Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Writing my new novel

Me at work

I am not Amanda Hocking. She is 27 years old and a self-published kindle millionaire (book sales, not money), the epitome of success in the new publishing world. I am none of these things but neither am I troubled by these aspects of her life and career as a writer. What sent me into traumatic self-doubt was reading an article about her stating that she writes a book in 2-4 weeks. Is this one of the new 'short books' in vogue? Not according to amazon data. The two of her books I looked up kicked in at over 300 pages in print version.

I reckon this makes her 6-100 times more productive than I am, depending on whether she keeps writing at this pace, one book after another. If you want to make money, it is definitely better to write like Amanda Hocking than the way I do, and the only advice I can give you is to go and read Amanda Hocking's blog. But there are many different reasons for writing and many different ways to write, without even starting a debate about quality, so I'll let you in on my secret life over the next year.

After Christmas, I'm going to start writing my next novel, and I expect to finish it by the end of 2012 and revise it in 2013. Why don't I just start, rather than set a rough starting date? Because once I start, I become immersed in the world of my novel, obsessive, protective of the 3 hours a day (roughly) that I dedicate to my writing, obsessive, irritated by interruption, contemptous of any trivial concerns relating to the 21st century, obsessive. You get the idea. Of all this, the only really bad thing about writing a book is that it stops me writing a different book.

Let's assume I will live and write for another 26 years (An online quiz told me that my life expectancy was 82 so it seems reasonable to base calculations around that). On average, I take a year to write a book and a year in between books for research/brain food/revision/publication/marketing; longer for a historical novel because the research is a bigger job. This means I will probably only write 13 more books, and that's assuming I don't get the dreaded writer's block. I have hundreds of ideas for books written on scruffy scraps - bits of envelope, shopping lists, minutes of educational meetings, hotel bills - all stuffed in a drawer of my desk. When I start writing a book, it is a bigger commitment than marriage. All right, perhaps not quite as big a commitment as marriage, but it cuts out so many other emotional adventures you could have had. At least for me it does.

Three years ago, I was ready to start writing a novel but I could only narrow my favourite ideas down to five and it hurt to choose. I outlined the plots to my husband and said 'Which do you fancy?' He said 'The one about the troubadour girl with the big white dog.' And so 'Song at Dawn' started. The idea for that book was sparked by my reading for pleasure an American book on women troubadours, which stated in the introduction, 'It was rumoured that a female troubadour toured the south of France with a large white dog.' How could I not want to write that story, given my relationship with Pyreneans! Another quote that stuck in my mind was 'Troubadours were the rock stars of the middle ages.' And so I imagined Dragonetz and of course fell in love with him myself.

I have thought again about the claims of all those neglected ideas in my desk but Dragonetz' hold is too strong and I need to go back to the 12th century. I have another story to tell.

My TOP TEN Writing Tips,  for Myself (because everyone is different)
1. Know what you're writing about.
That's not the same as 'write about what you know'. I'm writing about the 12th century and I knew little about this period before I researched 'Song at Dawn'. I also like to know the places where my story is set and if I haven't been there, I look up maps, read travel books, bring the place to life in my head. I have no idea why it matters to me to be as realistic as possible but it does.

2. Know what it is you're writing.
If you're writing a full novel, it helps to know that it's likely to be 80,000 words or more and to have some idea of how the story in your head will play out in that number of words. If you're writing a minisaga of under 500 words for a competition, it's a little different. When I have an idea I just know whether it's going to be a poem, a play, a short story or a novel - I've written and published all of them. Experience helps, as does reading widely and learning your craft. Writers' groups are good, whether online or down the local bookshop once a month (like we do). Make the crucial decisions of a) Point of view (1st or 3rd person, or even (rarely) 2nd?); whose viewpoint to start with and are you going to switch viewpoint? b) Tense (past or the increasingly popular present tense? c) Structure (chronological, flashbacks,dual time-line?) - so many choices. Now you're ready to begin, or rather to spend hours on the beginning, because everyone knows the beginning is crucial.

3. Know when to plan and when not to.
I often have a whole scene in my head but a sketchy idea of before and after. Sometimes that scene has changed by the time the plot gets there, sometimes I cut it but often, magically, the scene works. I jot down brief reminders of such scenes, or parts of plot, or character background and keep a whole jumble of notes in a Word file,  that I use and edit as I work. Stories simmer in my head, sometimes for years, and then suddenly take on the structure needed. If everything is planned before you write, your story is dead. If nothing is planned, there's no suspense and you don't get a 'page-turner.'

4. Let the characters live and breathe.
One of the elements that creates a real story is when your characters insist on behaving in ways you hadn't planned. You don't write dialogue; your characters really speak. Those unexpected turns are part of the pleasure of writing not just part of the pleasure in reading. And that goes for all your characters. You have to get into the skin of vile people as well as attractive ones and it can be a very disturbing experience.

5. Don't judge it or revise it; write it until it's finished.
One day you'll think it's crap, the next day you'll think it's brilliant. It's neither. An old piece of advice that I took to heart was 'Don't get it right, get it written.' I know that I get into the flow of writing and my right brain takes over so I'm not even conscious of writing or of time - I'm living my story. Judging and revising need your left brain and that interrupts the flow. One thing I find awkward writing a historical novel is being stuck on a period detail while I'm really into the story. Sometimes I'll look it up online at the time but often I'll just underline that bit and go back to it later to add/delete/change whatever I wasn't sure about.

6. Don't show what you're writing to anyone until it's finished. 
I used to make my poor husband read each chapter hot off the press. The pressure on both of us was horrible. I knew from his face when he didn't like something even if he learned how touchy I was about criticism while I was in mid-creation. Usually, he reads a book in about 6 hours so reading one over a year, a chapter every few weeks, was impossible, even without being expected to make wonderful comments and be constructive in any criticism. It's a miracle we're still together but now I do have the self-discipline to wait a year for my first reader - and my first reader is still the same one, who's been with me from my first published poem, 26 years ago.

7. Don't submit other books to publishers while you're in mid-creation. 
Of course I can take rejection! I have drawers full of them! I use them constructively to improve my work, to motivate me when I know an editor wrote a personal comment, and I target publishers to try again! Yeah, right.  Not only do I hate them but they stop me writing, sometimes for a week or two. They wasted my creative time to make all those stupidly complicated submission details, tailored to that particular publisher, and it's usually obvious that no-one even looked at what I sent. A friend of mine hand-delivered his MS (which is a great book!) to a London literary agent and received it back by post in the self-addressed, stamped envelope the afternoon of the same day.

8. Pace yourself and avoid brain-drain activities 
This is one reason I love photography. I can write and then shoot. They are different activities. Shooting is so much of the present moment, instant results, instant feedback. I can go out walking the dog (with or without camera) and it doesn't stop me writing. But reviewing books, running and preparing my writers' group, marketing my published books, and probably blogging - we'll see! - are activities that drain my writing energy. So I put my book first and catch up on other things in the in-between-books year. I am a morning person and I prefer to write for about three hours in the morning, after breakfast and dog-walking, every day of the week I can.

9. Stop writing when you know what is going to happen next. This is my favourite tip because it makes me happy when I write and I'm sure it prevents writer's block. I stop writing for the day at a point when I know exactly what I'm going to write next. Sometimes I write a note to myself about the next passage. I really look forward to writing what I already have in my head and the next day I can't wait to get going. If I get stuck, I work something out before I stop writing for the day, always.

10. Enjoy it. Laugh at your own jokes. As my husband and son tell me, someone has to. Be proud of what you've achieved in writing it at all. If it's any good, that's a bonus. Half the bestselling books published are crap in my view so who's to say what's good and what isn't?

11. Revise it. I know, I said 10 tips, but the 11th is the essential that no-one ever wants to do. You can pay as many pro editors as you like but only one person knows what your book should be like and that's you, so stop moaning and get back to work. It is much better to leave some time before revising your writing, whether it's a poem, a play or a novel. You will love your baby one day, hate it the next and you need distance to use your left brain and really work on it. Not just the spelling and punctuation - you can pay someone to do that. No, the pain is where you find inconsistencies of plot, character or just detail. Then there are awkwardly written passages that could be better.

Do your best and then let your baby go out into the world, to have its own adventures.

I never read books on how to write in case I find out I don't know how to write. However, while I was playing the authonomy game, I met the Impeccable Editor. Her advice is excellent and as long as her book is posted on authonomy, the opening chapters are here for free. I'm guessing Impeccable is a woman but that might just be my innate prejudice. I know for sure that Impeccable would be able to improve this Post because she is that rare being, an Editor

while I'm a writer and this is hot off the press so it is full of mistakes and I think it's great.

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