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Monday, 31 May 2010

All In The Chemistry

Last night I was watching one of my all-time favourite films, Victor/Victoria starring Julie Andrews, James Garner and Robert Preston.

For anyone who doesn't know the plot this is it in a nutshell: Victoria (Andrews) is a down-and-out singer in Paris, 1934. While trying to get a free dinner (by letting a cockroach loose in the salad, of course) she makes the acquaintance of Carol 'Toddy' Todd (Preston), gay and recently unemployed himself. When Victoria's clothes shrink in the rain Toddy gets the chance to see her dressed as a man and has a wonderful idea - if she can't make it as a female singer she'll make a splash as a female impersonator instead. It's simple really: a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. All goes well until Victoria falls for tough nightclub owner, King Marchand (Garner).

The best thing for me in this movie (apart from the exquisite score) is the palpable chemistry, not between Andrews and Garner but between Andrews and Preston. Some relationships in films just work, whether they're romantic or not, and this one most definitely did. But it got me thinking: chemistry in film is so easy to spot... but what about chemistry on the page? Writing fiction where the characters seem like more than cardboard cut-outs speaking opposite each other is a difficult task.

One definition of chemistry is 'a natural mutual rapport'. It's easy to see why it's more complicated to spot in a novel: actors have the benefit of gazing into each other's eyes whereas when an author writes something to that effect nine times out of ten it comes across as cheesy and contrived. So are there any methods of inducing chemistry to join your work?

One thing I'm trying at the moment is looking at character models and finding their polar opposites because, after all, opposites do attract. The book I'm referring to as far as archetypal models go is 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. It's a good, no-nonsense book about mythic models with references to examples for each type. For instance, the Seductive Muse archetype is documented with examples such as Sally Bowles (Cabaret), Samantha Jones (Sex and the City) and Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind). The beauty of this book for me is that it gives you real references to work from. I can often imagine who my character is like but having a model on hand to consult usually helps me round the character out a little more.

Then comes the chemistry bit. Schmidt suggests that the natural pairings to the Seductive Muse are the Woman's Man, the Messiah, the Recluse and Mystic, or the Amazon. All have different qualities of their own and depending on what your particular story requires you pick the relevant option. It might seem a little too character-by-numbers and constrained for some people but remember it's only a starting point.

If you have two characters who have some relationship in that they either contradict or compliment each other then you have the basis for chemistry I think.

As for a couple of examples about the chemistry I've spotted in novels: Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Maud and Sue in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, and Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins are a few of my favourites.

The fact that only one of those couples ended up together is incidental. Victoria didn't end up with Toddy, after all, but their rapport still remains the highlight of the film each time I watch it.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Character Says No

One of the most debilitating things I know about writing is when my character refuses to cooperate.

It happens to everyone. For me, it’s the literary equivalent of double-clicking a mouse on an icon and getting an error message. I know where she’s supposed to be going and I know how she’s meant to get there but somehow… well, character says no.

What to do?

My current WIP has involved a certain amount of force-feeding as far as characterisation goes. In a bid to complete my first draft as swiftly as possible (and with the advice of some Twitter friends) I’ve pushed through the inconsistencies I’ve discovered and made a note to correct them in the second draft. At times Danni sounds like two different people – the one trying to live up to the ideal I had of her when I first set out and the one who’s steadily evolving with each chapter. I’m just trying to go with the flow right now but that doesn’t mean I don’t sit there glaring at my open document cursing Danielle fiercely.

I want to finish my first draft! I’ve got a plan, loose but a plan nonetheless, self-imposed deadlines and a stubborn streak the size of the A1, but despite all of that I’m struggling. Deviation from my plan means disaster. I’d much rather bury my head in the sand and not write this at all than ditch the outline that’s keeping me focused.

Guess what? Character says no to that too.

Danni wants me to write her story. In fact, she wants it so much that she hasn’t left me alone for well over a month now. Giving up may be an enticing thought but she won’t let me do it. So I’m faced with two options: ignore the error message and try sticking to my plan or… well, wing it. Letting go feels dangerous; I get the distinct feeling I’ll be swept out to sea at any minute.

But I want to finish this first draft. And I will finish this first draft.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Trying To Be Superwoman

I believe I’d look terrible in a cape. Imagine the wardrobe functionality problems – you couldn’t wear a skirt with a cape, you’d look like a fool. But, metaphorically speaking anyway, I’ve been donning the famous red cape for about a week now.

It started when I landed a temp job.

Of course I was pleased to finally have some money rolling in but I’d grown accustomed to a somewhat lazy routine over my two months of unemployment. I woke up around ten-thirty for Pop Master on Radio 2. I grabbed some porridge and caught up with Twitter, Facebook, BBC News – all the usual suspects. Then, as Jeremy Vine’s current affairs programme came on at twelve, I was ready to write.

After two hours of pottering around with my WIP I’d either go out for a coffee or spend a few hours reading. Add in a bath and dinner with the Gilmore Girls and we came towards the evening. Then I really woke up. Unfortunately, I’m a night-owl. If I sat down at my machine from nine onwards I could rattle off more words in a night than if you’d sat me down for a week of sunny afternoons. I think the daylight gets to me; I’m a regular little vamp. I would usually write until two or three o’clock then fall into a troublesome slumber filled with my characters yelling at me on several occasions.

Then came the job.

Suddenly I was expected to be up at half-six again. Fine, I thought, no problem. I’ll just curtail the amount of words I get done in a night. However, my expectations were a little difficult to reconcile with reality. At first, I was alright. I stuck to 1000 words for last Tuesday and Wednesday, 2000 for Thursday. Each time I just about hit the pillow before midnight. After a weekend away I decided to make my Monday count – 3000 words would be written between my getting home and going to sleep.

I worked like a madwoman (lucky this is only a first draft) but hit my target. As a reward I thought I’d give myself Tuesday off. I got home from work and… nothing. I felt useless; I had no point to my evening. I filled it with one episode each of Gilmore Girls, The Bill and Glee; a little reading; a lot of faffing around. I went to bed feeling distinctly unsatisfied with my night. I’d even written 600 words when I vowed not to!

Either I’ve lost the ability to relax or writing is my relaxation. The latter idea isn’t so bad but it is a bit problematic: I’m still happier with the stuff I write as the night draws on. I could walk around like a zombie all day and achieve a respectable word count or I could waste my evenings, still have trouble sleeping and spend the next day completely dissatisfied with my accomplishments.

Answers on a postcard?

Monday, 24 May 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

It was Blanche DuBois who always relied on the kindness of strangers.

A popular theory is that Blanche was delusional – strangers don’t exhibit kindness and, if they do, it’s certainly not for the right reasons. Just think, if your protagonist suddenly began depending on strangers to help her through a tricky situation you’d believe (and your reader would believe) that you were just trying to get out of a sticky situation by using contrived means. I would’ve said the same myself on Friday but I had an experience over the weekend that reaffirmed my belief in the kindness of human beings.

Note for future reference: piggy-backs on beaches with very shallow pockets should be avoided if at all possible.

It was sunny. We were frolicking on the beach; running around, paddling in the North Sea till our feet turned blue. Then on the way back to the car I checked my pockets. The one thing I’d been carrying was missing: my mobile phone.

I panicked; no other word for it. Irrational as it might seem for a twenty-two year old I was petrified about what my father would say. The better half convinced me it was in the car and we went back up the hill expectantly. It wasn’t visible but he said it was probably in there anyway. I left him in the car park and went back down to search for it myself, mindful of the fact the tide was coming in.

I’d been wandering around for maybe twenty minutes when I gave up hope. I’d combed a good stretch of beach and if it was beyond that… well, a fisherman would probably catch it in his net and serve it up in batter. As you do in such situations, I tried to think up reasons why this wasn’t my fault. Then, as I walked slowly up the beach one last time I was approached by three teenagers.

My initial feelings weren’t what you’d term positive. Then they asked me if I’d lost a phone. My relief was palpable. They explained that they’d found it down near the water and had sent my dad a text to tell him they had it and would hold onto it until he could pick it up. The fact my father was a hundred miles away was neither here nor there. The very idea that they’d had the foresight to send that message and didn’t just pocket the phone was amazing to me. Added to that, they’d actively been looking for me.

I walked off eternally grateful. However, it struck me afterwards that if I’d tried putting that incident in either my novel or a short story the reader’s imagination would probably have been tested. We don’t believe in human kindness anymore. The idea that a possession would be returned by such lucky means is laughable.

This realisation does make writing fiction a tad tricky though. How are you supposed to write honest coincidence, honest good fortune? If everything has to have a plausible route and outcome (as I mentioned last week) then where does human kindness and their unexpected natures come into things?

I’m not sure myself.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Who's The Guy With The Bald Head?

Last week the theory popped up that by 2090 Winston Churchill probably won’t be recognisable by his picture.

At first this seemed ludicrous. It’s Winston Churchill!

But the more I thought about it the more I conceded it was a probability. His deeds will have passed out of living memory by then, of course. The people just coming to the end of their lives won’t be the people who grew up hearing about him from their grandparents. 155 years after the end of World War II it may be almost forgotten. After all, we see pictures of all sorts of people in history classes at school – Custer, Shakespeare, Marx – and how many of those would we remember outside of the classroom? When I think of General Custer I vaguely remember a plumpish man, possibly with a moustache, but almost every man in that textbook looked similar.

If the time comes when people do look at a picture of Winston Churchill and not recognise him what does that mean? One theory is that the things he did for our country have slipped through the cracks but that isn’t really the case. He’ll still be documented in text books; his contribution won’t be forgotten, although it will be observed from a distance in the way we look at, say, Darwin now. Generally, we don’t underestimate his significance but we have the clarity of time to help us look at him objectively.

And what about authors? I think looking at them rather proves the point. How many Victorian writers would your average reader recognise?

Dickens? I can almost get him. Emily Bronte? I could but most people probably couldn't. George Eliot? Well, wouldn’t a lot of people be expecting a beard?

The point is that even if we can’t remember the faces of our literary heritage we can still enjoy their works and we know who they are from the mere mention of a title – Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch. If someone mentions Churchill and WWII perhaps in 2090 the average person will still know what they’re talking about.


Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Classic Openings: Murphy

Welcome to a new occasional segment on Secluded Charm!

It's drummed into every writer that if you haven't got a good beginning you've got no chance. Perhaps that's taking it to the extreme but modern life is all about instant gratification.

As a result I thought it might be useful to analyse some of my favourite openings and have a look at why they worked. Now, of course, these are my favourites and they're probably detested by some other people. It's not really about personal taste, it's more to do with looking at specific tools published authors use. First up: Beckett! (No, don't run away!)

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

This paragraph hooks me every time, even when I know how the rest of the novel turns out. That's definitely the sign of an intriguing opening. But let's break it down.

1. The first line displays monotony. Not, for me, the kind of monotony that gets boring in a novel but the kind that reflects real life in a succinct paragraph. All too often you hear of hopeful writers feeling as though they have to depict each moment of a day, perhaps to show character or perhaps for some other reason. Beckett manages to convey Murphy's monotonous existence in this one paragraph - and that's not the sole purpose of the opening either.

2. It conveys setting with a few eye-grabbing points. The idea of 'cages' is prominent, not only providing a template of place that many readers will be familiar with, but also revealing character through the precision of it. Who cares which way the building faces and which way the buildings across thus face? Murphy does.

3. The concept that Murphy sat 'as if he were free' is an intriguing one. All human beings know they're not free in any real sense of the word, but this line gives the impression that something else ties Murphy. It's foreshadowing, which both reflects something literal in the near future and something metaphorical later on.

4. Most importantly, something happens! No story can exist without some form of change occurring, be it internal or external change. In many novels the notion of change is revealed later on... after the character, setting, cat's favourite food etc have been established. In the very first paragraph of Murphy we discover he has to move out as the mew he lives in is going to be condemned. There you go: conflict straight away; change straight away!

*Murphy was first published in 1938 and was Beckett's first novel. It is available here.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Four Tips To Avoid Bad Writing

This weekend I read (and, miraculously, finished) a very bad book. I won't annoy the author by revealing the title but suffice to say it's not someone I'm going to be hurrying back to.

I persevered because I was determined to get to the end. It's easy to think that I wasted several hours of my life but I learned a few things along the way - how not to write, if you will.

1. Don't overuse the adjectives. The number of unnecessary words in this book, obviously just there to fill space, was perplexing. As amateur writers we're told (not advised, told) to cut these out as if they were infectious diseases. It puzzles me how so many survived into the final draft of this manuscript.

2. Don't swear for the fun of it. If I did a Ctrl+F on this manuscript I dread to think how many times the word 'bitch' would show up. I'm not an innocent babe by any stretch of the imagination but the simple fact is that a word loses significance after repetition. If that's the effect the author was going for then fair play to them but I'm not sure it was.

3. Don't have a twist visible from the off. Now this one could be my own foresight or, again, it could've been a deliberate ploy on the part of the author. Perhaps if we saw it coming and then were wrong-footed only to be right in the first place we wouldn't feel cheated? I don't know, but I wasn't keen on spotting from the very first chapter what the twist was three chapters from the end. Keep your reader guessing is my view. Yes, keep the story rooted in whatever reality you've created but don't bore them with inevitabilities.

4. Don't make your reader invest in a relationship that's going nowhere. Again, this one could've been my own fault. The book was part of a series which had established a strong relationship between two people. However, this particular novel introduced a third dimension, a woman a lot more interesting and absorbing than the dutiful wife. Long-term readers might've been happy to see the affair fail but the fact that so much energy was given over to it (while only an epilogue explained the reconciliation of the main couple) felt very out of place. I would suggest that if a relationship must fail please demonstrate it in more than the epilogue.

Good points about this book? The setting was particularly evocative, some of the minor characters are cleverly sketched with just enough detail, and the climax involves both emotion and action. Those points make it bearable.

However, I do get the feeling that I learned more about how not to write a novel from this author. That does irritate me but I guess we've all read a book like that at some point in the last two years!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Imitating Greats

Today I stumbled across this quote, attributed to Mae West: "Let Shakespeare do it his way, I'll do it mine. We'll see who comes out better."

It struck a chord. What writer hasn't looked at the work of their literary idol (be it Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Graham Greene or Dan Brown) and wanted suddenly to be that writer? It's not just about the prestige and the recognition those writers have received either. As a novice it's so much easier to have an answer to those questions from people trying to appear interested in your work: "what kind of stuff do you write" and "who are you like then". Is it just me who gets those questions from well-meaning friends?

I have my literary idols, of course. Katherine Mansfield, Edith Wharton, Sarah Waters - too many to mention here. One activity I did for my MA Creative Writing was to write something in the style of a famous writer, a pastiche. We were given extracts of pieces by Raymond Chandler, Henry Fielding, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. I immediately grabbed Henry Fielding, Tom Jones being a favourite book of mine, and set to work. Here's a few lines of what I came up with that session:

Petula McBride, our disillusioned heroine, was the only bearded girl of Patty and Mickey McBride, and sister to the smooth-skinned Ramona, whose reputation at present is quite illuminating. For the family we have looked with mass trepidation and little success: we faltered in tracing them farther than the great-grandmother who masqueraded as Margaret the Moose and was sister to that famed contortionist, Millie. Was there family before this it's impossible to say. It is left to the dear reader to deduce the origin of her bald patch.

Be gentle - it was written in twenty minutes and had to be read out aloud to the group!

I really enjoyed writing this. It was easy to get caught up in Fielding's mannerisms and, despite the fact he was centuries out of date, my tutor commented that a pastiche like that could be popular with modern readers. The trouble is, if you focus too much on being Henry Fielding then you forget who you are yourself.

I love nestling into a bit of pastiche writing, or even fan fiction, when I'm in the mood. If I'm having trouble with my work in progress or just having one of those droughts where every word feels out of place and extraneous then it offers an outlet where I can carry on writing but with something of a blueprint to follow.

Inevitably, though, I yearn to go back to my own voice. If imitation does anything it reminds me that trapped inside of me is a unique voice struggling to get out.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Con-Dem: A Lesson For Fiction Writers

Whatever your political affiliations, if you live in the UK you're probably in something of a state of shock. Before the election last week I don't know many people who foresaw the conclusion: a cross-party coalition that draws Right and Left together? Barmy! But there's a lesson in this for fiction writers.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it's alright to team up with the bad guy.

I like most of my characters. I think they share a lot of my potentially OTT values and self-righteous ideas which can mean I fence myself into implausible plot scenarios. Alright, in general my characters are moral but if faced with big choices would they really make the right one?

My personal opinions on the new political coalition aside, no one can doubt the difficult decision Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had to make. Sell himself (as it was seen by many critics) to the Conservative party for a few hollow promises or try to align himself with the failing Labour party? Either way he was going to lose some popularity.

As it is with your fictional creations.

My latest project involves a bomb threat and a woman trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation. The thing is, as much as I want her to be moral and stand up for her beliefs (and as much as she does), there has to be a point where she wants to side with the bad guy, so to speak. If someone offers you life over death even the most moral amongst us will consider it.

Will readers respect her for making the perceived 'wrong' choice? No. But she may have to, if only to appease that problematic thing called being true to your character.

It remains to be seen what a Conservative/Liberal coalition means for British politics. But I'm taking heart in the fact I've managed to pull one lesson for myself out of this mess.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Book Review: Exiles by Jacinta Bell

*Slight spoilers below*

Exiles is not a recent book by any means. Published in 1988 there's the danger that ideas strong and painful then can be irrevocably diluted by the hands of time. I don't get the sense that's the case here though. The novel deals with exiles of all varieties and past conflicts that echo grimly with the perils of life in 2010. As a reader currently entrenched in Victorian fiction it was a stark alteration in my reading habits.

I have to say, though, that while one selling tool of the book worked really well, another didn't. While browsing Inpress, a collection of independent publishers online, I saw a very intriguing cover and clicked into it. Even looking online covers are vitally important tools! But the blurb felt a little lacking. Still, I bought it, hopeful the book would exceed my expectations. And it did. I soon discovered the blurb didn't do the novel justice. It was much more than it said on the tin. I know that's a symptom of blurbs in general but in this case I found it acutely problematic and I hope it hasn't put people off buying the book in the past.

Is the novel, as the brief description on the cover suggests, solely about Tunisia and Geologist Claire's dalliance with a man named Ali while her partner, John, waits for her in London? No. It's only an aspect of a very complex whole.

The entire ensemble of characters are dealing with exiles of their own, most of them inflicted rather than self-imposed. Irish living in London, dealing with the stigma of their homecountry; a geologist stuck in the heat of Tunisia struck with the loneliness of her situation. It's difficult to form absolute opinions on anything when, as a reader, you're constantly seeing the flip side of the action.

Is it better for a potential killer to die before he inflicts harm? Are innocent people just necessary casualities of a larger conflict? The parallels with current worldwide terrorism are difficult to ignore.

This novel teems with issues contemporary twenty years ago. Bell skillfully weaves the personal lives of her characters with the wider picture and invokes the Tunisian setting effectively. Relationships are transitory but the surrounding conflicts, particularly the Irish troubles, most definitely aren't.

The book isn't a light read and in some places is a little graphic, both sexually and violently. Two images stayed with me afterwards: the moment when a cat gets caught under the tyres of a van and, perhaps more positively, the scene of locals in deprived areas sharing their last pieces of food with the geologists.

A novel for our times as well as the Thatcher-soaked times of the past.

Exiles is published by Parthian Books and is avaiable from their website for £5.99 plus P&P.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Names: The Meaningful Method

I don't know about other writers but I can't focus on a character, can't flesh them out, without a name to go with them. A name sets a character in concrete, gives me something to come back to when I ask the inevitable question, 'hang on, who was I thinking about?'. Part of the process at the very beginning of the planning stage of any project involves lots of faces, lots of attributes that you consider and discard. Being able to say, 'no, Bob, wouldn't act like that', is more conclusive than saying, 'he wouldn't do that'.

He who?

I've been researching names for several projects in the last few days. This one, which I anticipate turning into a novel-length piece, is about a woman defined by one mistake made in the past which ruined plenty of lives. She's bitter and anger but also confident about her conduct. I knew this about her but I couldn't begin to flesh her out properly until I knew her name.

I sat there for ages thinking. Personally, I like my fictional names to be shortened and, like anybody, I've got my favourites. I've run out of digits for the number of Cassies and Jennys I've got stashed away in unfinished short stories. And somehow when you sit down to think of a name you go through your friends, family, favourite authors, favourite actresses and after you've ruled them out where else is there to go?

I strayed onto several naming websites intended for expectant mothers. I know these (and baby name books) are a staple for some writers but I've never found them that useful - until now. I scrolled through the top hundred names of 2002 (and recoiled in horror) then skipped to the alphabetical list. This was going to be a long task, I thought, as I dragged my eyes through 'D'. Then I saw a phrase: 'God is my judge', the loose meaning of the names Daniela and Danielle. I was entranced. A lot more about Danielle (Danni) suddenly fell into place, along with the name of her love interest, Jude ('one who is praised'), and the romanatic antagonist, Michael ('who is like God'). Throw in the name of the bitter therapist, Sandra ('helper of humanity'), and my main cast is suddenly assembled.

The meanings just jumped out at me. It's a very unscientific way of naming, I suppose, but it worked in this instance. However, it hasn't worked in the past. I can't help thinking that next time I need to name characters for a novel I'll find myself in the predicament of staring at a blank page for an hour again.

Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it? It could be that I'm so caught-up with knowing details (though a name isn't exactly minor!) because I'm trying to put off the business of writing.

And we've all done that at some point.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Today I was stood in a non-moving queue at the bank. Like any self-respecting writer in such a situation I turned my Ipod off and listened to the conversations around me. One woman, mid-twenties, went up to the cashier and was quick to say, 'Bear with me, it's my first time'.

How often do we hear those words these days? I wondered what she was talking about. Her first time in a bank? Had she been living in a cave for the past twenty years or storing her wages in the hollow gnome next to the fish pond? So much potential for a story there! No, in actual fact today was the first time she'd banked the takings for whatever business she worked for and she was nervous. Simple enough, yes, but it got me thinking about my characters and their first time doing... well, anything.

Sometimes I'm in danger of over-describing regular occurrences in my characters' lives because I feel the audience needs an explanation. My protagonist, for instance, is walking into a bar. Is it the first time she's set foot in a bar? No. Is is it the first time she's been in this bar? Again, no. I want to describe the place and show her in relation to it but for her to stand there marvelling at the decor would just be wrong. Someone seeing something for the first time makes life so much easier but it's seldom the case.

Then there's the danger of going the other way. My character has never seen a gun before. To have one suddenly pointed in her direction is going to provoke a reaction. It's a perfect opportunity to explore her character but on first approach I treated it almost like a non-event. A bit of common sense analysis told me that what I'd written was about as realistic as David Cameron's smile so I went back and looked at it again. Lily's just seen a gun for the first time!!! Wow!!!

The key is, I think, to remember your character at all times. It's tempting to focus on the reader but if your character is either gushing about the newness of something they've seen a hundred times before or nonplussed about a life-altering event you need a rethink. Forget what the reader needs, that can come later. What does your character need at this precise moment?

(Oh, and the woman in the bank had reason to worry - there was a ten pound discrepancy that had both her and the cashier tearing their hair out. Proof that first times can be interesting, however mundane they first appear!)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Saggy Middle Syndrome

Every writer knows the problem.

You're happily whizzing along, your plot's sorted, and you're pleased with your characterisation, when suddenly the floor turns to jelly and you're no longer sure of anything. You want to pack it in, or concentrate on another fledgling project for a few days - anything to get away from that half-written page. Unfortunately, every writer also knows that giving into those urges is the sure-fire way to never finish a single project.

The interesting thing about the novel I'm writing now (the first one ever to have a completed first draft) is that it was written for NanoWriMo 2009. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept it's an annual event that takes place in November of each year, the full title being National Novel Writing Month. It does precisely what it says on the tin: encourages you to write 50,000 words in a month. Not quite a novel but I pushed on ahead with mine and finished the 70,000 word first draft soon after November was up.

Then came the difficult part.

My plot had fault lines bigger than San Andreas. My characters were more unhinged than realistic. My settings lacked life and my word choices were suspect at best. But it was a fully-finished draft and I was very pleased with myself. Several months later I got stuck into the second draft with gusto. All went well until I topped 20,000 words.

Suddenly, every word was a labour to write. I was doubting everything, even going so far as to rewrite for my plan for the ending... then my plan for the bit leading up to the ending. With a new plan in place I pressed on and, again, I faltered. What if I was to write the second draft and my structure was still wobbling all over the place? Wouldn't it be better to sit down and plan out every little thing minutely until I was certain of every variant?

Erm... no.

I'd never finish it. This second draft to me feels almost like a first draft. The first time around I couldn't stop to breathe and panic so I think I'm making up for it this time. I literally woke up panicking on several occasions about 'my middle, my middle!'. I've built the foundations for it and I've planned the bell-ringing finale but what if... Well, what if?! Those two words caused me many problems.

What if I couldn't live up to the requirements of a middle? What are they? Well, according to various sources the intention is to build on your premise, create complications, enhance plot/character, and work towards your conclusion. The simple things in life! If I spent too long thinking about all that at this stage I'd just curl up in a ball and contemplate my alternative career in a place where words aren't used at all.

I'm pushing on. My daily targets have become smaller as I acknowledge I'm struggling and that extra pressure wasn't helping at all. My most useful resource in the last few weeks, however, has been encouragement. Having friends and family around that maybe don't understand why the itch to write is so intense but understand you have an enthusiasm (or desperation) for it is invaluable. And I do think that when I get round to sharing my second draft with them they'll be painfully honest about my saggy middle. Good friends!