After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
Tag: How to write fiction
How I write.
A story starts with a jump.
When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.
I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.
I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.
I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.
I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.
When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.
But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.
Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
There once was a time when romance meant novels about gallant itinerant horsemen, stressed long-haired girls, castles in need of a paint-job, and sour land-owners who really only needed a bit of understanding; think, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Ivanhoe (1820), and Lorna Doone, – “Sit doon Lorna, sit doon!” (1869). Today a romance means boy meets girl – boy looses girl (through a silly misunderstanding) – boy gets girl; think almost anything. However there also was a time when the old story of romance was transplanted to the lower, sometimes the very low, echelons of society, which over the eons has transmogrified into modern stories where teenage dreams, parental misunderstandings and happy endings revolve around tainted gossip, what a pretty girl – usually called Kimberley or Kylie – said or didn’t do, and a brave stance taken by a handsome boy – usually called Steve, Lance, or Duke; but it’s in that transference of action to the working class, and lower, that our modern romance stories find their roots. Works like Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders.
It seems that, ironically given the title, what joins these human stories of a low society, and the actions they choose, revolve around the mortal threat, ownership, and spirit of one particular tree; but the forced fate of which has the opposite effect of that intended. As indeed do other actions of other characters: how soap-opera-ish is the denial of something which causes the want of it? This story set on a beach could be an episode of Home and Away if it were not for the language. Here is Hardy’s description of Mr Fitzpiers, the doctor who “descended, as from the clouds, upon Little Hintock”:
“His face was rather soft than stern, charming than grand, pale than flushed; his nose — if a sketch of his features be de rigueur for a person of his pretensions — was artistically beautiful enough to have been worth doing in marble by any sculptor not over-busy, and was hence devoid of those knotty irregularities which often mean power; while the double-cyma or classical curve of his mouth was not without a looseness in its close. Nevertheless, either from his readily appreciative mien, or his reflective manner, or the instinct towards profound things which was said to possess him, his presence bespoke the philosopher rather than the dandy or macaroni — an effect which was helped by the absence of trinkets or other trivialities from his attire, though this was more finished and up to date than is usually the case among rural practitioners.”
A modern novelist might translate this classic – as modern playwrights feel obliged to do to theirs- like this;
His face was soft, charming and pale; with a nose that a local sculptor, with time on his hands, might feel inspired to chisel, more elegant than powerful; and a mouth that was full and kissable. In short he looked more like a raconteur than a spiv, a look that was helped by him wearing clothes with no decoration which in this town labeled him a medical outsider.
But what an immense amount of pleasure would be lost. Go on! Give it a go! Read Hardy’s version out loud even if it takes two or three goes to get the unfamiliar intonation and punctuation right to reflect the meanings he intended.
Actually if you are a modern novelist of the Colm Tóibín kind you wouldn’t, or rarely, describe people, or places, at all. In Tóibín’s latest novel Nora Webster (2014) the only description of a person occurs on page 2: “May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat…” which is hardly a description, more the flavour of the woman. Such novelists leave the detailed descriptive work up to the readers’ experience which has its compelling justifications; but there is also something to be said for stretching your literary experience, reminding ourselves how the language was – and can be – used, and relishing the way little dark marks on a pale background can paint pictures in your head.
Of course the stories of these people in the woods end as you would expect or as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism deliciously say in The Importance of Being Ernest, “The Good end(ed) happily, and the Bad unhappily. That’s what fiction means.” However Hardy wasn’t a popular and lauded novelist in his day for sticking rigidly to the form; he adds a few very intriguing surprises and “OMG” moments that would do very nicely today just before an ad-break.
Hardy is at his most entertaining, and prickly at times, when two people are caught in a room and what they want to say is stymied by custom, clothing, religion, morality, and social class; so what they actually say is layered and fraught with all kinds of meanings. Modern writers can learn a lot from Hardy’s use of dialogue: it propels the action, paints character, exposes hypocrisy, uncovers hidden motives, makes you laugh, and sometimes makes you weep.
A go at the classics now and again sharpens our literary minds to tackle and appreciate more clearly the literature that’s written and read now; it brings depth and experience to what we need when we read a modern novel.
It doesn’t have to be Hardy; it can be Dickens, Franklin, Collins, Hemingway or Twain, Stevenson or Woolf, Richardson or White. You won’t regret it, I promise.
How Novels Work by John Mullan
English writer and academic, John Mullan
Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.
If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.
However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true. No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.
Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.
John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto series Lives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.
“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …
“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.
This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.
Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.
I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.
Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.
On Experience: writing about writing
Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”
Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.
And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,
“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.
In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.
“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”
And then in the title essay he explains what he means,
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”
The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.
He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.
Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.
Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’
The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.
Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’
On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.
It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.
What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.
I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.
In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.
Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.
I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.
What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.
What I’ve learnt from writing a novel
This is my desk; and yes, that’s a peacock on the right, made out of sprite cans. I stare at it a lot.
What I’ve learnt from writing a novel
There is always a starting point but you don’t have to have an ending. The idea for Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing came from the sound of a voice in his head; a strong, determined, female voice. He had no idea where this would lead. The idea for Colm Toibin’s widow-novel, Nora Webster, came from the visit of a recent widow to his house and he married this idea to an autobiographical one; his father had died when he was twelve. In the first chapter of Nora Webster there is the seed that leads to his novel Brooklyn; he abandoned the widow idea for the immigrant idea, so strong it must have been. He didn’t come back to the widow idea for twelve years. However there has to be an idea, something, a seed, even though you may not know what it will grow into.
Next: try it. If the idea came from an overheard conversation then try to write the conversation; it might take you somewhere unexpected and stimulating. If it is a place, write about what makes the place so significant; how does the place feel? How does the place make your protagonist feel? No matter how you begin, at some point you must make it clear where you are, even if the location is nowhere; you know as a reader that you like to know where the narrator is, where the story is happening, or has happened.
There are many ways to tell a story, many points of view. Choose one. You could write it from the outside using the all-seeing, all-knowing god-like narrator; a narrator that knows everyone’s inner-most thoughts, actions, and desires, past, present, and future. (Anything by Jane Austen) You could write it from the outside using a narrator that ‘sits’ on the shoulder of one character so the story is told from that person’s point of view and no-one else’s. (My ebook Veronica Comes Undone) You could write it from the inside where the narrator is one of the characters in the story (F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) There are many variations on these POVs. Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda, uses two narratives: one in the recent past written in the first person; and one in the further past, written in the third person. Sometimes you don’t need to decide, sometimes one particular way just feels right. Trust what feels right and so write what feels right.
Next: just start. If you only have time to write 700 words a day, so be it. By the end of the week you’ll have 4,900 words; by the end of the month you’ll have 19,600. I wrote Veronica Comes Undone in a year and a half of Mondays.
What you write first may not be chapter one. You’ll work it out later. Write first what interests you first. Every idea you have while you’re writing something may not be suitable for that project, but it might. If you’re not sure, put it in. This is only draft number one, decide later if it is appropriate or not. Wait until you step back and look at it from afar. You can cut and add whatever and whenever you like. You’re god here. You’re creating worlds, lives, actions, and consequences. You are all-powerful.
Just spew it out. Whether you write in longhand in a note book (like Toibin does)or tap it out onto a screen, just blurt it out. Even grammar, spelling and appropriateness can be amended later. Everything and anything can be amended later. Draft 1 can be an utter mess; draft 1 should be an utter mess. No-one sees it but you.
You don’t have to be a slave to narrative time. The journey from one plot point to the next can be instantaneous even if months of story time have passed. If an important plot point is that your protagonist starts a business, or renovates a house, you don’t need to go into great detail writing about choosing tiles. Boring! Cut to the opening, the moving in. Time is your slave.
Of all the tools available to a writer the best one for developing a character is dialogue. Some writers eschew dialogue. I don’t understand this. People, and even nationalities, have conversational idiosyncrasies. Americans says things like “You like pizza, right?” Australians usually use the negative, “You like pizza, don’t you?” Once at a writer’s festival I heard an American writer read from his latest work. His book was set in Rome and one of his main characters was Mexican. The novel, of course, was written in English. He spent many pages vividly describing these people but when they spoke, all the time and ink expended on these characters went for naught: they all sounded the same, like the writer. I don’t know how a Mexican living in Italy might speak English but the writer should’ve thought about this and worked it out. Dickens, especially Dickens, James, Winton, Rowling, Doyle, Tsiolkas, Joyce, and St Aubyn, all paint life-like characters with the way they talk, or think. We all make grammatical mistakes, or different pronunciations but different characters can make different grammatical mistakes; and when we talk we rarely speak in compete sentences, and we rarely speak the same incomplete sentences as the next person.
Don’t underestimate the contribution of the reader. Let the reader do some of the work. Cólm Tóibín in Nora Webster lets the reader do a lot of work, all the work! Characters and places are never described. See my review of Nora Webster About grief: good grief on my blog posted November 2 for more about reader theory. However a succinct descriptive passage can spark the reader to paint his own version of the character. Describing a man as “oval with buttons fit to burst” is all that may be needed. The reader knows he is chubby, greedy, selfish; and uses his own experiences of like-looking people to complete the characterisation that the writer has only, but skilfully, hinted at.
Allow cooking time. Step away from your project for a week or two and write something else; read a novel, re-design the garden, re-organise the second drawer. When you come back to it you will read it with a reader’s eyes and as you’re reading if you ‘jump’ or feel a ‘jolt’ (That doesn’t sound right; How does he know that? Wasn’t she wearing jeans a moment ago? He wouldn’t say that…) then there is something wrong. Don’t let it pass. Fix it.
Ah, the pay-offs. The most exciting time is when you are deep in a scene and the creative juices are flowing, ideas tumble over each other, you can’t tap, or write, fast enough; time is irrelevant, and all your senses are honed in on the scene that you are creating, manipulating, describing, being a part of. That’s such a buzz! But of course, that you know, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
The next good bit is draft 2; when you have all this stuff and you shape it, cut and add, link and re-arrange, mould into the story that only months before was just an idea you had as you sat on the bus on the way home from work.
However the most liberating, the most powerful, and the most stimulating change in the writer’s landscape in recent years is the ability to self-publish digitally. I could paper walls with the number of rejection slips I’ve received over the years from agents and publishers, had I kept them; and the most usual reason for abandoning a work is the feeling of ‘why bother?’ The agent/publisher wall is too high, too thick, too impenetrable, but with digital publishing and the liberation it gives you there comes more responsibility. To self-publish digitally you must make sure the text is ready, edited, corrected, error-free, ‘jolt’ free and something you are proud of. You’re not only the writer, you’re the editor, mentor, agent, publisher, and marketer; and the last in that list is the most time-consuming and, at times, the most frustrating. But all this hard work is worth it when you get your first sale; and this happened to me within 30 minutes of pressing ‘publish’ on August 24th. (See my blog-post Veronica Comes Undone. How did this happen dated August 29). Now that’s the best buzz of all. Access to readers is now at our fingertips and although book-sellers are chiming about the survival of the paper-book and the plateauing of ebook sales, digital self-publishing is a reality no matter what portion of the market it’s claiming. It’s there; use it.