Saturday 31 March 2018

Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint - Kelly McCaughrain

In the process of having my very first shiny new novel published, I’ve learned so much about publishing I’ve been blogging about the journey along the way, everything from how much writers really earn, right up to how to throw a book launch. As that journey came to an end, I wondered what I’d blog about now.

For about five minutes, before realising I have to start all over again.

In an ideal world you’ve started the next book long before the last one is published, because, if publication goes badly it’s a good distraction and if it goes well, there’s nothing like writing a crappy first draft to keep your head from swelling.

But sometimes that book you started doesn’t get that far and you find yourself starting again and again. That’s where I am at the minute. At square one. Yet again. In total, I have started 8 different novels, finished 4 and published 1

but in the process, I have learned three things about starting a book and here they are:

1. It will never be the same as writing the first one. The first one seemed easy because you only wrote when you felt like it. You got on with your life and your other hobbies (remember those?) and when the ideas came you grabbed a pen. There was much less agonised staring at blank screens, and yeah it took longer, but you enjoyed the actual writing more. Now, you’re under pressure to write another one. Not because some amazing idea is bursting to get out of you, but because people are waiting for the book. Which is a much less inspiring reason. 

If you do have an idea, you are not at liberty to wait and see if it niggles enough to indicate it’s worth writing. You’re not at liberty to stand at the bus stop of ideas and wait for the next one because this one appears to have a drunk driver and no seats. You have to go for it, and you have to set yourself deadlines. 

Which means you have a much higher risk of failure and a much higher risk of writing, not on the crest of a tidal wave of inspiration, but running on the fumes of your own depleted creative brain. So –

2. Acknowledge this, and do not panic

It took me more semi-completed novels than I care to mention but I now recognise that feeling of Oh God, I can’t do this for what it is. Panic. More importantly, I now also know that it does not last. 

In the beginning stages of a novel I can go from utter despair to Yeah, actually this is pretty good, and back again, in the space of fifteen minutes. 

Sometimes you spend weeks panicking, sometimes it’s going great for days on end and then one day you open the laptop and somehow your beautiful story has transformed into the worst mush you’ve ever seen. 

You can’t stop panic happening, the important thing is just to acknowledge that it won’t last. Go to work as usual and by the end of the day you’ll probably feel better about things. And if not, you’ll feel better the day after that. Or the week after that. Or the month after that. The point is, it’s not forever and you shouldn’t trust your own judgement about your work when you’re in that state, any more than you would drive a car while having a panic attack. 

Anyway, even if your story is crap now -

3. It’s going to change radically before you’re done. When I look back at early drafts of my first novel there’s so much stuff that got changed, dropped or overhauled. Whole characters, plotlines, subplots, chapters, themes and ideas were cut. Even the structure and the genre changed along the way. If I’d tried to assess my chances of writing a great novel based on those early pages I’d have curled up in despair. 

In the first few weeks of my current WIP I found that this all happened in a much more concentrated space of time (see: deadlines). Inside a week the entire plot could have changed three times and every time I got that ‘Oh, wait, maybe it should be like this…’ feeling, my heart would sink because: 
  • This involves even more crossroad-moment decision agony
  • I now have to go back and rework those 10,000 words again
  • And this is probably a waste of time because I’ll change my mind tomorrow but there’s only one way to find out if this one is The One…

I have a suspicion that a lot of bottom drawer novels never progressed purely because people hate and fear that ‘I need to make major changes’ feeling. They resist it and they plough on dutifully with their original concept because every step forward has been so difficult that taking one back is unthinkable. And then eventually you’re too far down the road to even see the crossroads anymore.

Or maybe they flew through an entire first draft in a NaNo-frenzy and didn’t give the ideas time to breathe, so by the time it came to editing, it was too momentous to change things. 

This is like doing your maths homework in pen. 

Allow for changes and let those changes happen early. It doesn’t matter if it means rewriting 30,000 words in another tense, POV, or as a diary. It doesn’t matter if it involves chopping that chapter that had the really amazing last line. It doesn’t matter if it means killing the character that was based on your Granny. 

Try every change that occurs to you. Be open to the maddest idea that crosses your mind, even the one where your first thought is ‘I can’t do that!’, because your next thought, if you allow it to come, will be, ‘Can I?’ (And btw, readers live for those moments.)

Put the work in now, and enjoy the liberating fact that it’ll probably be rubbish and that that’s just part of the process of elimination on your way to The One. It’s much easier to do it now than hear it from your agent when you’ve wrestled a whole book, Chinese Foot-Binding Style, into a form it was never meant to take.

Matt Haig says the 30,000 word mark is the hard bit and everything after 50,000 is coasting, and that’s so true. I’m at 30,000 words exactly this week and this is where the big decisions are made. You’ve explored your characters and your world a bit, you’ve set up some ideas and themes and it was all great fun. But now you have to write the second half, and the second half depends entirely on the first half, which means your first half has got to be rock solid. By the time you get to 50,000 you’re just adding the other half of a lot of equations you’ve already set up, but setting them up in the first place is hard. 

So my daily mantra these days is, take your time and don’t despair. And don't be jealous of writers who fly through a first draft in 6 weeks and tell you it's brilliant. Be suspicious of those writers and the quality of their work. Very, very suspicious.

If you get the first half right, the rest is plain sailing. So be kind to your future self and put the work in now. And expect it to be hard, expect it to be slow, expect there to be panic (it’s much less scary if you know and accept that it’s coming). But most of all, remember, everything's going to be OK. 

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Susan Price said...

Some very good tips here. Yes, you have to learn to LOVE scrapping half a novel and rewriting it, to take a dreadful glee in doing the exact opposite of what your inner editor wants to do and making it work. I've met several fledgling writers who, as you say, Kelly, cling to their first draft with all its faults, because they put so much into it, they can't bring themselves to scrap and rewrite a good half of it.

Rowena House said...

You've really met people who've claimed they wrote a first draft in six weeks? Wow. I'd have asked to see it - and curled up & died if it was anything other than absolute tosh. Hope the panic attacks go off and sulk somewhere dark now you've got them sorted.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Yeah, I can understand their reluctance but it's better in the long run.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I have, and I am deeply sceptical.

Stroppy Author said...

I think definition of 'first draft' varies between people. And also, that's just the way some people work. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon's Mines in six weeks, and Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in ten days. There isn't one right way to do things. Different isn't necessarily bad. We need to take people's lives into account, too. Some people might get a few weeks a year they can focus on writing all day, while others can work (say) early each morning or late each night. Some people also do so much detailed preparation and planning that they can write through the novel itself very quickly. The variety of methods that work is inspiring!