Sunday, 14 August 2016

Behind the Curtain


Image result for behind the curtain wizard of oz

One thing I like to read on author blogs is what they are up to and how they write. I've just made a submission, so here's a quick peek behind the curtain.

My next Young Adult novel is called The Mayfly but while the publishing cogs are turning I thought I'd set myself a challenge and write something else before The Mayfly comes out.

I decided to go for Middle Grade (age 8-12). All I had was a very basic idea but no plot and no outline. On the 3rd July, I started writing.

Over the next three days I wrote about 8,000 words of nonsense to get a feel of what I could and couldn't do and began to develop a character I could work with. Once I had a better feel for where this might go, I went back and started again. I didn't have a plot at this stage, but I did have certain markers - a short list of scenes and ideas that I'd been thinking about. The plot developed as I followed the MC along the route. 

At the halfway point I mapped out a basic overview with a few chapter markers. I didn't really have an ending in mind, but it was starting to take shape. I returned to the main draft and knocked out another 10k. The plot began to develop so I went back to overview to get a God's view of what was going on. It wasn't perfect, but enough to push on and finish. Most writers speed up as they reach the end of a book. On my second last day I knocked out 6,500 words, writing the final 1,500 the following morning. In all, it took 26 days for that first draft 

So... job done?

Not really. Next comes the structural edit. This is a story edit, and involves reading through to search for mistakes and weak points in the story. What makes this difficult is it's very easy to slip and begin to correct grammatical mistakes. The purpose of a structural edit is to make sure the plot works, that clues are foreshadowed and found items are where they need to be. This is also the time to keep track of point of view, and that characters are motivated and react believably. Another important part of this stage is to strip out anything that doesn't push the story along, no matter how good the writing or idea. 

The structural edit isn't done in a single draft. Because it involves taking the story apart, there is a lot of backtracking and bouncing from one point to another. It can be very fiddly - often because changing one thing has knock on effects with the plot. Some writers try to do this at the planning stage - the snowflake method, for example - but I find planning in that amount of detail almost impossible. The result is the same though - a finished draft with a plot that works. 

Next is the storytelling edit. This is reading through (aloud if possible) to see if the story flows well, that it has a nice beat. I suppose you could call it style. It's where I look at sentence structure, grammar, control of voice. I try to strip out any repetition and try to work out if the simple stuff like dialogue tags or pronoun vs proper nouns causes confusion or slows down reading. 

Example: 
  • Emily looked at the wolf and said, 'Stop right there.' 
  • She looked at the wolf and said, 'Stop right there.' 
  • She glared at the wolf. 'Stop right there!'
stuff like that.

So now I'm at the stage where I've got a full draft, the story works and reads well. But there will still be a few copy errors.

Copy edit. Time to read through again. This time there should be no hiccups in the text, nothing that makes me think, 'Oh hang on,' and start to fiddle. I'll be honest here and say there were a few, and I also noticed a couple of plot quirks that needed tweaking - that sudden moment when you realise character A would have realised what character B was doing much earlier. If that happens, I fix it then go back to the start of that chapter and copy edit all over again. 

And that's it. Finished. It took 26 days for the first draft and 16 days for the edits (I had a couple of days rest during each edit).

So what happens now? Now it goes to my agent - Joanna Swainson of Hardman and Swainson Literary Agency, and there's several ways this could go. 
  1. Agent loves it. It's the best thing I've written and she wants to send it out right away. In that case, we'll work on a short pitching blurb together and it will go out to editors. And here, my control ends. If things go well, Joanna will negotiate the contract, at some point I'll get a copy to sign and I might be included in cover blurb and art. That's a long, long process though. Probably 18 months, so I might as well work on something new.
  2. Agent loves it but it needs a few tweaks. I tweak the problem areas, clean and copy edit and send it back. Go back to step 1.
  3. Agent likes but doesn't love it. This is the tricky one, and probably the most frustrating for authors trying to get an agent, or authors that have an agent and think they simply don't get their latest book. An agent's main job is to sell, and in order to sell successfully they have to love the manuscript because they are putting their reputation on the line. An agent that makes sale after sale is going to have a better reputation than an agent who sends out any old shite in the hope it will stick. It doesn't necessarily mean the book is bad, but it's a good sign that something is missing. Agents have different ways of delivering this news. I feel very comfortable that Joanna doesn't sugar coat her responses. In that respect, number 3 is really number 4 in disguise.
  4. Agent doesn't like it at all, but still holds the belief that I can write. I've written a lemon. It's a one off. I tried a different genre and it didn't work. Get back to what you do best and write a decent book.
  5. Agent suddenly realises she's made a massive mistake in ever taking me on because I can't write for toffee. This is probably the worst outcome, short of taking out lawsuits, injunctions or attacking me with an axe. Realistically, an email or telephone conversation steering things towards a mutual split. Termination of contract. Author goes for another agent or decides he knows best and self publishes.
Ideally, option 1 would the best outcome, but 2 would be okay. 3 and 4 are pretty much the same, and the aren't the end of the world. You simply move on and write something else. 

Fingers crossed it isn't 5.

In the meantime, I can read, relax or start on something new. And that's it. That's writing. Good, eh?

Colin Mulhern

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