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.

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?

Reading about writing (isn’t writing)

Every now and again I read a book about writing. It always inspires me and reminds me to think about what I’m doing. This week, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s The Kickass Writer. When flicking through it, I saw the following advice:

Talking about writing isn’t writing.

Enough said. Almost. It made me think about reading about writing as a distraction from the action of writing. It is easy when you’re busy, or tired, or disheartened, to feel that reading about writing almost counts as writing. It is, after all, just like reading in the genre your write in, and reading outside it too, part of the job of writing. But it isn’t writing. It isn’t productive: it might put fire in your belly and ideas in your head but that doesn’t necessarily translate to words on a page.

Words on a page is what it’s all about. That’s writing. I just clocked 150.

Writing about writing, although writing, is a distraction. I’m going to do some editing now.

Getting ready for the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Last year, I spent more time in the book shop than I did at the actual book festival. I can’t remember what happened to keep me away, but this year, I to play it differently. I didn’t hang on the phone and book hundreds of pounds of tickets but am taking a more leisurely approach. The first tickets I booked were not just for me but also a gift to my father-in-law.

My father-in-law and I have bonded over books. We don’t read all the same writers, but we both read quite a lot. After he told me about Benedict Jacka and lent me a book by him he’d enjoyed, I set out to introduce him to more urban fantasy/crime. My first step was to buy him three of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books.

I’m a fan of Peter Grant. I took to him, and the people around him, immediately and enjoy spending time in his universe. I’m delighted to say that my father-in-law does too. He’s re-read the books at least once and is looking forward to the next one with some impatience.

He also reads Jim Butcher and we’ve had interesting conversations about the differences between the American way of telling a story and the British way. What makes one set of characters human and endearing and the other occasionally irritating? (We have other series to use for the comparison too: we’re getting erudite on this genre, Jim and I.)

So the tickets I got for the book festival? Ben Aaronovitch talking about writing a series. We’re looking forward to it and I expect we’ll have a grand evening.