It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
Two years ago I went to Afghanistan on a reporting job. I felt good about the trip. I knew what I was getting into. I went on special hostile environment training to negate the risk. It was an adventure. I’d see a place most people can only imagine. I’d mix with soldiers. I’d be able to spuriously refer to the whole sherbang in blogs for the rest of my days. I was pretty fatalistic about the whole trip. Que Sera, and all that.
However, there was one moment when the whole thing unravelled. As I stepped off the plane at Camp Bastion into the dust, the camp alarm sounded. Any soldier will tell you that Camp Bastion is a holiday camp compared to the FOB’s and the Patrol bases. But at that moment indiscriminate fire was coming over the wire. We were being attacked. It was genuinely dangerous. I had stepped into a war. Me, in a war. Madness.
And in that moment: doubt.
Why had I volunteered for this? How had I let myself become the wrong man in the wrong place? It was like I had, at some point in the past, had a plan for my life that didn’t involve me getting blown up in Helmand. And I’d lost sight of that plan. I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been. A stupid place. Nothing around me made sense.
We sat in a bunker until fear was replaced by boredom and until the siren eventually stopped. Then I reset, and remembered why I was there. The trip began to come together. The pictures became vivid, the experience became unforgettable. Every moment became an experience. Now, that trip is one indelible memory. It’s also the reason I started writing. I blogged while I was out there, having never put pen to paper before. Since then, I have written four novels. One of them features a strand of action based in Afghanistan.
Every story I have written featured a moment of doubt. I don’t mean a doubt I’ve written into the plot. I mean a crushing crisis of self-confidence as I sit down to write. It usually hits after about ten chapters. It usually coincides with the moment that I begin to get bogged down in secondary plots or minor characters. The energy and belief that I had at the start of the project slowly dissipates into them, until the main plot and characters seem to completely lose any forward momentum.
At this point, several things usually happen. My tea consumption increases. I play more online puzzles, spend more time youtubing songs to ‘set the right mood for writing’, I tweet more, I spend more time than is sensible reworking previous passages, and my word count grinds right down. In the wee small hours, I begin to mourn the book I knew this could have been, but which has escaped.
I have learned that I write organically. I don’t plot or chew over structure before I get going. I’ve always thought that might be why I suddenly lose confidence once I dive into the meat of the story. But the story I’m currently working on is different. This time around, I had a fairly strong idea about the plot and structure before I started typing. And when I got to chapter ten, guess what? That’s right: the same doubt came crashing straight back in. This time, with the plot in place, I started to doubt my characters instead. My scene setting. My voice. My sentence structure and artistry.
Eventually I came to thinking: maybe what I’m really doubting is, well, me. My ability to force the remaining hundred thousand words out of my brain and onto the page in a way that people might actually enjoy reading. I know what happens next. I write and write with a sense of dread. A sense that something about the story is splintered and broken. Like I dropped ink into a glass of water and the more I try to fish it back out, the cloudier it gets.
Does everyone have the same crisis?
I found it massively reassuring to watch Rebus author Iain Rankin struggling with exactly the same problems on the BBC documentary about his writing. And last night I was prompted to write this blog post when I read this tweet from Tim Weaver:
@TimWeaverBooks Aaaaaaand here it is: 20,000 words into Book 5, with the 12th chapter just finished, Doubt finally arrives. Hello old friend.
The cure seems to be, in my case at least, belligerence. The truth is that writing a novel is a mind-bogglingly broad thing to do. You’re creating a world with hills and valleys and people and weather and subterfuge and deception. No wonder that occasionally – usually around chapter ten – we can drown in it. The only way through it is forwards. As James Joyce said, keep applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair. And remember, nothing ever happened easily that was any good.