When is the right time to shelve a project? Taking the difficult decision to stop working on a manuscript.Read Now
A couple of weeks ago I shared a hyperlapse video over on my Instagram profile which involved me cleaning up my desk and removing a lot of my sticky notes from the wall. This happens on an infrequent basis, but always for the same reason; it signals the end, be it a full completion or a temporary hiatus, of a work in progress. Now obviously, for reasons of being economical with the amount of wastage in my writing, it’s always better if the end of a project aligns with the completion of page proofs, that magical moment when fresh books are landing on my doorstep. But projects do not always end there. Some have the good grace to arrive as little more than brief ideas, enter and depart with equal speed and efficiency. They remain shallow, and do not linger. Yet others drift in, stay a while, grow to the size of 50, 60, even seventy thousand words before they begin to flag. Grind to a halt. Some projects undoubtedly call for a break, and some never get off the ground in the first place. But how do you know when to stand up and wave the white flag of surrender on an unfinished novel?
Well, sometimes it’s really easy. Simply, your agent tells you it’s time. And in this instance, for me, the end of my current project has come in much that way. There is still merit and value in the fundamentals of the idea, but the overall structure and execution does need a moment for consideration before any valuable conclusions can be drawn about the best way forward. But what if there is no external source telling you to stop? How do you know when to call time?
Shelving any number of thousands of words feels awful, and should never be a decision taken on a whim. It’s hours spent at your desk, and probably many more spent in contemplation and research. It doesn’t even feel good to delete a thousand words from a manuscript during the editing phase at times, so scrapping a whole project, no matter where you are at with it, is bound to hurt. But therein lies the real question; are you really scrapping them?
Projects come unstuck for any number of reasons. It might be that you need more research before you push on to finish. It might be that you made a mistake further back in the manuscript and that retracing your steps will bring you to a solution. Perhaps you have inadvertently written across two genres, and the traditional publishing world most likely won't know what to do with it. Taking a break, making a slight change to the plot, structure, or the way you tell the story might be all you need. My last manuscript needed a change in tense, and it elevated the voice of one of my main protagonists, and that made all the difference. Or rather, I think it did. I'll let you know if it sells. But, if you can’t see the way forward, it could be that what you have written simply isn’t working. That in fact, it doesn’t have a future. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing, no matter the length of the current manuscript, has been in vain.
For whatever reason you take a break from a project, no matter the level of permanence, the words haven’t gone to waste. Even now, as I shelve 70,000 words, I can see the value in having written them. They are not simply being scrapped. I wrote six books before I established a relationship with my agent, and when I look back now the earliest words were not all that good. But still, they were not wasted. Each was a step forward, and the lost words of discarded manuscripts push us further as writers. They help to hone a craft, and develop a narrative voice. They teach us where our passions lie, and how to filter those into the fiction that we create. Those discarded words might teach us what not to do in the future. While it will never be a simple choice, the decision to shelve a manuscript becomes a little bit easier if you remember that every written word pushes the goal of continued publication. I believe it is those lost, quietly filed away manuscripts that help us take the biggest leap in our writing, even if those words are not destined for the printed page.
If you spend any time on Instagram, you have probably come across the term 'romanticize the life' on more than one occasion. I've heard it so many times, that now the very idea of it grates me on such a deep level that even writing the phrase here elicits a low grade fight or flight response. And yet is there anything more romantic than the idea of writing a novel?
For most people who embark on it, writing has been a long held dream. Something you have planned to do, and put off, and perhaps even started once or twice to no avail. It's easy to think of famous writers in their favoured spots, isolated sheds at the bottom of the garden, remote cabins buried in the woods. Then there are writer such as Victor Hugo who famously locked away his clothes so that he might finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I promise you that no such place is really necessary, and there is no requirement to put some bizarre practice in place so that you might get your book written.
So, while writing is, and should remain, a bit of a romantic idea, what do you really need in order to write your first book? The truth is, not a lot. And certainly not any number of items that cost a lot of money.
Here are my top five of things you need in order to get your first manuscript written.
Oh, how we'd all like a little bit more of that, right? And of all that you need to write a book, perhaps the most important (and elusive) thing of all you should put on your list, is time. Even as a fairly quick writer, to get 1000 words on the page, you need the best part of an hour. And many of us don't have hours of spare time in the day, especially when we are maintaining fulltime jobs elsewhere. When I wrote my first book I was working as a physiologist in the National Health Service. That coupled with weekly on-call duties that sometimes required me to be watching electrocardiograms for the best part of a whole night, I sometimes found myself working in excess of fifty hours a week. Finding the time to dedicate to writing wasn't simple. So, I began with using what I had. I found that I could spare an hour each evening, straight after the washing up, and so I used that. And putting that time aside for writing had a cumulative effect. The less TV I watched, the less I wanted to watch . The more I gave to the book, the more I wanted to give.
Some of you are probably thinking, well that's great Michelle, but I don't have an hour. Okay, what about 15 minutes? Most people can find that, I think. And if you can write 250 words each day, by the end of the first week you'd have 1500 words, even after scheduling in a day off. Twelve months at that rate will give you 78,000 words by the end of the year. With fifteen minutes a day, you could go from a lofty dream, to a fully formed first draft.
This point really rides the coattails of my first point, but I think it's worth a place on the list all of its own merit. You need a routine. Let's say you have only fifteen minutes. If you don't make those fifteen minutes a priority, then they will get lost to any number of other things that demand your attention. Even now, as a full time writer, a person who is home alone every day, I have to tell myself to stick to the routine of being at my desk. It's so easy to get distracted by family/household chores/TV/responsibilities in any other area of life you can think of. You have to protect your writing time, and the best way of doing that is by making it a routine.
Many experts talk about habit formation as being easier if you can 1) maintain it for a period of time, and 2) stack a new habit onto the back of something else. If you do manage to maintain a routine for a period of time, it does get easier, but I have found the best way of maintaining that routine in the first place is to make it dependent on something I already do. So now, as soon as I make my second cup of tea in the morning, I head to my desk. There's a long list of things that need doing before that, like dog walking, school run, etc etc, but I know as soon as I complete them and make that second drink, I am at work. Just like having a start time for the office.
If you are using a smaller window of time, maybe you arrange it so it piggybacks something else, like straight after putting the kids to bed. Maybe it comes once you make your first coffee before everybody else is awake. I don't know what works for you. But if you can make writing dependent on something you have no choice but to do, i.e, when I finish X, I sit down to write, it stands a lot more chance of happening.
Who knew there were so many essential things to work as a writer. A standing desk, a pomodoro timer, a mechanical keyboard, and whatever else you come across on social media. I have either bought or considered all of these and many more at one point or another. There are so many things you can buy, or subscribe too, but you need very little of it to actually write. The only thing you really need in terms of equipment is a method of recording what you write. For most people, this will be a PC or laptop, and some writing software. For others, it could be a pen and a notepad. You could use a phone. It doesn't matter how the words are recorded, only that they are.
A dedicated space
Perhaps this is a bit of a luxury, but I include it because I think it helps. Knowing when you are going to write is one thing, but where is just as important. A place that you associate with writing, and that reduces barriers to doing it. If you have a desk you can use, laptop already there and ready to go, that's great. Just as good is a kitchen counter, or a dining room table. If you can leave out your notes or laptop, even better still. But a spot where you will not be disturbed or pulled away is ideal. Dan Brown wrote the entire outline for his international bestseller The DaVinci Code in his parent's storeroom. I think I read that his laptop was balanced either on a couple of crates or the ironing board. Hardly what you'd call luxurious. But it was his space, and his habit to go there meant he knew when he was working. Maybe your place is your spot on the train, the loo while your kids are in the bath. The car while you wait between appointments. Just know that your space needs to tell you one thing; when you are here, you are writing.
When I first announced that I was going to write a book, I was lucky that the people in my life didn't try to dissuade me. I was supported, and encouraged. But that won't be the case for everybody. But if you are somebody who does not have the support of your immediate family or friends, that doesn't mean you shouldn't go ahead and make a start. But what it does mean is that you should seek the support you will need elsewhere. If the people in your life can't find their inner cheerleader, find others who will be that for you. A writing group, either local or online, where you can join a community of other writers will do wonders for your inspiration and commitment. Follow other writers and interact with them via social media. The writing community is by its very nature a very supportive place. You will find friends who will cheer you on, even if the people closer to home do not.
There are other things you might find essential as you move through the process. Personally, silence is essential, and I have at times found voice to text software an invaluable way of getting through a period of carpel tunnel. But these five things will get you going. Next time, I'm going to list my top five things that a new writer does not need.
Until then, happy writing...
In the last post I discussed the issue of quality, and the fact that I don't consider it as all that important when drafting a story for the first time. And so here I thought to highlight that point, it might be fun to take a look at the first draft of some of my work, and compare it with the final edition.
Below, you will find the first paragraphs from an early edition of Little Wishes, which at the time was called The Light From Wolf Rock. In fact, this isn't the opening chapter, because that changed in its entirety. An early draft with peppered with letters from one character to the next, and they were all but removed from the final draft. In it's place I wrote a new present day narrative, which changed things dramatically. But this once opening chapter remained as chapter two. Reading it now, I can see that the elements I wanted to get in their do exist, but there is much less finesse, the language is more roughly hewn together, and there is a depth to the internal monologue of the character that is missing. All of that comes over the course of getting to know the characters, and developing the story. I could have worked on this opening chapter for weeks, and it could have been glorious, but I still think I'd have ended up changing it once I'd written the whole book.
I hope seeing the way that my first draft has changed will be helpful to you in creating your own first draft of whatever novel you are currently writing.
first draft of the light from wolf rock
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. She sat up in bed, her curtains still open. The sky was dark, broken by a single glimmer of light as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. Summer was over and the onset of autumn had delivered with it the promise of a difficult winter, the kind where the salt spray would infiltrate everything, a permanent slick of saline on your lip. Moments later she heard a door slam, and then from the distance, travelling on the wind, the faintest ringing of a bell. It chimed, frenetic and hurried. Was that a voice she could hear, calling out? She pushed the covers aside and moved to the window, her feet cold on the wooden floor. She saw her father rushing down the street, his boots untied, his pyjamas sneaking out from underneath the tails of his coat. Where was he going at this hour, dressed in his nightclothes?
Elizabeth’s father was the village doctor and liked to keep a standard. It was important, he thought, for his patients to see him as organized and dependable, so that they might trust him with their ailments. It helped, he said, with gleaning an honest history. But his absence meant that her mother would be worried on her own. She didn’t cope well with change anymore. Only a year ago she was full of surprises; returning home with little gifts like a new set of paints, ribbon for plaiting hair, or perhaps something as simple as a particularly beautiful leaf which she had retrieved from the ground. Her mother hated the thought of beauty going unnoticed, something of worth being forgotten. That was perhaps the cruelest irony since she herself only last week had forgotten Elizabeth’s name.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. The landing was long, broken by steps in the middle. It ran all the way from Elizabeth’s room to a door at the other end. The door to her parents’ bedroom was ajar, the light creating a golden shard in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth, but there came no answer. Elizabeth picked up the pace, feeling that something wasn’t right. She arrived alongside the landing window, hearing the scuffle of more hurried feet rushing along the winding street in the direction of the sea. A light rain misted against the window, the black road silver in the moonlight where water collected in the uneven surface. Who were those men, and to where were they running? She followed their movement; light shone from the harbor, and something didn’t feel right.
FInal edition of little wishes
The first Elizabeth knew of the accident was when she woke to the dull thudding of her father’s boots on the stairs. The dark sky was broken by the glimmer of moonlight as it fussed at the edge of a break in the clouds. The clock ticked at her side, and she saw that it was a little after 1 a.m. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed, followed by the faintest ringing of a bell. Was that a voice she could hear too, calling out? Pushing the covers aside, she jumped from the bed, moved towards the window. As she peered into the street, she saw her father rushing from their home in the direction of the sea. His shoes were untied, the blue and white stripe of his pyjamas flickering underneath the tails of his coat. There had been calls for such urgent departures in the past, but even in the direst of emergencies he always got dressed. Leaving in his nightclothes was unthinkable.
Elizabeth pushed her feet into her slippers and opened her bedroom door. With her father gone, the responsibility for her mother was left to her. Even at the age of seventeen she knew it wasn’t good for her to wake alone. Ahead, a thin slither of light shone from the door of her parents’ bedroom, left ajar in an otherwise tenebrous house.
‘Mum,’ called Elizabeth as she moved along the landing. They tried to keep her accompanied since the cruelty of the confusion had set in about a year ago, yet still there were unpredictable moments like this when she ended up alone. Early onset Alzheimer’s, her father called it. The name didn’t mean much to Elizabeth, but she hated the disease all the same. Only last month they had found her mother trying to take a boat out, with seemingly little idea about where she was and devastatingly unprepared for what might have lay ahead. Her condition was getting steadily worse, just a little bit every day; her presence in their family like a rock ground down by the constant weight of the tides.
Last week on the blog, I was thinking about my writing routines, and the kind of practices I used to have in terms of writing my earliest books. Also, what routines I have now, and in what way they differ to how I started out. And now that it is November, officially the month of NaNoWriMo, it seems sensible to linger a while longer on this. Because while it's okay to talk about writing practices, and how they are changed, an important question goes unanswered; what is required to formulate a writing practice in the first place?
For many people this November will be the first time they embark on a novel writing experience. In the past I have also participated in NaNoWriMo, and it was an excellent way for me to focus my time and efforts on a predefined goal. My third self-published book was written that way. But managing to write 50,000 words within one month does, I think, seem a somewhat daunting process. Even now, the truth is, that if I was asked to write that many words in one month, my first reaction would not be positive. I'd be considering the complexities of navigating a plot, of how to make the relationships between the characters blend effortlessly, and how I might make characters I had not yet met for any length of time feel real. But while all of these concerns go against writing that many words in such a short space of time, the argument against taking that challenge ignores one of the most fundamental tents of what it takes to write a novel.
If you are reading this, I'm guessing there is a chance you are considering writing a novel. Perhaps it's not your first, or maybe perhaps it is. It doesn't matter when it comes to this point. Because I suspect that at no matter what stage you are at, whether it be your first book, or your tenth, you share a concern that all writers feel to varying degrees. Even now, as I plan my next book, I am aware of it; will it be any good? But if this is your first novel, I feel there is something important to point out, because there is something you learn after having written a few novels already; the first draft doesn't have to be.
Only in the practice of writing do you begin to learn that early drafts have no requirement to be good. Some writers might spend months on writing a first draft, only to delete it and start again once that rough attempt gave them what they needed. Others might keep the early draft and cherry pick the best bits. Of course, there are a few who are able to write an almost clean draft from the outset, but I know for a fact there are also many, many sentences and paragraphs that will be scrapped for the majority of writers working today. Even a novel that has been through several edits by the writer herself, and perhaps the agent too, will go on to receive further scrutiny at the level of the publishing house. My first traditionally published novel My Sister was changed dramatically after getting to the publishers.
So if you are setting out to write your first novel, whether it be a 50,000 word bonanza during NaNoWriMo, or a more gentle fifteen to twenty minutes per day while the kids are in the bath and you have the laptop propped on your knees, I offer you this one moment of solidarity from somebody who knows; worry less about what you are writing, and focus only on the fact you are doing it. The quality of the writing matters little at this stage. Just get the story down, and you can work on things like voice, structure, and even plot at a later date. The best bits always show up during the edit anyway.