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.

To read: a quick look at my book stack, November 2015

In the summer, a friend challenged me to take a photo of 10 books in my to read pile and post it on Facebook. I took the photo but I didn’t post it. I’ve taken another couple of photos since then and am finding it it peculiarly interesting to chart the movement (or not) of books through the stack. For my own amusement, I’m going to post them here.

Stack of books to read, 4 November 2015.
Stack of books to read, 4 November 2015.

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?

Shameless plug: FREAK Circus magazine and showcase

Last week I had a cold and, disappointingly, was too ill to go to the launch of FREAK Circus, the new Edinburgh-based literary magazine. Matching theme to name, the first issue presents at all kinds of prose and poetry freakishness. My contribution, Mouth, is about a young woman who has odd growths on her side. Some things you can get used to, some you can’t. (If you want to read Mouth, buy FREAK Circus. Links to paper and Kindle copies below.)

If you want to find out more about the magazine, why not attend the free FREAK Circus show case at the Bongo Club on November 6th, 19:00? I’m looking forward to it and see it as a launch party for those of us who missed the launch party.


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.)

Book stack update: there’s some movement

I don’t usually tidy my book stack so that it looks neat and contains only a few (say 10) books. Most of the time, it’s a toppling tower, leaning against the bedroom wall. I do, however, order it alphabetically which doesn’t help its stability one bit. Here’s what it looks like at the moment. It contains the books I bought at the book festival as well as one I’ve borrowed. And a couple that have been sitting there, waiting for their turn, for quite a while.

Stack of books to read, 20 September 2015.
Stack of books to read, 20 September 2015.

‘Mouth’ appears in the first issue of FREAK Circus

I have a routine. It helps me manage my condition.

Mouth, a short story about a woman with an unusual growth on her side, is one of the stories appearing in the first issue of Edinburgh’s newest literary magazine, FREAK Circus. I’m thrilled to be part of a new literary venture, and hope FREAK Circus readers will like Mouth, a story that I’m very fond of.

The official magazine launch is part of the 2015 Portobello Book Festival and takes place 19:00, October 1st, at Dalriada Bar in Portobello. Come along for live readings, poetry and assorted fun. The event is free, but ticketed. Visit the Facebook event page for full details.


The suspension hyphen’s quiet elegance

A couple of months ago I had a conversation about suspension hyphens – hyphens used to reduce repetition in a list of words with the same modifier – with a woman who used lived in Germany. Suspension hyphens are a common feature of both Swedish and German and we talked about how elegant they were. I told her that I once used one in a document, impressing my manager with how effortlessly I’d shortened a sentence. After admiring my solution for five minutes he put the word I’d removed back in, in case its absence confused people.

And it might have: suspension hyphens are rare in English. But they do exist. A couple of weeks after lauding them, I was delighted to read this in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend:

Hely was no good at baseball; he was always the last non-gay or -retarded kid to get picked for a team

Punctuation can be beautiful.

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.