Writing Gunfire Lullabies: An exercise in patience and persistence

AdobeStock_79753347.jpeg

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.

In conclusion

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.

 

How to Create Tension In Your Story

IMG_4364.PNG

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
Barbara Kingsolver

Embed drama in your story

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…

IMG_4147.PNG

How to research your novel & what it brings

IMG_4056.PNG

I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.

Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:

  1. Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
  2. Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
  3. Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films,  documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
  4. Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
  5. Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
  6. Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
  7. Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
  8. Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
  9. When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.

 

Is the cost of a writing mentor, editor or manuscript assessment worthwhile?

IMG_3873.PNG

There can be great value in paying a professional to help you develop your manuscript and writing skills. But it’s not cheap and there can be pitfalls resulting in wasted money and blows to your confidence.

Here are some tips to help you work out whether hiring one or more of these experts might be worthwhile, and if so, how to choose the right person for you and your work. Remember, if you going pay someone to help improve your work, they will find things wrong with it. So finding the right person at the right stage of drafting is crucial.

I’ve used two editors for my manuscript (which recently attracted a publisher) along with a mentor. I’ve also had a manuscript assessment done. Two of these processes were great learning experiences, one was a disaster and the other was poor value for money.

What do mentors, editors and manuscript assessors do?

Mentors

Engaging a mentor is a medium-priced avenue of paid support that sounds great—hiring an experienced author you respect who understands the ups and downs of the writing process to provide you with detailed one-on-one coaching.

But being a published author doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a good mentor. A good mentor sees this work as part of their profession, not just as easy money.

I went through a writer’s centre and engaged a mentor under agreed written terms, which included assessing 3-4 chapters at a time because I wanted guidance as I redrafted so as not to repeat mistakes. The mentor quickly reneged on those, saying they preferred to look at whole manuscripts only. Also, their comments revealed that they didn’t understand my genre and had made many incorrect assumptions. When I questioned them about their feedback in a genuinely inquisitive way, they became defensive. Nothing positive came from this expensive experience for me.

Editors

A full copy edit includes an experienced editor looking at your entire manuscript and considering structure, voice, point of view, character and style. They present their findings in a report, but also do a line edit, checking each word through track changes. This is the most expensive of the three processes and theoretically the most thorough, although I’ve found that editors’ attention wanes the further they progress into your manuscript.

It’s most important when choosing this option to be certain that your manuscript is at the right stage. Too early and you won’t get value for money because your draft is underdeveloped and not yet ready. This is what happened to me and I feel the editor should have warned me. Too advanced and all the editor will be left with is nit-picking, which can be bad for confidence.

During my second-to-last draft, I engaged a different editor to look at the first third of my novel line by line because by this stage I was most interested in improving my style as opposed to dealing with structural or other big picture issues. I then applied what I learned to the rest of my manuscript, which lifted my writing considerably.

Manuscript Assessments

This is a 10-12 page report that looks at the same issues as an editor but without the additional line edit. Often, the assessor will also ask you to submit a synopsis, publisher letter, author bio and pitch for comment, which can be very useful. This is by far the cheapest, and I think the best value option.

I went through an agency to get my manuscript assessment done. I was thrilled that they matched me with an assessor who was obviously across my genre, thorough, professional and concise. Quality, not quantity, was what this assessment was about.

Guidelines for choosing writing support:

  • Do your research to find the right person for you and your manuscript. What’s their experience, do they understand your genre, are they interested in your manuscript, are they over committed, are you a good personality fit, will they talk through their thoughts with you or write them down? Ask other writers for recommendations and interview each candidate. You can even test them out with a chapter of your work (many will agree to this)
  • Set agreed terms in writing so there’s no confusion. This might include stating the aims of your partnership, how much of your work they’ll review and within what timeframe, the price and what level of comment they’ll provide (high level overview and/or detailed word for word)
  • Any feedback must be constructive, aimed at supporting and bettering your work, not pulling it (or you) down. You want to come out more empowered and your work stronger
  • The person you engage must allow you to retain control of your work rather than forcing their personal preferences on you. A good teacher will help you find what it is you really mean to say
  • They also need to be confident in themselves, welcoming questions without feeling threatened
  • Whoever you hire, they must be professionally interested in your work and not just your money.

‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius

 

 

The value of perseverance in writing and creating: A personal account

IMG_3839.PNG

Recently I went from having no publishing offers to having to decide between two – I know, the irony! This is for a novel I wrote in two very different versions, and after deciding that the first one was best, going on to rewrite it many times.

My writing pathway to finding a publisher

My process over more than ten years included the following steps:

  • Redrafting my manuscript over again
  • Engaging editors for the first and part of the second-to-last major redrafts
  • Paying a mentor (a costly and negative experience)
  • Reading countless writing books and doing my best to apply the learning
  • Undertaking many writing-related courses in person and online, including on poetry, book publishing and creativity
  • Submitting my manuscript, garnering interest but being rejected many times
  • Nearly giving up a few times, before picking myself up off the floor and starting over
  • Taking on the feedback for two advanced drafts from my long-suffering writing group.

It’s often said that a writer’s first two novels are their learner books and that the third is publishable. Alternatively, people talk about writers needing to practice their craft for ten years before reaching a publishable standard. For me, redrafting the same story in various forms was how I progressed my craft. I didn’t want to let go of my story, focusing instead on improving it ad nauseam. And so ten years passed by…

Until finally, it paid off. (Although I’m well aware that having found a publisher, I haven’t achieved publishing success yet. But that’s a whole other journey.)

It was nothing! (Lies)

It would be easy to look back and say that it was worth it, or even that it was fun or easy. Ten years – nothing! But the truth is that like all writing, it was both wondrous and torturous, easy and impossible. For years there was rejection after rejection, no promise of publication (ever!) and no guarantee of any return for my hours of toil, the income I forewent or the money I spent on my book.

And yet writing and creating was and remains the only thing that makes me feel professionally fulfilled. I actually become restless and irritable if I don’t write creatively.

Key things I did to find a publisher

After I announced the two offers on a Facebook writing group, a couple of writing colleagues contacted me to ask how I found a publisher? Some had achieved agent interest, which after a time had waned.

While I’m no expert, I answered them because writers need the camaraderie of others to help pick them up when they’re feeling uncertain. These are the key things I told them. They’re simple and probably obvious, but nonetheless powerful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves:

  • Always be open to improving your craft and never be complacent or arrogant – Too often authors become attached to their work. Get some distance and reevaulate after a break. Kill your darlings etc.
  • Believe in your story (or let it go and move on) – If you don’t, who else will? Believe in it to your core
  • Believe in your abilities – Again, if you don’t, no one else will. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things. Writing is an art, but it’s technical and involves a lot of craft
  • Find your publisher fit, only going where you’re wanted – Whether that’s a large publisher, an independent one, or a small one. What’s their speciality, do they love your kind of work and genre, what are their values? Alignment is key. Publishing is business but it’s also a relationship
  • Get philosophical (or zen, or something similar) – While I’d got to a point where I believed – paradoxically and blindly – that I’d find a publisher, I honestly didn’t care anymore. I knew in my gut that my story was good and that was enough, so I sent it out and let go. Me and my story were ready and, amazingly, the world responded
  • Above all, persevere! As Churchill said, never give in. When you’re ready, dust yourself off and continue. Logically, you must to get there, in the end.

Are you ready to be published?

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou

How to write the second novel

IMG_3708.PNG

  1. New Book, New Process
    You learned how to write your first novel. Now you have to learn how to write your second. This is an old but true adage. If you want each successive book to be good or better than the last, challenge yourself to grow. Throw out the rules and remain open.

    ‘Each time you write something, part of you grows. You’re training your artistic muscles to find your voice.’
    Pen Densham

  2. New Skills
    You’ll probably need new skills if you want to be true to the new theme and characters. These might include learning how to write different characters, changing point of view, writing in another tense, changing your style or using different techniques such as alternating chapters or bending timelines, conducting deep research, visiting new places or interviewing people. Whatever your story requires.

    ‘When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you’ve got a good writer.’
    Theodore Sturgeon

  3. First Drafts Are Rubbish
    Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Remember, you probably worked on your first book for ages, editing and honing it until it was fit for publication. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how woeful your first draft was. Don’t expect that just because you’ve completed one novel, the next will come out equally polished. You’ll need to go through the same torturous, creative process of redrafting over again until your true and best story emerges. 

    ‘The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.’ 
    Robert Cormier

  4. Abandon Fear
    Fear of failure can be debilitating. This is especially the case if you enjoyed some success with your first book. Don’t expect the same kind of story to emerge. Don’t expect success. Or failure. This story is different, so let it emerge and grow organically. Trust and believe in yourself. Authenticity will get you through. 

    ‘Don’t wait for the world to believe in you. Believe in yourself first. It’s faster and more efficient.’ 
    Milli Thornton

  5. Stick With It
    Give your new work a chance. I know so many people with abandoned second books because they didn’t meet their own or others’ demands. Ignore doubting or prescriptive voices and write for the sake of it. You’ve planted a seed, now nurture it. Get back to good writing habits. Do, don’t overthink.  

    A writer’s only responsibility is to his art.’
    William Faulkner

  6. Know You’re Not Alone
    Plenty of writers struggle with the second novel. It’s a part of the writing life. Know that others have faced this challenge and worked their way through it. You can too.

    ‘Every writer I know has trouble writing.’
    Jospeh Heller