Always get a second opinion

I love a printed manuscript: it LOOKS like 7 months’ work

This week my Young Adult novel, Dragon Wraiths, got long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. I would like to say I was thrilled when I received the email, but I’d be lying. It came only hours after I had typed up the last second-draft-edit amends and vowed to put the darn novel in the bin/cupboard/big pit in the garden because, seven months after starting it, I still had no idea what it was about.

Instead my overwhelming emotion was fear. How could I send my manuscript off, all 112,500 words of it, with my name on the front (though thankfully the competition is judged anonymously) when I KNEW it was a pile of crap? But I had come so far, invested 7 months of my life, not to say thousands of pounds of nursery fees, plus the competition entry fee. I wasn’t giving up.

So I called in the troops. Sent the novel to my mother and pleaded with her to read it and tell me the most awful plot-hole-disaster bits so I could focus on fixing them before sending the manuscript off a week later.

That was Thursday night. On Friday, when I took the kids over to see her as usual she had to tear herself away from reading the book. My book. Friday night she sent a copy over to my step-dad’s iPad and Saturday morning (early) I got a text to say he was so engrossed she couldn’t get a word out of him. That of course spurred my husband to start reading it again, the edited version this time. I have learned an important lesson about waiting to give out the edited version because he soon couldn’t put it down. (He sat in the car while I took the kids to an indoor play centre on Sunday on the excuse that he had a cold and it was too hot and noisy, when really he wanted to keep reading.)

By Sunday night everyone had finished it.

My step-dad (who isn’t an avid reader, but loved the Twilight series) said “Book 2 Please”.

“What about the plot holes?” I asked, perplexed.

“Well, apart from saying she’s never been camping in part 2 when part 1 pretty much opens with her camping on a hillside, we didn’t find any plot holes.”

“What about the ending? Doesn’t it all feel a bit forced?” It took weeks of agonizing to try to make sense of it all, with me cursing my Pantser habits all the while.

“Ending was great, it all made sense.”

I sat and stared, open mouthed.

So instead of spending this week desperately re-writing huge chunks of my novel I have been calmly tweaking the one or two weak scenes my husband highlighted. Today I printed out all 462 pages and posted it.

Dear manuscript, all my blessings go with you

Leaving me free to start NaNoWriMo tomorrow.

Of course, that’s a different ball game entirely. I was going to rework one of my romances for Nano this year, but now I’m thinking about starting a sequel to Dragon Wraiths. Who knows, unlikely as it seems to me, it might actually go somewhere.

 

What have I learned?

I’ve always been too scared to relinquish my work to a critique group for fear of being told to give up writing and go back to the day job. I know family members are biased, but my parents don’t give up their weekends lightly. If they read my book non-stop to the end it was because they wanted to. That must count for something. Maybe I need to have more faith in myself.

Writing is a solitary business and editing is worse because you don’t even really have your characters for company. It’s easy to forget what’s good about your novel. You get too close, you lose the ability to feel the suspense, to be swept up in the drama.

My advice? When you have torn your novel apart and rebuilt it from the ground up, and you still think it stinks, remember – ask for a fresh opinion. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

 

Revision blues

I have revision blues. I was so excited about starting to revise my WIP but I still have no real understanding of how to go about it, and when I can’t do something it makes me sad. Not very helpful or grown up, I know. If my daughter said such a thing to me I’d tell her it just takes practice and it’s okay to ask for help. She’s three. It’s okay not to know how to do something when you’re three!

I like to think it’s the impossible deadline (combined with a killer cold) that has sucked my motivation, but that’s just an excuse. I’m good at excuses. If I’m honest (in a way you can only really be with yourself at 1am) the difficulty with revision is that it exposes how little I truly know about writing.

I hate being a novice.

I nearly sobbed in rowing today because the coach was telling me I was doing it all wrong. It was only my fourth lesson but I’d done so well the week before it was crushing to be told I was rubbish. No one is more critical of me than me and I get extremely frustrated at myself if I can’t do something. To the point that – like my stroppy three-year-old – I stomp my foot, yell “Can’t do it!” and chuck whatever item I’m holding across the room. (Did I mention I’m more of a child than she is sometimes?)

I read another instructive blog by Kristen Lamb this week, this one was about structure and how it separates the beginners from the professional writers. I confess I didn’t completely understand the blog which probably puts me firmly in the not about to be published anytime soon camp! I do at least own the Plot and Structure book she quotes from: I just need to read it.

So, as well as trying to polish a first draft in an impossible six weeks, just in case I’m shortlisted for the Mslexia award, I’m trying to learn how to write and how to revise all at the same time. It’s no wonder I’ve picked up Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom again. I’m already on Drowned Wednesday. I may not know much about scene and sequel or Goal – Conflict – Disaster but when it comes to displacement activity I’m a master.

The one positive I’ve had so far is discovering a useful revision summary by KittyB78. It doesn’t tell me how to revise but it does give some things to look for, such as scene flow and characterisation. I like the idea of highlighting different parts, like dialogue, internal thought, characterisation, in different colours. There are also some other great revision tips in the comments.

My biggest challenge this year might be resisting the urge to do NaNoWriMo again. I love it and several of my (unfinished) novels were born in November. However the last thing I need right now is another first draft to nag at me and distract me from actually finalising one of my existing manuscripts. Kristen Lamb is always talking about writers being distracted by the next new shiny.

That’s me!

Writing first drafts is so easy compared with revision and yet seems more like Writer work, so I don’t feel guilty for being unemployed as I do most days. If only they could do a revision equivalent of NaNoWriMo, to help and motivate you to beat a Nano first draft into shape. Now that I’d sign up to!

Anyway I think my darling son is finally asleep, despite the tap-taping of my mobile phone and the eerie sight of me up-lit in the darkness, so it’s back to bed for me. I haven’t revised more than a page in a week so must get a good day in tomorrow.

May the muse be ever in your favour.

Learning to row and little ones growing up

Turns out rowing is in my family’s blood!

I must apologise for my prolonged silence. When my babies were born a childminder I met said, “As a parent of very young children your world will shrink to a tiny point where the only things that matter are whether they eat and sleep and are happy. As they grow older you will begin to remember that there’s a whole other world out there.”

As my son’s second birthday approaches (this Friday – I can’t believe it) that prophecy has become true. All of a sudden I have re-joined the human race. As a result, some things – like my writing and this blog – have been forced into the background, despite my best intentions that that wouldn’t happen. I’m particularly concerned that I have entered my young-adult novel Dragon Wraiths into the Mslexia competition without the final draft being completely finished. I’m taking a gamble that I’ll be able to at least fix any continuity errors before I might have to submit the full manuscript, which they estimate as being in November for the short list. To be honest I don’t really expect to make the short list so it will be a nice dilemma to have.

For those paying attention to my on-going ramblings about my young adult book I have had to forgo entering the Chicken House competition, as the final first draft came in a third over their word count limit of 80,000. I’m not an enthusiastic (or experienced) enough editor to lop off thirty-five thousand words in a month.

So what have I been doing in the real world?

Learning to row

I married into a family of rowers and always vowed I would learn one day. I vowed I’d learn Italian too (my husband is half-Italian) but that’s proving more tricky. My husband planned to teach me to row after our second child was born, but a premature baby and postnatal depression put paid to that idea.

Then this summer our local Adult Education brochure arrived and I read it cover to cover, as I always do. I’m an academic junkie as well as always being on the lookout for local Italian classes. No joy on that front but there was a five-week Ladies Only Learn to Row course. Fate.

I changed the kids’ nursery days, swore my husband to secrecy, and signed up. Three weeks in and I’m loving it: Now I can actually propel the boat without facing the prospect of a cold bath that is. The first two weeks were HARD. My brain wasn’t used to concentrating for two hours at a time and I got very cross with my lack of coordination. The lady from British Rowing seemed to think I was the antithesis of a natural.

Today, though, the boat flew. It was amazing. I rowed with my eyes closed. Literally. To start out rubbish and get better – to feel myself improve and to get instant feedback (if I sense I’m about to join the ducks I’m doing it wrong) – is exhilarating.

If only writing was like that. Or parenting.

After nearly four years of feeling like a failure it was fantastic to be proud of myself for once.

Little ones growing up

The other thing we’ve been doing this week is looking at primary schools for my daughter. Scary stuff. I’ve thought about where I would like my children to go to school pretty much since my daughter was born. Several of my friends are teachers and my sister moved her family to America partly because of a school she wants them to attend. Education is important.

I think back to the various schools I went to as a child and I can see the different shifts in my personality that came with each one. To make that decision now, when my daughter is not even four and my son (who will hopefully go to the same school) is not quite two, seems madness. Thankfully we are blessed with an array of great state schools around us so the choice is more small village school versus larger town school, and whether to take current friendships into account. No decisions yet. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime I am trying to get my head back into writing, to plod on with editing Dragon Wraiths (harder than I hoped it would be) and writing query letters for Pictures of Love (which I still intend to self-publish but, as I haven’t got time to do the final proof-read at the moment, I may as well rack up a few more rejection letters!)

Have any of you recently sent your first child to school or started a new hobby? What keeps you away from editing and blog writing?

Children’s Novel Competitions: Mslexia vs Chicken House

Ok so now I have a dilemma. The lovely Helen Yendall over on her Blog About Writing posted a link to another children’s novel competition running this autumn, this time with The Times and the publisher Chicken House.

If you follow my blog, you may know that I am writing a Young-Adult book – Dragon Wraiths – to enter in the Mslexia Children’s Novel competition.

Now I have to decide whether to continue to aim for the Mslexia competition, or to change direction and enter this one with The Times and Chicken House instead. They each have their pros and cons.

The deadline for the Chicken House is later than the Mslexia one (26th October vs. 10th September) but the entry is a full printed manuscript, up to 80,000 words (suggested minimum 30,000 words, which is the same as Mslexia). In the first instance, Mslexia are asking for the first chapter, up to 3000 words, with the full manuscript and synopsis to be sent later, if you are shortlisted. Now this is where the comparison gets tricky.

As well as the wanting the full manuscript, Chicken House state:

Each entry must be accompanied by a brief synopsis, plot plan and a letter of submission explaining the book’s appeal to children. (A plot plan is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, with a couple of sentences on each, paying attention to the roles of the main characters, dramatic high points, and the most important strands of the plot. The synopsis should be no more than a page, and should give an overview of the complete story, including key characters, events and settings.)

So, how confident am I about my writing? Do I feel my opening chapter has enough impact for me to take the easier (more lazy) route, or will my story come across better will a full synopsis?

The latter, of course.  

I’ve already discussed how I’m worried my first chapter alone isn’t enough without a synopsis, because the dragons don’t come until a third of the way into the book. On the other hand, writing the synopsis is going to be hellish, because the novel skips between two worlds and two timelines, using different fonts (at the moment) to keep it all separate. Also the plot-plan is going to highlight my weaknesses when it comes to planning, as I’m not sure every chapter has a dramatic high point and so on.

There are other differences between the two competitions: the terms and conditions for the Times competition are much more thorough, including lots about the paper having rights forever to publish excerpts of any entry for free. That kind of stuff worries me, but I’ve convinced myself it’s just free publicity, assuming all excerpts are accredited to me as author.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of money, entry into Mslexia is £25 whereas the Times / Chicken House is £15. The minimum winner’s pot, as I read it, is £5,000 and £10,000 respectively. That’s pretty irrelevant: I don’t expect to win, really, although there’s no harm in hope.

The Times/Chicken House Ts & Cs have an interesting one-liner on what they are looking for:

The winner will be the entrant whose story, in the opinion of the judges, demonstrates the greatest entertainment value, quality, originality and suitability for children aged 7-18.

That’s a tall order for any author, but something we should all aspire to. I have no idea whether my idea is original and I don’t know any young-adults to try it out for entertainment or suitability. I guess these are things outside my control in a way. I find the story entertaining, and I like Young-Adult fiction (I’m re-reading Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials at the moment, and finding it hard to put down, even though I’ve read it before)

Despite the entry cost I am extremely tempted to submit to both competitions. I can’t find anything in the rules expressly forbidding it. I would love to double my chances of at least getting some great feedback and the Times/Chicken House competition offers editorial feedback to the 20 shortlisted entries. That is something I can aim for.

Of course, there might be a problem if I won both competitions, but wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have? 😉

 

Other Links:

Competition Rules:

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/competitions/article3375938.ece

http://mslexia.co.uk/whatson/msbusiness/ncomp_rules.php

The Chicken House Writer’s Guide

Gardening and Planning

The garden after much levelling and grass-sowing

Last Thursday afternoon I took some time off to tame our feral garden. The sun made an unexpected appearance and I couldn’t miss the opportunity.

We’ve been faffing around inexcusably regarding what to do with bits of our lawn. One large section is a mess, after we had a boat standing there for years (a long story). We sold the boat a few months ago and since then the whole area has been an eye-sore and child-trap: full of bits of rubbish, holes the dog dug under the boat and many vicious weeds.

Husband wanted to fill the holes with top-soil, roller it flat, make it as gorgeous as a cricket pitch. I want somewhere the kids can play without getting stung or covered in mud or breaking their ankle.

In our family, husband is responsible for all things outside and DIY, while I do all things indoors and domestic. I have recently taken over lawn mowing while husband has been away with work, much to my 3-year-old daughter’s bewilderment.

The first time I dragged the lawnmower out of the shed she looked at me as if I’d grown horns.

“Mummy, that’s daddy’s job.”

I couldn’t figure out how to get the mower started and after twenty minutes I was sweating and cursing. Her response was:

“Better leave it to daddy.”

Needless to say she had a quick lesson in woman’s lib and not giving up and I was given the motivation required to approach the task more calmly and find the dead-switch.

As well as mowing this Thursday I decided to tackle the ugly-eye-sore spot. First thing was to shift a giant tarpaulin and wood pile, trying not to scream too loudly when I uncovered a nest of tiny mice. (I covered them with a plant pot and they were later relocated by their mummy.)

As I was moving planks, filling holes, scattering grass seed and generally trying to reclaim half my lawn for the kids, I got to thinking about writing (as I often do when my hands are busy but my mind is not.)

I see metaphors everywhere; it was easy to get distracted by what it symbolised to leave baby mice safely hidden, only to trap them later when they venture into our house, or the futility of planting grass seed for the birds to eat. Maybe the wasted effort of reclaiming lawn when it hasn’t stopped raining for three months and the long-term forecast isn’t much better.

In the end what stuck in my mind the most was the conflicting lures of planning versus getting stuck in. When I write, I generally just get stuck in, and the ideas follow (hopefully) one upon another as I type. I’ve often thought I should plan more. One writer I know sketches every scene before writing anything and has a prescribed number of chapters in a book and so on.

That fills me with awe and terror.

Awe because I can’t write like that and terror because I feel I probably should. How can I call myself a writer when I stumble along hoping a story comes to me as I type?  Except I recently read that even well-known published authors occasionally have the same approach.

Looking at our garden my conclusion was it’s okay to just get stuck in, although a little planning doesn’t hurt. If I had got stuck in at the beginning of summer, without worrying about a plan, we’d have lawn by now. A lumpy lawn, full of weeds and holes, but a lawn nonetheless. In this case planning equalled procrastination (to be fair, mostly it was due to my husband being just too busy). However I did lose an hour of gardening time on Thursday having to go buy grass seed, so some planning might have helped. The main thing is, when I look at the flat seeded area now (see photo) I am filled with a huge sense of satisfaction and progress, no matter how uneven the end result.

I have reached deadlock with my Young Adult novel, Dragon Wraiths, because I have to create a new world and a history. I am dealing with two planets and two timelines, and planning really is essential to keep it all straight.

But I hate planning.

I don’t like reaching the end of a day with no increase in word-count. There is no sense of satisfaction, just a growing confusion, and sense that I could probably plan forever and never be fully satisfied. My creativity doesn’t function unless I am actually writing. I may as well be doing school essays.

Reading what I’ve written so far I realise that lack of planning hasn’t held me back from writing some good stuff.  I mostly know where the story is going, in my mind, I just don’t always know how it is going to get there until I start writing it down.

So, I could fart about worrying about the details of my world and have no story to enter in the Mslexia competition in September. Or I could break a dozen rules, just keep writing, and add the history in the second draft.

Maybe sometimes you just have to get stuck in and not worry if it’s lumpy and full of holes. After all you can’t edit a blank page any more than you can mow dirt.

Waiting, Dragons, Tennis and Sleep

Wimbledon 2007 – photo by Kol Tregaskes on Flickr

Pictures of Love, my WIP, is out with beta readers. I’ve never had anyone but family or agents read my work before. The former have always loved it, the latter rejected it. So I wait with more than a small amount of trepidation.

To use the time well (hopefully) I have gone back to my Young Adult book, Dragon Wraiths, which I hope to enter in the Mslexia Children’s Novel competition in September. I had put the idea on hold, because the rules state: Women who have had a novel published commercially, for any age group, in any country, are not eligible.

As I hope to self-publish Pictures of Love in August, I figured that meant I couldn’t enter. But I read the rules again, more closely, and it says Self-published manuscripts are eligible, so it’s game on.

Only now I’ve read the rules again I’ve spotted that the entry is 3000 words with no synopsis.

Eek.

The dragons don’t come in until Part Two, a third of the way through the book, and the weighty stuff about global warming etc comes in Part Three, (assuming I can research enough by the September deadline; it’s a new addition to the story).

How can I get enough plot into 3000 words to hook a reader, and still have character development, voice, YA themes and all that jazz, without a synopsis? I guess I have to finish the first draft and see how much time I have left before I worry about it.

That’s if I can stay awake.

Youngest child has had an ear infection, together with a lovely temperature of 39.2 for days, so sleep has been a rare commodity all round. Husband and I have been staggering about sighing I’m so tired; so much so that it’s my eldest child’s favourite excuse every time she has the screaming heebie-jeebies (by the way, I love that Word has that in its dictionary!).

“But mummy I’m just so tired, that’s why I lashed out and threw something at you.”

I have to bite my tongue on snapping back, “You slept for ten hours last night, I’ve barely had that this whole week!”

One of the by-products of sleep deprivation is that I, too, become a tiresome three-year-old.

As a result, my return to writing today, after two weeks without penning a word, as I wrestled with Lulu printing and e-book formatting (posts to come), only lasted until lunchtime. Then I had to admit defeat, close the laptop and turn on the tennis. I saw about three shots before I fell asleep.

Now I’m walking the dog, hoping the rain and soggy trousers will wake me up enough to finish my chapter before I collect the kids.

Or I might go nap in front of Murray.

This is WriterMummy saying night night.

 

P.S. Can’t sleep. Murray is making me too nervous. Come on Murray, hold your serve!

Hurrah for the web!

Sometimes all you need is a nudge in the right direction.

After panicking and dreading the writing of my synopsis, and after writing a couple of terrible, long-winded drafts that broke every rule in terms of length, style, content and readability, all I really needed was a nice step by step guide. And I found it here.

http://mslexia.co.uk/getpublished/pub_wkshop3.php

Following each step described here, I now have a basic synopsis that just needs tightening and shortening slightly.

The same website has also yielded some great advice on titles – http://mslexia.co.uk/getpublished/pub_wkshop1.php  – causing me to change mine from the boring/abstract Pictures of Love to the more specific (if still a bit predictable) Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes.

Now I just need to work on my first chapter. I am certain it wouldn’t pass Miss Snark’s Crap-o-meter, discovered at another great (and sadly discontinued) blog:

http://misssnark.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Crapometer-first%20pages

Miss Snark has also done a Crap-o-meter on synopsis writing, so I can check the quality of mine against an agent’s idea of excellent (or crap!).

Finally I found some lovely words of advice and encouragement on Billie Jo’s blog, here:

http://usaukwoods.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/synopsis-writing-ugh/

Hurrah for the web.