What do meditation and novel writing have in common?
When I was taught to meditate, the very first thing I had to learn was how to stop distractions, to clear the mind, by turning my attention to my breathing. The aim is to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body, and then to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
When I first tried this I became instantly and acutely aware of the cacophony that is going on inside of my head. The thoughts, the questions, the wondering if I should have cheese on toast for tea…and how easy it is to follow those thoughts skipping off through my brain. Ooh look, badgers!
My teacher described these thoughts, and how we should deal with them, as like puppies that we have to train. There are many, many puppies. They are interesting and fun. It is tempting to follow them as they gambol off down the garden, trailing your toilet roll behind them. Ooh toilet roll, I must add that to the shopping list. Oh, and coffee. Ooh I could just do with a coffee actually. I’ll just go and…
So the idea is to train the puppies. When you notice a thought popping up which is not the ‘in and out’ of breathing, you do not pick it up and cuddle it, let it lick your nose. No. You say ‘Hello, puppy. I’m busy right now so sit down. We’ll play later. Sit. No, sit. Sit!’ And you go back to thinking about your breath.
The puppy will sit for a while but will either get up again after a few seconds, or else a new one will bound over. Perhaps two. They run in packs, you know?
But if you are firm with the little darlings, repeatedly, eventually the puppies get bored and they stop bothering you. And then there you are, with a clear and lucid mind. You are meditating, you have a sense of inner peace and relaxation. It’s actually very refreshing to get a break from all that noise…
What was I talking about? Oh yes, first drafts. So, when I start on a novel, it tends to take shape in this way:
First there is an idea – it can be a character or a setting or a conflict – that starts to grow. I ruminate on it. I take notes. I indulge in literary doodling. I draft out characters, I explore scenarios. Mull over plot points. I form pictures in my head of the characters and the overall ‘feel’ of the book. I write sample dialogue. I write sample settings. I test out voices. I have no idea if this is a normal way to go about things, but this is what I do.
At some point there is a tipping point, where I’m happy that I have enough of a framework, sufficient material to work with, that I need to commit myself and just start the process of writing – the rhythmic, day-in-day-out storytelling that will add up over the next few months to a first draft.
I arrived at that tipping point last week. I sat down with my notes and doodles and draftings and various other musings, ready to get cracking on the actual first draft of my next novel (it has to be written before the summer holidays, you have permission to nag me about word count). I open up my new manuscript project, set the word count target and…
Here come the puppies!
I shall name a few of them. Have you met?
– Research Puppy (Shall we just research this element before we start? It could be important.)
– Perfect Tense Puppy (Is this the right tense to be using? What about all the downsides? Maybe we should think about it some more?)
– Point of View Puppy (You know, once you’ve started writing in First Person it will be a pain to change it to third if it doesn’t work? Maybe you should think about it some more? Best to be 100% sure.)
– The Puppy of Perfect Beginnings (You know, an opening line has to be an attention grabber. Everything rests on that first line, that first paragraph. Let’s just work on getting that right today).
– The Naming Puppy (That character’s name just doesn’t sound right. We should re-think it. Let’s Google some names.)
There are more.
Fortunately I am wise to their game, and they are currently sitting in a nice row while my word-count-ometer ticks satisfyingly upwards. But I know they’ll be back…