Finish one, start another

So I finished a novel: it took ages. Mountains rose and were worn down to pebbles.

Before I had finished project 1 properly, I started project 2, the sequel to project 1. That one I planned – unlike the first – so when I came back to it after a hiatus of 12+ months, having diverted myself with the completely unrelated joys of project 3, I had chapter notes and plot progressions that told me where I was going. That’s what we call a good thing: I don’t remember details like plot, characters and the point of it all between novel-writing sessions.

Over the last couple of months, ever since completing project 1, I’ve been working hard on the sequel. Three days ago, I reached a crucial milestone: I completed the toilet-paper draft. In my process, that’s the draft before the first draft: something that shows the bones of the story, and has a whole bunch of colour and cheerful exchanges but usually in the wrong places. The toilet-paper draft is plump with enthusiasm but thin on anything else, including grammar. It’s too rough to share.

Now, it needs to rest.

You write, you edit, you submit, you file the rejection

It was pretty much what I thought would happen: my first full novel submission was rejected.

In one way it was worse than I had expected. Temporarily convinced of my own genius (if I wasn’t, just for a moment, I wouldn’t send anything, ever) I hoped, crossing fingers and toes, that they’d want to read the whole thing. They didn’t.

You write, you edit, then you submit

I did it: I finished novel #1. Then I sent a sample of it to a publisher. (Thank you Gollancz for opening your slush pile to direct submissions!) What happens next?

The most likely outcome is this: nothing.

A better outcome would be a request for the complete manuscript. Then, I’ll dance and dance and dance. Even if that momentous email is followed by silence.

Next on the ladder of success is a considerate email that suggests what I can do to improve the novel, and why they’re not taking it. Again, dancing would follow.

The absolute best outcome, of course, is that they like it and want to do something with it. My chances are slim.

Can you imagine the slush pile they’ll have after opening the door to direct submissions for three weeks? From reading the comments on the blog, I know people from all over the world have sent in writing samples. We’re all crossing our fingers that our story is the one to get through, the one that catches someone’s attention, that doesn’t annoy or bore a tired editor who is wading through sackfuls of submissions as well as doing their day-job.

While I’m waiting to see if anything happens with my submission, I’m compiling a list of UK SFF literary agents. As excited as I am by this, my first submission to a publisher, and as much as I believe in my work, I know that the chances of anything happening this time are extremely low.  I need to plan for the next step.

My mother condensed her delights, concerns and recent bookshelf-tidying experiences into a dream that ended with a review of my book: ‘We no longer need bookshelves. We each only need two books: the Quran and Caroline von Schmalensee’s phenomenal new novel’.* The best review I’ll ever get comes from my mother’s subconscious. It’s rather wonderful, and awe-inspiring, to realise how much the people around you invest in your dreams. Thanks, mum. I love you too.


* I dreamt that I had misspelled the publisher’s name in two different ways in the cover letter.

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?

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.

Writing character profiles: looks and motivation

As part of the process of plotting a novel, I decided to write proper character profiles. Previously, I’d had little sketches and a note or two about them, but not a full study. That’s fine for the main character who I know quite well, but it wasn’t good enough for some of the smaller but still important characters. I needed to know more about them.

I probably won’t describe my characters’ physical attributes in great depth* but I still need to know what they look like. That means knowing their eye colour, hair-cut, size, clothing style and grooming habits. One of my characters, for example, is written with wild, fluffy, ginger hair. In my head, however, he’s got dreads. The character description sorted that out. (He used to have dreads, he now has long hair. Towards the end of the book, he’ll grow a beard. )

One of the most fun aspects of writing down what my characters look like, was surfing websites looking for faces and bodies to match them to. Keith, one of the major characters, is described early on as being startlingly good-looking.  So I visited a couple of modelling sites to find a face for him. To me, Keith looks like someone from a perfume ad, one of those ridiculously perfect guys with chiseled features and waxed pects. Model agencies should have dozens of those, I thought. But no, I can’t find any. There are lots of interesting-looking men but I can’t find one who looks just right. So Keith remains an image in my mind. Other characters were much easier to find: finding Stephen Fry in a velvet cloak and fez was the work of minutes.

Of course, it’s not all about what my cast of characters look like. The most important aspects of the profiles are the characters’ background and motivations. I’ve come across a number of problems – inconsistencies, bits of history that doesn’t work, the realisation that two characters that didn’t know each other probably went to school together – and learned useful things about my characters, and the world they live in, fixing them.

Writing character profiles doesn’t feel like writing a novel, but it valuable work, and involves writing. The process has given me useful insight into my cast. It was so useful, in fact, that I also wrote organisation profiles too. A number of organisations feature in the story and now I know how they are structured, who works where and what their purposes are.

And when I forget, in mid-April, I can go back and remind myself.


* Personally, I find extensive character description and constant updates on what people are wearing tiresome, but I accept that at a minimum, readers need to know whether a character is male or female, tall or short, young or old. It helps build the story’s world in the mind. If it’s not clear in my head, I can’t put it on the page and readers will quickly get confused.

What do you mean you didn’t plan your first novel? You did, I know you did.

Last year, I posted a picture of the plan for novel the first (NTF). I use the word plan in vain: what I had was a loose timeline with a few important events marked in and something a little bit like a mind-map that explained something about some of the characters.

At the time, that felt like a plan, even a pretty detailed one. But it wasn’t. I found this out when I got stuck for the first time and looked back at the multi-coloured lines to see if there was a solution there. There wasn’t. Of course not: one of the colourful blobs that had filled me with such satisfaction when I first drew the plan said ‘other big event’. That’s a problem, not a solution. Identifying problems upfront when you start a project is useful but it is not the same as solving them. This happens when I plan: I get so far, then I realise that something else is needed but I’m not sure what that something is. (I once submitted a partial story to my writer’s group with the word ‘epiphany’ where said event needed to go. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew I needed one.) Then, being an eager kind of person, I get writing, powering through the parts that I know something about and writing myself into a corner.

At one point, I tried to make a better plan and wrote a chapter breakdown. I got a detailed breakdown of the first half. That was the half I’d already written. So, not really a plan.

I learned a lot writing NTF, but I need to learn more before I get something I can send out. That’s why I’m moving on to novel the second. This time I’m planning it properly. Yes, the first draft of my plot spreadsheet looked something like the colourful drawing I made last time, but as I’ve revised it, questions have popped up (and a few answers – so far mostly to events in NTF, so yay!, there’s hope for it still.) and I’m forcing myself to deal with them. This time, I’m thinking about pacing and emotions before I start writing. I hope this will give me a better book. Practice isn’t just doing the same thing again and again but changing your technique to improve it. Hence my tweaking from a more planned approach – pantsing it, to miss-quote Chris Hill, didn’t work for me, so I need to change something. I also think I need to be more focussed, to think about it more, and work faster, so I’m allowing this story to take over most of my spare brainpower.

Obsession, planning and focus. It’s the way forward.