Tag Archives: redrafting

All change

At the start of the summer, I thought I knew where my writing life was going. I was certain in fact: I had discovered Mslexia’s brilliant guide to Indie Presses, and I had resolved to find a home for my writing through one of those.

And then…

I picked up the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook Guide to Getting Published, and my resolve weakened. The approach it advocated was much more traditional. It didn’t reject independent publishers entirely, but it cautioned against them as a way of launching a career.

My personal jury is still out on the pros and cons of the various routes into getting my words in print, but I was forced to acknowledge that there was a third book, waiting on my hard-drive in its unpolished state, that might still hold the key to the prized arrival on the literary scene that resided in the enclave of the bigwigs in the publishing world.

So I read it.

And I really enjoyed what I read.

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From what I could see at first glance, there were none of the obvious roadblocks that my first two novels contained within their pages: the question over cultural integrity in my young adult novel exploring my experiences as a teacher; the doubts over a generic home for my slightly obscure hybrid between psychoactive thriller and mental-health steeped realism. In fact this third novel reflects much more of where I’m at now, of my life by the sea with its echoes of the city. The characters are ones which resonate with my own experience rather than one I’ve observed, and though the path they choose is unconventional it is not unbelievable.

So I decided to give it a chance.

Having read through my words in print – a much more satisfying print, incidentally, having tried to approximate an actual novel in the way I presented the words on the page rather than just the standard sheets of A4 – I returned to Scrivener to tweak the narrative to one that rang true.

And then today I sent it to my agent.

Who knows whether her optimism will match mine, but right now I’m feeling pretty positive about our prospects.

This change of heart has been made all the more possible by a change in my circumstances that I’m just starting to get my head around. Leigh has finished his medical school training, and launched into his career as a junior doctor. This might have spelled the end of any time to myself, but we decided as a family that the next phase of his training would be better carried out part time.

So suddenly I have two whole days a week when he is taking the lead in parenting. Two whole days a week where I can focus on my council and freelance work, and on my writing.

It’s amazing how much you can get done when you don’t have a three year old to entertain at the same time.

Now, having submitted that first draft, I am looking forwards. I haven’t yet written a synopsis of novel number three, so that is top of the list. And then there’s a short story competition which perfectly resonates with my love of outdoor swimming, and a children’s novel competition that I am going to bite the bullet and submit my first manuscript to.

I’m feeling pretty positive about it all, despite the fact that my agenda has undergone such a major u-turn. It’s a writer’s prerogative, right? To follow the thing that feels true?

It’s hard to know for now how that might change again in the future, but finally I have the time to really work out the best way forward for me – and for my writing.

 

Writing Bubble

Broken beginnings

broken beginnings

I have been trying to get started on my third novel for what feels like forever.

The idea began to germinate almost two years ago, inspired by a dedication on a local bench. Since then I’ve written various scenes and character studies, carried out a fair amount of research, and even began to think about how the novel might be structured.

But it seems that every time I’ve been close to actually starting to WRITE something else has got in the way. Novel number two, mainly: I hadn’t anticipated quite how many redrafts that would need, and I’m pretty sure I’m still not done on that front. I don’t begrudge that, though. I’m not writing these novels for them to sit on my hard drive after all – and I know it is getting better and better with each wave of work I do.

I’d thought I might be able to get stuck in to this new idea in the gaps between rewrites. I don’t think I could manage to juggle both concurrently, but I could probably have managed to get a fair amount of writing under my belt whilst waiting for feedback and allowing it to sink in. Naturally, though, life had other ideas.

Like successfully standing for election to my local council. Something which has satisfied a lifelong urge to become more actively engaged in my community, but hasn’t left much time in the day (or in my head) to birth a new novel.

I’ve found it impossible not to worry about what this all means in relation to my ambition to be a successful novelist. Surely I need to be able to knuckle down and focus, to actually write rather than just think about it, to move between projects in different stages of development? But then, as a new window of writing opportunity opens up in front of me, I wonder whether this novel might actually benefit from being so long in gestation.

My first novel was swimming around in my mind for several years before I was finally able to thrash out a first draft, and by that point I knew the characters so well that everything fell into place pretty seamlessly. There were a few niggles, of course, that needed ironing out – but so much of the novel had essentially written itself in my head that often it was just a matter of sitting down at the computer and the words would flow through the keyboard and onto the screen.

There is, after all, so much about writing that happens when you’re not actually writing. I’ve found myself in idle moments mulling over certain turns of phrase, deciding which is most apt for the voices of my two main characters. And there’s the plot too – the story I’ve been telling and retelling myself as I’ve been yearning for the time to write it down. Each time it has got a little more detailed, a little more interesting. And hopefully that will be borne out in the draft to come.

Despite all this, I do need to get writing soon. My plan this week is to use the index cards I bought months ago to note down all my different ideas for scenes, characters and settings and begin to map out how the story unfolds. I know its structure isn’t straightforward, and whilst I haven’t decided yet exactly what order I’m going to write it in it would be nice to have some sense of how it will all hang together in the end.

 

Writing Bubble

 

Letting go

Yesterday I got to the end of my manuscript for the third time this draft. I’ve been trying to be systematic about it, giving myself plenty of opportunities to pick things up that need work: the first time I went through looking at my agent’s notes, then with those of my most recent beta reader, then back through again interrogating every single word trying to make sure the ones I’ve picked say exactly what I want them to.

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I know that I’m coming up to the point where I will have to let it go, to send it back off into the ether with everything crossed that it might this time contain the magic it needs to take it to the next stage. But I can’t, not yet. And I’m not sure how I’m going to know when it’s ready.

I’m feeling pretty positive about all the changes I’ve made. Overall it’s ended up 89 words longer than it was before, but given that I’ve written loads more in – bringing conversations to life, taking the reader a little deeper into my protagonist’s mind – that’s meant a lot of cutting too. The opening has changed, bringing in a darker tone from the beginning – one which I think I’ve managed to weave through the novel as a whole, making it much more in keeping with the story I’m trying to tell.

And I think I know what that is now. I’m much clearer on what’s going on than I was, anyway. But I’m still having trouble with my elevator pitch – fumbling around for a concise explanation whenever anyone asks me what the book’s about. I need to work on that.

But whether I can do any more work on the story itself I’m not so sure…

The fact that this is draft number four is not helping my resolve. I thought it was ready last time I sent it in, but it so wasn’t. That took me months to realise. And whilst I’ve sorted out the problems that held it back then – I hope – who knows whether there are new ones that are evading me?

I do still have time on my side. I’d set myself the deadline of the end of November to get this draft completed and sent off, so I still have twelve days. I might just let it rest for a little bit, mull it over in my head, dip back in every now and then to make sure it really is the best that it can be.

It’s almost tempting not to go past this stage – there’s a warm fuzzy feeling that comes with finishing a novel (even for the fourth time), and right now I like what I’ve written. I know that once I send it out into the world again there will inevitably be things I’ve missed, and I’m quite enjoying the blissful ignorance that comes from it just sitting on my hard drive.

But novels are meant to be read, right? And not just by the person who wrote them…

So if you catch me procrastinating for too much longer then I might need a little push – it might just be time to let it go.

 

Writing Bubble

 

Wanted: a cave, no wifi

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You out can tell that winter’s setting in because it’s all about hibernating in our house: hiding away from the world, feeling the comfort of a small space to cosy up in. We made a sofa fort one particularly rainy day last week, but Arthur’s just as happy with simpler residences: cardboard boxes, suitcases, laundry bags… Especially laundry bags.

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I can totally see where he’s coming from. And it’s not just the chill in the air, or the increasing amounts of rain, or the fact it seems to get dark soon after lunchtime. As I watch Arthur taking such pleasure in climbing or crawling into tiny spaces, I find myself longing for a cave. Preferably one far away from anywhere with no phone line, and most definitely no wifi. Somewhere I could block out the world, work on my novel uninterrupted, and get this redraft finished.

I’m still managing to snatch an hour a day – sometimes two. And it’s going pretty well. Very well, even. So much so that it’s an an almighty wrench to tear myself away when my time is up. I find myself clinging to the keyboard as Arthur tugs on my jumper after his nap, desperate to finish my train of though, or at least one more sentence, one more word…

It’s not really Arthur though, if I’m honest. He is so much fun at the moment, and it’s hard to begrudge time spent with him. But all the other demands on my time seem to be piling up, just as I want to hunker down and write!

Council meetings, securing the future of our local lido, researching education provision for the Neighbourhood Plan, deciphering the impact of the mayoral budget, Governor meetings, presenting certificates at prize giving, helping to raise funds for refugees. Then there’s all the normal household stuff. And December, with Christmas and Arthur’s birthday, rearing up over the horizon.

All that has to be dealt with too, but as I try to focus on it I have the niggling voices of my characters in my head, imploring me to decide their fate, to put them out of their misery, to free them from the conflicting prose that I am in the midst of untangling.

I’m not complaining, not really.

I know that I’m privileged to have so much going on – so much that is stretching me and challenging me and (hopefully) making a difference in my community.

But still sometimes, selfishly, I just want to shut it all out. To lose myself completely in the world of my novel. To write.

And it is then that I hanker after that cave – with no wifi.

 

Muddled Manuscript

 

Setting the tone

I came across an article this week which really resonated with where I am right now with the novel. It was outlining Zadie Smith’s perception of the two kinds of writers, quoting from a lecture she delivered in 2008. Aside from making me realise that I really should read more of what writers I admire have to say about what it is we do, it got me thinking about the thorny issue of tone.

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I’ve really struggled with the tone of this novel. I’ve known the main characters pretty intimately since they first appeared in my mind, and the plot – though it evolved in the writing of it as they so often do – has remained basically the same since my earliest outlines. I thought I knew what the novel was about too – on a big, important, thematic level – but that has all changed recently. And as it has I’ve started to see the cracks in my manuscript that had somehow remained invisible up until now.

According to Smith’s ideas, I am pretty solidly a Macro Planner. Not entirely – I can’t quite conceive of starting to write anywhere but at the beginning, can’t imagine flitting around my plan and shifting the structure as many writers apparently do. But I do need a roadmap of sorts – I couldn’t plunge into writing without a fairly detailed plan. At least I don’t think I could.

But there were elements of Smith’s description of her process as a Micro Manager which really appealed to me – not least her assertion that when she finished writing a novel she was actually finished, with redrafts being unnecessary. For her, everything begins with setting the tone – making the first twenty pages a crucial and lengthy process:

“Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows.”

This is pretty much the opposite of where I’m at right now. Four drafts in, I have a structure, plot, characters – but the tone which seemed to come so naturally on first writing (so much so that I didn’t really think about it at the time) suddenly doesn’t quite fit.

I think perhaps part of the problem is that I’m only now really beginning to understand what tone is. That might be a bit of a bold admission for an experienced English teacher to make, but for all of my ability to recognise tone, to use it effectively, to explain it through examples, I’m not sure I really got what it is all about. Now though the definition, borrowed here from Wikipedia, suddenly seems to make a whole lot more sense.

“Tone … shows the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work.”

It is here, I realise now, that everything starts to come together. My attitude to the subject (my characters, the story I’m trying to tell) meets my attitude to the reader (where I’m positioning myself in relation to them, the genre in which my novel sits). As I type this it seems far too obvious for me even to need to say it at all, but then it is sometimes the simplest lessons that are the most powerful.

So I will hold those things in my head as I make my way once more through my manuscript, creeping forwards through the words and sentences and paragraphs whilst darting back from time to time to tweak details that no longer fit. There are a lot of words to get through, but I believe it will be worth it.

And what of my initial approach, of the type of writer I am? Could I have avoided this quandary by micro managing, by manipulating the tone in the creation of those first twenty pages until everything else fell into place? I’m not sure, to be honest. So much of Grace’s story only became clear when I could see it from the outside – and actually crucial elements of her character were only revealed to me once I had taken her through her journey.

I guess like everything there is no black and white: whilst the two approaches Smith describes seem on one level to be mutually exclusive I suspect that most writers embrace elements of both.

As for me, I think I’m still working out what type of writer I am.

And I think that that’s ok.

 

Writing Bubble

Tidy house, tidy mind?

I’ve been on something of a mission the past few weeks: a mission to finally bring order to the chaos that we live in. Or at least to tidy up the house a bit and make sure everything has a home…

It’s a job that’s been a long time coming. We first moved into this house just over four years ago. Then we had the builders in to renovate from top to bottom which took about a year and a half, with most of our stuff still in boxes and us shifting from room to room as our plans took shape around us.

During that time I was heading up an English department at a school in Plymouth, where Leigh was also based for the first two years of his med school training. Days were long and life was fast, and then I got pregnant: Arthur arrived approximately ten days after the builders finally left, bringing with him all the joy and craziness that accompanies a newborn.

The upshot of which is that, coming up for three years later, there were still boxes of stuff which had not actually been unpacked since we left London. And on top of those were more boxes delivered by my parents when they sold the family home. And one of the reasons none of them had been unpacked was that too many cupboards and drawers were full of I knew not what stuffed haphazardly in on the days when I snatched ten minutes to attempt to tidy up a bit.

And suddenly, having been saying for months that I needed to get on top if it all, I decided enough was enough: as soon as my feet touched the ground after our summer of adventures I was struck by an overwhelming desire to get organised.

And so I have.

I’m not quite there yet, but things are looking so much better: I’ve sorted Arthur’s toys and clothes and found homes for the many he’s grown out of, I’ve unpacked box after box of artefacts from my past, I’ve moved furniture around to make better use of space, I’ve sourced frames for all the pictures that needed them and have finally created the picture walls I’ve been visualising for years.

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It’s all been a bit manic, and as much as I’ve been feeling a real sense of achievement I’ve been wondering why – why on earth have I decided now to get my house in order, just at the point when I have possibly the most challenging edit yet of my novel to get my head around?

But I think that’s precisely it.

I’ve never been the tidiest of people (don’t laugh, mum), and it’s never especially bothered me before: I’ve always been pretty good at zoning out the detritus surrounding me to focus on the task in hand. But this time feels different. Maybe it’s the new level of clarity I feel I need to achieve in order to do this draft justice, maybe I’m feeling the pressure of trying to simultaneously be a full-time mum and a successful novelist. Whatever the cause, I’m pretty sure this manuscript is going to turn out a whole lot more polished if it – and I – have space to think and breathe.

I’m trying not to use the tidying thing as a procrastination tool – I am already well underway with this fourth draft, and have been fitting in an hour or two of editing every day at nap time. But yesterday I finished working through the notes I’ve been given by other readers, so this final push now needs to come from me alone.

There’s still a way to go on the mission for a truly tidy house, but my writing room is very nearly sorted. And once it is, there will be no more excuses not to get in the zone and get this novel ship shape too.

 

Muddled Manuscript

Seven top tips to help you edit your novel

Since I submitted the third draft of my novel last week, I’ve been pondering a lot about how I finally got there. It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.

I was optimistic when I first got started on the whole redrafting process back in September, but it wasn’t long before I started to flounder. I got things back on track, and completed the second draft almost within my self-imposed deadline.

I knew there was still work to be done at that stage, so it was no surprise when I had to start work on draft number three in January. I had some great feedback to work with, and slowly but surely a third draft began to take shape.

I’m not saying that’s perfect either, but in getting to that stage I’ve learnt a lot about how to go about editing and redrafting a novel: and that is what I want to share with you here.

Tip One: Don’t rush it

It’s easy to get impatient when writing a novel. After the first flush of excitement even getting to the end of the first draft can feel like a slog at times, and that is absolutely nothing in comparison to the arduous process of getting your head round the edit.

Having said that I found that it all came much easier when I was ready. I think you have to trust that if it just doesn’t seem to be working when you’re explicitly focusing on it then maybe your brain just needs a bit more mulling time.

But having said THAT…

Tip Two: Set yourself deadlines – and stick to them

This might not be the way you work, but for me my procrastination skills are so finely tuned that unless I have some sense of urgency I could just drag a task out forever… Especially one as tricksy as this.

Editing deadlines

I found it really helpful to decide on an overall deadline (both times round I gave myself around two months to get the edit done), and then to break it down into daily goals. Those were a bit more flexible. I aimed for a chapter a day, and sometimes I did more, sometimes less. Sometimes I redid what I’d done the day before. Sometimes my brain had been whirring so effectively in between editing sessions that I whizzed through several chapters. But I generally had a sense of where I was at and could therefore balance things out to make sure I got to the end pretty when I wanted to.

And along the way, remember…

Tip Three: Listen to your characters

In my first draft, I think a lot of the details in the story were driven by what I thought the characters might think, or say, or do. But really I was just getting to know them – I had to make presumptions and fill in the gaps because there just wasn’t time to stop and focus and listen.

The bits where I’d just swanned on through were blatantly obvious when I came to look at them later – what was not so obvious was what to do about them. But then I remembered that I wasn’t actually doing this alone. In the process of writing the first draft I’d created several companions to my task – and now they were there, ready and waiting for me to breathe fresh life into their story, I really needed to listen more acutely to them and where they wanted to take things. Even if it wasn’t strictly where I’d thought I wanted to go.

Which brings me to…

Tip Four: Listen to your readers

It goes without saying that you need to find someone you trust to give you feedback at each step of the writing and redrafting process. Preferably more than one person, and preferably people who are avid readers – even better if they enjoy the particular genre that you’re writing in.

But once you’ve found those all-important beta-readers, it can be incredibly tempting to pick and choose what bits of feedback to listen to. It’s your novel after all, right? And if you don’t agree with what they say then it’s your prerogative to ignore it, right?

Except they are in a much better position than you to measure how your novel will be received. Because they are readers – and readers are what it is all about.

There is a big gulf from the novel in your head and the novel that people will read, and that gulf can only be crossed by getting the right words on the page. If you think you’re communicating something, but your readers are telling you that you’re not, then you need to ask yourself why.

Though you mustn’t forget the most important thing…

Tip Five: Trust yourself

This might seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve just said, but it really doesn’t. You may well receive conflicting feedback, or feedback that really doesn’t sit comfortably with what it is you’re trying to achieve. And if you do the you need to remind yourself that, ultimately, you are the author of this work.

As long as you don’t dismiss things out of hand, as long as you really consider how you might be able to make the changes people are proposing, then it’s ok to stick to your guns and find a way to make your way work.

Just remember…

Tip Six: It’s ok to get rid of stuff you like

Writing a good novel is not just about good writing. It’s about how all of your words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters sit together to create people and worlds that are meaningful to your reader.

Some of the bits you end up cutting might be pieces of writing you love. Keep them! Just don’t be afraid to recognise that they might not work in this manuscript, here and now.

Editing a novel

And whilst we’re on the subject of fear…

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to experiment

Once you’re past the relatively liberating stage of writing the first draft, you might find a desire for perfection creeping in around the edges. You might feel like you have to get your next draft just right – perfect, in fact. And that – I speak from experience here – can be pretty paralysing.

The only way I was able to move forwards was by freeing myself up to experiment. To try things out, even if I wasn’t entirely sure they worked. To take things in a different direction. For me this was especially true of the second draft. I got rid of lots of those experiments by the time I got to draft number three, but the residue they left behind had undoubtedly made the manuscript stronger.

And that’s it!

There are other things, too. I’ve already written about the more prosaic things that kept me going when the going got tough. But for me the thing that really helped me bring these edits to a conclusion was getting myself into the right mental state. And it is that I hope these tips will help with.

 

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