At long last I have returned to do some concentrated editing and rewriting of the children’s novel I wrote last year. This is the novel I am writing for my Master of Arts in Creative Writing degree. It is now in its 7th draft (and counting).
You can read about how I went about the process of writing it here, including some articles outlining some of the background research, some of the considerations I needed to address and some of the problems encountered.
I had attempted to complete the novel and hand it up for assessment late last year but illness got in the way. Continued illness has hindered my progress so far this year too. After a break of over three months I am finally in a position to make a run for the finish line.
At the moment I am going through my supervisor’s notes and making changes where necessary. In many cases this involves changing a few words here and there, eliminating unnecessary words and phrases (and some ponderous sentences) and paying close attention to punctuation. It is painstaking work but very necessary. Not only do I desire a good mark but I also want to impress a publisher so much that there is no option but to snap up my manuscript and publish it.
Today I have been looking at the first few chapters. I want them to be the very best I can do. In many cases you have to win over the editor and the reader in the first chapter – sometimes even in the first page.
Some writing hints:
Pay close attention to all punctuation marks. Get it right.
Get rid of unnecessary words.
Eliminate anything which does not advance the plot.
Vary the length of your sentences.
Make the opening scenes and chapters memorable in order to hook the reader into turning the pages.
‘You have to write the first draft of your novel to find out what the b***** book is about.’ Tom Keneally at the 2010 Adelaide Writers’ Week.
Writing the first draft of a novel or short story can be daunting, scary, puzzling, confronting or fantastically exhilarating. Often all those things at once!
When I was writing my novel last year I was pushing the limits of my writing abilities. I had a strict deadline, I was recovering from a serious illness and I was frankly terrified that I wouldn’t get finished on time. The adrenalin was pumping overtime, but I did it. I found that once I built a little momentum in the first few chapters, the story and characters took over. Where normally I can often struggle to produce a thousand words in a day, I found that the momentum built to such a degree that I was sometimes churning out over 2000-3000 words in a day. The feeling was great and the story quickly took shape, structure and character.
I did have a sort of outline for the story. I didn’t have a strict plot as such. Instead I let the story write itself. Events I had planned had interesting consequences that I hadn’t thought of in the planning stage. I find that this form of writing works best for me. I’ve never been one to plan out every element of the plot, every aspect of each character or even how it will end. In that I can understand the Keneally quote at the beginning of this article. Writing a novel or story can be a journey of discovery.
On the other hand I can also understand those writers who must plan every part of the storyline and do extensive character studies before they write even one word. This process is distinct from the research stage. I had to do a great deal of reading in my research phase because my novel was set in a country where I had visited but not lived. I didn’t take many notes from my research. Instead I preferred to merely absorb the culture, the environment and the nature of the people.
I disagreed with a piece of wisdom printed in our daily newspaper today.
‘You can’t get to the top by sitting on your bottom.’ The Advertiser, Adelaide, March 27th 2010.
In many walks of life that aphorism is very appropriate: you can’t succeed unless you are willing to get up off your butt and get working.
I believe the opposite is true – in one sense – when it comes to success in writing. You can’t succeed as a writer unless you apply your backside to a seat and start writing. I guess the meaning is still the same; it’s just the way you do it that counts.
Many people are in love with the idea of ‘being a writer’ but are not prepared to put in the hard yards, the lonely hours at the keyboard, the frustrating wait to hear from publishers and all that other stuff that goes with being a writer. They want to have written, but do not want the many hours, days, months and years or dedicated sacrifice and hard work it takes to become a writer.
So I’d like to amend that proverb so that it is true for writers:
‘You can only get to the top as a writer by sitting on your bottom and writing.’
On a number of posts over the last few weeks I have written about the writers who were speakers at this year’sAdelaide Writers’ Week (click here to read more). I have also written about some of the things Australian writer Tom Keneally had to say. Here is another quote:
“I am still in a marriage with one book when I fall in love with another story.” Tom Keneally, 2010 Adelaide Writers’ Week
I know that feeling well.
I start off all enthusiastically on my work in progress. I marry myself to The Story. I do everything possible to please her, pamper her and see her grow in beauty. I am head over heels in love with her demands, spending long hours wooing her, meeting her every need and seeing that nothing gets in the way of our delightful nuptial bliss.
Then unexpectedly, with no warning sirens blaring, another Story comes mincing seductively along the path, knocks provocatively on the door of my heart and whoosh…. I am carried off in flights of imagination, falling madly in love with this New Story. Something has triggered my heart into believing that this New Story is the Love of My Life.
In this situation I know I have to remain faithful to the original story. I need to keep focussed on what I am doing to the exclusion of all else. A very practical way of dealing with this new distraction is to spend a few minutes jotting down the salient points of the new story. File it away – in such a way that it is easy to locate again in the future. Then forget all about it. She will sulk, she might whine and carry on for a few hours but eventually she will settle down and bide her time until she can take her rightful place in your life.
I had the privilege of hearing Australian writer Tom Keneally speak several times during this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week. On each occasion he was in fine form and proved to be not only a brilliant speaker, but also funny and instructive – often at the same time.
I didn’t take many notes during the week but preferred to just sit, listen and soak up the wonderful atmosphere while listening to such a fine parade of great writers. I did take a few notes for one of Tom’s talks.
“I am the one who needs my books – the world goes on perfectly well without them. I am no longer under the delusion that the world needs my books.” Tom Keneally, Adelaide Writers’ Week 2010
This is a sober reminder about the world and about books. He is perfectly right, of course. The world will continue functioning as it does without that novel or short story or poem you are slaving over. It will make no difference at all if that piece of writing is never published.
Tom is also wrong
At the same time, I believe that Tom is also wrong. The world may not need that novel, non-fiction book, sonnet or article, but there is surely someone out there – perhaps only one person, or a handful of people – whose lives can be changed, influenced or even enhanced by what you write. This is why we must, as writers entrusted with divine words, always strive to write the very best we possibly can.