Lessons from the journey

I drew the line in the sand in my diary on the evening of Thursday 23rd December 2010 and decided I was going to write a novel. I’ve learned since that the writing life is a continuous journey of learning the craft of writing and learning to live as a writer. It will never stop and if it does, it will be because I have withdrawn from it altogether.

Dorothea Brande gives a warning in ‘Becoming a writer’ in relation to two writing tasks – early morning writing and writing by prearrangement:

‘If you fail repeatedly at this exercise, give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.’

That is hard. Hard to read as a writer/wanna be writer. If anything, I must have ignored that warning when I read the book two years ago and ploughed on regardless. I’ve never done the early morning pages or turned up by prearrangement (well never on time anyway) and somehow pushed out three first drafts, one of which is now a completed novel.

Admittedly, I wish I could be more disciplined, I really do and I keep booking times in my diary to get organised and sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t. I’d say life and distractions get in the way. Them pesky distractions.

But how I got on and wrote more than the day’s date, I’d put down to a combination of things:

1. The decision to give it a go.
I’d written bits of two novels seven years before that date above, and then wrote another bit of a novel two years before the day I made my decision of ‘this is it, let’s just do it, prove I can do this or give up’.

2. Joining a writing group.
I joined one that started in September 2010 and bit by bit it found its feet. The short writing exercises were the start of recognising I could write even if it was only every two weeks. Support from a group is essential, if you don’t feel supported, find another group.

3. Taking a writing course.
The first one, a two day start your novel course, got me to write a first chapter. I wrote a couple after that; doubt set in and I didn’t continue. The second one, I got feedback on a short story and it made me think, perhaps I can do this. The third course I learned how to edit my work; made me realise what I was doing right. Teachers are critical to a writer – I’m glad of the ones I’m learning from, their challenges on how I view my writing and writing life, how I edit, and what I write (been writing performance pieces, one act plays etc… as well as the novel).

4. Reading about writing.
I read every book I could get my hands on about writing. I especially liked the Writers Digest collection on Dialogue, Plot & Structure, Description & Setting, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, and Revision & Self-editing. If I was starting again as a writer, I’d read those as well as: Self-editing for fiction writers, Browne and King; Nail your novel, Morris; Make a scene, Rosenfeld (I may be the only one who needed this). There are other ones on the shelf but these are the ones I’d read again.

5. Reading fiction, all sorts.
I read a variety of fiction, novels, short stories, poetry. Even snippets and samples of other writers, famous or otherwise make you realise your own writing voice. Sample the variety out there. My favourite novel is still Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; I can dip in and out of it and find wonder at her descriptions, not static, moving, move the story forward.

6. Writing lots and editing.
Doing first drafts meant I knew I could get to the end of a story. Moving a novel from first to second draft meant I understood how to examine and revise the structure of a novel. From third to fourth draft, meant learning how to revise, cut, and reshape sentences to make the words and sentences work better. Fourth draft – read aloud to make sure that the ‘fictive dream’ is not interrupted for the reader. Fifth and beyond – feedback from Beta readers.

7. Believe.
The hardest one. Still learning.

So that’s my journey up to today.
What would you have said to yourself starting out?

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Writing a third novel and still doubting

Imagine that you’re writing your third novel and still doubt that you can be a writer.

Last September I completed a novel. Not just a first draft, or a second structural draft, or a third draft tightening everything up, but the final, read it all aloud, every single word, draft and I have three chapters and a synopsis all polished and looking good. And a Beta reader (three to date) read it and gave feedback and when I got the courage a month or so later, I began to send it out to the few agents that deal with science fiction, in the UK and Ireland. I’d send out about three submissions, tailored to each agent’s requirements and when the rejections came in, I’d prepare the next three and so on. The rejections were lovely, kindly written and I knew that I wasn’t their fit. I’m waiting for another two responses at the moment.

That novel ‘The alien woman’ was the second novel I’d written. I began it in November 2012 and completed it after two re-writes to get the plots, subplots, and structure the way I wanted. As I’ve written about in previous posts, the creation of a ‘Fact Sheet’ was a turning point because there were so many subplots I needed to make sure all played out correctly and back stories fixed and set before the revisions would work.

I wrote a first draft of my first novel ‘The 13th vision’ in 2011 and did a second draft in 2012 but it wasn’t working and in November 2012 I took part in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and started the second novel. I did it to prove to myself that I could write and wasn’t a one novel writer. I didn’t want to get bogged down working on one novel for years and not know how to progress it. Also, I figured that a first novel is like a first child, it’s your practice novel. So what better way to learn than starting a second novel and, with new skills on editing and re-reading every book I could lay my hands on about writing, I proved to myself that I could write another first draft.

That’s where the ‘Fact Sheet’ and my own version of a Beat sheet (see Nail your novel by Roz Morris) which I called my Scene and Chapter Intentions sheet were used (see also Scene Intentions) and I moved the second novel ‘The alien woman’ from first to second draft and sorted out structural issues until I was happy with it. The Fact sheet came out of feedback I got from a mentor through Artlinks and the Waterford County Council Arts Office. We were reviewing a draft of the Synopsis. She asked me many questions about aspects of the plot and back story and it made me realise that I kept changing things and needed to fix the facts of the novel (character facts, location facts, plots/subplot facts, back story facts, timeline etc…) before I could do a real structural edit. Once that was done, a full structural draft and then writing the Synopsis became much easier.

In November 2013, I started my third novel called ‘Things to fear’. This novel has been emerging out of me almost fully formed. I’d done a Character Journal and it helped me know my main character in advance before I entered her world. (A first draft does that as well, gives time with a character, a chance to see how they get on, react, live in the world we’ve placed them.) I’ve been a little slower finishing the first draft of this novel. I’m on Camp Nanowrimo since start of April and hoping to make a dent on the end of the novel.

But back to the statement above. I still don’t believe I’m a real writer. Perhaps it’s because I’m not published yet. I’d love to be published the traditional route but I realise that since I’m only starting out and the kind of science fiction/stories I write about may not be what the traditional route is looking for at the moment.

I know I haven’t written much in the last week because I’ve been doubting myself, about whether I’m any good at all, about my novels, my stories and whether anyone will even be interested in them. And whether I should give it up with the odds stacked against me making a living from being a novelist. And I keep thinking that if I complete another two more novels then I’ll have something to show for it and perhaps then I’ll be a real writer.

Heck, I already know what my fourth novel is going to be about. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured it out how to stop doubting myself.

Finishing and the writing diet

Stephen King was right. I was re-reading his book ‘On writing’ and he talked about getting the first draft of a novel done as quickly as possible and in one go because the longer it took, there would be loss of momentum, loss of attachment with your characters and their plight and everything would become a bit of a struggle.

So I should have done that for this first draft and kept going after Nanowrimo last year. But I didn’t. I took a ‘break’, a long one, and I’m dawdling and other things keep fighting for my attention and the novel is not moving on despite my knowing exactly what happens next.

So I have to keep going, make time, and just do it.

Or I have to figure out if it is the next scene or chapter that is the problem and figure out if I need to revise my idea of what happens next.

I did my first draft for my first novel in about six weeks. My second novel took about 2.5 months. And, I think, it’s pure cockiness on my part that I haven’t finished the first draft of this third novel. (Hey, look at me, I finished one novel, this one will slip right out, easy peasy. Wrong.)

Right. Time for bum on seat and get on with it. Plan out a writing plan for the next week, times I can give myself for writing and force through the next few words, sentences, paragraphs and pages until I push through the block holding this novel from progressing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong (to me) with the story of the third novel – I love the ideas I’ve come up with for this novel but I seem to have slowed my momentum down too much and need a mental push to get to the next chapter and so on, until the first draft is complete.

Here goes. Find my writing time. Commit and begin again.

This is just like being on a diet – the writing diet! Fall off the wagon, pick myself up, and start again.

The mind of a writer

Something popped into my mind the other day and I think I need to expand my idea of the mind of a writer because behind the skill of learning to be a writer I think that there are three aspects that get developed: our creative side, our ability to write and to edit the work.

The creative or imaginative side, of us is incredibly powerful but it is only a small part of writing, we have to write those ideas down and then be able to edit them to produce work that will generate something close to what we imagined in the first place for the minds of our readers. We learn the skill of:

1. Creating the story, from our dreams, from our imagination, usually using one of two ways or a combination of both.

We can write with the inner critic switched off and then figure out what the story is about through an analysis of the chapter and scene intentions (see use of a beat sheet described in ‘Nail your novel’ by Roz Morris)

Or decide on the story we want to write first, what will happen and the backgrounds of characters, write a synopsis or plan, and then write it.

2. Learning the craft of writing, the ability to find and place the right words down to produce the illusion for our readers.

3. Editing the story, analysing the plot and subplots by scenes and chapters, and beginning the re-write by moving into the writer/creator head again. Read and analyse the second draft. Re-write again. Analyse. Re-write. Back and forth.

 

I think we move between three minds as a writer and each mind can be learnt and developed:

The creative mind: free spirit, creates ideas, keeps the prose flowing, free-writing.

The writing mind: masters the craft of writing, finding the right words to place on the page.

The editing mind: critical thinker, analyser who can understand the overall imagined structure, the overall plot arc, the chapter arcs, the scene intentions, the layout of a scene, its paragraphs, sentences, specific detail, and the words that make the story come alive.

 

And then when we take our writer’s hat off, we become the person we are to the rest of the world.

Reading while you’re writing

When I first started writing, I noticed that whatever novel I was reading had a heavy influence on my own writing. I seemed to imitate the style of the author in my own prose which was a tad frustrating when I read my work back and noticed it – and then had to correct for it. I particularly remember reading ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ by Anne Enright, the narrator of the story has a really strong voice, and I began to write in a similar writing voice in a couple of chapters of my first novel (the practice novel).

So I came to the conclusion that I had to avoid reading fiction when I was writing my own novels, actually whenever I was writing anything because it seemed to affect even short bits of writing as well, and I decided to only read non-fiction books instead e.g. on aspects of the craft of writing. Bizarrely, when I made that decision, I did most of my fiction reading during periods of writer’s block, like cramming the goodies in when my own writing was driving me demented.

Over the last couple of months, I started reading novels and short story collections again, despite writing on the same days, and, low and behold, I’ve just realised, my writing has not being affected by what I’m reading, which is such a relief after two and bit years of worrying about it. I wonder if the initial problem was because I was only starting out and absorbing different author styles as I learnt, or perhaps it’s because through all the writing I’ve done over the last two years, my own writing style has settled down and I’m naturally moving into it – after writing 4×80,000 drafts, numerous short stories, pads of pads of notes, pads of writing at writing workshops and writing group meetings – it all must have helped cement my own writing voice.

Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome shift and a relief. I can read without being affected!

So finally, at long last, my reading has the desired effect. It stimulates my learning of the craft of novel writing and helps me generate ideas for short stories and other novels, adding to but without infecting my own style.

At last.

First novel going nowhere? Write another one.

If your first novel is driving you demented, stop and write a second novel. Even the act of writing the first draft of a second novel can be liberating. It tells you that there is more than one story inside you and you have the capability to produce it.

Now it doesn’t mean that you will give up on that first novel but you need a break from it and what better way to take a break than to keep writing, using the second novel to sketch out new characters and settings and plot ideas.

I was so stuck on the first novel. It dragged on for over a year and a half after I completed the first draft of it. But after writing the first draft of a second novel, I can say I’m glad I put that first novel aside and showed myself that I can write another novel, rather than what I was limiting myself to in the first novel.

Only you can judge what you want to do next. Stop with the first novel or stick with it. You know exactly what stage you are at. But if you are stuck, really stuck, and have been for a while, trapped with no pass in sight then you need a break.

In April, the Nanowrimo team are running Camp Nanowrimo. A whole month dedicated to writing a novel with support and pep talks from the Nano team. If you are still trundling along with the first novel by then, give yourself a break and let another novel or story flow from you during this month. It’s just one month, you deserve it, and you can go back to the first novel afterwards if you want to.

(I mention Nanowrimo because it gives you pep talks and you feel like you’re writing with other people and you get goals… and whatever, it made me write last November…)

Anyone I’ve told about Nanowrimo says ‘I can’t write 1667 words in a day’ etc…but this is not writing with editing, this is writing with the inner critic switched off. This is writing with only one thing in mind – What happens next?

So what happens next?

First drafts are liberating

First drafts are liberating. They allow you to switch off your inner critic and write, giving freedom to explore a novel idea and, most importantly, get the words onto the page.

A first draft gives you an opportunity to throw your characters into situations you may have envisioned for them. It’s a chance to watch them moving through settings, interacting with other characters, and by the end of this journey you start to know them intimately. For characters that seem one sided or caricatures, you can try different light and shades within their personality to develop them further.

The first draft also gives you an opportunity to introduce new characters or settings or plot ideas which can be cut in the second draft for being too far off on a tangent which you wouldn’t have known about without a trip there in the first place. Or perhaps that tangent could be the unique direction you needed to revive a flagging mid-section.

Do not be scared about cutting work later. I am guilty of this. It breaks my heart to know that I have to delete some beautifully written scenes but if they do not add to my novel, I cannot keep them. The most important thing to remember is that you can produce good writing and now you have the evidence in front of you but you wouldn’t have known it without the first draft.

So let the words flow, let your character take you wherever they want to go, push them into situations and see how they react, push them harder. Keep your end in sight and go to all the places you dreamed about when planning your novel.

Above all, keep going.