Last weekend I took a trip to County Wicklow, partly to carry out some family history research, and partly to check locations for my current novel. I’ve already written around two-thirds of the first draft, imagining the street scenes and roadways, backed up by miles and miles travelled on Google StreetView.
On the ground, however, I discovered that so much needs rewriting because my understanding of the history of the places was distinctly under par. The period of the novel I was investigating covered 1847 to 1921, and, of course, much has changed in the intervening years. Houses that I thought of as old, were actually new or didn’t even exist in that time. The landscape must have been different because the trees lining the fields, or forming huge woodlands, though large, were nowhere near 150 years old. Even the rural roads would have been different, with little or no tarmac, and the town layouts have changed beyond recognition.
I’m not dismayed by this, it’s important to get it right, and the experience of getting the feel of the places; seeing the way the light fell, hearing the sound the river made over the gravel and feeling the wind blasting down the mountain, made it all worthwhile. Even if I hadn’t been researching, it would have been pleasurable.
The hard task now is to translate it all on to the page.
Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.
I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?
Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.
Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.
Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:
- Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
- Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
- Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.
Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.
So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.
Every time we sit down to write, our objective is to let those good old creative juices flow and the perceived wisdom seems to be that the more comfortable we are in our space, the more likely this is to happen. For many years, after the word-processor became accessible, my writing place of choice was at a desk-top computer. I usually had access to a laptop as well but this didn’t provide me with the discipline I was looking for. Perhaps it was due to me primarily writing non-fiction at the time, where I needed to be more structured in my approach.
That’s not to say that I didn’t find other places to write which suited me very well. My favourite, of all time I think, was sitting in the sun outside a waterfront bar in La Rochelle with a glass of wine, a notebook and pen, working on a draft guidance booklet for a Government department. Unfortunately, access to that particular space was limited to a couple of afternoons in the middle of my holiday.
Now, I have two main spaces where I work. Three years ago, increasing pain in my lower back caused me to abandon the desktop for a laptop (literally on my lap). I sit in a club chair in our ‘sun-room’ with windows onto the garden on three sides. The time I tend to write is between six am and eight am in the morning, with the first, and possibly second, mug of tea of the day on the windowsill beside me. I’ve always found early morning to be most productive. Once or twice a week I also find a table in a coffee shop, where I write longhand in a notebook, using a pen made from oak taken from the bog. It pleases me to think I’m holding a modern ballpoint encased in a material possibly 2000 years old and I find that even if I can’t get the words down on the computer, the old fashioned pen and paper usually does the trick.
Most of my researched material is stored on my laptop and I use a mix of Scrivener and Word. The former for organising and drafting, the latter for later editing. I’d like to use Scrivener for all of it but I haven’t quite got the handle on all the skills needed to get to the finished product. I have Scrivener synced to Plain.txt on a tablet so that I can dictate from my written draft – it is possible to dictate directly into Scrivener, at a cost, using something like Dragon NaturallySpeaking but I haven’t got round to making that investment yet.
It would be nice to hear where other writers find they are most productive.
One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.
Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.
Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.
Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.
Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.
Then ask the question: What connects these people?
If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.
Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.
Let me know if it works for you.
This weekend I attended the excellent Ennis Book Club Festival in County Clare and was treated to the thoughts of a number of writers. I attended sessions with Carol Drinkwater, Donal Ryan, John Boyne and Anne Enright, amongst others and it was fascinating to hear their insights on the writing process.
What was clear from all of them was that you have to work at it and you have to love it. John Boyne, for example, when asked about the opening sentence of his latest novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, said he’d redrafted it about 200 times. Even assuming he was exaggerating slightly it pointed to a degree of dedication to honing the work until it was as good as it could be. Several writers talked of redrafting their novel many times before sending it to an editor.
Two of the speakers talked about how they will sometimes write an event or character in a particular way without being sure why, then it makes sense later when the story is reaching a conclusion. It is almost as if there’s a precognition of where the tale will go, even if they don’t do detailed plotting. As a writer, I understood what they were saying although hadn’t heard it articulated that way before.
There was also an encouraging analysis of how to complete that novel, a task which at times can seem awe inspiring. It was explained, simply, that writing a page a day, that is around 250-300 words (the length of this post to here), gives a full-length draft in a year or less. So – go for it.