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 It will never stop and if it does, it will be because I have withdrawn from it altogether.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?

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.

Struggling to finish

I remember doing one of those personality tests years ago and I remember ignoring the results. It was something like…I was good at starting and investigating things but poor on completion i.e. finishing.

So when I struggled to finish the second draft (second attempt at second draft) of my second novel (note: first novel still needs to be re-written and third novel draft to be finished) that I noticed that for the first half of the draft I was flying along with the words and ideas and, hey, life was great, it was a breeze…

But then, when I had to bring it to a conclusion, I seemed to hit wall after wall of self-doubt that I could do it.

So how did I call time and bring a halt to that stuttering of thought…how did I get myself to write the next word, the next sentence, and the ones after that?

I told myself that I can do this. I have been doing this.

To breathe in deeply.

Remind myself; Believe. Listen. Trust.

Believe in me.

Listen to me.

Trust in me.

Told myself, I will be a finisher. I am a finisher. End of.

And then got back to the writing….

Tying up loose ends

I’m terrible. I keep changing things constantly as the story progresses in my novel and thinking ‘ooh, that’s a better idea now, I’ll use that’ and then I have to make note of the change and go back through chapters to introduce the idea or cut out the previous idea from scenes as I feed the new idea in.

Anyway, as usual I got carried away with this on the current novel (perhaps this is one of the reasons the revisions seem to be never ending) and at a meeting with a literature mentor, it dawned on me that if my mentor has questions about the synopsis and I still have ideas that haven’t been worked into the novel then this novel is never going to end unless the ideas are finalised and stop changing.

It gets to that stage of writing that when someone else reading your novel keeps asking questions about it and even though you keep an open mind and accept the critique, you need to ask yourself – if this reader has to ask these questions, what other questions haven’t been answered?

Ok, most of the time I have the answers and sometimes I haven’t thought about it at all. But for every question that was raised, it meant that there loose ends in the novel that had to be tied up. And adding to this, there were also unanswered questions in my own notes that needed to be fleshed out and determined as well before I continued writing.

So to solve the problem, I made a new list called a Fact Sheet – a list of everything I was asked (yes, even if it seemed to be a silly question). Then I wrote about each item, clarifying and/or re-enforcing the facts about it.

The facts were about settings, characters, their backgrounds, the locations, the plot, and the subplots and I added two separate columns to indicate which chapter a fact is hinted at and when it is revealed in full. E.g. character X is married to Mary and has two young boys. Was B’s best man and got him current job at the Institute.

Now all that needs to be done is to review each fact and decide when and where it goes into the story line (Or even, does it need to be known at all – not all back-story needs to be told). Hints and reveals are shown via thoughts, dialogue, and descriptions from the point of view character, for example, as foreshadowing before a fact is revealed. Sort of drip feeding the information throughout the novel rather than going ‘ta da’ at the end and trying to reveal everything in one big chapter.

I’ve made up the Fact Sheet and I feel like I’ve cemented the unanswered questions now. Plus everything on the Fact Sheet is going to help me with my synopsis. Onwards we go…

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.

Getting over the initial fear

Getting over the initial fear of putting pen to paper, placing my fingers onto the keyboard, opening up the last draft, checking my notes, starting the corrections, adjustments, editing my work, working on the millionth (it feels like it) revision of a chapter or a scene, some days feels like the hardest thing in the world.

Knowing that the chapters and scenes that I’ve looked at and edited will work better, read better after their revisions and convincing myself to keep going because this next chapter, this next scene, after I put in the changes I’ve identified that it needs, will be better. It will sing, exactly right, exactly the way I want it to. I’m getting there.

So, today, I feel the fear, the worry inside that tells me ‘what if you are wasting your time, what if this novel is crap?’ and I try my best to ignore it, that malicious little voice, and I shout back ‘But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the precious fragments in my writing that tell me I’m mastering this craft, I’m doing this, I can do this’.

And then I tell myself.

‘Do not be afraid. Write. You deserve to have your voice heard and your words deserve to be read.’

P.S. I feel like I’ve been editing forever…thank goodness I sorted out all the plots and subplots, this should work better now. All I have to do is keep going, with a little faith…No, with a lot of faith.

The second draft edit

As we weave our way through the process of trying to get at least one novel published, many options are presented for editing that we try out to determine if they will work for us.

I watched a video about editing and in it an author said that you will have to cut out half of your book, cut out whole scenes, just cut, cut, cut. But he didn’t explain what you have to cut.

For a beginner novelist, I think that this is overwhelming advice. When I heard him say that, I thought why didn’t you tell them it like this, see below, which is a bit more realistic than just ‘cut, cut, cut’. So these are my thoughts…

During the editing phase of your novel:

1. You will cut, revise, and rearrange most of your novel to pull the best from it in the revision and editing phase.

2. Initially, using a top down approach, you will look at the structure as a whole, examining the scene and chapter intentions through the whole novel.

3. You identify which chapters and scenes were a nice detour during the first draft but now add nothing to move your plot along, unless part of interesting sub-plots. These will need to be cut unless they are revised to incorporate plot elements that move the plot forward.

4. You will look to see if additional material is required to improve missing sections or holes in the plot.

5. You will look at which scenes require revision of their structure to make the plot work better within them. Sometimes a scene can work harder by being combined with another one. This includes situations where you have too many characters – which ones can be combined into a single character.

6. When you have completed the overall rewrite to ensure a better structure for your plots and subplots, you analyse plot within each chapter and within each scene and then within each paragraph. Make every sentence in your novel work harder for every word contained within it.

7. And when your heart has stopped breaking with all the changes you’re going to make, then you will remind yourself that this can all be done in small bite-size steps.

8. You will learn how to flick between creator and editor continuously during this process.

9. You must also keep reminding yourself that you are a writer and you will complete this novel.

Does this sound closer to your editing process?