Write Stuff

Confessions of a first-timer

 

They say everyone has a book inside them. I certainly didn’t think that was the case for me.

 

I mean I love books – have loved them ever since I was a little kid escaping with Moonface and Saucepan Man to The Magic Faraway Tree. But despite being a journalist, I never considered writing a novel – creative writing wasn’t my passion. But then someone emailed me an article about the mean girls of blogging and some characters and concepts started to form in my head. But I was already busy enough keeping up with my job and blogs – I’d never have the time to get these ideas down on paper. The following week, I was told a magazine editing job I’d been doing freelance for the past 18 months was being taken back in-house. Suddenly I had two free days a week at my disposal. It was a sign from the universe.

I started working on my story about bloggers – researching the industry and fleshing out the characters. Then, out of the blue, these other characters crashed into my head: a woman named Kellie and her ex-boyfriend AJ. Try as I might, they wouldn’t leave me alone so eventually I decided to write their story first. The result is my debut novel Don’t Mention the Rock Star.

There are so many lessons and pitfalls for an aspiring author to navigate. Here’s what I have learnt on my writing journey so far:

WORDS (DON’T COME EASY)

I doubt anyone sits down to write a novel and thinks it will be a piece of cake. But many aren’t prepared for how hard  it actually is. It’s time-consuming and requires dedication to give up other activities so you have the time to write. Naively I thought I could bang out a novel every year. Not long into the process, I revised that to maybe every two or three years. For first-timers, a pressing story to tell isn’t enough – nor is being an avid reader. You need to learn some writing craft too. Writer’s Digest  has heaps of useful information. Follow authors in your chosen genre – many have writing tips on their websites (Sarah Webb, for example, has an eight-week writing course on hers). Through author interviews and blog posts, you can learn from their writing journeys. (Every time an author confesses it took them years to publish their book, I breathe a sigh of relief.) You should also get your hands on books about writing, some of the ones I found most useful include: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson; Thanks But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell; Wannabe a Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones; How to Write Your First Novel by Sophie King; and Writing for Love by Chrissie Manby.

While you are writing, don’t forget about word count.  I used a different Word document for each chapter – a system I found useful since I was cutting back and forth, writing bits and pieces everywhere. There were a LOT of chapters, as the story, which spans about 20 years, alternates between past and present for the first part of the book. The first time I did a full word count was when all the chapters were written and the entire story was combined into one document. Let’s just say the figure was somewhat north of 150,000 words (the average chick lit novel is between 90,000-110,000 words) and my face looked something like this:

shockedface

 

WANNA BE STARTING SOMETHING 

You need to find a writing system that suits you. Some people are plotters, and some are pantsers – as in they fly by the seats of their pants. For my first novel-writing endeavour, I was definitely more the latter. Ideas just came at me left, right and centre, and I wrote scenes not in any particular order. Eventually they worked themselves into a cohesive plot. I didn’t use notecards to map out the timeline and events of each chapter until towards the end of the process – to double check there were no clangers or inconsistencies. The only thing I did plan early on was what my cast looked like – I found pictures online to represent each one and kept a print-off handy to make sure characteristics such as hair and eye colour remained constant. (After my first beta reader was partway through, I emailed the photos to her – most looked exactly how she pictured them, which was gratifying to hear. Although I did get a hubba-hubba about actor/singer Dean Geyer from Glee – my visual inspiration for Heath – for being even hotter than she’d imagined!)

heathrep

In terms of plot, even right up to the last edit, fresh ideas and different dialogue would pop up all the time. Things that worked better, phrases that flowed smoothier. I abandoned one significant plot thread and added another. It was at times like this I was grateful the project had taken two years – that extra time meant the story was as strong as it could be. Next time – just for something different – I’m aiming to follow a more structured approach, mapping out events before I get stuck into the writing. And I vow to keep the word count under War and Peace proportions.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

When a brilliant plot idea or dialogue sequence appears in the dead of night – as it often seems to do – don’t just repeat it to yourself over and over, willing yourself to remember it by morning. You probably WON’T! Instead use a notepad on your bedside table to jot down your thoughts. Just write enough to jog your memory for when you sit down to write the next day. But don’t scribble blindly without any light to guide you – chances are in the morning all you’ll see is illegible scrawl, written over the top of more scrawl. This happened to me more than once!

LET’S GO CRAZY

Writing is a solitary occupation – you are stuck at your desk for hours at a time, trying not to get too distracted by social media. When you find you have several hours spare to write, you’re stuck for inspiration. And when you have to race off to work on a Monday morning, you can’t stop coming up with things you really need to get down on paper right away. Day after day, you have to keep at it. One of the best pieces of advice I heard was to make sure you write something EVERY DAY. Even if it’s only 100 words. It keeps you fired up and the story fresh in your mind. When the creative juices are flowing and then someone interrupts you, it is the most ANNOYING thing ever! You have to find a way to deal with the kids running around the house, telemarketers ringing constantly, the sunny blue sky trying to entice you outside. Expect to go a little bit crazy during the process. Hopefully you’ll have family and friends to keep you grounded and ensure you can still have a laugh. My oldest son was always sceptical about me writing the book and when I came to The End, I said to him: “And you claimed I’d never finish my book.” To which he drolly replied: “No, I said you’d never finish a good book.”

quietplease

A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS

Having some fresh eyes look over your work is crucial. Once I’d more or less finished my first draft (and when I say first draft, I mean the first full version of the story which had been reworked and edited many times), I started emailing chapters to a friend, urging her to “BE HONEST!” By this stage, amid the relief you feel because you finally have a plot that starts with a beginning,  goes through a middle, and comes out with an ending, you will be having serious doubts about everything you have written. It is a distinct possibility that you will consider it to be the biggest load of rubbish in the history of literature. So having someone at this terrifying stage giving you feedback that yes, the story works; yes, they liked your characters; and yes, they couldn’t stop reading is invaluable. It makes you realise it is worth the effort to keep plugging away. Make sure you look for readers who:

  • will tell you how it is
  • read the genre you are writing
  • are of different nationalities/ages, so you can find out if anything is lost in translation.

I can’t thank my early readers enough: Merrilee Marchesi, Chelsey Krause, Shirley Stephenson, Michelle Renton and Margaret Redfern. (Pictured below is one of them taking advantage of a moment of peace and quiet to read my manuscript.)

michellereading

(I’LL DO IT) MY WAY

All I can say is thank goodness for this era of digital self-publishing. I honestly think if I had to rely on the whims of traditional publishers and wait for one to be willing to gamble on a new author like myself, then I probably would have stopped writing once the first bouts of doubt surfaced. There is no way I would have devoted all that time and effort to have my hard work end up shoved in a desk drawer, forgotten and never to see the light of day again. Knowing that I could always publish my book myself definitely maintained my momentum. Deciding how to publish your book is a big decision for any new author. Do you try to attract an agent? Do you submit to traditional publishers or go it alone? Once I got to the point where I was happy with the finished product, I drew up a list of six publishers. Many now have digital imprints that will take unsolicited submissions. (But why, oh why do they all have different requirements and conditions such as only email us at the witching hour on the first Blue Monday of the year?) By the time I had emailed the required chapters and synopsis (yes, I know I should have spent more than 20 minutes on this vital marketing tool but I was exhausted having just finished a WHOLE freaking NOVEL!), I changed my mind. Well my heart over-ruled my head. I didn’t want to risk a publisher cutting great swathes of copy, giving me a cover with handcuffs on it, or making me wait a year or more to fit into their schedule. Surprise, surprise, the control freak in me surfaced and I realised I should instead embrace self-publishing and treat it as my next fantastic learning experience.

GOOD RIDDANCE (TIME OF YOUR LIFE) 

Publishing decision made and final formatting underway, I made my husband swear an oath that if I ever told him I was writing another book, to stop me. IMMEDIATELY! Of course he knows me well enough to realise I’m unlikely to pay heed. And sure enough, within days, the idea for book two surfaced close to midnight one Friday night and is currently a work-in-progress. So my advice to aspiring authors is … give it a go. What have you got to lose, compared to the experience and satisfaction that you will gain? Yes, there’ll be blood, sweat and tears. As sportswriter Red Smith once said: ‘There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.’ But you might also find that you have the time of your life.

Then you have to start promoting your book … And that’s when experienced authors claim the real hard work begins!! Eeek!!

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