By anyone’s estimation I write a lot and I write fast. I’m proud of this, and I became especially so after hearing a lot of people commenting on the fact. Over time however, I started to believe this weird internal narrative that I was only worthwhile if I wrote at least a thousand words every single day. If I failed to do so, I was somehow letting myself down, putting paid to the perception of how amazingly prolific I was. The blank page became increasingly worrying, an indication that I was a fraud, that maybe I wasn’t as overflowing with good ideas as I wanted the world to think I was. If I went a few days without writing, well, that was a bad sign.
There were other factors in this clearly stupid degree of self-expectation. Namely that I’m always happiest and most fulfilled when I’m working on some kind of story. It follows that if I’m always writing, I’ll always be happy, right?
That happiness comes only partly from the satisfaction of having written a large amount. In reality, it’s predominantly the thrill of working on something that excites you, something that you can’t stop thinking about, that you’re so keen to share with the world when it finally starts to look ready. And for a story to achieve that quality, to be the kind of thing that fixates and energises you, it needs time to be discovered.
Earlier this year I went through a stretch of not doing very much writing. So I did this dumb thing that I’ve done several times before and has never once worked; I started writing something that I had no clear conception of. I well and truly know by now how my process works, but at least once a year some stupid little voice in my brain says ‘hey why don’t we do things differently’ and so instead of spending time thinking about a story until I can actually feel it, I put fingers to keyboard, write about two or three thousand words of directionless waffle, and inevitably give up. Because hey, writing something is better than that blank page, right?
The story in question was Madison’s Masterpiece, my idea for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher that takes the perspective of a supporting character from the other book and makes her the centre of her own story. In this case, I knew enough about what I saw the book being to write 20,000 words. Which is far from nothing! Maybe, I thought, this time the change in process will actually work.
Then I read over what I had written. Or at least, I tried.
For context, writing Nelson and the Gallagher was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an author and it’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever written. It’s a deeply personal work of semi-autobiographical YA fiction that I’m so proud of, a feeling that only grew when HarperCollins picked it up for publication. I strongly feel that Nelson is very close to what I wanted it to be – a funny, wistful coming of age story about empathy and self-discovery. Note that key phrase – what I wanted it to be. I had at least a vague vision for the book before I started writing.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece. In stark contrast, what I had written was not funny, not charming, not interesting; an ultimately pointless piece of writing. It wasn’t trying to say or be anything. It existed because I wanted to write something, not because I had something to write. I couldn’t even finish reading over the material I had.
With Nelson being signed for a two-book deal, I do need a follow up. But I started to think maybe Masterpiece wasn’t the right idea. I didn’t scrap it, but I put it on the backburner and began to toy with some of the other ideas I’d had that had ultimately fizzled out, concepts for more traditional sequels that followed Nelson in further semi-autobiographical exploits. None of them grabbed me. I didn’t want to write a series of fictionalised events from my own life (I did enough of that as a teenager). I wanted to use Nelson’s story as a platform for a series of novels set in a county high school that each take on a different character’s perspective. Basically, I wanted to write the YA version of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.
Day after day I’d go for walks and let the different sequel concepts cycle through my head. And always, Madison’s Masterpiece floated to the top. There was something there, I just hadn’t let myself find it before I started writing. I knew what the plot of the story was. I even knew some of the themes. What I didn’t know was the soul of the thing.
So, coming home to Mansfield for Christmas, I decided to focus on Madison’s Masterpiece. But not to write – to think. To go for long walks past the locations that inspired parts of the story and let it all play out in my head, to consider characters and ideas and plot points then see if, through it all, something clear would emerge. Something that would give me a foundation to work from, that would make me love writing this as much as I loved its predecessor.
I don’t believe you can create a story from scratch. There has to be something there to start from; an emotion, a thought, an idea that you’re itching to explore. So I went over the moments that always popped into my head when I thought about the book, the scenes I could see with at least some clarity. And from them, something started to build. Mental dominoes fell and obvious solutions that had previously eluded me appeared with ease. Finally, yesterday, I had a run at a rough chapter outline. And as I did, I felt the flicker of something warm and urging in my chest that always accompanies the stories I really want to tell. I thought about Madison’s Masterpiece as a follow up to Nelson and the Gallagher and for the first time I saw them as potential equals.
It wasn’t, in the end, that I made any massive changes to the plot I already had. It was that I took the time to discover the little things that would give the books its heart and soul. And when, yesterday, I decided to try writing the first chapter, it flowed with ease.
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing from here, or that I’m totally in synch with what the book has to be. It’s more that breathing room has given me a lot more confidence that this is the story I want to tell next, that there is something emotionally real at the heart of it that can have the same importance to me as Nelson did, even if it’s not as directly based on personal experience.
The time you spend thinking about a story is just as valuable – occasionally more so – than the time you actually spend writing it. Because without those hours of what ultimately amounts to daydreaming, how can you be sure this is worth your time? And more to the point, the time of readers?
Writing words about writing words.