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When done means done

A few moments ago I typed what is the last sentence in the first draft of my second novel.  That tipped me over the 128k mark.  Does that mean I’m done?  No.

Finishing the first draft of the first novel, a couple years ago, was an overwhelming feeling.  I couldn’t wait to print the sucker out.  In fact, I did print it out and carried the wad of paper around with me, just to feel the weight of it.  I’m sure I caused amusement at the first writing workshop I did immediately afterward, slapping its bulk onto tables just to prove I finished it.  And – don’t get me wrong.  Finishing feels great.  But maybe it’s just that I know how unfinished finished really is.

I had no idea how much my first novel would change with every reader’s report and every rewrite.  Points of view changed.  Tenses changed and changed again.  Whole characters were created or deleted.  I didn’t want to believe it, but the first draft was just a floor plan.  It was a map of what the story was and how the characters would be changed by the story and the choices they made throughout it.  It was the story in its rawest form, sure, but it wasn’t writing yet.  It wasn’t good writing, at any rate.  It was only the ghost of the novel I would end up with – a novel I am about to rewrite again, now that I’ve finished this second one.

So, finishing the first draft of this second novel feels epic on the one hand.  Blimey, those are a lot of words in a relatively short time for a recovering playwright.  So many of them will simply have to go.  Realistically, all of them will go and be replaced by better words that more accurately tells the story that I’ve just laid down.  Like Arthur Murray’s footprints, I know where I’m going and I know where to put my feet.  But is that dancing?  Probably not.  The fancy footwork and the flourishes belong to later drafts, now that I have found the dance floor and put my shoes on the right feet.

I’ve left a few holes in the narrative.  Some places are just bullets or questions, places where I could feel the story changing but I knew I had to keep trudging forward.  If I looked backward, I might never be able to turn myself around again.  And a lot of the writing is just telling the story.  Not telling in an opposed-to-showing way, because I not a very “telly” kind of writer, but I mean just showing what happens, like when you tell someone a story in a bar, if you do such things, this happened then this happened, and not knowing myself how moments would lead to moments and how characters would reveal themselves through what they said and did.  Having finished this draft, at least I know what and who I’m dealing with.

So – hurrah!  Yippee!  Woot woot!  But tomorrow, it’s another sit down, to have a look at the holes and see what needs plugging now.  To tidy up my Scrivener files.  See what I can throw away.  And then I put the whole thing away for a while and turn back to the first novel, the one that is screaming out for work, the one that knows what it is now and is just waiting for me to make it so.  And after the first draft of the second novel has composted a bit and, hopefully, I’ve forgotten about it for a while, it will be time to crank up the printer and carry around another few reams of paper.  Sorry, trees!


Today I am starting a new phase of research, as my novel moves from the Isle of Man and back to Germany.  My knowledge is having to move on as well from where I left it, in 1939.  Now, it is 1944.  There has been a lot of water under a lot of damaged bridges while I’ve been beavering away, writing about kippers and barbed wire.

My character is currently on a repatriation ship, the SS Drottningholm, which worked throughout the war trying very hard to get people where they wanted to be or where they would have been, were it not for war.  When female internees left the Isle of Man in 1944, they sailed to Gothenberg and then to the Isle of Rugen, northernmost point of Germany.  The island is a very popular beach destination with Germans and has been throughout its history; it is also where Nazis of the future were meant to have their “paid vacations”.  The two-and-a-half-mile long resort now rots in Prora.  It was unfinished, due to the war, and even the Russians couldn’t make a dent in all the concrete.  Nazi architecture, unlike their politics, were designed to last.  You can see some wonderfully evocative photos on Martin van den Bogaerdt’s Panoramio site:

I am interested in architecture and how buildings are destroyed by war, but also in how the uses of buildings change as a consequence of war or party politics.  I have written before about Nazi pageantry, but I was interested today to find references to Thingplatze, newly-built outdoor amphitheatres designed to simulate/recreate ancient Nordic pagan gatherings called Things.  This project was the brainchild of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, but Hitler wasn’t a huge fan of it.  That is probably why only 40 were built out of the 1200 planned.  There is one such Thingplatz on the Isle of Rugen, at the capital, Bergen, according to the marvelous Third Reich Ruins site.  (The photo comes from their site, too.)  It was used primarily by Hitler Youth groups and still exists.  There is also one in Berlin, where my character is ultimately headed.  I have seen it before, of course, as it was used as an amphitheatre during the 1936 Olympics.  The Dietrich-Eckart-Buhne is now called the Waldbuhne and is used primarily for rock concerts, which might be yet another attempt to simulate and recreate an ancient pagan gathering.  Unless they’re showing David Hassellhof.

One mustn’t be a slave to research, and really, you can’t cram in everything you stumble across unless you’re aiming at a travel guide.  And I never know what I am looking for until it shouts at me, makes me see it.  Somewhere in these ruins, these creations, these pageants is the palpable, beating soul of a people who both intrigue and horrify me.  I am trying to look right at them, to see what I can see.

Winning ways with vegetables

My neighbour is a keen gardener.  I watch him through the windows of the Blue House when I come out first thing in the morning to write.  I watch him pass again, after work, inspecting the vegetables of his labour.  When it’s dark and my blinds are down, I hear him sometimes, pacing the path in his oversized wooden clogs, slug hunting.

As I’m writing about World War 2, my characters should be keen gardeners, too.  The Isle of Man didn’t turn into allotment-world like London seems to, when even the moat of the Tower of London was filled in, but the elders and internees do remember their constant searches for greens and their longings for fruit.

Today, I am reading “Bombers & Mash” by Raynes Minns, which has a big chapter on the pains taken by the Ministry of Food, who brought the war into the kitchen.  The book has brilliant tips for turning one pound of butter into two by stirring boiled milk into creamed butter and how to make cakes without eggs.  I read today about a woman who was fined ten pounds for throwing bread to the birds in the garden – a wasteful act of treachery.  I learned about two brilliant egg substitutes, besides Bird’s Egg Substitute Powder.  One asks us to cook tinned apricots in bacon fat and serve, “as egg-like as possible” on toast.  The other says that tomato halves can be cooked in bacon fat, cut side down, and served, whereupon it will “resemble the yoke” of an egg.  Tough times, those for vegetarians.  I could go on about the benefits of swede and how, when it is grated into seedless jam, becomes a treat that any child might enjoy.  I could offer recipes for “snoek piquante”, thrushes in paper, or sparrow pie, which “is not encouraged by the Ministry”, but I will, instead, offer up a recipe for Parsnip Wine, as one of my internees is usually thinking more about how to get a drink than an egg-less cake:

PARSNIP WINE:  To each gallon of water take 3lb parsnips cut into 1/2″ pieces, 2 lemons and 1 orange, both cut small.  (How they got those lemons and that orange is anyone’s guess)  Boil until the parnips are soft, then strain and pour over 3lb. white sugar.  (3 pounds of sugar? You could only get 2lb on the ration!) Stir until dissolved and bottle while warm, adding to each bottle a small piece of German yeast, about the size of a marble.  (Hang on a minute – German yeast?  In war time?  When in my own country we renamed cooked potatoes and called them Freedom Fries?)  Keep the bottle full while fermenting; after fermentation has ceased, cork and wire.  “This is an excellent imitation,” says Bombers & Mash, “of champagne.”  Cheers, then!  Or as my internees would say, Prost!


With a title like that, one would expect a post to follow that complained of all the distractions of the world, conspiring to pry our curled fingers off the keyboard, wrench us from our work.  But this is not that post.  For not all distractions are bad ones.

I am currently on a coaching training course.  I am learning techniques which might enable me to offer coaching to writers in the future, or to add coaching techniques to the professional development I already deliver.  Either way, it is giving me time to focus on where my head is as a writer and to be reminded of how writers share universal concerns and questions.  Our thoughts and feelings happen, unsurprisingly, in shared metaphors.  I may blog about this training once I’ve completed it, but I will just say, for right now, that is a welcome and nourishing distraction.

There are also welcome distractions in writing.  I was distracted away from my novel while on holiday in January and I wrote a short story.  I submitted it to a contest via email and thought nothing of it.  When I heard back about the story, I was dead chuffed.  Here is where it will soon appear on paper, and where you can read it electronically, if you have a moment.  But only if you do have a moment.  Don’t let me be your distraction.

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