Writing a book is like running a marathon. No, scratch that. It’s like running five marathons, nay, ten, back to back, one after the other, feet pounding the pavement until you’ve nothing left, then you reach the end, crawling over the finish line, dribble drooling from the corner of your mouth.
So, imagine getting to the end and then being told you have to turn around. Practically impossible to contemplate, right? But thing is, as writers, that’s what we have to do. We have to pick ourselves up and continue even though we’ve done so much already and we are tired and fed up and, quite frankly, would rather clean the skirting boards with a tooth pick (long story) than write another single word.
But, do it we have to and here’s why: because it makes the story better. Writing, see, is an ever-moving beast. A bit like a toddler on a sofa, it won’t sit still, won’t always do what you want it to, because, try as you might, no matter how you bring it up, it has a mind of its own.
This was me two years ago. Totally shattered, reaching the end of the line with the planning of my book that was yet to be published, in fact, yet to find an agent, I had begun writing the story and hit a wall. Up to that point, it had taken me ages. A structure had been created, a whole plan - a fifty page outline, in fact – had been carefully and diligently pieced together, ensuring each plot line and protagonist and tiny character detail was covered. And then, eight chapters in, the scaffolding all collapsed, caput, bam.
I didn’t know what to do. Naturally, I reached for what every writer reaches for: procrastination. I avoided the hell out of the problem. I faffed about on Facebook, nattered on Twitter, drew doodles on my notepad in glittery ink (I have kids…), anything but confront what was glaringly and painfully obvious: I had to take drastic action.
Now, here’s the reality: I began writing my debut thriller, The Spider in the Corner of the Room, with a male protagonist. My trained-by-society brain went into automatic pilot and created a bloke as the main character, but, eight chapters later and it was obvious something wasn’t working. And so, that night, I went to (procrastinated at) the cinema, seeing the James Bond film, Skyfall.
Now, there’s a character in Skyfall, a female spy, who, at the beginning, is strong, decisive, but, by the final scene of the movie, is, instead, portrayed as weak, having been relegated to a PA because she couldn’t, ‘cut it in the field.’ Say what? I was watching the film with my daughter and it made me so cross; here was a woman – and to a greater extent, women in general - being, basically, depicted as feeble. So, film over, I charged home, immediately changed my protagonist’s voice to a strong, complex woman and Dr Maria Martinez was born.
And it worked, creating Maria. It made sense not only on the page (the words just flew out), but in my head as well. Because I now had a character who was real, flawed, intelligent, strong – and she had Asperger’s. Not only did it feel right, developing Maria – it felt empowering.
I look back now and I am so, so glad I made the huge change I did. But I’m not going to lie to you – it wasn’t easy, that change, that scary step into the unknown. And yet, I did it anyway. Call it intuition, call it a writer’s sixth sense, but something inside me said that I had to do it, that, despite all the work I’d put into the draft already, despite the thousands of words I’d written, starting, practically, again was going to be a winner. And, turns out, it was. I secured an agent (was offered representation by four agents) and bagged a three-book deal from publishers in the UK & worldwide.
So, I guess, if you’re right in the middle of a writing quagmire, my advice would be stop, sit back and ask yourself what you really, truly feel you need to do. Forget what work you’ve done on your piece already, because if that version isn’t quite right, nothing you do moving forward will work out. Yet if you stop, change something that you feel, in your heart, is the right thing to change, then before you know it, the words will be flying, once more, onto that page. And the marathon will be over and you won’t have to run it again. At least until you start on the next book…