How many drafts before I can call myself a writer? #amwriting

Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, a good idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. And it’s where I am right now, working on the second draft of a new novel. By ‘working on’, I mean agonising over each and every one of 80,000 words, wondering why I ever thought this was a good story to tell, or why I thought that these characters could carry it.

I started writing fiction because I wanted to write freely, and at length. My professional life has always contained a huge amount of writing, and people have always very kindly said that I do it well. But I had always written for someone else – an organisation, a manager, a publication – and to a brief defined for me, not by me.

Writing fiction provides the space in which to write without constraint, to think about the audience only once the first draft is nailed onto the page; only then do I have to think as if someone else is in the room, trimming the long florid passages about food and landscape to serve the needs of plot and character: my study floor is littered with the remains of darlings that have been killed.

Well that’s the idea, anyhow. It is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years: kill your darlings. But its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my current manuscript: forgotten and lost forever.

I work according to three maxims: writing is laying pipe; don’t get it right, get it written; and be ruthless in the rewriting. The first two are easier to pull off than the last, and that is why the process of turning a first draft into a second is so much less joyful than the initial outpouring. In part, this is because it is the first time that the ‘Reader’ has been in the room, judging my attempts to make a world. But there is something more: I am in no way as heartless in the face of a well-turned phrase as I like to pretend.

I love words: it’s why I do what I do. I can play with their concatenation for hours, turning over their sound and savour like wine in my mouth. One of the characters in my second book, The Cursing Stone, is largely as he is because I wanted to use the word muculent. And when I stumble on a beautiful combination of them, I am a little too pleased with myself to let them slip away unused. I have to work hard to resist the temptation to break the pipework of my plot to jemmy in a beloved, fleeting phrase.

I have been here twice before. Perhaps this stage of the process is why I still find it hard to describe myself as a writer. This is where the work lies, beyond the fun, and I’m still not very good at it. To pronounce myself a Writer seems too much of a claim. I doubt dentists have the same engulfing sense of charlatanism when asked at parties what do they do for a living; I doubt they mumble something about teeth and pain while staring at their shoes.

But this will pass. I will eventually pull these 80,000 words into something that is fit to be seen by other eyes and then I will share them with the lovely people who tell me what works and what doesn’t, and then I’ll agonise again for a while, but for less time and in less agony. And maybe, maybe, these words will become a book that will stumble into the light and I will feel able to say, without embarrassment, that I write.

 

This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.

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Just Keep Going

My first novel ‘In a Moment’ wasn’t the first book that I had ever started but the difference between it and my other attempts was that it was the first book that I had ever finished. In fact I have lots of unfinished books sitting on my laptop.

When I start off a book, I am full of energy and enthusiasm for the idea. In my mind it is the best idea I’ve ever thought of; it is the idea that will put all other ideas in the shade. I am already imagining who would play the lead roles in the screenplay, how much artistic licence I would be prepared to grant the producers and more importantly, if I’d be able to wrangle a couple of seats at the Oscars for me and my other half. But after the initial excitement starts to wane and I get deeper into the story, I start thinking about how the idea sounded so much better in my head. I cringe at every word I have written and think the whole thing is just plain awful. As Iris Murdoch once said ‘every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’. When the self-doubt takes over and the end still seems so far away, it is very hard to keep the faith needed to sustain a one hundred thousand word novel. Sometimes scrapping the work seems to be an infinitely more attractive option.

So what made me decide to keep going and finish ‘In a Moment’ you may ask? Well when I was about halfway through it and struggling to sustain momentum, I went along to a ‘Getting Published’ workshop. The one thing I took away from the day was that every author on the panel believed their work sucked but they didn’t give up on it. Instead they kept going until they reached the end and then they edited it. It was a light-bulb moment for me and I came home that day and decided that no matter what, I would finish the book I was working on. No matter how many times I wanted to scrap it (and believe me there were many), I kept going until I had completed the first draft. And I really think that persevering with it even when I wanted to delete the whole thing is what made the difference, because once I had completed a first draft I was able to look at it from a helicopter viewpoint and edit it. I was able to see what didn’t work and what needed to go before I submitted it and I was very fortunate to be offered a three-book deal by Poolbeg Press.

I now know from having (almost) five completed books that self-doubt is something that I (and all writers) will have to battle with every time we sit down in front of the computer. You are definitely not alone – join a writing group, attend a workshop, or use social media to connect with other writers. There is an invaluable support network out there of fellow writers who are all going through the same thing. Now if the doubts start to take over I try to ignore the negative voices in my head and keep going with the original idea, remembering why I fell in love with it in the first place. Your first draft will almost always be terrible so don’t get disheartened by it. Just get it down on the page – you can edit what you’ve written, but you can’t edit a blank page.

 

This post is brought to you by Caroline Finnerty.

Five of the most important things I have learnt from writing

For me being an author is a continuing learning process. Although I’m about to publish my seventh novel there’s always something new to discover or surprise me, either from something I read or from my writing colleagues. I was once asked what I thought were the five most important things I had learned which could be passed on to would-be writers and here they are –

1. I guess the most important thing of all is self-belief. As a fledgling writer embarking on my first novel I was very aware I was entering unchartered territory. I knew what I had begun was going to be a huge and probably at times, a difficult task. I had the plot sorted but exactly how many thousand words would that translate into? Would it be enough for a whole book? And would anyone want to read it? This was the point where I told myself no matter what it took I was going to write this book; that yes I could do it. It wasn’t an easy journey and there were difficult moments but I kept going, holding on to my belief that I could achieve my dream of being an author. My first book, When Tomorrow Comes was published in 2009 and five others have followed, which I guess is proof that if you believe you can do it, you will.

2. Reading. A writer needs to read…and not only their own genre. Reading enables you to keep up with what is currently on the market and gives you an insight into other writers’ techniques. How they structure their work, create characters and develop storylines. It’s also helped me when I’ve hit a flat spot in my manuscript. Sometimes quite unexpectedly a scene in the book I’m reading will provide me the answers I need to kick start my writing again.

3. Social Media. This is so important. When my first book was published I knew very little about social media. The first thing I set up was a website and hot on its heels, Facebook and Twitter accounts so I could link it. I now have a blog and regularly invite other writers to come and virtually chat. This gives them exposure for their own work and in turn, I get invited back to promote my work. I also review for Brook Cottage Books and have set up a dedicated website for this. Facebook in particular, is very useful, enablling me to link with other writers, join groups and forums and spread the word.

4. Patience. Novel writing doesn’t always go to plan. You begin a story but it’s not always a smooth ride. When things go wrong, as they often do, you need to approach your problem in a calm way. To get your writing back on track, patience and determination should be your main focus. You will do it. It will happen. Yes, I know it’s frustrating but over the years I’ve learned to become very philosophical seeing these unforeseen obstacles as a ‘meant to be’ moment. It goes with the territory and needs to be treated as a challenge not a disaster.

5. When the going gets tough… Yes, there will be moments of frustration when things don’t go to plan. You can also guarantee you’ll suffer from writer’s block – when you have a scene to write but no matter how many attempts you make, it simply won’t come right. Or your writing dries up completely. I guess this situation connects with No 4 above. It’s part and parcel of the pathway. It’s annoying but it happens. When I find myself in this situation I simply take a step away from my work for a while and do something completely different. Because I know in doing this when I return I’ll be much fresher, see things in a completely different way and can guarantee I’ll resolve the problem.

So to summarise, the five things I’ve learned from being an author are:
• Believing in myself
• Being a reader as well as a writer
• Developing a good social media presence
• Having patience when you hit a problem
• Knowing when to step away from your work

 

This post is brought to you by Jo Lambert.

On setting… and boats

author picture with boats

One of the things with writing contemporary fiction is that the setting will almost certainly be a place that is familiar to the reader. Maybe not the exact spot, but the general surroundings will hold something they will recognise. In a sense, this makes life easier. There’s none of the research and fact checking needed to place the action in a convincing mediaeval world, for instance, or the depth of consideration that’s essential to build an entirely new world in a sci-fi epic fantasy. We contemporary writers can place the little touches so necessary for three-dimensional writing by sitting and looking out of the window, or going for a walk, or taking a bus ride. I’ve often been out and noticed, say, a poster on the wall of a building or a couple arguing in a cafe and thought, ‘yes, that would work in the part of my book when…’ and a whole chunk of the plot will have fallen into place.

Summer of Secrets Front Cover

Sometimes, of course, we want things to happen in a specific place, somewhere that we may never have been. This is not impossible. Google and Wikipedia are the writer’s friend when we need to explore a town virtually, or pick up details about local amenities, significant beauty spots, even something as prosaic as bus times. My second novel, still currently ‘in progress’, starts in Thailand. I’ve never been there, but with some crossover experience of travelling in other parts of the world, including Singapore, some shameless stealing of my ex-husband’s stories of the trip he took there as a teenager (a writer never wastes information!), the detailed bus routes and ferry timetables I found online, and numerous travel blogs, I reckon I’ve built up a pretty good picture.

Having said that, I had an experience lately that reminded me how very valuable it is to go to the place you’re writing about. After my heroine leaves Thailand, she ends up on a canal boat. Her journey takes from Macclesfield down towards Stone, and it’s her first experience of being on a narrowboat. I’ve lived on my boat for over ten years now, but I don’t do a lot of actual boating. The boat is a place that I live in rather than something that I do. You need to set aside quite a lot of time to travel on the canal and, with kids who need to be at ballet or karate or Duke of Edinburgh expeditions or swimming club in the endless cycle of these things, that’s never been something I’ve managed to do.

I have a diary somewhere which chronicles the first few months of the boat, which included sailing from Runcorn – where the boat was launched – along the Bridgewater and Leeds/Liverpool canals to the place where I now moor. This diary holds invaluable memories about the experience of being a new boater: the propeller becoming clogged with plastic bags, the first attempt at reversing, of pumping out the toilet tank, of meeting another boat in a tight stretch of the waterway. Unfortunately, I’ve still not been able to find it… Luckily a friend – herself an experienced boater – has recently had a new boat built, and invited me along to be one of the first crew members. Even more fortuitously, her planned route was to take us along the Macclesfield canal.

macclesfield canal

My initial draft of the chapters where my character sails along the Macc. were okay. I had a lot of the flavour of canal travel. I do, after all, know a lot about the canal bank. But the specifics were missing. I’d forgotten what it was like to be at the tiller when the boat sinks down into a lock. I’d forgotten that moment when the lockgates open and a picture of the world beyond is framed by those vast wooden gates. Being the exact spot I wanted to write about, I was taking notes frantically. A fallen tree trunk here, an unusual balance-weight lifting bridge there. The sound of the engine, the smell of the water. As so often, I’d forgotten to bring along my notebook, but I did have my phone. The advantage of this being that they sync with my computer.stoic

Something I want my plot to include is a canal boat chase, which is something of a contradiction in terms and therefore a challenge to write. This didn’t, of course, happen on my Macclesfield trip. But you can’t have everything, and sometimes a writer just has to use her imagination. I’ll let you know how the chase scene goes when I get round to writing it!

 

This post is brought to you by Sarah Jasmon.

Writing essentials

It’s been nearly three years since my first book was published, and since that time my hobby has become my work. When I started writing The First Book (still lurking in my computer files somewhere, unloved and unwanted) I did it when I had a spare moment, grabbing pieces of paper to scribble on when thoughts came while waiting in traffic, emailing chunks of text to myself when inspiration struck at work (shhh). Opening my laptop on a Sunday morning and firing off a chapter in bed.

Now my job description includes the word ‘writer’, and I’ve had to learn a new routine, and become much more disciplined about my writing. As Somerset Maugham once said: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

So what do I need in order to work?

 

Physical essentials

  • My study. At one time it was the study, the one I shared with the rest of the family, but since I became self-employed I painted it pink (I write romance, what more can I say?) and took control.

My study

  • Computer – a desktop, because I prefer to see what I’m writing on a large screen. It also means I can easily flick between twitter, email and my work in progress. Not always a good thing.
  • A cup of tea and toast. My reward for starting the day with a run or a swim. The endorphins kick start my brain and the toast feeds it.

tea and toast

  • Jenson Button. I write about handsome heroes, so I need a little inspiration.

Jenson cut out vertical

  • Pens & sticky notes. Although the writing is done on the computer, I often jot down things as they come to me. Did she say something similar in the last chapter? Was he wearing a black shirt earlier? How many times have I used the word slumped?
  • Essential for when the edits come through, so I can pick out the key points I need to change, colour coding for the different characters.

 

Non-physical essentials

This is harder to list, but the more writers I’ve met, the more writing I’ve done, these are what I believe distinguishes a writer from a person who writes a book.

  • Thick skin. Needed at first to read those rejections, later to stomach those poor reviews (umm, hope that’s not just me?!) – and yet still want to write.
  • Bloody mindedness. It doesn’t matter how hard it is to find an agent, a publisher, to write a best seller. A writer perseveres. It will come with the next book. Or the book after that…
  • A drive, a passion, a need to write. A writer finds it hard to stop thinking about their characters, about plot lines and the next book. A writer doesn’t read a book without making a mental (or often physical) note of phrases, ideas they admire or pitfalls to avoid. A writer doesn’t watch a film, listen to a conversation, stare out of the window without thinking yes and parking an idea in their brain for later.

I think what I’m saying is a writer has to write. It’s their job, their hobby, their relaxation. It’s what they do, but also who they are.

 

This post is brought to you by Kathryn Freeman.

Write what you know . . . or maybe not?

All contemporary fiction writers will have heard the saying, ‘write what you know’ at some point in their writing life. It always makes an appearance in the Top 10 writing tips for aspiring authors but it’s a piece of advice that I think can be quite dangerous. I think it straightaway puts up limits as to what you can and can’t write about and here’s why:

Obviously nothing beats firsthand experience, if you yourself have experienced a situation that you are writing about, your feelings at having gone through it will ring true with the reader. Or if you once lived in the location where your book is set, your writing will definitely have an authenticity that you just can’t beat. But what happens if you are writing a second, third or even fourth book? You may be able to base your first book solely on your experience but unless you have had a colourful and exciting life, the chances are that you will run out of material pretty quickly.

This is where research comes in. Research, if it is done properly, can help you colour in the bits that you don’t know. Of course nowadays we’re very lucky to have the Internet. You can find so much information online – historical archives, newspapers, medical reports, as well as people’s firsthand experiences. The author JoJo Moyes talks about using chat forums for people with spinal injuries to research her brilliant novel ‘Me Before You’.

Of course there will always be some things that you can’t find online. When it came to researching my fourth novel ‘My Sister’s Child’, I knew I wanted to tackle the thorny issues surrounding modern reproductive techniques namely egg donation. The book tells the story of two sisters Jo and Isla and the resulting fallout, which occurs after Isla donates her eggs to help her sister Jo conceive a baby. The main difficulty I had was that egg donation especially between two sisters, is obviously a deeply private and often painful matter for the individuals involved so there wasn’t a huge level of information available online. Added to that, at the time of writing, the legislation in Ireland in relation to donor-assisted conception was in the process of being changed. So to ensure that the storyline accurately reflected current treatments, once I had carried out a basic level of research myself, I devised a medical questionnaire and contacted David Walsh of the SIMS clinic (an Irish fertility clinic) who very kindly answered my questions. In my experience if you can’t find what you are looking for online, there are plenty of experts out there who are delighted to help you out if you need a firsthand account or advice on something (especially if you promise them a mention in the acknowledgements!).

As a writer you should also be drawing on your feelings to add depth to your story – you may not know how it feels to come home to find your husband in bed with someone else (I hope!) but I bet you have probably experienced an intense anger at some point in your life. So even if you haven’t direct experience of a situation, just like an actor getting into character for a film, these are types of feelings that you need to call on to help put you in the shoes of your characters.

I think the ‘write what you know’ rule belongs to a different time, when research was slow and tedious. Nowadays writers have so many more avenues open to them to get information for their stories. There are plenty of ways to fill in the blanks when you get stuck so don’t put barriers in your way before you even begin and anyway, isn’t the point of writing fiction that you have to be able to make it up?

 

This post is brought to you by Caroline Finnerty.

How and why I chose a pen name

One of the fun things about being a novelist is inventing names for your characters. You can let your imagination run free, stripped of caution and compromise. But choosing a different name for yourself is personal and heartfelt, challenging your identity and family history. When I got a publishing deal with Hodder I sat in my editor’s office, brimful with excitement, as she outlined the company’s marketing and branding plans for me. ‘There’s one problem,’ she said. I froze, worrying that there was a plot issue I had overlooked. She looked uncomfortable. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s your name. It’s just not right. We need to change it. Your first name and your surname, I’m afraid.’ Ouch.

We may spend our lives escaping our parents and their influence, carving out our own identities, but our name is given to us and most of us never change it. Even if women marry, they have no choice over the surname they take. Alison Potter – the real me – had served me perfectly well for decades, until now.

Authors live in an age of search engines, social media and crowded markets; it’s a fight to be seen and heard. Sharing a surname with Harry Potter, the most successful book and film franchise of recent times, and Beatrix Potter too makes life harder for a writer trying to carve out her own space. But I was dealing with more than that.

Age and class are nebulous things, but they are powerful. I never thought of Alison as indicating very much at all: its not unusual; it’s not a Greek goddess or a city in eastern Europe, and it’s not a noun turned into a name so beloved of pop stars (Cello, Tiger, Peaches) – but that’s the problem. It’s boring. It’s safe, dependable, middle-of-the-road and middle-aged. And for a thriller writer, that’s fatal. Our job is to entertain, excite and captivate the reader, and that starts with the front cover. Marketing books is just like marketing cereal or face cream or tights: image is important, and middle-aged just won’t do.

So I set about finding a pen name. Literary novelists almost never change their names, but at the commercial end of the market authors are doing it with increasing frequency. I knew I was in good company: Lee Child, John le Carre and Nicci French are just a few pseudonyms used by thriller writers, and there is a tendency for writers (often men) in the psychological thriller genre where I work, to use initials to disguise their gender, such as SJ Watson and TR Richmond. This seems to be to appeal to the large bias towards female readers in this genre. Everyone does what they can to gain an edge. But the process itself was harder than I imagined.

A new name is also a new opportunity. I had the most trouble with a new Christian name, it felt like I was cutting out the guts of who I was. I wanted something short and memorable – it had to be Ali. The sale of books in international markets is also something to consider – Ali felt like it could be male or female, something I felt might help in foreign territories where my books would be sold.

I began to trawl my family for surnames. My husband’s name is Upstone. I suggested Ali Stone to my editor. ‘Too heavy,’ she said. ‘You could use Rock,’ my agent suggested. ‘Too Outer Hebrides,’ was the reply.

The problem is that all names conjure up other people and they are intensely personal. ‘Ians are always ginger,’ a friend said emphatically. Another added: ‘You need to think what the name means in other languages.’ It felt as complicated as rolling out a new car launch across multiple territories.

Having exhausted every family name I wrote down a shortlist of around 10, mainly collected from my regular runs through the local graveyard and film websites. In the end we chose Knight. It sounded strong and confident, it felt ‘crimey’. It tied me to my genre.

Four books later, Twitter and Facebook and on-line book communities have mushroomed and I have sometimes struggled running two online identities, the ‘real’ me and my thriller me. But that is a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing your name – real or fabricated, on the front cover of books in English and many other languages to boot.

 

This post is brought to you by Ali Knight.