Why reading is good for you

One of the very few good things about my enforced period off work has been having all kinds of time to read. Reading is good for the sufferer of CFS/ME for a number of reasons:

• It takes you out of yourself. Which is important when your present situation feels fairly crap.

• It doesn’t use up a lot of energy. Which is important when you scarcely have the energy to get to the shops and back.

• You can do it lying down. Which is important when your legs feel like they’re made out of reinforced steel.

• You can get inspiration. Which is handy when you’re trying to write a book.

In reading 160 books (and counting) in my absence from the day job, I’ve been picking up a ton of pointers about description, characterisation, but mainly about structure. Structure-wise, my first draft was very this happened, then this, then this; in the second draft I’m trying to move around in time more.

My love of reading has been a huge part of my recovery, and fingers crossed it will enrich and inform what I write.

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Excuses, excuses

So last time I wrote about distractions. The crap distraction got so much more crap that I had to put the writing on hold; along with the rest of my life.

In the summer of 2011, I gradually became more and more tired until I woke up one morning and realised I didn’t have the energy to get into the office, let alone do a day’s work. I’ve been off ever since, with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or M.E.; so little is known of this illness that no-one can agree what to call it, let alone how to cure it. So that’s been me for the past two years.

In the lack of any medication or fast-acting treatment, I’ve been on a programme of pacing myself and grading my activity. Starting out from doing next to nothing, I’ve been very gradually building up what I do each week, and am now at the point where I feel a return to part-time work is months away. Although I thought that last year.

As for the book; after a few false starts, a month ago I tried half an hour of editing. It went okay, in terms of getting things done without feeling knackered by the end of it. So I’ve been working my way through the story; editing, filling in blanks, re-writing where needed.

It’s been frustrating. Just as I work out what needs to happen with the book, I don’t have the energy to actually do it. But given that some people don’t recover at all from this incurable illness, at least I’ve made good progress. And given that it took me ten years to sit down and write in earnest, maybe another two years doesn’t seem so bad.

Of course, writers do say it’s a good idea to put a manuscript away for a while, although they probably didn’t mean quite as long as I’ve left it.

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It’s been very quiet around here lately. But I have an excuse…

On top of the usual things like going to work and keeping the house ticking over, during the last few months there have been a couple of extra distractions at weekends to contend with. One great, one rubbish. Sadly the great one isn’t a problem any more, but the rubbish one is, and is also likely to be a factor in how much I can do each week for the foreseeable future. So progress could be slow from here on in. Though at least I’m making some progress again because I’ve actually started writing again.

So the second draft carries on, buoyed up by some positive feedback from the first two people to have finished reading the first draft, and a possible brainwave today that needs more thought. If it works, it’s going to mean a change of emphasis on certain characters, which will call for a complete re-write rather than the tweaks I’d intended. Which will take more time, but if it works I think the book will be much stronger. So cross your fingers and watch this space. But as ever, don’t hold your breath…

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The list

Since I’m writing draft #2 in my spare time, and since I don’t have much spare time at present, I’m trying to be organised so I can get it done with as little duplication of work as possible.

Writing the first draft took far longer than it probably needed to, because I’d been very disorganised before I really got going. During the ten years before I started properly, whenever I felt the urge to write something, I just put down whatever I was thinking about. I never worried too much about where it would sit in the story, or if I’d already written that section. When I started the first draft in earnest, I did it by collating my decade’s worth of notes. All of the notes were handwritten, none were in any order whatsoever. And as I worked my way through it all and typed it all up, I found that during my many false starts I’d wound up writing the same sections over and over. I found more duplications even when everything was typed up, until I knew my way around the draft better, became more able to spot things and think hang on, didn’t this bit already happen?

So to avoid that, for draft #2 there’s just one to-do list, which I compiled by reading through the first draft, and noting the bigger things that needed to change (the minor tweaks got made as I worked my way through). Hopefully it will mean there’s zero, or less, duplication of work.

A digital version of it is saved in the same place as the second draft on my computer, and I’ve also copied it to the notes section of my ipod. So because it’s on something small and portable, when I’m out and about and have a spare moment to write, I can see what  needs doing and make a start quickly. This is the theory, anyway.

So the list is ready. Next: doing everything on the list…

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So, a few weeks away from the novel…

The time away got a bit out of hand.

When I finished the first draft, I knew a break from the book wouldn’t hurt. I’d been writing full (ish) time for almost a year, and I wasn’t sure what I thought about the book anymore. I hoped that after a few weeks off I’d be able to see it all more objectively. I also knew had to get my head around being back at work after eleven months away.

The trouble was, I forgot how much time having a full time job takes up: obviously there’s the hours you’re in the office, but there’s also the time it takes getting to and from work, and the time of an evening you need to do the basics. Like making sure there’s food in the house and having clean clothes to wear. So the time available for writing shrinks and shrinks. As well as the time, there’s also the energy a full time job uses up. Getting home after a day at work, I often felt too tired to start writing, or I just couldn’t be bothered. That was on the days when I actually thought about it. There seemed to be fewer and fewer of those as time went on. It wasn’t that I’d totally forgotten about writing, it just became less of a priority, pushed further and further back on the to-do list. One final hurdle, one I can only sort of partly maybe blame on returning to employment: a social life. Now I’m getting paid again, I can afford to go out more than I could. So I’ve been going out. Which has been great, but that’s eaten into the time I’ve had at weekends.

I think about six weeks passed with no writing at all. Then a friend asked me what I’d done on the book lately. Nothing, I said. And they tutted. Which made me think about it again. It was something along the lines of: If I’d spent all that time saving for the year off, then all the time writing, why not finish what I started? I was taking it for granted that I would start up again, almost to the point where I didn’t think I needed to put any effort into it.

I had some spare time the next weekend, and decided to use that for writing rather than just watching crap on TV or trying to tidy up again. It went okay. I managed three and a half hours that day. Not as much as I’d have written on a normal day last year, but enough to feel like I was making progress again. So starting up again in itself was motivating. Looking back over the first part of the book, I saw a lot that needed to change, but I didn’t hate what I’d written. Which was a relief, and another motivator. I managed an hour one evening the next week. Then last weekend I managed four hours.

So writing is back on the agenda. At a much slower pace than this time last year, but I’m starting the second draft by editing and making a list of things to re-write that I can dip into as and when there’s time. I’m sure it’ll take me a while to find the best weekly routine for keeping it all going, in the same way that it took me a few months to find out the best daily routine for writing last year. But since writing is actually part of my normal week’s activities again (I am completely a creature of habit), I’m pretty sure I can keep going. It won’t necessarily be fast, but I’ll get there.

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What I should have done (number 1 in a series)

I should have started to collate all the sections into one big document earlier. And numbered the pages as I did so. Or at the very least, I should have numbered the chapters. When I started, I wasn’t sure if the chapters should be numbered, or just named, and then I never gave it any more thought.

I started compiling the book by having each section as a separate document, which helped stop me feeling like I was getting lost as I put it all together, but when it came to printing it out and passing it on, it meant it was hard to keep track of who’d read what. I’d either give someone the same section twice, or I’d do the opposite and miss out a chunk of the story. Which doesn’t help matters when the whole point of having people read the book is to see how easy it is to understand. It’s all clear in my head, but have I written it well enough to communicate how I see it?

But now the book’s all one document, with page numbers, hopefully my latest readers won’t have such problems. I told you I didn’t really know what I was doing.

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Test pilots

Over the past month or so I’ve been showing bits of the manuscript to a few friends and relatives to get their feedback. Which is quite a nerve-wracking thing to do.

I have some experience of people commenting on creative work I’d done, both at work and at college, so it isn’t a completely new experience for me. But at work, the designs I create are produced to meet a client’s brief, which usually is quite specific. There’s a target market to aim at, a particular look. The book’s very different because no-one asked me to write it, and because the story incorporates a few of my own experiences, obviously it’s a lot more personal than something created to order. Plus at work I have a fair few years experience, so I have more of an idea of what I’m doing. With writing, all I had to go on was gut feeling, so it felt like the risk of failure was higher. I thought what I’d done was okay, otherwise I wouldn’t have shown it to anyone, but who really knew?

But. There’s only so far you can get by yourself, particularly on the task of writing a novel with several characters, a few sub-plots, and so on. There are a lot of elements to keep an eye on over the course of a few hundred pages, and it’s easy to lose track of people or places as you make your way through. I want the book to be as good as it can be, and for me the whole point of writing a book is for other people to read it, so it’s going to happen sooner or later anyway.

I felt like I’d got as far I could by myself in telling the story, and it was time to get other people involved. To go back to my experience at work again, there are more times than I can count when someone else’s input on a project has made the project better than it ever would have been if I’d worked on it in isolation. So whilst there’s always a risk involved in showing people a work in progress, I know the potential plusses outweigh the potential minuses.

This far, the comments I’ve received have been positive, and though no-one’s got to the end of the story yet, I already have plenty to think about for the second draft. But the comments have been positive enough to make me know there will be a second draft.

So if you’re reading it now, thank you!

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