I've been writing. Writing (almost) every day. Writing quietly. Ordinarily, I like to have a lot of time being quiet. Like to wrap myself in it like a duvet. But lately, I've had to: life has been noisy, consuming, worrying. Exhausting. So, when I can, I've retreated into my world with my characters and their familiar problems. Their world is often noisy and dramatic. But their conflicts are under my control. And I can always get a character to tell them all to 'shush'!
In this quiet way, I wrote a whole novel (at the moment, called The Sister of the Boy Who) and had Imogen Cooper and Abi Kohlhoff at the Golden Egg Academy read it. They had plenty to say, most of it good, with Imogen's parting comment being a worry, that the story was a 'little too quiet.' I didn't miss the irony. Stakes raised after serious editing, I sent it off to my agent, Kate Shaw. The Young Adult market is tough, she tells me. She's not sure how well my take on modern day realism will fair right now. At least she didn't mention how 'quiet' it is.
Perhaps once her caution would have worried me or dragged me down. Once I'd have asked myself: Then why am I writing? Who are these stories for if they never get published? But now I send the story off into the world, still with hope (there's always hope) but without the same expectation I might have had a few years ago. It's enough, you see, to just write. To love it. To be in my world of words and be quiet within it.
With The Sister of the Boy Who now temporarily out of my hands, I've begun another, one that's been brewing for a while - working title Outside In. I need to be writing, need to be creating, need to be quiet. It's a gift to myself. It's enough.
Being part of the Golden Egg Academy is so great because you get to hear from other writers all the things you've been fretting over. It makes the whole writing process less lonely and stops you throwing the manuscript into a drawer to never be looked at again.
Writing is hard. Getting that first nugget of an idea on to paper is exciting then quickly exhausting. If you're a writer, the process becomes obsessive. You think about scenes whilst cooking tea, you stop mid-walk with the triumph of a fresh solution to a writing dilemma. You basically start living your story. And then that glorious day arrives when you have that story down, the whole thing, and you think, with a sigh of self-congratulations and relief, that you've done it.
Ah. But then you re-read it, or you ask some encouraging friend or relative to read it, and then comes the blast of truth: what you've written is a mess. My first draft was overloaded with adjectives and adverbs. What do you mean I shouldn't use words ending in -ly? It was also full of plot lulls and holes. And the whole thing was written in third person when first would be much better.
So, I began systematically rewriting. I took out a few darlings (though not many) and worked and reworked scenes, changing characters as I went, adding in new ones. As with my paintings, I'm not terribly precious about my writing. I can be quite cavalier. I horrify my family with how easily I can tear apart a seemingly finished painting because it's not quite right. I take the same approach with my writing, tearing out parts that haven't worked and not worrying too much, trusting my instinct.
Rewrites done. And again, that wonderful sense that I've finished.
Ah. But, another read through, some more trusted opinion and no, of course it isn't finished. More rewrites. So having spent countless hours rewriting the first draft, you're doing it again, cutting out the sections you'd not long ago added in, taking out a character you'd though would add a fresh dimension but hasn't. So what was the point of those first lot of rewrites when all you're doing now is rewriting again? Were all of those hours a waste of valuable writing time? Short answer, no.
When we rewrite the rewrite, we're doing the same thing but this time (and this is important to remember when you're pressing delete on swathes of polished, unworkable writing) you're GROWING your writing.
When we rewrite, we are polishing, honing the story, clarifying scenes, perfecting dialogue, editing out plot holes. When we rewrite the rewrite, we're doing the same thing but this time (and this is important to remember when you're pressing delete on swathes of polished, unworkable writing) you're GROWING your writing.
Imagine the first draft as the shoot from the seed of an idea. Second draft, leaves unfurl, third draft, some hard pruning but the shoot grows thicker, stronger, taller. Fourth, fifth, hundredth draft (the number of drafts all depends on how you work - it's not a reflection on how 'good' you are as a writer) your story is a confident, resilient tree.
You simply can't grow a tree from a seed in one draft - however much we'd like to hope we can. Rewrites are the rings inside the trunk of the tree. They become invisible to the reader of your final draft, but they're in there, in your writing, making it strong.
Lots of successful writers tell new writers to be fearless. I think that's especially true when rewriting. Never keep something just because you've spent hours writing and polishing it if it's not working or is no longer relevant to the story. Never mind that you're deleting hours of painstaking work. You've not wasted your time. You've spent those hours creating, nurturing, growing, the final draft. The final, euphoric, ah.
Fresh from a meeting with editor Imogen Cooper from The Golden Egg Academy, and hot on the heels of the tip Tony Bradman gave on Twitter # GEAQA, I thought writing a blog about plot might help get my own thoughts into order and be helpful to other writers struggling with plot. So here it is...
To be honest, I didn't know I had a problem with plot. I've rewritten and edited my story so may times, I thought the plot was as tight as could be expected in a story that is about emotion and strongly character driven. Plot needs careful attention in adventure stories, stories about good versus evil, surely not so essential and 'in-your-face' in more literary fiction. But a clear plot is essential in all stories. A goal your protagonist is striving toward needs to be explicit not implicit. And this was my oversight. I've written my story like a watercolour painting, thin, subtle layers of plot, the goal not really obvious until several layers (chapters) have established. Possibly this may work for adult fiction, where an adult reader may not mind the not-knowing where the story is heading because they'll stick with it. For Young Adults and teens, though, it's important they get a handle on where the story is going, or they can speculate on where the story may be going. Early in the story (by the end of the first chapter) the goal of the main character needs to be clearly established for the reader to understand what the protagonist is up against - even if that goal isn't precisely the end-goal of the whole story.
The first chapter, unlike my current one with its two or three thin layers of plot foreshadowing, needs to be a block of grounding, like an oil painting. The grounding of an oil painting is the colour that influences and comes through the whole of the painting. The grounding of plot in writing needs to be obvious, direct - dramatic.
Drama is a key ingredient. Without regular conflict, the story can stagnate. Each scene doesn't need drama (regular lulls of reflection time are as important) but every scene must move the plot on in same way. It may be a conversation that pushes it on, or a dramatic confrontation between two characters.
Thinking of plot in terms of tension and drama, especially in a character-led story, is really helpful to me. Where I've washed an emotion I need to more clearly define it. Each incident, like each patch of colour, needs to let the reader anticipate the next before leading them on to the next incident, the next patch of colour.
So, yes, more rewriting...
Most of the settings are vivid in my head but to help really clarify them, I googled images and collated them to make it easier to write - because although it's good leaving some things to the readers' imagination, not everything should be. Having studied graphic design as part of my degree, I found I couldn't just leave the images in separate files on my laptop and so I began creating a mood board. A mood board is something designers use when creating a product, advertising campaign or an interior and can include anything you feel is relevant: a key characteristic, a colour, a location, a fabric. I found when making mine, it allowed me to concisely summarise characters and places, like visual bullet points. As a whole, it basically conveys my novel as a picture.
It has been so much fun and I really recommend it. I shall print mine off and hang it somewhere in the house. And, with my second novel tentatively taking shape, I shall do the same thing again - only much sooner in the writing process!
So last night I went to bed with my head buzzing like a beehive - or maybe that should be honking like a geese coop Why? I attended my first workshop with the Golden Egg Academy - www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk - a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals who provide (in their words): 'traditional structural editing, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children.'
After meeting Imogen Cooper (previously Head of Fiction for Chicken House Publishing) at a Bath Writing Event, I sent my novel to Golden Egg hoping they would take me on - which amazingly they did! Apparently only 1 in 4 writers are accepted so that's a big confidence boost.
I went to the 'Book Mapping Introduction' workshop without much idea on what to expect. I hoped I'd gain some idea on how to better see the flaws in my novel and to get feedback from industry professionals. What I got was vastly more. Imogen's idea for the book map seems on the surface quite simple: a kind of spreadsheet that allows you the writer and she the editor to track not only the continuity and plot of the novel but also dramatic incidents, the reveals, the character's motivations. It will take me a while to complete, I think, but well worth the time. I hope to choose Imogen as the editor I'll work with at Golden Egg as she is clearly very good at her job but, more importantly for me, she is a really lovely, caring person.
Also, Imogen and Dr Vanessa Harbour (Doctor of creative writing at the University of Winchester, editor of the ejournal Write4Children, and YA author - also an outstanding tea-lady!!) explained the process of being part of the nest of the Golden Egg Academy - and it is fantastic! Supportive and instructive, the editors of Golden Egg are already within a network of agents and publishing houses and want to get good stories out there. I'm so excited and grateful to be part of the academy and among other good writers in a similar position.
Now to get to grips with the book map...
Having had a couple of days to digest the pitch workshop I went to, organised by the lovely Jude and Alex - www.writingeventsbath.co.uk - and given by Imogen Cooper, senior editor of Chicken House publishers - www.doublecluck.com - I want to summarise the main points Imogen identified with our pitches.
Firstly, get the title right
The title of your book is the first thing any potential agent / editor / reader sees. Really think about the title, the way it sounds when you say it aloud, the way it looks on paper. It needs to really express something about your manuscript, be it lyrical, or hard-edged, or funny. Think of titles you love and why they work so well. One of my favourite book titles is The Remains of the Day which encapsulates Kazuo Ishiguro's tale of a tightly repressed butler and his selfless dedication to his profession so profoundly.
Secondly, what is a pitch exactly?
The pitch is a brief description of your manuscript that should entice the agent / editor / reader with its unique and best qualities as well as your own - all in just a few paragraphs! It's worth spending as much time working on it as you can as it is what sells your book - before you're published and after. Read the blurbs on the back of books and on Amazon as this is what you're aiming for. Imogen showed us printed blurbs, like advertisements, that are shown to bookshops as a marketing tool. These pitches, if good enough, are used far down the line in publishing.
Thirdly, the spine, key moments and unique selling points
A good strategy is to think of the pitch as a film trailer. What are the key moments? What is the central theme, or as Imogen describes it, the spine of the story? In your manuscript, everything should relate back to the spine so it should be very clear in your pitch. As the writer, it's often very difficult to identify the key moments in your manuscript - it's all important! It's worth trying to explain to a friend your novel. What pricks their interest, what's unclear? If something in your novel is unusual, or your central character is in a unique predicament, that's often a good place to start. What is the main conflict or the main goal in your manuscript?
Fourthly, what is its genre and what is it comparable to?
It's useful to compare your novel to other books or authors, such as: It's a cross between Jane Eyre and Twilight with a dash of Hansel and Gretel. Something intriguing as well as informative. This allows an agent / editor to immediately understand where it might fit on a book shelf. Understand genre and what genre your novel is in. Also, if it's targeting Adults, New Adults (18 - 30), Young Adult (13-18), Children.
Practice giving your pitch, off the cuff or reading aloud. And remember to breath - which is something I forgot to do when I gave my pitch to Imogen!