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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Tackling writer’s block

We can spend days, weeks, months, or years blocked as we get through our novels. Some of it could be due to not knowing. Not knowing how to write, not knowing how to craft a novel, not knowing what happens next…

In a previous post I wrote about being stuck, the responses that came out of me were about not knowing the basics of how to write a novel which I deeply wanted to do. Two years later, after reading loads of books on novel writing, a couple of courses later, many drafts later, practice, practice, practice, I’m starting to see the light, through moments of being so stuck and frustrated to moments when I can actually push through and rewrite and say to myself, yes, that’s what I was trying to write, that’s exactly it, that paragraph, that scene or that chapter is working now.

Recently, I got advice from Mia Gallagher, author of ‘Hellfire’, about tackling my novel, at a recent poetry/prose event. She told me to:

1. Take time to do your re-write – don’t feel under pressure.

2. Be honest about where it rings true and doesn’t.

3. Experiment with being uncomfortable – to go further in the writing. The next level is unknown.

4. Use a structured environment to push the most out, to crack through.

5. Stay with the blank page, feel the unease.

To get to that point, to push through those days I get stuck, when things are uncomfortable, when there is unease, I write the sentence ‘What is wrong?’ and write whatever comes out of me down onto the page. So when you’re stuck, ask these questions,

‘What’s wrong?’

‘What’s wrong with this?’

‘Why am I stuck?’

Write whatever comes to mind, be true to yourself. My own responses range from nothing happening, I stare at a blank page as my mind churns away, unaware or afraid to admit what I’m thinking. Let’s be honest writer’s block that isn’t from lack of skills comes from not knowing what should be next or knowing that you’ve written a shitty first draft and haven’t a notion of how to craft and rewrite that draft into something publishable and getting stuck in the re-write of a chapter or part of the novel that may not be working at all.

So write the question down. Dig deep and be honest. My own responses are usually very simple like:

It’s wrong. Something’s wrong.

It’s not working.

It’s boring, repetitive.

Push on further and ask yourself, if there were no constraints on where this story could go, what would be the most interesting thing that could happen next in the plot, and jot the ideas down, brainstorm them out. As the ideas come, one knocks into your thoughts and the chapters/scenes begin to form on the page.

Alternatively, take a break, allow yourself a break, step away from the work and the ideas and inspiration you need, will come again.

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?

Waiting for inspiration

If you’re waiting for inspiration to happen so that you can start writing, well, you could be waiting for a while.

For instance, I get inspired in situations when I’m relaxed, comfortable, happy, content like when I’ve just laid my head down to sleep and I’m enjoying the fact that my head is on the pillow, I’m all snuggled up with my hot water bottle and my dreams will be coming soon…

Then WHAM, inspiration hits and all these scenes run through my mind and I curse and have to switch on the light and pick up a pen and use the notebook (I always have a notebook next to the bed) and I have to make quick notes, scribble down the dialogue between characters (why do they always know what they want to say when I’m falling asleep?)

Obviously I don’t want to write my novel from my bed. In an ideal world, maybe, but in reality I need to re-create this moment so that I can write at other times of the day.

So how do you get inspired?

You have to create situations that you can be inspired in.

So how do you re-create these moments?

Re-create a moment in which you are relaxed and ready to write.

For me, I know that I write best when I know I have a couple of days ahead of me dedicated to writing, minimum interruptions e.g. I just have to feed and water myself at least (yes, includes taking showers and performing the daily ablutions)

I need:

A comfortable chair

The room is warmish

I feel cosy – sometimes I wrap a fleece around my tummy and legs (womb-like for when the house is cold around 10 to 14degC)

Time to myself with no interruptions i.e. I’m relaxed and not under pressure.

Laptop or notebook all ready to go.

When I have all this, I check my notes. Imagine the scene. See my characters there, doing things and I start to write it down or type away.

Most of the time though, I use the notes I made last night before I fell asleep.

P.S. I also use the ‘it’s just half an hour’ technique to make me sit down and write. But basically it works by putting bum in seat in front of laptop, opening up the novel document, referring to my notes, and writing.

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.

A moment of satisfaction

I have printed out a first draft of my second novel which I finished writing last weekend. (My first novel? I completed it to a second draft stage but after working on this novel, I feel a demotion coming on. It’s probably not as bad as I think it is. I wish!)

Anyway, after teasing two hundred and thirty-three pages through a printer that likes jamming every five sheets, I have a stack of paper on my desk that is a first draft of my second novel.

Ah…satisfaction…

Feeling good…

Mmm……

OK, the moment’s over.

Now, to take a look at the bugger and see if it’s structurally sound. On the first novel, I used a check sheet I called my Plot Structure check, which listed out what was supposed to happen in each chapter against the major and minor plots. I also used a Timeline sheet to plan out events to ensure I was consistent with what day I was on per chapter, what time, sunrise, sunset, twilight info and moon phase info in case it was needed in a scene.

For this novel, I’m going to try the idea of a Beat Sheet which I read about in a book called ‘Nail your novel: Why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix and finish with confidence’ by Roz Morris.

I like the ideas in this book. The Beat Sheet seems to be a combination of my Plot Structure sheet and the Timeline sheet with the aim of keeping the focus on scene intention, plots arcs, scene emotion levels and much more. So I’m going to give it a go and see how it works out.

It’s strange but last weekend when I wrote the last word in the last chapter and knew I’d finished the draft of my second novel, I felt really worried and had thoughts running through my mind like ‘the whole book is bad’ and ‘I’ve messed it up’. Anyway, I slept on it and didn’t feel so deflated the next day. (How bad can it be?!)

I think that if I could just get a novel, any one of my novels to a good publishable standard then I think I might believe in myself, know that I can do it. Even though I’m disappointed that I haven’t got to that stage yet, I’m happy to know that I can write another novel. In fact, the second novel was easier to write than the first one. Not easy, easy but it flowed better on some days, not all days, ok I’d say a lot of the things I learnt about writing came much easier-ish this time.

Right so, onwards with the novel writers quest…