Breaking every rule in the book

“Never let a manuscript hit the ground. Keep them in flight – working for you.” That was the advice I heard from Mike McCormack at a seminar organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre in November. This is a man who tried forty publishers before he got a deal for his first book. At the moment I have two little birds in flight but I’d like to do better than that and declare February a submissions month.

The timing is right because the novel, now that the rewrite is done (let’s call it the second draft), is going to be banished to a drawer again, almost a year after its first banishment, which in retrospect was too short.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t prepare a little better before embarking on this writing marathon. Along the way I have broken every rule in the book.

It started with too many sub plots. A novel, like a good meal, needs the right ingredients and a little bit of planning. You are unlikely to delight your guests if you throw everything you have in the cupboard into the pot. When I removed the extraneous bits and pieces from the book, the debris resembled the collection of things you might see extracted from a dead shark’s stomach (just to stretch the digestion metaphor ever so slightly).

There were also too many goddamn people in the book. It got so bad they were bumping into each other and there was nowhere to sit down. I’ve done my best here but things still a tad crowded.

Not only that but I fell into the trap of dumping back story in the opening chapters like it was going out of fashion. For every one step forwards, my main character was taking thirteen steps backwards, way back into her memory and the more distant past, reflecting on her childhood, relationships, current life situation – anything rather than get on with the story.

Did I mention that I changed the point-of-view of the novel too? Somewhere around the end of November I had a crisis of faith (another one!) and came to the conclusion that the book would work better if it was told in the first person. I tried out a reworked chapter on the members of my writing course, got their blessing and the big conversion began.

There was also the small matter of multiple breaches of the show don’t tell rule, which I dealt with in a previous post.

Also on the subject of showing, I made the classic mistake of showing too soon. Under the illusion that the novel was ‘finished’, I asked for feedback before I had a clear idea of where I was going with the story – and before I had weeded out the indigestible matter.

Which brings me to the final point, the only piece of advice I feel qualified to give to anyone wanting to write their first novel. Do not put finger to keyboard until you have a clear sense of direction for the story. Something like this perhaps:

Girl in tribal Pakistan wants to be a doctor, makes a bargain with local warlord to sacrifice her honour for her dream. He pays her way through medical school but will she ever really escape the clutches of the evil Khalid?

Of course it will evolve as you write but so much better to have the roadmap there.

You might wonder whether I have managed to rescue a coherent piece of fiction from this muddle. I’d like to think I have, or at least that I am well on the way there. But we’ll see when the manuscript comes back from the cooler.

Another speaker at that seminar in Dublin, Dave Lordan, said he had always found it essential to take time away from everything to work on a manuscript. “That time and concentration will lift the manuscript. It won’t happen if you do two hours here and there.”

It would be nice to make a date with the manuscript after its return from exile, a mini-break away from all the other demands and distractions of life, just the two of us. Here’s hoping. Has anyone else managed to steal time away to write? Sounds like heaven to me.

Ps. This blog is one year old today!


11 thoughts on “Breaking every rule in the book

  1. I love this post. My second novel has been locked away for the past five months. In the meantime I’ve been working on getting novel #1 published and writing a blog. When I’m ready to look at it again, I hope I’ll be able to describe what’s wrong with it as succinctly as you have. Congratulations on the one year birthday of your blog.

    1. Thanks Nicki. Five months is good. Hope you’re pleasantly surprised when you take the manuscript out again. I really liked your daughter’s guest post about the Tiger Mother book, by the way. I also thought there were some useful insights in Chua’s approach.

  2. Beautifully expressed, Clare, and congratulations on your blogiversary. You’ve obviously learnt loads from writing your first novel and are so clear about what’s gone wrong. When you pick it up again hope you’ll also see what you love about it.

    1. Hope so. I have fallen a little out of love with it at this stage. I suppose a few date nights are needed before the mini-break! By the way, after all your raving I’ve ordered The Examined Life so that will be my next read.

  3. So true, claire
    Every bit of it. You have to learn the rules before you break them.
    You do need time for an MS. Unfortunately, writers need to eat too. Writing is a passion. A few lucky ones can turn it into a job.
    Keep at it.

  4. Many happy returns, Clare’s blog! I laughed at so much of this and totally empathise. You really do learn by doing when it comes to fiction writing and I’ve been guilty of just about everything you mentioned. I like the quote about keeping the MS ‘in flight’ – good advice, I’m sure.

    1. Thanks Safia. McCormack also spoke about “the gravity of his pen” defaulting to certain themes that were linked to formative experiences in his life. Interesting guy.

  5. Lots of recognition here Clare, especially about the backstory and the number of people. It took me four years to write my novel and after three I paid for a critique with a wonderful editor who pointed out a lot of the above to me. My four characters went down to two and I heavily edited. Without this I would never have been published. Good Luck for the future.

    1. Thank you Annette. Hmm, a professional editor. It’s definitely an appealing idea but the thought of having to do yet another revision makes my heart sink. In some cases the first novel is not the one that should be published. I’ve noticed that with some established authors whose early unpublished work is brought out on the back of the success of novel number two or three.

Leave a Reply