Road Closed Ahead

Flooded Roads Everywhere

Flooded Roads Everywhere

This month I have been writing my first novel using a detailed plan. I am halfway through and I thought I’d share how it’s going.

As I discussed in my last post it took me a long time to get started, although that was partly due to the nature of the story. Ironically the ‘hard’ scenes have been the easiest to write, in as much as they’re the heart and soul of the story. I can get swept up in the emotion, however horrible, and the words flow.

Harder has been the overall narrative. Writing from a plan is a little too left-brain for me. I am analysing my writing too much (groaning over how many times I use ‘then’ or start sentences with characters’ names or pronouns.)

According to a quote I found on the internet, “Left brain thinking is verbal and analytical. Right brain is non-verbal and intuitive, using pictures rather than words.” (Ucmas.ca)

That should mean left-brain is great for writing, right? Not for me. Oh, I probably have fewer continuity errors, virtually no typos and spelling mistakes, and near-perfect grammar. But the story has no flow and no imagery. It’s all words and clichéd descriptions of emotions.

I know, a book is generally made up of words! But I realised on my last quick scan that there is no description after the first page. I mean none. No sounds, smells, sights, room descriptions, setting, weather. Just dialogue and action in a vacuum. That can all be added of course, but I write better prose subconsciously, so it’s more risky to have to add it during edits.

The other problem is that, even though I have drifted from my original plan to some extent, I am still lost without my cards.

I came on the school run today without them. I usually write for an hour in a coffee shop and then head home. I knew what scene I was due to write. All good. Except I’m stranded in town due to flooding, and I’m stuck.

Spending the whole day in a coffee shop should mean I can bang out five thousand words. But I don’t know what comes next. I’m 30,000 words from the climax scenes and I can’t remember how I planned to get there!

On a positive note, however, I do seem to be mostly on track with Snyder’s Beat Sheet, even if I’ve ignored half the scenes and all the word-count estimates. And it was useful, during the 20,000 word dip (that NaNoers might recognise) to be able to look at the next card and keep on plodding on.

I really need to finish this first draft by the end of term, especially if I want to enter the Good Housekeeping competition. Unfortunately the kids break up two weeks today (darn those early Easters) and even though I’ve written 45k words in two and a half weeks, it’s feeling like a huge challenge.

I guess I could just make a start on the climax scenes and plug the gap later. I prefer to write linear, but needs must!

And of course, there’s my final dilemma. In my plan someone may or may not die. I didn’t know during the planning process. I still don’t know. I hoped I would be clear when I got there. I guess once a pantser, always a pantser, even with a pretty set of index cards!

Holidays are Great but I Love My Job

We had the beach to ourselves

We had the beach to ourselves

We got back from a wonderful week in Italy yesterday, happy and exhausted (and a little sunburnt in my case after forgetting to get hubbie to put cream on my back.) I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours unpacking, washing, ironing, cooking and trying to survive the tantrums of four shattered people.

The weather was glorious for most of our week – unlike back in the UK where they suffered days of torrential rain. The dog came back from kennels a little rounder than she went, instead of the kilos lighter she usually is after a week of long walks and no table scraps. I’m guessing there weren’t many opportunities to walk dogs in that weather.

Not that we didn’t get any rain. Our second day on the beach saw us sheltered in the nearest cafe when the heavens opened for an hour. There is something rather cool about sipping a cappuccino in twenty degrees heat watching the soft sand getting pounded and water flooding across the patio because the drainpipes empty onto it. It left the sand with the texture of a wool carpet.

The downpour

The downpour

Our trips to Italy are family visits rather than holidays and we spent plenty of time with aunts and cousins. The children and I don’t speak Italian, so it’s always rather chaotic and overwhelming, although lovely and heartwarming. With our family spread all over the world it always means a lot to catch up with them and spend time together.

That said, we were glad to come home to our own beds. The children find it hard staying in an apartment, unable to go outside whenever they want and constantly being told to be quiet. I feel trapped, too, because I can’t drive the hire car and it terrifies me not being able to talk to the locals. Plus the apartment is in town and rather noisy! I haven’t slept properly for a week.

Mind you, coming back to a foot-high lawn and a messy house, I can now appreciate the beauty of living in a small flat and spending all the time at the beach!

Beach babies

Beach babies

The best part about being home for me is being able to get back to work. While hubbie and the kids are dragging their heels and not wanting the holiday to end, Monday morning can’t come soon enough for me. The only difficulty is choosing between working on Class Act or my kids’ book.

I’ve opted for the latter and have printed out the manuscript in readiness. I spent some of the holiday reading middle grade fiction (after re-reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a fantastic book,) and I can see all the things that are so wrong with my Alfie book. Not that I think I can fix them – I’m still not sure Middle Grade is my genre – but I’m excited to try.

Me, excited about editing? How did that happen? I used to hate it. I still don’t feel I know what I’m doing. But already having sourced an editor has made a difference. I know what she thought was wrong with my sample and so I know what I’m looking for in my redraft. It’s like writing an essay for a university tutor, and that’s something I’ve had lots of experience doing. I used to love writing essays. (I know, I’m a freak!)

Of course I’ll probably end up sleeping instead of working tomorrow – the danger of working from home! Best work in the coffee shop. Talking of which, it’s definitely time for bed! Night night.

The It’s-All-Shit Stage of Writing

I just want to sleeeeeep

I just want to sleeeeeep

I’m currently going through what I’m coming to recognise as the I’m-feeling-low-because-I’m-editing-my-book-and-it’s-shit phase.

Symptoms include sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time. Eating comfort food and then wondering why I have no energy and my wobbly bits are a bit wobblier. Feeling emotional, crying and wanting to hug my kids loads (look, someone loves me, look I created these amazing people, I did something right.) Checking my kindle sales figures and despairing that I haven’t sold a book in three days (damn you, new kindle sales graph). Checking Goodreads and Amazon for new reviews and seeing the new critical three-star review as confirmation that I can’t write, even though I have five star reviews and even the three star review isn’t that bad.

I know this will pass. I went through it with Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (less so with Dragon Wraiths because I edited it for a competition deadline and the urgency pushed me through the pain).

I know the editor will come back with some great suggestions and, even if the novel is currently a steaming pile of poo, it can be fixed. I know I’m stressing because I’ve discovered paragraphs – okay even whole chapters – that need work. I’m stressed because Kristen Lamb recently wrote three posts on the evils of flashbacks and my novel has two and, try as I might, I can’t think how to write them out.

I know my book doesn’t have enough pace and conflict and humour. At 85k words (when my previous novels both came in at 110-115k words) I’m worried it doesn’t have enough of anything. Right now I’m 50% through final pre-editor line edits. I’m averaging more hours sleeping than working every day. (Today’s work day = 1 hour school assembly, 1 hour editing, 2 hours’ time wasting, 2 hours’ sleeping.) I want to abandon editing and get back to my children’s book, only that’s a steaming pile of poo too.

Flatlined sales chart

Flatlined sales chart

Even though I know this will pass, I do worry that the more books I write, the more craft advice I read, the more I work at this writing thing, the harder it is getting to come up with good ideas. The idea for Dragon Wraiths – my favourite (although flawed) book – came in a dream and the words flowed. Not without effort, but mostly without doubt. I wasn’t trying to write someone else’s book, I was writing my book. Now though, especially with the children’s book, I’m trying to recreate the brilliant middle grade fiction books I adore to read. And as a result I can’t seem to come up with a story and I don’t have faith in myself to just write and see what happens. Being stuck in the editing doldrums with Class Act is not helping!

As with my paintings, the more I try to be a professional the more I feel I’m losing the part that made it fresh and fun and exciting. I wonder if your third complete novel is a bit like the third year in a relationship, when the heady romantic days have settled into a comfortable routine and you have to work a bit harder at the compromises? Or maybe authors feel like this about every book. Certainly Matt Haig said The Humans is the book he is most proud of, the “one I will never be able to write again.” (Facebook) and he’s written LOADS of books! (I thought he also said it was the only one he enjoyed reading, but I can’t find that quote on Facebook…)

Writing, like parenting, is full of highs and lows, successes and doubts, and the best mantra you’ll ever hear, even though it doesn’t help at all at the time is, “This too shall pass.”

Let’s hope so.

The Tricky Task of Combining Craft with Draft

Editing Class Act

Editing Class Act

For the last few days I have been immersed in re-reading Class Act a final time before sending it to the editor next week, having decided the words were just not going to come on my children’s book after the Easter break.

I find it excruciating rereading my own novels. It usually starts out okay, as time away gives enough distance for me to fall in love with my characters again. After a few chapters, though, each sentence is painful. I know the story inside out and I start to second and third guess myself. I wonder if there’s enough action to be interesting, whether the characters are annoying, whether there is too much introspection and not enough plot. Should I have read more craft books, planned and analysed the text more?

Yesterday I impulsively purchased two books recommended by Kristen Lamb in her post Everybody Arcs: How to use emotional growth to propel the story and capture the reader – Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (I already own The Emotion Thesaurus)

Unfortunately owning craft books doesn’t help if you never make time to read them. I dipped in, but then I became obsessed with what Rebecca and Alex’s positive traits and flaws might be, and whether they arc during Class Act. It was a short step from that to feeling I wasn’t a proper writer because I didn’t have all that detail straight in my head when I hope to publish the novel by the end of June.

It’s not the right time to be worrying about that. I’m not saying it’s too late – I hope some of that detail will come out in the edit – but it isn’t something to dwell on during a line-by-line read through. However, it does highlight one of my biggest difficulties with writing: merging draft with craft.

Just some of the hundreds of amends

Just some of the hundreds of amends

I’m a pantser rather than a planner. I don’t want to be. I have ground to a halt on my MG novel because I can’t visualise the ending and am stuck in a soggy middle. But every time I try to sketch out what happens next, my characters decide on a different path, and hours of effort are wasted. Either that or I plan the life out of the story and can no longer be bothered to write it. To some extent I write to find out what happens – if I already know every twist and turn of the plot I get bored.

Writing that way makes it difficult to consciously craft, however. I read posts by authors like Kristen Lamb and it all seems so clear: what positive and negative traits a character needs and how they can drive the plot. So, buy a useful thesaurus, select some traits, and off I go. But every time I sit down and try to figure out that kind of detail I draw a blank (and usually lose the will to write).

Somehow, without conscious thought, my characters develop flaws and tells. But their journey, their growth, isn’t really controlled by me. If they grow, learn, change, during the story, that’s more by accident than design. Ditto for making every paragraph multi-functional : contributing to the story, character development, conflict or climax. Of course that’s what the revision process is for. When I start to deconstruct my writing, however, that’s when I start to think it all sucks. The more I stare at the words the less they make sense, until I’m convinced I should chuck the lot in the bin and start again. I feel like my husband, who can play the piano beautifully but thinks it’s just noise because he can’t read music.

Until I can learn to combine craft and draft I suspect my novels will never really sing, but reading craft books makes me judge my own writing too harshly. It’s a quandary. And that’s what editors are for, I guess. Hopefully a good one will help a book find its voice. Certainly I hope mine will help with Class Act. That’s assuming I wade through the words and get the manuscript sent off next week, of course. Back to work!

How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

I Am A Writer

(Temporary) cover for hubbie's book

(Temporary) cover for hubbie’s book

Yesterday I took the day away from my latest WIP to do something I hoped would cheer up my husband: I published his children’s book, Max & Shady, on Smashwords. I spent the first three hours designing a cover for it, because (unfortunately) the one I did for him before used a photo I couldn’t find the rights to. Important note: if you grab an image for inspiration, make sure you know where it’s from. Unsurprisingly, hubbie preferred his original cover (I do, too) but at least this one is bought and paid for.

Then I dug out the word document I formatted for print as a present a few years ago (turning someone’s first draft into a readable document is quite a task!) I’m ashamed to say it was full of typos, despite it being me who proof-read it the last time.

The rest of the day was spent fixing the big stuff (formatting for Smashwords and inserting punctuation inside the quotation marks). By the time he got home from work (having had to hush the kids a few times to sort out the niggly formatting issues that always seem to crop up) the book was live.

It breaks all the rules. It’s a first draft so shouldn’t be anywhere near the light of day. It’s only been proofread quickly, mostly by Word rather than a human being. It’s probably full of inconsistenices and it certainly has pages of info-dump. No matter. It served it’s purpose. Hubbie smiled.

Two things came out of it that should give both me and hubbie a boost of confidence. Firstly, when I was researching covers and categories, I couldn’t find much in the way of space adventure in the middle grade market: that makes his book much more stand out than mine. So, if he ever finds the energy to write some more, on top of being the bread winner who is pounced on by two small children as soon as he walks in the door after work, there might be a new niche he can fill.

Secondly, I re-read my work-in-progress, after editing Max & Shady, and realised just how much I have learned about writing in the last two or three years. I can see my progress from what I would have written as a first draft (much as hubbie’s is – fun but flawed) to my current work: not perfect, but oh so much better. I got quite excited reading it and found it pleasurable rather than excruciating, as reading my own writing normally is (a bit like hearing your own voice on tape). I understand things like avoiding info-dump, developing a character arc, climax and lots of other useful / essential things, mostly from reading blogs on writing. All that staring at the iPad seems to have had an effect. Who knows, I might actually, finally, be able to consider myself a writer!

Now I just need to work out who the bad guy is in my children’s book, what the plot and storyline are, and I can get on and finish it. I might be a better writer now, but I’m still pants at planning!