My tech is dying: a moan with a point

Last year, I experimented with writing using pen and paper, hoping that the slower speed would result in better writing and that the transcription stage would introduce a valuable editing. It didn’t: I transcribe first, edit later, making only slight changes to the hand-written text. So I went back to writing using keyboards. All was good. I finished a novel and settled in to edit another one.

Then my tech started dying.

Things I learned between drafts three and four

As projects go, novel the first has been a complete disaster: no project management, no objectives, no targets, no deadlines. As a learning experience, it’s been great. Novels are sizeable undertakings and I’m trying to learn from my flouncing approach to this first one so that the second one will be easier. Working on the fourth, and hopefully pre-submission draft, I feel I can write down some of the lessons this review has driven home. Here are a few things I’ve learnt, in no particular order.

  • Do the research. Not all of the research has to be done before or during the first, very sketchy and quite bad draft, but it has to be done at some point.
  • Plan. I’m a bit of a seat of my pants writer but if I have more of a plan, the process becomes more linear. There are many different levels of planning. A story outline can be broken down in to chapter outlines can be broken down into scene outlines. Each level brings you closer to the written story.
  • Listen very carefully to what readers say. My first reader made a couple of comments that surprised me and that I couldn’t see. Instead of taking a fresh look and maybe addressing them, I put them down to personal quirks. My second reader made the same points. Ouch. If I’d listened properly, I would have used both my first and second readers’ time better.
  • Believe your brain. My gut speaks to me. It says things like “aaaaa, it’s all shit!”. It’s not a voice I should listen to. My brain speaks to me too. It says things like “you really need to think this through…” or “why is character A doing that?”. Sometimes I ignore my brain – it is a quiet and reasonable, not a shouting idiot like my gut. That is always a mistake. My brain says useful things. If I’m unsure how something works, or what has happened at a particular point in time, my characters will be unsure too which means that the reader has no idea. Experience has, finally, taught me that if I’m not sure something works, it probably doesn’t.
  • Use tools. I wrote character studies for the sequel that I’ve used for this project. It’s useful to get a reminder of what people look like, what they wear, what they like and how they behave. I’m also drawing detailed interiors for some of the main locations and outfit studies to remind me what characters wear. The novel is set over a month and I’ve found a calendar sheet with notes on what happens every day, including days just before and after the story, increadibly useful for reminding me about core events in the story. It also helps me work out when things should happen and visualise the rhythm of the action. Picking up the sequel again would be very difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a plot spreadsheet, a map of Edinburgh with important sites marked and a list of names, dates and characteristics of some of the minor characters, as well as a couple of location studies I made when I first plotted the thing.

Draft three: one more to go, and then…

I set myself a goal, to finish the third draft of project one, part one before the end of October. Yesterday, I reached that goal. So, what’s next? Third draft must mean it’s done, right?

Not quite.

Now I need someone (not me or my partner) to read the thing with a critical eye and tell me what’s still wrong with it. The plan is then to make changes, make it somewhat solid and then to start sending it out at the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile, November is almost here and I intend to spend most of the month working on finishing the first draft of project two. And find places to send the short stories I wrote this summer. Because, what good is a story sitting in a drawer?

The first reader reads, the anxious writer awaits: verdict good or bad?

There comes a point when someone has to read your writing. I’ve been working on my current project for what feels like a very long time without finishing it. It was in a drawer for over 18 months and I wasn’t sure I’d ever look at it again. Having read it, thought about it, solved a number of issues in my head and edited it, I’ve reached an impasse. There’s no point in polishing this thing more until someone reads it.

So three days ago I gave it to my first reader. Yesterday, he started reading. Today, he finished.

He enjoyed it.

We were both really worried that he wouldn’t. Not everyone likes everything you write, not even your partner. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be sad, difficult even, if C. didn’t like my novel at least a little bit. The fact that he did is a huge relief and makes me a little giddy. We had a long chat about the story over lunch. There are things I need to look at, issues small and large, but nothing insurmountable. Now I’m editing again, feeling more enthusiastic about this project than I have in… days. I have a heap of notes, some of them on Kindle, some of them on paper, and a plan for working through them. Draft number three is close.

There’s a real chance that this novel will be in a state where I feel able to send it out at some not too distant point. Fingers crossed. (This is the stage where superstition helps.)

Just get on with it!

Recently, I’ve been shaking my head a lot. These involuntary head movements are to do with editing.

There are times when you edit something you’ve written, long or short, that you feel quite good about yourself. Look! You wrote a sentence that wasn’t all bad. See, again! That storyline makes sense and is kind of interesting. Aren’t you a genius? Or at least a very clever bunny? Yes, you are!

Then there are the times when you edit something you’ve written and feel that it’s all a pile of poo. Look! That simile makes no sense what so ever. And here! What is the purpose of that scene, that character, that entire plotline? What’s the point of you? Can you even structure a decent sentence? No, you can’t and you’re not very good at WordFeud either.

Guess what I’ve been hearing from myself over the last week?

I freely admit that I don’t write for myself: I want readers. I want people to enjoy my stories, feel the emotions I was hoping they’d feel, see the images I’m trying to place in their heads. External validation helps me feel the love, it gives me a huge boost. Sitting at home with my manuscript, trying to make a broken thing work, doesn’t. And I haven’t had anything published for ages, nor read to an audience since March. Doubt hovers.

Part of me, some days a very small part, is whispering ‘just get on with it, it doesn’t matter if it’s not the best thing ever, you still need to finish it to your best ability so you can get someone else to read it. They you can worry about the pooness.‘ A larger, and more vocal part, is saying ‘what the hell are you thinking about? This is a waste of time. There’s just too much excrement. Why couldn’t you get it right the first time?

Every writer has to listen to those two voices. The trick is to focus on the quiet one and get on with it.

I take it back: editing can be fun

The big edit has begun. Progress is slower than I had hoped but I am moving forward and learning what is realistic. 50 pager per day wasn’t. 25 is looking doable. There’s a good chance that I’ll finish the big edit before I start working full-time again.

Editing used to be my least favourite part of writing. I enjoy the mad rush of the totally rubbish draft: chucking words on paper, not worrying about quality. I enjoy the first fiddle when I’m trying to kick that draft into some kind of shape. But then comes the fine calibration, proper editing, a process I’ve always found a pain.

Not so with this project.

I’m really enjoying editing. It could be that because this is a big project (I want to get it down to 80K), the problems are more greater and therefore fixing them is more satisfying than when poking about in a short story. It’s could be something else. I don’t know. All I know is that sitting down in front of my computer, crossing out proof marks and removing sticky notes from paper pages, solving problems, removing words and clearing up scenes, is fun. Really good fun.

Years ago, my friend Hamish told me he liked editing because he enjoyed kicking his story into shape. Editing allows you to turn a half-formed mess into a story. For maybe the first time, I wholeheartedly agree with him.

It really feels as if I’m making the story better, binding events together, shaping characters, and tightening up the plot. Editing a short story has never been this satisfying.

I think part of my enjoyment is that this project is big enough to take over my brain. I go for a walk, I think about structure. I cook, I think about specific scenes. I watch television, I do research. It’s the closest I’ve come to complete immersion in one of my own stories. I like it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do a first draft in the same way: focused, living in the world, engrossed in my own creation? I have a strong feeling that the first draft would be better if I could write it in a great gushing flood instead of bursts of trickling brooks.

It’s a lovely theory and one I’ve set a small part of my brain aside to work on. I need to test it. In November, maybe. I still have an outline for the sequel.

The big read-through continues

Ah! The big read-through*! I thought it would be done in a oner, or maybe a twoer, but I was wrong. It’s taking a lot longer.

I don’t read 100K words in one sitting under normal circumstances so I don’t know why I thought I would with a pen in one hand and a stack of sticky-notes in the other. Reading for editing is a slow process that I need my brain engaged for.

As I get further in, to the bits I haven’t looked at before before, the number of sticky notes and editing marks increase. The pages turn from elegant black on white to a mess or fluorescent orange and yellow. No, it’s not dispiriting, it’s encouraging: the marks are a map, the sticky notes a to do list.

I’d like to have the read-through done by the end of the week. At the time of writing, I don’t know if that’s a realistic target, but I think it is doable.

Next week begins, if all goes to plan, the big edit. Parts of the novel have been edited extensively, while it is the first time I’ve read the last third. The work of excising unnecessary plot lines and characters, organising events into the correct order, plugging plot holes, adding missing scenes and bridges, and sorting out other fairly large issues will be straight-forward and have a noticeable impact. Then, I need to look at voice to ensure that I, if no one else, can tell my characters apart. The last step will be a very slow on-screen read-through for line edits. These are smaller, more detailed changes, that often feel less satisfying that the bold hack and slash of the bigger changes. But it’s this fine editing that will, in the end, put flesh on the plot bones, turn my novel from text to literature.

The outcome will be a draft I can share with a first reader. I think I will, more or less arbitrarily, call it my third draft. The deadline for this is blowing in the wind but hopefully I’ll begin to get an idea for how to set it next week.

The first time around the novel writing cycle everything feels vague. I don’t know how long anything will take, I don’t yet know how I will cope with the tasks. At least I know what I need to do. I’ll get it done, one step at a time.

* Once upon a time I wrote most of a novel, then I left it in a drawer for a good long while. The big read-through is the process of reading that project from beginning to end with an eye to editing, collating a list of issues, suggestions for changes and, because you have to be nice to yourself, sections I don’t hate.

Life-long learning: food and forensic psychology

This time next week, I’ll be in a classroom.

I’m having a lot of free time this summer and want to use it well. As well as setting deadlines and tasks for myself, I’ve signed up for a course in forensic psychology at University of Edinburgh, and an online course on science and cooking with Harvard. They’re very different types of courses, and I’m doing them for very different reasons.

When I’m not writing instructions or fiction, I write for Edinburgh Foody. I love food and am interested in its production as well as its consumption. Science & Cooking combines my professional and blogging interests rather neatly in what is essentially an introduction to chemistry and physics, as applied to food. I’ve read both subjects before but it was a while ago and I have forgotten most of it – including basic calculus – so this is a great way to re-acquaint myself with subjects, concepts and skills I have neglected. So far, so good. I’m learning a lot, both about chemistry and how online training works. I’m enjoying the experience. (I’ve never eaten so many eggs in my life.)

Education is never just for fun so there’s a purpose behind taking An Introduction to Forensic Psychology too. I’m hoping to learn things I can use when writing crime stories (and getting a great reading list with resources that I can turn to). No doubt, some of my colleagues will have similar ideas. The course should also, finger’s crossed, re-ignite my interest in the project in my drawer, the one I abandoned in favour of the project I just finished transcribing. Last week was the big read-through, you see. I had 100K words of drawer-project that I hadn’t looked at for over a year. Reading through it was interesting, and somewhat depressing. A new topic to learn about and give me ideas is just the thing to distract my brain enough that I don’t shred the thing.

Don’t let me shred the thing. Please.

This is my summer of learning. At the back of my mind, I’m playing with food and chemistry-based storylines. Next week, I’m hoping to add psychology to the mix and then we’ll see what starts brewing. A glorious mess?

Getting on with it: how long can finishing a novel take?

I’m editing and kind of enjoying it. But it’s slow work. Very slow work.

It feels as if I’ve not achieved anything this year because I haven’t met my goals. In fact, I’m nowhere near my goals in terms of publication* and short story production.  This, I’ve come to realise, can happen when you work on a novel. It’s a big job and one that’s tricky to fit in around a full-time day job. There’s not that much time for short stories and other bits and pieces. Last year, I measured progress in completed short stories; this year, I count words. It might not be a great approach.

I started the year with 68K words and a mess of a manuscript. I now have 98K words and a manuscript that is two-thirds through the first edit. (That’s the edit that turns the thing into a first draft, something people are allowed to read.) I should be pleased that there’s progress but I wanted the first draft complete by the end of last year, so I just feel seriously behind schedule. I’ve been talking to my writer friends about my sense of frustration and my incomprehension that I haven’t finished the thing yet. How can it take this long? It’s not that complicated a story.

Of course, I know exactly why progress is so slow. It’s two things: firstly, I’m not working on it every waking minute. Part of me thinks I should, part of me knows that would be madness.

Secondly, I still have thinking to do. There are holes in my understanding of the world I’m building and until I plug those, there are problems I can’t solve. I think I should have had it all figured out ages ago and it pisses me off that I didn’t. But there you go. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until the problems presented themselves.

I’m practicing cutting myself some slack. It makes it much easier to just get on with it. Still, this was not the year of glorious achievement I had hoped for. It’s a good thing another one’s around the corner.

 

* I wanted to get four stories published, but got two: In Woodsmore Village was in the Scotman in January; Jack, the second, super-short story, was published earlier this month.

Returning to writing (I was only away for ten days)

I took a break from writing, but not from reading, not even my own work.

Over my ten-day holiday, I read my manuscript, deemed some of it OK and some of it rubbish but all of it mine. On my return home, I filled in all the bits that I didn’t quite finish in the first flush of writing: places marked [BRIDGE] and [ADD CONVERSATION HERE].

Then some stuff happened and the harsh realities of life took over for a few weeks. That stuff has now settled a little, and I’m back to working on my novel. I pledged to Gavin that I’d finish it on Tuesday and almost did – typing frantically in sunlit Harrison Gardens, C., strawberries and tea at my elbow – but not quite. I now owe him 25 burpees and myself a two-hour writing sprint to close out that last hole: [DENOUMENT HERE].

That’s the plan for this week: to finally finish the first draft of my first novel. Then, I’m letting it rest for a little while so I can get on with plotting and writing the first chapter of my next project. I had another idea, you see, and I want to develop it for a particular application. I do love a deadline.

If all of the above sounds vague, I’m not surprised. Everything is a little fussy at the edges. My writing to do list is a mess and my quarterly plan evaluation is almost three months overdue.

I have some catching up to do.