Eking Out The Words

Sometimes you have to get down to graft

Sometimes you have to get down to graft

I finally got back to work on Class Act this week but, my goodness, it’s like pulling teeth. I’m unfortunately at a juncture in the novel where the protagonist is tackling something from her past as her relationship with the male lead hots up.

I didn’t write these scenes the first time through – not deliberately, it just didn’t come out in the first draft. I don’t do sex and I don’t do conflict, and these scenes have both. Only, writing them in my current frame of mind, I feel like I’m trying to make a porcelain tea set using a hammer and chisel.

It’s tempting to delete everything I’ve painfully written this morning – all three hundred measly words – but sometimes you just need something on the page to edit, and move on.

Occasionally you look back and it isn’t as awful as you remember. Mostly, you look back and get out a big fat red pen and fix it. All I know is I’ll never have a manuscript to get to Beta Readers if I don’t push on through. As lovely as it is that I sold 30 copies of Baby Blues and got a new five star review (and it is lovely!) it’s only going to work if I keep writing.

Sometimes the 300 words, eked out one cup of tea at a time, are as important and precious as the three thousand rattled off in good order. They’re all steps up the mountain.

Celebrating Success and Searching for Motivation

Achieving great rankings

Achieving great rankings

My Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes promotion ended this morning and it couldn’t have gone better. I had around 2,500 downloads and reached some great numbers in terms of ranking:

#8 in the Romance category on Amazon.com

#10 in Contemporary Women’s Fiction on Amazon.com

#39 on overall free downloads for Amazon.co.uk

#15 in Contemporary Romance on Amazon.co.uk

Now I know these numbers don’t mean a great deal. The majority of people who downloaded the book won’t read it, even fewer will leave a review. However to get that many downloads in two days, when the book only has one review in the US and none anywhere else (and virtually no promotion other than a few tweets and status updates) gives a little ray of hope that at least my blurb and front cover are okay (Though hubbie tells me the title makes people think the book is depressing.)

I see free promotions as more of a banner advert, getting my name in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise discover me and my writing, than a way to get new readers. I know myself that I download dozens of books I’ll never read. Time will tell whether it works as a strategy, but if nothing else it’s a nice feeling to see yourself on the first page of the bestsellers! 🙂

Making it on the first page!

Making it on the first page!

It also makes me see the benefit in loading a book up for preorders via Smashwords. If I could sell enough copies in the weeks prior to release, then that splurge of sales on day one of release would do wonders for initial rankings. Of course, I have to finish my next book for that to happen and, boy oh boy, am I struggling. I’m still tired and scattered from the medication, and I just can’t seem to pin myself down to the hard graft of revisions. I know if I’m not careful weeks will turn into months and, like the box of kids’ things waiting for me to sell on ebay, it will become an insurmountable task to get back to work.

I wanted to get my first draft to the editor by Easter, so I could take the two weeks off to clear my mind, ready to work on the revisions when they came back, and give the children my attention during the school holidays. Ho hum, that gives me five weeks to add thirty thousand words and fill all the plot holes AND get it to Beta Readers. Hmmm some mountains are too high. I think it might be that which is freezing my mind. Needing to work around the school holidays is adding a new dynamic to my already-fragile motivation! Oh well, every mountain is climbed one step at a time. I just need to write ten words today and it will be twenty tomorrow.

But first I might walk the dog!

Advice For Writing and Life

This is what I want to do today

This is what I want to do today

Okay, I finally admit it. I’m ill. I went to bed at 8pm last night and slept until hubbie came to bed at midnight. Then I popped a pill to make sure I’d get back to sleep. And didn’t. There’s nothing worse than your body being asleep when your mind is wide awake and all around you the house is coughing like every occupant smokes 40 a day. (We don’t. We’re all ill.)

I would have written a post then, but I was drugged so could only lie awake and worry about life and fume that I’d had a fourth failed delivery from the crap company I had the utter misfortune to choose to deliver my daughter’s new bed.

So this morning I’m taking time to be ill. After the school run I’m heading back to bed. So I am utilising the blog network for today’s post. Here are five great articles to help with writing and life:

1. 10 Foundational Writing Practices – Charlotte Rains Dixon: the importance of getting the basics right. My favourite three are Move your Body; Calm your Mind; Stay Positive

2. The Simple Joy of Slogging Through to the End – Speak Happiness: an old post on the satisfaction of finishing a difficult task. I’m hoping I’ll feel like that when (if) my daughter’s bed finally arrives and I’ve managed not to break anything or anyone in my anger at the company’s sheer incompetence.

3. “Days are Lost Lamenting over Lost Days” – another from Speak Happiness: this explores a quote attributed to Goethe. A very interesting read. The full quote is:

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

4. Why Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle is a Bit Like Writing A Book – Debbie Young: looking at the ways assembling a jigsaw puzzle is like writing a book. As I’m in the difficult stage of redrafting Class Act, trying to make sure all the pieces fit together and the whole picture looks right, this struck a chord. Especially these points:

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

5. In Defense of Pantsing – Jami Gold: because Pantsers can write novels too, as long as we remember to apply structure and story beats during redrafting. Enough said!

Right. Back to bed.

A Curious Novel

My latest read

My latest read

I finished reading The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon last night and I really want to capture my thoughts on this interesting novel. I began reading it with no expectations. I’d heard of it, that’s all, when I saw it in the library. I had no notion of what it was about, or the author, or anything (including the fact that the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes quotation.) I merely selected it as part of my aim, this year, to read more and select a wider range of books.

I’m glad I did. It is a strange novel, about a fifteen-year-old boy with Aspergers Syndrome. I feel privileged to have read it. Yes, that’s my overwhelming impression. It wasn’t a rip-roaring read, a heart-warming romance, or an unputdownable thriller, but still it dragged me through to the end with little effort (which is a big ask of a book these days because I’m very quick to give up on something that doesn’t keep me awake!)

It is funny, quirky and endearing, but mostly it’s a clever book. Written in the first person, from inside the mind of an autistic teenager, it presents the world in a new way. It also gave me a new respect and understanding for autistic children and their parents. But not in a way that demanded sympathy or forced ideas on me.

Instead, through an evolving set of anecdotes and an unravelling mystery story, it revealed immense detail about the character, his family, his life and his interpretation of the world. Some of the apparently peripheral discussions, for example about God, or time, or the universe, were both enlightening and profound.

As a writer, the book is a master class in RUE (resist the urge to explain). The reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that the main character often isn’t able to. And, despite it being written in the first person, an entire world is unveiled surrounding the main character. I can’t begin to explain how so much was revealed with so little being said (certainly not without giving away spoliers.)

I think the enjoyment came from this, though. The reason the novel kept me awake was because I was actively involved in constructing the text, fleshing out the story, connecting the dots. The same was true of The Raven Boys, now I come to think about it. I’m starting to think of it as the art of secrets. Not glaringly obvious secrets, of the kind I might clumsily put in a novel – like Josh’s big secret in Two-Hundred Steps Home, or why Claire broke up with Michael. But more a subtle revelation of the bigger picture, like panning out in a movie and seeing the full context.

It is a goal I intend to aim for in my own novels, although I know I’ve got years of practice ahead of me before I get there. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, but something that has to be learned through hard effort. I suspect it will also require me to become more a planner than a pantser. My natural writing style is to reveal everything as soon as it occurs to me (I’d make a rotten poker player). Instead I need to play it more like chess. Think fifteen moves ahead, prepared to change my plans if necessary, but keeping the moves secret for the reader to discover at the best moment.

I feel like my daughter; only just learning to read but wanting to be able to read adult books. I’m only just learning to write and I want to be able to write like that. Now! Now! Now! *Pouts*. Time to read a few craft books, consume a stack of fantastic novels, dip into a load more blogs and, more importantly, practice, practice, practice. I can feel (another) rewrite of Class Act coming. Bring it on.

Research and The Raven Boys

What Alex's London flat might look like

What Alex’s London flat might look like

I miss Claire. There, I’ve said it. I miss writing an installment of her journey each day, with a reasonable idea of where she was in the world, at least, and where her story was going. I miss guaranteed word count.

I’m in redrafting hell at present, trying to rescue two characters I love from a badly plotted and planned novel awash with backstory. The problem with loading a first draft with backstory is that changing one thing has a rippling effect across the entire manuscript, especially if you’re trying to rewrite two lines of throwaway history into a whole chapter or even two.

My lead man Alex has a friend called Philip who is essential to the story. Starting In Media Res I didn’t have to worry too much about their relationship before; where they first met, how they met, considering they’re so different. Now, though, we first see them catching up down the pub, setting up the rest of the story’s action, and I have to understand all these things. How do people from different backgrounds meet? How do their different careers and incomes affect their friendship? What’s the age difference? I managed 700 words of stilted dialogue today and gave up in disgust.

I’m also trying not to be overly influenced by the book I’m reading – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – as her novel contains a character that could be, or at least have known, Alex as a public school boy. Maggie Stiefvater’s character is so convincing I’m finding parts of him creeping into my prose: except Raven Boys is set in America, whereas Alex would have gone to an English boarding school (which I know very little about, another fact that wasn’t especially important before.)

As each of these random strands of research crop up, I keep losing the flow of writing because I need to research the role of a stage hand or investigate pubs in North London or apartments in Chelsea. I might even have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea – *shudder* – to try and understand Alex’s present girlfriend Paige more, as again she has moved from a paragraph of explanation to a speaking part.

I swear this is the last time I rescue an old manuscript by moving the timeline back a few months. Next time it starts where it starts and that’s that!

A Pantser Plans

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

The unthinkable happened today. I did planning. With beat sheets and notecards and everything. I’m a Pantser to the core: analysing a scene down to the tiny details paralyses me. Especially if I do it before I write, as I have done for the extra third of a novel I’m putting at the front of Class Act. But actually, do you know what, it wasn’t so bad.

I’m still working on some of the terminology, for example pinch points and black moments, although instinctively I have a shrewd idea what they are. I have done it before, actually, for all my seat-of-the-pants writing preference, and I’m always relieved at how much of the necessary detail I already have. Sometimes it just needs writing down to reassure myself I do know something (although a VERY VERY long way from everything) about this novel writing lark.

I had gathered much of the required information during my last craft session (the sporadic times when I read through a load of blogs and books to refresh or learn elements of writing craft.). My favourite resource is Jami Gold: as a Pantser and a romance writer, I feel she understands my pain. In fact her Beat Sheet for Romance Writers formed a large part of my morning’s work. She explains that if, like me, you can’t pkan in detail for fear of frightening off the Muse, you can use beats – points in the story – to make sure things are developing as they should.

I also used her posts based on a Michael Hauge workshop she attended to put more thought into my characters’ development, flaws and ultimate romance. The key ones I used were Are These Characters the Perfect Match and An Antidote to “Love at First Sight”. Both of these look at two elements of characterisation – a character’s Mask (the role they play, based on their longings, fears, wounds and beliefs: their emotional armour) and a character’s Essence (who they are inside, behind the masks, or who they have the potential to be). In a good romance, attraction will be based on Essence rather than Mask.

Planning Elements of a Scene

Planning Elements of a Scene

So, in Baby Blues, Helen was attracted to Daniel because his businessman forceful character Mask played to her career orientated Mask. But Marcio was her right love interest, because they both had the same essence underneath: a love of creativity and interpreting the world through their art, and a desire for home and family.

The concept really helps when a character moves from one relationship to another (as mine often do.) You don’t want the protagonist to look like an idiot because the previous relationship was flawed, and also you don’t want the previous partner to be a stereotype or a villain (although Daniel, in Baby Blues, is a bit of both!)

The other thing I’ve been trying to use is an Elements of a Good Scene checklist, which I also found on Jami’s Blog, the idea for which came from Janice Hardy’s blog. I feel exposed, using something like this, as I feel I don’t know the difference between “Plot point” and “action to advance the plot” or “how the stakes are raised” versus “reinforcement of the stakes”. I suspect that might be why I find it hard to write tense page turners! In my head, though, I’ve summarised it as “plot development”, “character development”, “conflict” and “backstory/theme/tone/foreshadowing”. As long as the scene has some of those that’s good. Well, it’s a start!

Of course, I was right – at the beginning when I said planning paralyses me. I need to start writing, before I spend so long on planning I’m fed up with the story or too scared to start. But it was a useful day’s work and hopefully, when I sit at my desk on Monday, I’ll be able to write some of the additional 45,000 words the story needs to get to a full length novel!

Anyway, hopefully now I have a plan this will be the last of the ‘I’ve forgotten how to do manuscript revision’ posts and I’ll get on to writing something more interesting for the non-writers who follow my blog! Thank you for your patience.

Stuck in a Writing Cul-de-sac: 2013 365 Challenge #287

I've lost my way..

I’ve lost my way..

Argghh! I’ve written myself into a cul-de-sac with Two-Hundred Steps Home and I can’t think of a way out. It seemed such a great idea to have Kim travel with Claire around Cornwall. It’s easier to write dialogue and keep scenes moving when Claire isn’t by herself. But, having experienced depression myself, I know for certain it doesn’t make for happy times for those around me.

I’m not sure how many more posts I can write with Claire and Kim both feeling rotten. But, if I were to suddenly have them carefree friends again, that wouldn’t be authentic.

I can’t send Kim home to Jeff because the new Claire wouldn’t do that. I’m also a little tired of researching a new town every day and having Claire visit it. I need a better story line than that; one that allows Claire to continue to develop as a person. She’s come a long way from the shallow, materialistic person she was back in volume one. But she still needs to find her dream and make a sacrifice to pursue it. I just don’t know what that is yet.

This is the first time I’ve really, truly been stuck with the daily novel. I don’t tend to write myself into cul-de-sacs in my first drafts, as I spend time (usually while walking the dog!) thinking things through to make sure they make sense. While I do move chapters around and develop themes further in second drafts, I don’t change the overall story that much.

The scene outside my house!

The scene outside my house!

Unfortunately, having now reached 218,000 words, Two-Hundred Steps Home has gone long beyond my usual story line format. And, wham, I find myself at my first dead end. If it was possible, as part of the challenge I’ve set myself, I’d go back a few episodes and either leave Kim behind or maybe not have her attempt suicide. But it’s happened now, and Kim, Claire and I all have to get on with it. As Claire said yesterday, one foot forward.

Update: I’ve had a great chat with hubbie about the rest of Two-Hundred Steps Home and I have a plan! Sometimes it’s great to bounce ideas off other people and get a fresh perspective. It was strange, as hubbie kept trying to come up with endings for Claire that weren’t true to her character or her journey and it made me realise I know her better as a character than I thought I did. But it does demonstrate that, no matter how isolated you can become as a writer, two heads are always better than one. I hope you like my three-point-turn out of the cul-de-sac!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Hi, Jeff, it’s Claire.” She looked over at the sleeping form on the bed behind her, and lowered her voice. “Is it okay to talk?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I’m worried about Kim. I don’t think she was ready for this trip.” Claire hesitated, then rushed on. “Or me, for that matter. I’m not exactly a bundle of joy these days, and I think we’re bringing each other down. I don’t know what to do”

She heard Jeff suck air in through his teeth. “What do you want me to do? I’m back at work this week. I don’t think the boss will appreciate me taking any more time off.”

The curtness of Jeff’s tone surprised Claire. She’d always envied Kim for finding a man both handsome and understanding.

“What about her parents; could she stay back home for a while?”

Jeff’ let out a bark of derision. “She’d relapse for sure if she stayed with her mum for more than five minutes in her current state. Even at the hospital her constant fussing got on Kim’s nerves. You know what she’s like.”

Claire frowned, trying to match Jeff’s words with what she knew of Kim’s mother. When they were growing up, she’d always wanted a mother like Kim’s. Her own mother had shown little concern for anything Claire did, provided it had no impact on her, while Kim’s mum had watched over Kim’s every move. Was it fussing, or was it just being a caring mother?

“I don’t know, Jeff. I think Kim probably needs someone to fuss over her. Make sure she’s taking her tablets and eating, that kind of thing. Someone who won’t fall out with her if she fights back or mopes.” She thought guiltily about her outburst earlier in the day. She couldn’t imagine Kim’s mother saying anything so harsh.

Jeff’s sigh echoed down the phone. “Why are you ringing me then? Take her to her mother’s, if she’ll go.”

Claire wanted to ask Jeff what his problem was. He was a different man from the one she’d spoken to at the hospital.

Maybe he’s just had a bad day at work. This has all got to be pretty tough on him, too. A few months ago they were a normal carefree couple. Now they’re married and his wife is suffering from depression.

Forcing a lightness into her voice that she didn’t feel, Claire said, “Sorry, Jeff. I should have thought of calling her mother first. I’ll send you a text to let you know what we decide.”

As she hung up the phone, Claire hoped Jeff wasn’t having second thoughts about his new wife.

*

“I don’t want to go to my mother’s. She’ll fuss around me every five minutes. You should have seen her at the hospital.” Kim pouted.

“Yes, that’s what Jeff said, but– ”

“You called Jeff?” Kim’s face grew darker.

“I wanted to pick his brains, that’s all.”

“I don’t want you all talking about me behind my back, like I’m a child.”

Claire took a deep breath. “We’re just worried about you, darling, that’s all. I don’t think a road trip is the right thing for you at the moment. It’s tough, moving on every day. Lord knows I’m sick of it, and it’s my job.”

“Doesn’t seem like a hard job to me.” Kim folded her arms and glared at Claire.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Claire went to sit on the bed next to Kim. “You’ve only done one day, and we’re in a B&B. Some of the hostels aren’t particularly soothing places to be, especially if you’re sharing a room with some noisy blokes or chattering girls. You’re mum’s place is lovely and peaceful and I’m sure if you ask her to give you some space, she will.”

Kim stared at the floral pattern on the carpet and Claire forced herself to be silent. After a long pause, Kim sighed. “I guess you’re right. At least Mum won’t try to get rid of me.”

“I’m not trying to get rid of you, silly! I just want you to get better so we can go have some fun.” She held her breath, worried Kim would resent the idea that she needed to get better.

Eventually Kim unfolded her arms and put one around Claire’s waist. “Me, too.” She laid her head against Claire’s shoulder. “Promise me we’ll go on a girly holiday, somewhere hot, just you and me? When I’m better.”

Claire smiled for the first time that day, and returned her friend’s embrace.

“You’re on.”

***