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Life as a Shopgirl and Pen-for-Hire

My circumstances have finally changed. In the last month I have gone from being unemployed and fairly desperate, to being partially employed in two places. Ah, the relief!

Since October last year I have been volunteering for an organisation which helps the needy. I work in their shop three afternoons a week, sorting, pricing and selling donated goods. I enjoy it and I have made some good friends while getting some much needed retail experience. Some of the volunteers have also worked in a nearby fresh food shop, and one of them told me to apply there, because the owners always seemed to need people. I did, and I was taken on for three days a week. I have now been gainfully employed there for two weeks, and yesterday I received my first payment. Yay!

So what’s it like being employed again after all this time? It feels fantastic. Rude jokes about Shopgirls and Checkout Chicks don’t touch me – it’s great to have a job!

In my last blog-post I wrote a little about my new internet writing experience. Having completed the first month’s contract, I can honestly say that it’s been fun too. Here’s how that all happened:

I applied to an internet writing site about six months ago. This is a site which supplies daily content to its various clients around the world. They have writers on their books from America, Canada, the UK and Australia. At the time, they didn’t have any vacancies for writers in Australia, but in January that changed. They asked me for a sample piece, which I wrote and sent to them. They liked it enough to put me on their waiting list until they had a contract. I was told that this typically takes three to four months.

I forgot about it in the Greater Job Search, but in April they offered me a contract for 10 short articles, to be delivered at intervals until the end of that month. Payment is always at the end of the following month, so I would only be paid for these at the end of May. I agreed.

This type of work has been a new experience for me. It’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s helped me to flex my long-dormant writing brain, which is always a good feeling. Basically, I have to find news from certain suburbs where their client has branches, write a set number of words about it, including at least one of their specified keywords. I spend a lot of time scouring the internet looking for what sometimes seems impossible, and then construct a short piece about it. Each one takes me about two days to find the news, and half a day to write the piece. When it’s done I start on the next.

After I had sent off the first few, they offered me an extra four because another of their Australian writers had a temporary problem. I took it on, probably against my better judgement because (as we all know) I am not a fast writer.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, but the good news is that I managed to deliver my full fourteen articles on time, and now I have another fourteen articles to deliver in May. And money at the end of it.

My poor novel is still a work-in-progress, but now that the Job Search is out of my head, I am open to ideas again. My notebook goes everywhere with me, because researching life is also researching for my writing.

At this stage I’m not sure what the future holds for me in Australia, but it’s certainly looking a whole lot better than it did just a month ago. I’m writing, I’m earning, and I’m happy!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 7: When Life Gets in the Way

One of the greatest joys in my life is to be able to sit down and work on my current novel. I like nothing more than to have an empty day stretching ahead of me, plenty of tea and a few tasty snacks to nibble. I love to huddle over my computer with two cats nudging each other out of the way for lap space, and my head in another world for hours on end as I take my characters ever closer to the final page’s sail into the sunset. Sheer bliss!

Unfortunately, reality intrudes. Life gets in the way for all of us, and while that’s not a bad thing, it can be frustrating when you’re trying to keep track of a tenuous work-in-progress.

This is one of the reasons why I like to have my novel’s working outline constantly close at hand. Even if I haven’t written anything in weeks, all I need at the start of a long-overdue writing session is a few minutes to glance over the outline and read my notes about which piece of it I worked on last time, then I’m back in the hot seat, fired up and ready to go.

Sadly, that hasn’t happened for a while now.

Before April started, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, in a determined attempt to add to the word count of my as-yet-unfinished first draft. All I had to do was find time to write about 1000 words a day. Halfway through the month, I had to reduce my target to 700 words a day, but I have still failed. We all have our excuses, and here are mine:

First, the job I supposedly got back in March was snatched from me at the eleventh hour. I still don’t know what happened, but it seems to have been a combination of bureaucracy and a faulty message system. Suffice it to say that I had to start all over again from scratch, looking for a new job. Disheartening to say the least!

Second, a writing contract that I applied for back in January came up at last. Ten small articles online, but it’s quite fun and a good chance to stretch my writing muscles in new ways. (Plus there’s a little bit of money to be made, which is very welcome.) So instead of writing anything else, I have spent the last two weeks searching for material for the client’s business, and each article I write takes me about a day longer than it should. I will get faster, so they keep telling me…

Third, in answer to my ever-lengthening quest for a job, I have been given the chance to prove myself in a busy fresh food store, with a few casual shifts per week to bring in some much-needed money. I trained today and will start officially tomorrow.

Suddenly life has got in the way of writing. I’m very grateful that at last I can start to get my life back on track and move forward. But where does this leave me, writing-wise?

No need to panic. I’ve got this sorted. I’m going to carry on as before. I’m adaptable. I’m a writer, after all. It will just take me a little longer.

While I can’t always stay glued to the computer, that doesn’t mean I have to stop thinking about my story, its characters and their situation. I will always remain open to new bits of research that serendipitously drop into my lap from time to time. I believe in synchronicity with writing. Whether we attract things to us, or they find us by chance is not important here. What is important is that odd ideas pop into the heads of writers all the time, particularly when injected with the stimulation from a new work environment.

My blog-writing and my newsletter-writing have been halted as well as my novel-writing, but I’ll get back on track just as soon as I can sort out and adapt to my new schedule. And I’m sure my writing will be the richer for it in the long run.

Bear with me. I will return…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 6: First Draft

In this series on the writing of a novel, it’s important to remember that none of these steps happen in isolation. All of them work together to create a cohesive blueprint on which to expand a new novel. Today’s post takes a look at the first foray into the actual writing of the proposed novel: the first draft.

The initial decisions about setting, characters and synopsis all form part of what I call the set-up stage. Construction of the outline, or chapter breakdown, and the timeline would be the first part of the drafting stage. Drafting is the longest stage in the creation of a novel, because each draft needs to be a newer, better version of the same thing.

The number of drafts not only varies between writers, but can vary between each writer’s own work. Looking back on my own novels, I can see that my first (unpublished) novel had no real direction at all. I stewed over that for years, trying to polish a mediocre sow’s ear into the silk purse it just wasn’t. So many versions existed on my hard drive and none of them were an improvement on the previous effort.

Likewise my second (unpublished) novel was poked at and prodded for several years with no real improvement because the original plan was lacking something I couldn’t pinpoint. I finally hit my stride after doing a creative writing course which gave me new hope and direction, because it sorted out my writing process. This was while writing my novella From Daisy with Love.

The most valuable suggestion I received after that course and novella were completed, was that I should write a completely new work instead of constantly trying to fix the two old novels on my hard drive; works that were really only practice runs.

After that my work became more streamlined and for my next novel I began to work on the system which I have documented in this series on The Anatomy of A Novel.

I think it’s important here not to become too obsessed with composing a winning first line or a stunning opening paragraph. It’s only a draft and, as the great writers tell us, you can edit a bad draft, but you can’t edit a blank page.

South African writer John van de Ruit once told me that he (figuratively speaking, of course) vomits it all onto the page first, then he sorts out the diced carrots from the peas afterwards. I couldn’t have said it better myself. He’s a better writer than me, so listen to him because he’s right. Get it down so that you have something to work on when you’ve finished that first draft and are ready to start on the next. There will be millions of tiny changes along the way, and the first draft is not the place to get all pedantic about sentence structure and perfect literary prose.

There are more important things to fix in a first draft. For me, fixing the story is of prime importance long before I think about subtle nuances of mood, emotion and sparks between characters.

A first draft is just that: a draft. The first of several. Despite being a planner, a plotter, and an outliner, I can still get part way through a draft and decide that something is not quite right and needs fixing. This is very often a question of pace and progression.

For example, it’s pointless writing a detailed four-page scene describing a meeting between two characters, if there’s a chance that the scene may later be cut. The scene may be beautifully written, but if it doesn’t serve the story by revealing character or moving the plot along, it is nothing more than dead wood. If the pace is too slow or the progression of the plot over those four pages is minimal, then the scene may not be needed.

Don’t just keep the scene because you enjoyed writing it. It’s the thought of all that waste of beautifully written prose that inspires the phrase “to kill your darlings.” The worst reason to keep a scene in a novel is because you loved writing it and it’s one of your favourite scenes. Better to have written a skeleton of it in your outline, or a few paragraphs in your rough draft, that can easily be cut down or removed altogether. It can also later be expanded if the plot calls for it to be a more revealing or pertinent scene.

Sometimes a first draft reveals major plot holes that weren’t visible in the synopsis or chapter breakdown. Better to fix a problem that stretches over a few paragraphs, than one which runs to several pages.

Perhaps the best thing of all about a first draft is when your gutsy characters begin to react to your plot in a way that is true to their characters, but not to the plot you are trying to manipulate them into. Suddenly they want to do something different from what you had planned.

When this phenomenon happens, rather than try to force the plot onto them, sit back, relax and rejoice, because it means you have created real characters with their own personalities and reasons for doing things. Nothing delights me more than a character who says to me, “Sorry, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do this instead.”

Right there, on the page, they begin to carve out their own path and I realise they are correct. I then have no option but to follow them in their new direction, and write it down as it happens – in brief, of course, because it may all change later…

This will mean a major re-working of the synopsis, the outline and possibly a different outcome for the novel itself, but that’s the fun of writing. What else would a writer do without the excitement of creating a new work that surprises even its own author?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 5: Timeline

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I do a timeline for every novel I write. I don’t always do it before I start writing, but when I start to get muddled about where in the first week my characters are, I sit down and work my way through the text, pinpointing which day is which, and adjusting my outline to reflect the timeline. Once that’s done, I find it easier to move forward.

And backward. Into my timeline goes all the relevant historical info that I might use to inform the novel’s backstory as well. Because I tend to be something of a stickler for details, I need to know that every part of my story rings true (at least in my little world), and part of this means that I cannot afford to be sloppy about what one character might have told another, out of context, about some historical event. If it’s likely to be mentioned anywhere in the novel, its dates are found and inserted into the relevant year, month or week.

It may sound rather limiting to have a rigid structure like a timeline, but writing within certain parameters can also help with plot tension. Also, each novel I write has a slightly different format, and once my timeline rings true, the writing can flow better. I don’t want to end up 30,000 words down the line with somebody’s father having told a character in great detail about something he witnessed, only to discover that the father hadn’t been born at the time of the incident.

My historical novella From Daisy with Love was set against the First World War, and was partly inspired by my grandmother’s work as a letter-writer during that war. I also had my grandfather’s war diaries of the same time period, which were useful in that they provided a very real timeline, both for the action he witnessed and for the action he complained of missing.

The Daisy timeline started with the birthdates of both my grandparents, was supplemented by personal events – the death of Daisy’s parents, the marriage of her sister – and world events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru, the start of the war and the battle of Delville Wood in which so many South African soldiers died.

Although it seems that linear tales are told in my contemporary novels The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest, there was more to this process than simply making sure that each day of the week tied up with the action I had planned for the characters. Certainly the timeline for one of these turned out to be more involved than the aforementioned historical novella because it included even more historical backstory than a world war.

The timeline for The Epidaurus Inheritance eventually ran to seventeen pages – I kid you not! – and was extremely complicated. It started with six pages of notes about the various events in Greek and Turkish history which would be mentioned or touched on in parts of the book. Four pages of detailed timeline followed, covering post-classical Greece from 336 BC when Alexander the Great took over from his father who was assassinated, including Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon marbles in 1801, as well as Schliemann’s various excavations of Troy and Mycenae, and ending with the exile of Greece’s King Constantine in 1967.

Here’s where the interesting stuff starts, but the timeline still hasn’t reached the start of the novel yet: the next three pages take me from the birth of my two main characters in 1973 and 1978, through their individual backstories up to the start of the novel in June 2010, when these two characters finally meet during the play festival at Epidaurus.

Only the last four pages of this timeline show the progression of the actual novel itself: a week by week breakdown of the four weeks of action in the novel, noting what happens on each day during those four weeks leading to the novel’s climax and resolution, and the final aftermath two weeks later.

I know it sounds like an epic in itself, but I did promise you an anatomy of a timeline and this is probably the most detailed one I wrote. In fact, I reused parts of it again while compiling the timeline for my later novel The Trojan Legacy, where I used bits of that timeline which I hadn’t used before.

The Trojan Legacy timeline is only twelve pages long. The first six pages consist of relevant bits condensed down from the first ten pages of the Epidaurus timeline. (I have a fascination for this time period and I will more than likely delve into this mine of information in future novels too.)

The next page is character Frank Lyzbarta’s timeline. Most of this is the story that Bobby tells Regina and the others in his bar in the early pages of the book, but it also includes the information that Bobby discovers later in Frank’s prison diary. The next two pages are Marcus and Ellen’s timeline, from their births in 1930 and 1934 respectively, their backstory up till their meeting in 1962, and onwards from that time for the next few months, which is the total of their story in the book.

The next page covers the bridge between those two characters and the two modern-day characters. The final two pages cover the time from the births of Bobby and Regina in 1981 and 1987, to their meeting at the start of the novel, and their involvement in piecing together the story of their grandparents throughout the novel, as well as the continuation of their own story together.

Over the years I seem to have become more adept at filtering out of those giant timelines the stuff I don’t need. The timeline for Benicio’s Bequest is only five pages and most of it centres on the daily activities of the four week period of the novel’s action, but the first page has several important notes about incidents in Florence before the start of the novel (long before the births of its two main characters). Not all of this was used, but I found it useful to know and keep in mind while I was writing.

In my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage my timeline is nowhere near complete at three and a half pages, but I can guarantee it will grow more before the novel is finished. It spans three distinct eras: 1955 which is the era in which the main story takes place; the first half of the twentieth century which is glimpsed through flashbacks and references to World War 2, as well as discoveries about the childhood lives of the characters before that war; and the third era concerns important historical happenings that the main characters will uncover about the Tudor and Elizabethan era in England.

Even now, with the first draft of the novel only halfway through at 50 000 words, I am still finding new bits of information that I want to include, and these all involve more research, more fodder for my timeline, and thus endless new possibilities for my novel.

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 4: Outline

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Drawing up the outline of what will be my next novel is one of the most exciting events in my writing process. This is because my outline is a mini version of the novel, the blueprint that keeps that novel on track from day one of writing until the bitter end, and it is the closest reflection of what that finished product will be like.

It also changes constantly throughout the writing process.

My outline is a seething mass of notes, colours and page references, an animated beast living on my computer where it is fed daily with the most up-to-date ideas, notes and questions, and it doesn’t rest until I push the button to publish the completed novel.

I know that many writers hate the idea of an outline because they believe that it stunts creativity and ties the author to a dull plan, rather like a prison sentence. I can understand why they feel that, but I prefer to think of my outline as a road map.

If you plan a road trip between two cities, it makes sense to research all the possible stops along the way, print out some maps and have a rough itinerary with an end date, notes about where to buy petrol, and a few ideas about the places you’d like to visit.

For me, a really good road trip is not a race to see how fast you can get to the next city, but a meandering adventure in which you explore many places along the way, stopping unexpectedly in small towns you might never have heard of but which beg further investigation because they look interesting. Likewise there will be places you thought sounded good on paper, but on reaching them, you decide to move along and see what else the road offers.

Before I became a writer, I used to think that a novel was just a very long short story; an extended version of a single idea, a single goal, a single concept. But a novel gets boring if it’s nothing more than an over-lengthy short story. When you read a book which bores you and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it’s usually because nothing new happens in the emotional development of the characters. They may reach their goals but it takes them so long to do so, that the reader is bored by the end and no longer invested in the story.

The secret is to have the characters’ goals constantly changing along the way. This is not to say that the characters are unable to make up their minds, but rather that circumstances around them keep interfering, blurring their focus, and forcing them to adapt to new problems.

For a good story, the goals of each character have to be buffeted by the machinations of the plot, and the emotional reactions of those characters to the plot make them constantly re-think their original goals. Just as they settle into a new path, the next plot development shifts those goalposts again, and they have to adjust once more.

And so on. The combination of external plot conflicts and characters whose motivations keep changing to form new goals, is what makes the reader want to keep turning those pages until it all comes together in the end with all the characters emerging older, wiser and hopefully better off than when they started.

Yes, it’s that simple. But also very complicated, which is why someone like me needs to have a proper outline before she can start to write the novel.

So how do I do this? My first step is to copy and paste my one-page synopsis into a new blank document, embolden all the major plot points – the places where external plot conflicts have a knock-on effect for one or more characters. Then I write a few lines beneath each plot point about the effect it has on the characters concerned. How do they react emotionally? How do their motivations change? How does this affect the evolution of the previous goal? Are there any new developments to insert into the story, either at this point or later on?

Once I’ve done this, I modify the document into an outline, and I start looking for possible cliff-hangers and high notes on which to end the chapters. Each chapter is given a number, and the name of the character from whose point-of-view the action is to be seen. When it all makes sense and reads like a mini novel, I’m ready to start writing.

As I write my first draft, I have two MS Word documents open on my computer the whole time – the outline to refer to, and the manuscript I am writing. As I follow the basic points listed on the outline for each chapter, I make a note of what page each chapter starts on, and how many pages each chapter is. In the manuscript itself, I always start each chapter on a new page, using the “Page break before” facility.

The outline grows as the novel grows, because on it I make daily notes about the text, such as new ideas or questions that I feel the characters might need to ask themselves. I also keep a general tally of my word count and the dates on which I finish each draft.

The most exciting thing about an outline is that it remains a living, breathing, evolving animal with its own way of telling the story. Despite working this out as far as possible before I start the actual writing of the novel, it will constantly change, so my outline is never printed out. The length of each chapter can adjust daily, so the number of pages in each chapter is adjusted on the outline as I work. This means that, at any time when I need to insert a new idea into the text I can pinpoint almost the exact page I need within a certain chapter, without having to scroll through more than three or four pages.

As the drafts mount up I get adventurous with highlighting on the outline. Bits that need to be researched, expanded or fixed are highlighted in red. I keep track of flashbacks or historical sections in different time frames by highlighting those chapter headings in the outline in either blue or green. If I have more than one point-of-view character, each has their chapter headings on the outline highlighted in a different colour too.

As I write drafts, every second draft consists of a light read-through, in which I make only slight adjustments to small things, and add more notes to the outline (in red) about what needs work in the following draft.

Some writers give each chapter a new document, but that would be too confusing for me. I like to have a sense of the whole thing at all times, and my outline and way of working allow me to do that.

I know every writer is different, but this is what works for me. If you are a writer, what works best for you? If you’re a reader, what is your opinion? I’d be interested to hear.

Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis

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In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Winning NaNoWriMo – the Pros and Cons

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Well, it’s over at last and it was an interesting experience. I clocked up 51,106 words in 28 days, with an average of 1703 words per day. Despite the progress made so far, my story is nowhere near finished.

Would I do it again? Yes, if the time frame of starting a first draft ever coincides with the beginning of November again, I will probably join up and give it another go. It’s certainly a good way to get the writing juices flowing.

So what have I learned from this experience? Having now proved to myself that I can write over 50,000 words in a month, next time around I wouldn’t attempt to finish the actual draft, but would choose from the start to view those 50,000 words as only part of a draft.

First the good stuff:

  • I needed to do this, and I’ll always be glad that I joined in and did my best. I had been in a bit of a rut and had been procrastinating for a few months about starting my next novel so NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to sit down in October, thrash out a storyline from my original synopsis, and flesh out some characters.
  • It gave me a deadline by which to get my initial research done, so that by the end of October I was as ready to roll as it was possible for me to be.
  • The build up to it was fun – signing up to the website and finding some writing buddies, getting emails of encouragement and so on, made it all very festive and encouraging.
  • During the month of November, NaNoWriMo literally gave me a reason to wake up early each morning and write at least 1,667 words before the day intruded with its problems. I had been busy with a soul-annihilating job-search for the previous four months which was – quite frankly – depressing, and I needed an injection of fun in my mornings, but was still free to job-search each afternoon.
  • NaNoWriMo also allowed me to plough through two thirds of a first draft faster than I’ve ever done before, and that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.

And now we come to the not-so-good news. First, some background:

When writing a novel, no matter how prepared I am (and I was for this one, I promise!), there will always be new ideas that I think of along the way. This happens to me every time, and it’s a good thing. It means I am thinking on my feet, leaving a certain amount of the story to chance, and definitely open to new ideas.

It also means that, while I’m writing, I need to adapt my outline constantly as I find new bits to put in. And I need to research those bits before I put them in, because there’s nothing more time-wasting than writing screeds of stuff that I imagine to be possible but haven’t had the time to research properly yet. It’s all very well to type in the words: “research this bit later” and carry on writing, but I don’t want to find out 20,000 words down the track that it’s just not going to work.

Ask anyone I’ve ever worked with and they’ll tell you that I really do hate doing a job twice because some idiot didn’t think things through properly the first time. When that thoughtless idiot turns out to be me because I was trying to keep to a pre-determined word count, I want to spit blood and rage at the universe for allowing me to screw myself around like that. And none of that contributes to making me a happy writer.

It’s worth taking a week (or even longer) to rethink, re-research and rewrite the bit that doesn’t work in order to progress towards a product that is ultimately better.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • In Benicio’s Bequest which is set in Italy, I swapped around a trip to Venice and a trip to Florence because the story flowed better when I re-thought that sequence. This involved a certain amount of re-plotting and re-writing of two whole sections, and it all had to be done before I could move on to the next sequence because any change like that has a knock-on effect. The new sequence also gave rise to a car chase that hadn’t been in the original storyline but turned out to be one of its highlights.
  • In The Trojan Legacy I planned the first part of the historic half of the novel to be set in the mountains of Peru, in the jungle near Machu Picchu, but 12,000 words into the first draft I knew it was never going to work because I didn’t have enough personal experience of that place. I decided to re-set that part in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa which I knew well (and which was one of the settings for later in the story anyway), but it took me a week to reshape the beginning of my story and rewrite that section before I could continue.

So what did NaNoWriMo do to me that prevented me from letting my first draft develop naturally? Here we come to the bad stuff:

  • After two weeks of writing according to my word count I hit a snag at the beginning of the third week. I realised that I needed to research some British history about Elizabeth the First’s persecution of the Catholics, and the construction of secret passages and priest holes in buildings of that time. This took me almost two days and set my word count back considerably. If this had been a normal first draft and not a NaNoWriMo first draft, I wouldn’t have let the lost days and lack of words worry me, but in running to catch up afterwards, my writing became sloppy and sub-standard.
  • One of the other problems I had with the fast pace of NaNoWriMo was that this re-structuring and rewriting is part of what makes writing enjoyable for me. I enjoy the craft of creating something that grows organically and plots its own path no matter what my outline says it should be doing. When this happens, the last thing I want to do is rush to catch up and lose the magic of those moments and the added value they bring to the story.
  • Another of the ultimate joys of writing is when my characters decide to race off on a different path and I have to follow them to find out what they’re up to because they refuse to listen to me or let me dictate their lives. (This is how I ended up with an unscheduled car chase between Florence and Verona in Benicio’s Bequest.) In my current novel, however, my poor strait-jacketed characters haven’t yet had a chance to break out of their constraints.
  • No matter what writers tell you, we all have imaginary conversations running through our heads. The characters converse and the writer has to lunge for pen and paper or phone to scribble it down as fast as those voices are spewing it. This is a sign that our characters really do have a life of their own outside of what we created for them. I remember chuckling at whole discussions between three of the characters in Benicio’s Bequest as members of the same family bickered and argued about past events and what to do next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often in this draft.

So how was I able to make NaNoWriMo work for me during the third week? My mood of hopelessness only changed once I realised three things:

  • I don’t write short novels. My novels are always longer than 50,000 words. They end up between 80,000 and 98,000. The last novel was 92,000 when finally ready for publication after ten drafts, but its first draft had been 66,000 words.
  • Come the end of November, my draft wouldn’t be a complete draft, even if I reached 50,000. There would still be at least another 25,000 words to write just to get the basic draft down, and I could fix a lot of things then.
  • It was okay to write two thirds of a draft for NaNoWriMo, because it left me enough of the good stuff to play with after the end of November.

With two thirds of the first draft already done, I can now afford to relax a bit, go back and fix things and make some changes where they are needed. I can research at my leisure and take my time with the climax and finale.

I’ll keep you informed about my progress as time goes on, so watch this space…