In challenging times, always remember the rainbow.
My blogs have, until recently, been all about writing.
With the publication of my debut novel in August, I’ve decided to change tack and write some opinion pieces.
You may have seen my piece about Anzac Day, which stirred up strong feelings as many of us have relatives who are or have been involved in wars, or indeed may have experienced them ourselves.
Some of my new blogs will be opinion pieces on topics I feel strongly about. Hence the quote about courage, because some of it will be close to the bone. Gulp. I don’t know if anyone will be interested in reading them, but it’s important for me to write them.
Others will continue to be about writing. For example, I plan to write about the what the editing process is like from the inside.
Keep on writing. Keep on reading. Keep on thinking you creatives and thinkers. Never, ever give up.
Ann Patchett’s quote is only too true. That said, it’s during my many (and I mean many) edits that I attempt to unearth the words I hope will go some way towards evoking the feeling I want to convey. Sometimes I can spend two hours on a key paragraph. I personally love writing where my emotion and understanding are greater than the sum of the words. This is true art.
The full quote from Scott Belsky goes like this:
‘No extraordinary journey is linear. The notion of having established ideas and making consistent incremental progress is impossible. Those seeking a linear journey can still be successful, but often they struggle to create anything new.’
Something to remember when your work in progress isn’t doing what you want it do to. Now, get on with your creating 🙂
I started writing a novel in 1993 after finally getting my Arts degree (and having two kids). I didn’t believe in it or myself enough and gave up.
I went and lived: Got a job, worked overseas, witnessed revolution and war, got divorced and had a relationship with an abusive guy.
I wrote another book inspired by some of these events, this time fully supported by my new partner. I received publisher interest, but was rejected many times.
Each time I picked myself up off the floor and went back to the drawing board. I wrote three different versions of my story over 13 years. That’s around 4 years per book! (It doesn’t feel that long.)
Late last year a publisher finally said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it!’
My debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, will be published in August 2019.
My message to my fellow writers and anyone doing something challenging is:
NEVER give up
BELIEVE in yourself
BE OPEN to constant improvement
And just KEEP ON WRITING!
Now for the next novel…(eek!)
In the beginning…
I began writing Gunfire Lullabies, or rather a version of it, in 2005, and it’s being published later this year. I sold my old home in Canberra and used the proceeds to fund a year off work to write it. This writing year felt wickedly indulgent yet very right, and I absolutely loved it. It’s often said that the first book has a radical creative freedom about it that no future one does because you’re truly writing for you, unhindered by publisher, editor or market constraints that come later on during the process of being, or trying to get published.
But how can one novel take so long to write? Am I just really, really slow?
It happened like this…
First, I didn’t write it full-time after the initial year. I either had to work, my book was being vetted by publishers while I waited, or I needed a break from the damn thing. A couple of times, when a publisher was interested, they would request rewrites before committing, which would take another six months to complete. These never came through for me, but they took a lot of time.
Second, Gunfire Lullabies is a bit of an epic at over 120,000 words long. Long novels take more time.
Third, I was learning to write, which meant I needed to do a lot of rewriting as I learned my craft. It’s unusual for writers to get their first novel published. Often it’s their third of fourth story that succeeds.
Fourth, I wrote three different versions of Gunfire Lullabies. In other words, I wrote three novels in that time equating to each one taking around four years. That’s a normal amount of time for plenty of literary fiction writers.
Fifth and finally, my manuscript was rejected many times, meaning I had no choice but to go back, perfect my craft and try again. The only other options were to self publish, which I felt was too early to consider, or give up.
The value of determination
What does my prolonged writing process really point to? For me, the learning was that persistence and determination pay. Overnight success is a rare thing, no matter what people might claim or how the situation appears. Usually people spend years learning and perfecting their craft. So many times writing teachers talk about talent meaning little if there’s no bum on the seat. I doggedly kept on writing an East Timor story until I got it right. I say simple, but honestly, it was really hard.
A deeper aspect
But, there was another key element in the process for me: the spiritual one. There were plenty of times when my bruised ego and I would have a discussion. Quit, you’re a rubbish writer, you’re a slow learner, you’re not a natural.
At these times, I would need to get really still with myself, delve deep and answer some questions with bare honesty. Is writing really it part of my purpose? Do I believe in my story? Do I want to do this story justice by writing it well?
Sometimes I would recall that when applying for my first posting, I had in mind to write a novel. It had been a long-term dream. So I wished for a posting where something momentous would happen that I could write about, and that’s exactly what happened. First I witnessed the downfall of dictator President Soeharto, which then paved the way East Timor’s journey towards independence. But wishing for something and experiencing it are different things. The cost was horrendous in terms of human life and suffering, and the impact on others and me was profound.
So the answer to my questions about whether I should finish the story was always, and inevitably, yes. With this realisation, the need to pander to my bruised ego after repeated rejections would drop away, my fears of rejection and failure would fall back, and I would realise again that I was writing the story for what felt the right reasons for me: because it was my purpose, because I believed in it with all my heart and soul, because I felt it needed to be told, and because I couldn’t not write it.
Conflict is story
At the core of every story is conflict. Conflict keeps us engaged and wanting to read on. It’s meaningful and relatable, and why we love stories. This conflict must be powerful, deep and complex enough that it requires an entire novel to resolve.
How do writers technically create conflict?
Here are some ideas:
- Ensure the stakes are high enough – If your main character doesn’t stand to lose much, no one will care about the ending. If true love, or life and death, or a great moral dilemma fill your story, then readers will want to go on turning the pages.
- The opening scene must contain a mini conflict – The purpose of this is to hook your reader in by revealing key aspects of your main character while also alluding to the nature of the broader conflict they face. Opening scenes are a taster aimed at drawing the reader in for more.
- You must have complex and engaging characters who want different, opposing things – Given that stories are character driven, your main character needs to have many sides, and be flawed, relatable and want something badly that isn’t easy to obtain. Pitting characters who have different goals against each other creates friction and is how your characters reveal who they truly are.
- Conflict must be inner as well as outer – The protagonist must face internal conflict as well as some outer struggle. Stories are often about journeys of the self, about change and transformation. This must be reflected at every level in every chapter in the moral dilemmas the character has to deal with while facing opposing outer forces.
- The threat must be constant and immediate – The reader must feel the danger at every turn meaning in every scene and chapter. Readers shouldn’t be allowed to forget what’s at stake for a moment.
- Ensure the action happens in the present – While short flashbacks (no more than 1-2 paragraphs) can reveal character, they aren’t immediate. Instead, reveal character in small bites and through what they do. Keep readers in the moment by staying in the moment.
- Every word must count – Each word you write counts. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. In particular, use strong nouns and verbs that reflect the kind of issues at stake in your story. Likewise, if a scene doesn’t reflect the theme and move your story forward, then get rid of it. No one wants to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.
- Include scene and chapter arcs – Every scene and chapter has an arc – a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end. These components build towards the novels’ overall story arc, building tension as they go.
- Everything should reflect tension – The environment, the characters, the music, the smells, the colours and the weather are just some things that can reflect tension, building atmosphere in support of your story. If your character is sad, the sky can be cloudy, if they’re tense, traffic around them can be chaotic.
- Believe in your story and tell it passionately – If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Your story therefore needs to be something that you MUST tell. This will keep you writing and rewriting to perfection. Remember not to be too hard on your first draft. Add layers in the redrafts.
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
Drama drama drama…
As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…