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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No flow

flow

At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

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It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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The inequality of words

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I am on Twitter most days and one of the things I see most frequently is the author’s daily word-count. In it a writer will simply say how many words they’ve written today, or this week, or whatever. And it’s great. It’s lovely to see how people are getting on, to be able to support people if they’re struggling and to be inspired by another’s successes.

These totals vary from a few hundred – Ben Aaronovitch, for example, typically commits 500-700 words a day, though these are, I hear, finished, publisher-ready words – up to a friend’s purple-patch of around 6,000.

What gets me, though, is that these numbers are all treated as equal, as equivalent, when in reality they tell us very little. They are often a stick with which to beat ourselves when the comparison is, so often, completely unfair.

How does someone write 6,000 words a day? By sitting down behind a desk and getting on with it. Great stuff. But if they’re doing that they can’t be earning money. Unless they’re professional writers they must have either a job or a support-network that enables them to take the time out to write such a prodigious number.

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I have a small child, a part-time job and I get occasional freelance editorial work. These all take precedence over my real writing. I also have a spouse who works full-time and pays to send the smolrus to nursery two days a week so I can do my own thing. I’m very lucky – and yet my writing time is still horribly restricted. I could probably average about 5,000 words a week if free to get on with first-drafting.

But even that is a useless, artificial number: where in the first draft? At the beginning, when you’re filled with inspiration? At the end, when you’ve the joy of things coming together and you can see the finish-line? Or in the middle where every word has to be individually dredged up from the deep purgatory of your soul?

Not all words are equal.

If you’re out there with a full-time job, or with similar full-time commitments, it’s not fair on yourself to compete with these people who have the freedom to write at will. Averaging 100 words a day is fine – great, in fact. Anything better than zero is good. Hell, maybe you’re deleting vast swathes of experimental nonsense and your daily total is decisively negative. You’ve still accomplished something. Today you’re closer to the finished novel you envisaged than you were at the same point yesterday.

So by all means go and tell the world if things are going well. Just remember that numbers may be as much a reflection of privilege as of genius.

And make sure you share when things are a struggle too. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the real inspiration. The strength to get down a single word when the world is falling  around your shoulders will always stand with me as much as 15,000 done by someone who never has to leave the comfort of their study.

For the last time

the-last-time-i-saw-you-mens-premium-t-shirt

I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder

Tales of a fifth draft nothing

Matchsticks 2

I can’t find an original artist to credit for this so my efforts to be better at unthieving are thwarted

I am – somewhat to my surprise – approaching the end of another draft of Oneiromancer. This is the fifth time I’ve been though it; here are some random-ish thoughts on the process and the results.

  •  It’s done! Until the next time I do it, it’s done!
  •  It took forever. Due to child-wrangling issues and the perversity of life in general, this draft took around ten months to complete
  • Because of this, changes I made in August took until February to be acted upon. This is not ideal, but…
  • …It was aided by my Big Spreadsheet of Things, upon which I noted the page numbers of each chapter, a rough account of what happens in each scene, and through whose eyes we view it. This meant finding errant links was simpler than would otherwise been, and swearing was kept to a minimum
  • This is, hopefully, the last really substantive edit I’ll have to do…
  • …But I know this won’t be the case as no novel survives contact with the industry
  • The problem with taking a long time over an edit comes when you take a big chunk o’ work from the beginning and reinsert it two-thirds of the way through. Can you remember just what you were thinking six months earlier? You can not. If you’re lucky you left yourself a treasure map and a series of ever more intricate clues which lead you further and further into a conspiracy spanning continents, decades, and, quite possibly, planes of existence
  • Cryptic notes are often worse than no notes
  • If you can cut, cut. Unless you shouldn’t. In which case, add
  • Writing is confusing
  • The novel is, generally, not too bad: much of the plot hangs together…
  • …But I still worry, especially about characters, mood, and finding the right balance between description and overwhelming the reader
  • The climax still thrills me, which is clearly a good sign. The problem is that, in this state, you can miss errors as you’re too eager, or too much seeing what you want to see and not what’s actually there
  • Worrying over fine details is, at this stage, pointless. If the hook’s strong enough, if I can get someone to read past the first ten chapters they’ll stick with me until the end. Then they’ll tell me everything I did wrong and I can fix it
  • Getting someone to read past the first ten chapter (and by ‘someone’ I mean an agent or editor) is the tricky bit
  • The novel currently stands at 125,776 words. The previous draft was 130,767. That’s a trimming of 4,990 words, or (roughly) a twenty-sixth. Should more go? Draft One was 140,034, so we’re heading in the right direction. Obviously I’m presupposing that shorter is better, but that’s not true. Leaner is better, but muscle weighs more than fat and skeletons rarely know true love

And that’s all, folks. Now I have to think about something different to blog about for the next few weeks until I’m deep into a new project. Hopefully I’ll have exciting Night Shift news for you soon too. Smoke me a kipper, wonderful folk, and I’ll be back for breakfast.

The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?