Freddie had to go

There was a time when he was important. It was because of his charming deceitful ways that the whole story began. He made life unbearable for my main character, gave her the push she needed to run away and try to change things.

But when it became apparent that there was too much back story and too many love interests in this novel, Freddie had to go. Like any intense relationship, it was hard to make the break but bit by bit I have managed to delete all trace of him.

I had to ask myself the question: ‘Can I live without him?’ And painful as it was, the answer was yes. It’s a well-known mistake to cram too much into your first novel, one that you usually discover after the fact. I fell into this trap on a grand scale and it’s a difficult one to get out of. Difficult but not impossible.

So goodbye Freddie and everything that came with you:
The convoluted back story about the festival he was organising and embezzling money from – out.
The flirting scene in the pub – out.
The scene when they first get physical – out.
His jealous girlfriend’s reaction – out.
The successful launch of the festival – out.
Police raiding the offices – out.
Freddie going awol – out.
Police interviews – out.
The scene in the solicitor’s office – out.
Freddie featuring in other people’s conversations – out.
References to the court case – out.
The visit to Freddie in prison – out.

And finally, today, after my sly attempt to keep Freddie in the background of the story, even though no new reader could figure out what he was doing there, I have removed any last trace of Freddie’s character.

Amazingly it turned out that Freddie and the hefty subplot that went with him were not essential to this novel. In fact this overload of storylines was taking away from the true heart of the novel, which is about family. He may appear in another guise in another story, but for now the mischievous, restless Freddie is out of the picture.

I’m definitely not the first person to have to cut a character from a novel in progress. Sometimes two characters can be rolled into one if they are serving the same purpose or a peripheral character can disappear over the horizon without being missed. Has anyone else had the experience of cutting a major character? Am I right in thinking (and hoping) you never regret what you cut?

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!


The tyranny of show don’t tell

I’m so constrained by the show don’t tell writing commandment these days it feels like working with a straightjacket on. For those not familiar with the concept, it is deemed to be the hallmark of good writing that the author shows you what emotion or dynamic is at play (through dialogue, body language, behaviour, surroundings) rather than telling you. Telling it straight is like burning a church (incidentally, my grandmother once told me that mashing new potatoes – I was going through a mashing everything phase – was like ‘burning a church’ and I’ve since discovered that this was something of an exaggeration and in fact no charge of sacrilege can be brought connected to potatoes).

At the risk of stretching the point a little, may I present:

The Climax of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, shown not told (translation in brackets).

Goldilocks was woken by the sound of heavy footsteps, the scrape of claw on wood. Through half-closed eyes she noticed large shapes blocking out the light. Her hands flew to her throat, which filled with a silent scream, when she realised she was in the presence of three bears.

(Goldilocks woke with a start when the three bears came into the baby bear’s room. She was desperately frightened at the sight of the bears.)

“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the smallest bear, jumping up and down, his voice unnaturally high, “and here she is!”

(“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the baby bear, full of excitement, “and here she is!”)

Goldilocks leapt out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away, the muscles in her little legs aching as her feet pounded a rapid rhythm on the forest floor.

(Goldilocks jumped out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away as fast as her little legs could carry her.)

God it’s exhausting!

Caught looking for the best bits

Bring in the critics
Bring in the critics

It is surprising, when you say you are writing, who is interested in seeing the manuscript and who is not. Some people are (understandably) afraid your work will be terrible and they will have to damn it with faint praise. Others are genuinely not interested.

In my writing course I have got used to sharing extracts from my book and hearing feedback. It’s been a helpful and positive experience. It’s also been stimulating to listen to other people’s work in progress, as much to get a sense of what’s going on behind good writing as to learn more about the common pitfalls.

The other day, in advance of my next reading slot coming up in the writing course, I was with my writing buddy in the most unfashionable café in county Dublin, scanning my chapters trying to pick out the right excerpt to share.

What to choose? I interrupt my writing buddy for the fifteenth time that hour and hope that look does not mean he is rethinking our weekly arrangement of writing together. Well, he says, are you sifting through your novel looking for the best passages? Cue guilty smile. And what if I am?

The problem with writing a novel, I have realised, is that every page has to work and that requires great persistence and attention to detail. Nobody will wade through the clunky bits to get to a gem they don’t even know is there.

And the other thing about the best bits – they’re probably not that great after all. I think Samuel Johnson may have hit the nail on the head in the 18th century.

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Bowing to good advice

Keep it simple
Keeping it simple

When you’ve wanted to write for a long time and you finally get started, something wonderful happens. If you’re lucky it can be like striking oil. You hit the seam and the ideas come gushing out – characters, storylines, scenes and themes flow onto the page in great abundance.

But, like an oil gusher, things can get very messy very quickly.

And you’re so happy about the oil, you hardly notice.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been offered some very good advice from various quarters – and it hasn’t been easy. In particular, I was talking to a good friend who knows her stuff when it comes to writing. She listened to me describe the knots I’ve been tangled up in on the second draft.

I’m passing on her advice, in case it applies to any other first-timers who might find it helpful. With all that’s going on in my novel, I had been finding it difficult to make the most important themes and storylines rise above all the rest. The deadline to enter the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair is approaching fast and in my heart I knew something was not right in my manuscript.

My friend hit the nail on the head when she pointed out I had too many themes. Write down all the themes, she said, and decide which ones are central to what the book is about. Many of the others can be taken out and saved for another time, another place.

Of course I knew she was right but I was scared of the implications of this advice. It took me several attempts to even begin the process of cutting and I started to waver. What if it just couldn’t be done and the story wouldn’t work anymore? What if it was too late to change?

But I’m happy to report that I did find the courage and the insight to make the big changes. And things are looking a lot better now. Now for the next challenge – the synopsis!

Switching the novel to sustainable energy

You know that feeling when you just make it to a socket at the last moment before your laptop dies? That’s how I felt crossing the threshold of the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday. It’s going to be OK.

This novel that provided its own fuel for the first year has been draining me since then and needs to be switched to sustainable energy. What better source than the positive energy of fellow writers? I want to get the manuscript into the best possible shape and send it on its way to make room for the next book. This course is the boost I’ve been looking for.

Somewhat dishevelled from the blustery walk up O’Connell Street, I held my paper cup of tea and looked around in excitement and wonder. These people, I realised, are just like me and finally we have come out of the woodwork. We’ve been squirrelling away words for months or years, storing up the stories we want to tell. Now is our chance.

I had the experience of reading out the opening of the book to a group for the first time and it went well. My relationship to the work is different now that it’s been exposed a little. That feeling of working in a vacuum is gone and I can see more clearly now what needs to be done. The feedback was encouraging and useful, under the kind and expert guidance of Conor Kostick.

Even though I didn’t have to use my one-line pitch last night, here is what I have come with. I realise I have two lines here but surely the concept is not that literal? It’s also possible that I have veered towards writing the blurb rather than the pitch. Do they necessarily have to differ?

Set in boom-time Ireland, this is a story about people, what they bring to our lives and what they take away. Haunted by the disappearance of her brother years before, when Laura is caught up in an emotional and professional disaster, she has to find new faith in family, friendship and love.

I may have to go back to the drawing board on this one.

Climb every mountain, or not

In a fit of irrational exuberance just before I left Switzerland I booked tickets for three events at the Dun Laoghaire book festival Mountains to Sea. I took one look at the line-up and lost the plot, so to speak. Margaret Atwood (exclamation mark, exclamation mark), I cried. Téa Obreht (exclamation mark, exclamation mark), I added breathlessly. Oh and look Jennifer Johnston at lunchtime (click on two more tickets).

A while later back in Dun Laoghaire and real life, it quickly became apparent that I couldn’t spend week two of my big trip to Ireland waltzing from literary event to literary event. There were other things to consider, not least of which was settling the children into their new school and temporary new home.

In the end all I can boast is that these writers I admire were just down the road from me, a mere eight-minute cycle or 24-minute walk away.

But every bookshelf has a silver lining. On Saturday afternoon, miraculously and unexpectedly, I did manage to attend a festival talk called New Voices – with my three year old. We had to hop in and out of the room a bit to keep the peace but I came home motivated and encouraged, mainly by the contributions of Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, author of Back to Blackbrick, and agent Caroline Walsh from David Higham Associates. My daughter was equally happy with her blue Mountains to Sea balloon.

It’s the first time I’ve heard a real live agent speak and it was reassuring to see that she was no big bad wolf. What struck me about Walsh’s submission advice was that it was all familiar. There is no secret formula for getting published. Agents are just looking for good work and a professional attitude. Walsh’s agency gets 60 submissions a week and they take on 12 new authors a year! Anyone who goes up against those odds has to be an optimist.

Moore Fitzgerald spoke about self-belief and how to hang on to it. A successful academic, what put her off writing fiction for so long was the perceived impossibility of the challenge. She warned against sharing too soon and reminded the audience that ragged first drafts are not meant to be compared to award-winning published works.

Next Monday I will be making my way to the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin city centre to start the Finish Your Novel writing course. By hook or by crook I will have my one-line killer pitch ready by then!

What’s the book about?

That random feeling
That random feeling (© Clare O’Dea)

Now there’s a question to get an aspiring writer sweating. Since I started writing in earnest and gradually educating myself about the world of writing, I’ve discovered there are lots of extremely important rules out there. I’m not talking about mere guidelines; I’m talking about make-or-break, tarnish-your-name-forever-should-you-break-them rules.

Naturally it is understood that anybody exceptionally talented can disregard all the rules because the brilliance of their writing will override any other considerations but it is also understood that the newbies listening to the oracle dispensing the rules do not fall into that category of genius.

Last November in the draughty bar of a Co Wicklow hotel with a British soap character giving birth at top volume on the television in the background, a friend of mine leaned across his third cup of tea and told me one of the most basic and sacred of rules of all. Figure out what your book is about and learn to articulate that idea in one line.

When you get hit with the big question, you do not, as I had done earlier that evening, ramble or search for words. You do not use the phrase ‘well it’s about this woman who …’ .Neither do you start to list the early plot points like a random chain of events. What you do is delivery your pre-prepared killer synopsis: It’s a coming-of-age story set in a 19th century Boston brewery during the great beer strike with an unlikely heroine, the head cooper’s teenage mistress who was born in a coffin ship. For example.

After that you will be confident enough to field any follow-up questions. The danger, my friend explained, is that if you cannot effectively describe what your book is about, then you might be in a naked emperor situation. You might just have written thousands of words about nothing in particular, producing a meandering story which is all flesh and no skeleton, all paths and no map, all filling and no crust. Well you get the idea.

I’m fresh from a book club gathering last night where we discussed the remarkable first novel by Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife. (Yes, she is one of those who can disregard the rules). Here is a book that knits together vibrant strands of stories over many decades and explores numerous big themes – war, death, guilt, Balkan history and folklore, a grandparent-grandchild relationship, the outcast in society, enduring love. I could go on. I’d say the author had trouble summing the book up in one line when she was writing it but that’s neither here nor there. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Obreht when I attend her talk at the Mountains to Sea festival in Dun Laoghaire next month.

Meanwhile I will keep mulling over my one line.