When Wyl Menmuir sat down to write his first book, he was well aware it was something many aspire to but few achieve. “I knew I needed help to avoid it being just a stack of paper that sat in my bedside drawer. I know too many people who have written half a novel,” he says.
So Menmuir deployed every tool he could think of. He embarked on a creative writing MA for which the planned novel was his thesis. He set himself daily goals. He deployed software to block his access to social media. And he also downloaded an app called WriteTrack (later renamed Prolifiko), which allowed him to set word counts and track his progress.
The result was the Booker-longlisted novel The Many and, thanks to the data he collected through the app, we have a rare glimpse into the process that made the book a reality. The following excerpts are a collection of the notes Menmuir posted in the app and the word count he logged at various points.
Menmuir realised early on that he would need every tool at his disposal to finish his first novel. Having trained as a journalist he decided he would work better with a deadline and set himself a goal of writing 500 words a day, five days a week.
The original aim …Had Menmuir stuck to his self-imposed deadlines the 44,242-word novel he eventually wrote could technically have been written in just 124 days:
Horizontal line indicates no detour
Finishes novel in 124 days
… and how long it actually tookWithin just nine days of setting out to write, he had his first realisation that his 500-words-a-day goal might not work out. Although he didn’t know it at the time, it would actually be one year, 10 months and two days before the novel was complete.
Finishes novel in 671 days
↓ Drop indicates delay from plan
Wyl took more than five months to write 4,300 words, instead of under two weeks had he stuck with the plan
So what goes into making a novel?
Overcoming self-doubtThe data Menmuir collected through the app is peppered with occasions of self-doubt and the fear that what he was writing just wasn’t good enough.
“In that state of suspecting my idea is shit, but trying to ignore myself and stick with it.”
After two weeks and 1,000 words
”This is now more about grit than writing – not sure I’m adding anything useful to the text and can’t really see where I’m going with it at the moment.”
After four months and almost 14,000 words
”Synopsis written, I’ve realised there are some serious holes in my plot.”
After more than a year and over 38,000 words
“I would think the idea was rubbish and why was I bothering with this, so yeah, I definitely had real lows about it. I never hit delete, although I was tempted a couple of times,” he says now, looking back.
“I think putting your work out there is a very vulnerable thing to do. And I think that’s quite scary and you want to do it justice.
“All the way through I had these moments, especially when I read stuff back, where I thought: ‘That’s nowhere near as good as it was in my head.’ The idea in my head was brilliant as far as I could tell, but the words on the page were lacking, so I had to sort of bridge that gap between the two.”
Embracing the feel-good momentsThe self-doubt he experienced at certain points was tempered by moments of elation.
“Great session … Sometimes it’s like trying to walk against a really strong tide and others it kind of carries you along with it and it’s lovely.”
After 10 months and almost 19,000 words
“Had a lovely moment when, while editing at the kitchen table this afternoon, my daughter sat down and started to write a story of her own.”
After more than a year and 34,000 words
“May well have written the best sentence I’ve ever written and will ever write.”
After more than a year and 36,340 words
“Sometimes when I read things back and I’d surprised myself, when it was better than I’d thought,” he says now as he thinks of the ups and downs he experienced during the writing process.
And there were other, more personal, moments that kept him going: his daughter sitting down with him to write or a picture he received of his nephew writing his own novel, having been inspired by his uncle. “Those things really, really helped,” Menmuir says.
“It sounds a bit cheesy, but one of the big reasons I wrote the novel was so I could look my kids in the eye and say: ‘If you want to do something big and creative, make the time to do it. Even if you’re really busy, even if you’ve got other pressures, even if you need to be making money or whatever.’ The novel was never going to make me my millions but I thought it was really important to do, so I wasn’t being hypocritical.”
Procrastinating (well)It wasn’t always easy to stay focused. And while some distractions – like reading and taking walks – ultimately proved productive, others, like social media, tended to interrupt the writing process.
“Just a few sentences added to chapter 1 and then decided to take a Wordsworth and head out for a walk on the cliff path, which I hoped would inspire.”
After two weeks and 1,500 words
“700 words, and I am going to put that down to my newest productivity tool SelfControl, which blocks access to the internet … Sad that it takes something so drastic to stop me looking at my emails or Twitter.”
After over a month and 8,200 words
“A long walk out along the coast this morning hasn’t done wonders for the word count, but perhaps there’s stuff percolating and I’ll wake tomorrow with a whole new chapter.”
After one year and 38,090 words
Menmuir freely admits that social media and other online temptations were a constant distraction: “Twitter, Facebook, Guardian crosswords … I’ll pretty much do anything other than write because most things are easier than writing,” he says.
Such was the pull of online distractions that he used technology to fight technology: an app called SelfControl blocked him from using social media on his laptop when he was supposed to be working.
But he says other, more traditional kinds of slacking, such as walking the the dog and reading books, gave him a well-needed break.
“Having breathing space really, really, really helps. On a long walk you’re subconsciously mulling it over. Your mind is working on it even though you’re not thinking about it,” he says.
Like many other writers, he says reading other novelists’ work helps inspire his own. “It’s important for me to read quality writing,” he says.
“At the moment I’m reading James Salter’s Light Years and the writing in it is just blowing my mind. I think it gives me something to aim for. Each of his sentences is just beautifully crafted and it makes me want to craft my sentences, not like his necessarily, but it makes me want to up my game.”
Downing toolsTime off is important to maintain perspective. But how do you take a break without breaking the spell?
“Half-term no good for writing, but returned to the novel refreshed and ready for the next stage, so maybe it did me some good.”
After nearly two months and 8,900 words
“WriteTrack, it’s been about 25 days since my last confession. Having been on a break, it’s taken a trip to Totleigh Barton to get some more words of the novel down.“
After four months and 11,500 words
“Manuscript open, re-reading, but unable at the moment to get back into the flow for whatever reason. After a couple of months away from it, it doesn’t feel like mine at the moment.”
After nine months and 14,300 words
“You’re living with a novel day in, day out. You’re living with the whole setting, the characters, they’re running around your head. And I think, sometimes, like with any group of friends, you need a break sometimes. You just need to get away from the intensity of it all, because I found it to be a very intense process.
“But the longer the break you take, the further away from the novel you get, and I always worry that I’ve lost something essential in taking a break … but sometimes it needs that distance.”
Celebrating milestonesThree months into the process Menmuir achieved his first big milestone of 10,000 words. It would, however, take another nine before he reached the 20,000 mark and longer before the words on his computer screen began to feel like something more tangible.
“Over 10,000 words in now, so this feels like the first tangible step on the road to achieving my write-a-novel dream.”
After two months and 10,000 words
“30,000 words in. Massive sense of achievement. This feels like it’s actually becoming a novel now, rather than a bunch of ideas.”
After 11 months and 30,000 words
“So the dream has come to be – after three years of writing, I’m announcing The Many is going to be hitting the shelves in June 2016, brought to press by Salt Publishing. Beyond thrilled.”
After 1 year and 10 months and 44,242 words
Looking back now, he says, by marking each of these milestones, “I felt I was making progress”.
Other milestones were not within his power but were hugely important in realising his dream of completing a novel: “When Salt approached me and said: ‘We’d like to publish it,’ it was totally unexpected … That was a massive moment.”