At the end of 2014, I was interviewed for almost an hour on a local radio show. The subject was my journey of writing and pursuing publishing with my novel, 'Beauty Pageants to Brothels'. I write journalistic pieces, blogs, corporate scripts, radio plays, short stories and various other things but I have found over the last few years that when I tell people I'm a writer I'm often asked how to go about writing a book. So in this blog entry I want to go through my journey of writing a novel, hopefully a few tips and then give an update on where I am at with publishing.
I studied journalism back in the mid-90s which gave me a foundation for writing. Until about 5 years ago, I saw myself as more of a 'journalist', someone who could interview, ask probing questions, and report the facts, versus being a writer. In fact, back at university there was an ongoing snobbery between creative writers and journalists.
When I joined a local writer's group 5 years ago I knew I wanted to write a book. But don't most of us want to 'write a book'? I think it's a huge desire, but getting from point A to actually writing a flippin' entire book takes a long time and a lot of perseverance. Much longer than anyone realises. So I started, and not really intentionally, with a short story under 2000 words. I needed to get out what was in me and then have a completion point. I put the novel idea aside, and thought 'if I can write something people may enjoy then I have a shot at writing a book.'
My first short story was on a funny experience I had in my pageant days and was well received by the (very Yorkshire British) writing group (they thought it was hilarious), which was motivation enough to keep going. So week after week I wrote a new short story on various true narratives ranging from pageant life and university wild days to the challenges of motherhood, and living as an American in England to my then current work with helping women exit the prostitution lifestyle. After about two years I put them all together and called it a novel, but really it was a collection of short stories that each had a beginning and an end. So for two more years I edited, I got feedback, and I created a fictional subplot of a writing group that added conflict. In that process, I took novel-writing classes, changed (and eventually left the writing groups) and had others edit the manuscript. So in the Autumn of 2013, I researched and sent it off to about three agents. I also had a small publisher (a contact through a friend of mine) who was interested.
AND THEN I WAITED.
First came the three rejection letters, which were all complimentary, but my novel wasn't suitable to what they wanted. JK Rowling apparently was rejected by 12 agents, Anne Frank's The Diary of A Young Girl 15 times, and William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies' had 20 rejections, so I had no need to throw a pity party.
But after rejections, it always begs the honest questions, 'is this rubbish? or 'is this worth it?' The small publisher had only read a few chapters and passed it to his editor at the beginning of 2014, so I waited even longer. In fact, I did not hear a final word until July 2014. In that time, I honestly put the book on the electronic shelf and began to let it collect dust. When I finally heard, it was a gracious, 'we really like it as a story, but it will take a lot of work to make into a novel as it feels like a collection of short stories. We don't have the current resources to do that so it would be best for you to pursue someone else.' Hmmm . . .
During this time of waiting, I picked up my journalism hat again and started writing for an online magazine. I also started writing scripts after a screenwriting class and began a PR job. After last summer, I honestly thought I would just turn the thing into a screenplay and forget the novel idea. It's been said your first novel is just practice and probably won't be published. So this is what I resolved and with my new career in modelling, TV presenting, PR, etc. I didn't think I had time.
But at the end of 2014, another publisher had heard about the manuscript and asked for a copy. It was out of the blue and when I sent it off, I knew I wanted to change it dramatically (but I let them read the original with that disclaimer). This resulted in an offer to publish IF I did a major overhaul. The biggest feedback was that it felt more like a string of short stories (which it was), that I needed to get rid of the subplot and develop a few more key areas of the characters life. The hoped-for result would be a novel, based on a true story, written in first person.
We have a few deadlines for the book, the first 20,000 words of the rewrite is due mid February and at this point I'm at about 14,000 . . . as raw copy.
And even though I haven't published, I have learned a few things from others about how to go about writing a book:
1) Write a little consistently.
Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up. - Jane Yolen
2) Have someone or a group who can encourage and give honest feedback. It helps motivate you when the last thing you want to do is start writing. I started with writing groups, and now have a writing accountability partner.
3) An author friend of mine gave me a valuable piece of advice: 'When you are writing something at length, don't ever finish it. That way you have something to pick up the next day.' I found this incredibly helpful in preventing writers block.
4) Let your first draft be your 'vomit draft' where you don't worry about edits or perfection, but rather you get the ideas out. It takes the pressure off and helps creativity flow.
5) Remember to 'murder your darlings', a phrase coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. It means to be ruthless with all those bits that you think are great pieces of writing but REALLY just get in the way. Usually it pops up in the form of pet phrases or descriptions that you use (where you think you have been clever). Be ruthless and get rid of these hindrances.
6) Don't start with a novel if you are just beginning as a writer. Start small such as flash fiction, a poem, or a short story. It is very satisfying and builds your confidence when you finish something. A novel is like running a marathon and takes training, time, effort, planning and many other factors . . .so build up your confidence with more attainable goals.
So here's to a new year and a new novel! *said with a bit of fear, a bit of excitement mixed with a little nausea*. Despite the setbacks with the novel, I feel it has matured me as a writer which is better than releasing a half-baked novel that I would later regret.
What about you? How do you 'exercise' your writing skills? I'd love to hear.
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