Monday, 2 April 2012

What I Learned From Writing My Second Novel

Dig the cool cover by David Dean who
also designed the cover of Tall Story
By Candy Gourlay

How do you finish a second novel?

With difficulty.

Especially if the book is has been listed on bloody Amazon for a YEAR and has a cover and your SENSITIVE, HELPFUL friends keep saying, 'Candy, we're going to pre-order your book!'

And life keeps getting in the way, and new ideas for future books keep sneaking into your brain except how are you ever going to write another book this one is taking so LONG, and you've got to market your OTHER book, and you're afraid of saying no to Dylan Calder and to school visits and your other book is published in paperback to a deafening silence in the United States and you know you've got to DO SOMETHING to make the Americans read it but HOW? (for pity's sake, my non-fellow Americans,  buy it on Amazon) And you've got to visit your mother in the Philippines and the children have inadvertently EATEN the fridge (again!) and blah blah blah BLAH.


So you can imagine the joy with which I announced on one of those social networks (can't remember which, my life is a blur) that I was just ONE CHAPTER away from finishing.

I received everyone's congratulations with a glow of pride and then I tried to write the chapter and it turned into FIVE (six if you count the thingy I inserted in the opening act).

Dang.

Authors seem to like quoting authors and my favourite quote about finishing a novel comes from Neil Gaiman quoting his friend, Gene Wolfe. After finishing the first draft of American Gods Gaiman turned to Wolfe and said, 'I think I know how to write a novel now.' Wolfe replied:

You never learn how to write a novel ... you only learn to write the novel you're on.


So what did I learn from writing this novel I've been on? 
1. A wrong turn will lead you to the wrong story.


Yeah. I made a wrong turn while writing this book. And I could tell something was wrong because I kept trying different viewpoints. Third person. First person. Dual. You name it, I tried it. Don't give up, I told myself. Keep on writing.

What I didn't twig was that the problem was not persistence. It was about admitting that I'd gone left instead of going right. At first I didn't notice that I made that wrong turn. And when I did I didn't want to turn back. I mean, all that plot wasted! All that character development lost! All those hours writing all those words! All that coffee!

But a wrong turn is a wrong turn. You can't get away from the fact because at the end of the day (or the novel), you'll find that you've arrived at the wrong destination. You've written the wrong story. Do not pass go.

A screenshot of the Amazon description (it's supposed to have been changed but it's still up!) which tells the wrong story.


2. It's okay to start again.

So after gnashing your teeth and banging your head on the wall and weeping NO NO NO NO into your bloodied palms, the thing to do is to start again.

Yup. Start again. Like, from the very beginning. A very good place to start.

Never mind if you got to the end before you realized how bad it was, never mind if that little voice at the back of your head keeps whispering you can fake it ... just do that little thing you do and nobody will notice. Never mind if it's been YEARS. Never mind if all your well meaning friends and relatives keep saying, it only needs a little TWEAK (They all tell you that because they don't want to upset you. A total rewrite is not a tweak. There. I said it).

You KNOW that you have to start again. Well ... you don't have to, of course. You can choose to just barrel on.

But if you want to be proud of it, if you don't want to be eternally making excuses ('Oh read my other book, it's much better than that one!'), if you don't mind reading the horrible reviews by people you've never met on Amazon  then fine, don't press that reset button.

But at the end of the day? It's okay. It will take another year or two maybe, but what's a few years if you end up with a story you're proud of? Hey, If you sing loud enough, you won't hear yourself screaming.

I pressed the reset button in September 2011 after working on this darn thing for almost two years. It's now April 2012. Not too bad, I suppose. But I'm glad I did it.


3. Writing a novel is like taking exercise. Too little gets you nowhere. Too much is too much. 


So I think THREE Nanowrimos went by in the time that it took me to finish Shine.

All those people writing novels in one month while there I was plodding along. My word count only ever rose by one hundred words a day. Oftentimes less. Sometimes I ended with fewer words than I started the day with.

Meanwhile, people were tweeting on Nanowrimo: Five thousand words today! DING DING! #nanowrimo #amwriting

How did they do that? What was I doing wrong? Okay, I told myself, today you will not stop until you've finished a thousand new words. But the thousand new words were such crap that I found myself paralyzed.  What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I just can't churn like everyone else seemed to be doing?

Last year I had a bit of a health scare - won't tell you the mind-numbing details - suffice it to say that I had to lose weight or else. So I made myself exercise for half an hour everyday. Sometimes I thought, do more, lose more calories! So I did an extra 10 or 15 minutes. But doing the extra made me too exhausted to write, or cook my nutritious meals or do anything. And the last slice of cake in the fridge? It ended up in a place where cakes shouldn't reach. Extra time turned out to be fattening.

Thirty minutes was the doable time - I mean, what is 30 minutes? In 30 minutes, all you would be able to do is 'like' a few more status updates on Facebook,  watch a cat tap dancing on YouTube, check  your emails a few dozen times more. So I stuck with 30 minutes and lo and behold it worked (in addition to some dieting but that's another story).

So. When I get into a Why am I not writing as much as everyone else #amwriting? frenzy, I delve into my exercise brain. Little by little will do it. As long as I do it day by day by day. 100 words a day is ABSOLUTELY FINE.

As long as you don't take a wrong turn.


4.  Make like a lens. Zoom out. Zoom in. Repeat.
Does my plot look big in this? Photo: Henry Posner

There's a time to zoom in and there's a time to zoom out.

When you are just starting a novel it's a good idea to spend time zoomed way, way out. Ask yourself the BIG questions. Who are these characters? Why am I writing this? What is this about?

(I mean, REALLY ask yourself. And write down the answer and learn it by heart. Because that's what everyone will be asking you, over and over again till the end of time. What's your book about? It only becomes a book when you can answer the question.)

But when you're in the nitty gritty of laying down the chapters, zoom in tight. Be in the moment. Feel the feeling. See, hear, touch. Because it's the detail and incident that make a story come to life.

Don't be tempted to zoom out when you're in the moment. Because looking at the whole when you are suposed to be writing the parts can put you off your stride. It's daunting to see the whole journey. Zooming out when you should be zooming in results in short cuts, unrealized characterization, loss of tension.

And then when you're almost done, zoom out again - is it coming together? Does the end match the beginning? Are the voices consistent? Are the characters plausible?


5. Ask yourself: what's GREAT about this story? Then cut out all the other stuff.

I told this story in my Crystal Kite Prize acceptance speech last year.

When I finished my first draft, I was very unhappy with the result. I was all set for a tough meeting with my editor, Simon Mason at David Fickling Books, expecting him to give me a ream of corrections and instructions on how to repair the terrible problems with the plot. But instead, he sat me down and said, "When you approach revising this book, you must not focus on problems and fixing them. You must focus on what is GREAT about it."
And then he told me what he thought was great. And when I knew what was great about my story, I simply dropped everything that wasn't. 



6. If you're explaining things, you're not writing story. Don't explain, light fuses instead.

I am constantly surprised at how little attention is given to set up and pay off in the writing books that I consume voraciously. It's all about plot and character and setting and voice. But the simple idea of a set up that has its pay off somewhere much later in the story, is not well explored.

If it were, perhaps exposition would not be such a burden.

I learned two things about exposition while writing this book:

1. Exposition doesn't feel like exposition if it's couched in story. That is to say - instead of describing and giving background and explaining, tell a story. Then your little piece of valuable information becomes part of the storytelling instead of sticking out like an encyclopaedia entry.

2. A weed is a plant in the wrong place. Exposition is a lot like a weed. It's information in the wrong place.

From Etsy

The wrong place is wherever it slows down pace, interrupts action, and bores the reader into leaving the book.

The right place is where it passes unnoticed, is part of the action, and helps the story progress. Too many of us think that cutting exposition is about cutting text. What I learned from writing this novel is that it's about putting it in the right place.

But you've got to understand story structure to seed it in the right places. Film director Alexander Mackendrick in a rather dense book called On Film-making called it "lighting fuses".  Whether the fuse is long or short and where it detonates comes down to your understanding of story structure.



So that's me. Done with another book. Whew. A second novel! OMG!

There were times in the past two and a half years when I wondered if writing was really for me. I read and re-read Libba Bray's blog post when she was on the homestretch of Going Bovine, about how writing a novel is like falling in love. At the lowest point, I seriously considered retraining as an illustrator - but I know, I know, there can be only one Sarah McIntyre.

Now that SHINE is finished, I can imagine the future again and new ideas for books are already competing for attention in my brain. I wonder what I'm going to learn from the next one.

Go on then. Make my day. Pre-order SHINE.

So what's your book about, Candy?
There's an island where it never stops raining. And a girl named Rosa sitting at a window. Every night, Rosa lights a candle  because ghosts are drawn to candle light and she is desperate to summon Mother's  ghost. One night, she looks out and there she is, waiting in the street. Mother.







86 comments :

  1. Such a helpful post! Thank you for being so honest-it's so easy to look at the polished perfect book-shop product and think that this stuff comes easily to all Published Authors.

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    1. thanks jongleuse! and sometimes the bookshop product isn't perfect either!

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  2. Hurray! So looking forward to reading it. Pre-ordering right now. Also printing out this wonderful post, and when I am struggling (as I do, all the time) I will read it and be inspired.

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    1. Aww thanks, Keren. Hard to believe you struggle - your novels seem to just trip off your laptop.

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    2. haha...hollow laughter....if only

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  3. Such a brave post and so helpful. Easy to imagine this stuff comes naturally to all Published Authors.

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  4. Sorry! internet being tricksy. But I meant it-twice!

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  5. Hi:
    I am a new mumsnet network blogger and came across your awesome post. You say it like it is in the right way that my ADD wants to hear.

    I am not afraid to consider writing a book now. Thank you for perspective and best of luck girl. You did it and #2! Wow.

    Best,
    Kristen
    www.getoveryourselfplease.blogspot.com
    twitter Get Over It kkshaw47

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    1. Hi Kristen! Welcome to Mumsnet and hope to see more of you. Have duly subscribed to your blog!

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  6. Wonderful post! And so reassuring for those of us struggling through our first book.

    Here's a Nanowrimo story that I hope makes all of us feel better -- I met someone during Nanowrimo last year. Her goal was 150,000 words that month!!! But then I asked what she planned to do with her work - in other words, was she trying to get published? No, she said, she doesn't like editing, she just likes getting the words on paper. So, a seemingly gazillion words a day really doesn't mean anything in the trying to get published world.

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    1. Joining Nanowrimo used to be one of my ambitions - but it's a tough call for a slow writer. I find that I can't go forward unless my text is polished to a certain level ... and then I still keep questioning myself, is this really what I want to say? Thanks for the comforting story.

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  7. Wonderful and insightful post.One that I will share with my students. Can't wait for the new book. And like Keren I am going to print this out as a reminder. Brilliant news that it is finished.Congratulations Candy

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  8. Candy, great post. Always enjoy reading your blog entries.

    Congrats on finishing the book. Don't know how you have the stamina for a full novel. :)

    Take care, let's catch up soon.

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    1. Thanks Chitra ... and thanks for messaging me on the spellilng!

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  9. This is SUCH a great post, Candy. Thank you! I'm with Keren, I need to print this excellent advice out NOW. And pre-order the book. And someday when I get back to America, I'm going to talk about your amazing books non-stop, I promise!

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    1. Oooh now I'll be asking you, are you there yet? Thank you!

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  10. You are a genius, this is a brilliant post! You do, however, realise that all this writing leads to insanity, of both the permanent and temporary kind - all that screaming, all that eating of fridges, all that talking to and double-questioning yourself...
    All that said, you are an inspiration and having had a little taste of Shine already, I can't wait to read the whole, completed book!
    Congratulations, Candy!

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  11. Great post, Candy. And thanks so much for fitting in the odd critique when you should have been squeezng out a few dozen words instead! Reading this has made me wonder whether I should go back to do those 'little tweaks' myself. Nah! Think I'll stick with the new WIP. Maybe later......

    Can't wait to read Shine Candy. I'm kniw it will be great.

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    1. The fact is there is always later, isn't there? Each manuscript will have its time!

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  12. I especially love point 5 here - 'what's great about this story?' A timely reminder (for me) to concentrate on the good stuff and ditch the bad, rather than rewriting it to fit. Oh and I like point 6 too - 'light fuses' - great metaphor. Actually 4 is starting too feel relevant too. ... You know what? It's all great. Thanks for your insights and good luck with Shine.

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    1. The odd thing was it never occurred to me to ask myself What's great about this story? It's an exercise that critique groups ought to institute!

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  13. Great post! Thank you for sharing part of your journey. Congratulations on completing Book 2. I love all the advice you have given in this post but especially love the advice your editor gave you. This is one of those posts I had to read write now as I am completing final edits on my WIP before submission. Wishing you many sales of both your books. - KimK :)

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  14. I could click on 'pre-oder', Candy, but are you having a launch where I can buy it instead? I think you should! After all that you deserve to PARTY.

    p.s. any help on my book 2 cheerfully accepted.

    p.s.s. by 'cheerfully' I mean duck when you come through the door of the writing cave...

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    1. Well ... I haven't thought that far ahead yet! Definitely should do something partyish! At the moment I'm emotionally exhausted and can't imagine organizing ANYTHING!

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  15. Thanks for sharing all this, Candy. I can really feel your frustration, but I'm a firm believer that little that was created easily will be of much worth. And this post is especially interesting for me right now, as I'm just launching into my second book and already grinding my teeth at an empty screen.

    Congratulations on finishing! I'm looking forward to reading Shine.

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    1. Thank you and good luck on book two!

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  16. Phew.

    Thanks for just making sense of everything I've been trying (and failing) to understand myself.
    Enjoy!

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  17. Wow - what a writerly journey for you!! I'm soooooooooo happy you've finished your book!! Phew!! You deserve all the success after such a path to publication! Take care
    x

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  18. What a great post, I'm so glad you got there in the end, Candy. I love your blurb and cant' wait to read it. I won't preorder though, I'll by it at your launch!!

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    1. Thanks, Jackie! And when is YOUR launch?

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  19. I write shorter books, not novels, but found points 5 and 6 extremely interesting. I like the idea of "focusing on what is GREAT" and the image of a light fuse is also memorable. Your blog entries (and acceptance speeches) are always full of wisdom! Thanks Candy.

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  20. Congratulations on finishing the book. I do love the cover and the blurb. Good idea to focus on the great not the bad of the book. Have to keep that in mind.

    Exercise - you can break down the 30 mins in half if you want. Do 15 mins am and the other 15 pm. That is what I do and have lost 8lbs so far.

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  21. I absolutely felt your pain throughout this whole process, especially when I was struggling through my own book while you were struggling through yours. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I thought you were MAD to rewrite the whole thing. But having gone through a few struggles to preserve the integrity of my own writing, I can understand what it's like being faced with something that you're not happy with, and how that niggles and pinches at your soul.

    So you're there now, slowly but surely. I feel that some kind of "Slow Writer's Anonymous" is called for. If I write 300 words, that's a really good day for me. But you know what, they'll be 300 really good words - so that's ok.

    Nick.

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    1. Slow Writers Anonymous sounds like a brilliant idea! And you're right - as long as the words are brilliant, it doesn't matter how many they are.

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  22. Great post, Candy!
    Tall Story achieved so much recognition and I'm sure Shine will shine brightly too!
    Good luck and best wishes for the next stage on you and your new book's journey.
    Tracy

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  23. Fantastic post, Candy. I had to do the starting-again-from-the-beginning last year (after 50,000 words of complete yet awful novel) so this resonates! I love point 5 especially.

    Shine looks wonderful. Pre-ordering now!

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  24. Congratulations on SHINE, Candy! A great post - honest, informative and pretty inspiring! I'm off to pre-order Shine now...

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    1. Thanks, Savita - and congrats on your new book deal! Can't wait to read it!

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  25. I am going to print this post off as well - it is brilliant! Shine sounds wonderful and I would pre-order but someone mentioned the possibility of a launch?
    I hope that you are back to full health now, sorry to hear that you have had some problems.

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    1. I am amazed everyday at how I recovered from that episode! Thank you!

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  26. Well done. Congratulations. Can't wait to read it. Thanks for sharing the pain, the doubt, the u-turn and the break-through. Agree with your point that everyone has their limit about how much they can write/draw/paint a day. If I over-do it, I'm too exhausted to do anything the next day. My best rhythm is a morning of creativity, then normal life for the rest of the day. Ok, off the pre-order now.

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    1. I'm exactly the same - the truth is my word count is low because the best of my writing only occurs in a two hour span. Thanks so much, Beverley!

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  27. great post Candy, it's good to see there's a sense of recognition about your journey, in all these comments to your post, and comforting to know its a learning curve everyone goes through! Thanks for sharing your experience of it ;)

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    1. According to Neil Gaiman the learning curve never ends. Which is a comfort in its way! Thanks, Astrid.

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  28. Gosh thanks all for your comments. I've been keeping off the internet until now, re-reading my manuscript and it was wonderful to discover all your brilliant comments on switching the internet back on!

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  29. Well done, Candy. You have triumphed! I look forward to reading Shine. I think the whole thing about exposition being story in the wrong place is spot on. Marcus Sedgewick is a master at making exposition/backstory into story in Revolver and Midwinterblood.

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    1. Now that I'm finished, I can finally read Midwinterblood which has been languishing on my to be read pile. Thanks, Jo!

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  30. Candy - Did you slice off the top of my scalp and pull a few things out . . . ? I think you did! Great post. Looking forward to reading your next one. Take care, Irfan

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    1. I still have bits of your hair on my desk. Thanks, Irfan!

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  31. Gosh! Perhaps we should all be plumbers? There's always a shortage. Or electricians? Much less painful. Hmmm ... Will just go and fiddle with the fusebox - need to see if I'm a natural. (Meanwhile, best of luck with Book 3 and if it all gets too much, come and join me at 'Meddour and Gourlay Sparks Ltd'/ Or should that be 'Gourlay and Meddour Sparks Ltd'? Or maybe 'Gourlay-Meddour Sparks Ltd' sounds better?) Will check with my editor.

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    1. In the Phlippines, Gourlay-Medour would mean we got married. Electric idea!

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    2. Ooh, perhaps it would here too! Sorry to be so forward ;)

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  32. I've been struggling with my next frog kiss book and the frustration was mounting, something wasn't gelling. So I've just asked the question - what's great? And it's the hero, Prince Laurence, he's a twit of a prince who's convinced he's a frog. And I was attempting to send him on a hero's journey with an environmental theme which is just far too serious for him. So thanks - brain unblocked!

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    1. And don't forget that YOU're what's great about the book too - your distinctive voice! It's gonna be great, Maureen!

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  33. What a wonderful post, Candy! A real keeper for when I'm in the trenches. I remember writing down that "focus on what is GREAT" comment in November, too - such wise advice.

    And can I just say... that is one fabulous story pitch! Can't wait to read it!

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    1. Thanks, Amy, sometimes the trenches can be very deep!

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  34. Thanks for sharing your experience, Candy. I'm sorry you had to go through all that though. Will pre-order :)

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  35. I've never commented before, lurking in the trenches and enjoying your posts but this time I have to say thank you for such wise suggestions and sensible ideas. I've been sending novels off to agents for six years but I'm still refusing to think of it as a ... hobby ... and you give me hope! Congratulations!

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    1. Ha! Flushed out a lurker! Thanks for coming out to comment ... and no, it's not a hobby, it's a life.

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  36. Ah,I soooooo understand! Well done and thanks for this wonderful post. Yay you!

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  37. Truly fabulous post, Candy. I'm not surprised it's getting all this attention. And I totally TOTALLY sympathise. It's exactly what I'm going through now, and have been for ages. I know it all so well! (Except having to take the children to the Philippines. I don't have to do that.) Thank you for putting it out there. And quoting Neil Gaiman. xxx

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    1. Quoting authors quoting authors is cool. You can quote me on that.

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  38. christina Vinall3 April 2012 at 14:16

    Brilliant post Candy! Think knowing when we've taken the wrong turn is the hardest thing! And being brave enough to turn back against the flow in a world constantly pushing you forward.

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    1. Sometimes though it's not courage. You've got no choice really if you want to write a good book.

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  39. Thanks for this generous post, Candy.It's definitely one to keep. I can't wait to read Shine.

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  40. Thanks for writing such an honest post, Candy. I completely identify with what you say. Second novels are just like this. Not to depress you, but writing my third novel was worse. The fourth seems a little easier (so far), but like Tim Bowler's quote in a previous post, 'Every story you write is a mountain no-one has climbed.'

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    1. There is only one response t this: ARGHHHH!!!!

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    2. Bloody mountain.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  41. Superb post - should be required reading for all loons, sorry, writers.
    I am struggling up novel number 2 whilst numbers 3 and 4 gang up on me demanding to have their go. 1 is lurking with intent at my editor's house. Yikes.
    Thanks for all the encouragement/realism.

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    1. Forgot to mention - one of the key things I learned was DO NOT MULTITASK - one novel at a time! Thanks, Philippa!

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  42. Great post, Candy. I recently published my second children's book (Eeek!) which had sat in a drawer for 10 years. You are absolutely right that if there's a bit that's not working you just have to deal with it - even if that means cutting it right out and changing direction. It's so hard to do this when you've sweated blood and tears to come up with the original plot line.

    The same thing happened with my first novel.

    And, in the end, it is worth every minute of the pain because, finally, you know you are there - especially when the great reviews start coming in!

    Are you on Twitter by the way? I can't see a link - but I have just tweeted this post (I am @kareninglis by the way - based in London ) I'm also on Google + but possibly less active than I should be there!

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    1. hi karen! thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. i'm on candygourlay on Twitter!

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  43. Congratulations on finishing book 2 Candy - I'm looking forward to reading the results of your efforts! Thank you for the timely post too, I shall be copying a couple of quotes to pin above my writing desk. I have been struggling to writing at all lately so it is good to be reminded that even 100 words a day adds up to a novel eventually!

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  44. How did I miss this brilliant post?! Thank you Candy - having totally dismantled my current WIP, it's heartening to know it does come right - even if you accidentally turned left...

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  45. Congratulations on finishing book 2 - I can't wait to read it. I really admire your bravery in pressing the reset button and absolutely sympathise with the struggle to write when life gets in the way. Your author quotes prompt me to add another quote, this time not from an author, but a comedian. Whenever I am asked how many words I've written in a day I always hear a paraphrase of Eric Morecombe in my head, saying, "I have written all the right words - just not necessarily in the right order!"

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