I once saw a documentary about dog sledding in the Arctic. The show had (I think) three teams racing to the Pole using broadly the same kind of technology that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once used.
The Norwegian team won the race (obviously: they were Norwegian), but the TV show focused mostly on the exploits and struggles of the British team, all of whom were strong and committed - but who had no experience of the arctic. Or huskies. Or dog sleds. Or the arduous cross-country skiing involved. Or indeed, anything actually relevant to arctic travel.
I’m thinking about that documentary because (drum roll, cymbals, and your choice of other percussive instruments) I AM ONCE AGAIN WRITING A FIONA GRIFFITHS NOVEL.
I’ve been so busy with all things Jericho for the past year or two, I just haven’t written much. I’ve had a half-written novel on my laptop all this time and not had the time or clarity of thought to drive it forwards. But now I actually do. And I’m 50,000 words into a novel that’ll be about twice that length when cooked, which means …
I am about halfway towards the North Pole ...
Any map I once had has long ago been shredded by ice and wind …
I’ve no damn idea how long this journey is likely to take …
And I would quite like to go home, curl up in front of a log fire, and see how many crumpets I can eat.
The simple fact is that there is something unnerving about being a long way into a book but also a long way from that blessed THE END. Most first drafts just are a bit shite. That’s not an original observation, I recognise, but it is one that intrudes quite forcefully at about the 50,000 word mark.
As it happens, I’m free of a lot of standard author-angst. I know I put sentences together quite nicely. I know my characterisation works. If I write a scene that lacks colour, I know how to revive it swiftly and effectively. I know that I have the tools to identify and fix most problems.
In my head, I can’t help but compare this current draft to all the perfected drafts of previous novels that have now been published. And this book is, at the moment, just plain worse than all of them. Hurtling forwards into that arctic gloom seems like the only thing to do - but also a rather pointless one. It feels like a somewhat painful way of making a big dull thing instead of a small dull one.
So this is where we have to separate brain and instinct.
My instinct just says: “Go home. Eat crumpets.”
My brain says, “No, look, don’t you remember that you felt roughly this way with ALL your books? Or perhaps not every single one of them, but certainly most, and every single time you went on to fix the issues.”
And my brain’s right. I even know that my basic premise is fine. (Secure psychiatric hospital on the west coast of Wales. Stuffed full of veterans with Special Forces experience. Lots of shenanigans. Perfect for my character and my readership.) So really, I just need to bash out a draft, list the issues with that draft, then start fixing them.
And that’s right. That’s the right advice. That’s what I’m going to do.
Two plump little buts to offer you.
But the first.
The first but is simply that this midpoint anxiety often generates little flashes of insights. As I was worrying about my book, I realised that I hadn’t properly made characters of the key doctors at the hospital. But since the shenanigans needed to involve them, they had to feature properly in the early part of the book. And I need to do that in classic Agatha Christie style - where readers all suspect the irascible Italian, only to discover that the avuncular parrot-keeper is the baddie.
If I fix that issue in the book now, my first draft will be that little bit closer to target and, overall, I’ll save myself work.
If I had closed my mind to the worry, I wouldn’t have had that insight. My journey to the pole would have been longer and frozener that it needed to have been. So worry’s good. It’s creative.
But the second.
The second but is more vicious than the first. It’s a yawning crevasse camouflaged by the tiniest bridge of snow. And it’s this:
Sometimes you really are writing a terrible book. Sometimes, it’s not simply that your execution of the idea is standard first-draft bad, it’s that the idea itself is beyond saving.
This is where I have a layer of shelter not available to most of you. I know that I have a readership for another Fiona Griffiths tale. I know this idea basically works for this genre and this detective. I know that I have publishers contracted to take the book I’ll give them (as well as a larger audience that comes to me via self-publishing.)
But it’s not always like that. Not even for an author with a significant publishing history.
The fact is that most writers, most of the time, have to ask, “Is this just a hideous mistake?” Sometimes the answer is yes, in which case the solution isn’t simply more labour, it’s the hard decision to abort proceedings.
In that documentary I mentioned, the British team suffered with frostbite and wounds that needed antibiotics. But antibiotics hadn’t been available to Amundsen et al, so they weren’t available to the team.
Continue or give up?
It was a real question. As I remember it, one member of the team thought he could continue despite a nasty looking wound, and he was right. Another one - an international oarsman with a couple of Olympic golds - just took the view that his job was to continue marching, no matter what. Because his view was overly inflexible, he became detached from his team and would have been exceptionally vulnerable had he encountered a concealed crevasse, or picked up an ankle injury, or gone off route, or anything of that sort. He survived, but he might not have done. He made the wrong call.
I don’t know. I don’t know your book.
But I will say that you must have an idea that works. That’s why I get so loud about the importance of a strong elevator pitch. That’s why it’s important to bake that elevator pitch right into the very essence of the novel.
If you do that, if you have a powerful idea and your book truly delivers on that idea, you need to hurtle on to the Pole. Yes, you’ll have a draft with a whole frozen ocean of problems, but those things are fixable and you’ll get the job done.
But if your idea is unworkable, then abort, abort, abort. Throw away your wooden skis. Discard that pemmican. Find yourself a helicopter ride back to somewhere civilised. Get home, light a fire, eat crumpets, start again.
For me now, I’m confident in my idea. It really is just a word count challenge to complete the draft.
Mush, mush, my lovable husky friends. That thing there, through the murk? That’s the Pole, that is. Onwards!
But what about you, my fine parrot-keeping friends. How far are you towards your own Pole? What are your thoughts & feelings on the way And how do you get on with pemmican?