Writing a novel: False Starts and Second Chances

To be or Not to Be?

Positive, I mean…..

My little old book is almost ready to be frisbeed out into the world of literary agents again.

So when you’re submitting, what sort of mental attitude should you have?

I’m writing a feature on the forthcoming Rio Olympics at the moment, and researching past and possible medallists. I could take the Usain Bolt stance. I’m going to win, no doubt. Or I could be more of an Adam Peaty. ‘It’s not yours until it’s physically around your neck.’ (Hmm, that probably works better with medals than books, although……..)

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Away from the sporting arena, I could go Victor Meldrew. Yesterday, a photographer pal of mine told me: ‘This may sound a bit negative, but I think you should expect the worst.’

Say, what?!

(Note to reader – he hasn’t read the book). ‘Erm, I just mean you should think negatively and then you won’t expect anything.’

Maybe I should adopt this approach.

But just now an email popped into my inbox.

‘I’ve finished reading your book and I have to say it’s looking absolutely brilliant.’ That’s my editor, Sara Sarre.

So, I’m about to walk up to the starting blocks yet again. Prayer position, and breathe….. and back to that feature…..

(Header image unsplash.com patricktomasso.com)

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

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Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on…

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How NOT to write a synopsis

Writing a synopsis is variously described as ‘synopsis hell’ and ‘the most difficult 500 words you’ll ever write’ – in my case, the most difficult 800.

I’ve just written a new synopsis for my first novel, so thought I’d share my pain, ahem, I mean pointers.

Is a synopsis going to land you an literary agent?

Most submissions require a covering letter, the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. An agent will read your covering letter, take a look at the first few pages of your novel and if they like what they see, they’ll want to know where the story is going; does it have enough meat on it; will it sell? Move over chapters; make way for the synopsis.

What is a synopsis?

It’s not the blurb on the back of the book; it’s the nuts and bolts of your story. What happens; what’s at stake and how does the jeopardy rise? Is the ending a satisfying one?

Here are some other essential ingredients:

  • Hit the highlights – the bones of the story – beginning, middle and end.
  • Make sure the plot has a true arc – are the conflicts of the main characters clear, and the resolutions to those conflicts?
  • Mention the genre of your book – commercial, YA, book group fiction etc.
  • Include setting – what country, what year?
  • Highlight the main characters. Put their names in capital letters or embolden them when you first introduce them.
  • Include the unique selling point of your book.
  • Make the synopsis 500 to 800 words, and when you get an agent who wants a synopsis of 300 words instead, put your head into your hands and blub loudly. Then dab yourself down. You can do this! Chop, chop – take out another subplot or two and get rid of superfluous spiel.
  • Spoilers – Do include the final plot twist.

What shouldn’t you include?

  • A detailed account of the characters’ personalities. A quick character sketch is enough. Disillusioned science teacher Walter White. The unmarried Frances with an interesting past etc.
  • A blow-by-blow account of every single subplot. Be lean; you don’t have the space for this.

Finally, let other people read your synopsis because if Great Aunt Iris can’t make sense of it, you can bet your life a literary agent will chuck it into the bin faster than you can say Trash.

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

A Writer’s Day on a Plate

NOT SO EASY EATS

TOAST

Stick the bread in the toaster. It’ll take at least a minute, so you might as well use the time wisely, right? Smash the keys and peer at the screen. And then smell the stench of burn. But what’s a charred piece of Kingsmill when you’ve cracked another line? Frisbee the blackened square into the bin and pop another slice in.

Now, you’ve figured out the timing, it’ll be browned to perfection. Carry on typing. The fire alarm goes off next, so you fan that new notebook under it, and figure it’s best to concentrate on one thing at a time.

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SNACKS

The end of a paragraph? You’ve hit 500 words? Any excuse to celebrate – cut a slice of cake, butter that muffin. You deserve it right?

And might as well kill two birds with one stone. Scoff it in front of your keyboard and type. Only thing is the space bar’s now jammed with crumbs, so tip your laptop upside down and give it a good old shake. Nope, it’s still not working. Time to bring out the big guns. You wet a J-cloth and give the entire keypad a once over. The screen’s flashing, the mouse is dashing around like a frenzied fly.

Call it quits for the day and visit your nearest Apple store.

QUICK AS YOU LIKE DINNER

What a palaver dinner is. The most time-consuming meal of them all.  You take everything out on the food, cutting those carrots like you hate them. Flinging the rice into the pan to bring to the boil. And as for any protein…..oh, just stick it under the grill. All this preparation means you’re going to have to leave your computer alone. Except you don’t.

You end up with the rice grouted to the pan and the carrots boiled to buggery. Looks like you’ll have to make do with toast only there isn’t any bread left since you burnt it all.

There’s always the freezer. So that’s where that garlic naan that you froze in 2009 went to.

Still if your cupboard is bare, it gives you more time for writing.

New Novel Resolutions: Things I’ll never do again

What did I learn about writing a novel last year? Well, quite a few things actually. How to have a normal conversation after writing for eight hours with no human contact whatsoever. A whole heap of responses to rejection letters that didn’t involve screaming expletives. (Deeper frown line accrued.)

But here are the three biggies, things I’m going to try hard not to repeat. I’d already been told these were no-nos, it’s just I chose to ignore the advice. Well not any more.

I’m turning myself into an advice sponge. I’m going to lap it up like a ladyfinger.

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1 Burn the Patois

God, I love Trainspotting. Brought up on a diet of Ayes and Help my Bobs, via The Broons and Oor Wullie, I throw in the old colloquials whenever I can. Well, that’s alright in dialogue, but the whole narrative? An editor from a major publishing company who gave me some fantastic advice a fortnight ago expressed a preference for bog standard English. Okay, so I know some writers do experimental narrative well, but it’s not working for my book. ‘The patois creates a distance between the character and reader,’ one literary agent told me. So adios, patois. Laters. Kapitche.

2. Make sure your characters have an arc

My characters are distinct – that’s one thing that all the agents who’ve read my book have agreed on. It’s just one of my characters has no internal arc. In my head, she was a put-upon angry young thing who’d eventually transform into a formidable business woman. On my computer screen, however, this character was as flat as a chapati with breeze blocks piled on top. Your characters need to change. They need a turning point in which they start to act differently. List the changes. Write them down, pin them to your wall. Your characters need to grow.

3. Start in the right place

My central character, the one that has the sharpest edges and spikiest tongue, her story doesn’t really get going until page 70. Cue major edit. Your character’s story needs to start on page one. There has to be an inciting incident to tip your reader into the narrative. It needs to be powerful enough to keep your reader turning the pages. Magnetize them. Draw them in. To do this, create conflict straightaway, things that are at stake.

So this is it. I’m going in. Here comes my first edit of 2016. And this time my novel’s going to be patois-free, bursting with provocative beginnings. No flatlining allowed.