Finishing and the writing diet

Stephen King was right. I was re-reading his book ‘On writing’ and he talked about getting the first draft of a novel done as quickly as possible and in one go because the longer it took, there would be loss of momentum, loss of attachment with your characters and their plight and everything would become a bit of a struggle.

So I should have done that for this first draft and kept going after Nanowrimo last year. But I didn’t. I took a ‘break’, a long one, and I’m dawdling and other things keep fighting for my attention and the novel is not moving on despite my knowing exactly what happens next.

So I have to keep going, make time, and just do it.

Or I have to figure out if it is the next scene or chapter that is the problem and figure out if I need to revise my idea of what happens next.

I did my first draft for my first novel in about six weeks. My second novel took about 2.5 months. And, I think, it’s pure cockiness on my part that I haven’t finished the first draft of this third novel. (Hey, look at me, I finished one novel, this one will slip right out, easy peasy. Wrong.)

Right. Time for bum on seat and get on with it. Plan out a writing plan for the next week, times I can give myself for writing and force through the next few words, sentences, paragraphs and pages until I push through the block holding this novel from progressing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong (to me) with the story of the third novel – I love the ideas I’ve come up with for this novel but I seem to have slowed my momentum down too much and need a mental push to get to the next chapter and so on, until the first draft is complete.

Here goes. Find my writing time. Commit and begin again.

This is just like being on a diet – the writing diet! Fall off the wagon, pick myself up, and start again.

Tackling writer’s block

We can spend days, weeks, months, or years blocked as we get through our novels. Some of it could be due to not knowing. Not knowing how to write, not knowing how to craft a novel, not knowing what happens next…

In a previous post I wrote about being stuck, the responses that came out of me were about not knowing the basics of how to write a novel which I deeply wanted to do. Two years later, after reading loads of books on novel writing, a couple of courses later, many drafts later, practice, practice, practice, I’m starting to see the light, through moments of being so stuck and frustrated to moments when I can actually push through and rewrite and say to myself, yes, that’s what I was trying to write, that’s exactly it, that paragraph, that scene or that chapter is working now.

Recently, I got advice from Mia Gallagher, author of ‘Hellfire’, about tackling my novel, at a recent poetry/prose event. She told me to:

1. Take time to do your re-write – don’t feel under pressure.

2. Be honest about where it rings true and doesn’t.

3. Experiment with being uncomfortable – to go further in the writing. The next level is unknown.

4. Use a structured environment to push the most out, to crack through.

5. Stay with the blank page, feel the unease.

To get to that point, to push through those days I get stuck, when things are uncomfortable, when there is unease, I write the sentence ‘What is wrong?’ and write whatever comes out of me down onto the page. So when you’re stuck, ask these questions,

‘What’s wrong?’

‘What’s wrong with this?’

‘Why am I stuck?’

Write whatever comes to mind, be true to yourself. My own responses range from nothing happening, I stare at a blank page as my mind churns away, unaware or afraid to admit what I’m thinking. Let’s be honest writer’s block that isn’t from lack of skills comes from not knowing what should be next or knowing that you’ve written a shitty first draft and haven’t a notion of how to craft and rewrite that draft into something publishable and getting stuck in the re-write of a chapter or part of the novel that may not be working at all.

So write the question down. Dig deep and be honest. My own responses are usually very simple like:

It’s wrong. Something’s wrong.

It’s not working.

It’s boring, repetitive.

Push on further and ask yourself, if there were no constraints on where this story could go, what would be the most interesting thing that could happen next in the plot, and jot the ideas down, brainstorm them out. As the ideas come, one knocks into your thoughts and the chapters/scenes begin to form on the page.

Alternatively, take a break, allow yourself a break, step away from the work and the ideas and inspiration you need, will come again.

Tying up loose ends

I’m terrible. I keep changing things constantly as the story progresses in my novel and thinking ‘ooh, that’s a better idea now, I’ll use that’ and then I have to make note of the change and go back through chapters to introduce the idea or cut out the previous idea from scenes as I feed the new idea in.

Anyway, as usual I got carried away with this on the current novel (perhaps this is one of the reasons the revisions seem to be never ending) and at a meeting with a literature mentor, it dawned on me that if my mentor has questions about the synopsis and I still have ideas that haven’t been worked into the novel then this novel is never going to end unless the ideas are finalised and stop changing.

It gets to that stage of writing that when someone else reading your novel keeps asking questions about it and even though you keep an open mind and accept the critique, you need to ask yourself – if this reader has to ask these questions, what other questions haven’t been answered?

Ok, most of the time I have the answers and sometimes I haven’t thought about it at all. But for every question that was raised, it meant that there loose ends in the novel that had to be tied up. And adding to this, there were also unanswered questions in my own notes that needed to be fleshed out and determined as well before I continued writing.

So to solve the problem, I made a new list called a Fact Sheet – a list of everything I was asked (yes, even if it seemed to be a silly question). Then I wrote about each item, clarifying and/or re-enforcing the facts about it.

The facts were about settings, characters, their backgrounds, the locations, the plot, and the subplots and I added two separate columns to indicate which chapter a fact is hinted at and when it is revealed in full. E.g. character X is married to Mary and has two young boys. Was B’s best man and got him current job at the Institute.

Now all that needs to be done is to review each fact and decide when and where it goes into the story line (Or even, does it need to be known at all – not all back-story needs to be told). Hints and reveals are shown via thoughts, dialogue, and descriptions from the point of view character, for example, as foreshadowing before a fact is revealed. Sort of drip feeding the information throughout the novel rather than going ‘ta da’ at the end and trying to reveal everything in one big chapter.

I’ve made up the Fact Sheet and I feel like I’ve cemented the unanswered questions now. Plus everything on the Fact Sheet is going to help me with my synopsis. Onwards we go…

The mind of a writer

Something popped into my mind the other day and I think I need to expand my idea of the mind of a writer because behind the skill of learning to be a writer I think that there are three aspects that get developed: our creative side, our ability to write and to edit the work.

The creative or imaginative side, of us is incredibly powerful but it is only a small part of writing, we have to write those ideas down and then be able to edit them to produce work that will generate something close to what we imagined in the first place for the minds of our readers. We learn the skill of:

1. Creating the story, from our dreams, from our imagination, usually using one of two ways or a combination of both.

We can write with the inner critic switched off and then figure out what the story is about through an analysis of the chapter and scene intentions (see use of a beat sheet described in ‘Nail your novel’ by Roz Morris)

Or decide on the story we want to write first, what will happen and the backgrounds of characters, write a synopsis or plan, and then write it.

2. Learning the craft of writing, the ability to find and place the right words down to produce the illusion for our readers.

3. Editing the story, analysing the plot and subplots by scenes and chapters, and beginning the re-write by moving into the writer/creator head again. Read and analyse the second draft. Re-write again. Analyse. Re-write. Back and forth.

 

I think we move between three minds as a writer and each mind can be learnt and developed:

The creative mind: free spirit, creates ideas, keeps the prose flowing, free-writing.

The writing mind: masters the craft of writing, finding the right words to place on the page.

The editing mind: critical thinker, analyser who can understand the overall imagined structure, the overall plot arc, the chapter arcs, the scene intentions, the layout of a scene, its paragraphs, sentences, specific detail, and the words that make the story come alive.

 

And then when we take our writer’s hat off, we become the person we are to the rest of the world.

Getting over the initial fear

Getting over the initial fear of putting pen to paper, placing my fingers onto the keyboard, opening up the last draft, checking my notes, starting the corrections, adjustments, editing my work, working on the millionth (it feels like it) revision of a chapter or a scene, some days feels like the hardest thing in the world.

Knowing that the chapters and scenes that I’ve looked at and edited will work better, read better after their revisions and convincing myself to keep going because this next chapter, this next scene, after I put in the changes I’ve identified that it needs, will be better. It will sing, exactly right, exactly the way I want it to. I’m getting there.

So, today, I feel the fear, the worry inside that tells me ‘what if you are wasting your time, what if this novel is crap?’ and I try my best to ignore it, that malicious little voice, and I shout back ‘But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the precious fragments in my writing that tell me I’m mastering this craft, I’m doing this, I can do this’.

And then I tell myself.

‘Do not be afraid. Write. You deserve to have your voice heard and your words deserve to be read.’

P.S. I feel like I’ve been editing forever…thank goodness I sorted out all the plots and subplots, this should work better now. All I have to do is keep going, with a little faith…No, with a lot of faith.

The second draft edit

As we weave our way through the process of trying to get at least one novel published, many options are presented for editing that we try out to determine if they will work for us.

I watched a video about editing and in it an author said that you will have to cut out half of your book, cut out whole scenes, just cut, cut, cut. But he didn’t explain what you have to cut.

For a beginner novelist, I think that this is overwhelming advice. When I heard him say that, I thought why didn’t you tell them it like this, see below, which is a bit more realistic than just ‘cut, cut, cut’. So these are my thoughts…

During the editing phase of your novel:

1. You will cut, revise, and rearrange most of your novel to pull the best from it in the revision and editing phase.

2. Initially, using a top down approach, you will look at the structure as a whole, examining the scene and chapter intentions through the whole novel.

3. You identify which chapters and scenes were a nice detour during the first draft but now add nothing to move your plot along, unless part of interesting sub-plots. These will need to be cut unless they are revised to incorporate plot elements that move the plot forward.

4. You will look to see if additional material is required to improve missing sections or holes in the plot.

5. You will look at which scenes require revision of their structure to make the plot work better within them. Sometimes a scene can work harder by being combined with another one. This includes situations where you have too many characters – which ones can be combined into a single character.

6. When you have completed the overall rewrite to ensure a better structure for your plots and subplots, you analyse plot within each chapter and within each scene and then within each paragraph. Make every sentence in your novel work harder for every word contained within it.

7. And when your heart has stopped breaking with all the changes you’re going to make, then you will remind yourself that this can all be done in small bite-size steps.

8. You will learn how to flick between creator and editor continuously during this process.

9. You must also keep reminding yourself that you are a writer and you will complete this novel.

Does this sound closer to your editing process?

First novel going nowhere? Write another one.

If your first novel is driving you demented, stop and write a second novel. Even the act of writing the first draft of a second novel can be liberating. It tells you that there is more than one story inside you and you have the capability to produce it.

Now it doesn’t mean that you will give up on that first novel but you need a break from it and what better way to take a break than to keep writing, using the second novel to sketch out new characters and settings and plot ideas.

I was so stuck on the first novel. It dragged on for over a year and a half after I completed the first draft of it. But after writing the first draft of a second novel, I can say I’m glad I put that first novel aside and showed myself that I can write another novel, rather than what I was limiting myself to in the first novel.

Only you can judge what you want to do next. Stop with the first novel or stick with it. You know exactly what stage you are at. But if you are stuck, really stuck, and have been for a while, trapped with no pass in sight then you need a break.

In April, the Nanowrimo team are running Camp Nanowrimo. A whole month dedicated to writing a novel with support and pep talks from the Nano team. If you are still trundling along with the first novel by then, give yourself a break and let another novel or story flow from you during this month. It’s just one month, you deserve it, and you can go back to the first novel afterwards if you want to.

(I mention Nanowrimo because it gives you pep talks and you feel like you’re writing with other people and you get goals… and whatever, it made me write last November…)

Anyone I’ve told about Nanowrimo says ‘I can’t write 1667 words in a day’ etc…but this is not writing with editing, this is writing with the inner critic switched off. This is writing with only one thing in mind – What happens next?

So what happens next?