When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

How can this be?

Synopsis crisis 1Submissions to agents require that you send a sample of your novel.  Typically this is described as sample chapters (usually three) or 10,000 words.  Often you’re told to conclude your sample at a sensible end point, rather than get too hung up on precise word-count.

My novel, Singled Out, is divided into eight days (a one week holiday, see?).  Each day is divided into between 8 and 12 individual segments, each segment written from the point of view (POV) of one of three main characters.  I realise a day in this construction is too long to count as a chapter, but the individual segments are also too short.  Day One is around 12,000 words and to my mind marks a sensible end point – so that’s what I’ve been sending as my sample.  I figure if I’ve failed to excite an agent, it will be well before that 12,000 word mark and they’ll simply not read to the end.  If I’ve excited them, a few extra words are unlikely to put them off.  Hopefully.

However… one of the agents I’m currently keen to tempt with Singled Out specifies three chapters as the sample length, but then goes on to make the point that this limit should be strictly adhered to.  So yesterday, I was reviewing my sample document, to create a shorter version for this particular submission.

And on the first page – the very first page – I found a typo.

I know why this is.  This particular section has been in the past tense, then in the present tense, then in the past tense again (and perhaps even back and forth another couple of times – I forget). Somewhere in the transition from ‘He chose’ through ‘He chooses’ and back to ‘He chose’ again, I left a verb in the wrong tense.

I could have wept.

It seemed prudent, after approximately 20 minutes of swearing, cursing, throwing stuff around, stomping, stamping and kicking the cat (I lie – I don’t have one), to use the opportunity to review the whole sample segment, just in case anything else had slipped through in those first 10,000 words.  So I read it very, very slowly.  I found a few dozen more words I could do without, which was a plus.

But then I found another typo.

The error was not in a word, but in its absence – it was a missing word.  I’d probably read right through that invisible word two or three dozen times, failing and failing again, to notice its nonexistence.

Just in case you’re wondering how I’m dealing with this catastrophe of care and diligence, here it is. Yesterday evening I prowled my kitchen for comfort food. There wasn’t much, because I’m being very good lately; vegetables don’t even nearly qualify.  I managed to find three Rich Tea biscuits (stale), which I covered in butter and the dregs from a bottle of salted caramel sauce (Christmas leftover).  Thence to a restive night – I gave in to the TV and a repeat of The Jeremy Kyle Show at 5:15am. Today finds me curled up on the armchair in the corner of my office, rocking from side to side, cuddling a cushion and snivelling into a Kleenex.  It’s too early for alcohol, but I fear this may feature as the day advances.

By the way – there’s a lesson.  Now I understand what people mean when they say the final level of edit should actually be to read your novel backwards, word, by word, by word.

That’s one word we don’t need

scissors-editOne of the things that hit a nerve when I wrote that most popular post of mine on editing (that’s One word at a time), was the culling of certain redundant words, such as really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly.  That came to mind when I realised the other day, on reading Amanda Bumgarner’s excellent post on eliminating word overuse, that I’d left one important word off that list.  Yes, you guessed it – the word… that.

When you turn your mental volume dial up on that little word, that’s when it starts to jump out at you, from every line and every paragraph.

That is one of those words that stutters into our sentences without our even noticing.  How insidiously it sneaks in and takes up residence, unloved and unwanted.  I think that if I counted up the number of times that that appeared in my novel, that that would be as revealing as it would be painful.  That, I know, is something that I could not bear to do, and that’s an end of it.

So that’s the point that I want to make, that that is one of those words that is almost always surplus to requirements – and that should be enough to encourage you to consign that word to the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor.

And that’s all I’ll be saying on that matter.

One word at a time

scissors-editI’m line editing.  After almost three years of writing words into my first novel, for the last month I’ve been taking them out, one by one.  With two line-by-line passes through my draft, I’ve shrunk 107,000 words to 98,000, dipping below that 100,000 word marker beyond which, apparently, novice writers venture at their peril.

Line editing is an interesting if tedious technical exercise and it’s involved a few tactics, amongst which:

  • Culling 99% of occurrences of these words: really, rather, just, quite, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. I said a silent prayer to the twin gods of Search and Delete.
  • Appraising every instance of verb + adverb and replacing many, many of them with… a more descriptive verb. Yes, you can’t escape that one. I love my well-thumbed Roget’s more than ever now.
  • Interrogating every adjective cosying up to a noun and consigning two out of every three to the scrap-heap. I’m ashamed to admit, there were places where an inexplicable, suffocating, weighty chain of three adjectives dragged down a noun.  Oops.
  • Radical surgery on long sentences and complex constructions.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition: Eliminating the second and subsequent instances of a favoured word of the day – over and over.
  • Sometimes it’s obvious who’s thinking or saying something. Deleting he/she said/thought where it isn’t needed dealt with another hundred or so surplus words.
  • It doesn’t always matter what a character is wearing, or what colour eyes they have.  In fact, as far as I can see, it only matters when it tells you something about the character that is useful or relevant to the reader. Physical descriptions resembling witness statements have gone; only selective, telling details remain.

This literary fight-the-flab regime has been a good deal more effective than the one I’m (still) trying to impose on my extra physical pounds.  Aiding the process of editorial expurgation was an e-book I purchased recently (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was). Clearly never having been subjected to a disciplined editing process, this book was overrun with an abundance of wasted words, superfluous sentences and drawn-out dialogue.  Reading it (or, I confess, just the first 20% of it) made me realise how irritating – and dull – it is to plough through pages of rambling narrative, bloated with excess detail.  I saw where my first novel would be without the rigour of a line edit.

It’s not perfect – how can it be?  But it was a serious job, diligently executed. Doubtless if I’m fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an agent and a publisher, there will be a second and even subsequent culls.  But for now, it’s enough.

This weekend, my first novel went out to two test readers.  Now all I want to do is hide under the duvet and eat ice cream.

Circle of Missé – This writer progresses…

Last month I spent a wet but hugely inspirational week at Circle of Missé in the Loire Valley in France, on their “A Writer Progresses” course.  Despite the almost incessant rain it was a sublime place to immerse myself in the beginnings of my editing process, tutored and encouraged by the author, Carol Topolski and Circle of Missé’s inestimable host, Wayne Milstead.

Circle of Missé is a writing and cookery school like no other.  A cosy, creaky old house bristling with character and swaddled in the aromas of its rural setting, and of the always-on fresh coffee, local wines and provisions and, of course, the magnificent feasts-in-preparation.   I slept in a bed more comfortable than my own, in a room that fell so silent at night that all I could hear was the cry of an owl.  In the mornings, Carol taught and tutored, and in the afternoons we wrote, with support and insight, where we sought it, from Wayne.

Wayne and co-host Aaron know how to create an ambiance that allows the writer simply to focus on their work, nurtured and well-fed, both physically and creatively.  It’s a special place, and I recommend it warmly.

As for my writing…. With Carol and Wayne’s support, I identified some critical flaws in the foundations of my dirst draft – skeletal back-story, unconvincing motivations – little things like that.  Well, I’m learning, that’s all I can say.  But I also came away with a workable plan for fixing things up – and that’s exciting.

In the end, I took a significant step forward, but realised too, that I was some distance from where I thought I was at the start.  That’s what happens when you open yourself up to learning, to taking advice from people who have so much to give, and give it so generously.  It’s an entirely good thing – it really is.

The beginning of the end – or just the end of the beginning

Last weekend was the last gasp of summer and I spent it in the garden.  Not weeding and watering, but with my fingers glued to the keyboard.  Yes, I have at last reached the end of my first draft.  My story is complete.

Well, sort of.

I’m at a surreal moment of elation and crisis.  I’m thrilled at having got this far, but keenly aware that my story is full of holes, inconsistencies and great chunks I want to change, improve and delete – and add too, I think.  There are character inconsistencies and plot weaknesses, to say nothing of the sections I first wrote a year ago that today make me curl into a ball and weep.   And that’s before I start on the inevitable adverb cull and punctuation review.

I’ve learned so much in the last 18 months, and come so far, but there’s so much still to do.

And you know, I’d love to write great huge blog posts, but what I really want is to get on with finishing my story. You understand, don’t you?