In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure), Part 3 (Setting), Part 4 (Characters), Part 5 (Writing) and Part 6 (Revision).

Well,  I can hardly believe it – tomorrow Greythorne will be published! I’ll have to wait another month or so before I get to hold the paperback (out 12 November), but even so…My 10-year-old self (whose dream was to get a book published) would be super proud right now.

I’m well aware how lucky I am in that my road to publication was a relatively straightforward one. Although I worked hard to give myself the best chance I could (by making sure the manuscript was in the best condition I could get it before I started submitting it), some of it – as with many things in life – was simply right place, right time.

As I wrote about here, I’m a member of the Australian Society of Authors, and one of the activities they run every year is something called ‘Literary Speed-Dating’ – they get a bunch of editors and agents in a room and aspiring authors get three minutes with each of them to pitch their work. I attended in November 2014, which was my goal from when I started writing Greythorne back in November 2013 – my editing schedule was built around having the manuscript ready in time for the pitching day.

The day itself actually felt a bit anticlimactic: my first pitch was disastrous, and the event was a real wake-up call as to how tough this industry is to break into. But by the end of the day I had editors from two publishers (Pan Macmillan and another that I won’t name) ask to see the first three chapters, so I counted that as a win.

One of the publishers never got back to me – never even acknowledged she’d received my manuscript. The editor from Pan Macmillan, however, let me know she’d received it and to get in touch if I hadn’t heard from her within 8 weeks. At this time Greythorne was also under submission to an agent from a major agency, who had asked for the full manuscript, so I settled down to wait.

The agent replied first: she liked the story and the style, but she didn’t think she’d be able to sell it. It was my first proper rejection and it stung for a few days, because it felt so close and yet so far. But as I later found out, even the writers of now-classics had their books rejected multiple times.

Then the editor from Pan Macmillan got back to me a month or so later – she wanted to see the rest of the manuscript. I tried not to get too excited, given the result with the agent, so I sent it to her then tried to forget about the whole thing. This was actually quite easy as I was planning my wedding at the same time.

She came back to me a week or so later (far quicker than I’d expected) and said that she loved the story and, although she didn’t think it was quite right for Pan Macmillan, she also acquired for their digital-first imprint, Momentum Books, and would I be ok with her taking it to the Momentum acquisitions meeting?

Would I be ok with it? Let me think about that for just a second…

As it turned out, on the third day of our honeymoon I got an email offering me a contract with Momentum. So I got a husband and a book contract in the same week – not a bad deal.

Actually, negotiating a book contract without an agent turned out to be pretty intimidating. The first thing I realised pretty quickly is that authors (especially new authors) hold very little power in this situation and basically you take it or leave it. The Australian Society of Authors’ contact appraisal service was very useful, but in the end only minor changes were made. The contract negotiation actually took longer than the copy-editing in the end – around two months.

The other thing I soon realised is that very few publishers have proper marketing budgets any more, especially for new authors. I had to get very familiar very fast with how to publicise my book on various online and social media platforms, as well as trying to get my head around things like organising book launches. It could quite easily be a full-time job, except I already have a full-time job, plus plans for the next novel. Learning to balance all this is one of the major skills the twenty-first-century author needs – and I’m still figuring it all out. It’s been quite a ride though, and I’m hoping this is just the beginning!

How do you prefer to engage with books and authors?

 

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure), Part 3 (Setting), Part 4 (Characters) and Part 5 (Writing).

As Ernest Hemingway famously said, with characteristic brusqueness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make, in my opinion, is thinking that all the hard work is done once that first draft is on paper.  I’ve heard of publishers bemoaning the growth of NaNoWriMo (which I wrote about in Part 5) because every December and January they receive a raft of poorly edited first drafts in their unsolicited manuscripts pile. Not that finishing a first draft isn’t a huge and satisfying achievement – it certainly is – but the truth remains that probably only 20 per cent of the work of getting a book to a publishable standard involves the initial writing of the story, and the rest is revision, revision, revision.

I found James Scott Bell’s ‘Revision and Self-Editing’ incredibly helpful during my revision process.

Different authors have different approaches to revision, but pretty much all of them agree with Hemingway when it comes to first drafts. In his part-memoir-part-manual, On Writing, Stephen King says that he feels the first draft is something to be done “with the door closed”, because it’s often emotionally taxing, deeply personal and not something you can do if you’re viewing every word you write with a critic’s eye.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
– Stephen King, On Writing

For King, the second draft is the time to “open the door” and start really thinking about your audience. This is where the craft comes into it – in the first draft, you’re a storyteller getting the tale out whichever way you can; in the second (and later) drafts you’re a master craftsman, testing each word and phrase to make sure it belongs and that it’s earned its place. Personally, I was stuck in the first phase for probably the better part of 20 years – I had lots of inspiration and could spin a good yarn, but I hadn’t developed the self-discipline and willingness to hone my craft that is absolutely necessary to move from amateur writer to published author. (This craft-honing doesn’t necessarily have to be done through formal education, like a writing class or MFA degree, though I’ve found mentoring from other writers has been a huge help – there are lots of great books out there on the practicalities of writing, which I’ll discuss in another post. Most importantly, just read, and read, and read – especially in the genre in which you want to write.)

King’s revision method is similar to my own. As I mentioned in my previous post, I bashed the first draft of Greythorne out over two months – but the editing took a further nine months after that. Ideally, I like to leave a fair chunk of time between my drafts – at least a month, preferably six weeks – so that I’ve forgotten the intricacies of the story and can come back to it with fresh eyes. In Greythorne‘s case, this period was much shorter between drafts one and two – around three weeks – as I was scheduled to go to a summer writing retreat in January where I intended to do the first-round edits.

After I came back I spent another six weeks or so revising and rewriting – around 15,000 words got cut and rewritten at this point. I then gave the second draft to 10 ‘beta readers’ (basically people whose judgement I trust) and asked them to give me feedback by the end of March. In April I went on a four-day writing retreat and made a big dent in the second-round edits, which were based on feedback from my readers. Some pretty big changes occurred to the story at this point, including the final twist and the ending, which a couple of readers had very honestly pointed out wasn’t really working. Funnily enough, their suggestions were actually a lot closer to my original notes – I’m not sure how the story had drifted away, but they do that sometimes – and once I made these major changes, a lot of the smaller problems I’d been having (like plot holes and twisted logic) fixed themselves. This process taught me that good beta readers are absolutely worth their weight in gold. I picked people who I knew would be honest with me and whose opinions I trusted. Some were writers, but others were teachers or other professionals, or just people who really liked to read and were able to articulate why they felt something was good or bad. This last point is really important – someone who just says “I liked it, it was really good,” is useless as a beta reader, because that won’t help you improve at all. Choose people who read like critics and know how to give constructive criticism.

It was while I was doing the second-round edits at a writing retreat that I learned the importance of beginnings, and that they’re not always where you think they are. I was giving a reading from the manuscript, and for reasons of time decided to start at the beginning of Chapter 2. The listeners all said afterwards that they couldn’t tell that this wasn’t the actual start, and they didn’t feel anything had been lost. I’d read somewhere that most writers start their books too early (in an action/backstory sense), and that in fact a good trick is to write it from where you think it should start, then come back and cut the first one (or two, or sometimes even three) chapters and you’ll have the proper beginning. It’s not necessarily true for everyone, but it certainly worked for Greythorne. The opening scene as it now stands was originally the beginning of Chapter 2, and all the information from Chapter 1 has been folded in as backstory throughout.

Some of my characters also changed during the revision process. Nell and the Professor became deeper and more complex, as I discussed in Part 4, and some of the minor characters had their roles shift, becoming more- or less-emphasised, or in one case were written out entirely (this last was Matron from the Brookvale Girls Home where Nell grew up – she was initially a relatively prominent figure, but as things changed she lost her utility and now she is only referred to in passing and is not seen at all by the reader directly).

Between drafts two and three I rewrote another 15-20,000 words, and finally it was starting to get in reasonable shape. I decided to do one final revision before I started shopping it out to publishers – I paid a professional editor to do a manuscript appraisal, which is essentially a structural edit plus a copy edit. She came back with some really good advice (I’ve written before about how invaluable a good copy-editor is) and on the basis of her suggestions I made a few more tweaks. So, finally, nine months and four drafts after I ‘finished’ Greythorne, it was finally ready to be taken out into the world.

How do you like to revise your work? Do you have any particular tips or tricks for editing?

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure), Part 3 (Setting) and Part 4 (Characters).

Nano_logo

In recent years, I’ve learned the hard way – as I suppose all writers must at some point – that the old ‘1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration’ rule is absolutely true. Although I’ve been writing stories since childhood, it was only when I reached my late 20s (and completed a PhD) that I really learned the discipline required to finish a novel.

My PhD was in international relations, which is about as far away as you can get from creative writing while still remaining in the humanities/social sciences. But despite being totally unrelated to my creative work on the face of it, it was still a book-length production (80,000 words) and had to be written up against a deadline. Finishing it taught me discipline and some valuable strategies for breaking down terrifyingly long writing projects – but most of all it taught me the value of sheer bloody-mindedness. Sometimes – often, in fact – you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when you hate what you’re doing and it’s not working and you wondered what in the world possessed you to even think you were capable of doing this.

I had a chance to try this philosophy out when I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, in 2013. This is an annual, international writing event, which runs from 1-30 November; it started in San Francisco but now reaches worldwide. Participants challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word first draft during the month of November. Although people talk about ‘winning’ NaNoWriMo, you’re not actually competing against anyone but yourself, and what it provides is a real sense of community through online forums, pep talks from well-known authors, and in-person get-togethers run by regional organisers all over the world.

Like most things writing-related, completing NaNoWriMo is a whole lot harder than it sounds. To achieve 50,000 words you need to be writing around 2600 a day, every day (including weekends), which is actually quite a bit! It’s probably doable if you don’t have too much else on, but I was also working a full-time job and trying to maintain some semblance of a life as well. The routine I eventually got into was getting up around 5.30-6am, getting ready for work, then writing for an hour, before leaving for work round 7.30-8am. The advantage to living in Australia is that November is coming into summer, so at least the mornings were warm and light. I can’t even imagine trying to do that in the cold and the dark (actually, I can, which is why I don’t bother to even try keeping a routine like that in the winter, when temperatures here can get down to -8 overnight and getting up on a normal day is hard).

I didn’t ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, but I did get around 31,000 words on paper by the end of November and, more importantly, I got into a routine. During the first week it was a novelty and I was enthusiastic; during the second it was hideously painful and I began to question my sanity; during the third I finally had more words written than I had left to go, and by the fourth I was actually enjoying the structure and the sense of achieving something before my day had even started. So even after NaNoWriMo finished, I kept up my routine, and by New Year’s I had a completed first draft.

And then the real work began – but that’s a topic for Part 6: Editing.

Everyone works differently, and we each have to find the way that works best for us. For me, NaNoWriMo saw Greythorne go from a sketchy idea to a living, breathing book in a short space of time, and I learned that, even though I’m most definitely not a morning person, I can actually work quite effectively when I know my time is limited – probably more effectively than if I’ve got an entire afternoon to spend staring at the screen. So this year I’m going to be doing it all again to make a start on my new novel, an Australian Gothic thriller tentatively titled The Dark Before the Dawn. I’ll be blogging about the triumphs and tribulations of trying to bash out 50,000 words in a month in my next series of posts, Anatomy of a Novel. Stay tuned.

 

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure) and Part 3 (Setting).

I wrote in my earlier post on plot and structure about ‘architects and gardeners’ – those who like to plan out the whole structure of the book and see where everything is going to go, versus those who just plant a seed and see what grows. As I mentioned, previously I’ve produced in-depth character studies for my books, but this time I just took the four main characters – Nell, the Professor, Sophie and Lucy – and decided to see how they turned out.

The results from the first couple of drafts were mixed. Nell (who is the first-person narrator) had started to develop a strong voice, but was sometimes inconsistent, and the Professor was quite two-dimensional and risked becoming a bit of a caricature villain – what I like to think of as a ‘moustache-twirler’. Both of these things were pointed out by my beta readers, who read the second draft (more on that in Part 6 – Editing), so when I was doing the revisions for draft three, I sat down and did character studies for Nell and the Professor. The template for this came out of James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing, which is part of the Write Great Fiction series and which I swear by.  These are the questions I asked about Nell.

Personal problem:
Plot problem:
Risk (what she will potentially lose if she doesn’t achieve her objective):
Main positive traits:
Main negative traits:
Moral quandary:
Reasons not to act honourably:
Adhesive between Nell and Professor:

The questions I asked about the Professor were very similar, but I also gave him around 1500 words of backstory, because it was clear that I didn’t really understand who he was or where he came from. Once I’d figured this out, I was able to give him a lot more depth and, hopefully, make him a bit more sympathetic, because a completely blackhearted villain isn’t in fact very interesting. One of the most important things I learned in this process is that characters need to have yin and yang to make them believable – even the most likeable heroine needs the capacity for moral ambiguity, and the worst villain still requires a sympathetic streak. Above all, they need motivation, for if you can’t explain why they’re doing what they’re doing then you’ve got a massive plot hole.

In the (Australian) summer after I wrote the first draft, I spent a week at an artists’ retreat in Tasmania. There, I collaborated with a good friend, Pamela Horsely, who is a talented portrait painter – I gave her a 400-word description of the Professor, and in 24 hours she’d produced a portrait of him. She captured him exactly as I’d envisaged him, and really brought him to life. She very kindly gave me the picture afterwards, and he now hangs on the wall of my study. There’s nothing quite like seeing your character in the ‘flesh’ to bring a book to life.

Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely
Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely

 

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea) and Part 2 (Plot and Structure).

Like most Gothic novels, setting is crucial to Greythorne. Whether it’s an isolated, spooky old house (in traditional Gothic) or the threatening emptiness of the landscape (in Australian Gothic, which I’m planning to explore in my next novel), the place is as much a character as the people are.

I made a deliberate choice to keep the setting of Greythorne extremely tight – almost claustrophobic. All the action, apart from Nell’s initial journey and the epilogue, takes place in either Greythorne Manor or the nearby village of Grimly. I was inspired in part by memories of a long-ago trip to the north of England, but more by my reading of nineteenth-century novels (either those written at the time or published later and set there). I have a long-held fascination with the late nineteenth century – the Victorian/Edwardian eras – which was a time of great technological and social change, and I’m particularly interested in the stories of women, who tend to be written out of a lot of the history and fiction of the time. When I first conceived of Greythorne, I thought of it as a horror story, but it really isn’t – it’s a Gothic suspense in the tradition of Victorian popular fiction, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre and Dracula, and it actually takes much of its inspiration from adventure writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne.

The village of Grimly was inspired by J. Meade Falkner’s 1898 tale of smugglers, Moonfleet, and my character Arthur Greenslade’s observation that “This here were once a favored spot for smugglers dodging the Revenue men,” is my little tribute to that book.

I have a very clear picture in my head of what Grimly looks like, and I can only hope that’s translated onto the page. When I was writing the first draft, I scribbled a rough map to help me visualise the area and where the major locations were.

My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).
My rough map of the Grimly area, with the station, railway line, village, bay and Greythorne Manor (island).

Likewise, I did a (very) rough sketch of what I thought Greythorne Manor would look like – by which you can tell I’m definitely not a visual artist.

A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.
A very rough exterior sketch of Greythorne Manor.

I also sketched out the interior to try to orient myself a bit better, but even so,  the copy-editor pointed out that a rectangular house doesn’t have wings – which required a bit of revision (see my post on the usefulness of copy-editors here). I spent a lot of time looking at the floor plans of old manor houses (how did people do research before the internet?) and reading about the structure and function of Victorian households.

A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.
A rough floor plan of Greythorne Manor.

Greythorne‘s setting also gave me the chance to try out some really sensory writing – it’s a place so rich in smells and sounds and even the tangy taste of the salt air that I had a wonderful time describing it. No doubt your visualisation of it will be very different to mine, but I hope it stirs your blood the way it does Nell’s.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Part 1 looked at the development of the original idea.

When I tell them I’m a writer, a lot of people respond with “Oh, I often think I’ve got a book in me!” The crucial difference, however, between an author and someone who has a book in them is this next part of the writing process – the author is able to figure out how to get the book out of them and onto the page.

Exactly how you do that is a very personal thing. Some people like to know who they’re writing about before they decide what they’re writing about – so they start with characters. Personally, although I need at least a rough understanding of my main characters, I like to start with plot.

How-to-write books often divide people into ‘plotters and pantsers’ – those who like to outline every detail before they start, and those who would rather just fly by the seat of their pants and see where they end up.  George R.R. Martin famously described this far more eloquently, noting that writers are either ‘architects or gardeners’:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

I used to be an ‘architect’ (or a ‘plotter’ – though that sounds far more sinister).  In my early novels (which were never finished, let alone published) I plotted things out obsessively – at one point even writing 10,000 words of character studies. These were mostly fantasy stories, and world-building obviously requires a lot of work behind it, but it turned out to be counterproductive, because by the time I got round to actually writing I found I’d run out of steam.

So when Greythorne came along I decided it would be a chance to try something different – I was going to start with a very rough outline of the major plot points, but from then on I’d ‘pants’ it and just see how it went.  And, oddly enough, it worked. The novel turned into a standard three-act adventure structure (which I’ll discuss more in Part 6 – Editing when I deal with the issue of saggy middles) without me even needing to think about it that much. Having the major ‘way-points’ to aim for kept me on the right track, but I also had enough freedom to explore the characters and the world without being tied down too tightly. So I’ve discovered that I’m not really an architect or a gardener, but more like a conservatory builder – the best of both worlds.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it.

One of the most common question writers get asked is where our ideas come from, and to be honest, I wish I knew! Generally, story ideas creep up on me slowly – they might start with the name of a character, who gradually gets a story, or I might get inspired by a place I visit or something that happens. Sometimes I’ll be turning something over for months or even years before it makes it to the page. The idea for my next novel (which I’ll be blogging about as I start writing it in November) has been like that – a slow-burn that started with a ‘what if’ question then gradually grew from there. Someone once described this process as a bit like archaeology – you start by uncovering one small fragment, then another, then another, and eventually you have something with a recognisable shape and form. It can be a slow, laborious and sometimes disheartening process, when you’re not sure if what you’ve got is a never-before-seen fossil whose discovery will change the world, or the leftover bones from someone’s barbeque.

Having been through this process a number of times, I’ve always scoffed a little at the authors who claim their story – or worse, an entire series – just landed on them fully formed (I’m talking about you, J.K. Rowling). Or at least, I did – until it happened to me.

I was home from work sick one day, lying in bed reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, when I dozed off. Something must have been going on in my subconscious, because when I woke up I had a fully-formed story in my head – including the main characters and a rough plot outline. I scribbled it all down in the notebook I carry around with me and Greythorne was born – or at least had begun its gestation.

The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I've omitted the second page because of spoilers).
The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I’ve omitted the second page because of spoilers).

That said, what was in that notebook bears only a passing resemblance to the final story. The major ideas and most of the major plot points are the same, but it’s a long way from a rough outline to a finished book. In Part 2, I’ll be looking at plot and structure – the first step in turning an idea into a novel.