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

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The Best Thing about Being Published

The very best thing about being published is seeing my book in libraries across the world. I’ve glimpsed it on library shelves in Australia and South Africa, and this latest picture comes from a reader in South Devon who loved The Maid’s Room so much she donated it to her local library.kfZ_FxWt.jpg-large

It’s a fantastic feeling knowing my book will be borrowed by people who might love it, and if they don’t – they can simply return it and borrow something else.

I’ve written lots about where the idea for The Maid’s Room came from, the anger that made me write, but its true beginnings came from going to libraries. My mum and dad took me to our local library regularly when I was a child. It was a place to be free, sitting in the alcoves reading, and selecting dozens of books to take home. It was here that I caught not just the reading bug, but the writing one too – if Jilly Cooper could do it, if Judy Blume could, maybe I could too. I buried my head inside books and when I emerged, I’d scribble poems, diary entries, plays.

I kept on going back to the library for more. I found ideas, information, glorious escapism, the belief that things could be different. I cried, I fell in love; I found empathy, nuance, and kindness.

When I left home, the vast library at Sussex University became my frequent haunt – struggling through literary theory, becoming addicted to Toni Morrison, smoking in the basement cafe.

After university, my library visits stopped altogether. I didn’t have that much money, so I didn’t buy that all that many books. No surprises then that my early twenties were an unhappy time in my life – I read little, and as a result stopped looking outwards so much; I became self-obsessed.

Things changed when I became a journalist – writing almost every day and journeys to work filled by reading. When my daughter was born, I joined a library again, helping to build her imagination and keeping mine alive.  It was good, essential even, to get out of the house and be among books and people.

When I moved to Singapore in 2009, and decided that this was it, no more messing around, I really was going to write a book, Queenstown Public Library gave me wings. I put so many empty slots into that creative writing shelf on the second floor. I checked them all out – Writing a Novel and Getting Published for Dummies;  90 days to Your Novel – (hell, it took me a lot longer than that).

After years of false dawns and endless perseverance, Hodder & Stoughton published my book in November last year. My childhood library – Barham Park – gets a mention in my acknowledgements. Like so many libraries, the council closed it down, but thanks to a group of a determined campaigners, another library has opened nearby, albeit one run by volunteers.

When I saw The Maid’s Room in my local library for the first time recently – cover facing outwards, not just the spine – I was giddy with excitement. People might actually borrow it, I thought; they might experience disgust, empathy, love, the idea that things can change. I stood there for a while just staring at my book. And when I returned a few days later, someone had taken it out. To see my book in the library was wonderful, but to see it gone better still.

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

The Surprising Benefits of Submitting to Literary Agents

Rejection didn’t break me, but it did chink away at my self-confidence. Not because of what any of the literary agents said about my work, but because I made the mistake of listening to that nagging voice in my head. ‘This is never going to happen for you.’ ‘You’re fooling yourself.’ ‘You’re wasting years of your life doing this.’

This week, 32 copies of my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, arrived by courier. My daughter shunted folders aside on some shelves to make way for them. And as she did, a rejection letter for my very first novel fluttered onto the floor.

The words stared up at me. ‘I read the material with interest but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with your book in the way I had hoped to.’

I’ve given away two copies of The Maid’s Room so far, and now have 30 copies left. 30. The number of rejections I received far exceeded that. Most of them arrived in emails which I’ve still got in a file marked, ‘Novel Stuff’. (Perhaps I should print them all out, or maybe I should delete them. What do you reckon?)

Every time, a writer contacts me to say they’ve just been rejected, it throws me right back to that place. God, how it stings. But the arrival of my big box of books this week made me think – even though rejection hurts, it does have some fringe benefits. Here are just five of them:

  • Finding the right agent for you. All of those rejection letters are a way of figuring out which agents to approach again when the book is better. Forget the agents that ignore you, or the stock rejections. Set your sights on the agents that give you great feedback. When you find a brilliant agent, you’ll be glad the others turned you down.
  • Finding writer friends. My family and friends propped me up when my ego was as a saggy as old knicker elastic. But finding people who are going through the same thing as you really helps too. I’m lucky to have met lots of people on Twitter, then in person, who have cheered me on and vice versa.
  • Gaining writing plaudits. If I’d been snapped up within 24 hours of sending my novel to an agent, I might not have entered all those writing competitions. Getting shortlisted in a few was a boon. And I feel lucky to be one of the Bristol Short Story Prize alumni.
  • The larger your pile of rejection letters the more manic your happy dance will be when you get representation. And it’ll be especially pleasing for your friends and family who’ve put up with all your bad moods after reading a rejection letter.
  • Your writing will get better. Yes, rejection is exquisitely painful (tumbler of gin, anyone?). But keep writing and the words you produce will improve.

Hook an Agent Part V – Bestselling authors share how they found their agent

Thank you to author Louise Jensen for including me in her ‘Hook an Agent’ blog post. Here’s how I got signed by my brilliant and lovely agent Rowan Lawton. Other authors share how they got taken on by their agents too.

fabricating fiction

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here. Part IV, you can read here, featured agent Eugenie Furniss advising us to tighten those first 3 chapters, I also shared the opening of The Sister.

Today, the final part of the series, is all about how to find an agent. It’s tricky to find the right agent for you and as with any industry there are those who are fabulous and those who aren’t. It’s imperative to find someone you can trust because not only will they…

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What It Feels Like To Hold Your Book in Your Hands For The First Time

It’s been a day to remember. The postman brought me my very first finished copy of my debut novel The Maid’s Room which will be published in hardback in just four weeks time.

I’m absolutely delighted with the beautiful cover, the font, the bit that says copyright Fiona Mitchell.

Watching my daughter’s reaction as she opened the book and realised I’d dedicated it to her was an absolute gift. I dedicated it to my husband too, mentioning all that I’d gone “through” to get the book published. ‘Oh God, you’ve spelt “through” wrong,’ he said. ‘What?’ I replied, horrified until the smile stretched across his face.

My first and only copy so far of my lovely book is now sitting on the windowsill with a bottle of Mr Sheen beside it.

But I am super happy. Excited. Feeling lucky. Holding my book is like holding almost seven years worth of hard work and determination in my hands. I’ve worked hard at many things in my life – pregnancy wasn’t a doddle for me, parking has all but defeated me. I pounded the pavements as a rookie reporter before enjoying years as a features writer. But this, this feels like the thing I’ve worked hardest at.

For all those writers plugging away at your keyboards, please know, it didn’t just happen for me. There were so many moments when I thought all hope was gone, but I got there in the end.

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.

How I Landed a Publishing Deal for My Novel

I’m bowled over that my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, but I’ve also been feeling reflective about the reasons why I started to write my book back in December 2010.

I was living in Singapore where more than 230,000 women work as domestic helpers. Many of them sleep in windowless cupboards and back then, they had no legal right to a day off.

As a freelance journalist, I began to research a feature about the women’s lives, but as I listened to their stories, another idea took hold. It was a story about all the different ways women can be mothers, even if they can’t give birth, even if they are separated from their children for years on end.

I went to the library, borrowed two beginners’ guides to writing novels and got to work. At that point, I don’t think I even knew what a literary agent did, and I certainly had no plans to get published.

It was only after I returned to the UK that the urge to get published arrived. I’d finished the book, so I might as well try, right?

And, oh, how I tried. I received piles of rejection letters (I really am going to count them one day); several requests from literary agents for the full manuscript that met with eventual no’s; I scrapped the book entirely then wrote it again from scratch. (And that’s not even mentioning the other novel that I wrote in between.)

Eventually, I employed a fantastic editor and ten days after reading my novel, literary agent Rowan Lawton agreed to represent me.

Together, we fine-tuned the book, and in October last year, Rowan began submitting it to publishers in the UK and overseas.

Days later, the book was pre-empted in Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain. I whooped a lot, laughed; I cracked open a bottle of pink champagne.

I tried to keep my hopes low, yet I willed a UK publisher to take on The Maid’s Room too. I closed my eyes at random times and whispered, ‘Please.’

Then Rowan told me that two UK publishers wanted to meet me. One of them was Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton. It was surreal drinking tea and talking about my book with her at the Hachette offices on Victoria Embankment. To my relief, days later, both publishing houses made me an offer, and I decided to sign with Hodder.

The excitement still hasn’t worn off. Nor has my reflective state of mind. I’ve been thinking hard about the defining moment that motivated me to write the book. And it was this:

I met a 48-year-old woman in Singapore who had been working as a maid for almost twenty years. She told me how she’d left her sons, then ten and eight, back in the Philippines to get a job as a domestic helper initially in Hong Kong. She cried as she confided the pain of being separated from her boys – she wasn’t to see them again for another three years. Then almost in passing, the woman mentioned how her first employer had made her sleep under the dining room table at night.

Sure, I needed a hefty dose of luck to get my book published, but it was this woman’s story that set The Maid’s Room in motion and made me persevere.

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…..