No, this does not refer to speed dating literary women, though I have done that in the past with modest success. It refers to speed dating literary agents and publishers; that is, being given three minutes maximum [in reality 30-60 seconds] to interest/intrigue/tantalise a potential publisher or agent to the extent that one of them will ask to see the first chapters of my manuscript. This is my improbable dream for the speed dating day in two weeks time.
So I have put aside my 5th draft to concentrate on writing the perfect pitch of 1 minute, the perfect synopsis of 300 words and the toughest of all ‘tell me what your novel is about in one sentence’. Karma perhaps for all the PhD students I forced to describe their potential thesis in one sentence – two, if I was feeling generous. It is difficult to reduce the hard work and great ideas and brilliant writing to a sentence and I’ve just spent two hours in my favourite local café trying to articulate the core of my manuscript – the beating heart – in one sentence.
Next I’m focusing on the so-called ‘elevator pitch’. Why would any publisher be interested in my manuscript rather than the x thousand others which will cross their desk? An excellent question.
The good news is that I’m enjoying the torture!
Thanks you Australian Authors Association and Writers Victoria for this opportunity in a couple of weeks.
Okay, back to work….
No background setting. ‘Get on with it!’
No explanations, ‘show, not tell’.
Short sentences to make it easier for the reader.
Break up long paragraphs to make it easier for the reader.
Start mid-scene so that the reader is not bored and drops the book within 30 seconds.
We live in a digital age of short attention spans so get to the point and keep it simple and fast. Oops, sorry, too complicated Hilary Mantel and as for James Joyce, what’s that all about?
Only one distinctive speech signifier per character.
The plot must be ‘this and therefore this and therefore this’ so no digressions. Sorry, Laurence Sterne, you are out.
Avoid flashbacks and non-linear narratives. Gone, Woolf and Calvino.
‘Kill your darlings’ is the cry. Sorry to all writers who write elaborate, luxurious and expansive prose. Red pencils at the ready.
Stay ruthless; if it does not propel plot or character, if it is merely digression, out it goes. Sorry, Tolstoy, Gogol, Mann, Dostoevsky etc. [and do not use ‘etc’].
Lean and straightforward prose is the mantra. Sorry, Proust, out you go. Sorry, Thackeray, get a good editor. Sorry, Woolf, self-indulgent and lacking in plot and clear structure. Austen? You can stay.
Out the door with the rest of you.
Hemingway? Ideal, albeit spawning countless bad imitations and we need to separate the author from the writing; no problem, we celebrated the ‘death of the author’ decades ago.
And when all too often the critically and commercially successful novel breaks all these rules, we are told ‘ah well the exception proves the rule’ and we odd sagely [note unnecessary use of adverb].
Yes, it is all good advice and it helps prevent the self-absorbed, over-written, neglectful-of-audience stuff I was writing 12 months ago. Yes, it helps to train better writers in the same ways we can train people to be better athletes or dancers or guitarists. There is nothing mystical about writing [except for those authors who inspire awe and I ask ‘how do they do it?’] and rules are valuable: we have to know the rules and then know when to ignore or bend them.
Why this gentle rant? Maybe because I would love to hear/read a creative writer teacher to add the ‘and yet ….’ to these rules and to allow leeway, at least a little encouragement to ‘dare to be different’ to us wannabes.
They are only rules.
I was reluctant, but my friends kept telling me that I had to get out there, get in the game, join the million other hopefuls. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? So I agreed to give it a try despite my anxieties that I was too old for this sort of thing and had been to the trough a few too many times; better to put on my slippers and night cap, get a dog and close the blinds. But that has never been my style and, recalling the old adage that you should never die wondering and that remorse is better than regret, I let myself be persuaded.
It was scary and it was exciting getting to know each other; the familiar tingle, the anticipation of our meetings, the world suddenly a brighter and happier place of colour, aromas, sound and sensation. A special connection with another! Sigh. Every poetic cliché of every trashy romantic novel.
She seemed to feel the same and that was wonderful.
After a couple of months, however, I could feel our connection slipping away. Sure, we liked each other, missed each other when we could not meet, but there was something lacking – the age old cry of lovers, no?
In the middle of the year we travelled together for two months and we had the closeness I craved. It did not last. Back in Australia I was ready to give up and she felt the same. It was simply not working and in my heart I knew it was my fault because I was withholding and not being my true self with her. I was playing a role and felt paralysed from acting differently. Nor was it all my fault; there was a guardedness in her, a core of secrets which she was not showing me.
I was losing her and I hated it. Hated my own inadequacies.
Knowing I had to change, I began to reveal more of myself: my hopes and fears, wants and needs, wounds and scars – the usual stuff. I began to find my own voice, becoming recognisable to myself and thus to others. Although she is cautious, I can feel her responding to me as I learn to trust and to share and to be ‘authentic’ [I know, all very new age]. Others do it, so why not me? How hard can it be? Don’t answer that, we know how hard it is to stop pretending and role playing and going through the motions and instead to be truly present and honest.
Early days and I have much left to learn. It is getting better.
Yes, it is our first anniversary.
One year since I began on WordPress in utter naivety. It has taken me a year to get a feel for what I want to do here and what I want to say; in short, to find my voice. Next I must take another deep breath and interact with the blogging community and not be only a passive reader and receiver; I could not do this unless I first found what I wanted to do with my blog.
She has been patient and accepting and you know, I think we’ll make it to our second anniversary!
Wish us luck!
First, what I have done right is blast out 40,000 words in 20 days putting me ahead of schedule and confident of hitting the goal. Interestingly, at least to me, I think 50,000 words will be all the story needs; that is, this one will be novella length and probably less than 50,000 when revised and edited.
So, what have I ‘done wrong’ to maintain this speed?
Used lazy cliched expressions; I haven’t quite sunk to ‘speaking through clenched teeth’ or ‘the clouds were like fluffy white sheep gambolling in the sky’, but I’ve given the cliche tree a good shake.
Sprayed adverbs like a child with a can of paint on a white wall – the school of ‘she crept slowly and quietly along the dark and gloomy lane, the trees hanging limply – ‘ well, you get the idea. Sure keeps up the word count!
Instead of hesitating whether ‘resolved’ or ‘decided’ is the most appropriate word and getting sidetracked in the process, I write ‘thought’ and hurry onwards. Revision comes later.
When arriving at a complex plot point, instead of hesitating etc as above, I think of any dramatic development and hurry onwards as above etc. I killed off a main character yesterday, much to my surprise and you know what, it works. If I’d pondered and procrastinated, I suspect I would not have done so and the novel would be the poorer for it.
Finally, it brings back the good old days when I wrote my PhD at top speed to crazy deadlines after three years of surfing and partying instead of doing much actual research. A much maligned skill which appears to have lasted a lifetime!
All’s well that ends well as an actual great writer once said.
we need to talk
I’ve met someone else
I’m going back to my boyfriend, I still love him
we’re letting you go
I regret that your application has been unsuccessful
your manuscript does not fit our schedule at this point in time
the tumour is unusually aggressive, sorry
mummy and daddy are getting a divorce
missing in action, presumed dead
I’ve been expelled/suspended
your final appeal has not been successful
sorry, no vacancies
there seems to be a problem with your credit card
we are not hiring at this time
there is nobody here of that name
yes, l am writing the sequel to my second draft completed and much more work to do novel manuscript. Bizarre, no? Not really.
1. I need distance and time away from my manuscript of 78000 words while I decide whether to do a third draft or to send it to an assessor for independent professional assessment. Writing a novel in a month, the infamous NaNoWriMo exercise, gives me time to reflect.
2. Maybe as important I have had the sequel in mind since early this year; sitting at my computer, sometimes the words flowing and feeling right and other times squeezing out words like dead flies accumulating against a window pane on a hot summer day in Australia. Inspiration struck on how I could continue their story and make my key characters suffer and suffer. Like every writing workshop tells us, right? Make them suffer! Oh trust me, they suffer for their love.
3. So, Tom and Anika are back! Spoiler alert: now you know they survive what is thrown at them on the Camino as they struggle in the maelstrom of murders. Ah, but you do not yet know how they survive and I agree that I have been slack or, more accurately, deliberately withholding, on that score.
3. Writing a sequel is also fun! My characters are so familiar, I know them like friends; what clothes they wear what they eat, how they talk and argue, how they walk, their little quirks and likes and dislikes and how they have aged and changed six years later as ‘the author’ puts them through their paces once again.
4. Writing 50,000 words in a month is quite exhilarating simply to rattle words on the screen without lots of prior planning and without a study full of index cards on boards or Scrivener corkboards! Totally different to my normal approach.
4 days down and 8,200 words in the bag = so far, so good.
I have decided, sober and in the cold light of day, despite much trepidation and every common sense cell in my body saying ‘no’, that I shall participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time. This is a commitment to write a 50,000 word novel draft in one month starting tomorrow. I think 300,000 wannabes took part globally last year, what could possibly go wrong? So, yes, I have to write 1500 words tomorrow morning! That is, 1,500 words ….
Why undertake such a crazy mission? It has taken me two years to have a second completed draft of 80,000 words of the current manuscript and I aim for 500-1000 words most days, so the odds do not look good.
And yet. And yet, I have reached the stage of the current manuscript where I need to put it aside for a time and let it lie fallow (one of the few things I remember from my school days, that plus ‘why sea breezes?’) as I have applied for an ASA mentorship, entered another competition and need to ‘let it go’.
And also – drum roll – I have the plot and characters and setting for ‘my next novel’, published nothing yet, but it sounds good, right? and so I do have a flying start and am, believe it or not, eager to have a go at it and see where it might lead me. By nature I am a ‘plotter’ stemming from churning out academic books and articles in my past life as a university professor, and being a ‘pantser’ will be good for me; a bit like cold showers, AFD’s, clean living and long runs in the morning are ‘good for me’.
Anyway, I am committing myself publically to keep the pressure on myself; please feel free to check on me and keep me honest. Oh and wish me luck.
I have written scholarly books in a previous life, so I have omitted the stuff I knew; for example, writing is hard work [oh yes!]; there is no other way to start than to write one word and then another and then a sentence and a paragraph etc; if it is boring and unclear to you, well, it will be to everyone else and it is amazing what the human mind can conjure up to avoid sitting in front of the blank page and creating a masterpiece.
No doubt these are the staple of writing workshops and you already know them, dear reader. I did it the hard way.
1. Have in mind for whom you are writing – note that I am old-fashioned and cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Write for an audience, not simply for yourself.
2. ‘Nice’ and ‘good’ characters are boring; make them complicated and imperfect.
3. What makes me most uncomfortable and even distressed as a subject is what turns out to be my most authentic and engaging writing.
4. Insert ‘shame’ in 3 and it is doubly so.
5. Eliminate the adverb.
6. Avoid generic descriptions and declarations, always make them personal and specific to the characters’ points of view.
7. Show, not tell. Yes, yes, a total cliche but especially important to me as I spent years as a university professor teaching and writing to explain and analyse. Great for teaching, death for a novel.
8. Following from 7, ‘less is more’.
9. If it feels flat or inauthentic to me, it will to a reader. Dump it and try again; perseverance no matter what is not always the answer.
10. Swallow hard – gulp – and be prepared to discard entire drafts.
As a virgin blogger and a virgin reader of blogs, I have been struck by the number of bloggers who state explicitly that blogging/writing/sharing has been a way of helping them get through difficult phases of their life and/or working through difficult personal issues; often these difficulties and issues are ongoing. There is a long history of writing as catharsis and my comment is pure cliché territory [nothing to see here, move along please]. Who doesn’t have an unpublished autobiographical novel lying in a drawer [or in drop box these days], some of us even have a pile of short stories of similar ilk. What has inspired me to comment today is how others’ experience of blogging may be linked to a comment made by an assessor on my novel-in-progress, referring to my main female character. I had written her as a strong, independent and badly damaged person seeking redemption; the assessor saw her as a manipulative, self-centred, needy and generally unlikeable person. Not at all what I intended! Close re-reading confirms that the assessor is correct. So, what is happening here? How do our characters ‘take over’ during the writing process? What is happening consciously and unconsciously? What cathartic processes were taking place without my knowing?
Of course all this may be the product of my poor writing, though the assessment of the manuscript overall was very positive.
On Sunday I did my first ‘long’ walk after my foot operation last October, some 32 km, and spent the time wrestling with the plot structure of my novel-in progress set on the Camino. After two weeks of scene shuffling, including deleting scenes which I liked but which I had to concede added nothing to the novel [‘kill your darlings’ as they term it] and adding a few new scenes, maybe, just maybe I have settled on a structure which works. Now back to another day of drafting and re-drafting in which, one hopes, the exhilaration of writing eventually outweighs the agony.