THE WRITING PROCESS – ACHIEVE YOUR AMBITION
By John Cragg, author of Athlingwold
What persuades an aspiring writer to find time for months, maybe years, in producing a first novel? Is it the pleasure of writing, or maybe a good storyline? Hopefully ‘yes’ to both but the writer really has to believe in what’s being created. If not there won’t be success in making it down that solitary tunnel with the daylight of publication at the end.
‘the writer has to believe in what’s being created’
How did I find the idea for Athlingwold, my recently published first novel? The ordeal of reading my stories to a well-intentioned but critical creative reading class steeled me to having them tested.
‘Well written John. But do you think real people would act like that?’
‘Nice idea, but doesn’t come off the page…’
And so on. I think I wrote the first version of Athlingwold around the year 2000. It nearly made it then but I was told it needed some further attention. In the words of Philip Larkin, ‘the toad work’ intervened and little was done for some time. Then parts were rewritten but I never really got going at that time. Later I joined that writing course I previously mentioned which sharpened my style no end.
A year or two later I obtained a diploma in local English history which sowed further seeds in my imagination. One day, I went walking around an Iron Age hillfort in remotest Dorset (the setting for much of the novel) when the mysterious and timeless atmosphere somehow enabled several ideas to coalesce into the tale that is now Athlingwold. Different themes surfaced that day in the Dorset uplands and the result hasn’t let go of me since.
I was lucky, but what next? After this head start the story almost began to write itself. It wasn’t a question of having to drive myself to write but rather the reverse, although it wasn’t entirely straightforward. One problem was that I had to make sure I frequently took time to stand back from the story. When I wondered what my protagonist would do I had to avoid letting him act as I might have done.
‘I frequently took time to stand back from the story’
What about mistakes? I made several of those, and here I mean contradictions and errors in plotting and what characters said or did. I found these had to be dealt with as soon as noticed, otherwise they spread everywhere like rampant ground elder in a garden and their roots could be hard to find later. I’d also recommend that grammar and spelling are regularly checked along the way. Proof reading is best not left entirely until the end as it’s a mammoth task and needs doing several times over. That’s about as exciting as being kept in at school in detention and made to rework the same composition over and over again. Expensive too if you delegate to a proof reader, or hugely time consuming if you do it all yourself. If you do, I found that reading aloud to a volunteer (or conscripted) helper can be very effective.
‘proof reading is best not left entirely until the end’
There are those times when you get very tired and begin to wonder if you’re going to be able to finish your story at all. Pressures at work, household maintenance, keeping finances in order, and other distractions are always waiting to interrupt your journey like exasperating traffic diversions. And there are days when you may even have doubts about how your story is shaping up, or not. I found that in those situations it was best to leave the project for a while, do something entirely different, and then make a fresh start when I felt ready again. It’s no good trying to achieve the impossible and be creative when you know you should be doing something else.
‘[you] begin to wonder if you’re going to be able to finish your story’
Another problem was how to end the tale. The two main characters had experienced personal unhappiness and dangers but I knew they must not be pushed into a banal ending. I therefore decided to let fate take a hand and produce an unexpected but welcome twist in the tale.
Finally, I found it helpful to pursue another theme I have often wondered about but to which I did not know the answer. Can a crucible of troubles produce a catalyst for solving problems including even fractured relationships?
‘an unexpected but welcome twist in the tale’
Exploring these and related matters often kept me working into the small hours. They provided both benefits and problems which I’ve encountered these last few years in writing Athlingwold. I’d like to share my writing experiences with others and find out how others manage in the same position.
To conclude, if you think you have a really good idea for a first novel then, in my view, you should take the plunge and start as soon as you feel ready. There’ll be good and bad times but keep at it even when the going gets tough. Your story can also develop further along the way and you can always find time to polish it at the end. Whatever happens to your novel you will have achieved an ambition and created something which is entirely your own.
‘you should take the plunge and start as soon as you feel ready’
I hope anyone who does this will find the process as absorbing as the writing of Athlingwold became for me.
Link to ‘Athlingwold’ by John Cragg – http://amzn.to/2sEKLjl
John Cragg, Book Launch: ‘Athlingwold’ – http://bit.ly/2u0AT6P