Tag Archives: novel writing

First draft completed

9 Sep

I completed my first novel draft last week and have printed it all out, ordered it neatly in a folder and put it to one side.

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While I’m obviously ecstatic that I’ve completed it – I had set myself the deadline of the end of October but at one point, that seemed near impossible – I’m suffering some sort of weird anxiety about reading it objectively.  I know it’ll be rubbish – first drafts are meant to be (this is what I keep telling myself!) but there’s something so painful about actually realising that firsthand.  That words that I thought were great at the time of typing them actually are embarrassingly bad.  Plus I’ve started having doubts about the plot, the story, everything!  Which is why I’ve avoided having to read the damned thing so far.

But, I’ll have to take a look at it soon.  Then I’ll cringe, beat my hands in frustration and be temporarily riddled with insecurities as I read over my clunky prose.  But I guess I just need to get it over and done with.

This is my last week at work.  I’ve worked at this particular PR firm for one year and four months which is very long for me.  But now I have been awarded a scholarship to study for a Masters so I’ll be doing that for a year which will be very different.  (Too many italicised words here.) And to reward myself – or perhaps just because my Masters will require it – I will be getting myself a new laptop,  One with a larger screen and shiny keys, one that doesn’t take two hours to start up before deciding to freeze on me… so I can enjoy tapping away and writing my stories as and when they come 🙂

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General update on the adventures of an aspiring novelist

6 Aug

Again, I’m pretty sure these sorts of posts are more of a way to reassure myself than entertaining for others.

Recently, I hit a severe writer’s block.  I had got roughly halfway and I found myself at a complete standstill.  I would sit at my desk (or more likely, in my bed), willing myself to write anything but it was hopeless.  The few disjointed sentences I was able to produce were so appalling, they disheartened me more and frustrated, I pushed my laptop aside and stewed in my own melancholia.

I started doubting the storyline – was it actually convincing? interesting? worth reading? – and then I noticed all sorts of plotholes/ inconsistencies and felt unable to move on any further.  I started this draft back in January without a proper plan, just a rough idea of the protagonist, her dilemma and a general timeline of events.  And while I do think this organic approach has major benefits, mainly its spontaneity and the room it allows for characters to become fully alive, there is something to be said for a good plan.

I know some people are rather OCD on things like this and organise the notes of their notes etc.  But what has helped me immensely is a book by author and writing coach, Harry Bingham, ‘How to Write’.  I have read so many guides purporting to help you hone your writing skills but this is by far the best.  The title’s a little misleading insofar as it doesn’t tell you how to write – Bingham explicitly states that this isn’t a ‘creative writing’ book – but it gives you practical no-nonsense advice on what a good book (fiction or non-fiction) requires.  In fact, it’s so no-nonsense and matter of fact that I initially thought it was rather cynical.  However, Bingham obviously preempted that some readers may feel this and addressed his tone appropriately.  Plus, it was genuinely refreshing to read a book on writing that didn’t have the same old pieces of advice (buy a notebook, choose whether you want to write longhand or type it on a computer).. I learnt a lot.

One of the things I did learn actually helped to push me out of my weird I-hate-writing funk.  Bingham broke down Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ into chapters and described what happened in each chapter and how this moved the story forwards.  What was emphasised was the fact that MOTION (and not necessarily conflict) is KEY to writing a good novel.  He advises writers to summarise each chapter of their novel in two or three sentences and to test its soundness, you need to question whether it alters the protagonist’s relationship with their goal in any way?  If it does, great.  Your chapter is not simply drivel.  However, if it doesn’t, get rid of it.  Or hone it so it does reflect movement and a changing relationship between the protagonist and their objective.

Using Bingham’s advice, I was able to test the soundness of the chapters I had written already and create a structure for the second half of my book which has proved invaluable in eradicating my writer’s block.

An amazing book and I would recommend this, above all others, to be read by all aspiring writers everywhere.  For now I am pushing on and cannot wait until I finish my first draft.  My fingers are already itching to make edits and rewrite as appropriate…

A Marie Claire event – How to write a successful novel with Cecelia Ahern

10 Jul

Yesterday evening in the glorious sunshine, I went along to the beautiful Blue Fin buildings in Southwark for a Marie Claire event on successful novel writing.  The evening consisted of a talk with the writer, Cecelia Ahern, who has written such novels as ‘PS I love you’ and ‘The Time of Your Life’.  I have never actually read any of her books – I am not a fan of chick lit at all – but I was under the impression that the talk would cover the general novel writing process and would thus be useful to attend.

The venue was lovely and we stood admiring the panoramic views of London from the tenth floor whilst quaffing champagne.  There were all types of people there – the young, the fashionable (the ‘Oh hello dah-ling’ types) and the older who were looking for a career change. We were then seated in a sort of lecture theatre and the rest of the evening consisted of the Associate Editor of Marie Claire informally interviewing Cecelia on how she goes about writing her novels and what she finds useful.

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Although the tickets were £40, I paid £20 knowing that prices for these types of events often get slashed the day before.  One of the ways they tried to entice people to the event was by advertising the fact that attendees would receive a goodie bag worth £60 – a clever PR exercise and as the evening progressed, it became clearer that Cecelia was no stranger to effective marketing and PR.  To be honest, I don’t think the night was worth £40 at all and even the £20 I paid was pushing it.

I did, however, find it interesting, as I always do, to find out how other published writers work and how they became published in the first place.  Ahern’s story is certainly incredibly impressive.  At 21, she started writing PS I love you and her journey to become a published writer is remarkably free of much of that painful rejection many other writers experience.  Her mother read the first three chapters and encouraged her to send it to an agent and after securing an agent, she got a deal with HarperCollins one month later! Slightly (OK – incredibly) envious there!

It was interesting to find out about the way she writes – she does so longhand and will write an entire chapter in one sitting as she views a chapter as a story in itself and doesn’t want to break her flow by stopping midway.  She is an incredibly speedy writer: after writing longhand, she then edits what she has written while typing it onto the computer.   She wrote PS I love you in three months and she is able to write a new novel every year which puts my goal of around 500 words a day to shame!

Quite controversially, perhaps, Cecelia stated that not everyone is a storyteller and implied that if you’re not good enough to get published, then you’re perhaps not cut out for it.  While I did find this refreshing to an extent – too many people assume writing is easy and everyone can write a worthy book – I found her a little too smug for my liking but then again, who am I to talk?  It has worked for her.  Not only has she managed to write successful, bestselling novels but one of them has been adapted into a Hollywood film (which, coincidentally, I found unbearably cheesy but then that was inevitable) and another one is in production at the moment.  What she writes obviously pleases the masses.

Before she writes, she has a clear plan of the beginning, middle and end of a story.  She stated that often, a long time before she reaches the end, she’ll write the final paragraph to capture the tone of the ending which gives her direction and something to work towards.  This organised and prescriptive approach highlights how pathetically disorganised and scatty I am.  Rarely do I know where I’m going.  I often have a vague idea but I tend to let things move in the direction I feel while I’m writing but then Cecelia’s novels tend to be high-concept, i.e. plot driven whereas I have always found character driven novels to be more absorbing.  Once I become intrigued by a character or feel I have connected with a character in some way, I find it difficult to stop reading.

All in all, interesting but not the most useful and definitely overpriced.  I found the event that I attended with Kate Mosse and Rachel Joyce (at the London Literature Festival) far more insightful and much more reasonable too, at a mere £10.

That said, the goody bag was pretty good 🙂

Library days

18 Jun

So the last few days have been spent in the library, with me trying my best to be productive.  There is definitely something to be said for taking myself out of my bedroom that makes me stretch myself, determined to reach that target word count.  In a quiet environment where I can see that (mostly) everyone around me is working, a sort of restless competitiveness consumes me, spurring me on to continue writing one more word.  Then another.  And then it goes on.

However, not everyone  in the library works.  This guy was sat next to me, snoring ridiculously loudly.

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He kicked off his shoes so every time I moved a certain way, I was hit by this awful stench of foot odour which I can confirm is definitely not a source of inspiration.  Plus, he was sleeping upright so his head kept on bobbing about which got very annoying.  I tried everything to wake him up – I coughed loudly, I moved my chair around, I even tried bumping into him accidentally.  But alas, he really was that tired.

Being in a library also means that if I want a break from writing, I can browse the different books they have to offer and that usually offers me inspiration.  Recently, I’ve been devouring books about writing and publishing, some of which have been immensely useful to gaining a further insight into the whole process.  I’m also now a subscriber to a number of great writing magazines, including the brilliant publication for women writers, Mslexia which has some really handy hints and advice for aspiring writers.

So my main issue is to maintain this momentum.  Being back at work, I can already feel myself slipping into my default state of general apathy but I CAN’T LET THAT HAPPEN. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all this reading I’ve done recently, it’s that no matter what, I should write a little every day.  It’s not good to write loads one day, then sit back and think I can relax and not write anything till the week after.  You lose your flow and this can lead to your writing becoming stilted and forced.  But probably the most important thing that I have gleaned from all this reading is that the important thing is: just finish the first draft!! It will undoubtedly be shite but at least you’ll have something to work with and you can edit it and edit again to make it better.

Novel progress update

13 Jun

This is more of a post for my own motivation purposes.  I was aware when deciding to undertake the immense project of writing a novel that this would be by no means easy and even though I am still in the beginning half of the process (I am currently about 20,000 words into my novel), I can confirm I was right in my initial assertion.

On the 1st January, I was refreshed, excited and raring to undertake this mammoth of a project but this enthusiasm gradually fizzled out a few months into the year.  Perhaps it is something to do with the inevitable apathy that affects all of us after a period, or it could be to do with the fact that I became jaded by the whole idea, sometimes dismissing my dream to write and publish a novel as a faraway dream.  I allowed myself to become lazy, making excuses to justify my procrastination, to the point where I would rather lie on my bed and stare at my ceiling than lift pen to paper or fire up my laptop.  The longer I left this, the more difficult it became to get started again.

What I find hardest of all is battling the self-doubt that constantly arises, especially when reading back over work and cringing at its general awfulness.  I am constantly struggling to push the destructive thoughts that so violently and viciously disparage my writing abilities to one side and continue with the main task at hand: actually writing.  I have found that one recurring justification I make to myself to not sit down and actually write is because I need to  ‘research.’  What I am researching is not always clear.  Of course, research to a certain extent is necessary – more so for some genres than others – but I ended up labelling literally everything I did as ‘research’ or a way to suddenly get inspired.  So in my mind, watching ridiculously adorable pugs rolling about on YouTube videos was ‘research’ and browsing shopping websites for dresses was part of my necessary routine to suddenly feel inspired.  Before long, I realised I had written embarrassingly little when compared with the goals I had set myself at the beginning of the year.

I think things can easily become stale when you feel dispirited and you don’t see any palpable results.  What was really inspiring was going to the Grazia event on publishing your first novel as this gave me an insight into the business of writing and selling a book.  Sure, it is difficult but it is not impossible.  What I realised was that I needed to have a far more professional attitude towards writing and treat it in some ways as a job, disciplining myself to write everyday.  This not only helps you progress your novel but it also allows you to improve your writing skills.  Writing a novel does, however, require hard work and determination and that was where I was going wrong.  I had simply become impatient and expected things to move a lot quicker than they did.

I am now setting myself achievable objectives that will help me achieve my ultimate goal: to finish my novel and self-edit it within the year.  The only way I can possibly accomplish this is by remaining focused to prevent my perfectionist tendencies from hindering any progress at all.  One step at a time.

What is also useful is to address your own preferences, what you like and what suits your best to maximise your productivity when writing.  For example, for me:

– I need to write on a computer or laptop, rather than by pen.  This is because I can type far quicker than I can write so it is much more productive.

– I like to punctuate one and a half hour writing sessions with half an hour breaks.

– I like to write in the library.

– Sometimes I like to listen to music when I write; however, it has to be purely instrumental (I find I work best to minimalist piano music).

– If I am focused and determined, I can push out around 2000 words (quality writing) in a solid day’s writing.

– I like to print out the first draft of each chapter and make amendments on a hard copy.

– Attending literary events such as informative lectures or book clubs increases my motivation to plod on with my novel and makes me feel less isolated when writing.

– Eight hours of sleep a night is a necessary requirement if I am expected to produce anything of above average quality.

– As much as I try to convince myself that writing in bed with my dog is a good idea, it really isn’t.  I either end up falling asleep or playing with my dog, both of which result in very little writing actually getting done.

As a little aside, here is a picture of my dog.  His cuteness distracts me from my work!:

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So, no excuses – I will push ahead and stick to my goal.  It’s hard but you get an amazing sense of satisfaction when you hit your desired word count for the day as you can see yourself moving closer to the finishing line.

Writer’s aid: ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande

7 Jun

I purchased this book slightly reticently, having read thoroughly disappointing books in the same genre.  This, however, is something of a gem.  Originally written in 1934, Brande blasts so many of the typical writing tips out of the water, especially that writers possess some sort of secret and genius that we can only dream of attaining.

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The book is actually incredibly uplifting in addition to being informative.  The idea Brande consistently emphasises is that there are certain habits one needs to cultivate as a writer before any of the technical writing issues should be addressed.  She presents some really interesting and unusual ideas of how writers can combat their doubts and anxieties about writing, including adopting a sort of dual personality.  Not in the insane sense, of course.  It is more to nurture the unconscious which is when your imagination runs freely and to moderate it with the more disciplined side of yourself.  Practical advice she gives includes waking up half an hour earlier and making yourself write before reading anything or talking to anyone as this will reveal where your talent, i.e. which genre, needs to be developed.  If you wish to write short stories yet you find that your writing in these morning sessions tends to focus on drawn-out characterisation rather than more concise scenarios, you may find that you are demonstrating more traits akin to that of a novelist, rather than the short story writer.

I really enjoyed reading Brande’s book – it is elegantly written and her wit shines through.  It is infused with good advice that teaches you how to prepare yourself for the psychological challenges a writer faces, rather than the technical ones.  For me, self-doubt and apathy are two of my biggest challenges and I found that this book inspired me to leave my demons by the wayside and simply get on with writing.

Highly recommended.

Writing in the library and Women’s Prize and Grazia Writers’ Evening

4 Jun

So yesterday the sun was out on the final week of the London Literature Festival, at the Southbank Centre.  I decided to take a day off to be semi-productive but over the weekend I had contracted one of those mysterious nasty flu-like things that pretty much wiped me out for Saturday and Sunday.  By Monday, I was feeling slightly more like myself, albeit a fragile and frailer version of myself, so I forced myself to take advantage of my day off and the sunshine in London.  Talking to other writers, I’ve realised that many get most of their work done in a library.  Seeing as my local library (I live out in the sticks) is open at ridiculous hours and mostly caters for the OAP residents who gather round and chat about their days out, it’s not proved the most conducive for my writing in the past.  So I decided to expand my horizons and ventured into the library at Victoria.

I was pleasantly surprised.  I’ve become so used to buying books that I’ve almost forgotten the benefits of libraries.  They allow you to dip your toe into genres you wouldn’t necessarily normally buy into which can be invaluable for broadening your literary scope.  I popped along with just a pen, paper and my well-thumbed thesaurus and found that I probably did more quality work there than I would have done in a whole day at home.  There are just far too many distractions at home; there’s always something better to do – you know, hugging my dog, making my third cup of tea or just staring out of the window.

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That evening, I tootled on down to the Southbank Centre and listened to Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth) discuss with debut novelist Rachel Joyce (author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) how she decided to write a novel, how she went about the whole process and tips for novelists.  None of this was that new – her advice was mainly: keep going! – but it was very interesting to hear and made me far more enthusiastic about finishing my darned book.  Other speakers included the gorgeous Felicity Blunt, a top literary agent at Curtis & Brown (and sister to Hollywood actress Emily Blunt!) and Joanna Prior, Managing Director of the Penguin General Division so I learnt a lot about the process of getting an agent and of publishing the book.  There is so much that goes into getting a book onto the shelf of Waterstone’s and this talk was invaluable in learning about making that process as easy possible, from providing advice about writing an excellent cover letter to targeting the most appropriate literary agent for your novel.

Really useful stuff and encouraging for aspiring writers out there.  Mosse emphasised that the first draft is not meant to be perfect and you cannot edit and improve something that isn’t there, so keep persevering.    Rachel Joyce also expressed the importance of having confidence in your work as writing, being a solitary occupation, is a prime time for all your demons and insecurities to emerge.  The key is to plod on until you finish.  As Samuel Beckett so eloquently put it: ‘Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.’