For something like five years I've been writing the next book in the Grimhilderness series. I've put it away, taken it out again, abandoned it, rescued it, and so on. I've had long stretches when I did nothing at all on it.
It hasn't helped that my usual collaborator didn't like the basic idea of the book from the start, and consequently I haven't had her ideas and editorial overview for the first time since we worked together on Grimhilda! (the musical version) back in 2010-12. I'm having to do it all on my own.
This has had its challenges, but has also allowed to me to change my mind about the direction and shape and point of view more than once. And find the best way of telling the story.
In spite of that I had decided to give up on the project altogether last year. Sheer discouragement with what seemed to be a blank wall, and the lack of support meant I was having to find all the motivation myself.
And then something made me drag the well and truly unfinished draft out again. It was a kind of annoyance that I'd done so much work on it and it still couldn't be brought to birth. It was a sense that I had to trust my own instincts on this one and do it anyway, even if my usual collaborator didn't like the idea. In the more distant past I'd written a good deal of at least three novels and never completed them for one reason or another, and I felt I didn't want another 'dead' one in my life.
Plus, I now have a stage musical (script and music) and four books under my belt. There was no need to regard myself as a writer who couldn't finish work. I knew I could. So, I re-read through the draft again, made more notes, did a kind of summary of each chapter and who's in it and where it takes place and much more, re-read the various outline notes I'd made to help me see where things were heading, and how I needed to bring those about. I wrote several new chapters. (This is another kids' book, so the chapters aren't long - usually around 1600-1800 words - but this is still an achievement.)
In spite of all this I had to keep on fighting to move forward, and still have to. I look at these new chapters and think how thin and unexciting they are. But they're merely the first draft in each case. I need to remember that the first time I tried to write the scene for Grimhilda! (the musical version) in which the toys had discussions about sending Toby off to get his parents, it was pretty awful. But two characters appeared who hadn't turned up before, and with them, and the rest of the material, it was the starting point for what was eventually an excellent scene in the show.
My habit is to tidy up new chapters as I go along. It's helpful to get me up and running for the next day's writing. These somewhat skeletal chapters will come right in subsequent sortings-out. I've now finished the first draft, and I know how it all comes out. It's now a matter of going back and building these skinny chapters up, not just to make them interesting, but to make them fit the whole scheme of things. It’s difficult to create much suspense when you’re not yet sure how the next stage of the book, or even the climax, will work. But once you've made your way through once, you can see the lack of tension more easily - and fix it.
Many chapters written for the previous book, The Disenchanted Wizard, got dumped completely. It’s the way I work (and I suspect a lot of writers work in a similar way) and it means that ultimately I get to the right way of telling the story. And to a book that has life. But it isn't speedy...!
I'd love to be able to sit down and write an outline without much previous thought, as some writers claim they do. And then I think of P G Wodehouse and how as he grew older he wrote longer and longer 'outlines' for his books - up to 400 pages in some cases. I can't start a book from nothing -Wodehouse could in his early days, but to keep the quality up he found he had to think the more complex plots through much more thoroughly.
I have to get to know who the characters are, what sort of things they say and do, where the story takes place and what happens in it. And a lot of that is only discoverable by writing a draft. Just making notes doesn't cut it. Certainly there are an increasing number of notes as time goes on, and the amount of material written for the current book will exceed the final length of the book by thousands of words. Already there are two bunches of chapters that were dumped early on in the process, because they were right when the book was going in one direction, but no use when characters developed and changed and the person whom the story was really about became clear.
Perseverance and determination. Nick Arvin, the author of Mad Boy, wrote in a tweet late last year: Writing a novel is like mowing a lawn with dull scissors while blindfolded and guided by the whispered promptings of a drunken Keebler* elf. That's probably close enough to the truth.
* Keebler is a biscuit (cookie) company in the US. The elves have been a part of their TV advertising for decades.