Feedback Frenzy

image credit unsplash.comI recently went to my regular writing workshop. A couple of us meet every 2-3 months, to critique each others stories.

My initial reaction to my feedback was positive. Okay, so I had a plot problem. But at least now I knew, I thought to my myself. This will be great. Knowledge is power.

But then something strange happened. It was as though all those grey tubey-looking parts of my brain starting twisting around themselves, and I realised that fixing this problem was a mammoth task. How would I fix it? And if I did fix this one piece of plot, how would it affect the rest of the book? I had smugly thought the book was finished, ready for submission. But now here I was with a significant problem smirking at me, like a steamy eyed skull.

Hello feedback frenzy.

One little plot problem. A tiny bit of the story that didn’t quite work. If I’m honest, I knew it didn’t work. Every time I thought about it, I had a niggling feeling in my bones, that this was lazy writing, that it wasn’t age appropriate, that it needed to be fixed. The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ignored the tug of the alarm bell-string in my chest, and kept on writing.

But when a room full of people (who know things) said that this needed to change, I had to listen. I had to stop seeing the problem part of the plot as a weak area, and start seeing it as anti-plot. But how?

When faced with calamity, I always go back to the basics. First, I thought about how I would fix a problem with something small, like a sentence.

For example, if I wrote this:

“The moon sparkles in the sky.”

I would quickly realise that I have a problem. I’ve written a cliché. If I try to fix it by altering what I already have, all I can think of are similar words;

“The moon shines/ twinkles/ glimmers in the sky”

The cliché remains, and so does the problem. So instead, I delete the whole sentence and start from scratch.

“Moon-rays frame the sky like bleached rainbows.”

It is much easier this time to come up with something original, because my brain isn’t trapped into the old phrase. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to fix a cliché, than a plot problem. I deleted the anti-plot from my text, and spent three days with no idea how my story could progress. Eventually  I stopped trying, and that’s when the Bing! moment arrived. On a long car journey, with a Roald Dahl audio-book sparking my imagination, I worked out how to progress my plot.

However, by starting from scratch and inventing a whole new reason that A led to B in my story, I caused untold havoc to the rest of the book. I didn’t just unleash a can of worms, I also chopped those worms in half, and had to watch as their tails wiggled off in the opposite direction to their heads. One tiny plot change, affected every chapter in the book. It led to two chapters being deleted, and one new chapter being written. It led to the entire sequence of the story being shuffled around.

Hours of work.

Hence the frenzy.

But now it’s nearly finished. I’ve spent a week editing and can honestly say that the book is ten times better now than it was. Feedback may send an earth-quake through your text, but at least you know that all the good bits get left behind. And what you build after the earthquake is a stronger, firmer story.

So bring on the frenzy.

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Outside Opinions: On Writing

This month I had a writing revelation. I was at the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference, and the theme was “Better Together”. Everyone was talking about collaboration, and how projects can come to their full potential when people work together. There was talk of illustrators working with writers, writers working with editors and agents, etc. There was also talk about how authors pull and play with ideas during the writing process, getting ideas, joining ideas, smashing ideas, but most importantly to me, asking for an outside opinion.

Now, I’ve always known that writing at a professional level means getting outside opinions. I’ve read plenty of editor-feedback horror stories, with writers pulling their hair out (sometimes even teeth), because the editor wants a different ending or middle or entire story. If you have an agent, or pay for a Reader’s Report, that will also bring a whole pile of opinions and changes. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I embrace it. But I always felt like they’re allowed to change it, because they’re professional, they know what they’re doing. And your book is already at a fairly advanced and organised stage if you are handing it to an editor. Your idea is well formed. But the thought of getting an outside opinion on a young and fragile idea hadn’t really occurred to me.

At the conference, there was a very amusing and awe-inspiring panel titled “An Abundance of Katherines”, where Cat Doyle asked Katherine Woodfine, Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette, at what point do they share their story? Katherine Woodfine answered that she discusses as she goes, working out the plot and history, often with her husband’s ear (marrying a writer should come with an “I’ll use and abuse your ear warning”). While Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette hold their ideas close, for fear that telling someone will take the magic out of it, and they only show their story when it’s all worked out. But they both then share it, and take on board suggestions and make changes, even if it means huge plot changes (including alternative endings).

You sometimes hear of writers who don’t need to think about what they’re writing, that the story gets channelled through them. I’ll admit this happened me once, for a kid’s early reader. The idea just popped into my head and the short book flowed out of me in about 4 days. I thought “This is it. I’m a writer now. What’s the next story?” Alas, it was a one time lucky sort of thing. And so, I regularly get stuck on plot. But for some reason, I didn’t know I was allowed ask for outside help on a first draft. Now that I think about it, I realise how ridiculous that was of me. I mean, it’s not like there’s one rulebook for writers, and everyone has to follow it. More like there are loads of rulebooks and you pick which style suits you. A little bit from this, a little bit from that. Similar to becoming a parent and realising that all the parenting books give you conflicting advice, and the only way to get through it is to follow your gut and that’s the end of it.

I’m the kind of person that sorts out my thoughts by talking to people about them. My husband gets the brunt of this thinking jumble. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve always held back a bit. I’ll throw the main points at him, explain what I’m writing about and why, and occasionally bounce around the kitchen in excitement when some whacky idea arrives that I know will fix a big plot hole. But I don’t normally toy out my plot with him, because my diaphragm gives a little twist if he suggests a big change that I know will make my story better. In fact, I usually pretend I didn’t hear him when he does that. I want to play with my ideas, get an opinion on whether it will or won’t work, but I ultimately want the solution to be mine (my precious, baby!). More of a “Should I do storyline A or storyline B?” I absolutely did not want my husband (or anyone really) to have a brain-storm moment about my book. Because is that allowed? Can I call it mine, if someone else had an input? If he suggests an alternative ending, can I even use it, or is that a big juicy lie? Would I have to write on my submission letter, “This is my novel, but my husband came up with the ending.”?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I remember the first time I handed over my first daughter to be minded by someone else. The panic, the what-ifs, the “no-one can be as good as her mother” notion that swam around my under-slept brain. But as my daughters grew, I realised that they thrived from outside input, that it brought out new sides to them, and took the pressure off me to be superwoman. Being too closed off, up on a high pedestal with your writing, can give your book cramp. This “Better Together” conference taught me that you don’t have to be the one and only creator of your book, that the end story is the most important thing. And if that means calling in the village, then so be it.

Ignore Imposter Syndrome and Get Going.

Starting is the easy part. How many times have we all started something new with a heart full of giddiness? The thought that we can do it bouncing around our head, the imagined success and the wonder of the completed project a sparkling goal that seems within reach. And how long into a new project do we start to doubt ourselves? Or conveniently schedule other activities during the time we’d set out for this project. You just have to look at the spike in gym attendance every January to know what I’m talking about. A sky scraper of motivation knocked down when life gets in the way. But does life really get in our way, or do we get in our own way?

The two biggest reasons I have for quitting projects are laziness, and self-doubt. Laziness stops me exercising enough, going out in the evening to stimulate my tired brain, painting the shed (two-toned is in…right?). I think, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have more energy, the weather will be better, I’ll make time. Procrastination defines my relationship with writing short stories. I go from writing novel to novel so I don’t have to face the challenge of short stories. I was always better at long-term relationships than flings. I find novels easier, less pressure to get each word right from the start. I can be lazy in my writing, because I’ll do a huge editing haul at the end and the main thing now is achieving my daily word count. It’s also a relief knowing what I’ll be writing for the next few months, because I’m writing a novel. Short stories end too quickly, they need a lot of thought and a big punch. And as soon as it’s written, I’d have to think of something else to write, and what if I can’t think of anything? What if I run out of ideas? What if I forget how to write? Imposter syndrome, anyone?

I don’t just have imposter syndrome with short stories. I always start my novel with more gusto than a Tornado, but by the time I reach the mid-way point, I think it’s utter cow-dung. I suddenly don’t know how I’ve spent so many hours working on this smelly manuscript, and what is there to show other than some mouldy coffee stains? The first time this happened me I was devastated, sitting there watching flies hover around the manuscript, wondering how I ever thought I could pull this whole ‘writer’ thing off. I wanted to just go to bed, without even washing my teeth, so deep was my despair. Instead I printed the thing out, read through the hard copy, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t half as stinky as I thought it was (2 years later, I now know that it was actually dreadful, but that’s beside the point).

I’ve become used to this half-way doubt. And I’ve learnt that even if it is a total stink-bomb of a novel, the sense of achievement at finishing it is always better than quitting. I’ve finished writing projects and never looked at them again, knowing they didn’t work, but still been dead proud of myself for getting through a beginning, middle, and end. And that feeling of pride at the end is what propels me forward to the next project. As a general rule, I keep writing until it’s finished, because I never know until well after the ending whether it’s any good. My inner critic would have me abandon everything I write, because at some point I’ve thought everything was awful.

Laziness, I find, is the easier evil to beat. I just need to be willing, and thankfully I have some serious willpower when it comes to my dream of being a writer (it’s easier to find will-power for a passion, rather than say, jogging, which brings me little more than sweaty armpits). For me, it’s all about making a routine. A commitment, setting an alarm, telling people the resolution so I am held to it.

Getting to the end of your novel is one thing, believing in it is another. It’s hard to believe in your writing when you get rejection after rejection. Each polite ‘this doesn’t fit our list’ another piece of coal for the inner critic burning inside. So once you get to the end of a novel, and edit it, you now need to gather all your willpower. Forget about taking the lazy option and take your head out from under the pillow. Realise that the real imposter here isn’t you, it’s your inner critic. So tell it to go take a hike.

Finding Ideas

Cloud Idea Bubble - CC0 - pixabay-Alexas_Fotos-686414Ideas come to some authors as easily as sweat comes to armpits in the gym. I’ve heard of authors who have drawers full of ideas, note-books overflowing with anecdotes and stories just waiting to be used at a later date. There are authors who carry special fly swats to rid the air around them of new ideas, so that they can focus on their current book. Alas, I am not one of those authors. On the contrary, I have more next-novel-idea angst than a teenager in an existential crisis. Saying that, I’ve never completely run out of ideas. I’ve always found something to write, but I never know if the idea is good enough until I put pen to paper. I find it very hard to believe in a story before I’ve started it.

It takes me quite a while to finish a YA (young adult) novel, which means I don’t actually need a new novel idea until at least a year after I decided on the last idea. I’m a fast enough writer, though my first drafts are taking longer the more experienced I become at writing. I used to just vomit out the first draft, knowing there’d be time to clean it up later. But then I realised that I don’t really like cleaning up vomit, despite the day job rotating between being a nurse and a mum. Every nurse knows that it’s much easier to prevent the vomit in the first place. So I now take my time, write more slowly, carefully. This also helps to put off the next idea choice. In between editing drafts, I write small Chapter books for kids (ideas come easier when the word count is under 10,000), poems, I attempt to write short stories. I never commit to a new full-size novel until I’m finished with the last.

I’ve started many novels based on an idea. And I’ve given up on many novels, thousands of words in, because I knew the idea wasn’t working. Sometimes I don’t even have an idea, just a character, and it can be a real struggle to figure out who this person in my head is, and what is their story. I often start a story and have no clue where it’s going. I’ve tried to write about certain topics, only to realise that the words that flow are dry and boring. I can start a story for the sake of practising writing, and not have a clue what the plan is, and discover I’ve created a character I love and want to keep. My stories are not always predictable to me, but that makes it much more exciting to write.

I find that ideas for short stories and poems are easier to find than ideas for novels. I often flick through magazines, scroll down my twitter feed, eavesdrop on conversations, looking for shreds of inspiration. Sometimes I get an idea for a short story or Chapter book from another story or book. A line, an image, a piece of information that wakes up my imagination like an alarm clock.

Sometimes ideas come in round about ways. This year I did a creative writing class for short stories. I was the only person writing or reading YA, so I decided to try and write for adults. I enjoyed it so much that I even started a novel, based on a woman. This was new to me, as my protagonists have always been under eighteen. However, it didn’t last. You see, it turned out the woman had a teenage daughter, and after writing 10,000 words of the mother’s story, I suddenly found myself writing the daughter’s side of the story. And it was much more fun to write. And that is the where the idea for the novel I am now working on came from.

So perhaps I am not a writer who catches my ideas with a butterfly net. Instead I am a writer who just keeps on writing, whether or not I have anything to write about. And in that mine of words, I occasionally catch a sparkle out of the corner of my eye, and that next novel angst disappears. For another year anyway.

Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.

Writing Fantasy: My 7 Tips

I’ve tried my hand at many genres, and found that nothing brings the same belly-tingling excitement as writing Fantasy. But it also brings challenges that other genres don’t. I find it the hardest genre to write as a result. I won’t claim to be an expert, and bear in mind I’m not published. But I did write a Fantasy novel, followed by a sequel, for kids aged approx 7-11. I’ve also read many children’s Fantasy novels. And I’ve certainly learnt a few things a long the way.

1: World building

There are no rules in Fantasy: your imagination can run wild, creating worlds of magic and turning people into beings that contradict nature. But the world you create can turn into a trap. What suits the story at the beginning, might make no sense in your world at the end. Or worse, in the sequel. And at the sequel level, it’s too late to go back and change the first book (unless it’s not published, but that sounds like an editing nightmare). It’s also hard to remember every detail of your Fantasy world, so take notes as you go, and make sure each idea consistently makes sense. When editing, ask people to explain your world back to you and make sure it matches what you tried to get across in your writing.

2: Believability

I don’t read adult Fantasy novels, but I love children’s’ Fantasy. But I lose interest in a novel if the story becomes too unbelievable even for the world it’s built in. It’s tempting when writing Fantasy to curve the story to suit yourself. If your character needs a sword, why not let one magically appear in a tree? You make the rules in your fantasy world, so you can do whatever you want. Right? Wrong. It may be convenient, but it’s lazy writing. The reader won’t believe it, unless you give a very good reason for the sword to appear in the tree. Don’t use plot devices to the detriment of the story. That’s what your imagination is for.

On the subject of believability, readers quickly tire of characters who repeatedly succeed just because they’re the ‘chosen one’ , and not because they’re actually worthy of success. You the writer need to believe in yourself, and give serious thought as to how to make them awesome.

3: Description

I have often stopped reading Fantasy books due to description over-kill. I understand Fantasy books require a lot description as you’re trying to explain a whole new world. But I don’t want to read three pages of description. And I don’t just mean landscapes or characters. I also mean explanations of the world, the reason the protagonist is the protagonist etc. The world and situation you create can be described gradually, with clues along the way.

The first chapter of The Northern Lights (by Phillip Pullman if you don’t know, and if you still don’t know, go and read it) is a great example of how to get the balance right. The reader immediately learns characters speak freely with animals, but no explanation is given. The not knowing is what makes you read faster, desperate to know why and how. The descriptions are the salt and pepper, and the action is the dinner. It is tempting to over explain everything the minute you introduce it, but where is the suspense in that? Don’t describe your story, tell it.

4: Uniqueness

Your book has a dragon. So what? Loads of fantasy books have dragons. What makes your dragon so special that I should read it? Find what’s unique in your story and explode it, make your dragon stand out from all the others. I made this mistake, I included a boring dragon. On editing, I realised my dragon was as dull as the dirty ground he walked on. So I changed him, and made his role in the story shine. But I could also have deleted him. Does your story actually benefit from your dragon? Is their species relevant to your story? Make the choice, and make it work. It’s hard to delete. But it can be done. Here’s how: delete delet dele del de d —

5: Pace

Pace is always important to keep the reader hooked, but particularly in the middle of Fantasy novels. The beginning draws you in because you want to figure out what this new world is all about. Endings, by their nature, should have a good pace, magnetising the reader so they’re unable to put down the book until they know how it all ends. But the middle can fall through the gaps. The world is created, the character is known, they are possibly on a journey to a distant land or meeting new people and creatures. But journeys alone are boring. And I don’t want to learn all the answers now. If you get writers block in the middle, don’t fire in all the answers, and don’t throw in irrelevant scenes that stump the reader. I love when clues are still being added in the middle, and when new mysteries appear. Keep the suspense, and you’ll keep the reader.

The middle section of your novel is a perfect opportunity for your protagonist to develop as a character. Use this section to show how your character moves from the beginning to the end of the novel, and how they change in the process. What happens in the middle that forces the character to make difficult choices that determine the path of the novel? Keep the character’s arc in your mind as you write this section, and you’ll be grateful for it when you reach the end.

6: Confusion

I’d rather read a short novel that I can follow, than a long one that I get can’t find my way through. My pet hate in Fantasy is when I can no longer understand what’s going on. Take your time, develop your plot and characters, but don’t squash them in. Give them room to breathe and give the reader time to catch up and process the information.

And remember, your novel isn’t there to show off how clever you are. I don’t want to read a novel and say “Wow, that writer has a fountain of knowledge, but I have no idea what s/he’s talking about, and I haven’t a clue what the story is about.”

7: Characters

I personally struggle with excess characters with unusual or foreign names. Not just in Fantasy (I had to stop reading War and Peace because I kept mixing up who was who with all the foreign names and places. A sad reflection on me, but a reality of many readers. Judge my intellect if you must, but I’m just being honest). Someone once told me they re-named all the characters in a book they were reading to John, Mary etc.. And made a list at the front of the book, so they could follow the story easier. Complicated or what?

This can easily happen in Fantasy, not just from made-up names, but from traits. Too many unusual characters or places can lose the reader. There is power in simplicity. Don’t name more than one main character with similar names, or names beginning with the same letter. Naming characters based on their traits can help. At it’s most obvious level, take these two names and guess which is the troll and which is the fairy: Twinkle-dust and Rotten-breath.

Epilogue

Fantasy is a genre dedicated to imagination and the wildest of dreams. It is a genre to be celebrated and loved. Mostly, I think it’s a genre to be thanked, as it is what made me and many other children fall in love with stories. And once you fall in love with stories, you fall in love with books. And that, to me, is FANTAStic.

My first Reader’s Report

Why did I get a Reader’s Report?

I have some very loyal readers, friends and family, who are happy to read my novels. They give me the words of encouragement that every writer needs. But when I went back and re-read my first novel, I was horrified by how bad it was. And my loyal readers had not told me how bad it was. I am eternally grateful to them, because if I had realised how bad it was, I may never have tried again. I needed their support, and their words of kindness. But since then, I have started taking writing more seriously. What started as a hobby, a wonderful form of escapism, soon became an obsession. The desire to join the community of established authors hit me.

I have reached the stage of sending my work to agents. But my eyes don’t always see the flaws in my own novels. I know that I need to get my novel as close to flawless as I can, before I start submitting. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Reader’s Report.

What is a Reader’s Report?

I did not know what to expect from a Reader’s Report. I sent my novel to the Inkwell group and crossed my fingers, hoping this wasn’t a waste of money. I wasn’t disappointed.

My novel was critiqued by E.R Murray. Like me, she writes for children and young adults (YA). This particular novel was for young adults. The friends and family who read my novels were all adults, and not even adults who read YA. So getting a YA writer to critique my novel was the obvious next step. E.R Murray knows what YA books are out there, knows what works and what doesn’t, and has already been through the editing process. And very importantly, she was once in my shoes, so had the empathy to thread softly on my words.

I imagine that every Reader’s Report is structured differently, even when carried out by the same reader.

Mine was structured something like this:

  1. Summary of Areas that need work: Show don’t tell, Character’s motivations, Plot weaknesses, Character inconsistencies.
  2. Sub-plot: Things that needed more development, suggestions as to making the sub-plots flow smoothly.
  3. Pace: How to cut out repetition and keep consistency.
  4. Characters: What works, what doesn’t. In a general sense. Who needs to be developed, in particular the relationships between characters. Believability.
  5. Themes
  6. Writing Style

It then turned to chapter by chapter notes, summing up what needed work. Things I hadn’t seen myself, and even things I had seen but had chosen to ignore.

I was startled that I hadn’t thought of writing a short summary of each chapter before. Summarising each chapter into short paragraphs is a great way to spot repetition, notice that you didn’t mention a vital part of sub-plot for a lot longer than you realised. It shows you in a glance when characters meet each other, where you could merge scenes, when you can add new and important scenarios, without throwing off the whole sequence of events. The reader’s report did not summarise each chapter, but gave me an over all observation of the chapters.

How the Report affected me

My hand was shaking as I clicked the email to open the reader’s report. A part of me thought I was going to find an email saying “Throw it away, start again, come back to us when you’ve something decent to read. Just keep writing.” Instead I found page after page of observations. Every line I read I thought “That’s true.” “How did I miss that?” “She got the wrong meaning from that, I need to re-phrase…”

A smile replaced the shakes, as I saw that this novel was already getting better, just by changing my point of view about it. By seeing it from another perspective, by understanding what another writer saw in my words. Admittedly, the smile dropped with the penny, when it dawned me that all these observations meant a huge amount of editing. I do not like re-writing. I was already on draft 5, and sick of it. This meant another draft, probably two. I smugly thought the novel was nearly ready to send to an agent. This Reader’s Report told me I had a long way to go yet. It saved me from sending out my work too early, which just might make all the difference.

Be Ready to Edit

I am glad I waited until this novel to get a Report. This novel is the one I believe in, and can defend. There is no point getting a Reader’s Report if you’re not going to use the information and actually make changes. Editing takes time, especially as you will question everything the report suggests. You won’t agree with every single thing in the report, but you need to be open minded, to take the reader’s opinion on board and defend the bits you don’t want to change. Why bother paying for a service if you’re not willing to listen? So wait until you have something worthy of sending to an agent. Then get a reader’s report, when you believe in it enough to spend the following month or two editing.

Would I do it again?

I can’t recommend getting a Reader’s Report enough. I don’t even see it as a luxury, but a necessity. You only get one shot with each agent (admittedly you could probably re-try in about 2 years, but that’s a long time). Don’t send it out too early in a flurry of excitement; wait until your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it.

Nothing spots flaws better than someone else’s eyes, someone with no personal link to your novel, someone not afraid you’ll kick them out of your life if they point out the faults in your beloved words. Someone professional.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever send another manuscript for submission without a Reader’s Report. In fact, I am considering hiring E.R Murray as my own personal writing guru. Though I doubt she’d accept, since I could only pay her with tea. Though who knows, maybe this novel will be the one to get me published, in which case I can add apple pie to her pay cheque.

The Writing Path is Paved with Patience

When my husband and I were honeymooning on a cruise ship, we got cajoled into taking part in a quiz show for married couples. The wives went off stage while the men were asked questions about the women. When we came back on stage we had to guess what answers the men had given. One question was “What do you wish your wife had more of?” Of course some of the men said bigger breasts, longer legs; to the women’s horror. When it was my turn to guess, I racked my brain. I knew my husband was much too polite to suggest a body part. Then it dawned me. Patience. The audience gasped, as I guessed correctly.

Thankfully, I since took up writing. If you don’t have patience before you become a writer, you either need to learn it fast or find a new hobby. Writing requires more patience than I could ever have imagined, and I have slowly been developing this virtue.

The first time I sat down at my computer, determined to write every single day until the first draft of my first novel was finished, I was filled with excitement. The possibilities loomed ahead of me. I was about 20,000 words in when I realised that this wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed, that it would take much more time than I expected. There were many days that I had to force myself to write, telling myself over and over again to be patient, that the end was in sight. But how I can I be patient, I thought, if I don’t actually have any patience? There was only one answer: I had to find my patience.

When I finally reached the end of that first novel I was on a high, exhilarated. All that time and dedication had paid off. I put the manuscript away for 6 weeks, since everything I read on writing told me to. After 6 weeks I read the first draft, horrified that it was nowhere near as good as I remembered. But I knew it had potential. I knew if I gave up then, after writing 75,000 words, I would never try again. So I forced myself to re-draft and edit. I know some people love editing. Not me. I don’t mind the first two re-drafts, when you start putting the plot into shape, inserting coincidences and noticing themes. But when it gets down to the nitty gritty of making sure each word is the right word, I find it gruelling, and at times boring. I have to summon every bit of patience I can find.

Thankfully I don’t write for money, so I have time on my side in my plight to get published. If I was depending on becoming a paid novelist, I would probably have no hair left because I’d have pulled it all out in frustration. If I thought writing a novel required patience, I had no idea what comes next. Submission after submission to magazines, trying to get something published to stick some credentials to my writing name. Time, waiting, patience. All the effort I put into making a submission and sometimes I get no response, sometimes I get a response three months later, sometimes a neutral rejection, sometimes a positive rejection. And I’m only talking about short stories and poetry here.

I am yet to send out my novel (the third one: it took three books until I found my voice. Patience..) to the world, my baby. I am almost scared to send it out because I don’t want the rejections. A rejection to a short story makes me feel “What a pity”, but a series of rejections to the novel I really believe in will be much harder to bear. The good thing that comes out of this fear is that I refuse to send out my novel until I know I can’t make it any better, so that with any rejection I get, at least I know I gave it my best shot. And so I wait patiently for feedback, for sufficient time to pass so my eyes will be able to spot my mistakes, until I know that I am ready, and so is my novel.

Thankfully patience is a learned skill. I wasn’t lucky enough to have been born with it. But I’m getting there. The patience I learned from writing has spread through my whole life. And I bet that if my husband was asked now what he wished I had more of, he would not pick patience. Now, five years and two children later, we would both pick time.

 

Two ways to do everything: Thoughts on Writing

Last year I wrote a blog-post about writing my first novel. Since then I have completed one young adult novel, one children’s novel and the first draft of another young adult (Y.A) novel. What I have learnt from writing more than one novel, is that there are two ways of doing everything.

I once thought that to write a novel you should just plough ahead and never re-read anything you’ve written while still on the first draft. But if I lived by my own rule, then I wouldn’t have gotten very far, or would have suffered hugely in the second draft, having to tediously edit out major flaws.

In both my Y.A novels, I hit a stumbling block between 30,000 and 40,000 words. Not a word block, because words kept coming. It was more of an uncertainty about where to take the characters next. I had forgotten how the story started, forgotten plot hints I’d put in. In one instance of this, I read back over the novel so far, and I realised one character wasn’t working and scrapped her before I wasted precious time on her. In another, I fell back in love with the story after it had started to tire me, wondering if it was going anywhere. This refreshed my motivation and allowed me see how the story should naturally progress.

I started an online course on writing for children and it insisted that you plan the whole story from beginning to end. This is something I’ve read many times, but planning and my style of writing don’t go together. This came as a surprise to me, because I plan pretty much everything else in my life to a tee. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing without a plan; it sets me free from the norms of my life. I did try to plan novels, but when the characters started naturally drawing the plot away from my plan, I got flummoxed. Not having a plan allows me to create as I go, surprising myself and getting to know the characters the way the reader does.

I definitely believe that to write well, you need to read. But I don’t think you should read everything. I got caught with this one. I took the advice to keep reading, even bad writing so you know what not to include in your novel. But this is dangerous, and I found myself stuck reading a book that irritated me. And while it did have the positive effect of high-lighting how not to write, I did spot, in horror, that some of the other author’s way of writing was weaselling it’s way into my own work. Since then, I’ve become very picky about what I read when I’m writing a novel. I try and only read books by authors much better than me, and hope that they’ll rub off on me. I keep the other books for the times I’m in between novels.

To plan or not to plan, to read and edit as you go or just keep writing, to know your ending before you start or to surprise yourself with the ending….

There are two ways to write everything (or three, or four..). What works in one novel may not work in another. What works for one writer won’t always work for a second. The only way to learn what works for you is to begin writing, and see what works for you.

Writing my First Novel: The Editing Process

While editing my first novel I realised that there were many tips I wish I’d known before I’d started writing in the first place. Hopefully I won’t make the same mistakes in my next first draft. And in case it would help anyone else I’m writing down some of these tips:

1) Think carefully every time you write ‘In fact’ , “Um” or ‘Suddenly’  and ask yourself do you really need to write them?

2) I noticed I was regularly switching from active writing to passive writing. Passive writing did not work for me. If I had noticed myself doing this in the first draft I would have saved myself a lot of work later. As it happens I wasn’t even aware of the difference between these before I started editing.

3) Editing and re-writing are dull and boring but also essential and liberating. Liberating because knowing I would edit at a later date meant I could allow myself write really badly just to keep the ball rolling and the words flowing. I chopped about 15% of my original novel on editing and rewrote whole scenes. I even chopped a whole character out of the book. Yes, grueling work, but worth it if it meant I never succumbed to writers block.

4) I fully believed I was going to hit the notorious 40,000 word block. And the minute I hit 40,000 words I decided, right so, now I must be at my block. Actually, I wasn’t. I gave myself a good talking to and just got on with it.

5) For awhile my story lagged as I tried to fill in the gaps of some uneventful weeks in the plot. On editing, I realised these gave nothing to the story and only served to bore the reader. Therefore I skipped ahead leaving some weeks unexplained because nothing was going to happen in them anyway. At the time I thought it would be detrimental to the story and I decided I would come back to them later. But when I revisited I saw that there was no harm done whatsoever.

6) It is not easy to chop characters you love, or delete concepts or scenes that you are proud of. There were some scenes that although they made me laugh out loud, I later saw that they played no part in the story as a whole. Therefore, they served only to take away from the flow of the story. Copy them and turn them into an idea for a short story at a later date if they are that good. But don’t keep them in the novel if they take away from it, or even if they just add nothing.

7) On editing I spotted things I had never considered in the first draft: Timeline errors, a lack of location references, concepts being introduced too late, characters with similar names that makes reading confusing….. Taking a note of when ideas are introduced, a list of any names used, when things happen etc. can help enormously. Unfortunately I didn’t realise this until my third draft when the discrepancies were blatant. The same goes for deleting: Make a note of anything that needs to be re-inserted elsewhere when you delete a scene. Otherwise you may have a memory of writing something that is needed for the story, but you may not remember deleting it.

8) Write and then wait. For 6 weeks I didn’t even look at my completed first draft. In those 6 weeks I wrote a second novel, a shorter 12,000 word children’s novel. So by the time I came back to edit the first novel it was out of my system (almost) and I could see all the mistakes and plot holes clearly.

9) After rewriting and then rewriting a few more times, I found the words blurred on the screen and I could no longer see the mistakes. I printed a paper copy and waited a week, giving myself a much needed break. Reading the paper version I noticed a lot more errors. I felt like I was back at the beginning of the editing process. Mind-numbing but worth it.

10) Just before you think you’re finished, read it out loud. Obvious, and commonly recommended, but what a difference that made. Not necessarily for plot, but for spelling, grammar, sentence structure, spotting repeated words, weak description and unrealistic dialogue.

The whole thing take ages so be patient. Luckily I write for pleasure and have no intention of giving up the day job so I took my time. Every now and then the editing process became overwhelming so I took a break from editing and wrote a short story for a day or two. Editing does not feel like creative work, so taking a small break to write something new helped my mind feel creative again. Writing the first draft took approx 3+1/2 months. Then a 6 week break. Then the editing process including at least 6 drafts took me a further 2+1/2 months. I was in shock to be honest. Now I know that writing the first draft is the easy part. The editing is the real challenge.