|Dig the cool cover by David Dean who|
also designed the cover of Tall Story
How do you finish a second novel?
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).
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.
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.