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An arctic tale

An arctic tale

I once saw a documentary about dog sledding in the Arctic. The show had (I think) three teams racing to the Pole using broadly the same kind of technology that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once used.

The Norwegian team won the race (obviously: they were Norwegian), but the TV show focused mostly on the exploits and struggles of the British team, all of whom were strong and committed – but who had no experience of the arctic. Or huskies. Or dog sleds. Or the arduous cross-country skiing involved. Or indeed, anything actually relevant to arctic travel. 

I’m thinking about that documentary because (drum roll, cymbals, and your choice of other percussive instruments) I AM ONCE AGAIN WRITING A FIONA GRIFFITHS NOVEL. 

I’ve been so busy with all things Jericho for the past year or two, I just haven’t written much. I’ve had a half-written novel on my laptop all this time and not had the time or clarity of thought to drive it forwards. But now I actually do. And I’m 50,000 words into a novel that’ll be about twice that length when cooked, which means … 

I am about halfway towards the North Pole … 

Any map I once had has long ago been shredded by ice and wind … 

I’ve no damn idea how long this journey is likely to take … 

And I would quite like to go home, curl up in front of a log fire, and see how many crumpets I can eat. 

The simple fact is that there is something unnerving about being a long way into a book but also a long way from that blessed THE END. Most first drafts just are a bit shite. That’s not an original observation, I recognise, but it is one that intrudes quite forcefully at about the 50,000 word mark. 

As it happens, I’m free of a lot of standard author-angst. I know I put sentences together quite nicely. I know my characterisation works. If I write a scene that lacks colour, I know how to revive it swiftly and effectively. I know that I have the tools to identify and fix most problems. 

But still. 

In my head, I can’t help but compare this current draft to all the perfected drafts of previous novels that have now been published. And this book is, at the moment, just plain worse than all of them. Hurtling forwards into that arctic gloom seems like the only thing to do – but also a rather pointless one. It feels like a somewhat painful way of making a big dull thing instead of a small dull one. 

So this is where we have to separate brain and instinct. 

My instinct just says: “Go home. Eat crumpets.” 

My brain says, “No, look, don’t you remember that you felt roughly this way with ALL your books? Or perhaps not every single one of them, but certainly most, and every single time you went on to fix the issues.” 

And my brain’s right. I even know that my basic premise is fine. (Secure psychiatric hospital on the west coast of Wales. Stuffed full of veterans with Special Forces experience. Lots of shenanigans. Perfect for my character and my readership.) So really, I just need to bash out a draft, list the issues with that draft, then start fixing them. 

And that’s right. That’s the right advice. That’s what I’m going to do. 


Two plump little buts to offer you. 

But the first. 

The first but is simply that this midpoint anxiety often generates little flashes of insights. As I was worrying about my book, I realised that I hadn’t properly made characters of the key doctors at the hospital. But since the shenanigans needed to involve them, they had to feature properly in the early part of the book. And I need to do that in classic Agatha Christie style – where readers all suspect the irascible Italian, only to discover that the avuncular parrot-keeper is the baddie. 

If I fix that issue in the book now, my first draft will be that little bit closer to target and, overall, I’ll save myself work. 

If I had closed my mind to the worry, I wouldn’t have had that insight. My journey to the pole would have been longer and frozener that it needed to have been. So worry’s good. It’s creative. 

But the second. 

The second but is more vicious than the first. It’s a yawning crevasse camouflaged by the tiniest bridge of snow. And it’s this: 

Sometimes you really are writing a terrible book. Sometimes, it’s not simply that your execution of the idea is standard first-draft bad, it’s that the idea itself is beyond saving.

This is where I have a layer of shelter not available to most of you. I know that I have a readership for another Fiona Griffiths tale. I know this idea basically works for this genre and this detective. I know that I have publishers contracted to take the book I’ll give them (as well as a larger audience that comes to me via self-publishing.) 

But it’s not always like that. Not even for an author with a significant publishing history. 

The fact is that most writers, most of the time, have to ask, “Is this just a hideous mistake?” Sometimes the answer is yes, in which case the solution isn’t simply more labour, it’s the hard decision to abort proceedings. 

In that documentary I mentioned, the British team suffered with frostbite and wounds that needed antibiotics. But antibiotics hadn’t been available to Amundsen et al, so they weren’t available to the team. 

Continue or give up? 

It was a real question. As I remember it, one member of the team thought he could continue despite a nasty looking wound, and he was right. Another one – an international oarsman with a couple of Olympic golds – just took the view that his job was to continue marching, no matter what. Because his view was overly inflexible, he became detached from his team and would have been exceptionally vulnerable had he encountered a concealed crevasse, or picked up an ankle injury, or gone off route, or anything of that sort. He survived, but he might not have done. He made the wrong call. 

And you? 

I don’t know. I don’t know your book. 

But I will say that you must have an idea that works. That’s why I get so loud about the importance of a strong elevator pitch. That’s why it’s important to bake that elevator pitch right into the very essence of the novel. 

If you do that, if you have a powerful idea and your book truly delivers on that idea, you need to hurtle on to the Pole. Yes, you’ll have a draft with a whole frozen ocean of problems, but those things are fixable and you’ll get the job done. 

But if your idea is unworkable, then abort, abort, abort. Throw away your wooden skis. Discard that pemmican. Find yourself a helicopter ride back to somewhere civilised. Get home, light a fire, eat crumpets, start again. 

For me now, I’m confident in my idea. It really is just a word count challenge to complete the draft. 

Mush, mush, my lovable husky friends. That thing there, through the murk? That’s the Pole, that is. Onwards! 

But what about you, my fine parrot-keeping friends. How far are you towards your own Pole? What are your thoughts & feelings on the way And how do you get on with pemmican?

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  1. Wow. I haven’t had any interaction with pemmican since reading Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons oh-so-many decades ago. I’m actually quite impressed I remembered where I had come across the word.

    1. I read a history book about an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, but trying to find it by starting in the Pacific, going north to the Bering Sea, up around Alaska, and heading east. The voyage was a disaster. The ship got stuck in a ice jam for months. Eventually the ice crushed the hull of the ship and they had to evacuate. They managed to save a lot of their provisions and other supplies. They camped out on the ice for a long time and set out to find land, eventually making it to an island only inhabited by bears and walruses. After some time, a small party set out to find civilization and they succeeded. As it turned out, the ice pack sent them for to the west before the ship was crushed, the uninhabited island in which they set up camp was Wrangel Island, and where they finally encountered other humans was somewhere was in Siberia. Several months later, a rescue ship went to find the remainder of the crew on Wrangel Island. If I recall, only a dozen or so members of the crew survived. In any event, while my memory of the story is very poor, I am certain the word used most often in its manuscript is pemmican. 

  2. Great blog!  I especially love the reference to hurtling towards the creation of a big dull thing.  I wish there was a way of testing the viability of an idea at an early stage rather than have to go all the way to the end and start the messy and lengthy business of editing and pitching. When writing non-fiction, the opportunity to pitch an idea with an outline and sample chapters is a great way of testing the market.  It would be great to have a similar opportunity for fiction.

    1. Ah, but there is, Freya.

      If you plan your work enough in advance to know who the underlying theme is (the soul-soul as Harry referred to it a few posts back), then you can mention that to others as the story you’re “about to work on.” The number of people who respond with “tell me more” will give you a good indication of viability.

    2. There is a way of testing an idea in advance. It’s the elevator pitch. Granted, the pitch could change a little bit once you down to the business of writing the book, but I think if you just run an elevator pitch by several people, you’ll see whether it excites them or not. That’s how I got started down my road to who knows where. I had an idea that excited me and I shared it with a bunch of people I trusted wouldn’t steal it and when the responses were generally positive, I decided that I was onto something and that I should plow straight ahead and see where it takes me. 

  3. Clear views and bright skies with a tail breeze from where I am progressing… If you know where you are going, you’ll get there. If you don’t… well, you’d better get a map before departure.

    Harry says above “you must have an idea that works” and “if you have a powerful idea…” The problem is: not all ideas are powerful, and most ideas don’t work.

    From observing what agents & publishers have been picking lately, I think powerful ideas that work always have some sort of social commentary underpinned. Just an idea. Might work… no?

  4. Hmmm. I rather fear that I’m currently in the middle of trying to round up all my dogs, who are racing around barking and yipping and play-fighting with each other, and won’t be tempted into the harnesses no matter how much tasty dog food I wave at them or how stern my shouted commands. The air is echoingly clear. But there are some clouds on the horizon I don’t like the look of. And the rest of the team, peering out of the meagre shelter of the already written words, are giving me the benefit of the doubt but occasionally muttering into their hands, or in one case into her shoulder, that they wish I’d get on with it…

    I don’t want to let them down. But the dogs are behaving poorly. 😓 

  5. Hello Harry and everyone,

    I haven’t even made it to the snow yet, still trapped on the one-way system around Chester (read Melbourne, Australia).

    My first MS is finished and ready to be squished into a pack and sent for rigorous pre-sledding checks prior to spying the remote, black specks of interested agents that are currently hidden by roaring blizzard winds. This has left me, like Harry, wondering why the words I’m putting down for the first draft of my new WIP aren’t nearly as pretty and polished as the ones I’ve been immersed in up to the top of my snowboots for the last couple of years. Unlike Harry, I haven’t been published yet (in long fiction) so am also wondering if my idea is any good, my writing any good, and if it really was a good idea to put peanut butter on my crumpets! 

    But in the immortal words of the many sledders who have gone before me, all I can say is ‘Mush, Mush!’ and press on into the ice-cold wind. If I don’t believe I can get to the Pole, then my super plot, story and characters certainly won’t follow. 

  6. Thank you!! Perfectly timed! Chapter six opened yesterday and it didn’t hold my attention!  Did I want to leave and explore what looked like an empty and draughty landscape? I let my mind drift to: ‘what about chapters seven, eight and nine’? Already, in my mind, chapter two has been frozen out completely… or had it? Was it confusion or intrigue that itched at the corner of my thoughts? Would chapter two arrive again, in a different form, at a later date? And, I had been more surprised than anyone at what occurred in chapter five – strange and surprising answers so soon in this journey and plot! And, hello! Was that a new thread that no one had noticed and now began to weave itself through to chapter – well who knows, possibly chapter eleven or twelve!!  I wish I had huskies to mush, but they would be a foolish thread in my tale!  However… who knows after chapter twelve!! Thank you again!!