Taming the ‘wild child’

Bestselling author Wendy Robertson calls it the ‘wild child’.

A good name, I think, for the impulse a writer draws on for the first draft of a new novel. Wendy herself does her first drafts in longhand, with pen and paper; I do them straight onto my laptop. But the process is the same— a rush to put down words, in my case at least 1000 a day, diving into the novel at random, hurling the sentences any-old-how, just so long as there’s something there at the end: a scene, a moment or two inside the head of a character, a descriptive passage, a crucial event, whatever comes into my head and runs down my arms to my fingers, and so onto the ‘page’. It’s a mad impulsive burst of activity, over days, weeks, months, with the bare minimum of correction or alteration.

Then I try and put it all aside for a bit, just to distance myself. Only too easy this time, when the Easter holidays fed into weeks of fighting a nasty bug; I’m only now starting to get back to work.

And this is when it all slows down. As Wendy put it in one of her blogs about the process of writing:
‘So now you have this rich bundle of character, narrative and event. What do you do about it?
You put that wild child in a restful corner for a moment and bring out the benevolent primary teacher who knows the rules and will oversee your creative transcription so it will truly reflect the concept of your novel.’

In other words, I set out to shape this chaos of words into a novel that someone might actual want— or be able— to read. No more targets of 1000 words a day, though some days I may write far more than that, if all goes well. But this is a much more cerebral stage of writing, where I need to assess what I’ve written and then write and rewrite until I’ve got a coherent novel, with chapters in which things happen and lead into one another and characters who interact with one another and develop as real people do (and believe me, by now they are real, with an independent life of their own!). As this current book is a historical novel, there’ll be facts to check too, and the odd thing I haven’t yet researched properly, maybe because I didn’t at first realise I’d need to know about it.

It’s hard work, the second draft stage, and sometimes very slow. But at the end of it all there’ll be something that is almost a complete novel. And then I’ll have reached the final draft, which is the stage I enjoy most. The hardest work’s done and all that’s left is correcting, cutting, polishing, altering the odd word or phrase; trying to get the thing as near my original conception of the book as is humanly possible.

In the past, it used to take me a good two years to write a historical novel, but I haven’t written one for twenty years, back in the far-off days when ebooks were undreamt of, ‘self-publishing’ meant vanity publishing (not recommended!), and I didn’t think an internet connection was in any way relevant to me. Then, I did all my research in libraries and records’ offices. I guess that having the research possibilities of the internet at my fingertips will make writing my book a faster process; I don’t know. Only time will tell.

But, oh, it’s good to be writing again!

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3 Responses to Taming the ‘wild child’

  1. Julia Lund says:

    I love finding out how other writers go about their craft. Compared to you, I am a complete novice, currently working on only my third book, so I will gratefully glean any insights I can from such an expert. I wish I’d thought of looking up up on WordPress before now …

    • hcannam says:

      I think even old hands like me can always learn something new. But thank you for the kind comments. And the best of luck with your books— I look forward to reading them.

      • Julia Lund says:

        Thanks, Helen. I remember one of yours, about the Wedgewood family, very vividly. I look forward to your Durham-based novel. The city has a special place in my heart, even though I only lived there for four years.

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