Nanowrimo – one year later

This time last year, I had just completed “Echo Hall” and was beginning the long (and ongoing) slog of looking for an agent. I knew I needed to get on with my next novel, so I decided to sign up for Nanowrimo as a way to get going. Having spent ten years writing “Echo Hall” and knowing my average monthly word count was usually around the 2-3,000 mark, I had no expectation that I might actually achieve the target.  But, I reasoned, if I managed 20,000 words, that would be a very good start.

Much to my surprise, I found myself completely focussed on the 1,700 word/day limit, and completed the required 50K with a couple of days to spare. I really enjoyed myself too. Just throwing words on the page without thinking about them, I freewheeled through to complete a piece of work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end. Inevitably, when I re-read it, I found the majority of those 50,000 words were pretty rubbish with most characters needing further fleshing out. The pacing was completely off and (partly due to the nature of the situation they are in) there were  far too many stultifying scenes of  people sitting by a campfire uttering banalities. I might have won the Nanowrimo prize and written the skeleton of a novel, but clearly, it would need revising.

I deliberately left it alone for a few months, to let my characters start talking to me and explain themselves a bit better. However, the beginning of the year was a difficult time, and it was only in the summer that I felt able to pick it up again. Which initially sent me into a panic. Having decided I had 9 characters who were going to tell this story, I  suddenly saw two other ways I could do it, which would lead to a cast of thousands. I spent a fortnight wondering whether my original idea was strong enough, until I recognised I was procrastinating. I decided to stick to my plan, as my first instincts were good ones, but I soon discovered that the individual arcs were a total mess. Some people had lots happening at the beginning only for their stories to peter out, some had back stories emerging too late only to be resolved in the last few pages. The interconnections between the sections were also muddled and the time line was all over the place. Something had to be done.

So I decided to sort out each individual journey first. There are five parts to the novel, with each character having a chapter/part. I spent a couple of days copying them into another document, to enable me to look at each of them separately. After that, it was time to tackle them one by one. Which has been agonisingly slow so far. Since September, I’ve been working on the first which and I only completed  last weekend. It seemed to take weeks to edit a couple of pages, as I reworked paragraphs and sentences, over and over again. Then, just as I was coming to the end, I worked out something about the character’s past that is pretty crucial to understanding who she is.It makes her much more morally ambiguous, which doesn’t quite fit yet with where she ends up, so there’s more to do. However, I think I need to look at the other characters now, and save any more changes for the next edit.

It occurred to me that one of the reasons I’ve been working so slowly, is that I haven’t taken time out to plan properly. So this morning, I got plotting…

I still have some gaps, but it was helpful to lay the stories out side by side and start seeing connections between them. I need to add in a time line, particularly taking notice of the tides (the sea is very important in this book). But, I have a draft schematic, which hopefully will get me to the end of this edit…

I’m still not sure on quite a few things. At the moment, all the characters are written in different tenses and persons to distinguish their voices. I have a feeling that’s messy and may need addressing. I also have a couple of characters who I absolutely love, but maybe two too many for this book. To cull or not to cull will be a question that will dominate the next few months. And of course, if I do, there’ll be some major rewrites to excise them from the text. But it’s a start, and one that makes me believe I’m getting somewhere, rather than faffing around in the dark.

Though I absolutely loved doing Nanowrimo last year I won’t be joining in next week. I have so much to do on “The Wave”, that I can’t be  distracted from that goal at the moment. Knowing how long it took me to write “Echo Hall”, I won’t be making any plans to join Nanowrimo any time soon, but if you’re doing it this year I wish you well.

May the words flow freely
May the characters develop before your eyes
May you reach your 50,000 word goal.
And then…let the edits begin.

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Keeping Crispin at bay

A new David Mitchell book is always a treat, but one of the particular joys of  the recent “The Bone Clocks” was to be introduced to the character Crispin Hershey. Hershey, a novelist with his greatest successes behind him, is the narrator of the fourth segment of the book, as we follow him from one literary festival to the next. Each experience is more excruciating than the last, as Hershey is forced to continually face the fact his star has fallen. There are better novelists  and more successful writers on the circuit, and they are usually nicer human beings to boot. His self-pity, rage at the critics who he thinks are spiking his career, jealousy of other’s success, inability to see his own inadequacies, make for an absorbing study of the worst attributes that exist within every writer. Which made Mitchell’s admission at the talk he recently gave in Oxford, that he based Hershey on himself,  both very funny and also rather encouraging.

You see, I have my own internal Crispin, who sits inside me spewing bile most days, even when things are going well. This year, I had my first proper success as a writer. I achieved publication when Gumbo Press published my collection “Rapture and what comes after”.  I was and am very excited that my name is finally in print, that people are reading my stories and seem to be enjoying them. But it’s not enough. Like Hershey I want more. Because before I wrote a line of “Rapture, I’d been working on my novel “Echo Hall,  a book which took me ten years to complete. And what I want more than anything is for that book to get published. To do that, I need an agent, and despite my best efforts, and some lovely, kind and helpful rejections, I am still to find one. So every time, I read how an unknown author has secured a 6 figure deal, or someone on social media has found an agent at the second time of trying, I have to fight the urge to scream out on twitter, “That’s not fair – it’s MY turn”. Every time a book is published and I read it and find it is every bit as good as the publishers and the agents and the reviewers all said,  I have to stop myself from writing a snarky review that will expose the tiny little frailties round the edges of an otherwise perfect piece of literature. When Crispin is in control, my thought processes are less than edifying.

So I have to work hard to keep Crispin from taking over my life. I have to keep reminding  myself that publishing is a competitive business, and setbacks are a necessary part of the experience. I have to remember  that everyone I have encountered on my journey so far – agents, editors, writers, have been absolutely lovely.  It’s not their fault it hasn’t happened for me yet. I may have written a book that I love and believe in, but that’s no guarantee that I’ll find someone who loves it enough, to take a risk on me, and that’s how it goes. I have to keep my spirits up with the thought that just  because I haven’t found my agent yet, doesn’t mean I won’t one day.  And in the meantime, I have to keep plugging away at it, taking inspiration from people I know who have achieved success.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot today because two of my favourite  writing people have had a very good week.. My twin sister Julia William’s latest novel “Coming Home for Christmas” has been topping the popular women’s fiction charts on Kindle, and also made it into the overall top 100. My friend Anne Booth, meanwhile, has just heard her debut children’s novel “Girl With a White Dog” has been nominated for the Carnegie Award. I couldn’t be more delighted for them. It’s not just that they write great books, work hard and are wonderful people who prop me up on a regular basis. I can be excited because I know it didn’t come easily for either of them.

Julia started writing in 1998, when her second daughter was born. She wrote a couple of great children’s books which I loved but went nowhere. She acquired an agent, and turned to adult novels. The first was rejected everywhere,, but the second nearly clinched a deal until a book with a similar idea pipped her to the post. It wasn’t till 2008 that she finally bagged a publisher, but even then it wasn’t all plain sailing. Her first novel did well for a debut, but her second suffered when Woolies went under and half the stock got stuck in warehouses unable to be sold. It took another couple of books for her to  re-establish herself, and even then it has taken seven novels for her to really take off.

Anne had an even rougher ride. She wrote a novel for adults which I thought was great and generated a lot of interest, eventually landing her an agent. We thought everything would go smoothly from there, but for some reason, it all unravelled. She revised and revised the novel, and yet it didn’t seem to help and something clearly wasn’t working between her and the agent. They parted company a year later, leaving Anne feeling pretty dispirited. But she kept on writing, experimenting with picture book ideas, took an Arvon course in children’s fiction and launched herself into a novel about animals in Nazi Germany. I thought it was terrific, but yet again, it did not quite work for the industry. She didn’t let that stop her,  rewrote it completely, and  “Girl With a White Dog” was born. Then for as long as it had been going wrong, it quickly started going right. Just after Anne got a couple of picture book deals with Nosy Crow, she found an agent, who eventually landed her a deal for her novel. And ever since she has gone from strength to strength.

I know I can’t get rid of Crispin – he’s probably there in every writer – but I certainly can keep him at bay. All I need to do, is think of Julia and Anne. All I have to do is remember where they started, the disappointments they had to go through, and where they are now. And remembering that means  I can pick myself up from each rejection, know when it’s time to move on from the project that is going nowhere, and make sure I am always creating something new. It’s not easy, but as I am constantly telling my kids, life often isn’t. And one of these days – when the book I write is good enough, when I catch the right agent at the right moment, when my idea is just what a publisher is looking for – one of these days, that screech of excitement on social media will be coming from me.