MoB

pond in a snowy wood

Of course something is wrong with your first draft

… I keep telling myself this, but it’s not entirely helping.

The new book is going well. Really it is. But I’ve got that itchy-all-over-in-my-brain feeling that writing the first draft of a new book gives me. It’s partly because it’s a weird business, splitting your time between two entirely different worlds – especially when one intrudes with a phonecall about your breakdown cover renewal just as someone’s telling you their deepest, darkest secret in the other. Very disconcerting.

So there’s that. And the urge to finish, finish, finish, finish, FINISH before I lose my marbles completely and start believing I am my main character (ah, the perils of the first person perspective).

But then there’s the fact that there are Major Things Wrong with what I’m writing. Of course there are. It’s a first draft. That’s what first drafts are for. Actually, as first drafts go this one’s pretty good (for me, at any rate). But a good first draft is never going to be a good book. Well, not unless there’s really something very, very wrong with you (and I say that with no trace of jealousy at the very *idea* that someone could write a stunning first draft – if you can, please don’t tell me). On the plus side, even if there are people who can, most of us can’t and don’t. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that the best writing is re-writing (as EB White apparently did) but rewriting is what makes a first draft into a good book (unless you’re weird and creepy, in which case go away or at least pretend you write problematic first drafts too).

I’m at that difficult point in a draft where I don’t know if the itchy feelings are so intense because I’ve made a mistake that I’d be better off going back and fixing now or if it’s just that I’m feeling resistant about something. I am a bit struck at the moment, so it could just be the ‘I don’t wanna! It’s too hard! I hate writing and I want chocolate and cake and probably alcohol’ thing.

It seems to me that being a writer means that you sometimes hate everything you love most about writing. It’s just how it is. The fact that you can’t help writing, even when you hate it, is what tells you that you love it more.  I think that’s one of the big differences between people who like to write and people who do it for a living: if you do it for a living, you have to admit that you love it and hate it simultaneously but there’s more love than hate so you’d better get on with your next page before you get miserable because you’re not writing and writing is the most wonderful (awful) thing ever <pause for breath>.

And that’s the other thing that itchy feeling is: that ‘love/hate, why do I do this to myself? I could have been a stockbroker, for Gawdsake!’ thing. (No, I couldn’t but all writers have delirious moments when they think anything must be better than writing… which is not to knock stockbrokers, or not entirely, but some of us can and some of us can’t be strockbrokers. I’m not sure any of us have to though, unlike with writing.)

If you make the hideously stupid career choice to write as at least part of how you make your living, it’s generally because you don’t feel like you can be happy otherwise. And, frankly, you won’t be happy quite a lot anyway. For most of us, there’s a huge amount of rejection even apart from the frustration and fury of writing itself. But there you go. In the midst of the awfulness of the first draft, as I gnash my teeth and consider wailing, I can’t wait to write the next bit. I’m just afraid that the itchy feeling is telling me it’s going to be rubbish… But I’m going to go and write it anyway.

Is anyone else in the same first-draft boat? Any recommendations (for chocolate and biscuits to try, if not for getting past it?)

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Autumn leaves

From idea to plan: creating an effective climax

The Bone Dragon is my debut novel, but it’s far from being the first novel I wrote. First, I wrote a whole series of ‘practice’ novels. Then I wrote several novels I hoped to publish. Then I wrote the novel that no one seemed interested in but me (and my wonderful Aunty Pat, whose encouragement helped to save the day)… and now it’s getting published.

At the moment, I’m working on MANY books, but two particularly. The first (HoW) is one of the books I hoped to publish: I’m completely re-writing it now that I finally understand what is wrong with it. The other (MoB) is a new book. A very, very new book. Usually I live with book ideas for years before I do more than write the first chapter or so. But back in April, when I’d just signed with RCW and Faber, my amazing agent, Claire Wilson, got me thinking about what might be a good second book in terms of building a brand for myself as a writer. I write across a wide range of genres and that’s fine – when you’ve got a readership that is willing to travel across genres with you. But, to begin with, it’s good to show what you can do in a genre those first readers know they like.

So I sat down and rifled through the cluttered drawer of ideas that’s off somewhere in the far reaches of the leftside of my brain. And MoB clawed it way out of the mess and sat itself down on top and said ‘Me!’ I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, but, at the same time, I felt that this was the book that Claire would want to represent after The Bone Dragon and that readers would be most tempted to move on to. I waffle about it all in my Next Big Thing meme post.

So, decision made, I started to chip away at the idea: started to ask it questions about what happens in teh story. About who the people are and what they are like. About why real people would want to read the book. About how the story worked and what tugged on my heartstrings about it.

MoB isn’t a sequel to The Bone Dragon, but there’s a natural progression between the two so I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the books should be similar while ensuring that they weren’t too similar.

Usually my books develop from one or more mini-ideas about scenes that represent emotional highpoints. The first set of vague idea starts to turn into a book when I know what the key three emotional moments are going to be – from my perspective, though not always the readers. I found I already had the emotional drama needed for the climax and the emotional charge for the hook. But it took months and months and months to progress beyond that. The sticking point, as it so often is, was the climax. I thought I knew what it was. But I wasn’t quite right. I knew what propelled the story into the climax, but I hadn’t yet come up with a good enough Part II: The True Climax. That’s been the case for a lot of my books.

Quite often I have an idea for the climax but when I write it out (sometimes just in my head) it falls a bit flat. There’s plenty of action but not enough emotion, or vice versa. It’s just not quite satisfying. Most of all, these climaxes turn out to be a little too obvious: they’re inevitable to the point where there’s no real surprise. And I’m not talking about twists that come out of nowhere: those are generally a bad thing anyway. What I’m talking about is that little extra thing – that one final step – that takes the climax beyond the thing that is obvious and inevitable to the deeper truth. For me, a really great climax always has an element of revelation, as if the author is saying ‘Here! Here’s the real heart of the story.’ And the moment you read it you go, ‘Of course! Of course that’s it really. Why didn’t I think that little step further?’ So it’s not a twist, it’s just pushing the idea to the end of the line: past the bit where the reader has already thought up to.

The tricky thing about these types of climax is that it’s all about having the right idea. And there’s no formula or technique that’ll deliver it to you. After all, if the idea doesn’t surprise you when you first hit upon it, you’ll probably find it won’t surprise the reader either. Or not quite enough to be truly satisfying. For that reason, these ideas often require some major lateral thinking – not necessarily thinking outside the box, because you don’t want to end up with a twist that’s just a ‘twist for the sake of it’.

Take The Bone Dragon. I think the climax does all of these things, but it also does a whole bunch of things that pretty much every writing book tells you to absolutely never, ever do. There’s one incredibly important rule about writing a good climax that it ignores entirely. A rule most writers – even those that aren’t particularly bound by rules – would think it’s a no-brainer to follow. But breaking that rule is exactly what The Bone Dragon needed because it cuts to the heart of the story: the way the climax is delivered *is* the story.

MoB takes a different tack: a much more straightforward one in structural terms – and in terms of the big rules about creating effective climaxes. But because I wasn’t using structure to push the book to a unique climax, it was much harder to figure out what the climax should be. 

Although technique won’t give you the answers to the thorny questions about what ideas should lie behind your climax, there are things you can do to help coax the right idea out into the light and these things are all about good technique. First and foremost, ask yourself what the book is about… and keep asking. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much about themes. Think about your Controlling Idea (to use Robert McKee’s terminology). Think about the ‘Character does Action to achieve Goal with Result’ equation. What are your characters after? What do their attempts to achieve this goal actually result in? Then think beyond that: what does your version of the equation say?

I don’t believe in ‘message’ books but that’s not to say that I don’t think books can’t have a message. It just shouldn’t be didactic. Generally my message is ‘Look at this complex human problem and how it’s turned out in this case. Is the conclusion right and fair or wrong? How do you feel about it and is that feeling comfortable?’

So ask yourself ‘What does my book say about people and the world?’ That is what should drive your climax. Chipping away at my bag of ideas for MoB with that question firmly at the front of my mind finally showed me where I was going wrong. In my attempts to put in lots of action, I was thinking down obvious paths. ‘Let’s have a bit of this. Oooo and a pinch of that. And then they can do this and it’ll be REALLY dramatic.’ Only generally it isn’t, because that sort of thinking generally results in plodding action, even if it’s plodding involving gun battles and car chases. Above all, when you start focusong on what actions should go in and not what the truth behind the story is, you stop thinking about what the relevation is: what are you going to show readers at the climax that they haven’t realised is the truth behind the story all along? And I don’t mean truth as in a fact. I mean truth as in ‘this is how people work sometimes, and this is how the world works’.

It was only when I figured out what I was trying to say with MoB that I realised how the climax had to work. I have a good feeling about it, even though I’m a little nervous about whether or not it’ll work on paper. Sometimes things that seem great in my head don’t, but this feels like it’s one that will. It just feels right: for me, it’s a truly satisfying end that couldn’t push the truth behind the story any further.

Once I had the climax worked out, the rest of the book fell into place, as is so often the case. But more about that in my next post.

For now, the floor is open. So… How do you go about figuring out how your climax will work? When do you do it: at the idea-stage or the panning-stage or the writing-stage?

leaves against the sunlight

The Next Big Thing

The lovely Katy Darby has just tagged me for the Next Big Thing meme: a questionnaire designed to get writers talking about their next book. Ideally, each writer tags five others but I seem to have a knack for tagging people who’ve done it and those who don’t have blogs. Go me!

Anyway, here’re my answers. (BTW, I’m cross-posting on both blogs because I ended up talking a lot about The Bone Dragon.)

 

What is the working title of your next book?

MoB. While I’m still drafting I only ever refer to a book by the initials of the working title. Sharing the title sets it in stone for me so, as it’s hard to be sure a title’s right until the book is done, I try to keep it to myself until I’m fairly confident I won’t have to change it.

I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to share a work in progress; for me, a big part of the joy of being a writer, and not a performer, is that I can keep my work secret until I’m ready to hear what other people think. If I start sharing stuff too soon, I get caught up in other people’s ideas and start doubting my own. I need to have a draft that’s close enough to the book in my head that I can use feedback effectively before I go about inviting it by sharing information. So, MoB it is for now. And, no, it’s not about men in dark suits or aliens. Or mobsters. Or flash mob dance crews. I defy you to guess the title… But would love to see your best shot.

 

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In The Bone Dragon, I feel that I started a conversation about a series of themes that are really important to me as a writer. MoB is the continuation of that conversation, without being a sequel. The plot developed from the idea for the ‘hook’, which led me to a key moment in the climax. From there, I used the idea of continuing the conversation from The Bone Dragon to help me work out the story of how and why the ‘hook’ leads to the climax – and vice versa, since the story isn’t as linear as it seems. The fun bit is that this is the opposite of how The Bone Dragon works: TBD is completely linear, only it’s not clear that that’s the case until you’ve reached the very end of the book.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Like The Bone Dragon, MoB is a YA psychological thriller that will hopefully appeal to anyone over 16.

 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a really tough question for me. One of the weirder bits of being as dyslexic and dyspraxic as I am is that I find it hard to remember and, therefore, to recognise faces. When I’m having a ‘dyslexic day’ (anyone who is dyslexic will tell you that a person’s level of ‘dyslexic-ness’ shifts from day to day – it’s one of the key things about dyslexia that research has yet to explain), I even struggle to recognise close friends and members of my own family. Mostly I recognise people by their context, their voice and, critically, their hair. This has a huge impact on my aesthetic. I rarely take photos of people and, when I do, I only take ‘snaps’. I just don’t have any sort of an eye for faces in their entirety. This is probably why I feel very strongly about letting readers ‘see’ what they want when it comes to my characters. I tend to provide a bare minimum (and often not even that) in relation to physical descriptions of people.

The flip side is that my visual aesthetic is overwhelmingly taken up with settings and objects. I always give a huge amount of detail on these things because I ‘see’ these things with crystal clear focus – almost as a way of making up for the fuzziness of the people. I love taking photos of landscapes and plants. My best photos are to do with angle, texture and detail, and that’s true in my writing as well. That, in a nutshell, is my visual aesthetic.

The bottom-line here is that I’m not sure I *can* answer this question. I’m also not sure I want to. If I did, I wouldn’t give photos, rather I’d talk about what various actors could bring to the parts in terms of evoking the key emotional aspects of the characters. For instance, the main character needs to be thin (it’s important to the plot): she also needs to look like someone who has attractive features but is almost trying to make herself unattractive, so the actor couldn’t be straight-forwardly pretty. She needs to come across as bordering on sullen, but with a degree of vulnerability that indicates that this is more than just ‘teenage sulks’. At the same time, she can’t seem fragile: she’s prickly on the outside and angrily defensive on the inside… Which makes her sound so lovable. But, like in The Bone Dragon, it doesn’t really matter whether readers like the protagonist per se. They just have to identify with the emotions that fuel her behaviour.

 

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

MoB is to a ghost story what The Bone Dragon is to a fantasy story about dragons. It starts with a girl in a blue coat vanishing into an autumn wood.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by my amazing, wonderful, fantastic, brilliant agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s not finished yet but I hope to have the draft done by the end of January. I know exactly what’s going to happen every step of the way, so it’s just about finding the right ideas at the sentence level. I hope it won’t be a long edit: it feels like it won’t be, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I’ve only been working on the idea since about March-April so it’ll be my shortest idea-to-book conversion ever. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, like I had with The Bone Dragon, so hopefully…

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh gawd. I always find these questions so hard. It seems so presumptuous to compare to my work to the books I dream about seeing mine sit beside. Um… I guess the best answer looks back to what I said earlier: MoB is the continuation of a conversation I started with The Bone Dragon. If really pushed, I guess MoB is The Go-Between meets The Lovely Bones. Sort of.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

When I first had the idea, I knew this was a book I wanted to write… but the inspiration that made it my most urgent project came from being signed by my wonderful agent, Claire. Out of all the books I wanted to write, this seemed the most natural progression from The Bone Dragon. I would love for Claire to enjoy the book and be excited to represent it. It’s the best way I can think of to say thank you for the first miraculous ‘yes’ that led to my finally being published…

… which, in turn, involved another critical ‘yes’. I absolutely love working with the team at Faber: it would be great to see if that relationship could continue and I think they might like MoB… but we’ll see.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The protagonist is 16 going on 17, so the book explores some territory that’s touched on in The Bone Dragon but remains between the lines. The same aesthetic principles apply in terms of how the darker subject matter is tackled, but the conversation goes further. The protagonist is at a different point in her life with different things at stake so I have a very different array of opportunities to explore what damage means for someone who is on the verge of a whole series of life-defining choices – about A-levels, university, romantic relationships, where she lives, how she lives, who she’s going to be as an adult… In MoB, impending adulthood means that the main character doesn’t have much time to ‘get her act together’ if she is going to avoid mucking up her future.

Those are the things about MoB that are most exciting for me, as the writer. For the reader, there’s a much more obvious mystery to be solved in MoB that will hopefully sustain the book in a more fluid way than in The Bone Dragon. But the answers to that mystery will (hopefully) lead readers somewhere they’re not expecting at all.

 

So… three guesses what MoB stands for. Go on. Give it a shot. It’s cold and dreary and dark. Laughing will make it better. (So will chocolate, but that’s your own affair.)

acer leaves in a pond

Procrastination or process?

So I’m working on a new book. Quite a lot of this work looks like staring at the screen. Or searching for theme music. Or reading articles about writing/books. Or fiddling with my headers on various social media sites. Or making tea. And more tea. And even more tea.

I’m not entirely convinced that (all) of this is procrastination.

I think a lot of it might actually be my brain putting up one of those awful hour-glass ‘processing, please wait’ symbols that just make you want to scream until it’s time to Walk Away From The Computer before you end up hitting it (my keyboard periodically takes some serious punishment).

Anyway, the point is that at least some of this is just part of my writing process: it’s my way of letting my brain work out problems and things I just don’t know yet about the book… But some of it is just mucking about and not knuckling down.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell the difference. Right now, this minute, do I need to be hard on myself because I’m not writing… or should I be nicer to myself when my brain is just processing a little slowly?

One of my professional goals is to figure out how to make my brain beep when the hour-glass disappears and I’ve solved whatever problem has made me stuck.

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday searching for the right theme music is that having the perfect song/piece for a book helps me not to procrastinate. After a few days of playing the song constantly as I work, I start to associate it with the book to the point where putting it on helps me slide into the right mindset, putting me in the world of the book, placing me in the right emotional frame to connect with the characters and the narrative style. It’s a useful shortcut. The key is to find something that is so perfect that you don’t think about the music – it needs to become part of the ‘feel’ of the book.

So, for my brand new YA psychological thriller I need something haunting but menacing at the same time. Ideally, something quite stripped back. I’m currently discussing the playlist options over on Facebook, but comments here with suggestions are very, very welcome too!

I’m slowly coming round to the conclusion that, leaving aside the issue of often not settling down to work quickly enough in the morning, I mostly stop writing and start pootling about aimlessly letting my brain process when I don’t know quite what I want to say next… Which is probably fair enough, but often I don’t return to the book quickly enough once I’ve figured out my next step. So that’s something I need to work on.

Something that helps a lot with that is making plans. I’m much less likely to be stuck when I know all the steps in the plot from the first to last page. I still get stuck on exactly how to angle scenes, but at least I know roughly what has to happen in each… and that gives a lot of structure to my thought process and makes it easier to come up with the right option – or at least a good option to try out on the page – so I’m not stuck for as long. True, sometimes I have to try and try again to get the angle right even when I think I’m unstuck, but if I also have to figure out what the reader needs to learn from the scene, where the conflict/tension is, and what changes in the scene it’s a pretty tall order.

So my plan for the evening is to write up the plan for MoB (the title abbreviation for the new book). It’s in fairly developed form in my head… So developed I can’t quite keep the pieces in order any more. I need to get it down on paper in note-form so I can spot the gaps and start filling those in. Then I need to put myself in front of the computer and write until I get stuck… and then I need to keep going back to the book just in case I’m not stuck but procrastinating. And I need to keep doing that until the book is finished.

I’m aiming for the end of the year for a first draft.

How about you? Are you processing or procrastinating when you’re not writing? How do you tell the difference? How do you try to shift the balance away from procrastination?