The terrible first novel

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I wrote my first novel 14 years ago. It was bloody awful.

There are countless ways to write badly. It can be the mechanics of the writing, the dullness of the imagery, or even the story. There are a million draws containing a million dusty literary graves. Mine had no story.  Some of the writing wasn’t half bad (in places), although I’ll admit there was a turn of phrase or three that did make me wince.

What was bad was that I had absolutely no story whatsoever, bar a general scenario. Also I had no plot planning, no characterization and had paid no attention to giving my characters unique voices, or personalities. I was writing it on the hoof, and knew little about planning – save for the ideas I had, which I scribbled down in my down time – thinking that once it was done it could be edited into a story and a (real life) happy ending.

I was filled with ideas; it was grand ideas that I was in pursuit of (I was young and drunk on Dickens) and thought great ideas could carry a story – as William S. Burroughs says in My Education: A Book of Dreams:

Like a young thief thinks he has a license to steal, a young writer thinks he has a license to write. You know what I mean right enough: riding along on it, it’s coming faster than you can get it down and you know it’s the real thing, you can’t fake it, the writer has to have been there and make it back.”

I hadn’t ‘made it back’. I had no story to report, which is problematic when a reader is more likely to forgive clumsy writing sooner than they are a lack of story. Ideas are great if you’re a 19th century Russian bourgeois philosopher or a Eng Lit. student, but they’re garnish to the meat and potatoes of great story-telling.

Lessons

Here’s what I learned:

  • Planning is everything – if you don’t know what the story is, including how it starts and finishes, you’re screwed. It also means that you end with pages of pointless, purposeless dialogue to fill in the gaps of your narrative.
  • making characters three dimensional is really hard, but why? Well, the difficulty lies in how we see both ourselves and other people – we don’t see most of the people we know in more than one context, be it colleague, friend, client, bloke down the pub. Also we’re never entirely truthful with ourselves and very rarely analyse the roles we play and how we act – as an employee, as a friend, as a member of a team or club etc. The basic assumption is how characters  show their true value in how they react to their circumstances, but in order for them to wholly believable, they also have to react to their immediate surroundings and social context
  • It didn’t necessarily make me a better writer but it did make me more conscious of the mechanics of story-telling. In theory, any form of practice makes you a better writer but if you only ever use 20 words, you’re still going to write a heap of shit. Reading great writing makes you a better writer (and sometimes your own bad writing) – it inspires you to raise your game
  • First drafts are always a going to rubbish, but if you have a strong overall idea and plot, foundations and a core, then there’s a lot less to edit. If the original idea is weak then you’re second draft is going to be so much harder, and the likelihood of abandoning it – just like I did – is that much greater.

It didn’t even get a second draft. I read what I’d written and my heart sank. So I put it away for a while and came back to it, hoping having a breather would make it better. It didn’t – it still sucked. I still have it in my bottom drawer collecting dust, shunned for its entire existence. It’s only purpose is to ensure it’s a lesson learned, and for that reason, I’m really glad I did it.

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