Consumed by Snails – part two

Returning to Project Snails after four years apart from it is a strange experience. In some ways it feels like returning to one of those other lives we have, in different places with different people, that we occasionally switch between. Time doesn’t seem to have passed, and the life I was living without the novel – as recently as two weeks ago – seems like a dream. “What was that about?” asks my novel, and all I can do is smile self-deprecatingly and shrug. “University? You do do the strangest things sometimes, Alex. Heh! Do-do.” My novel isn’t very mature, you see.

In other ways, though, the passage of time – and, I’d like to think, some small amount of growing up on my part – becomes apparent when I read my past self’s writing. Happily, I seem to have gained at least some of the perspective that I hoped four years, and higher learning, would bring. Or academia has stifled my unique voice and snuffed out my creativity, leaving me tragically blind to my earlier genius. Either way, I can see flaws all over Snails.

There are passages that are clearly more about me being “clever” than about the story or the characters. Analogies are stretched to snapping point as past me tries to force in as many tenuous connections as possible between the literal and the metaphorical. Descriptions and dialogue that could comfortably be simple and straightforward are written in strange, roundabout ways just for the sake of it. There are bits where I as the author am the only person who could hope to guess what a character is really thinking. Some of the “emotional” scenes make me cringe, which generally isn’t the intended effect. There are blatant continuity errors, including character and place names changing from one chapter/sentence to the next. And there is a bit of unexplained weirdness surrounding certain subplots, which I was laying in there for the potential second novel, but which probably hurts the first novel more than is justified, considering it may well be the only novel.

But despite all this, I can’t help feeling there’s something there. Over the years I worked on it, characters developed and rebelled against their original one-dimensional selves, the world was infused with a fair amount of detail and history, and the story became intricate and multi-layered, with themes and subplots woven through it just subtly enough not to distract from the core story. All this work, taking place over multiple, evolving plans and drafts of the novel but now compressed into one draft, reminds me of why I should probably have some faith in my past self: there’s a lot more of him than there is of me.

The trouble is, as much as I love the characters, the world and the story, the writing just doesn’t live up to them.

That’s why I’m afraid of this book. It’s almost hypnotic. I can see the potential in what I have, but I know it’s going to take an insane amount of work to truly realise it. And not just work. It’ll take the sort of emotional investment that I haven’t made in anything for a long time. I’m going to have to think about parts of it until my brain goes numb, then force myself to un-numb it and carry on thinking. I’m going to have to wake up in the night again, terrified that that character’s storyline isn’t believable enough, or that this plot point doesn’t make sense since I changed that other thing. This stuff isn’t optional. Not if I want the novel to be as good as it can possibly be.

I’d forgotten all this. I was in denial for much of my time at university, thinking “These smaller projects are fun, maybe I don’t need to go back to my novel”. Now I realise how wrong I was. I was always going to have to go back, for better or worse. If I don’t, I’ll forever be wondering how it would have turned out. Maybe it’s still just a 12-year-old’s naïve fantasy. But I have to know.

So I’m going to rewrite Project Snails. I’m not going to plunge in straight away, as I’d like to get some of my smaller projects done, or at least further along, before I make it my main focus. But at some point, I feel sure, it’s going to consume me again. I just hope it gets all the nutrients it needs from me to grow into something special, and that I’m still vaguely alive when it spits me out.

See, there’s one of those overstretched analogies I was talking about! Better make sure I edit my novel better than I edit this blog.

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Consumed by Snails – part one

Oh yeah, Project Snails. Heh. Well. Yeah. Hmm.

In order to make this blog post suitably epic, allow me to take you back to my childhood – not the extended childhood I’m living now, but my actual childhood. I was a writer from a very young age, you see… (Wavy visual transition accompanied by harp scales.)

I think the first “novel” I ever wrote was The Thinking Tunnel (it feels weird to italicise that, but my university training demands it), a shameless rip-off of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books, which filled my young mind with wonder and with which I was obsessed for several years. This was followed by a book called The Red Water World Mystery, a more traditional fantasy tale starring me as a version of myself who found a passage into a magical world while staying in a caravan park. Then came Super Bubble Mix, two kids’ sprawling adventures through space and time, almost certainly inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These three books were about what you would expect from a child: containing the kind of imaginative ideas that insipid adult minds would automatically reject, but largely derivative, improvisational to the point of utter meaninglessness, and of course very embarrassing to look back on.

By the time I finished Super Bubble Mix, I was about twelve, and beginning to realise my flaws. That’s when I started working on Snails. All I knew was that it would be a new fantasy novel, an epic one, with adventures and magic and battles and arduous journeys across hostile terrain. Needless to say, it was quite directionless at first, and I wrote dozens of opening paragraphs, none of them leading anywhere. Eventually I came up with three characters and started them on a journey that seemed to have some momentum.

I wrote about eight lengthy chapters, but the story was still going nowhere. I started again. One unexpected benefit of this false start was that I now felt I knew several of my characters, and had a vague sense of a world that I could build on. Of course, the characters and world evolved dramatically later, but at least I had a starting point. The eight scrapped chapters had acted as a rehearsal – or perhaps more accurately an audition – for a set of five or six characters (though mainly the central three), and they got the parts. I just needed to write them a good story.

Inspiration struck one day at my granny’s house in Dundee. An idea for a pivotal moment in the story suddenly occurred to me, and I sat in the chilly guest bedroom for a long while, scribbling down a plot summary onto four sheets of A4 paper. The plot has changed a lot since, but these four pages were the structure that allowed me to begin writing the book properly.

Several years later, I completed a draft. There had been many hiccups along the way, including one detour which took me so far off course that I had to completely scrap a large section of the book and write it again, setting it in an entirely different place with a different set of secondary characters. I then began the process I referred to as The Great Revision. I did several major rewrites, gradually becoming more confident in my work.

In this time the novel became my world, the thing I could pour myself into. Almost every walk, car/train journey or quiet moment was a chance to mull over the story and come up with new ideas about where it could go, how this character would behave, why she might do that. I began treating it as more than another silly fantasy diversion; it became more or less the only way I expressed myself. As such, working on it induced heart-pounding excitement when it was going well and total abject misery when I lost faith in it. For a long time I tried not to put too much of myself into other creative projects, because I was saving it all up for Snails.

Then university came along, and, out of necessity, I stopped thinking about my novel for four years.

Earlier this week, I looked at it properly for the first time since 2008. In the last few days I’ve been scouring my old computer, doing a little detective work, copying and pasting from several different documents to try and assemble what is, for now, the definitive, up-to-date version of Project Snails. Sure enough, it is a novel, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It has 200,375 words, divided into 81 chapters and covering 345 A4 pages. And it terrifies me.

To be continued…