Wednesday, 10 September 2008

NOVELWATCH: First chapter in the bag.

I just finished the first chapter of my new novel. Or, rather, the first draft of the first chapter of my new novel. Or, even, the first draft of the first attempt at the first version of the first chapter of my new novel. It's important to qualify these things, because during the exquisitely prolonged mental and physical torture which is often called "novel writing," you can bet you'll go back and tweak, rewrite, or just plain-out delete that first all-important chunk. Eighteen times. At least.

It's taken me three days to write 2.5k words. That's shit. I mean, sure, you'll hear daily wordcounts from all different ends of the spectrum depending who you talk to - "6000 words a day, easy!", "500 words, no more, no less..." - but mostly it's either self-aggrandising bullshit or the easy-street envymakings of a super successful author. In my experience, somewhere around 2-3k a day is pretty good going. And that's not taking into account all the weeks of planning you should've undertaken before even typing the dreaded "CHAPTER ONE" header.

So why'd it take me so long?

Well, for an author the first words of a novel carry an awful lot of weight. I mean, the same's true for a reader, right? You pick up a book for the first time, you want that first page to set up your thematic and stylistic expectations from the getgo. You want that first paragraph to drag your eye onwards like a visual blackhole, and you want that first sentence to grab you by the ears and clusterfuck your attention until your brain burns.

For an author, it's even worse. This is the first ritual bleeding. The blank page of death. It's the foundation stone upon which all your subsequent efforts will rest; if not structurally then at least in simple quality terms. It becomes the yardstick by which you test everything that follows. By definition you will read and reread your own first sentence more times than any other part of your novel. It has to excite you, has to fill you with enthusiasm and energy, just as much as any bookstore browser - and more.

To an author the first chapter is an even scarier proposition than the first sentence. With this first chunk of textual bilge you must define the limits of your world: in every sense. You must set a tone, communicate an intent, and usually make some passing attempt at identifying genre. And all of it is done not for the reader, but for you. You're going to be spending six months or so with this puppy: you have to understand it - you have to understand yourself in relation to it - before you can wax lyrical. As a writer, putting together that first chapter, you have to know your own voice - your own stylistic paradigm, your own choice of vocabulary, your particular syntax - and I can guarantee you right now that you will not know it before you start.

To a novelist, a first chapter is like waking up with amnesia. Before you progress with your day, before you head off to work or school or wherever, you have to sit at your breakfast table and work out - carefully, painstakingly - what sort of person you are. Only then will know how to deal with the situations that arise during the day.

So there's that. In my own case there was also the particular problem of having been away from novel writing for a long, long time. I've been up to my neck with comics and screenplays - in fact I still am, on both counts - and there's a big deep unshakeable fear that I might've forgotten how to swim, as it were, during my time away from the pool. There was a three year period in which I wrote prose for some or every part of each day, and under that sustained sort of strain the mind simply evolves. Ironically, in more recent times (and this probably has more to do with my own paranoia than any sensible science) I've been worrying about getting progressively more and more stupid and inarticulate... After three days of wrestling with prose, I already feel a little brighter. Muscle memory, I hope.

The point is this: once you've learned how to swim you never forget, but you can sure as shit get out of shape. Your muscles atrophy, maybe. You lose your timing on the strokes. You take up smoking and eat too much crap, and when you first waddle back into the pool you're so busy being self-conscious about people making "blowhole" jokes that the deep end seems a long, long way away. You wheeze a lot, and have nightmares about barfing in the jacuzzi.

So now I've swum my first lap in a long, long time. It took me a lot longer than it should, and a couple of times I got freaked-out about sharks and tried to clamber out. Also, frankly, now that I'm sitting here watching the footage I'm the one making "blowhole" jokes and tutting at the shoddy tumbleturns. But that's okay - I've done this shit before, and I know it gets easier. Also, I know that nobody's ever going to see this footage, because by the time I'm swimming in races I will've deleted and re-recorded my debut lap a dozen or more times. The important thing is to have finished it, not to assume it was perfect.

Anyway. I thought I'd make an attempt to record some or all of this process as I go. It's taken me ten minutes to write this blog - which is probably about the same length as my first chapter - so maybe-just-maybe I'll let myself get into the habit of reportage. It certainly seems to be a lot quicker than makey-uppy.

There will be bad times, and they may be entertaining.

I'll be back with some context - what the novel's about, ish, who's publishing it, why I'm writing it now - as soon as I've had a shower and washed off the stink of chlorine.

Some metaphors, by the way, are impossible to overstretch.