We are used to thinking of novel writing as a solitary discipline: the half-starved author in the garrett, suffering for their art, cloistered from the outside world.
But I would challenge this cliche. Yes, when it comes to writing a novel, the author is of course the primary agent, but dig a little deeper and you'll find a network of direct and indirect helpers. This is certainly true in my experience. Although my books come from my mind, my life, they would not - could not - truly exist without the help of many others.
So what forms does this help take? Well, to write my books I've benefitted from a wide spectrum of support and reassurance!
Family is my primary support. My wife puts up with my writing obsession and has proofread innumerable drafts (eliminating many typos!) when I'm pretty sure she'd much rather end a busy day in front of the TV. She also helps to organise me on the business / administrative side, which is a good thing...
Although a little too young to read my books, my daughter's energy and endless good humour keeps me going. And the rest of my family, my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, have always unconditionally supported my writing efforts.
I must be honest - I often find talking about my writing embarrassing, and the fault (if there is one) lies with me and not with anyone else. Perhaps (probably) it stems from a lack of confidence, but I can't help but feel as though I am bragging, or being laughably ambitious, or being a total fraud by even beginning to think of myself as an author. Despite these hang-ups, friends all help me, often more than they know. For despite my frequent discomfort when asked how my latest book is coming along, it is the same time encouraging, and pleasing that people are showing an interest.
And do not forget the digital world! I've lost count of the times a perfect stranger on a forum has helped me with advice on technical issues. These acts of kindness and generosity have saved me many hours. Certainly within the SF / Fantasy genre there are many thriving online communities (SFF Chronicles and SFF World being two good examples) - there you will find support, advice, inspiration and many other interesting discussions. Being part of a community can be huge encouragement for any author as it helps to remove that feeling of isolation.
There are also many inspiring and helpful indie-publishing websites, which give out free advice and inspiration; two of the most helpful are: JF Penn's The Creative Penn and Jane Friedman's website. These sites have helped me greatly during my publishing journey, and if you're interested in writing, please try these sites - I promise you it will prove time well spent.
Some professional input is necessary to produce a book; for example, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post about editing, an editor / proofreader is a must. A professional edit gives a book a more polished patina and gives the author more confidence in their work. You cannot edit a book alone - beta readers, editors, you need 'em!
A book is a method of communication, and as such, it only really comes to life when somebody reads it - I know from experience that readers will find aspects and interpretations of the story that will surprise the author! And I often think how books I have read have inspired me - without them, I would not have picked up a pen, I would never have written a novel. I'll never meet those authors, but through their books they created a dialogue and allowed me to see different perspectives of the world.
So, as you can see, it might be my name on the cover, but the book only exists because of the generous support and inspiration of many others.
Who helps you to write or create art? Join the conversation - post a comment.
In the final post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be discussing my thoughts about the finished novel. And to mark the end of this series, and for a limited time only, the ebook version of This Sacred Isle is available at half price! Click here to purchase.
Coming to the end of a book is, for me, a time of mixed emotions - satisfaction, even a little pride at having completed the task, alongside regrets about some aspects of the novel.
Writing a novel is a long process, with twists and turns, reflecting in many ways the progress of a plot. And I am always fascinated how different the final version differs from the concept I formed in my 'mind's eye' at the very beginning. Images, symbols, beats - abandoned, lost from the finished book. During this process there are bound to be setbacks and regrets - in this post I highlight one of each (trust me, there were more...), the effect they had, and what I learned from them. Oh, and to end on a positive note, I'll talk about what I feel worked best within the novel.
Although clearly the story is a work of fiction, I have tried to use real world settings for many of the key locations. Initially I placed the king’s stronghold of the Cyneholf beside the River Deben (called the King’s River in the book). On the west bank of the Deben is an area called Kingston (‘King’s town’ in Old English), which seemed a reasonable location for King Tytila’s stronghold. And frankly, from a storytelling perspective, it was easier, as I didn’t have to contrive a way of getting the characters across the river!
However, in 2014, Archaeologists announced findings that supported the idea that the royal settlement of the Anglo-Saxon kings of East Anglia was located at Rendlesham, a village several miles to the north-east of River Deben. This was a fascinating and exciting moment in our understanding of the period, but it was rather inconvenient in terms of my story…
At this point, my options were to ignore this discovery or to rewrite part of the story to relocate the Cyneholf close to the historical origins of the East Anglian kings. After some consideration, I realised I had to change the story – I could not ignore this development. Although this did entail some significant rework (and took more precious time, slowing my progress) it actually opened a new aspect to the story. I added a cameo from a character called the Boatman, a Charon-like figure who takes Morcar and his companions across the King’s River and into the area we now call Sutton Hoo, the burial lands of the Anglo-Saxon kings, a literal ‘land of the dead.’
So now, rather than actually being a setback, I feel the addition of a scene crossing river becomes a symbolic moment in Morcar’s journey, one where his world truly begins to expand, and the danger he faces increases. He moves from the quiet, contained world he has always known into the bustling heart of a kingdom, with all the machinations of a Royal court. And there his adventure truly begins...
So, I would say expect setbacks when writing your story - they are inevitable. But don't despair; they might knock you off course for a short time, but there's always a chance you'll discover a better path!
I feel This Sacred Isle has strong female characters. Slug (as she's introduced...) is courageous, intelligent and confident. With the greatest respect, I did not want her to stray into Xena - Warrior Princess territory. She's not a superhero and she's not just a tough fighter - just someone who has endured much in her brief life and refuses to submit meekly to slavery and tyranny. And for all her suffering, she does not allow her (understandable) antipathy towards Anglo-Saxons to poison her sense of justice.
Queen Eawyn is the power behind the throne of the East Angles but not in a malevolent way. She's no Lady Macbeth. I wanted to express the sense of frustration of this intelligent, shrewd woman who is constrained by the structures of her society. Eawyn is effectively forced to serve a king who, although fierce and skilled in battle, lacks her intellect, foresight and humanity. Open defiance to her husband would be dangerous - could you imagine King Tytila's reaction if he felt scolded, hen-pecked by his wife? Eawyn must seek to guide her husband's actions and decisions, to cool his warlike temperament, while all the time making him think he is in full control. A delicate balancing act!
Thinking about these characters brings me to my main regret. I wish I had had more scenes of them together - I should have done this, but again, like many ideas, many plans, this somehow got lost in the mix. It concerns me that I failed to concentrate enough on female characters. Yes, the Anglo-Saxon world was patriarchal but could I have expanded the role of women in the tale? Did I fail the Bechdel test? Hmm, possibly. Although this is a test and not a law, it serves a clear and important purpose: it prompts all writers to think about gender bias in their work. I know I need to learn from this; I know I need to do better.
Looking back over the novel I can always find elements that didn't quite achieve what I was hoping for, elements that if I did it all again, I would change. I am sure every writer who has ever lived has felt the same. Writing This Sacred Isle has taught me a lot about the craft and I feel I have more weapons in my literary armoury than before I started. I hope to take and develop these skills in my next novel, and all future novels beyond! I want to keep learning, keep developing...
So which part of This Sacred Isle am I most proud? My intention with the story was always to blend hard historical veracity with the mythical elements of the pagan Anglo Saxon belief system, and I think I achieved this. Through extensive (and sometimes exhausting!) research, I was able to gather the key information to build a credible picture of this period of history. And when mixed with mythical elements such as Thyrs, Barghests and dragons, I believe it creates a compelling setting for the tale.
But I think the part of This Sacred Isle of which I am most proud is the creation of the character of Morcar. I wanted more than just a boy who learns to become a warrior and a man, the usual a 'king-in-waiting' archetype. I wanted Morcar to feel alienated by his society, to resent and even resist what is expected of him. For me, showing Morcar's psychological turmoil, his fears, his insecurities, was crucial both to his development as a character and to the plot itself. I am pleased to see Morcar appear as a fully fledged character with, I hope, real depth - and I hope he is someone readers can identify with too.
This is the last of my 'Writing This Sacred Isle' series of posts and I hope you have found them interesting and informative. However, I will of course continue to blog regularly about a range of writing and publishing subjects. And I will post regular updates as my next novel begins to take shape...
How do you deal with the inevitable setbacks that come with writing a book? What have you learned? Post a comment - join the conversation!
Until the end of November 2016, the ebook version of my fantasy novel This Sacred Isle is available for just 99p / $1.99. Just click here to buy the ebook and discover Morcar's adventure in Dark Age Britain, a land of warriors, dragons and Merlin the Sorcerer...
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at the issue of fictional worldbuildling.
Oh, the pleasures and pains of worldbuilding! It is fascinating task but one with many perils for the budding author! In this post, I am going to run through some of what I believe to be the key components of successful worldbuilding, starting with:
The story always comes first
Even before I wrote the first words of This Sacred Isle, I knew the setting would be central to the story and that it would be a significant worldbuilding challenge. I had some worldbuilding experience; after all my Tree of Life fantasy series was set within a secondary world, which required a vast amount of research and shaping to achieve a detailed, coherent setting.
One key lesson I learned is not to allow the worldbuilding to overwhelm the story - it should support and enhance the narrative, not slow or replace it. Worldbuilding is fun and addictive, after all, an author is the god of their fictional universe! Readers of fantasy love to read about invented histories, creatures, cities and races, but not at the expense of story, and such details should be used sparingly. As the author you of course need to profoundly understand your fictional world - only that way can you write about it with consistency and achieve a sense of internal logic. But I strongly advise you to keep your wonderful moments of what Tolkien called sub-creation in note books, ready to employed within the story only when completely necessary. And the same goes for maps - you need 'em when writing the story, you might even want to print them in your book with faux medieval or Renaissance artistic flourishes, but you don't have to contort your story to make sure the characters visit every single place shown. Allow an element of mystery, hint at places unseen and unvisited, and in doing so rather than spoon-feeding the reader, let their imagination wander...
The world must impact the characters
Although This Sacred Isle takes place in a real place rather than a pure secondary world, the setting is, to modern eyes, largely alien. Dark Age Britain was sparsely populated, with no cities, only small scattered settlements, the Roman era towns long ruined and abandoned. It is essential that a novel’s setting, however fantastical, is coherent and holds a consistent logic, and impacts meaningfully on the characters. To achieve this, I (very roughly) divide the main bulk of my worldbuilding into two elements, which I call physical and social.
The physical aspects of my setting for This Sacred Isle – the natural landscape, the buildings, the clothes etc. – I developed through detailed research of the period. But this is more than just listing items (it is not just an RPG style inventory) - this reveals the scope of what can be achieved within the story, where the characters can go and what physical limitations there are upon them. Within the Dark Age world of This Sacred Isle, travel is difficult and slow - roads are few and in poor condition, and with only the wealthy and powerful owning horses, getting from one place to another on land will require plodding along on foot. The physical landscape and available technology makes it difficult (though of course, far from impossible) for communities to communicate - all this guided my narrative, for the characters cannot swiftly access news from afar, much of what is happening is unknown to them, mysterious, unexpected and frightening.
I also researched the social make-up of this world, looking at religion, customs and beliefs, and this was just as important, because I needed to show the effect the world of the story has upon the characters. The actions and decisions of the characters are influenced (and often constrained) by the belief system of their society and by the history of their people. Morcar, for example, constantly frets that he is acting contrary to his upbringing and although often feels in his heart his decisions are true, he fears he is in some way betraying his people and in particular his father.
So by bringing the physical and social elements of the world together, I hope I built a setting that is multi-dimensional, that complements and guides the narrative, and that has a true 'cause and effect' relationship with the characters.
The importance of time
In any fictional setting I believe it is important to show the passage of time, to represent the impact of human history on the landscape. This gives depth, a sense of the world having been lived in and that the story being told merely builds on the bones of hundreds, thousands of other stories and events. For example, in This Sacred Isle, the characters visit a ruined Roman villa, a ghostly remnant of a civilisation lost and almost forgotten. And the sinister events of the opening prologue take place at Wayland's Smithy, a chambered long barrow from the Neolithic period, which pre-dated the Dark Ages by thousands of years. In placing key scenes in these locations, I wanted to show that the world of This Sacred Isle is a continuation of struggles past, and a sign that many of these issues still have an impact on our world today. As the mysterious Lailoken says:
"The past cannot be buried, it lives with us every moment, every day, and it shapes the present like the potter’s hands shapes clay. Men have fought over these lands for generations. The blood, the agony, leaves a stain. To ignore the past, to pretend it is done, is to walk half-blind, half-deaf. The past can be as immediate as the present."
This Sacred Isle - Chapter Nine
It must be your world
I will also not deny that the world of my story reflects the world I live in and in my opinion, fictional settings should do so, they must reflect an author's experiences. For example, Tolkien's personal experiences influenced much of his secondary world of Middle-Earth, from the gentle, bucolic land of the Shire (a view of the rural England Tolkien so loved) to the battle-blasted Dead Marshes that reflected what the author witnessed in the First World War.
This Sacred Isle is not an allegory, there are no easy one-to-one comparisons. But the issues within the book of tribal identity, of misuse of power, are issues that obviously still resonate in our modern world. The malign, bitter Merlin I present in the story is not meant to represent say Nigel Farage or Donald Trump, but I have little doubt that demagogues such as these inspired the development of his character. In his quest for power, Merlin uses real suffering and genuine wrongs - the Anglo Saxons of This Sacred Isle treat the native Britons with little kindness - to manipulate his followers. Merlin talks of a distant golden age - a lie, of course - that existed before the Anglo Saxons, and one that could, if they follow his command, return. Merlin seeks to widen division, to exploit it, for his own ends. It seems almost pointless to comment that this has a common phenomenon in recent months and years...
And for all its Dark Age and mythical elements, I wanted This Sacred Isle to be a book about Britain. The period in which I wrote the book saw a general election, the Scottish referendum and the European Union referendum. This was a time of political (and at times social) turmoil within Britain, of fractures appearing between communities, where regional and national identity seemed to matter more than they had done for many years. I found the tone of much of the debate during the Scottish and EU referendums disturbing - and as I wrote the novel, I do not doubt that my concerns guided the themes of the story and, just as importantly, the way I built the world. It was not about taking sides and certainly not about writing thinly veiled propaganda, but in my fictional world I wanted to play out some of the anxieties I felt (and possibly others feel) about how the society in which I live.
The creative act of worldbuilding is a mighty challenge for any author, but for all its inherent difficulties and pitfalls, I believe this aspect of novel writing is a hugely rewarding experience.
What is your approach to worldbuilding? What do you enjoy the most, and the least? And what do you like most about fictional worlds? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at some of the key influences in the creation of the novel.
No author writes in a vacuum. Every book, film, work of art and piece of music we experience influences our creativity. In this post I want to explore some of the works, from various mediums, that have influenced the writing of This Sacred Isle - and quite an eclectic bunch it is too!
The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
My first glimpse, my first awareness, of Tolkien's work was watching Ralph Bakshi's ill-fated animated version of The Lord of the Rings. Although flawed, Bakshi's film opened a new imaginative world to me - and when I finally read the books it was with an intensity I've rarely read since. The scale and depth of The Lord of the Rings was overwhelming: the myriad characters, races, lands and mythology. There was endless detail to consider, to get lost in, and without question, this was the work that first planted the idea within me that I wanted to write.
The way the story was rooted in the landscape has influenced me endlessly, and echoed throughout my writing of This Sacred Isle (though I would never claim to have anywhere near matched Tolkien's level of skill and achievement). Despite the fantasy elements (monsters, wizards and magic), Middle-Earth feels real, as do the physical ordeals of the characters - Frodo and Sam for example suffer exhaustion, hunger and thirst, they do not travel through an idealised fantasy realm. The harsh rules of nature still apply in Middle-Earth, and these serve to underpin and heighten the more fantastical parts of the story.
Although I re-read The Lord of the Rings several times during childhood and early adulthood, I haven't read it again for fifteen years, perhaps more. Does it still have a hold on me? Yes, without question, it is a key creative touchstone in my life. I do not consider it a perfect book, nor should Tolkien be read to the exclusion of the wider pantheon of literature. But it irritates me that Tolkien is often considered reactionary and cosy - his life experiences, for example being orphaned, serving in the trenches during WW1, do not sound cosy to me and his suffering is echoed within the story.
I'd argue The Lord of the Rings, taken on its own merits, is a bold work of literature and those who ignore or decry it do so at their own loss.
Robin of Sherwood (TV series)
This show, first broadcast on UK television between 1984 - 86, dug itself deep into my childhood (and later adult!) imagination. A bold reimagining of the Robin Hood legend, it was unlike anything I had seen before and left a lasting impression. Having seen it again more recently on DVD, I found it no less powerful. Yes, there are some clunky moments and some frankly alarming 80s hairstyles but what captured me was the powerful mix of mythical elements (e.g. Herne the Hunter, the Swords of Wayland) with a gritty medieval world, a world with truly 'dirt under the fingernails.' This was definitely the balance I tried to achieve with This Sacred Isle. There is magic and heroism aplenty with Robin of Sherwood, but there is also poverty, suffering and injustice.
And I contend that the series reflects the time in which it was created: could not the sneering, venal, cruel Sheriff of Nottingham (played with glorious relish by Nickolas Grace) and the snobbish, cunning Sir Guy of Gisburne (Robert Addie) be drawn from the ranks of the 80s Conservative elite? In the same way, I believe elements of the real world influenced me, unconsciously or otherwise, when writing This Sacred Isle, and my own concerns around the dangers of nationalism and xenophobia, and of the warped misuse of history by demagogues, shaped the themes of the novel. It is not my intention as an author to force my political opinions on anyone, but This Sacred Isle appeared in a world buffeted by war in the Middle East, Brexit, the refugee crisis and a brutally divisive US election campaign, and I think it's inevitable that (in its own small way) my book will echo aspects of these anxieties, just as Robin of Sherwood did in its own time.
Robin of Sherwood still has a loyal following and once experienced, this daring series will leave a mark - nothing's forgotten, nothing's ever forgotten...
Pan's Labyrinth (Film)
From the moment I first saw Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece, it has influenced my writing. Set in post civil-war Spain, it is a fairy tale, brutally told. The fantastical elements never detract from the real world setting, in fact they enhance it, by bringing new textures and levels of understanding: the cruelty of the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the Francoist state and a complicit Catholic Church are all embodied within the Pale Man - as horrifying an image as ever witnessed on screen. Like the powers in Francoist Spain, the Pale Man devours the young, endlessly, piteously, a nightmarish vision of madness and lust. Although monstrous, the Pale Man reflects very human evil.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) 'triumphs' because she disobeys authority - she disrespects crude, vicious power. She is small, she is young, but Ofelia is so much stronger than the adults who threaten her. This greatly inspired me when developing the character of Morcar, for although he is often awed and frightened by the authority figures around him, he is brave enough to follow his conscience, to act contrary to what his society expects.
Paul Nash (artist)
I am fascinated by art and have spent many happy hours in various galleries such as the National Gallery, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The Courtauld Gallery and Fitzwilliam Museum. Some of the paintings and sculptures I have been lucky to see have influenced imagery within This Sacred Isle, for example Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, Apollo and Python by JMW Turner, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Mammon by George Frederic Watts and The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake. And there are many, many more.
But one artist, perhaps above all, has inspired my writing and development as an author, and that is Paul Nash. Nash's symbolic landscapes were always in my mind when describing the world in which This Sacred Isle takes place. I very much wanted to present the landscape as liminal, where there are forces and influences beyond what is normally visible. To use Paul Nash's far more eloquent words:
"The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibily, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived."
Country Life, May 1938
I wanted the landscape of This Sacred Isle to effectively be a character in its own right, and to hint at its age and that it showed traces of the human (and non-human) history it had witnessed and sustained. Paul Nash had a profound sense of landscape, with a powerful emotional attachment to certain places such as Avebury and Dymchurch, places which possessed a quality he called the genius loci.
This sense of places having a 'character' or 'spirit' was something I tried to create within the novel and, I hope, both supported and shaped the story. A clear example of Nash's influence on This Sacred Isle is the scene in which Morcar meets the Stag Lord, a scene that plays out in a dreamlike, symbol-laden landscape. A quote from Paul Nash encapsulates what I was reaching for:
"The divisions we may hold between night and day - waking world and that of dream, reality and the other thing, do not hold. They are penetrable, they are porous, translucent, transparent; in a word they are not there."
'Dreams', undated typescript, Tate Archive
I was recently fortunate enough to visit the Paul Nash exhibition at the Tate Britain, and I found it a moving experience to see how Nash's art developed and changed through his life, and despite many changes in style (especially incorporating aspects of Surrealism), he continued his obsession with symbolic landscapes up until his death, with his final paintings a true flowering of his artistic genius. I could never hope to come even close to matching Nash's creative achievements, but his work will remain an ongoing inspiration. And if I could finish with beautiful lines from a poem written by Nash (which I saw quoted in the Tate Britain exhibition):
"O Dreaming trees,
sunk in a swoon of sleep
What have ye seen in these
Paul Nash - 1934.
What has influenced your writing and creativity? Post a comment and join the conversation.
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at editing the first full draft of the novel.
I find editing fascinating and painful in equal measure!
Once I read back over my first draft of This Sacred Isle, any small sense of pride and accomplishment I felt on its completion withered away. One dimensional characters; choppy, incoherent plot; stilted dialogue. And it's at this point that an author needs to really go to work and start revising and moving onto the next draft, and then the next...
How many drafts? Frankly, I have lost count. Certainly more than fifteen, more than twenty very likely. Is this a lot of work? Yes, but I could never be comfortable with dashing off a draft, giving it a quick edit and then sending it out into the world. Some authors can do that and do it well – good luck to them, but I cannot work that way. For me, editing is writing, the shaping and moulding of a story, finding new narrative avenues to explore and developing characters. I need to reflect on a story over a reasonable period of time – and this reflection does seem to yield fresh insights.
Of course, there is a danger if this turns into a mission for perfection, and this is an ailment of which I suffer. I want the book to be the very best it can be and hate the idea of poorly written passages, underdeveloped characters and weak narrative. I think this is a healthy, professional approach to writing but it runs the risk of being forever absorbed in detail, of fearing to let the story be seen. It is easy to find reasons to keep tinkering, checking, but the true issue is one of fear – I am worried that people will tear apart my rudely stamped novel. There is no easy remedy to this, no magical formula, no moment when your book is ‘finished’, so don’t expect one. But at some point, you have to let go, you have cut the umbilical cord and let your imagination’s offspring thrive.
One key element of editing is that of collaboration - beyond a certain stage you cannot edit a book alone. You need fresh pairs of eyes. I am fortunate to have several people who have kindly read drafts of This Sacred Isle and their feedback has helped me to shape and improve the book (and pick out those pesky typos). As I approached what I felt to be a later draft, I sent the book to a professional editor. Clearly an editor's time is not free (though my editor's charges were very reasonable) but this is a necessary step and - if you are an independent author - one for which you should budget. A professional editor can pick out the grammatical errors you didn't even know were errors! Having a professional edit of This Sacred Isle gave me confidence that the final published book would be in the best possible shape for the reader.
Before I finish, I should mention a couple of apps I used for earlier drafts of the book. Both the Hemingway app and Pro Writing Aid app provided helpful analysis of my writing. The feedback provided should obviously be treated with a degree of caution and I would not advise anyone to rely on these apps exclusively, but it is worth giving them a try.
And if you'd like to pick up some more editing tips, check out my interview with editor Helen Baggott from an earlier blog post.
What are your tips for editing - what works for you?
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at writing the first full draft of the novel.
“The first draft of anything is s**t.”
Yes, you’ve probably seen the Hemingway quote before – rather blunt, perhaps, but he is bang on the money. Do not expect perfection – or anything close – on your first draft, do not even seek perfection. Your task is to get down as much of your story as you can; there is plenty of time for revising later.
Using my treatment as reference, I worked through the first draft of This Sacred Isle without stopping to polish or edit anything other than obvious spelling mistakes or typos. As motivation, I set myself a monthly word count target of 15,000 words (which roughly equates to 500 words a day). This was a stretching objective but one I was confident I could achieve, which indeed I managed to, producing the first draft of ‘This Sacred Isle’ (90,000 words) in six months.
What is my writing schedule? Well, it varies but I always remember the maxim ‘never a day without a line’ – this goes to the heart of one of the most important challenges when writing a first draft: you must sustain the momentum. Like many writers, I also work full-time, so seldom enjoy the luxury of a whole day concentrating on writing. However, I do try to take advantage of any small window of opportunity for writing and this was certainly true when I was working on This Sacred Isle. For example, in my lunch-break I would spend twenty minutes in the local library jotting down ideas or doing small pieces of research. If I was then able to write in the evening, I felt I already had a head-start, and if I couldn’t, then I had at least made some progress.
During a first draft you must expect to get bogged down, especially in the middle of your story. If beginnings and endings are tough, middles are for me like a lower circle of hell. Fatigue is setting in - the booster fuel of excitement at the start of the project has expired. Now you have to keep going, digging into reserves to get to the end. So, what do you do if you find yourself at this stage? My advice? Keep going. Expect this time. You don't have to enjoy it (you won't), you can even grumble about it (you will) but don't stop. Don't falter, not now. Keep going. For if you do, slowly, inexorably, the end will come into sight. And that is an energising moment. With the finishing line in view, you will find a fresh rush of creativity.
Writing a novel really is a job of a thousand small steps, so don’t try to do it one leap. Be honest with yourself and set targets you can reasonably manage. Keep chipping away, keep moving forward, and you’ll finish your first draft sooner than you think. And then, you need to start thinking about rewriting...
What are your experiences of writing a first draft? Which is the hardest part for you?
So you’ve finished your book – you’ve read through the manuscript line by line, word by word. You’ve found and corrected every typo, your grammar is flawless…until the very first reader picks up the book and finds an error!
Even the most diligent, most grammar savvy author cannot spot every mistake in his or her own manuscript. And this is why employing the services of a professional editor / proofreader is a must for your book.
Helen Baggott is an accredited proofreader and copy-editor, and a partner member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors). Helen offers a range of professional services including editing, proofreading and self-publishing advice. Helen has worked on all four of my novels, and I strongly endorse her services – Helen’s professionalism and attention to detail certainly improved my books.
Helen kindly agreed to an interview about the role of an editor / proofreader, and about the benefits this can bring to authors.
What attracted you to working as a professional editor/proofreader, and how did you start?
As the self-publishing market blossomed I recognised the need for affordable proofreading. Too many writers were publishing their books without having the content edited and proofread. I had already completed a course to complement my work on a local magazine and as a writer of articles for other magazines.
Do you have a specific method you use for each book or does it change from manuscript to manuscript?
By the time a manuscript is finished an author can almost recite the content, that’s how familiar it becomes. Even the way the paragraphs break on a page will be imprinted and the brain and eye will conspire to deceive. It’s unlikely friends and family will criticise or find fault with the work – employing an impartial professional is essential.
Every manuscript is different – every writer is different. By the end of the first chapter I have appreciated the style and have a good sense of the author’s voice. That voice is critical – any suggested changes must retain it. Also, I will make a note of any quirky styles – just to ensure that the author’s voice is consistent. It’s surprising how often an author will change a character’s personality. If I don’t hear the character saying those words or acting that way, I flag it up and explain my query.
What is the difference between editing and proofreading?
Editing will ultimately ensure a manuscript is structured and rounded, that it has no plot bumps or inconsistencies. It should ensure that the reader isn’t suddenly caught unawares by an unconvincing scene. Inexperienced authors will sometimes force something on to a character to suit a scene or a plot twist. That short-changes a reader’s experience. Characters have to be fully-formed and whilst you shouldn’t reveal everything on the first page, you do need to create a credible cast. We all, in real life, occasionally act out of character. But there’s a reason, an external influence. The skill of the author will create exactly that, and the editor will ensure it all has the mark of credibility, even in incredible scenarios.
Proofreading will correct typos – spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. However, if I’m asked to proofread a manuscript and it’s clear it hasn’t been edited, I will include the relevant information in my report.
Editing and proofreading will involve a certain amount of fact-checking. Whilst I don’t have access to an author’s research, I do check as many details as possible. It’s always better to query something than assume it’s correct – especially with non-fiction.
What are the most common mistakes you see in manuscripts?
Very often there will be inconsistencies – both with the style and the content. But I actually find mistakes in the front matter – where the author has added their own details. It’s the same with websites; the ‘About Us’ pages are usually peppered with errors. We know our own story so we barely read the text. That information is standard – it’s possibly been copied from blog, to website, to Twitter profile, to Amazon, etc. If the original version has an error it’s carried through to all platforms.
What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Some of my clients are established and have a number of traditionally published books to their names. Others are new to writing and as thrilling as it all is – and should be – they do need help. It’s extremely satisfying to work on a project for several months and help an author fulfil their potential and be able to publish a polished book.
If you could give just one piece of advice to independent authors when it comes to editing/proofreading, what would it be?
I always think it’s a terrible shame that some authors do not allow time in their self-publishing schedule for editing and proofreading. Setting a date for their book’s launch seems more important than having an error-free product. In five years’ time, postponing the launch by a month would be irrelevant. Bad reviews on Amazon (because of errors) will be there forever. Successful authors are those who take their time. They’re not procrastinating, tweaking the same sentence a hundred times, they’re sitting back and allowing the book to settle. My top tip would be: create a timetable that allows you to self-publish the best book you possibly can. Don’t compromise just because you have a date ringed on the calendar.
You can find Helen at http://www.helenbaggott.co.uk/
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at how I used description within the novel.
I have to declare an interest – I love writing descriptive passages. Tiny, quirky details fascinate me, and for a novel such as This Sacred Isle, it was important to create a sense of a vivid, living, breathing world. I always try to use all the senses rather than simply giving a visual description of a scene; this gives a richer impression for the reader. As mentioned in the research post, where possible I like to visit locations pertinent to the story - just listening to the sounds of a location, or taking in the smells (pleasant or otherwise!) gives me a deeper connection, a deeper feeling of place. In This Sacred Isle, I wanted the landscape to almost be a character, for its moods and history to have an effect upon those who live there. For example, the following is a short passage from the book:
"They crunched over frozen dead leaves and bracken, disturbing birds feeding on the woodland floor. A red squirrel scampered up the nearest tree, startled by the unexpected intruders to its realm. Although dimmed by the cold of winter, the wood still assaulted Morcar’s senses with unfamiliar sounds, smells and sights: the rhythmic creaking of ice-stiffened branches; a jay’s screaming call; the moist, cloying smell of decomposing leaf litter. An eerie, echoing wolf-howl carried on the wind. The wood unnerved Morcar, he felt out of place, adrift in a world familiar on the surface, but with strange undercurrents."
I made use of a colour palette within the story, to suggest move and subtle changes in the plot. For example, the story of This Sacred Isle begins in winter. This is very deliberate, as I wanted to suggest a world frozen in stasis – Morcar’s people are bound by their culture and a very specific worldview (as are many other characters we encounter in the book). In this part of the story I used (obviously!) a wintry palette of white, greys and browns. As the novel progresses, and Morcar’s experience broadens, we move through the seasons, which is not just a temporal sequence but is also designed to reflect movement within Morcar’s character and the effect his actions have on those around him.
However, my love of descriptive writing carries an inherent risk! I have to be wary of my tendency to over-describe and drift into passages of longueur – as important as description is to the process of creating a novel, it should never slow the narrative. When editing my novel I cut most brutally any passages of description; they need to work very hard to convince me of their necessity. This sometimes means losing some sentences I favoured, but unless they served a narrative or character function, then it becomes hard to justify keeping them.
It is a question of balance – the world I want to create within This Sacred Isle needs to be layered, with a ‘dirt beneath the fingernails’ realism combined with a sense of mysticism. This requires moments of detailed description but at the same time I need to drive forward the narrative and shape a compelling, page-turning tale for the reader. Did I get the balance right? Mostly I think so, hope so, but I guess it is only the reader who can judge.
How do you approach descriptive writing? What kind of descriptive writing do you love to read? Post a comment and join the conversation...