My novel is in a drawer. I began writing it 18 months ago on an Arvon course at The Hurst (thanks to tutors Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman and to the other participants). The theme, story and plot had been in my mind for about a year. I finished the first draft in early December 2012, about four weeks ago. Now the 22 chapters, all 90,000 words are in a drawer. Well, that’s what the how-to-write-a-novel books call it. Actually it is in 22 files on my computer, and in 22 plastic folders slipping about on a shelf in my writing room. There also notes on characters, timelines, newspaper cuttings about my theme, post-it notes to remind me about details I didn’t want to stop for, chapter outlines, scene outlines and in a folder called parking.
What is my novel doing, not in a drawer? It’s resting. Everyone says you should let your first draft rest. Stephen King says it, and, despite never having read a novel by him and avoided most of the films made from his novels, I rate what Stephen King says about writing (in On Writing). Not just writing, but what he says about editing, your strongest critic, paragraphs, readers and resting. Don’t let anyone see it, just rest it.
He had made a parallel with bread being left to prove. I like what he says about writing, but not what he says about novels being like baking bread. I would be seriously worried if my novel started bubbling, smelling rather yeasty and rising gently on its shelf and (even worse) on my computer. And he says you should probably leave it for ‘a minimum of six weeks’. I’ve never left bread to prove for that long, even when I forgot it.
And the purpose of all this is to get a little distance. It is also, as my non-fiction co-author would remind me, to allow time for us to complete our non-fiction project, which we promised to deliver to the publisher in mid-February. She gave me the NICE WORK badge. But there is writing to be done and not on the novel.
Back to my novel-in-a-drawer. Parts of it have been read and commented on by other people: the first and most worked over chapter, because I wanted to see if people reading it would want more. They are the ones who want to read the first draft. So I have my answer about that. And several scenes have been read by fellow-participants in writing classes and groups. These were always second or third drafts. Comments, reactions, suggestions have been absorbed to make third or fourth drafts. I expect to find unevenness when I return.
But I miss the people in my novel. I like them, their company, their quirks and habits, their interactions and failings. I would like to visit them. Not writing my novel is like watching them on a CCTV camera. I think about them, wonder about them, their hopes, dilemmas. I’d like an update. I’d like a phone call, an email, a text. But they remain incommunicado in the drawer.
My fingers itch to get back to writing. I’m sitting on the bus, say, and I wonder if I’ll catch them talking behind me, a bit like everyone almost reminds you of an ex-lover when you’ve just split up. I know I will have work to do on showing my protagonists’ reactions and feelings. There are some plot issues to sort out – whatever happened to the sister-in-law? I think she died in a car crash, but if she did I didn’t tell the reader. She was sympathetic, so she deserved better. (Not better than the car crash, better than being neglected in her death). And wouldn’t the daughter have what my generation called a love life? Wouldn’t this feature somewhere in the 12 months timespan of the action. And perhaps I should erase one of the twins? And none of these things are my darlings to be killed, which those how-to-write-fiction books tell me Virginia Woolf said is good practice.
So what should I be doing about it while I am not writing my novel? Any suggestions?