The word ‘journey’ is somewhat over-used these days. Nearly every X-factor contestant, Strictly Come Dancing entrant, award-winning actor or actress has been on a journey of some kind or another and is keen to tell us how wonderful, amazing and life-changing it has been or how tough their journey was or how ‘gutted’ they were not to have made it to the end. Yes I find the analogy as irritating as the next person but then perhaps the reason it is used so frequently is that it does represent so perfectly how it feels to take part in a something that lasts several weeks or more, involves learning new skills, meeting new people, forging new friendships or putting seemingly endless hours of love (sometimes blood), sweat and tears into a single piece of work.
As writers we go on journeys every time we move a story idea from concept through to published form. Because story writing happens in stages, doesn’t it, like moving between points on map, or travelling from station to station, stopping here and there to change trains or take a break? And usually, although not always, that journey has a chosen end point, somewhere we are aiming for or a direction we want to move in. Sometimes the destination is very different from the one we first chose, but it’s a destination nonetheless, a finishing post.
I’m on a book journey now, and funnily enough the idea for it came to me when I was on a journey with my family – a Californian road trip. But since inspiration first struck, I’ve taken plenty of time deciding where I fancy going on this particular book journey – months in fact, because I had to check that the journey really was possible and that no one had been there before me. No point in going there if they have. I want this journey to be unique. Then I had to research my destination so I could pack all the right things in my writing case before setting off.
The tricky part of the planning stage is having confidence in your decision. After all, there are so many interesting places to visit, aren’t there, or detours you could make? And everyone has a tip or two, or a favourite destination of their own that you absolutely must explore. But the most sensible journey makers are the ones who seek the right travel advice. They listen to travel agents or seek the guidance of travel book publishers who say things like ‘don’t touch that topic with a barge pole’ or ‘Now I hear that the land of dystopian fiction is popular right now’; people who have already experienced plenty of long voyages and who are more than happy to tell you what they liked or didn’t like about them. But ultimately, it’s down to you. Where do you want to go? What excites you most? Which destination has a big enough draw that you will happily devote the next few weeks, months, maybe years of your life trying to reach it? Because if you’re not inspired, interested, hooked, how the hell are you going to write that Trip Advisor summary and entice thousands of others to follow in your footsteps and read all about your travels?
After all that though, when your tickets are booked, the journey itself should be easy, right? Well maybe, if you’re as prolific a writer as Stephen King or the late Barbara Cartland (who incidentally still holds the Guinness World Record for the most novels published in a single year at a jaw-dropping 23). But for most of us, it’s usually far from easy. Sure, there’s the initial excitement that surrounds closing the front door and setting off, with all the adventure ahead of you, but once you’re half way down the M1 or three hours into that long haul flight, with only a soggy meal in a compartmentalised tray or a boring B movie to keep you entertained, the reality hits. Yes, travelling requires a shed load of patience and at times you will feel like you are never going to get there. You have so much baggage to bring with you, and now you’ve gone to the trouble of packing it, you’re damn well going to use it. But at some point you’ll realise that you really should slim those bags down. Throw some of your luggage overboard. Travel lighter. You’ll feel better for it.
Some writers worry that they will hit writer’s block – that unexpected closed road, cancelled flight or derailed train. Whether or not it will happen to you depends on your mode of travel. We are all different. We all like to make our journeys in different ways, and that’s healthy. There’s no right or wrong way, but personally I believe that if you have planned your journey well enough, you’re far less likely to run into road block. I’m not saying that you need to plan every detail of your story journey in advance but I do think that if you have something to aim for, you’ll always have some kind of path to follow, something to try. If you fail, then fine. If you need to make a diversion, no problem. But at least you haven’t spent the whole day sitting in the traffic jam staring at the back of the car in front of you. Be prepared to get a little lost on your journey too, perhaps many times. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with taking a wrong turn or trying an alternative route, because your experience will usually be the richer for it. You’ll come away stronger and more certain of where you really want to end up.
If you’re like me, you’ll have days on your writing journey when you’ll move quicker than others. You’ll rattle over the points, zoom across the sea, fly through the air at supersonic speed. Then there will be those days when writing feels more like a slow trudge through treacle. I find those days the hardest, when sometimes the scope of the trip I’ve taken on seems overwhelming. It’s those times when it’s tempting to give up, call the nearest cab and allow myself to be driven home. But anyone who feels like that should buckle their seatbelt right back up and stick with it, because eventually a tiny light will appear at the end of the long, dark tunnel. Journey’s end will be so close you can touch it, smell it, feel it, describe it in as much detail as possible, always remembering to show, not tell. (Of course.)
So yes, stick with it, keep on travelling, because when you reach the end of that tunnel you will stop and look around you and see that you have reached that very special place: the land of the first draft, where coffee and cake – and usually something stronger – awaits.
Now don’t be fooled: the journey is still far from over. There’ll be a second visit, a third, probably a fourth and maybe more return visits to come, none of which should be made before you’ve had a much deserved rest and a good stretch of time far away from the land of the first draft. But it will be worth it. Honest.
I’m nearly at the end of the tunnel on my latest journey. It’s felt like a long one, and I’ve had a hell of an adventure along the way, but I can’t wait to sit back and reflect on how I got to that point. I shall print off my first draft, find a comfy chair and I shall revel in all the best bits and no doubt be horrified about some of the worst, but I will know that the bulk of the journey is behind me. So watch out, clear the roads, because I’m coming through. Now if only I could find that damned car key…