And vice versa.
I’m writing. Last week I had three full writing days. This is almost unheard of in my life for the past few years and a real boon, and I wrote just over 6000 words. This week I had a bit less time, was at the Edinburgh Book Festival (one of my very favourites, not least for the brilliant staff who hold it all together) all day Monday and had three gigs, then travelled back on Tuesday. I managed to write 500 words as well as answer a swathe of Fun Palaces emails on the train. On Wednesday I wrote just over 1000 words, and expect to do the same later today.
All good, right? Yes. Absolutely. And I know I’m procrastinating. What I have written is fine, it’s introducing characters, it’s introducing place, it’s finding a tone that I think will pervade the book. It has shown me a few surprises already, which is lovely, and it’s not – yet – getting to the meat of the story. So it’s really writing-as-procrastination, finding my way, feeling myself into the book, the characters, the place and the times in which is it set.
I know this is what I do. This is my 17th novel, I am very aware that in my first draft I over-write the beginning and under-write the ending. Beginnings are too slow, too much set-up, too much back-story, endings are too fast. And then, very single time, I edit out the excess at the beginning and re-create the ending for a better, more satisfyingly paced close. You might say “Why don’t you just write the beginning tighter and the ending better in the first place?” It turns out I can’t. Even when I think I have, when I come to edit, when I’m on my 3rd, 5th, 8th (yes, it’s happened) draft, I realise I didn’t. I realise there is more to do. Always more to do.
I think this is normal. I know it’s very common. And all too often it’s still in the published book – how often have you said to yourself, ‘this was a great book but it took ages to get going’? It’s also why I suggest new writers DON’T spend ages making their first three chapters perfect. 1. if anyone likes those first three chapters, they’re going to want to see the rest of the book anyway and 2. how can you possibly tell they’re right without at least finishing the first draft? How do you know if they’re weighted right before you’ve done the BULK of the book, before you’ve let the story* reveal itself?**
There are schools of thought on procrastination that say nothing but sitting down and getting the words on the page is writing, and others that say it’s all writing – swimming, running, yoga, vacuuming, tidying the bedroom, doing the washing, all of these are times when the work is growing itself inside of you. I’m somewhere in between. I have had not-actually-writing times when I’ve been aware that the story is growing in the back of mind or my gut or wherever it grows, but I also know that unless I get it on the page, I’m not doing the job.
Sometimes writing is also procrastination. It’s not the thing itself, but it is on the way. And actually writing is a very good procrastination indeed. (As long as you’re going to give it a good hard edit later!)
*I believe that story is not plot. Plot is what happens (which you might know all of before you start writing, some people do) – story is what’s really going on, what the book’s about, what is at its guts, what is beneath the words and action.
**I’ll probably get on to the esoteric things about story as I progress in this series of blogs. I try not to be mystical about it, because I really think that almost all of writing is simply doing the work, but I do have a sense that story sometimes has a will of its own. More later.