The End of an Edit

Laugh at me if you like but I don’t mind admitting that when I reached the final page of THE BIG EDIT (TBE), I felt a bit emotional. If it hadn’t been a school night, I would’ve popped a celebratory cork (any excuse, I know).

download (2)It feels like I’ve been working on TBE for a looong time! In reality, I started the process last September and seven months later I’ve finally finished. In the course of TBE, I somehow managed to increase the word count by almost 20k. This wasn’t a conscious decision to pad out the story, it was simply the realisation that there were gaps all over the place and certain scenes were under-written. My writing can be dialogue heavy and I often forget that a bit more description is required to create a sense of place. So by darning a few holes here and there, the total word count is now 102k.

This is the third novel I’ve written and I’ve used an entirely different approach – the freefall method. I’ve blogged before about the pros and cons of the freefall method and the main negative is that TBE has taken much much longer than I’d have liked as my first draft was rougher than rough with hunners of typos, plot inconsistences, repetitive words and phrases – pretty guff in fact.  No wonder it’s taken me forever to reach page 364!

imagesI also used a new process for TBE. This time, I printed off the manuscript as I find it easier to spot mistakes on paper than on the screen. Picturing myself as Miss Jean Brodie, I unleashed my red pen until most pages had suffered a bloodbath of ink. I did the paper edit a few pages at a time and then read these pages aloud. Hearing the rhythm of the words really helped spot clunky phrases before I made any changes on screen. It was a three part process – edit on paper, edit aloud, edit on screen.

Hopefully TBE will have been worth all the time and effort and it means that I can now take the next step. After a few more minor tweaks (there’s always a better word, phrase…) I need to take a deep breath and send it to my two beta readers – both willing victims close friends. I’ve asked my colleague Anne Glennie, a literacy expert and writer Karen Campbell, my unofficial mentor to cast their critical eyes over my manuscript and offer their initial thoughts. I know from previous experience that they will give me honest feedback and not just tell me what I want to hear. There’s no point in asking your pal to massage your ego when you need a genuine critique although I hope they’re not too harsh…

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What’s your editing process? Do you use trusted beta readers to give you initial feedback?

 

 

 

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My Writing Process Blog Tour

Blog-TourI was flattered to receive an invitation from writer Catherine Noble to take part in a series of blog posts where writers nominate others to answer four key questions about their writing process. I ‘know’ Catherine via Twitter and hope to meet her one day in real life too – by the tone of her blog I’m sure we’re on the same wave length.

Some of my answers are things I’ve talked about in previous posts so regular readers (the blog stats reveal this figure is not in the hunners but there are a few of you out there!) might have read it all before and prefer to skip this post, hopefully I’ll see you on the other side. For those diehards or new followers, here are my answers to the questions passed on by Catherine…

1) What am I working on? 

I’m working on my third novel – you could describe me as determined or delusional but I’m definitely not a quitter. My first attempt was really just a personal challenge to see if I could actually go the distance and complete a full length novel. I had never written fiction before, not even short stories and I’m sure if I had the guts to read it now, I’d cringe. It has a DNR order firmly attached to it and its final resting place is in a ‘vintage’ style suitcase (can’t beat Matalan for a bargain in home décor). I got help with the writing (not my fantasies of being published) and went on two Arvon courses, left a permanent job to go to uni to do an MLitt so you’d think novel no.2 would be better. You’d be right; it got within a bawhair (a recognised unit of measurement in the west of Scotland) of being published and was shortlisted in Hookline Book’s competition for writing graduates. The rejections hurt but of course a whiff of success (and short stories being published) made me believe that I could write and helped to keep the dream alive.

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So, third time lucky eh? I love to think that this is THE ONE. I feel my ‘voice’ has developed over the years and because the novel is set in 1985, in the same town I grew up in, I hope the fiction has an authenticity the others lacked. It’s a coming-of-age novel about a teenage friendship and how the dynamics of their relationship has lifelong consequences.

 

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’d class my writing as Scottish contemporary fiction. Novel no.3 deals with gritty themes such as sectarianism and yet it still has lots of black humour in it (at least I hope it’s funny!) I admire writers such as Kerry Hudson and Damian Barr who have also tackled hard-hitting issues but still make room in their writing for lighter moments. That’s what I’m aiming for, and in that sense, my writing style is similar (if I’m gallus enough to compare myself to established writers) but obviously as they are my words, my ideas and my voice, then it has to be different – it’s my story, whatever genre label that’s slapped on it.

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3) Why do I write what I do? 

I write the type of book I want to read. I admire authors such as Jackie Kay, Janice Galloway, Anne Donovan, to name but a few, I could go on but you get the idea, they are writers of Scottish contemporary fiction who bring the world I know alive and help me understand it better. I want to do the same, give a voice to Scottish working class characters that don’t often feature in fiction.

4) How does my writing process work?

The initial ideas for novel no.3 came from an assignment I did during my MLitt course. The brief was to write an A to Z on any topic – I’m no expert on anything but myself so I wrote about my childhood. The exercise triggered ideas to expand the piece into something more substantial and before I knew it, no.3 had legs and ran off the page using the ‘freefall’ method. It’s a technique I’d never tried before and helped get the words down and the story out without constantly self-censoring each and every paragraph. The downside is that the editing process has taken much longer than I expected as the initial draft was so rough. I’ve hacked away at the words and tried my best to buff them into something worth sharing – if not, there’s room in the Matalan suitcase and no.1 and 2. would enjoy the company…

T-shirt pic 2This is the closest you’ll see me get to athletics by passing the virtual ‘baton’ to writer Paul Cuddihy to write the next blog post. One of my good pals is the sister-in-law of Paul and I’ve been to two of his book launches – both great evenings where Paul entertained the crowd with words and music. He’s a talented guy whose post will no doubt show off his wit and vibrant personality. Here’s a wee bit about him…

Paul Cuddihy read a lot of books in 2013 and then wrote all about his year of falling in love with literature again in a book called ‘Read All About It’, which is published on Amazon as a paperback and eBook. He’s also written a trilogy of historical fiction novels, as well as a couple of football books. He believes that subtle product placement is the key to book promotion.

Does your writing process sound similar to mine? Has anyone else helped you develop your writing process or have you improved through trial and error?

 

 

Writing + Day Job = Frustration

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Playing ‘Spot the Difference’ doesn’t last long!

My day job involves working with numbers.  It also involves traveling all over Scotland to deliver training to teachers in a numeracy programme for primary school children. The nature of my job means that I have to squeeze most of these training sessions into the tight calendar of in-service days for schools and the result is that last week I drove 810 miles, stayed away from home for 4 nights, visited 5 schools and delivered a PowerPoint presentation of 400 slides to 269 teachers.

download (3)The week’s highlights included having a humungous spot on my nose that made me feel like a unicorn (not a great look with 87 folk staring at you), being woken up at 3am by a screaming fire alarm and ending up standing shivering in howling winds outside the Premier Inn in Ayr (thankfully I had on my newest jammies however my make-up free face must have terrified the other guests), tripping and hurting my knee to end up face down on a school gym hall floor (my wounded pride much sorer than my scabby knee), my laptop falling off a table causing my ‘clicker’ to break and the Blue Screen of Death appearing several times (my heart rate required beta blockers to calm down), a white knuckle drive home from Aberdeen through a blizzard in the dark, driving back up to Aberdeen days later but having to stop after 10 miles as my wipers were gubbed and await my hubby’s arrival to swap cars (he’s my fourth emergency service).

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“I’ll be here all week!”

And yet for all the traumas of life on the road, to receive comments like “feeling inspired” written on the delegates’ evaluation forms gives me job satisfaction.  But to achieve ‘excellent’ scores for my delivery, I use up hunners of energy on every level. It’s a bit like being a stand-up comedian but instead of your act being twenty minutes, you’ve to keep an audience (not all of whom have chosen to attend) entertained for the whole day – not easy when the topic is maths.

By the end of a day ‘performing’ and keeping large groups informed and interested in mathematical concepts, I’m like a washed out dish rag. This might explain why I’m unable to write a single word during these intense periods.

download (1)I used to beat myself up about trying to write every day, telling myself that if I was a real writer, then I’d find the time but my wee brain is mince by the end of a training day and doesn’t have the capacity to jump from numbers to words. And I don’t mind admitting to reading tweets when cooped up in a soulless purple box and feeling a stab of envy that other writers, lots of them unpublished like me, have spent their day doing research for their novel, polishing a short story or tweaking the plot of their novel. It’s frustrating, especially when I feel like I’ve no time to dabble in writing short stories as I’m STILL editing my current novel, never mind pursue the idea I have for my next novel.

Often, it feels as if I’ve been trying to achieve my writing dream FOREVER and at this rate I’ll have retired and won’t have to worry about juggling the day job!

As a writer, how do you get the work/life balance right? Do you force yourself to write every day no matter how tired you are or where you are? All tips welcome!

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Writing Techniques – Are you the Hare or the Tortoise?

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If ever there was a dreich autumn night it was Thursday. It was one of those nights where you just wanted to coorie in with a good book and light the stove. But thanks to the Edinburgh Reads programme, I had tickets to see Jane Harris at the Central Library in Edinburgh so I peeled myself off the couch to take the train east.

download (2)I also dragged my hubby along for company and he did question whether it was worth braving the weather when the tickets were free. Couldn’t I just content myself with reading the book and stay cosy? Well no, because chances like this to see a writer you admire don’t happen every week so up went the brolly and off we trotted. And I’m so glad we did. I’ve followed Jane on Twitter for some time and found her tweets to be witty and interesting and she didn’t disappoint in person. If anything I was even more in awe of her talent to entertain as she had the audience in stitches with her banter.

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The stunning domed ceiling of the Central Library but it didn’t hold my attention once the event started.

Often at readings, I find it hard to concentrate on long passages and my mind wanders. Not this time as Jane’s skill at accents turned this into a performance rather than a reading. I’m currently halfway through her first novel, The Observations and Jane really brought the voice of Bessy to life.

I don’t normally read historical fiction as I prefer contemporary fiction but I kept hearing recommendations that Jane’s other Victorian novel, Gillespie and I was a fantastic book. Based on these rave reviews and the setting of Glasgow which appealed to my love of the city I decided to give it a go. The book is a dark tale with a disturbing psychological plot and a great read as you wonder about the motivations of the complex character of Harriet, the unreliable narrator.

download (1)downloadHearing Jane’s inspiration for memorable characters like Bessy and Harriet was fascinating but the best bit of the event for me was the Q and A session. This is always a great insight into a writer’s techniques and it was interesting to learn that Jane uses the complete opposite to the Freefall technique which I’ve been recommending others try since completing the first draft of my novel. Jane reads her work aloud as she writes it and finds it difficult to take off her ‘editor’s hat’ as she writes and won’t progress with the story until she’s absolutely satisfied with each and every sentence. Her meticulous attention to detail and extensive research means that Jane doesn’t churn out novels year after year. But then again, with such layered plots and well-drawn characters it’s easy to see why it would be impossible to mass produce work of this quality.

There is no right and wrong way to write a novel and I’m still experimenting with techniques. Which technique works best for you? Slow and steady wins the race or spontaneous freestyle to reach the finishing line?

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Birth of a Book

After nine months of tapping away on my laptop, I’ve done it! I’ve finally typed ‘the end’ and completed a first draft of my novel.  Woo hoo!

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It’s a girl! I’ve not finalised the name yet but I’m delighted to announce that I’ve given birth to a book. She weighed in at a healthy 87k words, 310 pages long and I’m pleased to report that mother and baby are doing well.

But a first (VERY rough) draft is only the beginning, not ‘the end’ of the journey so I’m trying not to get too hyper (although it was still a good excuse to pop a cork). I know now from experience that there’s still a LOT of work to be done. It’s still a ‘work in progress’ and will be for quite some time…

imagesThis is the third time that I’ve written a novel but it’s the first time I’ve used the ‘freefall’ technique. My verdict? It’s definitely the best method I’ve ever tried so far. The idea is that instead of beating myself up about getting every word right and every sentence perfectly constructed, I gave myself permission to let the story flow out, without fear, without checking for typos, without any inhibitions. This meant that I didn’t get bogged down in one particular section and was able to keep the momentum going.

images (2)The freefall method is all about being creative but now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of the text and start the editing process. This is the point where I have to be ruthless with my red pen.

I know before I start to reread the draft that there will be chunks of text where I’ll cringe at the first draft howlers where I’ve made mistakes and simply written a load of guff. But hopefully there will be enough raw material to polish into something shiny and worth showing…

How did you feel when you finished your first draft? What’re your best editing tips?

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Dissertation Deadline

This time last week was a huge landmark in my writing ‘career’ so far. I submitted my 20, 837 (new lucky number) word dissertation after months of work. To say that I was glad to reach the finish line would be an understatement. The deadline of the 31st of August was only three weeks after a complicated house move and the start of the painful task of job hunting. So August 2012 turned out to be one of the most stressful months that I’ve experienced in years.

Way back at the start of summer (if you can call the wash out weather we’ve had ‘summer’); I booked tickets to see one of my all-time favourite writers at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I have admired Mark Haddon’s writing since reading the brilliant ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and loved ‘A Spot of Bother’ (the difficult second book) just as much even although it didn’t receive the same critical acclaim. His style of black comedy mixed in with social and ethical themes is exactly the type of writing I dream about achieving.

I was really keen to hear Mark but the event was smack bang in the middle of everything else going on around me and I considered just forgetting about the £10 ticket and concentrating on more pressing issues. It was my writing pal, Catherine, who reminded me not to let domesticity take over and the importance of taking a break away from the laptop. I’m so glad that I listened to Catherine’s advice.  The event was as fantastic and really inspired me.

At the time, I was feeling overwhelmed with constant editing and needed to hear his analogy to encourage me.  Mark likened editing to combing a very dirty and matted Afghan hound. He said that the first stage is getting the dog free of the muck and major tangles but it was a repeated process of combing over and over again before the dog’s coat could finally be glossy and silky smooth.

Mark also said that writing can feel like climbing a mountain. The idea sounds great and you set off full of enthusiasm but as the ascent gets steeper, every stride uphill gets tougher and you question whether it’s been a good idea after all. It’s only when you reach the top of the summit that you can turn round to admire the view and realise that all your hard work was worth it in the end. He also said that he once told a creative writing student that if he was having fun, then the writing wasn’t working. All these little snippets of inspiration helped motivate me on the last steps up the mountain that was my dissertation.

Not only did Mark’s appearance at the Book Festival offer me encouragement and  another new book (The Red House) to be added to my Everest proportioned TBR pile (To Be Read, not a nasty disease as Angels feared I’d caught) but hubby and I also had a lovely visit to Café Andaluz on George Street for delicious tapas and amazing desserts (any excuse to stick my face in the feeding trough).

The motto of this blog post is, if in doubt, do it! Don’t miss out on an opportunity, it might be the pick-me-up at a time when you need it most.

Writing is Revision

Moving house is stressful, no one can argue with that but just in case I wasn’t suffering enough, I’ve also got to edit the draft of the 20k word dissertation for my MLitt course and submit the final ms by the deadline of the end of August.

It was only after receiving comments from my dissertation supervisor that I realised that my draft was a rough draft with a capital ‘R’. The feedback was hard to swallow but once I’d nursed my bruised ego, I accepted that there was a lot of room for improvement.

The supervisor’s link to Necessary Fiction and a brilliant article, Thoughts on Revision, by Aaron Gilbreath which helped me accept that “good stuff takes time” and I agree with his view that “writing is revision”.

So in amongst the packing boxes, mostly still sealed up, I’m slowly (tick tock tick tock) but surely working my way through the edits, hoping that my changes are making it better and not worse! Editing is not easy, especially when you’ve gone over the same section again and again. And you have to remind yourself of William Faulkner’s classic advice to be prepared to “kill your darlings”; no matter how long it took you to write, if it doesn’t work, it needs to go! Be bold and get chopping!

But the one tip that I’m putting into practise is to read my writing out loud to get a feel for the rhythm of the words. There was one word used throughout my supervisor’s feedback and it was “awkward”, mainly in relation to dialogue. It was only when I read the dialogue aloud (it’s not unusual for me to talk to myself these days) that I could hear that the words were indeed clumsy and clunky.

I no longer look with critical eyes at my writing but also with critical ears, even if you feel like an eejit when you’re reading your work out to an empty room, try it and you’ll instantly hear if the sentence structure works then ALL you have to do is fix it!

How do you edit your writing? Are you willing to “kill your darlings” to make your writing stronger? What are your editing top tips?