Life after the first draft

eviemcrae.blog“Hurray – I have finally finished the first draft of my first novel”. When I posted this update on Facebook a few months ago, I was overwhelmed with the number of friends that congratulated me on my achievement. I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself as you can imagine. All previous attempts to write a novel seem to fall by the wayside at around 30,000 words, so all things considered 120,000 words was impressive.

A few days later I felt a complete fraud. It was quite apt that I stumbled across this quote.

I think it’s fairly common for writers to be afflicted with two simultaneous yet contradictory delusions – the burning certainty that we’re unique geniuses, and the constant fear that we’re witless frauds who are speeding towards epic failure.” I concur with that statement wholeheartedly. You see the first draft is not the end of the story. Far from it.

First drafts embody effort and hopes – dreams and potentials that could be realised – if you’re willing to put the hard work in. The cold, hard reality is the First Draft never gets published.

So what now? Well in simple terms it’s all about making your novel as good as it can possibly be. You’ll notice how easy it was to say “as good as it can possibly be”. Well, I’m here to tell you – particularly if you have just discovered this post after writing your first draft – it is a long road ahead. And I mean a long road.

Even assuming you polish your novel until it is positively gleaming, I was reliably informed by a Literary Agent in London that the average novel may be edited up to 12 times.

If you haven’t realised it by now, I’m not trying to pour cold water on the project – merely setting expectations. If you’re serious about getting published, you can’t send your baby out into the world half dressed.

Infinity and Beyond…

Once I committed to the editing process, I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s early days but here is my advice based on my experiences so far.

1. Hold it … hold it

Initially, I was raring to get my book progressed to the next stage but it is useful to have some breathing space (typos, spelling and punctuation pick-ups aside). Aim to give yourself a week between the end of the first draft and the beginning of the next phase.

2. Time to wear your editor’s hat

There are those that just like being writers, but even on the most basic level you need to edit your work before it is sent out into the world. Now is the time to start thinking like an editor – not a writer.

3. Print out hard copy

Do a fly through to pick up obvious typos, gaps or weakness in the content. Scribble away in the margins. You might have more ideas, or change your mind, continuity issues, timelines to check– that’s OK just right it all down.

4. Taming the beast

I realised very quickly that while 120,000 had an impressive ring to it, publishers aren’t necessarily looking for a novel with such a long word count. From all my research, I deduced that either 80,000 or 100,000 was the word count I should be aiming for. That means I need to cull at least 10% content. Now here’s the thing. What do you cull? Have you ever heard the expression “Kill your darlings”? Yup. Every bit as painful as it sounds. But if you want to be a published author and taken seriously – needs must!

What to Cull?

  • There are a number of places writers waste words and I’m no different. I have discovered frequently overuse the following words – ‘of course’, ‘realised’ ‘had’ and ‘that’. Those four words/phrases cropped up time and time again throughout the pages. Every writer has certain words they are fond of using. Once you have identified yours you will know what to look out for. Rather than loathing the process I began to enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to say same things. As an exercise, I recommend searching your document for the word ‘THAT’. I guarantee 90% of the time this word is superfluous and should be cut. You will notice your writing is improved with this one simple change.
  • Dialogue attribution. “He says/she says” clogs up your narrative and word count. It is extremely boring to read he says/she says line after line. Create believable characters with strong dialogue and attribution can be reduced to a minimum.
  • Adjectives. Because we LOVE words, writers often string together more adjectives than necessary to describe someone or something. One powerful adjective will do.
  • Adverbs. 90% of the time adverbs are superfluous. Adverbs are used to modify verbs. They tell us when, where, how, in what manner or to what extent an action is performed. Go through your copy and eliminate words like ‘very’, ‘quickly’, ‘soon’, ‘kindly’, ‘calmly’, ‘carefully’ and so on.
  • Be concise. If there is a way of saying something in fewer words – do it. With creative consideration and a good vocabulary, it is possible.
  • Consider the merit of every sentence. In the first draft, you have spilled your guts, but now is the time to tidy up. Each sentence must progress the story and be relevant. Sometimes what goes down ends up irrelevant to the story – action, dialogue, emphasis on a certain character? If it isn’t essential for the growth, development and understanding of your story ditch it – or at the very least, cut it down.

Every stage of the writing process is an opportunity for growth. As I’ve said before tackling a novel is very different from any other writing you may have done, professional or otherwise. I’ve realised through hard work just how rewarding life can be after the ‘First Draft’ but you have to be willing to roll your sleeves up and do the hard graft. There – not feeling so much like a fraud now – until next week. Bye for now.

Is it time to come out of solitary confinement?

eviemcrae.blogAs part of a busy creative team, I’ve always been motivated and inspired by those around me. I’ve always been in awe of the talented designers who have brought life to my words, no matter how dry the subject matter. Gifted wordsmiths and copywriters have always pushed me to think beyond my comfort zone and have provided invaluable feedback and critique before that moment where you send your handcrafted ‘baby’ out into the world to fend for itself.

If all this sounds frenzied, then you’re correct. However, the world of novel writing is very different. It is solitary. That means you have to be all things to yourself and your work. Many writers will identify with the roller coaster of emotions. The elation and self-belief that you are creating something that could change the world, all the way to despair and the pits of self-loathing. You know what I’m talking about. When you look at your screen and think ‘who am I kidding? A five-year-old could write better than this. I’m an idiot to think I could have something here-‘ and so it goes on.

Sound familiar? If you are one of those who has been quietly working in your corner of the world with no human contact, embroiled in your own nightmare of rejection and derision then I’m here to make a suggestion. Get involved with other writers. They’re not a bad bunch really.

I have to say I struggled with the very advice I’m imparting to you. First of all, I don’t want other writers stealing my idea (as if-). Secondly, having traversed publishing and corporates alike, I have met my fair share of -well I’ll just say it – stuck up literary snobs. The thought of spending evenings or weekends with a bunch of bespectacled ‘superior school teacher’ types makes my feet want to curl up and drop off.

Without wanting to sound like one of those very snobs that I shy away from, neither did I want to attend a writer’s group filled with old grannies writing stories about their cat (and, by the way, I love cats). I’ve been there, done that and I’ll be back there soon enough I’m sure. My desire was to find a group of people just like me – if that were at all possible. People who had enough intelligence to provide valuable critique without making me feel I should give up and stay home to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show. I soon realised that in order to test the waters with what I had to offer, I did indeed have to dip my toes in that scary water.

Taking my courage in my hands, I signed up for a writer’s workshop at Bloomsbury Press in London. The title of the workshop was “How to hook an agent.” I didn’t feel my writing was at the point of needing an agent. My coat of protection was the notion that this was a fact finding mission. If my work wasn’t up to scratch it was because it wasn’t ready – if you catch my drift.

The day of the workshop arrived as did I, all nervous with my laptop in hand. I have no sense of direction and was following my trusty Google Navigation along the streets of London. When I looked up, I met a similarly apprehensive individual, smartphone in hand, nervously looking around.

Are you here for the writer’s workshop?” I asked with all the coyness of a girl embarking on her first day at school. I was met with a smile and relieved nod of the head.

My new friend Alice and I walked in together and sat next to each other to provide each other with much needed moral support. As it turned out, there was nothing to be scared of. We met a group of 4 agents, each providing us with valuable information on what they looked for in a query letter and submission pitch. In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to use that information and deliver our own pitch.

Hearing yourself describe your book to a group of people you’ve never met before is an illuminating experience. First of all, you are fighting the fight or flight instinct with thoughts of ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ But what follows after your mind has scrabbled around trying to find as few words as possible to sum up your book, is the beginnings of your ‘elevator pitch’. Let’s be honest, how many of you would make yourself come up with that at home in the comfort of your study, until push came to shove?

Instead of blank expressions, communicating the much feared ‘what planet are you on?’, you will receive encouraging nods, and people breaking out into their own discussions about ‘your book’.

The feedback I received in my ‘one-to-one’ with my chosen agent of the day, was invaluable. What surprised me most was the questions from other writers and participants. Questions about characters, questions about what inspired the novel and so on.

In short, I came away from the day thinking, ‘you know what, I might have something here. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I know where the work needs to be done.’ Putting myself up for scrutiny like that provided fresh momentum, new motivation, clearer direction and a belief that my destiny didn’t lie in the lap of Jeremy Kyle while my writing languished in a bottom drawer somewhere.

So if you’re struggling with confidence or clarity, I really recommend putting yourself out there. Start with whatever group you feel most comfortable with. Nowadays local libraries run excellent writer’s groups who will provide you with a forum to read your work out loud. That alone is an invaluable experience.

Of course, for my part, the icing on the cake from my adventures in London was making the acquaintance of like-minded people who were really great fun to be around. We made a pact to email each other from time to time and offer support when moments of doubt come knocking. Nobody was interested in pinching my story idea because they all have fantastic stories of their own to tell. So yes, writing a novel is a solitary experience, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Live. Love. Laugh. Create.

eviemcrae.blogAs a professional writer with a significant number of years under my belt in the publishing and corporate world, the decision to branch into longer prose was an emotionally challenging one. After all, my childhood dream was to write a book. My teenage dream and my early 20s dream was, yes you’ve guessed it, to write a book. Somehow life got in the way and I found myself starting many novels only to get to around 30 pages and run out of time, momentum or worse still, the story would dry up. Each time I started a new project thinking this time would be different. I had countless stories waiting to be told but for whatever reason I just couldn’t get them beyond a certain point. So what was different this time?

A few years ago my mother died. My mother was too young to die – she was only 60. What hurt us all about her death apart from the obvious pain of separation from someone we loved, was the sheer loss of potential. She was a truly gifted artist. She could paint, draw and use inks and charcoals as if they were an extension to her small nibble fingers. 

My mother was one of those mothers who made the halloween costume from scratch and I would win first prize every year dressed in one of her creations. Unfortunately, much to my own daughter’s disappointment, it was not a gift I inherited. There was always a feeling our mother could have done so much more with her gifts and talents if she had wanted to.

As her retirement age approached she busied herself creating wonderful inks and drawings of Inchcolm, the island on which she lived with my father for a few months of the year as they carried out their roles for Historic Scotland.

Towards the end of her battle with cancer, the one thing she battled with, within herself, was the fact that she was less and less able to hold a pencil or paintbrush and it was inevitable that she lost more of herself when she could no longer ‘create’ than what she lost physically to this eroding disease.

As time passed, we her children were able to look through her many notepads and canvases. I realised that it did not matter that she hadn’t set up an exhibition of her work, or that she had never taken money for commissions. She did it for love and she did it in answer to her own callings inside. I realised the most important thing was just the ability and drive to create something beautiful from nothing.

Not long after my mother died, I met an amazing man who listened to my childhood dreams and pushed me gently in the direction that I had become fearful to travel. I didn’t realise how fearful I had become until I started making the standard excuses – too busy, too tired, not in the zone. I found myself constantly hiding behind my ‘real writing work’. The reality was I was successful in my career, but what if I was unsuccessful as a novelist. A lifelong cherished dream would be shattered. He put it quite simply to me. “What are your priorities? Do you want to do this or not?” The answer leapt into my mind as a fervent ‘YES’ and I knew that I had to do it this time.

So here I am, nearing 100,000 words on my first book. Will it be a success? Does it matter? Of course a small part of me is saying yes of course it matters, I have so much to share. However, the most important thing I have learned, apart from the fact dedication, discipline and commitment are what makes our dreams come true (and boy do you need lots of discipline), is that you just need to create, to write words every single day. It doesn’t matter if the words are not so great every day, you can always edit, pull it apart and put it together again. Just create. Put something into the world that wasn’t there yesterday. That’s the true secret to living a creative life.

 

How do I know which genre is the right fit?

eviemcrae.comIn my previous post, I wrote about how liberating it can be to identify the genre of your book. If you have found yourself in a position where you just don’t know what genre your novel fits into, you’ve come to the right place.

First of all you’re not alone. It’s an issue that many writers struggle with. It’s not that writers don’t know about ‘genre’ as such, though with the huge proliferation of sub-genres emerging it is fast becoming a moving target. The main issue faced by writers, myself included, is they feel their writing could fit into a number of genres. It’s hard not to feel you are missing out on a potential audience if you pigeon-hole yourself.

In terms of advice, I would say make sure you are familiar with what is out there. Take yourself out, notebook in hand, and visit your local bookstore or library. Here you will see quite literally how books are classified and sold.

For example:

  • Action/Adventure — stories including epic journeys, lots of conflict, high stakes, some violence.
  • Erotica — stories of sexual exploration.
  • Fantasy — stories usually involving magic, other worlds, mythological/mystical figures.
  • Horror — stories that invoke fear.
  • Literary Fiction — stories with a focus on the quality of the prose over the narrative arc.
  • Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
  • Thriller/Suspense — stories of high tension that can involve either action or mystery.
  • Romance — stories about love/intimacy.
  • Sci-fi — stories usually involving technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds.
  • Westerns — stories taking place in America’s “Old West,” often with focus on justice.
  • Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth. The primary emotion here is hope.

Of course the above list appears to take a simplistic approach, but as you start delving into what defines each genre, you’ll see this is a useful starting point. Let’s take historical fiction as an example. Historical fiction is one of those areas that stirs up much controversy.

Essentially historical fiction is, surprise surprise, fiction set in the past. The question is, how far back in the past do you have to go to make it ‘historical’? Last week? Last year? Ten years ago? Fifty? Everyone – writers and authors included – has their own idea of what is historical to them.

For consistency it’s worth noting that a historical novel is set fifty years or more in the past and one in which the writer has had to base writings on ‘research’ (ie, not life experience – so autobiographical novels would not fit into a historical novel genre). Each classification or genre has it’s own set of rules, so make sure you research each genre to see what the rules are.

For all those who, like myself, feel their writing could fit into various genres you can break this approach down further.

Take this made up example: MacIndoe and the Maastricht Project

Mike MacIndoe is a detective solving cold cases of missing people. He tackles cases that usually involve adventures of epic proportions (giving the novels an action/adventure feel).

However, MacIndoe is a psychic wizard!

So here we have novels that would certainly satisfy readers with a thirst for adventure – but they would also have to be open to tales of fantasy. If you were the writer of such a novel you would have to think of your audience and what they would identify with most. Having drawn them into a world of fantasy and adventure, you would have to consider Urban Fantasy as a possible fit in terms of genre rather than action/adventure.

The subject of genre is crucial if you want to write a query letter and pitch your work to an agent or publisher. If you are self publishing genre can be more flexible due to the vast array of sub genres.

When writing a query letter you need to prove to your agent/publisher that you understand the market, your target audience and where your book would be most likely sell. The best advice I can give here is to think about the readership. Who is most likely to seek out books on psychic wizards taking on adventure?

There is no exact science when it comes to genre, but if you have studied the fundamentals, you will certainly be further along the road to writing a book that sells.

Benefits of knowing your genre

eviemcrae.comOf all the issues I struggled with in the early days of writing my novel (some of which I’ll explore in later posts), the most challenging for me was genre.

As with all writers who have a spark of an idea, I knew the rough story outline. However, there were so many elements in that story that I had the dawning realisation I would have to decide. It simply wouldn’t cut it to say well it’s a bit of this and a bit of that, with a dash of this and the other thrown in.

Of course many people will say to you – just write the book and then see where it fits in. By choosing to stay open to writing in any genre you are free to pursue any idea that grabs you. That’s great if your books are written in a constant stream of higher consciousness as I had once naively dreamt. Sorry to burst your bubble but writing a novel means large intakes of breathe every now and then. You need to plot, plan and assess your work to ensure it is staying on track, resulting in a process that’s so much longer than writing poetry from the heart or an inspired moment in time.

The topic of genre becomes crucial if you intend to market your book to a wider audience. In short, genre is about marketability. As someone who has written for corporates in marketing, I’m all too aware of the importance of marketability. If you don’t market your goods, products, services, or novel, to your target audience, well quite simply you don’t have a target audience that knows where to find you.

Identifying genre can actually help you in your writing process as I found out when I attended a recent workshop with Bloomsbury Press. I had developed my pitch based on a ‘genre-crossing’ novel. Of course I thought I had cleverly masked the fact I wasn’t sure whether my novel would fit onto a historical category or a philosophical category. It did both in my mind, but that wasn’t enough.

The feedback I received was invaluable. I could still have all the elements I wanted included in my novel, but the ‘cross-genre’ idea just wouldn’t fly with this particular publisher. After discussing the storyline it became clear that what I had been working on was indeed historical fiction. To take you back to my first point, this decision was based on not only content, but ‘marketability’. I have to say the sense of relief to finally nail my genre led me to the realisation that knowing your genre has it’s benefits.

  • Constraints breed creativity. Sometimes having some rules to write by actually makes you more creative. When you can write about anything it can be difficult to know where to start and often you find your story taking you off on a tangent.
  • You look more professional. It’s important for agents and publishers to see that you understand genre and the need to build a platform. If you have a clearer vision of where your title fits in they will view this positively and they will have confidence in your willingness to market yourself.
  • You become known as an expert. The more you write in one genre the more people see you as an authority in that area.
  • It’s one less choice to make. This benefit I cannot stress enough. It was as if someone had literally taken the fog and indecision from my mind. As a writer building a career your life is filled with endless choices. Now you have one less!

Under starter’s orders

So there I was ready to write ‘the’ novel. The one I have been living with in my mind for so many years. 

I was exeviemcrae.comcited, motivated, exhilarated – you name it – I was it! Until it hit me. Writing a novel is actually quite a daunting process (no shit Sherlock I hear you say)!

I don’t know why this revelation didn’t hit me before. I suppose because I had always written, whether it was poetry, short stories, or content for a website, I never had a problem with ideas or putting words onto a blank sheet of paper.

A novel, however, is more like running a marathon. I had done lots of training in short bursts for much shorter races, but I hadn’t done any preparation for a marathon!

Now that I was actually ‘serious’ and getting down to business as it were, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought through a few of the vital elements … and what’s more… I couldn’t progress until I had the fundamentals clear in my mind. 

Take genre for example. I had the ‘story’ in my head, but how was I going to tell the story? Was this going to be a historical novel, something more philosophical or could I do both? Were there any rules I needed to know – even if it was so I could break them?

As I trawled through websites looking for guidance and inspiration, I began ordering books left, right and centre to fast track my learning. I realised I had much to learn. At one point I even considered doing an MBA in creative writing but then I thought this may be too much distraction from the task in hand.

The good news is from what I have read thus far, there are many ways to skin this particular cat. Therefore my approach is going to be a blend of inspired creativity, gleaned information and teachings from my favourite authors, and a pinch of gut instinct.

If you are considering writing a novel, here’s a couple of little pointers I have learned so far.

  1. You can find a million jobs that need to be done, like tidying the bathroom cabinet, or picking fluff off socks, but you can only drink so many cups of procrastination coffee.
  2. Understand what it is you want to write and why you want to write it.
  3. What genre is your writing going to fit into?
  4. Actually writing down an outline, or even a story board, is a good idea when you are writing a novel. It helps you keep on track, but it can also help you identify where the weak elements are in your story.
  5. Have you thought about character, settings and the plot itself?

Of course there are many questions you should be able to answer about your novel so over the next few posts I’ll expand on this planning phase a bit more. If nothing else it will give you a sense of what I have been wrestling with these last few weeks.

Still, it’s early days – and at least now I realise I am actually at the starting line of a marathon and not a 100 meter sprint. Excitement, exhilaration and motivation are still there, but now they have made room for endurance, perseverance and commitment!

Why writers write!

eviemcrae.comI’m sure I’m not alone when I say I am so looking forward to the release of Harper Lee’s ‘prequel’ of To Kill a Mockingbird. I know many of her fans over the years begged her to write another, yet she declined to put pen to paper once more.

Now, decades later, Harper has revealed that she did write another novel which featured Atticus Finch and his grown up daughter Scout – but this was written from a different perspective and before the story as we know it today.

It made me wonder what compels a writer to write – or not write – as was the case with Harper Lee. It seems such a loss that a writer should write something so successful and then never pick up the pen again.

If you’ve never really considered it, think about it now. Why do you like to write? Do you have a burning need to write or is it just something you quite enjoy doing as a hobby to fill in the time? If you have a burning need to write, is there something in particular that you are just bursting to tell?

I realised, like so many, that my initial love of writing came from reading wonderful books as a child. As I grew older the became a form of escapism from the outside world. Words were like spells that gave me hope, new families, new adventures that were so different from my own.

As I grew older, however, just the very action of writing down thoughts and feelings somehow released me from the emotions of the world I found myself in. It was as if my mind emptied onto the page and I felt better once more.

My life has been more turbulent than most. Certainly more turbulent than my friends around me. I often said, nobody would believe the things that have happened to me, or the situations I have found myself in, all those things cannot happen to one person in one life time. It was from this thought that my writing found it’s drive, it’s desire, which was to help others who had been through the rough end of life or found themselves in situations they were just not equipped to deal with.

So there it is – the purpose of my writing is to try to help others. Social injustice – indeed injustice of any kind jangles me to the core. It’s probably why a story such as To Kill a Mockingbird is etched indelibly on my sub conscious and the subconscious of so many.

In what I have read about Harper Lee to date, it seems that she was overwhelmed, perhaps even frightened, by the response to her book and subsequent success. She had obviously written something so meaningful at just the right time, that the book became bigger than her. Harper wanted to make a statement about racism and social injustice – and boy she made that statement eloquently. She touched people with her words and her observations. Ultimately she felt she had said all she needed to say in that one book. People got behind her book and embraced its values just as surely as they believed in Atticus Finch himself.

This led me to ponder another question. As a writer, if you had the choice, would you want to write just one book that touched millions with its message, or would you prefer to be a prolific writer churning out book after book?

Before you answer, consider Dame Barbara Cartland for a moment. Not quite on the same literary scale granted, but she wrote over 722 books over an 80 year period which averages out at around one book every 40 days. She was a self-proclaimed expert on romance right up to her death in 2000. She may not have had a deep and meaningful message to convey to the masses, as we recognise it, but she had plenty to say about morals and the subject of ‘virginity’.

Of course for many writers, finances come into the equation. That said, anyone involved in the arts will know, reaping the rewards financially is more of an exception rather than the rule. Some writers are lucky. They hit on a formula that works for them, and they can churn out book after book.

One of my ‘desert island’ books would have to be Paulo Cohelo’s ‘The Alchemist’. A simple parable about how to live life. I have read many of his books since then, but have started to become bored with what seems to be a well worn templated style. Still – at least he wrote The Alchemist – and he believed in it so much he self published. He had a message that he was bursting to share, even if his subsequent books may be more about making money, they still communicate something about how we should live our lives..

I admire the fact that Harper Lee was inspired by her father’s work as lawyer working on behalf of black people. I admire that she felt so strongly about this subject that she just had to write about the injustices faced by a marginalised society. She wrote a book that froze a moment in time for us to scrutinise at our leisure, a work that we could draw life lessons from. How wonderful, if not a little terrifying, that must feel!

Go Set a Watchman is due to be published on July 14, 2015, by Harper Collins.