Fighting that 2nd draft

I’m working on the second draft of my novel and after 3 months, I’m starting to enjoy it. I finished the first draft in July, after spending about 18 months on the first draft, most of which was written frantically last summer.

I gave myself some time away from it before starting the next draft so that I’d come to it with fresh perspective, but after reading over the early chapters it felt like I was looking at a stretch in a Siberian salt mine.

What I was reading in the early chapters of the first draft was making me wince, and I’d reached a point where I knew my sub-plot wasn’t going the way I wanted to – I’d need to start taking a knife to some of that work. Butchering hours of your own hard labour, snatching away all the hard fought words. You do the crime, you do the time.

It wasn’t wasted time though, I like to think of that non-writing time as time letting the story ruminate.Some days I was totally baffled by the way I’d written the story. Eventually, I sat down and realised I’m stuck with this story whether I like it or not, so it might as well have a more eloquent and concise existence.

I wanted to do a bit of research though, before starting.

On the internet you can find countless blogs and help for general writing tips, or about character development, ‘writing your world’  and how to build your story – especially at the moment with NaNoWriMo on second drafts, when it’s done but not finished.

I mean, you’ve brain dumped 80,000 words on to a bunch of Word documents, and now you’ve got to go through and make sure your story is tight as a gnat’s sphincter. Cut the chat.

Two that I found really useful as a general and more specific guide to writing can be found here and here.

The first one is about editing generally, the latter is all about that first re-write. If you’re rewriting in any way, I’d really recommend reading them – they’re well-written, enlightening and funny.

What’d forgotten to do in the meantime, while I was doing all this mulling over, was to read a book. My fiction reading time has been eaten into by the avalanche of material presented by social media and that life/existence thing – I’d forgotten to fall in love with a piece of writing. To read something great – or even something awful, to recognise the inimitable limits or ambitions of the written word.

So, I thought I’d read a great story while reading about writing. A book that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and which, coincidentally, I’ve seen mentioned a lot recently is Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ – I book I’d been meaning to read for many a moon too, and it goes without saying (and I’m saying it) it’s brilliant. Part-memoir, part-writing boot camp it is unputdownable and as insightful as you’d expect from someone who has sold a gazillion books and knows a trick or two about story-telling.

Being one of those wanky Literature graduates, I don’t really think of King as being an influence as a writer but when I think back, sure enough, I read a lot of his short stories as a 13-year old kid. My trips to the library on Thursday after school to get a fresh batch of reading material would be exciting, blissful. Skeleton Crew by King is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read. Looking back I think that I got the same pleasure from the library as most other kids did from visiting the video shop.

Stephen King invited me to worlds that I’d never dreamed of at an age when my imagination needed to stretch and feed, and so who better to guide me further along my chosen path?

Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing – of being flattened, in fact -is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. – Stephen King

I should have written down some of King’s more sage advice while reading, but one thing that sticks out and has stuck out while writing is King’s insistence to cut anything that doesn’t add anything to your story. Here is but one nugget of the goldmine that King offers in On Writing:

After reading that, I feel like I’m reading the novel from a new perspective. I’ve cut out nearly 5,000 words in a matter of a few chapters – and you know what?  The story is still there and now the writing is much tighter.

You only realise how much shit you’ve written when you have to analyse your first draft. Be brave! Cut, cut, and cut some more!

 

 

 

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The terrible first novel

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I wrote my first novel 14 years ago. It was bloody awful.

There are countless ways to write badly. It can be the mechanics of the writing, the dullness of the imagery, or even the story. There are a million draws containing a million dusty literary graves. Mine had no story.  Some of the writing wasn’t half bad (in places), although I’ll admit there was a turn of phrase or three that did make me wince.

What was bad was that I had absolutely no story whatsoever, bar a general scenario. Also I had no plot planning, no characterization and had paid no attention to giving my characters unique voices, or personalities. I was writing it on the hoof, and knew little about planning – save for the ideas I had, which I scribbled down in my down time – thinking that once it was done it could be edited into a story and a (real life) happy ending.

I was filled with ideas; it was grand ideas that I was in pursuit of (I was young and drunk on Dickens) and thought great ideas could carry a story – as William S. Burroughs says in My Education: A Book of Dreams:

Like a young thief thinks he has a license to steal, a young writer thinks he has a license to write. You know what I mean right enough: riding along on it, it’s coming faster than you can get it down and you know it’s the real thing, you can’t fake it, the writer has to have been there and make it back.”

I hadn’t ‘made it back’. I had no story to report, which is problematic when a reader is more likely to forgive clumsy writing sooner than they are a lack of story. Ideas are great if you’re a 19th century Russian bourgeois philosopher or a Eng Lit. student, but they’re garnish to the meat and potatoes of great story-telling.

Lessons

Here’s what I learned:

  • Planning is everything – if you don’t know what the story is, including how it starts and finishes, you’re screwed. It also means that you end with pages of pointless, purposeless dialogue to fill in the gaps of your narrative.
  • making characters three dimensional is really hard, but why? Well, the difficulty lies in how we see both ourselves and other people – we don’t see most of the people we know in more than one context, be it colleague, friend, client, bloke down the pub. Also we’re never entirely truthful with ourselves and very rarely analyse the roles we play and how we act – as an employee, as a friend, as a member of a team or club etc. The basic assumption is how characters  show their true value in how they react to their circumstances, but in order for them to wholly believable, they also have to react to their immediate surroundings and social context
  • It didn’t necessarily make me a better writer but it did make me more conscious of the mechanics of story-telling. In theory, any form of practice makes you a better writer but if you only ever use 20 words, you’re still going to write a heap of shit. Reading great writing makes you a better writer (and sometimes your own bad writing) – it inspires you to raise your game
  • First drafts are always a going to rubbish, but if you have a strong overall idea and plot, foundations and a core, then there’s a lot less to edit. If the original idea is weak then you’re second draft is going to be so much harder, and the likelihood of abandoning it – just like I did – is that much greater.

It didn’t even get a second draft. I read what I’d written and my heart sank. So I put it away for a while and came back to it, hoping having a breather would make it better. It didn’t – it still sucked. I still have it in my bottom drawer collecting dust, shunned for its entire existence. It’s only purpose is to ensure it’s a lesson learned, and for that reason, I’m really glad I did it.

Timed Writing versus Word Count

 Timed writing

There are two methods which might spur a writer on to get to their final goal, particularly in the first draft phase, which is where I am at now. For a lot of people time is a major constraint: real-life commitments encroach so easily and regularly on writing time that for a lot of people – particularly writers with families and/or demanding jobs that the luxury of spending several hours is but a dream.

I am in a lucky position  at present – I don’t have kids and until the end of this month, I don’t have a job to get in the way of writing. Needless to say, because I’m in such a privileged position I am really, really trying to maximise my time and fit in as much writing as possible. So it’s imperative that I use all this time to get my first draft finished because my job that starts at the end of this month won’t allow me too much time to write – and also I’m sure there are thousands of writers who would kill to be in my current position – so I feel I should maximise it.

So with this in mind I was wondering how other people write. Do you set yourself a time limit or a number of words? Hemingway was said to have written between 500-1000 words, but Hemingway looms like an ominous shadow over every writer that wants to be taken seriously – so is that for you? I’ve set myself a goal of finishing my first draft by the end of June and so I’m currently doing 2,500 words a day. It’s a lot, more than most people write, that aren’t professionals and contract writers, but to me it’s imperative to have something solid to work with when I don’t have so much time.

I don’t recommend writing this much, if you can help it – it really does turn writing into a complete chore, and all I thinking about is getting my daily tally done. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t at the forefront of my thinking too: this is one of the benefits of writing so much (and having the time to do so) – I can get into the character’s head(s) for much longer which makes me write more consistently and fluidly within character.

Personally the hardest thing for me is the first 300 words. If I only had, say, 30 minutes or one hour to do my writing each day, I’d barely reach that total, and thus would never hit a flow. Once I’ve got 300 words down I seem to find my rhythm and the next 500-700 really come quickly and I’m in, I’ve sussed my scene and how I want it to develop and I have enough head of steam to get it down and at least write one or two decent chapters.

Timed writing

Having said that, perhaps if I were time poor then I would just develop my writing habit to suit it. Working as a journalist develops this skill and teaches the writer to get it all down as quickly as possible, but fiction writing is really quite different to both news and features writing. Certainly with news, there are much more limited parameters and elements that frame the story and make it that much quicker, if not easier to write.

That’s not to say that timed writing isn’t important. Sometimes when I’m labouring over a scene or a chapter, and I’m taking far too long getting the general idea out, I give myself  30 minutes or so to finish it – that way it forces me to to stop being so precious about it – and I do need to be strict with my sometimes as I have a tendency to overindulge my thinking time.

Some writers give themselves a short writing exercise at the start of their writing session to ‘warm up’ and get their creative juices flowing – be it a journal entry, a blog post or a descriptive passage or setting from memory. It can be a good idea if you’re struggling with whatever it is you’re writing or are finding it hard to come back to something after an extended absence.

Also for flash fiction and short stories it’s important because a story of 500-1000 (or shorter) can, and should be done within the day. Completing something – if it’s only as step or stage in the writing process – makes us writers feel like we’ve achieved something. And that it is these small victories that give us the will to keep going.

How do you write? Do you use word count or blocks of time to achieve daily targets?

Your First Novel – Purcell Room, Southbank Centre London 02/06/14

 

I went to to the Writing Your Novel talk/discussion last night as part of the Literature Festival that is currently running on London’s Southbank.  I didn’t realise when buying tickets that it was also the lead up to the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for writing and event sponsored by Grazia, who would have thought it would have such a female-dominated attendance?  I was about one of five blokes in the whole room! Gender is obviously irelevant, it’s about the skill and expertise of the writer in such matters. The five women on stage, chaired by Kate Mosse and featuring writers Emma Healey, Charlotte Mendelson and Sarah Waters and literary agent, Felicity Blunt – gave some insightful advice to any would be novelist, regardless of gender or experience. I will bullet point the gist of the talk at the end of this blog.

The panel encompassed some important components of the publishing trade and it also managed to span the spectrum of experience – Healey with her debut novel is currently making waves;  Waters is about to publish her 6th novel, as well as Mendelson, who works as an editor and a writer and Blunt who is an agent. Their advice was insightful if not perspective changing; clearly anyone who has decided to sit down and write a book has done the research and is aware that this is a tough gig to choose as one’s life devotion and career, but it gave a better understanding of how those who have achieved the allusive publishing deal work and what they have done.

Every writer has their own habit and way of approaching a writing task and there are only so many ‘tips of successful writers’ article a writer can read. I’m not interested in what writers do, but in how methodical they are and more important what those who have the final say on publication want. But everyone comes to these type of events seeking something different.

I was interested in what Felicity Blunt had to say as an agent, although  Charlotte Mendelson as an editor, had some good advice to consider too. The talk, chaired ably by Kate Mosse covered the writing process and how different writers approach and deal with the mechanics of writing., although it over-ran slightly and could’ve given a little more time to the fielding of questions from the audience. This section of the event veered into the banal with only five or so questions asked due to time constraints.

Of these we traversed the banal –  one woman asked if there should be more of a market for lesbian writers – from which the obvious and resounding response from the panel came that sexuality was a secondary factor to the quality of writing (obviously!). Another question came in asking about ‘a friend’ (oh yeah?) who was considering plastic surgery after seeing so many pretty female writers being shortlisted for a literary prize last year – and the genuinely interesting:  a woman asked about the advantages or disadvantages of self-publishing, which really wasn’t given enough time and perhaps elicited a rather curt response as the panel dealt with the traditional route. This route offers it’s own pitfalls and advantages and I think it would’ve been good to allocate a chunk of time to this angle.

The toils 0f writing a novel are so broad and myriad that a 90 minute session will never do it justice, but then, it is a subject that could be discussed for hours without covering all the facets of the challenges a writer faces. What was discussed was generally insightful and gave me a clearer idea of what I have to do to get my book published – and these are:

* The writing process takes as long as it takes – but the key is to keep writing every day

* The drafting process is important and second, third or fifteenth drafts are necessary if you think they are necessary.

– Emma Waters said it took 4 years to write her last novel and there were some/large parts of it that she had edited 34 times. Getting it exactly how you want it is essential. If you put out something sub-standard then it will get a sub-standard response.

* Grammar, syntax and punctuation are important  – demonstrate that you are a master of the language without having to be a literary genius.

* Give yourself distance between drafts to allow for objectivity – one or two weeks should occur before going back for re-writes or edits (depending on the stage).

* When editing be rigorous with every sentence, make every word count. Don’t waste words on adjectives and descriptive scenes unless absolutely necessary.

* If you have doubts about anything in the book – change it before submitting to agents and publishers – they will only highlight them later and the doubts show in the writing.

* Make sure that you have a title and that the title is interesting and leads the reader on – a very important point made by Blunt was that she receives a huge number of books with no title. It is important to give your story a title to initiate curiosity within the reader.

* Your 3 components of the finished book are: Your book (with title), a cover letter and a synopsis.

* Spend time and care with the cover letter and synopsis to make sure they sparkle.

* The best synopses are one page – write the idea that inspired you to write the book rather than explaining the plot to ruin the effect for the reader.

* Believe in what you write. The publishing industry relies on writers and the work they produce – so keep writing!

First Novel, First Draft

I started writing my first novel in November of last year (2013) and I’m approaching the first 25,000 words of my first draft. Still a long way to go, and I’m desperate to get the first draft down but have the story in some kind of rough form on my computer (in brief points) and in my head. Writing a first novel is like writing blind-folded in some ways.

Although when I say ‘my first novel’, it’s not strictly true, as I had a stab at it 10 years ago. This embryonic idea still lays at the bottom of a cupboard some 100,000 words into the initial write, and not even printed in its entirety. They say that writers should never throw work away as ideas or scenes can be used for other stories – I however, use it as a source of inspiration in a more profound way (I hope) – that of not giving up on the story and not making the same mistakes as I did last time.  I’ll come to that later, but first I’d like to talk about the process of writing a first draft, and some of my thoughts on it.

Having spent nearly six months on this project, I should probably be a lot further in, in terms of words and drafting but laziness and procrastination are the first refuge(s) of the would-be novelist.  I’m sure somewhere on the internet there is some kind of graph that details the peaks and troughs of a writer’s motivation as they were through their novel. From my own experience, the first 5 – 7,000 words were easy as the initial rush to get the ideas down came thick and fast and I wanted to write down as much as possible to paint a decent outline to the thoughts in my head.

The next 10,000 words were much harder as the story seemed to be missing dimensions – depth and ‘believability’ of the story. Writing became a toil as I tried to work out how scenes were going to be used to convey and develop the story, but no matter how much I wrote the story still seemed to be plodding. Having new characters coming into the story breathed some new life into the story but the real culprit was me. I was sitting down and doing 300-500 word writing sessions and it wasn’t enough to take me into the story and enable me to envisage future events and possible scenarios for the plot.

I’ve since sat down and written my way out of the lethargy I had for it; I did 2000 words one day and since then I’ve regained the initial momentum and have a wider view of the narrative and where I want the story to go. Furthermore, I feel like the stuff I’m writing is much better and in tune with the characters and the story. The world that the characters inhabit is becoming far more believable. If I take a break from the writing process, or don’t give it enough time I lose rhythm and the sentences are stodgier and slower to write.

What has helped, and what was the major downfall in my initial attempt a decade or so again, was attention to planning – and staging and creating a plot timeline has allowed me to write my way to my next scene or chapter knowing what I have to write next (more or less). My first time writing attempt failed also because I had an idea but no fixed means of telling the story; the characters were strong but my write-and-hope approach made the story very weak. Also because I didn’t have a definitive ‘road map’ of how to get from A to B; I found myself writing too much padding in the writing, which makes it easy to get bogged down – and makes telling the story such a chore.

I still have a lot more to write before the first draft is complete and even then I  have a lot of work to do – maybe two or three more re-writes before I can say it is done. I sometimes feel I should give myself a time-frame in which to have it finished, but I think it’s better to finish it when it’s actually completed. But that comes later and that’s a point I can’t consider just yet, for now I’ll be delighted just to have it written it’s first rough form.

 

Ditching the blog

I felt it was time to ditch my old blog and create a new one. I’ve had it for 5 or 6 years now and while I’m still proud of the writing on it, I felt the time had come to update both the platform I was using and how that content was managed. Also there was some issues with the content, but I’ll come to that later.

My old blog, which you can read here, is on Blogger. It’s a platform that still works well but it looks a little bit dated and I am no longer happy with how the content and layout affect the site’s traffic.  Also despite quite getting a decent number of hits still, despite not posting for almost a year, it feels like it lacks a general theme or themes that connect the writing together. The aim of the blog was simply to allow me to write – and to test the durability of my attention span. And write I did: much of the writing is politics but it also covers a lot of music, pop culture and gig reviews. I’m still interested in the issues that I’ve written and discussed, but I find that as I get older my desire to write about certain topics changes, or turns to other issues.

So, my objectives for this blog are different too without changing my overall goal – to write as much as I can. I want this to blog to both be a place to bring all of my writing together – journalism, blogging and fiction – and to also write about the process of writing fiction, a process I’m doing more and more these days.

I would still like this to be a place to write my opinions on the news, write reviews and to discuss the issues of the day; yet one thing that I would like to receive this time round is more feedback and input from those who read this blog – either regularly or by pure accident. So, to that end – I would like to engage more with fellow bloggers and writers and to make this blog more successful than my last one.