Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.
Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.
I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.
I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).
There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?
Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.
When my husband Tristan and I first started dating three years ago, we had a ‘food-for-stories’ deal – he’d make me dinner and in return I’d read him the next chapter of Dragonscale, the long-running young adult fantasy novel I’d been writing off and on since 2007. We each thought we got the better end of the deal, although I’m still convinced I ultimately did. The unconditional support he expressed for my writing in those early days was one of the many things that convinced me this relationship was going places.
But over the intervening years, life got busy and Dragonscale lapsed. I went through a rough time at work and a period of quite crippling creative drought where I found it very hard to apply myself to anything; it took a new idea in a completely new genre – which ultimately became Greythorne – to snap me out of it. In the meantime, Tristan and I moved house, got married and I got the contract for Greythorne while on our honeymoon, so poor old Dragonscale languished in a corner of my hard drive.
It wasn’t until I went back to it earlier this year that I realised how close to finished it actually was. During a particularly obsessive phase I’d mapped out the content chapter by chapter, so I knew exactly where it was going and what needed to be done. Then I had a brainwave: Tristan and I were coming up to our first wedding anniversary in April, which is the ‘paper’ anniversary, and what gift could be more ‘paper’ than a manuscript? Finally I’d complete my end of the food-for-stories bargain and he’d get the ending he’d been waiting patiently for for three years.
I only made this decision in March, so it was a bit touch-and-go as to whether I’d finish it in time, but there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate you! And I got there…just. Here it is, all nicely finished and bound.
As to what will happen to it now, that’s a good question. It needs a lot of editing, and Tristan is the only person I trust to read what Anne Lamott aptly calls ‘shitty first drafts’, so no one else will be getting their hands on it for a little while. I’m off to a retreat at the end of April where I’ll give it the first overhaul, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully by the second half of the year it’ll be in decent enough shape that I can begin shopping it to publishers, so watch this space. I can’t lie though, it feels pretty damn good to have finally finished a book that’s been nearly 10 years in the making.
In much the same way that people start asking you when you’re having kids about six months after you get married, now that Greythorne is out I’m starting to get questions about the next book. Unlike the kid question, however, the timing is kind of perfect, because I’ve been turning over ideas for my next novel for a while now.
I’ve written before about NaNoWriMo and how taking part gave me the impetus to start (and finish) Greythorne. As luck would have it, NaNoWriMo 2015 is right around the corner – in fact, it starts next week, on 1 November – so I’ve decided to do it again and hope it works as well for the next book as it did for the last.
Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve got a very rough idea of the story – it’s going to be another Gothic horror, but this time set in Australia and I’m very excited about the spooky possibilities of the Australian bush as a setting. And I’ve got three main characters, about whom at this stage I don’t know all that much, except that their names are Elizabeth King (the narrator, a squatter’s daughter who isn’t all she appears to be), Frederick Black (leader of a gang of bushrangers) and his sister Sarah. I have a vague beginning and a vague ending, and then a whole lot of blank space in between, which is both exciting and terrifying.
I kept a diary last time I did NaNoWriMo, and looking back at it I realise that I actually felt like this about Greythorne when I started – it’s just I’ve got so used to seeing the final polished version that I’ve forgotten what the bare bones of a book looks like. At least I have a better idea this time around what to expect of the actual process: the first week will be exciting and enjoyable as the story starts to take shape; the second week will be hellish as the novelty wears off and I get sick of having to get up early to write before work (and probably quite demoralising as I fall behind on my writing target); in the third week I’ll start to hit my stride, especially once I crack the all-important 25,000 words – the point at which the number of words left is less than the number you’ve already written; and by the fourth week I’ll hopefully be so engaged in the story that I’ll just want to keep up the routine.
I’m going to blog weekly about the process and how it’s going – partly because I want to share it with you (although books, like laws and sausages, may be something that it’s best not to see getting made) and partly to keep myself honest. I’m aiming for 35,000 words in November rather than the full 50,000 just because I have to squeeze my writing around work and other things, so I’ve decided to take the pressure off and be a bit kinder to myself this time around. Last time I did NaNoWriMo I finished with 32,000, so I think 35,000 is realistic.
As the story develops I also hope to be able to share some of the details with you (as I discover them), so if you’d like to be the first to get access to these exclusive excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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