The End – part 2

22 May

MA receipt

A little over two weeks ago, I completed my children’s novel for my final MA submission. Although I was immensely proud of this achievement, the hand-in process was anti-climactic to say the least. I didn’t expect applause or a confetti cannon, but the woman behind the desk at the university just peered dubiously at me as I gave her two bound copies of my work. She eventually found me on the system, and printed out a scrappy receipt (see above) which, at this point, is my only proof that I’ve actually finished the MA.

Still, I took my scrappy receipt and met up with two of my fellow students for tea and cake. Although it was lovely to see them, and to find out how their own work was progressing, they were more excited about my hand-in than I was at that point. The main feeling I had was one of exhaustion, which is what comes from 25 hours of editing per week on top of a full-time job. On the train back to Leeds I struggled to stay awake. I’d arranged an evening out with friends but was seriously considering cancelling it.

I was glad I didn’t. After a few more hours, the giddiness started to kick in. I’d done it! I’d written an entire book, edited it, nurtured it, ended up talking fondly about my characters as if they were actual people, and now it was all finished. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate that than with my friends, many of whom had kept me going through the rougher patches, and provided helpful advice on various drafts. I slept incredibly well that night, and for a good week or so afterwards, although it was less than ten days after hand-in that my brain started bugging me about the next novel I was going to write.

Before I start thinking about that, I wanted to reflect on the build up to hand-in and offer some advice to anyone else who’s got a submission deadline to meet.

  1. Prepare to work like you’ve never worked before! For most of the MA I’d been writing and editing for 10 to 15 hours a week. In the month or so before my deadline, that doubled, and I found myself working every day. This was tough. You need to be disciplined to sit at your laptop every evening and weekend, resisting the urge to lie on the sofa watching Netflix.

  2. Prepare anyone you live with for how hard you’ll have to work. For a short amount of time, you’ll be grumpy, boggle-eyed, and utterly unconcerned with the cleanliness of yourself or your home. Perhaps your partner or housemate might like to take a holiday for a few weeks.

  3. Ask a few people you trust to read your final (ish) draft. They’ll be able to pick out inconsistencies, plot holes, anything that jars, doesn’t make sense or seems out of character. You’ve probably read your work so many times that you’ve become blind to errors.

  4. Do a final proofread using a printed copy of your work. You’ll be amazed at how many changes you want to make when you see your novel on paper. A friend of mine reads his final draft on Kindle to get the same effect.

  1. Any academic work accompanying your writing will take longer than you expect. I allowed myself one weekend to complete a reflective commentary, but the appendices alone took several hours, as I had to find examples from previous drafts to demonstrate my editing process.

  2. Celebration is a wonderful thing, but postpone it by a few days if you can, so you’re less zombie-like and can enjoy it more.

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The Forensic Edit

10 Apr

Once I’d finished the third draft of my book-in-progress my tutor told me I was ready for a forensic edit. No white coats or upbeat theme tunes were required, only the removal of every unnecessary word.

Now was the time to cut away as many ‘and’s as possible, delete any syllable of dialogue that wasn’t vital to plot or character development, and stamp out my tendency to over-tell. My book is aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, confident readers with a sophisticated understanding of narrative who can easily pick up on cues provided in the text. They do not need what my third draft still contained: the literary equivalent of a flashing neon arrow attached to a loudhailer pointing out the aforementioned cues. (“Tears flowed down his face. He’d never been more miserable. HE WAS EXTREMELY SAD, GOT IT?”)

Taking out every non-essential word would force me to remove these giant flashing arrows, making my writing subtler and therefore more appropriate for my intended audience. It would also make the text flow more smoothly, eradicating clunky or repetitive passages. That was the hope anyway.

I knew that, after its trim, the writing should still be clear and still convey the same information, sense of character and emotional impact. If I started loosing any of that, I would have gone too far.

So I began. It was surprisingly easy to chop down descriptive passages and shed sections of dialogue, as well as getting rid of unnecessary dialogue lead ins. (She flicked her hair. “I don’t think so.”) I cut so much that it made me a little giddy but after a while the editing slowed. I’d find myself reading the same paragraph fifty times, trying to decide whether to delete ‘that’. Sometimes I’d take words out one day only to add them back in the next, which was a sign I was pretty much finished.

All that remained was for me to hunt down the repeated words and phrases that I’d noticed during the edit. I spent a lot of time with my thesaurus trying to find alternative ways to describe the crackle of a walkie-talkie or the vastness of a secret underground cave.

Eventually the fourth draft was finished and the writing was much leaner. Draft three had reduced the book from 56,000 words to 48,600. Draft four simmered it down to only 42,000. As a result, the text seemed to leap from the page in a sprightly fashion rather than dragging itself between plot points. Everything still made sense and I didn’t seem to have lost anything in terms of my characters.

Now, with 24 days to go until the hand-in date, my plan is to put the book to one side for a week or two, then do a final paper read through. I feel more confident about the state of the work after this forensic edit, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone in the final stages of writing. You can pretend you’re on CSI if you want to.

“Today, children, there’s a writer in the classroom…”

9 Mar

Visitor's badge

I was recently invited to a primary school to speak to two year 5 classes. The topic: me as a writer. Where I get my ideas from, the process of writing my book-in-progress, a sneak preview of chapter one, and activities focusing on setting to tie in with the children’s work on Great Expectations. (Great Expectations! In year 5! One pupil, talking about his favourite author, told me: “I like him because, like Dickens, he has exciting events from the very start of his story. Dickens had to do that because his novel was being serialised in a newspaper.” I think I might have gawped at him a bit.)

I’m not sure who was more excited about my visit; me or the children. I’d forgotten how brilliant year 5’s are – extremely enthusiastic and utterly adorable. When I said I was going to read out a chapter of my book one of them actually punched the air and shouted “Yes!”

As well as reading, I showed them sketches of maps and objects, then shared a scribble-covered third draft. I asked each class to analyse excerpts from my book that dealt with setting, including one that I worried was too frightening. To my relief the year 5’s loved that part and both classes – with no time to confer – announced that the scene was ‘freaky’.

The children listened attentively and asked many excellent questions. They really got into the writing tasks I set them, producing some beautiful and horrible descriptive pieces. I left at the end if the afternoon exhausted but very happy, wishing I could do it all again the next day. My sessions hadn’t been perfect of course, and these are the main things I learnt from them:

  1. It’s not a good idea to plan two hours worth of activities for a one hour session. I’m sure with practice I’ll get better at knowing how much I can fit into a given time slot, but I’d definitely reduce the amount I try to cover at any future events.

  2. Reading while standing on one leg is hard work, even if you’re doing it because you’ve somehow found yourself acting out your chapter.

  3. Children are really keen to talk about their own favourite books and writing experiences. They like it when they’ve read the same books as you and when they can relate what they do in class to what a writer might do. For example, they were really pleased to discover that I keep a thesaurus on my desk and use it regularly.

  4. There is no such thing as being too enthusiastic when you’re working with year 5. No matter how enthusiastic you are, they will out-do you.

  5. It helps to check with the school beforehand what sort of terminology the pupils are used to. The year 5’s understood about adjectives and similes, but for them editing was RAP or Reflect And Perfect, which I really like the sound of.

  6. Check what the children are currently studying. Trying to fit in with this makes your visit more relevant plus you’ll get a better buy in from teachers.

  7. Don’t be alarmed if over the course of the session a third of the class is taken out, one guilty looking child at a time, because of a lunchtime ‘incident’ in the boys’ toilets. The rest of the class will ignore this interruption if you do.

  8. Being able to move around the classroom while you talk and ask questions helps ensure that all the children are involved. It also means that the two pupils right at the back are less likely to snooze on their desks while you’re reading. Hopefully they were tired, not hinting at the utter mediocrity of my writing.

  9. Keep your visitor’s badge when you leave so you can put a photo of it on your blog and glory in the fact that your occupation is listed as ‘writer’.

To multi-task or not to multi-task.

1 Jan

I’ve always admired writer friends who can easily switch from working on a 150,000 word novel to creating any number of short stories or flash fiction pieces, maybe with the occasional poem thrown in, just for fun.

This sort of writerly multi-tasking is something I’ve never been able to do. I tend to focus completely on my current work in progress until it’s finished, and only then will I start something else. For example, I’ve spent the last year and a half doggedly working away on the same book, to the exclusion of any other writing. In the summer, I finally got to type ‘The End’ on my final page and when I did, something happened. I was suddenly able to write other things.

It was as though, once my brain had released an entire book into the world and knew it was all written down, albeit in a very rough state, I was released from the need to capture it. This makes sense; once the first draft was finished, the book stopped existing only in my head, and I didn’t have to worry about pinning it down.

I also think this might have been about voice. The main protagonist in my book is a twelve year old boy and switching from his point of view to writing flash fiction for an adult audience would have been tricky. Perhaps if I was a more experienced writer I’d find the movement between different works in progress and different protagonists easier. I’d certainly be more confident about being able to finish any writing project that I start. But maybe I’m just not the sort of writer who works on several things at once, even though I’m definitely a multi-tasker in my day to day life.

I spoke to a novelist who started out writing poetry and she told me that she still thinks ‘like a poet’. When writing, she likes to flit from piece to piece rather than spending a prolonged amount of time on anything in particular. Another friend insists that her apparent ability to multi-task when it comes to her work is actually down to her short attention span. She moves between different pieces to keep things interesting for herself.

There is a danger to this kind of approach though. If you work on several things at once it’s quite possible that you’ll never finish any of them. The distraction of each shiny new idea can diminish your willpower, especially when the alternative to writing the best story you’ve ever thought of is to edit an older piece that you might have fallen out of love with. If you’re a multi-taking writer, you need discipline. Perhaps that’s why I stick to one piece of writing at a time, as otherwise I’d be floating in a sea of half finished novels.

A Nation of Lightsabres

15 Dec

This flash fiction / Wikipedia page of the future was written in response to a sign I misread. I thought I’d share it with you as ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is released this week. 

Enjoy.

 

A Nation of Lightsabres.

The UK was described as “a nation of lightsabres” by the current president of the United States after Jediism was reported to be Britain’s largest religion according to its 2021 census.

The popularity of this faith, based on the quasi-religious order of the Jedi Knights in the Star Wars films, has increased exponentially in the UK since the release of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ in December of 2015. Many of those who have become members of the Church of Jediism previously classed themselves as atheists, and may have been drawn to the religion due to its focus on ‘the Force’ rather than an all-powerful being.

Critics of Jediism claim that it is only so popular because its followers “enjoy dressing up and waving plastic lightsabres around.” Such comments are hotly disputed by followers of the Church, who complain that those outside the religion are often ignorant of its belief system. For example, Jedi do not believe that the Star Wars films are ‘real’, but often practise meditation as a way to cleanse their minds of negativity.1

UK History__________________________________________

Not that long ago, in a galaxy not that far away…

In 2001 390,127 people in the UK listed ‘Jedi’ as their religion in the national census.1 Partly in response to this, Daniel M Jones founded the Church of Jediism in Anglesea, North Wales, in September of 2007.2 By April of 2010 UK membership of the Church of Jediism had reached 3,000.3

This was followed by a dip in public awareness of the faith and in the 2011 national census only 176,632 people in the UK listed ‘Jedi’ as their religion. 4

A disturbance in the Force.

When ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ was released in the UK in December of 2015, there was a surge of interest in the older Star Wars films and in Jediism itself, with thousands of Jedi-themed blogs, Facebook accounts, YouTube videos and memes flooding the internet. Retailers failed to keep up with the demand for Jedi costumes and the most popular hairstyle of 2016 was ‘the Princess Leia’.

By June of 2016 UK membership of the Church of Jediism had reached 2,000,000. Prominent figures from other religious groups appeared on news and current affairs programmes, worrying that the growth of Jediism would lead to “a fall in moral standards in the UK that would be detrimental to traditional British values.”

In February 2017 work began on Jedi temples in all major UK cities. Protesters disrupted construction by camping out at each site, claiming that the temples were eyesores and carrying placards that said: “We’re not leaving and you can’t Force us!”. A spokesman for the British Anti-Jediism Board stated that: “Anyone who wants to worship this religion should get out of this country. We don’t want their nonsense here.”

The Force is strong with this one.

In September 2017 UK membership of the Church of Jediism reached 5,948,000. Jediism was officially recognised as a UK religion, and afforded protection under the updated UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Ordained Jedi Knights were now able to perform legally binding marriages as well as ceremonies to balance the Force in infants.

By April of 2018, the UK Church of Jediism had 12,173,000 members. Jedi’s were now permitted to wear robes on all occasions but could be asked to lower their hoods at the request of police or security staff.

Not everyone was happy about the continuing growth of Jediism. In October 2018 a man was arrested in Woking for allegedly using a Jedi mind trick to rob a petrol station. CCTV footage released at the time showed the man wearing a hooded robe and pressing two fingers to his forehead. The Church of Jediism released a statement insisting that Jedi mind tricks “were not real”. It was later revealed that the man had also been pointing a fully loaded 9mm at the cashier but this had been cut out of the images. Jedi followers labelled the incident as “a blatant attempt by the police to bring disrepute to the religion.”

By March 2019 the Church of Jediism had 19,526,000 members in the UK. A female accountant filed a lawsuit against her employers when they sacked her for carrying a plastic lightsabre on her belt at work. The accountant claimed that she wore the lightsabre for religious reasons and only used it for ceremonial purposes. She won her case and the court decreed that the plastic toy was only symbolic of a weapon and could not actually endanger anyone’s life.

May the Force be with you.

In January 2020 the UK Church of Jediism reached 27,369,000 members. May the 4th was re-named ‘The Festival of the Force’ and celebrated as a national holiday. Queen Elizabeth II oversaw the first ever Festival of the Force garden party, which was headlined by the best selling band of that year, Not The Droids.

The UK census of 2021 recorded Jediism as being the largest religious group in the UK.

This page was last modified on December 17th 2021 at 9:15 p.m.

The End!

8 Oct

File:The End Book.png

So this is it folks; after a month between jobs where I got to write for four hours a day, and managed – somehow – to produce 27,000 words in that time, I finally got to type ‘The End’ at the end of the first draft of my book.

It was an odd experience. On the one hand I was elated; immensely relieved that I’d actually been able to write a whole book. And it wasn’t a completely awful mess of rubbish and nonsense, even if it will need mountains of editing to make it into something I can bear to be seen with in public. On the other hand, I was ready to weep into my keyboard. For me, there was an odd sense of loss that came from having the story completely written down, perhaps because my excitement at the potential of it had to end when that potential became actual. Or perhaps I’ve just enjoyed the writing process so much – occasional furies and hair-tearing frustrations notwithstanding – that I’m sorry to have reached the end of this phase of it.

In my final week of writing, I was impatient to finish. Not in a ‘I hate this book and want it to be over’ sort of way. It was more like the story was tumbling out of my head, and I had to try and hold it back a little to prevent burnout. I could easily have ended up typing into the night, bleary eyed and hunchbacked at my laptop, but I knew that if I did that, I’d be even more exhausted than I was anyway. I slept for almost the whole day after I’d finished, and had a lingering headache for a few days afterwards, which I think was my writing brain’s way of telling me in no uncertain terms that I needed a rest.

I did rest, and let myself enjoy a sense of achievement, basking in it for a day or two before printing the whole draft out and going through it with a variety of coloured pens (red for required changes to the plot, green for sentence and paragraph level amendments). This was mainly to sort out some glaring continuity errors and accidentally terrible grammar, and the resulting, slightly tidier draft was then emailed to my current tutor on the MA in Creative Writing that I’m studying for.

So now I await his feedback. I’m slightly nervous, and vacillate between gloomily preparing myself for a list of criticisms as long as my arm, ending in a request for a total re-write, and more cheerful reminders to myself that the whole point of doing an MA is to improve. The point of every single piece of feedback that I get from my tutor is to make me a better writer, and to make my work more publishable. I’ve found this useful to remember in the face of criticism, and I know how important resilience and tenacity are if I want to get anywhere with my writing.

So, I take another deep breath, remind myself how far I’ve come since the start of the course, and then check my emails for the 87th time today… because the end isn’t really then end, is it? It’s just the start of the editing process. I have friends with books who wrote seven or eight drafts of them. Bearing that in mind it’s probably time for me to put my basking to one side, take several steps back from my work, and sharpen my delete key. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Panic and pushy dads: how not to treat your imagination.

9 Aug

angry man 2

I don’t always get on with my imagination. That might surprise you, what with me being a writer in training and all, but it’s true.

What happens is this: I’m sitting at my laptop, happily typing away, thinking that my imagination is a wonderful thing and all is well with the world, when suddenly my fingers stop and I find that I’m muttering crossly to myself. This is because I’m stuck. I need to work something out; maybe how a particular aspect of a fantastical world is going to function, or how my characters can find out certain information in a way that doesn’t feel clunky to the reader. Or maybe I’ve got my protagonist into a tricky situation and I need to help them get out of it, but I’m not sure how to do it.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, why don’t you just plan better before you start writing?” and yes, smarty-pants, that is a good point (and please see my previous post on the delight of plotting), but sometimes things just crop up when you’re mid-story, okay?

Where was I? Oh yes, stuck. Whatever the reason, when I get stuck like this I have a tendency to panic, and a very odd thing happens in my head. I turn into a pushy dad.

There’s my imagination, daydreaming happily in a corner of my mind, quite secure in the knowledge that it will come up with the writerly goods in its own time. But I go barging over to it in ‘pushy dad’ mode, demanding to know what it’s going to do about the problem I’ve come up against. My imagination shrugs, prompting the pushy dad part of myself to sit down next to it for a serious chat.
“Look,” pushy dad says. “I’m sure we can come up with a solution if we just think about this rationally for five minutes. Let’s do a flowchart.”
At this point my imagination rolls its eyes and gets up to leave.
Pushy dad shouts: “Where are you going?”
My imagination responds: “Out!” and slams the door.
Pushy dad retreats in a sulk, leaving me with a headache and a short temper, still stuck.

I know this is the wrong way to treat my imagination, that it hates pressure just as much as I do. I know that what it really needs is the time and freedom for it to do its stuff and magically present me with the answer when I’m least expecting it. My imagination likes long walks and poetry readings and watching random history programmes. It likes cake and snoozes and conversations about things that are totally unrelated to what I’m writing.

I think the pushy dad is the part of me that worries I’ll never get my book finished, that if I let myself be stuck and relax about it, the end of the world will be nigh. That part doesn’t want to wait for the imagination to ruminate on problems, it wants answers now. But actually, trying to force my imagination to perform (dance, monkey, dance!) doesn’t get me anywhere. I’ve tried writing on in spite of being stuck. What tends to happen is that a few days later I work out the best solution and have to re-write everything I’ve written.

So from now on, I’m going to be kinder to my much maligned creative brain and give it as many long walks as it likes. I’ll just have to distract my pushy dad. Maybe I’ll lock it in a cupboard with a book of Sudoku puzzles, that should work…