Thursday, 15 February 2018

Five Lessons To Combat Book Two Blues - by Rowena House

The new work-in-progress isn’t progressing very quickly – which is hardly newsworthy. What Book Two ever went well?

In fact, in common with most debut friends of mine, this isn’t Book Two at all: rejected pitches litter my computer files, abandoned story ideas clog up my Creative Folder, and an entire 88K manuscript sits somewhere on an old hard drive.

Being fore-warned of the time it will take, the labour and love required, the commitment, the research, the inevitable disappointments, and (if I’m really, really lucky again) another long wait between completion and publication, isn’t the same thing as being fore-armed.

Frankly, part of me thinks it’s madness to start again.

Yet another part of me keeps whispering that what I now know about editing might (just might) make the whole business of producing another publishable manuscript less overwhelming second time around.

So what lessons has hindsight taught me?

First, write with passion and instinct initially. Over-plotting is a killer. But at the same time bear in mind that sooner or later we do have to answer the big questions: what is the heart of this story? What one scene/idea/moment would I save if I had to erase the rest? And what does that say about the story I think I’m trying to write.

A lot of writing gurus say the answer to that last question about the core of a story – its underlying meaning – only emerges at the end of a first full draft. I don’t know about that. I think I had a sense of what I was writing much earlier than that with The Goose Road. But it certainly did require time and distance from the first draft to look back with sufficient perspective to discover that a lot of what I thought I’d written wasn’t actually there.

How much time & distance? For me, it took a full six months, working pretty intensively on another story, one I murdered by over-plotting.

But I also believe it was the very act of over-plotting – of analysing “story” objectively – which brought into clear relief the formal structures that were missing from The Goose Road. Okay, I had an Inciting Incident (several, in fact!) but also great dollops of irrelevant junk, and no proper character arc. I rewrote Acts 1 and II almost completely over the course of the following six months.

So I guess Lesson One for me has been: write with passion, then somehow find the headspace to be ruthlessly objective, and the patience and self-belief to rip Draft One into pieces.

Lesson Two: be honest. Editors want stories with a big heart and universal appeal, so if I’m simply riding some personal hobby get off it pronto. Then go find the universal in my protagonist’s journey.

Lesson Three: read good structural guide books. Structure is good. Structure is our friend. Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. My personal recommendations are James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, combined with his over-priced but truly enlightening Writing Your Novel from the Middle, Robert McKee’s Story, and John Yorke’s Into the Woods.

Lesson Four: don’t take to heart every writing maxim you see on Twitter, Facebook etc. Some are gems (I love all the variants of “First drafts are sh*t – but manure is great stuff from which to grow something better”) but I find others toxic, including exhortations to write every day, which is fine and dandy if you don’t have an actual, you know, real life, with bills to pay and people to care for, but if you do, they’re a source of misery and self-doubt.

Lesson Five (and this is the one I’m still coming to terms with): with average advances so low these days, for most of us writing will remain an art, a craft, a hobby even. Not a career. After eleven years of striving to get published, I’m very glad that my book did find a traditional home. But I don’t think writing is a particularly clever lifestyle choice; it’s more important to take care of yourself and those you love. A book with your name on the spine isn’t any kind of substitute for living life to the full.





Susan Price said...

Some comments for people to disagree with:-

Rowena, I can tell you, after 63-plus books, that it NEVER gets any easier. There's always some new problem.

Take no notice of any advice on how to write, from Twitter or elsewhere. It only means you get bogged down, fretting about whether you're 'doing it right,' which paralyses you just when you need to be writing most freely.

Just write the damned book -- it will be a mess -- then fight it until it becomes less of a mess. It will drive you crazy but so will any other approach. At least this craziness is your own and not that of some writing coach or Twitter meme.

And when you've done that, books 3 and 4 will be just as difficult. And badly paid.

Andrew Preston said...

Own your craziness....


Rowena House said...

Thank you, both. 63 books? Wow! I can't imagine ever writing that many. Crazy is certainly the word. Maybe the longer days of spring will give me the energy to start the damn thing again. Fingers crossed.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Great Post Rowena! And very comforting since I'm pretty much exactly where you are :)