter on paper but went over it again, covering the A4 printed typed sheets with red scrawl and yellow highlighter (I don’t use standard proofing marks but signs and what can only be described as hieroglyphics of my own devising).

It took about an hour to settle to the task at all. There are so many distractions this side of Christmas and I kept remembering things not to forget to do (get nieces’ Christmas presents before they fly out to Cuba next Thursday – lucky things; text so-and-so back about train fares for this Saturday’s singing class …).

As I got down to it, I remembered how much stamina and energy I need for this book, and how I build that with practise, like going to the gym. So of course there’s a general gearing up to full stamina after a break. I had to pause before a difficult passage and ask my brain to some the hard work. Like most people, I’m also in need of a holiday right now and my brain is tired. No, I can’t have the phrase ‘rinse into air’, it doesn’t make sense. You can only rinse things with water. It’s bloody hard work ironing the niggles out of the washing up of my prose (that is a mixed metaphor joke by the way).

This is a very poetical chapter which represents a shift in the book to a lighter, summery tone and to a sense of freedom. So I enjoyed coming to this after writing and reading poetry. My faculties have been sharpened by the need to make every single word count. In poetry it’s often the case that the fewer the words I write (or end up with), the better. While doing the Weatherfronts commission, I laughed in the face of people churning out their 50,000 NaNoWrimo words and talking about quantity of word count. One thousand words or less: now that’s a real achievement.

Friday 9 December (writing time: 10.50-13.30, words edited: 212, words rewritten: 993)

A lovely writing session. I finished rewriting the chapter I started yesterday. After doing all the gearing up yesterday and getting a better night’s sleep last night, I was really into it today. It wasn’t easy but I didn’t have to keep pausing before asking my brain to really cogitate when I hit a difficult passage.

This scene/chapter is quite numinous, that is, it focuses on landscape and weather as touched by magic. Descriptive writing is a strength. So I allowed myself to be transported into the scene and felt myself there. I can’t always make that leap but when I do, I hope it shows in the writing. I don’t want to lose what I’ve done today so I’ll back it up now.

I’ve reached the point in the book where my characters finally seize the golden chalice/golden elixir. They don’t get an actual chalice or elixir, but this is how Joseph Campbell describes it in The Hero’s Journey (here’s an excellent summary by Christopher Vogler). Now they have to return to the ordinary world with their prize, both altered by the quest and retaining what they have learnt and ‘bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.’. It’s an art at this point not to be didactic about the messages in the book and I don’t know until I read through whether I’ve been too subtle or not. I want them to shout them from the rooftops but can’t.

Hurrah, I’ve finished my 13 ‘climax chapters’ (oo er) which I started in September before all that time out for travelling to do book festival readings in October. I’m on the homeward stretch. Still a lot of the story to wrap up though. Feeling excited and not displeased with today.

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