Fiction writing 101: the fluffy pink cloud of early sobriety (and writing first drafts)

When I was in early sobriety, I heard people talking about a ‘fluffy pink cloud’. It’s that high that recovering alcoholics get when they’ve put down the bottle and life appears to be falling back into place again – you feel excited about waking up in the morning, and full of hope for the days and weeks ahead (or at least not as full of fear as before). Not everybody goes through this, but I did. It started when I was a few weeks sober, and carried on for a good few months. In that time, I felt alive again. I sang songs in my head as I waited for the bus to to to work, and I looked forward to the weekends where I would drink tea instead of vodka and chat with fellow recovering alcoholics, safe in the knowledge that I had found my tribe. Life was safe again, and I relished every moment, absorbing the goodness and joy in the world around me.

There is also a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: this too shall pass.

And pass it did. The fluffy pink cloud doesn’t last forever, and it can be a double-edged sword. Whilst it is there, it can help you stay sober, to stay away from the booze one day at a time, but there will come a time when it starts to disperse and everyday life just becomes everyday life, in all its grey, tedious and worrisome glory. And that is when the real work of staying sober begins.

But fluffy pink clouds exist everywhere; they are not exclusive to recovering alcoholics (although I do wonder whether there is something inherent deep in many of our personalities that makes us more prone to them than most).

in my life, I experience many fluffy pink clouds, but the biggest and most glorious of all of them is that high I get when I am writing something I love, something I didn’t realise I was capable of. I had it for months when I was writing the first draft of my memoir. I expect I wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t experienced that high. It’s like a kind of higher power that helps you to believe in yourself, that helps you to plough on and get the job done when the harsh realities of the publishing world and a lack of belief quite frankly would have had you give up at the first hurdle. Fluffy pink clouds are the magic that gets you to the other side without giving up.

And when you’ve got so far, you’re less likely to give up (and that’s the point you need to prop your dreams up with the scaffolding of determination and editing tools).

I’m floating on a fluffy pink cloud at the moment. For years, I thought I couldn’t write fiction. I thought that maybe I just didn’t have the right imagination. Because despite the characters and stories I told myself in my head, they all just seemed to fall apart whenever I tried to get them down on the page. Somehow all the stories I started went the same way. It was almost as if I was trying too hard. So I gave up, and resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t write fiction. No problem, I told myself. I’ll just stick to non-fiction. I mean, I’ve written a memoir. Maybe I could write another? But when I went back to the memoir drawing board, I just kept going over the same old stories again. All roads led back to stories I’d already written.

Now, I guess this is an issue for a lot of writers. You have something you want to say, and you just keep finding different ways to say it. A lot of writers have themes they keep on going back to. So, I had to find out what the things were I wanted to say, and then it would be easy, right?

Sort of. It still took me many, many attempts to get anywhere with fiction though. I wanted to write about addiction, about teenagers, about sex, about families, and I also wanted to write a damn good comedy. And I was attempting to write about all of these things in one book. It just wasn’t going to happen – too much pressure. And I was still trying to write for myself, which was fine for the memoir (to an extent), but what I really needed to do was to branch out and think about audience more.

As soon as I took myself out of the equation, I started to think more objectively about story structure and character arcs, and it was through my reading about the Snowflake method, and authors such as K. M. Weiland and Roz Morris, that I finally had a breakthrough. One night before I went to sleep, I thought out a very sketchy plot involving teenagers, female friendships, absent families and issues surrounding sexual consent. It wasn’t a comedy (alas, I shall come back to The Library Letters when I’ve finished), but I had a few characters I thought I could try to mould. It was perfect. I began writing a brief synopsis and plot the next day, and to my amazement, it didn’t sound trite, like every other attempt I’d ever made at writing fiction.

The plot’s evolved slightly since then, but my passion for the book is still as strong as ever. I’m up to 12,888 words now, and somehow I know this time it’s different. It might be the fluffy pink cloud talking, but I don’t care. It’s helped me to break through the barrier.

I expect the fluffy pink cloud will go pop when I get to around twenty or thirty thousand words (see Emma Darwin’s blog post about the twenty thousand word doldrums here), but for now I’m just enjoying the ride.

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First year, first draft

It took me over a year to write the first draft of my memoir, It Never Rains in Wycombe. Perhaps I’d have completed it sooner if I’d had more time, but I believe the thinking time was a crucial aspect. I’m sure I wrote most of that first draft in my head, while falling asleep at night, or doing the washing up, and sometimes it spilled out onto my morning pages. Then I’d sit down and type – though not in a linear way.

My story formed haphazardly on the page, with odd scenes coming to life in no particular order. Apart from the first and last chapter, I had no plan as to how I was going to write the rest of the story. Sometimes I made lists of events, or vague suggestions for chapter titles, or if I was feeling particularly lazy, I’d jot down everything I could remember about a particular character or place I lived (I’d filter the details later). The main thing was that I needed to be in the right mood to tell certain parts of the story. When I sat down for my half-hour sessions during the day (my eldest son never napped for longer than half an hour until he was two), I’d see where the gaps were and make a snap decision as to where I would begin. The only rule was that I had to write non-stop for at least fifteen minutes.

I didn’t write during every nap time either. Often, there were chores to be done – milks to be made, bottles to be sterilised, washing up, cooking, tidying, and the odd sit down with a cup of coffee. I also tried to read as many books on writing and editing as I could, though there’s only so much you can do in a day, so I often saved the reading for bedtime, however tired I was after baby groups, weaning, nursery rhymes, board books, stacking cups and CBeebies. I always turned my bedside lamp off feeling like there was so much more I ought to have done, but I carried on regardless, making the most of those first months of motherhood, and discovering myself at the same time. Here are some of the highlights of my first year of writing:

Joining a writing group

I don’t think I’d ever have got my first draft finished if I hadn’t joined a writing group. I joined an online group called WriteWords, which was heaving with members when I first signed up. I couldn’t attend a local writing club, because I was wiped out in the evenings, after our son had gone to bed, and I really needed to be in bed with a book before nine o’clock. I knew I needed support and advice though, and WriteWords was full of writers of all levels – from complete novices through to published, well-regarded authors (some of whom I’d even heard of). I joined several of the groups on the site, and I’m still a member today, even though the number of members has declined since I first joined in 2012. Even today, I meet so few fellow writers in my everyday life, that I really value the contact with the friends I’ve made online, and we all keep each other writing, however diverse our projects and goals are.

Giving myself permission to write badly

This is probably the best advice I could give to budding writers, especially if you’re a perfectionist, like me. I always thought that when I came to write my story, I’d just write it in one sitting (!) and the words would all fall into place, as if by magic. However, if you try to let go of that desire to be instantly great, you might actually give yourself the chance to write something that’s probably fairly decent. I cringed and used the delete key so much to start with, and I cringe even more if I ever read any of that first draft. It was very rough, had so many pace problems, and was far too heavy on telling-not-showing. I learned early on to gloss over quite a lot and be a bit kinder to myself – it’s the only way.

End of maternity leave

This was the crunch time for my writing, sink or swim. I knew that if I let the muse go at that point, I’d let ‘real’ life get in the way and probably never write again. It was an emotional time in other ways too, as our little boy was going to be starting nursery, and I worried my special time with him would end. I knew I was being silly in that respect, as I only worked part-time to start with, and I always appreciated how fortunate I was, but it was a leap into the unknown nonetheless, though thankfully in retrospect, not a leap I needed to fret about. As it happened, our son loved nursery, and I enjoyed being back at the library again. It also turned out that I cared enough about my writing project to keep plugging away at it. My schedule required a little tweaking, but the passion was still there, and I held on tight.

When is enough enough?

This question kept me procrastinating for at least three months until I actually decided I’d finished the first draft, and that I ought to start thinking about taking a break before starting the editing process. It was a similar feeling to the way that I’d started writing to start with – I expected I’d just know I was finished, that I couldn’t possibly write another word. Obviously, ‘the end’ doesn’t come come completely out of the blue, but I think I’d expected some kind of sixth sense to kick in, or a fanfare, or something more marked than the kind of uncertain, fearful, anticlimactic, will that do? kind of thoughts that were going through my mind. I spent weeks not doing very much writing at all, until I finally decided that the first draft was complete.

What next?

Apart from the mind-blowing knowledge that I’d written the first draft of a memoir, the reality of pressing the last full-stop key (for the time-being) was fairly disappointing. I rewarded myself with a break from writing for a few weeks whilst I thought about how to begin editing. I had many dilemmas, such as whether to keep the story written in present tense or switch to past tense (I chose past tense in the end), whether to fictionalise the book or not (I chose not to), whether I was allowed to keep the 90s song lyrics I’d put in (not without huge expense). I also had so many questions, like how would I know if I’d got too many characters? How could I stand back far enough from my story to know what to cut? How do know if I’ve got the pace right? Is my story marketable, different enough?

I struggled with the last question, because I suspected my memoir wasn’t different enough, and I didn’t know what I could do to fix it. My dad joked recently that I need to add a hawk, like Helen Macdonald, but ultimately it was a problem I had no solution to. All I could do was to write the best second draft I could, and hope that by the end of it, I’d have more of an idea where I was going with the book. (Disclaimer: Although I have more of an idea what I’m doing with the book now, four years on, I still wish I had a story like Helen Macdonald’s.)

So, there I was with a first draft under my belt, some spare time on my hands and no idea how to begin editing. I worried that was the end of my writing career. Would I even have the courage to start writing again, after a break? It was an uncertain time, as my partner and I were talking about moving back to East Anglia again, and we were also thinking about having another baby. A move and another baby would put my postgraduate study plans back, too, although I’d always known a delay was on the cards. Again, thoughts of writing kept me going. I decided I’d learn everything I could about editing and apply it to my second draft. I was ready to start again.

Starting the second draft was almost as daunting as starting to write in the first place. But because I’d invested so much time, so much of myself into my writing life, there was no way I was ever going to stop.

I still feel the same way.