manuscript

Something is better than nothing – a writing motto

When I’m well and into the swing of a project, I can happily churn out at least 3K per day and usually 4.5-6K at the end. With editing, 10 pages is a minimum.

But sometimes the words or edits just won’t come. Either I’m under the weather, or my brain is solving a problem, or I just don’t quite know how to get from where I am to the next plot point, or I’ve got some paperwork to sort (noooooooo! not the paperwork!!!!!!!! It’s worse than the writing!!!!!!!).

For whatever reason, sometimes I just can’t settle into a rhythm of work and it’s more than just an issue of getting started (if it’s that, do a writing sprint or make a pact with an author friend). Sometimes it’s a bigger problem and I’m stuck in a rut for days on end. When that happens, I keep myself going with a motto that really goes against the grain for me:

Something is better than nothing.

It’s not a motto to let myself off being lazy – I’m a ‘progress, progress, be productive, make progress’ person. Instead, it’s a motto to comfort myself when I can’t work and it’s not a fixable problem. Right now, for instance, I’m struggling to get anything done because I’ve had suspected Covid-19 since March 2nd and, though I’m getting longer spells between cycles of the fever-cough-exhaustion, it’s obviously not done with me yet. Even so, I’ve managed to edit one book and put a fresh polish-edit coat of paint on two others. I did this by telling myself – all day, every day – that

Something is better than nothing.

Some days I did a single sentence. A few days I didn’t even manage that. If I didn’t, I tried to read at least one high-quality piece about writing or books or screenwriting or history or art… something to feed my knowledge and imagination. And then I tried again to do at least one sentence. And if I managed that, then I tried for a paragraph, a page, until I couldn’t do any more. Sometimes that added up to very little, but even a sentence is a something instead of a nothing.

Some days things went well and I did a real chunk of work and of course that helped a lot – though it was extra dismal to plunge from a day like that into ‘I put a sentence in. Then I took it out. Then I spotted a typo in the next sentence. Now I’m done, brain dead, gone, bye, I’m a zombie now and zombies don’t write/edit’.

Still, slowly but surely all the somethings added up. Not half as quickly as I wanted, but they got me there. And though I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner/writer/what-have-you, I’m also a professional and I know that when something’s not working I need to put a new tool in my toolbox to help me fix the problem and keep me ticking on towards my goals – I can’t just sit there and wait for it all to get easier (word to the wise: ain’t happening).

Something is better than nothing‘ is a great tool. Just remember, it’s there for when you really can’t – not as an emotional sop for when you can but won’t.

 

 

tulip

Song for a new manuscript: Little Shop of Horrors meets the author’s life

Grow For Me: the author’s version

(set to the music from Little Shop of Horrors: original film version below)

I’ve given you chocolate.

I’ve given you tea.

You’ve given me nothing,

But pure agony.

I’m begging you sweetly;

I’m down on my knees.

 

Oh, please, grow for me!

I’ve given you daydreams,

And Baileys to sip.

I’ve given you playlists:

You’ve given me zip.

Oh Muse, how I need you.

Oh book, how you tease.

Oh, please, grow for me!

 

I’ve given you endless Twitter-time to get you to thrive.

I’ve wandered for miles, like I’m supposed to, you’re barely alive.

I’ve sought out more feedback and workshops and fancy methods.

I’ve given you scene-cards and moleskines and book-fest trips,

What do you want from me, blood?

 

I’ve given you memories; I’ve given you pain.

Looks like you’re not happy ‘less I open a vein.

I’ll give you a few pints, if that’ll appease.

Now please… Oh-oh-oh, please,

Grow for me!

Peacock butterfly

A critical year: market factors and manuscripts

So, picking right up where I left off, the biggest change my publisher wanted to see in the manuscript concerned my protagonist’s age. The suggestion: to make Evie 14 instead of 13 pushing 14. My reaction: no problem.

Rebecca’s reasoning was that, given the themes of the book and the way it’s written, it’s most likely to appeal to the YA and adult markets. Making Evie 14 as opposed to 13 pushes the book more firmly into the YA market rather than the Children’s market – where it wouldn’t belong at all – as, at 14 going on 15, Evie herself falls broadly into the YA category. Rebecca felt that this little change – an age increase of somewhere between 6 and 12 months for my protagonist – would make a big impact on how easy to the book would be to market. I completely agree with her rationale.

But sometimes market factors push a book in a direction that the author doesn’t want to go. Deciding what to do then is a real conundrum. Thankfully, I didn’t have any such reservations about changing Evie’s age. For me, it was a purely technical issue and didn’t alter anything important about the story. My reasoning went like this…

At age 14, Evie is starting her two-year GCSE courses, but she isn’t facing any major life events like doing her GCSE exams or A-Levels… She is still well over a year away from 16, the age of sexual consent in the UK. She’s three years from 17, the age at which one can learn to drive. She’s four years away form 18, the age of majority: the age at which she will legally become an adult. It’s important to the story that Evie isn’t about to face any of these major changes. She’s still firmly a ‘child’ in the legal sense and she isn’t facing any of the usual big issues and decisions of the mid to late teenage years. All the decisions and problems Evie has to deal with are unique to her: none of her peers are coping with the same things.

In terms of Evie’s individual situation, she starts the book in hospital after thorasic surgery and so misses the start of the new school year. If this were her GCSE exam year, that would have major implications… but ones I’m not interested in dealing with in The Bone Dragon. So making her 15 would have put a stumbling block in her path that would have changed the plot and shifted the nature of the conflict in ways I didn’t want, so I would have been very leery of making her two years older. But missing a few weeks at the start of Year 10 doesn’t represent a major issue. While catching up is a bit of a challenge, it isn’t one that takes over the whole book. And that’s important because I want the challenges Evie deals with to fall outside the realm of any of the things her peers are facing.

The change of age did necessitate a few other changes, but they were ones I was perfectly comfortable with. As Rebecca quite rightly pointed out, 14 and 15 year olds are generally fairly interested in dating and kissing (at the very least): more so than the 13 year olds in the original manuscript. They are also more prone (at least according to stereotypes) to rebellion against authority figures and moodiness.

I’m actually a big fan of stereotypes and cliches. I think they’re very powerful things that writers are foolish not to use. The key here is to actively use them, not just to use them by accident – which amounts to being used by them.

Anyway, bringing in those ‘teenage years’ cliches actually opened up opportunities to develop Evie’s character and show how she is unusual, even when she is, for instance, having a fit of the sullens.

So, changes made, the manuscript went back to Faber and I crossed my fingers that they’d like it – not only because I wanted them to be happy with it (as I was, and so didn’t really want to make many further changes), but also because I wanted them to feel I was a good person to work with: someone who appreciated quality feedback and had the craft to know how to revise a manuscript effectively.