Every failure is a learning opportunity, right? Here’s five lessons on how not to write your novel.
Last month I blogged about sprint writing and how it helped me get back to a routine after the upheaval of publishing two novels within six months of each other. Well, sprint writing has been working a treat. Yet I’m still frustrated with progress on my latest novel Ashes to Ashes, a novel that should have been finished long ago and which I had optimistically planned to have available by April 2016. In reflecting upon why this novel has seemed so troublesome compared to others I’ve had some realisations about how NOT to write a novel. (I’ve included some advice too…;) )
So here are five pointers of what to avoid if you want to finish your novel.
Re-write before finishing your first draft.
A big part of my problem with Ashes to Ashes is that it has been around a very long time. I wrote the thirty-five-page scene-by-scene outline over two days in August 2009. The story was solid. The story and character arcs were great. I knew the settings, the twists and red herrings. All I had to do was flesh out each scene—show instead of tell, add specific details, find the character voices. The characters needed a bit more development, but that would come as I worked. The problem was I didn’t get the time to do that. Life and other opportunities got in the way. I’ve returned to it three times over the space of six years (Good grief! It’s scary when you start adding up the years). Each time I’ve add new scenes, new characters, change the voice. It’s two steps forward and one step back. If I’d taken the time to finish the first draft, I’d probably still be doing those things, but I’d have an entire manuscript to work with rather than one with missing scenes.
My Advice? Always finish your first draft. Get it down while it’s fresh. Be honest, be raw, dig deep for those emotions and don’t let fear of what others think stop you. You can change it later.
Keep changing your mind about the story line
Reworking that first (unfinished) draft for Ashes to Ashes wouldn’t be such an issue if I didn’t keep modifying the story line. Apart from the rampant pantsing that goes into creating an outline, I generally like to have a plan of where I’m headed and how I’ll get there. Yet even pantsers who write the entire first draft without a compass know to keep going until they reach the end. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise that.
Ashes to Ashes grew out of that first novel. In my naiveté I had given my main character so much backstory that it was far too heavy for the novel. I culled that story line. Yet I knew it had legs, just as I knew there was a great story in that first novel, I just had to free it. Still, I listened to those wiser than, me cast aside my numerously re-drafted first attempt and began a new project. If I’d kept going then, Ashes to Ashes might have been the first novel I published. What did get in the way is a topic for another blog post, but for various reasons (both good and bad) Ashes to Ashes has had a difficult birth. I’ve tried to complete it three times and each time it becomes a slightly different story. Yes, it’s a better story: I’ve changed the characters, the time period and some of their motivations. The story is richer for it. But in trying to retain as much of the original material as possible it lost some of its sparkle. Now it’s time to recapture the freshness of that first draft. And so I am re-writing. Everything. In one fell swoop.
My advice? Find a story and stick to it. Whether you discover the story as you write each scene or develop an outline before you begin, stick to that storyline until you hit The End. You can always add layers, sharpen or change the dialogue, discover or enrich the theme(s), but only once you’ve done that first, fresh draft.
Scatter your energies across multiple projects (and put everyone else ahead of your writing)
By 2009 I’d been writing seriously (which for me meant with a view to publication) for about five years, most of which had been spent on one novel. It was only when I began writing I realised how much I had to learn—and how much, after years of academic writing, I had to unlearn. The general consensus was that I should throw away that first novel, that no amount of polish was going to reveal a silk purse. Everyone advised me to let it go, to work on something new. So I did. And I think that’s when I began this stressful and wholly inefficient pattern of scattering my energies across too many projects and too many competing goals. I’d start a project and then set it aside—always for a compelling reason: an opportunity to polish a completed novel with a mentor, the chance to interview authors I admire, earning a living, care for family and friends. Writing is so often done in the spaces ‘between’.
I’ve begun to seriously project manage everything. It’s something I did without thinking when I was an academic and I discovered managing processes was one of my strengths. Somehow, when I turned my back on tenure, I tuned out everything to do with that life. Like the novel, it’s a work in progress. I’ll let you know how that goes.
My Advice? Find your system. We’ve all got different ways of working, different obligations outside of writing. We need to keep time for working, time for moving, time for family and friends, time to replenish our reserves so that we can pour as much creativity into our writing as possible. Nothing is going to help you achieve your writing goals as much as planting your bum in the chair and your hands on the keyboard (or on a pen, whatever your preference). Work out how to manage the time you have, develop a system that works for you and follow it. You can always change it later.
Be super clever: Work out how your story will unfold before you’ve worked out the story
We’ve all got our favourite novels, the one with those clever structures, those twists in the tale, the subtle clues that something deeper is going on. I love those books. I want to write those books. On my second attempt at finishing Ashes to Ashes I had just finished reading All The Birds Singing. Fabulous book. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and at it to your list. (see my review here). I love everything about that novel, especially the structure. It alternates between the present and the past and slowly reveals layers to the character and her past and the reasons she is so afraid in the present. The structure adds so much to the tension that I wanted to try that approach. Evie Wyld said it was more organic, that she didn’t decide that would be the structure when she began to write.
One thing Ashes to Ashes has taught me is that you should never try be too clever with structure or theme before you start writing. My attempts to recreate this structure in a readable, engaging form failed. Perhaps I don’t yet have the skill to do it convincingly; perhaps it doesn’t lend itself to my story, which is a dual narrative rather than one person’s tale; perhaps it failed because I tried to be clever rather than let the story emerge naturally. Whatever the reason, I ended up creating a mess. There is a reason why a structural edit occurs after the first draft. I had to learn that the hard way.
My Advice? Don’t try to be clever. Cleverness is revealed as you edit. You can be clever after you’ve written that first draft.
I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.
Set yourself in an impossible deadline
As you’ve seen, I have spent far too many years resting this book. Each time I’ve picked it up I’ve tried to race to finish a complete draft and trip myself up with self-doubt, new directions and challenges when I should just be letting the story flow. All this back and forth has slowed me down as well. In April 2016 it will be a year since I published my last novel. In a crowded market place with new work available every day, that’s far too long from a marketing point of view, but rushing the story to market is not the answer.
The first draft is just the beginning. Then the hard work begins when you ensure the story flows, that the first chapter not only captures the reader but also the tone and feel of the, that the book lives up to its promise; you ferret out adverbs and replace then it strong nouns, ensure your sentences are robust and active; you ferret out repeated words; you ensure your characters are deep and multi-faceted and that your theme (or themes) resonate. And you need to learn to kill those darlings—those great lines that either don’t belong in the story or don’t add to the story or show up the ‘less great’ lines. The first draft (when I stick to writing it all the way through) doesn’t take very long. It’s the re-writing and polishing that takes time. Then, when it’s finally gone to the copy editor (because by then it’s almost impossible to gain enough distance to do this yourself), there is the cover, book trailer and any other pre-launch marketing to consider and arrange. Then there are reviews, publicity and distribution. Some of you will have publishers who take care of that. Some of you will publish independently and be responsible for all that as well as producing the work.
Getting to The End is the beginning of a long journey. Every time I sit down to write, I’m taunted by the knowledge that my to-do list never seems to get any smaller and yet time is hurtling past. Deadlines have always been my friend. Impossible deadlines are my nightmare.
My Advice? Know your process and commitments and set realistic deadlines. All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to make you write faster than is possible for you. You might be one of those who has a fairly clean first draft that just needs a few tweaks and copy edit before publishing. Most writers are not like that. Subtlety takes time. Strong sentences, active sentences, subtle themes that resonate, these all converge to create stories that are more than the sum of their parts. And these require time.
Have faith. You will get there.
This is my mantra.
Everyone’s process is different. And everyone has a period during that process when they hit their road block, whether it’s thinking what we are doing is crap, that no one will read it, that the story isn’t coming together. You will get past this. You will most likely hit this hump every time you write a novel. But by understanding your process, realising that the roadblock is part of it, helps you keep going.
And I’ll leave you to ponder this quote from Pablo Picasso
To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.