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.

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Editing: Where to start

I was about to start editing a colleague’s work recently and it set me thinking about what I look for when I’m editing my own work. I made a list but I know there’s so much more and as a friend said ‘but rules are made to be broken’. That’s true but you need to know what the rules are before you break them.

So, if I was telling myself three years ago how to edit what would I say?

Firstly, read ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Browne and King, ‘Revision and self-editing’ by Bell and ‘Solutions for writers’ by Stein. I think these give a good start to ideas about editing your own work. I’ve read them all three times each over a few years, each reading reinforces ideas, writing gets stronger.

Secondly, write, write, and write. Through writing, we start to incorporate the ‘rules’ and also develop an awareness of when to break some of the rules to create the effect we need.

Thirdly, consider some of these key ideas when editing fiction:

1. Repetition
Words that are used too many times in the same sentence or paragraphs or throughout a section. Think of other ways to show it unless there is no other way and the repetition is deliberate.
e.g. He carried…then she carried another bag…they carried the pots…

2. Cliché phrases
Similes and metaphors that we know are familiar, have heard before. Try to think of a unique way of describing something.
e.g. the sky was blue – try – It was sunny out, a blessed relief following the dull days but a cold night put a layer of ice over the car windows. Jack dashed at it with the scraper. He was going to be late.

3. Excessive words
Words, which if they are cut out of a sentence, don’t diminish its meaning.
e.g. clearly, just, very, now, then,
e.g. he was clearly excited – try – he was excited – or even better, show his excitement – he jumped out of his chair.

4. Linking words
These words, when used, mean that you may need to rearrange sentences to show preceding actions or information before this sentence i.e. if events are in sequence these words are not needed.
e.g. which, that, as,

5. Active versus Passive
Avoid use of ‘had’ unless going into the past of the past. If you get a ‘had had’, find out why and is it really necessary.

6. –ing
Consider use of the definite form e.g. ‘held’ versus ‘was holding’.
-ing is an action in continuous/indefinite form. –ed is the definite form.
Use –ing form sparingly, as needed.

7. Show not tell.
Avoid telling the reader how someone feels, try to show it.
e.g. he said, amazed – try – He said, taking a step back.
Use an action description that shows the emotion.

8. Dialogue tags
If the dialogue is working, then ‘he said/she said’ is all that is needed. The reader skims over these words, using anything else and the reader has to slow down. The reader wants to read the dialogue, not the dialogue tags.

Try to use volume descriptions of said, if needed, e.g. she shouted, screamed, whispered.
It is not necessary to use the dialogue tag to describe what is happening in the dialogue if the dialogue shows it (this is repetitive and superfluous)
e.g. ‘he rejoiced’ when his dialogue shows this already.
e.g. ‘You are right,’ he agreed. Repetition.

Also, don’t combine actions with dialogue tags i.e. you can’t laugh and speak full sentences at the same time. Separate action from speech.
e.g. He laughed. ‘All I can say…’ not He laughed, ‘All I can say…’
‘We’ll go there…’ He pointed to the pub.

Use speaker with tags consistently e.g. he said/she said versus said he/said she. The latter is old fashioned. Whichever way you decide, be consistent.

9. Naming characters
Avoid giving characters similar sounding names, names that start with the same letter or sound e.g. Jim, Jack, John, and Janice met in at the restaurant.

10. Eliminate all trace of the author’s voice, unless author is narrator.
Everything in the work is from the Point of View of the characters (single or multiple), what they say, how they behave, what they see and sense.

Dialogue should sound like your character (time, place, age) not the author.
Also, vary speech – most people don’t speak in really long sentences.
Note: Phonetic dialogue is not always necessary though, can be done subtly.

11. Sentence variety.
Vary sentence length and type. Short sentences speed up the action. Long sentences slow it down.

12. Paragraph length.
Big blocks of writing and the reader usually skims what is in the paragraph. Vary paragraph lengths with the pace you want for the reader. Use dialogue to break monotony of long paragraphs, if relevant.

13. Details
Use concrete and specific details (telling detail) instead of the general.
e.g. the garden was bountiful – try describing – rows of peas, beans and mounds of potato plants. An example of ‘show’ versus ‘tell’.

Weave in details through the scene, if possible. Avoid a massive paragraph of description at the start of every scene (one or two scenes may be unavoidable but not every single one, surely)

14. Plot.
How the story unfolds and keeps the reader interested. Does anything feels forced, out of place, take the reader out of the dream?

So this was my list. But I defer to the three books I named above as describing the things to look for when editing your own or another writer’s work; they give excellent examples, way better than mine.
When editing, you want to retain the writer’s voice in the material not re-write it completely the way you would have written it or described it.

To finish, a dip into Strunk and White’s ‘The elements of style’, or any book on grammar, occasionally, to keep the basics in check.

Rules are made to be broken and that applies to everything in this article but I think when you’re starting to edit your own work, or others, the ideas above would be worthwhile considering.

What do you think?

Nom de plume versus my real name

One of my tutors said that ‘writing is like taking your knickers off in public’. And it’s exactly that. I think it’s scary, really scary trying to be a writer and even scarier showing others your work.

When I started this blog, I had a decision to make and figured that my own name was a bit hard for people to read, spell, or even pronounce. After all, how would my real name look on a book cover? Would people remember how to spell it or even guess how to say it?

I suppose that’s probably because both my first name and surname are regularly misspelled even when I meticulously print them out on forms. For example, an online application produced a name tag for a conference with my name misspelled. How is that even possible? Perhaps someone thought I didn’t spell my own name correctly and decided to ‘correct’ it for me.

My first name is sometimes spelled, or said, as Cecelia or Celia or Cecile or Celine or Cecily or Sheila or…

My surname goes under some of the following: Carelese, Careless, Carlisle, Carlson.

If I’m dictating my name over the phone or in person, I make a point of saying Cecilia – spelt ‘C-e-c-i’ and Carelse – spelt as two words ‘car’ and ‘else’.

Pronouncing my surname depends on where you’re from, with the most accurate pronunciations probably by South Africans or by those familiar with Dutch surnames. Even within my immediate family we seem to pronounce the surname differently from each other.

So I picked Lia Carel (from Ceci-Lia Carel-se) as a pen name, a nom de plume, from within my own name and started this blog as part of myself and my struggle to write.

But I’ve started to think that it’s not really how I want to be known, if I’m not using my real name.

So why can’t I use my unique, ridiculously difficult to spell, or say, real name? I know it’s a tough sell but I think it needs to be done. I could keep an anglicized version of my name but then I have the task of telling people who know me that anything I publish is not under my own name.

OK, I’ll just check what I need to ask myself to ensure I’m making the right decision (made up using Wikipedia’s page on ‘Pen name’):

1. Is my real name likely to be confused with that of another author or notable individual?

2. Do I need a pen name to avoid overexposure?

3. Do I believe that my name does not suit the genre I am writing in?

4. Do I need a pen name to avoid harming my reputation or am insufficiently established in my writing career to publish under my real name or need to save my real name for more literary works versus ordinary novels?

5. Do I need a pen name using the name of the lead character, to suggest to the reader that the book is a (fictional) autobiography?

6. As a female author, do I feel that I need a pen name to ensure my works are accepted by publishers and/or the public?

7. Do I write exposé books about espionage or crime and need to conceal my identity?

I’ve answered No to every question. Note: Question 3 – I’m currently writing science fiction novels. I also write short stories and poetry. I don’t think it matters either way.

The final question is: Do I really want to use a different name for my own work?

And the answer is: No.

OK, so now what? So now, this is the day I own who I am and my writing.

I’m Cecilia Carelse and I’m a writer. How’s it goin’?

Did you think about using a pen name or your real name when you started writing?

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.

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….

Time to write, Time to blog

I haven’t written a blog post in many months. I did however complete one novel and begin another.

So the question I’m asking is if authors of years gone by didn’t spend their time on social media, why was that such a bad thing?

I already know the answer to my own question. The market for publication was very different to the current one. But I still wonder why writers today need to make sure that they spend time on all the many social media platforms before they have even published one iota of work.

Again, I know the answer to that question. Writers need to create a profile online so that they are known before they are famous.

But surely, in order to be a writer, you need to produce the work first, a good finished draft to showcase yourself. Wouldn’t that be better than tweeting about it?

Anyway, I’m digging a hole for myself here because I know the answer to all of this.

– Time management

Today’s author has to be a writer and a business person, has to have a publisher’s hat on as well, also marketing and be their own agent, selling their work constantly through the current media du jour – the internet.

Perhaps the gap in my blog posting is just pure procrastination. (Now technically, I am producing the goods, writing wise, and that was the main reason for starting this blog, to support other writers stuck in limbo with their writing.)

Anyway, I’m back and rearing to go. So what have you been up to these last few months?

The positives of procrastination

The byline of this blog is simple ‘Writing and the art of procrastination’ and yet I’m loath to admit that I get more productive after I’ve procrastinated a bit. After all, we’re supposed to be productive all the time, you know, bang out the 5000 plus words of our target before lunch. Every day. Simples. Not.

This blog post from Positive Writer says it all brilliantly about embracing procrastination, labelling procrastination as taking a break or slowing down but without the guilt trip because a break refreshs you for the next writing session, slowing down reduces stress, gives your mind time to mull over the next scene, action, word.

Here it is: Creative Flow: 8 Reasons Why Procrastinating is Better than Working