Winter reflections on a work in progress

winterMany apologies for not updating this site recently. I’ve been busy with various projects, including photography and blogging for another site about mental health, which I’ll share once it’s published.  Before things get too hectic as the year draws to a close, I wanted to give you an idea of where I’m up to with my novel.

My fantastic writing coach Lauren Sapala gave me some detailed and very encouraging feedback on the story.  As always it’s a pleasure to read Lauren’s comments because she totally gets what I’m trying to do and responds emotionally to the characters just as I’d hoped.  She also has great instincts for improving a draft and pointing out where something is unclear or confusing.

After making these initial changes I gave the book to my husband.  Although I’ve been working on it for two years, he didn’t know much about the storyline or what to expect. He hasn’t finished it yet, but it’s been interesting to see his reactions, which so far aren’t that dissimilar from Lauren’s: they mentioned liking the same sections. He’s giving me line-by-line editorial comments which are helping to make the writing stronger and more concise.

Once this second round of amends is complete, which I anticipate will be early next year, I’m going to send it to The Literary Consultancy for a full professional assessment. I’ve paid for similar agency reports in the past, so I know from experience that they don’t hold back in telling you what’s wrong with your manuscript. Which is good, because it’s what you’re paying them for, but it’s not necessarily easy to hear either.  So, that will be January’s challenge.

I have no idea what they’ll say or whether it’ll require a complete rethink or just tweaking, but I’ll deal with that problem when it arrives. If it needs significant rewriting then I’ll ask someone else, maybe a couple of people, to look through the revised version. After that, an amazing friend of mine who is a freelance editor has offered to proofread the final copy.

And then… that’s the text done. The next stage will be to start on the cover artwork, formatting, website, adverts and the film I’m planning to make in place of a book tour. It’s exciting to think about.

Some people have asked if I’m planning to have one last go at submitting to literary agents before I self-publish.  As things stand, I’m not.  The reason is that I see self-publishing nowadays as a positive choice, not a last resort for the rejected. I love the idea of having creative control over the cover design and the marketing. Also, my story addresses several themes that are very current (you’ll see what I mean) and I’m not willing to wait years longer to get it out into the world.

I have been through my 15 years of rejection and while it hasn’t exactly been fun, it may have made me stronger in some ways. It certainly rids you of any lingering sense of entitlement. Nobody owes you a publishing contract because you were a straight-A student or got a literature degree or have written stories since you could hold a pen. And potential isn’t enough: if your work isn’t marketable, the industry can’t afford to support you until you get there. Not when they have a surplus of talented writers to choose from.

Although I’ve abandoned the traditional publishing route, I still get a regular hit of rejection in the form of contests. I scaled back my entries this year as they were becoming unaffordable at up to £25 a go and so I only entered five. Four have been a no, but there’s one more result to go before the year ends.  I’m trying not to read too much into my lack of success. When a longlist only represents around 3% of the entries, I don’t think you can conclude the others lacked merit or might not go on to win other contests.

In all honesty I would still like to have validation from the literary establishment one day, but I recognise that it isn’t necessary any more. Technology is removing those barriers. We get to decide for ourselves when our apprenticeship is over and we’re “good enough” to begin for real.

Advertisements

Fictional characters, imperfection and likeability

aphroditeFor many writers, their biggest fear is the blank page. I may be unusual in this regard, because I love the empty whiteness of a new document. The way it appears in front of you, all shining and pure and unspoiled, still full of limitless possibilities.

What absolutely terrifies me is the finished manuscript. Completing a novel should be a cause for celebration, and yet the fact the thing exists at all fills me with dread. Now that it’s in the most polished state I’m capable of achieving without editorial support, the demons of doubt are screaming at full volume.

What if it’s no good? What if people don’t understand or like my characters? And if they don’t, what am I going to do about it?

In any good story, the characters are the driving force of the narrative. So it’s essential that they’re engaging and relatable, or in the case of a villain, sufficiently mesmerising that the reader feels compelled to spend time with them. It’s why so much creative writing advice focuses on character likeability. How to give your protagonist strong and appealing traits, as well as some imperfections to keep them credible. But sympathetic faults, not the serious or repulsive kind that turn people off.

It’s important to learn about character development and to be receptive to editorial feedback on how our characters are coming across. Sometimes there are issues in the manuscript that need fixing: a change of tone in the dialogue or a deeper exploration of a character’s motives to increase empathy for their situation. That said, I do think there’s a danger for writers in attempting to change our protagonists to make them likeable.

I don’t write memoir or autobiographical fiction. My characters are separate beings from me. Nevertheless, their feelings and experiences closely mirror my own, and they tend to be deeply flawed. As a writer, this level of exposure leaves me intensely vulnerable to criticism. If my readers come back and say, ‘I thought your main character was pathetic and needed a slap,’ trust me, I will feel that slap. And yes, it’s happened before, and it will most likely happen again, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it.

Well, in theory there is. To avoid that risk, I could watch some popular movies, decide what is broadly considered attractive in our culture, and develop a protagonist around it. I’m already imagining she’s self-reliant, outgoing, feisty, funny and loyal. She gets in trouble for breaking the rules, while inside she’s suffering because of a past relationship hurt. The problem is that I’m not the least bit invested in her, because I’ve just made her up to be likeable, rather than allowing her essence to emerge naturally from my subconscious. If I forced myself to write a novel about her,  my lack of connection to her would be evident. Because her story isn’t what I wanted to write in the first place.

It’s the same in real life. If we mask too much of our identity by constructing a persona to fit the cultural ideal, far from experiencing a greater sense of belonging in the group, we can end up feeling more alone and adrift than ever. When we try to make people like us by adopting the characteristics we assume they value, frequently they sense it and warm to us less as a result.

Real people can be tough and independent and witty and brash and confident and cool. We can also be anxious and introverted and obsessive and insecure and conflicted and crazy-in-love. I happen to be drawn to exploring the second set of traits. I’m not sure I should or even can change this. After all, isn’t one of the delights of reading that we feel less alone and less self-critical, because we see our so-called “weaknesses” as simply part of the wider human condition? Through fiction, we may even learn how someone similar to us came to accept themselves as they are.

Besides, as anyone who reads reviews knows, readers disagree vociferously over character likeability. I loved Anna Karenina for her complexity, but she often features on the most-hated lists on account of her perceived self-obsession and poor choices. The fictional character I loathed most as a child was Pollyanna. I can’t describe how much it grated on my nerves that she was glad about everything. I felt she was unrealistic and that I was being preached to by adults. Yet other people find her relentless optimism inspirational and charming. We all bring our own perspective to the work.

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Ernest Hemingway’s forthright letter to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He says, “All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”

Not caring about the fate of our work is easier said than done when we’re in the grip of obsessions over critique groups and literary agents and sales figures and Amazon reviews. But I also think it’s the way to produce the most vivid, authentic and powerful writing we’re capable of.

In no way does anything I’ve said above minimise my fear of people reading my manuscript. In fact, I’m not sure anything can, but it’s a fear I’m going to push on through. And hopefully it will be worth it.

 

Inspiration, progress and self-imposed deadlines

20526075_10155453733650833_4314066651167167073_nAfter an extended phase of excruciatingly slow progress with the book, I finally decided what I needed was to be on a tighter schedule. I’m now planning to have a finished draft ready to send to my fantastic writing coach, Lauren Sapala, before I go on holiday at the beginning of September.

Setting deadlines works wonders for my motivation, but there has to be a way in which I can hold myself accountable for sticking to them. The reason I lost momentum with the novel was because everything else I needed or wanted to do over the summer was taking priority. Yet failing to work on it was causing me as much, if not more stress than if I’d been under pressure to finish it. Committing to send it off by a certain date was enough to get me back to the keyboard, and I’m writing in cafes again (buying a laptop that actually functions has helped with that too).

We could all say we’re too busy to write if we want to. I admit I have more free time and flexibility than writers with children do, but I still have a full-time job, as well as other commitments, and low energy on most days. I also fall prey to the distractions of social media and keeping up-to-date with the latest political intrigues.

Choosing to devote a solid amount of time to the writing you’ve neglected can have a snowball effect. It lures back into your imaginary world and you become infatuated with your idea all over again. The high you get from creating makes you want to experience it increasingly often, and soon you’re no longer too busy to write, you’re too busy for the other stuff that seemed so important yesterday.

This has been my experience over the last week or two. I never stopped loving the characters, but the drive and enthusiasm I needed to complete their story had faded. Thankfully, just a little attention has rekindled the fire, and I’m more excited about publishing it than ever. Now the narrative structure is in place, the bit I find hardest, it’s a pleasure to be able to start fine-tuning the language and dialogue.

When I’m struggling with my work, it helps me to dedicate time to reading other people’s writing. I can’t stay up all night to finish a book like I used to, but I can let myself become thoroughly absorbed in a quality novel. I try to read as a writer, noting down beautiful phrases and the techniques authors use to allow us to enter their character’s mind. I tell myself that if they can do it, so can I.

It’s not just writers who help me to persevere. I’m drawn to creative people, whether they’re musicians, actors, photographers or artists who achieve excellence and inspire emotion. I can go to a concert or exhibition and leave buzzing with renewed determination to succeed in my chosen art form.

This won’t be the final draft by a long way, but it’ll be the first time I’ve been ready to ask a trusted reader to share their reactions with me. After that, I should have a better sense of whether I’ve managed to convey my vision and given the characters the unique voices I already know they possess.

In the end is the beginning

_MG_2021

So I have just now typed THE END for the second time, and soon I’ll be returning to the first page to start all over again on Draft 3. And I have to say, despite the slow progress, I’m pleased and thoroughly relieved to be so much further along than I was.

What I had on my hands last spring was a 120k-word sprawling mess of half-written scenes, sketches and notes, which when patched together, vaguely constituted a story. After nearly a year of work, it can now be classed as a 105k-word complete manuscript. It follows a linear narrative structure, it is organised into 32 chapters, the characters are fully realised, and the various plot threads are resolved by the end.

Is it finished? Am I happy with it yet? Absolutely not. There are sentences and paragraphs in this draft that are so monstrous, I have actual nightmares about someone reading and knowing I wrote them. It needs another four or five redrafts at least before it’s fit to be seen by human eyes.

Yet I love aspects of it too. The characters, for example. I’ve been getting to know my main characters, Kerry and Alex, ever since I first “met” them in the autumn of 2015. I have such a clear sense of them now that sometimes I have to remind myself they’re not real. Despite their flaws and problems, they’re a pleasure to spend time with. I hope they’ll be a pleasure for readers to get to know too.

After a short break from the manuscript,  I’m going to look at the overall structure and see if any significant changes still need to be made (they will). Then I’ll go through each chapter alone and rewrite it. After that, I’ll focus on specifics: characters, dialogue, setting, pacing, accuracy, the weather, etc.

I’m happy to admit that one of my writing weaknesses is describing physical actions. I can imagine scenes, colours, textures and scents, and I can hear the tone of the dialogue as the characters talk. However, I find it hard to visualise changes in posture and facial expression. I don’t know why. (Do any other writers struggle with this?)

My task for the next few weeks is to really observe how people communicate emotions through action. Not just the obvious signs like frowning, nodding or clenching fists, but the little gestures and micro-expressions which betray what they’re feeling. I’ll then use these to help convey my characters’ moods more subtly.

I’ll also be polishing the first 5,000 words (which are already at a better standard than the rest) to enter into a competition, the Bath Novel Award. It’s an extremely competitive international award, so my hopes aren’t high, but I think it’s good for discipline to enter contests now and then, and it will help me to focus on making the opening strong and engaging.

Finally, I’m re-evaluating my schedule for publishing this novel. I was determined at the start of the year to see it in print by December, but I’m increasingly realising a) how much work the book needs, and b) how much I still need to learn about publishing, marketing, and social media strategy.

My aim in 2017 will be to get the text professionally edited and finalised, and perhaps the front cover designed too. Next year I can focus on how to sell it. Of course this may change depending on circumstances, but I don’t want to feel pressured to rush towards an artificially imposed deadline.

It’s going to be a summer of editing then, and thanks to everyone for being so supportive and interested in this process.

Preparing to become an author

cathykid5

My love of writing stories began a very long time ago. I’m not sure exactly when the photo of me above was taken, but I’d guess around 1981. Since then, I’ve written well over half a million words, as well as working as a copywriter and in communications. However, I haven’t yet managed to publish any of my fiction. I’ve decided this is going to change next year.

A few people have asked me when my novel will be available (thank you!) The short answer is before the end of 2017. I can’t yet commit to a specific month for a launch, as I’m not sure how long the editing will take.

I started writing my latest book in October 2015. What I have now is a mess of a 120,000-word draft. The scenes are in no particular order. Like many authors, I can’t write in a linear way from beginning to end. (I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me.) Some of the secondary characters are still sketches, and overall the writing needs a lot more work.

However, the basic elements of the story are in place, the charity shop setting feels authentic and the two main characters are fully alive. I know how they look, speak, think, move and act. They’re utterly real to me and I could spend hours daydreaming about their lives.

I’m now onto the second draft, which involves structuring, rewriting, and cutting the manuscript down to around 100,000 words or less. If I’m honest, this seems quite daunting right now, but I’ve written novels before, so I know the fear is just part of the process.

I don’t generally show anyone a work-in-progress. Some writers like to collaborate in order to shape their raw first drafts, but I prefer to have it as polished as possible before anyone gets to see it. (Just as I’d never leave the house without make up on…)

Once the manuscript is ready, I’ll ask my writing coach if she can give me some initial feedback. She has amazing insight into what makes good fiction, and she’s so lovely and positive, I look forward to receiving her comments.

After that, I’ll open it up to several more views from friends and other writers. This stage is likely to scare me, but it should give me an indication of the strength of the book’s appeal to readers.

When I’ve made changes based on feedback, I’ll hire a copy-editor to go through line by line, pointing out any grammar errors, inconsistencies, and style issues. People with this level of attention to detail are truly amazing.

I’m really looking forward to the cover design. An attractive and professional cover is crucial for selling any book, and I definitely don’t have the skills to do this myself. I’ll be looking for a striking image that reflects the tone and themes of the novel and a designer to create some beautiful artwork.

The next job is to get the text formatted for Amazon and work out how to set it all up. Then comes the marketing phase. I’ve started on that already with this blog and social media.

I love the idea of self-publishing. It’s time-consuming, risky, and not for everyone. But it removes many of the barriers to getting our work in front of an audience, and puts us in control of our writing, finances, marketing, and long-term careers.

People complain that the removal of the ‘gatekeepers’ allows a flood of mediocre books onto the market. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Freelancers can provide all the editing, design and marketing services offered by a traditional publishing house. There are so many brilliant creative people out there to help us. If we’re prepared to invest time and money in our self-published books, there’s no reason why they can’t be as well produced as any we see on the shelves.

For indie authors, there’s no one to grant or deny us permission to publish. That means we get to decide for ourselves when it’s time, which is wonderful, and at the same time, kind of terrifying.

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but becoming an author will be a new experience. I suspect when it comes to it, I’ll need someone to talk me into pressing the publish button.