Tag Archives: editing

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

Performance Pressure

It’s 1st November. It’s almost ten to eleven – pm. That’s 2249, for the militarily precise. Just 61 minutes to the Witching Hour on All Saints’ Day. And I’m feeling the pressure.

As both my regular readers will have no doubt observed, there’s been a bit of a dearth of posts on this blog over the last couple of weeks. Something of a desert. Let’s be kind and call it a hiatus. The truth is – it’s here at last.

Four months into my six months of unpaid leave and I’m feeling stressed.

You see, I thought a rugby metaphor might work well for this post - being at the bottom of a ruck or something. And then I found this picture of Mike Philllips and his bicep... I know, it's cheap. Just cheap.

You see, I thought a rugby metaphor might work well for this post – being at the bottom of a ruck or something. And then I found this picture of Mike Philllips and his bicep… I know, it’s cheap. Just cheap.

Now, before any of my former colleagues spit their coffee over their keyboards/ collapse in hysterics in the midst of the open plan/ create new black holes as they pulverise their stress balls, let me explain myself…

I realise I have no good reason for this.  No good reason.  But I do have some fairly rubbish ones. And together, they’ve given me a Crisis of Confidence.

At times like this, there’s only one thing to do. I must reconnect with my inner bureaucrat.  I must make a list.

So here it is: my Fairly Rubbish Reasons for Feeling Stressed.

1.  Last week, one of my blog posts appeared on Freshly Pressed.  Of course, I was thrilled when I got that email from the lovely Benjamin.  He’ll be on my electronic Christmas card list until the end of time.  And I was even more thrilled when up popped my post and my visitor numbers shot up by a multiple I’d be prepared to share with you if only it didn’t demonstrate how feeble my usual stats were.  But here’s the thing…  You get all these wonderful, shiny new visitors, posting comments and being witty and interesting and just plain nice and you think: how the hell am I going to keep them?  Even some of them?  What if they read my other posts and think, “What on earth was I doing hanging around on this loser’s page? Quick, get me back to How The Light Gets In where I can read something that’s actually good!”

And the post that was freshly pressed wasn’t even categorised as “Writing”. Oh no. In fairness, there was a very good reason for that: the writing element was pretty tangential.  Instead, it was categorised as “Spiders.”  The thing is, I’ve now got a lot of visitors who are very interested in and knowledgeable about our eight-legged friends.  A couple of them are even following me on Twitter.  Maybe I should get out some library books on arachnids?  I just don’t think that’s going to cut it though.  My spider-loving chums have only disappointment ahead.

So anxious was I about what I was going to write in the week after I was “freshly pressed” I managed one post. One.  This is now the longest I’ve been without posting since I started my blog.

The answer, of course, is simple: Get Over It.

2) The same day I got that email from the brilliant and incisive Benjamin (you never know, he may be reading this…) I received an email from my brilliant and incisive agent (ditto). She was back from the Frankfurt book fair and sending me her eagerly-anticipated ideas for the rewrite of my novel – for which we had lots of knee tremblers from various publishers, but sadly none prepared to go all the way.

“Hurrah!” I thought, “Time to get back to work!” And then – I didn’t.  Instead, I spent two days worrying whether I had it in me to do it. I mean, it feels like taking a hammer to my lovely, completed jigsaw puzzle of a story, chucking in a pile of extra pieces, and then trying to put them all together again in a way that miraculously creates a more beautiful picture. Honestly, I just don’t know if I’m up to it.

I think the answer is probably just to Get Over It.

3) As anyone frequenting any website with the vaguest connection to writing won’t have avoided hearing about, November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to those in the know.  The idea is to write a novel of 50,000 words between 1 and 30 November.

I had plans for this. Oh yes.  In line with best practice in behaviour change theory, my post Composting and NaNoWriMo put them out there for the world to see.  My pledge was to make a 50,000 word sized dent in my second novel.  Of course, this is now on hold as I focus on the rewrite of my first. But how do you compare your progress on revising and adding to and moving around your existing text with the clarity of a daily word count target?  I can’t do it.

The answer must be to Get Over It.  Or possibly to tell myself that whatever revisions I’ve managed for the day are equivalent to far in excess of 2,000 words of spanking new prose.

4) I’m now officially two thirds of the way through my unpaid leave.  I have 8.57 weeks left.  60 days.  1,440 hours.  And that’s before you take out the festive period when, let’s face it, the only writing I’m likely to be doing is Christmas cards.

I’m due to meet my line manager next week to discuss what job I’ll do when I come back. That’s next week!

I’d tell myself to Get Over It, but honestly, I’m giving myself a bit of leeway with this one.

So how a bit of group therapy, people? Let me have your ideas for taking the strain.  And if you’re feeling a bit under the cosh yourself right now – let me know. I’ll do my best to come up with some advice.  Either that, or you’ll have someone new to tell you to just Get Over It.

Losing the Armbands

How do you exercise your writing muscles?  And how do you know if they’re getting stronger?

This weekend, I watched my sister compete in her first ever open water swimming competition.  She finished in the top third of men and women for her distance, and third in her age group of women (30-34 years old, in case you’re wondering).

Like me, Little Sis learned to swim at the age of four or five.  She swam at school and sometimes went to the local pool on weekends.  On family holidays, she mucked about diving over waves or trying to get onto lilos in the sea (have you tried this? Don’t bother in Britain’s choppy waters unless you have an hour to spare and no concern for your personal dignity).  In recent years, our occasional visits to health spa pools involved looking up occasionally from a book or magazine to watch a lone swimmer thrash up and down a few lengths.

In other words, swimming wasn’t a serious pursuit – until the last year.  Little Sis started going to the pool several times a week.  She started timing her swims and telling me about stroke length and body rotation.  She bought a proper swimming costume.  Then she bought a wetsuit.  Last weekend, I watched her swim 1500 metres down the river Thames in 34 minutes and come out at the other end fresh as a daisy.  Being impressed doesn’t come easy to older siblings, but impressed I was.

Okay, it’s not news that practice improves performance – but it made me think: am I practising my writing with the same degree of discipline my sister showed in improving her swimming?  What does that even mean for a writer? And how do you know if it’s paying off?

In the first month after I left my job, I was focussed on finishing the first draft of my novel.  I made sure I wrote a minimum of 2,000 words a day.  Some days it was easier than others.  I don’t think what I wrote in the last week of the month was any better than what I wrote in the first.  I’m not sure it was any better than what I wrote when I first started the manuscript, two years ago.floating rubber ring

I’m now struggling through the editing process.  One third of the way through, I’m no clearer than I was at the beginning on whether my edits are improvements or just changes.

Before I go and slit my wrists, I’m going to ferret out a few positives.

I have at least written regularly.  My own stuff, that is, not the policy papers or letters or emails I wrote in my job. I think the creative process now comes a bit more readily.  I’ve always been able to string a sentence together (feel free to take issue with that)  but my imagination doesn’t need quite the prodding it once did to stir into life.  Sometimes it used to refuse to get out of bed at all; these days, it only gets to hit the snooze button once or twice before grumbling into consciousness.

Thanks to my writing group, the excellent London Writers’ Café, I’m slowly reclaiming my critical faculties. I find I have things to say about other people’s work. At some point, this has got to (surely?) translate into being able to critique my own writing.

I know I have a lot more to do.  I subscribe to some great writers’ prompts and fail to do anything with them.  I read other blogger’s short stories and don’t get beyond telling myself I should give flash fiction a go.  I faff about reading other people’s tweets when I should be editing the bloody manuscript.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? And if it does, have you found any techniques to help? And any ways to assess your progress?

One thing’s for sure: I might not be a stranger to the swimming pool, but I’m not ready for an open water swim just yet.

An Appeal for Carol, Deserted By Her Inner Critic

I’d like you to imagine some tinkly, sentimental music playing as you read this.  Sad-faced children looking entreatingly into your eyes. Perhaps a kitten.

The camera pans to a small desk at a window.  A girl – alright, a woman fast approaching middle age – is sat, chin resting in her hands, staring out at the garden.  (There was a tree there until yesterday, but that’s another story.)  In front of her is a pile of typed pages, a little creased and dog-eared now.  The margins are filled with scribbles, crossed out and replaced with others, now almost illegible.  The woman twists and turns a biro between the fingers of her right hand, clicking the top so that the nib pops in and out.

Only you can help Tiddles smile again.

Carol’s cat: only you can help Tiddles smile again.

Voice over:

A long time ago, Carol – not her real name – dreamed of writing a book. 

She wrote first chapters – lots of them. But she could never get any further.

You see, Carol couldn’t silence her Inner Critic; the voice that told her everything she’d put on paper just wasn’t good enough. The voice that told her she was wasting her time. 

Then, one day, Carol decided she wasn’t going to live like that any more.  With your help, she locked up her Inner Critic.  She made herself develop a plot and characters.  She gave herself word count targets.

Carol finished her first draft. She thought she’d succeeded.  But the story doesn’t end there.

Now she must edit her work.  But Carol’s Inner Critic is sulking and refusing to help. Carol can’t decide what’s good and what isn’t.  Is she improving her writing, or just tinkering pointlessly?

[Music rises to a crescendo]

That’s why Carol needs your help again. 

For just one pound a month – I mean, with just one comment on this blog – you can help Carol know that she’s not alone.

Your editing stories can make a difference.  Please, post a reply and share them with us today.

Please.  For Carol’s sake.