How to save a novel

editing

Arrogance alert: I am about to lecture you on ways to make a bad novel better. This is done based on the feedback received from one person (albeit a fairly important person; to whit, my editor) about one novel. He was very positive about the work I’ve previously referred to in these pages as my problem child (see also here).

Based on this slimmest of evidence I therefore feel it appropriate to share a few of the techniques I’ve used to lick my red-headed stepchild into shape. All of the below are things that I’ve done in the chasm between first and finished drafts.

  • Take your time. I was working on the Problem Child for over six years before it was signed off with the editor. Of course it always feels like you’re in a rush but, unless you have specific deadlines, you have the rest of your life to get it right
  • Believe in it. Yes, there are times when it’s right to give up on a project but often you have to believe in your baby, and…
  • Be stubborn. You took the time to write a whole draft; something inside you is telling you it’s worth getting right, so you might as well…
  • Do the work. Editing is hard but it can also be hugely rewarding. You have to be prepared to sit in that chair and frown at your work until it comes into focus
  • Get criticism. Whether on individual scenes or on the story as a whole – preferably both – it pays – hell, it’s essential – to get feedback. Find beta-readers. Find a writing group. Don’t go solo
  • Listen to criticism. If someone, or preferably someones, are telling you something doesn’t work then it probably won’t work for any agents or commissioning editors either
  • Act on criticism. It’s a lot easier to tinker with grammar and character than it is to get to the root of a problem. Remember, though, you don’t have to rush to action. Take your time. But you will have to tackle the issues raised

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  • Edit someone else’s work… and keep reading. Thinking about a novel in a different way can help you frame just what’s wrong with your own work – and can give you a fresh perspective on how to fix it. You never know when the answers might strike you
  • Be humble… but believe in yourself. You can do it. Go you!
  • Draft, redraft, redraft again. I’ve lost track of the number of rewrites I’ve done for Human Resources, partly because of my idiosyncratic numbering system and partly because it received a new name, and thus a new folder, towards the end of its pre-acceptance life. But I know it took at least nine drafts. Some were major rewrites, others mere tinkerings around the edges. Every one went to make it better. I say again: do the work
  • Add characters. My early drafts always seem to be underwritten (with the exception of those that aren’t and need characters removed, which I have also done) and need added layers of complexity. Specifically, I seem to omit a vital level of antagonism which can only be solved by redrafting with a new character woven throughout
  • Re-write the opening. Because the opening is disproportionately important, and it’s not as easy as it should be to find the right moment to come in. I set the opening at three different points before settling on a fourth, changing my mind, then changing my mind back
  • Arrange a panicky second beta-reading. Because self-belief is fragile
  • Worry endlessly whether it’s good enough. Ego never survives contact with the enemy, which in this case are your readers

What have you done to reinvigorate your work? Please do add your comments below. And remember, kids, that whilst this may look like advice, it is coming from an idiot. Caveat scriptor, y’all. Caveat all the way.

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More ‘No’

rejection-slip

Always have two more targets to apply to. Then, whenever you receive a rejection, send them out. Soon the whole process will snowball and you’ll almost enjoy the sensation of rejection as it’ll be springboard to doing and promoting.

I got my first rejection for Oneiromancer last week and that’s fine. I owed this particular agent first refusal; and, as I waited, I was constrained from really pushing myself. Not literally; I didn’t have an exclusivity clause or anything. But it’s always easier to wait than to act, and it’s not like I had nothing else on my mind.

Now the formal notification has arrived: she doesn’t want me. The note contained nice words (she admires my writing) and I know the business: nothing personal, just a cold hard calculation of what’s best for us both. Of course I’m disappointed but I respect her, her opinions and her reasons.

Sometimes a rejection is gutting, a kick in the knackers, a painful reminder of your own limitations. But sometimes it’s a cutting of a cord, the freedom to walk another road, be it with a different agency or self-publishing – or the chance to write something entirely new.

Rejection isn’t a sign of failure; it’s not a comment on your writing or your potential. It’s an opening of doors. It’s the chance to grow. So don’t be afraid. The hurt is only temporary, and hiding from the world won’t get you anywhere.

Take any lessons you may have learnt, down your gin then sober up and step on. Rejection is never nice, but it’s hardly the end of the world, or of your career. Keep going and you’ll get there in the end – even if the destination isn’t the one you’d originally envisioned.

The wet haddock of reality

So the WordPress annual report comes in, and I am happy. Slow growth across the social media world – I can live with that. I can sit back and enjoy this wave of adulation, my ego sufficiently bolstered..?

Of course not. Life’s never so straightforward.

2014 has been a bit of an enhumblement, professionally speaking. If 2013 was my ‘year of getting professional’, 2014 has been my ‘year of getting slapped in the face with the wet haddock of reality’.  I’ve been forced to face up to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing. And I’m very glad to have made this realisation. It’s only when you face your incompetences that you can turn them into strengths.

So what have I learned? For a start, I over-use rhetorical questions. A small, silly thing really but it’s a habit that’s surprisingly hard to break. Will I succeed? Can’t say yet. I also over-use sentence fragments, an annoying stylistic tic of mine.

More fundamentally, I need to work on character and pacing. I don’t want to go too much into this because I’ve whined on about it before; really both elements come down to not addressing these things properly before I start to write. I’ve spent the majority of the year working on correcting related issues within my work.

But really I think the thing that’s changed in the last year is my attitude. I began 2014 by racing to complete a revision for an agent – I rushed in order to impress and ended up with a failure. Now I am working slower, steadier, and leaving more time for my deep thoughts to catch and swallow the scudding shoals of inspiration before they can lead me into shallows of superficiality.

If I manage to learn my bitter lessons and prove I’m worthy, maybe 2015 will become the year of getting published. One can always hope. But always, always, work comes before dreams. Only one can lead to the other.

Oh, and I also got married this year. That was good.