If you follow me on Twitter, or follow this blog, you may have seen over the last couple of weeks that I FINALLY finished the first draft of my first novel. I say “FINALLY” because in total it took me about 12 years to complete. Rather than just share my excitement at its completion, I also wanted to share why it took so long.
As a writer it is easy to be hard on yourself and to be intimidated by the successes of other writers when you see their books spring onto the shelves as if they came into the world ready formed and perfect. It is important that we don’t isolate ourselves from fellow writers (or anyone else, for that matter) as these insecurities bubble up. This is why I think it is so important for us writers to share all of our experiences – the struggles as well as the triumphs – to connect with and to encourage others in their writing journeys.
So this is my writing journey so far.
The Early Years
I have wanted to write novels since the age of about 13 when I caught the bug by imagining my own version of the last Harry Potter book while waiting for Book 5 to hit the shelves. Thus began my Fanfiction-soaked teen years (NB: my fanfiction work always aimed to remain close to canon and mainly centred around Stargate SG-1). As much as I loved writing fanfiction, I knew I wanted to develop my own ideas – my characters, my worlds – and soon started to come up with my own stories, but didn’t really know what to do with them.
Then came University.
In 2004, I started at Trinity College, Carmarthen, studying Creative Writing with English Literature, and graduated in 2007 with a 2:1 BA Honours Degree (that roughly equates to an A Grade in old money). It was around this time that I had the initial idea for what would become my first novel: The Green Stone In The Fire.
The Initial Idea
The Green Stone In The Fire is a Fantasy Adventure story. It centres around three characters – Simon, Aurelia, and Runcorn – all of whom come from different worlds. Runcorn is a gunslinger from the Requiem Valley and is tracking down the Outlaw who murdered his best friend and his lover. Aurelia is a young woman fleeing years of captivity in a foreign kingdom. She makes her way across the desert between Dunfinn and her home in Eruwall, only to become trapped in the mysterious castle, Idris, at the centre of the desert. Simon is a writer from London who is coming to terms with the sudden death of his twin brother. While he is on holiday with friends in the Utah desert, he, Aurelia, and Runcorn start crossing paths, pulling all of them into an adventure beyond any of their control.
That is what the story looks like these days, but the initial idea was actually very different.
In its first incarnation, the story began with Aurelia as she ended up in Idris and then worked tirelessly to find her way out. In that version, it would have been several chapters before the reader realised that she was a story within the story, and that Simon was writing her saga, and (eventually) he would run up against writer’s block before being sucked into the action himself.
It took me quite a while to work out that it wasn’t really working and that it was missing something. That something turned out to be Runcorn. I discovered him after watching a lot of Clint Eastwood Westerns back-to-back over the course of a week or so and then sitting down to write a short story about a cowboy in a bar fight, only to have Aurelia creep into the background at the end. This intrigued me, and so the three-corded story that I described above started to take shape.
The Dry Patch
Of course, when I put it like that, it makes the whole initial-idea stage seem quite smooth and organic.
I happened very slowly over the span of a few years, and in reality I wasn’t focused solely on writing straight after graduating from University. I had to take a little time to sort out trivial and annoying things. You know, like getting a job, paying my rent and bills, worrying if I had enough money for a decent meal, or whether it would be beans on toast again. I won’t go into my full CV, but the first few years after Uni were not the easiest, as I adjusted to being a full adult (not a pretend one I had been while I was a student).
All the while, this idea (and others) were pushed to the back of my mind, and other things took its place, including helping to run a Church Youth Group.
The Vocation Exploration
In 2013, I moved back to Newcastle, having been in Carmarthen for nine years in total. Towards the end of my time in Carmarthen, I had started to explore my possible vocation as a Church Leader. My Christian faith is a very important part of my life and, through my time as a Youth Leader, a music-based worship leader, and an occasional service leader and preacher, I had started considering going into full-time Church Leadership.
All the while, my writing was on the back burner; and all the while I kept thinking, ‘It’s OK. When I’m a Vicar, I’ll have more time to write.’
By this point, I had maybe 20-30,000 words of my book very roughly drafted.
About a year after getting settled back into life in Newcastle, I dived head-long into the Church of England selection process – a very long and probing process that makes you dig deep into your own faith and answer questions on every aspect of your life, with the purpose of discerning if you are the right candidate to go forward for ordination training. For me, the selection process took about 18 months.
In June 2016, after many months of soul searching (literally), several rounds of interviews, and a few months on placement with another church, I was ready for the last stage of the selection process: The Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP).
BAP takes place over two days and consists of more interviews, an exam, a presentation, and a written exercise. In short, it is an extremely intense couple of days where you get to meet other potential candidates and find out what has brought them to this point as well.
After BAP, you wait nervously for a week to get a phone call to let you know if you are going forward for training, or not.
My call came. The answer was no (well, more of a not yet, than a no, but still, not what I had been wanting to hear) and I was devastated.
I remember vividly sitting in my room after that phone call wondering what on earth I was going to do next.
The Next Step
Fortunately for me, the answer came quickly, and consisted of two words:
It was at this point, nine years after graduating with that 2:1 BA Hons. in Creative Writing with English, that I finally committed to writing my novel. I still had (and still do have) a full-time job to balance it with, but my feeling was that it was now or never. Writing wasn’t something that I was going to do in the odd spare hour I had here and there. It wasn’t something I would get around to while I was ‘doing life’ in every other way. I wanted writing to BE my life.
In July 2016, I started this blog and website as my online platform to accompany what I hoped would become my budding writing career. I also looked through the various story ideas I had, and chose to focus on drafting The Green Stone In The Fire as my first full novel project. I set out a chapter-by-chapter plan for how I saw the book going and worked out where in the story the bits I had already written would go. I then started writing from the beginning of the book, incorporating the existing scenes and chapters as I went.
I also took some time to analyse my own writing process (hence the entries in Turning Ideas Into Words on this site) to get a better understanding of what I was doing and why. The more I did that, the more I wished I had done each step BEFORE I had started writing Green Stone. But that is the beauty (and the curse) of a first novel. In effect, it teaches you how NOT to write a novel, so that you can then do it differently (and hopefully better) the next time around.
The NaNoWriMo Experience
NaNoWriMo proved to be a big turning point for me. I had initially wanted to take part in 2016, but events conspired against me (click here for more on that), and I ended up putting it off until 2017 instead. And it was an eye opener!
Before NaNoWriMo, I used to write and re-write chapters until I was 100% satisfied, before moving on to the next bit. In working like this, it would often take me a month or so to get just 5,000 words down on paper.
This made the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days all the more daunting to me. It meant that I would have to write quickly and then not look back. AT ALL. The onus of NaNoWriMo is to keep going, to let creativity take the lead and shut out whatever insecurities you have with your first draft.
I was over the moon when I hit my 50,000-word target on 29th November 2017 (yes, a day early!)
I was also exhausted and was in bed fast asleep by 8:00pm on Friday 1st December.
The Last Two Years
So that nearly brings us up to date. NaNoWriMo had set me on the home straight (albeit a two-year long home straight).
I realised at some point over the last 18 months or so that Green Stone wasn’t really working. I tried to keep pushing on, to get through whatever barrier was holding me back, but what I really needed to do was take a step back from it and realise that one particular aspect of the story as a whole (Simon) was not properly developed and therefore couldn’t be fully realised on the page (again, click here to read about my breakthrough on that score).
As soon as I went back and re-wrote Simon’s storyline, the whole thing flowed so much better. Simon became part of the story, and not just someone sat on the side-lines waiting for his turn to bat.
It was the last lesson I needed to learn to get my first draft finished.
And there you have it, my journey so far.
The one thing I haven’t really talked about here is the discipline aspect of writing. This is something I have talked about a lot in my earlier post, Creative Discipline, and is an ongoing struggle – the fact that as a writer I have to be self-motivated to sit down to write; that I have to set aside time and stick to it in order to get through to the end of a story.
Of course, I know now just how rewarding it is to get to ‘The End’. My main hope now is that it doesn’t take me another 12 years to write my next book!