Step Away From Your First Chapter

A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my third novel. It was a rough old thing, scribbled with question marks, tenses kept switching and there was an occasional foray into first person even though I’m writing in third. My first chapter, though, was pristine. I had spent many hours gazing at it, tucking in its saggy bits, titivating it until it was so tight, it could hardly move.

It had taken me a long time to complete this first draft – not just because of the day job, but because every time I opened the draft, I’d re-read that first chapter and edit it some more. I was all but whispering ‘my precious,’ at it. Certainly I had begun to view it through a vaseline lens. ‘God, this is good,’ I thought. And then I’d get to tidying it some more.

Of course, a first chapter is important. It’s your chance to hook your reader into your story, so it should contain some suggestion of the action that’s about to unfold in your novel; perhaps it’ll show some central dilemma. My first chapter did just that.

The problem was I’d become stranded there. Instead of moving on and finishing the first draft by which time I would have come to know my characters and the way they speak, I wasted time re-reading my first chapter and marvelling over its supposed perfection. What a deluded procrastinator I was.

When I was about 10,000 words into this first draft, I gave it to a couple of people to read and they both agreed it was ‘overwritten’. I wasn’t letting loose enough; it was a bit staid.

That’s because I had no idea who the character was; I had not found the character’s true voice. Despite drama and a few clever sentences, the pages were pretty much empty.

As soon as I finished my first draft, I started to write my second draft, and the first thing to be booted out was that first chapter. I retained some of the essence of it, but there was a new voice, new thoughts – it now feels much freer and more authentic. 

So step away from that first chapter. Don’t waste time editing it to within an inch of its life. And a warning: the addiction clearly runs deep because even though I’m well into my second draft, the pull to keep re-reading that first chapter remains strong.

 

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

How To Deal With An Author Publishing A Novel Similar to Yours

There I was beavering away on book three when I discovered that a well-known author might be about to publish a novel with the same central concept as mine. I had logged onto the early reviews and a reader had mentioned the words, ‘a mother with a secret.’ Oh, Christ, I thought, and so began my two-day long endurance until the book came out.

I bought it and read in a frenzy that ripped the pages and wrecked the spine. Huh – take that, stupid book! Reader, it was all I could do not to stamp on the thing, because what stared up at me was virtually the same book as mine. It even had an almost identical opening scene.

It felt as if there was a brick in my stomach. I was 50,000 words into my first draft, for goodness sake. It was possibly one of the worst first drafts I’d ever written, but still. . .

I’ve got the last three chapters of the published-by-another-author book to go, but in truth I can’t bear to read anymore.

Are there any truly original ideas anymore anyway? Isn’t everything just a pastiche of what’s gone before? I continued on this spiral of unanswerable questions that might have been snatched from my three pretentious years as an English Literature undergraduate. And then, I rallied.

It wasn’t as if I was writing a psychological thriller like this author had, after all. And my second half was truly different. Mine was funny in places, well, ahem – it would be eventually.

My writer friends helped persuade me that all would be okay. ‘You’re writing up-lit though,’ one said.

I plonked myself in front of the computer, determined to carry on. But all that fretting had provided a pause, and into it had fallen a chunky great question mark. Did I actually like this idea anymore? Did I really want to go on with it? I started doing some research – daring myself to come up with a new idea. I wasn’t sure I could. I read news pieces, features, true life stories. There was something brewing, I just didn’t know what yet.

A day later, I was in the middle of hoovering the stairs when an idea landed, and then another. Dots started to join in my head.

I wrote an outline and when I compared it to the already-done idea, I decided I liked my new one better.

Perhaps I’ll go back to my old idea one day (I especially liked my peripheral characters – sigh), but for now I’m moving on. I may not have 50,000 words anymore, but what I do have is a scruffy outline, a new story that I keep daydreaming about, oh and 1,600 words so far. I’m going to see where this new story takes me and hope very hard that nobody else gets there before I do, but you know what, even if they do, all will be well.

Click here for a survival guide to discovering your story idea has already been done. It helped me.

 

Holding Image by Ross Findon on Unsplash

5 Types Of Rejection Letters And What You Can Learn From Them

On submission? Then you’re either roller coasting upwards, or plummeting down; maybe though you’ve only just begun.

It still hurts to look at my fat folder of rejection letters, formerly known as ‘The Folder of Doom’, but I can’t bring myself to delete any of them. They’re badges of honour, aren’t they? Look at this pile, and yet still I carried on and on and . . . 

Unwelcome though these missives were, they did contain some upsides though. Honest. Here’s what:

1. The Encouraging Rejection Letter

‘You write vividly, well.’ This was my first ever rejection letter dated 21 January 2013. It was for a novel called Out of The Cupboard – which was a pretentious precursor to The Maid’s Room. If an agent was bothering to be complimentary, then perhaps I was onto something, I thought. I chose to ignore every iota of advice that letter contained – ‘There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s taking too long to focus.’ I should have paused, thought deeply about what the agent was saying. Instead, I kept sending out the book regardless. Even if you don’t take all the advice an agent gives you, it’s probably worth taking note.

2. The Bog-Standard Rejection Letter

The standard letter where the agent’s assistant has typed your name over somebody else’s – ‘I’m going to pass’, ‘I didn’t fall in love’ – will have you tutting/swearing/crying into a cushion depending on how many times you’ve received such a response. Well, grind my ego under the sole of your sandal, why don’t you? Know this: there may well be a next time. Several of these bog-standard replies turned into requests for a full when I sent the agents a book that was more evolved than my first offering.

3. The Request for a Full (Followed by a No-Thanks) Letter

This will get your excited hands shaking over your keyboard, adding superfluous commas everywhere, and doing frenzied spell checks. It’s a moment to be celebrated because this could be the one. And if it isn’t, all is not lost. This is an opportunity to get feedback. Every agent that requested a full from me (bar one – see point 4) has given me invaluable feedback which helped me to improve my writing.

4. The Absent Rejection Letter

This is when the agent requests your full manuscript then doesn’t even bother replying. Ever. It’s happened to a couple of writers I know, and it’s happened to me as well. It’s incredibly disappointing, then relief descends. I lose my keys on a daily basis; I shove my post into a pile and riffle through it, papers flying, when I need to find something. So does someone as disorganised as me want an agent who doesn’t even reply to represent me? No, I do not.

5. The Rip your Novel Apart Rejection Letter

One agent requested my whole book then listed the things she loathed about it. Her email might have mentioned the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘talent’, but it also said my ‘story was too bleak’ and that one of my characters was ‘too wet’. It was my face that was wet after reading that. And after I mopped up my tears, I peppered the air with swear words. It was my lowest point, but it was also a turning point because it was then that I decided to set that novel aside. I took my central idea and wrote a new novel, the one that eventually landed me an agent and a publishing deal.

If a rejection letter happens to land in your inbox today, chances are you’re going to feel horrible. But you’re in this for the long haul, so use anything these letters tell you to make your writing stronger. Get angry and use that anger to power you on.

Why is Writing the First Draft of a Novel So Hard?

Gazing out of the window. Eating cheese. Star jumps. Looking at pictures of cute dogs. These are just some of the things I’ve been doing to avoid my first draft.

I’ve got high hopes for my third book. I want to create loveable, three-dimensional characters that are completely different to the ones that have appeared in my first two novels.

But so far it’s been like chiselling a channel through rock while wearing a pair of steamed-up glasses; it’s hard graft, slow-going and I can’t see all that far. I’ve armed myself with a plan because that works best for me, but who the hell is my main character? I know what she looks like and I’ve got a list of her traits, but how does she speak? How does she feel? What kind of deodorant does she wear, if, in fact, she wears any at all?

Just to remind myself I can do it (so can you), I looked back at the first draft of my second novel called The Swap which I’ve polished to a sheen and is now in the hands of my editor at Hodder. What a relief it was to see that the first draft was rough, clunky and uncertain.

One of the characters was having an affair with a male nurse, but by the final draft wasn’t. There was an entire subplot that I was chest-puffingly proud of until I realised it made no sense whatsoever. The tenses were jumbled, and it’s clear one of my main characters remained a stranger to me for quite some time. She started life as a Victoria, had a stint as a Kate, then transformed into a Tess, and a Tess she has stayed.

So I’m clinging to the hope, – no, let’s be bold, the belief! – that although the 7,000 words I’ve written so far are all in the wrong order, I will end up with something good. I’ve just got to let go and write, not stultify myself by thinking this has to be brilliant. First drafts are meant to be crap after all. So I’ll push on my steamed-up glasses again and keep writing through the labour pains. I’ll just have another quick look at Twitter first.

 

Holding pic by Hermes Rivera@hermez777 via Unsplash

Does Being a Journalist Make Writing a Book any Easier?

In this blog post, I ask journalists-turned-novelists what their steepest learning curves have been . . .

Sometimes people nod their heads knowingly when I tell them I’m a journalist. ‘See that’s why you’ve managed to get your book published, you were a writer already.’ But there’s a world of difference between writing magazine features or newspaper stories and writing a book with 300-plus pages. And the differences have become even more apparent since my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, was published in November.

I’ve been interviewed several times over the past three weeks and I’m trying to get used to being the one answering questions instead of asking them. Over the years, as a journalist, I interviewed quite a few people who didn’t have all that much to say for themselves – yes or no answers, without elaboration. All while my blank notebook stared up at me, along with the creeping fear that I wouldn’t have anything to fill my 1,000-word feature with. When I’ve been interviewed, I have to admit I’ve given some monosyllabic answers myself. ‘Why did you write that scene the way you did? ‘Er, I’m not sure.’ ‘And what about the juxtaposition of light and shade in chapter 7?’ ‘Erm . . .’ I’ve also fallen into the other extreme of filling the awkward spaces with seemingly never-ending gibberish.

Yep, I may be a journalist, but I’m definitely a newbie now I’m on the other side.

Here, best-selling authors and debut novelists share their thoughts on the differences between journalism and writing a book.

 

 

Fiona Cummins– Author of Rattle, and The Collector which will be published on 22 February 2018.

‘I was surprised by how exposing it felt to be critiqued by readers. I was used to writing other people’s stories – the focus of attention was never on me – and, then, suddenly everyone had an opinion. It gave me some sense of what it must feel like to have a newspaper story written about you, whether you liked it or not. Ultimately, you have no control over what others may think.

‘It’s certainly been a steep learning curve. With my tabloid newspaper background, I was used to working at breakneck speed. Publishing moves much more slowly. I’ve also had to learn to pace myself. Writing a 90,000-word manuscript takes time – I can’t just dash it off in a day.’

 

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Francesca Hornak – Author of Seven Days of Us

‘The thing I struggled with in fiction is making bad things happen . . . This isn’t true of all journalism, but in glossy magazines there’s a constant aim to create a kind of aspirational, fantasy world, where people cook recipes and buy £200 moisturisers and scented candles. In fiction, you need to make your characters miserable, otherwise there’s no story. At first I was a bit squeamish about that, but I’ve got the hang of it now.

‘Long deadlines can be hard too; there isn’t quite enough pressure in publishing.’

 

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Chloe Mayer – Author of The Boy Made of Snow

‘I work in news rather than features, so the longest it usually takes for my copy to appear as a newspaper article is the next day. In contrast, the book industry moves at a glacial pace! My debut novel, The Boy Made of Snow, was released last month – more than a year and a half after I signed my publishing deal!

‘As a journalist I write stories all day long, but many articles are limited to just a few hundred words. It’s a completely different skill set to make up a story from scratch and tell it over 100,000 words – with an arc, sub-plots, and an entire cast of characters.

‘The first thing all news reporters are taught is that they must tell the whole story in the first sentence; the introduction must contain the crux of what’s happened and why. But with fiction, you must gradually build a world and let the story unfold over time.

‘Another difference is that in journalism you must explicitly lay out all of the facts and be as clear as possible. Whereas with fiction, you often have to hold back – and what isn’t said, or revealed, is often as important as what is. So learning how to write a novel as I went along was the steepest learning curve for me.’

 

Juliet West – Author of The Faithful and Before the Fall

‘As a journalist, and especially as a news reporter on a daily paper, there’s a pressure to get your story out very quickly. Ideally that story will be word-perfect straight from your notebook. So when I first began to write fiction I attempted the same modus operandi. I thought I could file my story straight onto the page and all would be effortless and wonderful. Of course, what came out was terrible, so I would re-work every sentence, trying to make it perfect before moving on. I think I wrote three paragraphs over a fortnight, and they were desperately worthy and self-conscious and forced.

‘I realised I needed to give myself more freedom to write a first draft, allowing the story and characters to take root before going back to add polish and finesse. So that’s my top tip. Give yourself a break. Your first draft is yours alone – it’s not going to turn up in the next day’s paper with your byline on it.

‘When I did get a publishing deal in 2013 I was delighted, but also daunted by the prospect of a publicity campaign. Somehow I’ve risen to the challenge, and I’m really proud that I’m able to stand up and give a talk, or chat to a presenter on live radio. But I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that I should be the one asking the questions.’

• Holding Image by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

What It Was Like to Give my First Author Talk

Today I gave a talk to writers in Singapore via FaceTime and surprisingly, for someone who claims not to like public speaking all that much, I enjoyed it.

Hooking up via a wonky Skype connection, then reverting to FaceTime, there were about fourteen writers in the room making notes while I talked about the long route from starting my very first novel to landing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Publication of The Maid’s Room is now only six weeks away and I can’t wait.

Hopefully I managed to relay some tips that the writers will find useful. The word ‘perseverance’ was uttered more than once.

I took me three years, three months and 29 days from receiving my first agent rejection letter to getting representation from my lovely agent Rowan Lawton. During that time I became an expert in rejection, so a large part of my talk was dedicated to surviving the submissions process.

My top survival tips include:

  • Logging onto Paul McVeigh’s brilliant website to keep you going. There were so many times I snivelled over my keyboard as I read one of the author interviews featured to make myself feel just that little bit better about everything.
  • Entering writing competitions. Being shortlisted in the Bristol Short Story Prize for the very first time buoyed me up. Some of the judges and authors who read my story liked my work and encouraged me to keep writing.
  • Watching TED Talks. On the days I felt particularly low, I’d watched a Ted Talk. There’s so much to inspire you here, from writers talking about books, to people who’ve overcome enormous obstacles to achieve their personal bests.
  • Using the anger. I did quite a bit of ranting about rejection, but then somehow I managed to turn that emotion into energy. Try it – you might just end up writing your soul onto the page.

Preparing this talk was a real eye-opener for me. It took quite a few hours to plan what I wanted to say, so a big shout-out to inspirational teachers everywhere. I had no idea teaching involved so much hard graft.

But the biggest revelation for me was just how much I loved doing a spot of public speaking – hopefully I’ll remember that in future.

Huge thank you to author Alice Clark-Platts for inviting me to speak, and the Singapore Writers’ Group, thanks for listening.

Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.

What It’s Like to Attend a Writing Masterclass

Paul McVeigh’s fantastic blog for writers has wrenched me out of the downest of days, so when Word Factory announced he was giving a Masterclass at Waterstones Piccadilly, I signed up.

About 30 people listened as The Good Son author talked about the challenges of getting your book on the shelves and helping it into the hands of readers. His honesty was refreshing, and at times hilarious too.

‘“What’s your book about?” It’s the cringiest question in the world.’ Paul proceeded to do a pretty good impression of most writers when they’re asked that question. Bumbling, boring on about themes, eyes scraping the ceiling in search of the right words, five minutes of waffle then the ensuing painful silence. Clearly, we all related to this because the room was loud with laughter.

Best to have your tagline ready for when people ask then. In fact, keep it in mind while you’re writing the book.

Write down what your character’s goal is and what’s preventing her from achieving her goal then put this in the header and footer of your manuscript to encourage you not to stray.

‘Every sentence should further the plot or enhance character. If it doesn’t do this, it shouldn’t be in there,’ said Paul. And when the character reaches her goal, ‘it should be a complex victory. There should always be a price to pay.’

Paul spent the second half of the three-hour session talking about how to publicise your book before it hits the shelves. Get involved, he said. Help out at writing events. Cultivate relationships with writers and other organisations too. Think about what angles your book has and write blog posts accordingly, so that you have a stock of good quality stuff ready to go for when the time comes.

I am easily distracted, but not once did I stop listening to Polari-Prize-winning Paul who is dynamic and witty. And during the breaks I enjoyed talking to some of the other writers. It was particularly special to meet my Twitter friend, Word Factory apprentice writer Emily Devane for the first time.

The class was well worth the money. I came away with lots to think about, including this: ‘All writers have an arrogance. You must have because you think you’ve got something important to say.’ Blimey – that’s an idea to hold on to, especially if another rejection email happens to plop into your inbox today…..

How to Start Writing a Novel – The First Steps to a First Draft

I’m three weeks into writing my new novel. It had been so long since I wrote a first draft that I’d forgotten just how difficult it is.

For starters, there was blank page syndrome. That sickly feeling when you see your computer lurking on your desk, and all those things you do to avoid sitting in front of it. Gardening in sub-zero temperatures anyone?

My first few paragraphs didn’t have an easy birth, beset by distractions. Copious cups of tea were made. Toast was burnt. And oh, what the hell, just one more look at my emails.

Then, falteringly, somehow I hit 31,000 words. 31,000 rough words that I wouldn’t want anyone to read just yet. But still….

For me – starting is the hardest part. And in starting, it all came back to me. So here are three steps that have kept me on the straight and narrow and stopped me staring aimlessly into space.

Step One: Make a Plan then Make Another One

I scribbled a rough plan of the whole book before I started to write. Once I’d started, the story began to take its own shape, so I tore up my plan and wrote a new one, detailing the dramatic peaks of the story and the development of my characters. If I was an organised kind of person, I’d pin this new plan to the wall, but every time I start writing again, there’s a snowstorm of papers as I riffle through the mounds to find it. (Note to self – buy some Blu Tack.

Step Two: Research then Research Some More

I did a lot of research before I started to write -newspaper cuttings, lectures, speaking to an in-the-know friend. And I’ve punctuated my writing with doing yet more research. Reading about the subject at the centre  of my novel is helping to make the writing more authentic. It informs character development and sets off new ideas too.

Step Three: Write one Character at a Time then Rewrite and Repeat

My novel has two points of view, so I’ve started by writing one character in her entirety. That way, I might get more of a handle on her essence, on how she reacts to things, the way she speaks. She started off as a Victoria, transformed into a Kate and now she’s someone else entirely. Once I’ve finished writing her, I’ll rewrite her all over again hopefully turning her into a really strong character. Next it’ll be over to my second character. After that, I’ll start piecing their narratives together and work on pace.

Right, I’m going back in…..

 

5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.