The First Draft

It’s November. And I’ve set myself the target of finishing the first draft of ‘A Good Place‘ by the end of the month.

What is a first draft? No one seems to agree with anyone else on this one. And my use of the term here is a little different to most of the definitions I have come across.

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A hill station in Northern India photographed by my father during WWII. How is this relevant? read on…

Ideas of what constitutes a first draft seem to vary from, at one end, a sketch of the story arc with most of the characters written in, a mixture of great and awful writing, plot holes and loads of inconsistencies to, at the other end, the story pretty much as the author imagines it, but with minor inconsistencies to iron out, prose to polish and some information dump to delete.

I imagine that any single writer’s idea of a first draft will depend upon what type of writer they are. Being a pantser myself, i.e. NOT beginning with a carefully planned storyline and characters, but making it up as I go along, I think the first draft has to be closer to the finished article than if I were a plotter. This is because it is a little harder to see when I have reached that destination.

So my personal idea of a first draft is the book written from beginning to end, no obvious plot holes, no gaps, and nothing I think is glaringly wrong.

When I come back to revise, plot holes will reveal themselves, and I’ll deal with them then. What I shouldn’t be doing is coming back to a work with a huge gap where I found it too bothersome to write the dialogue in the first place.

So it’s mainly dialogue I’ll be working on. There are two scenes which need a lot of work on them still, and quite a lot of smaller gaps in the final third of the book. The draft currently weighs in at about 85,000 words, which is almost twice the length of Making Friends with the Crocodile, and feels to me to be the right length for the story.

It’s taken quite a while to get here. I know it’s generally accepted that the second novel usually has a far more difficult birth than the first, but the storyline has changed tremendously over the couple of years I have been working on it, and has become something I had not foreseen at all.

I’m not quite there yet, though.

And what is A Good Place about?

I’m so glad you asked.

It is 1988, and an Englishman arrives at a small hill station in Northern India. At first he appears to be no more than just another tourist, but gradually we learn he lived in the town as a child, during the time of Partition. A couple of years later his family moved back to England in a hurry, and he suspects it might have been due to some dark or ignoble reason and has decided to do a little research.

The human landscape of the story is the mixture of characters living there, the good and the bad, the well-off and the poor, the weird and the apparently normal, especially the English left behind after Partition.  It also happens to be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town by the English, and amidst the planned celebrations there are predictable feelings and tensions over this.

And the main character’s private life is a bit of a mess…

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From Genesis to Tribulation (and Beyond!)

Making Friends with the Crocodile was born early one morning – around 4 a.m. – in a Stream of Consciousness that demanded I get up out of bed and write page after page of notes on scenes and characters and the plot development.

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The whole novel was written in much the same way. Generally, I write as a pantser rather than a plotter – I’m terrible at planning out my writing, preferring instead to dive in and see where it takes me. But Making Friends with the Crocodile was written linearly, and other than the grammar and general tidying up, very little was changed in edit.

The book I’m working on now, though, had a far more troubled genesis. Maybe everyone has this problem with the second novel, unless it’s the second one of a planned series. I knew I wanted to write another novel that ‘said’ something, and that I wanted to set this one in India, too, but after that I went blank. I had decided to write about the English in India, or at least one of them, but had no plot.

We went on holiday, and for much of the week we were away I took a few hours out each day to work on the plot, filling my notebook with ideas and characters and working up a central theme, and once we were home again I started work on the novel.

But as I wrote, I found I was dissatisfied with the central plot. It seemed rather unlikely and, frankly, not that interesting. I didn’t even like my working title (I wonder how important that can be, psychologically?) I changed a few bits around, and turned the sub-plot into the main theme, and carried on. Eventually, I realised that I had lost interest in the whole project, despite the thirty thousand-odd words I’d written, and returned to an earlier, shelved project.

I worked on that for a while, but every now and again had ideas for the one I’d just abandoned, duly noted them down, and carried on. About three months later, I spent an afternoon going through notes and suddenly had an idea for two new sub-plots and a couple of new characters. These I liked Very Much Indeed.

I returned to the Abandoned Novel With the Uninteresting Working Title and got stuck in. I even had a new working title: A Good Place. It now stands at around seventy five thousand words, and the first draft is almost complete. There are a few gaps to fill in, but otherwise it is almost ready to put aside for a few months ready to edit.

So exciting!

Who’s That Trip-Trapping Over My Bridge?

It’s a troll!

Okay, I know. The troll was under the bridge and it was the Billy Goats Gruff doing the trip-trapping.

Whatever.

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Where was I last post? Oh yes, poor quality self-published books.

A little while ago a blogging friend of mine reviewed a self-published book on Goodreads, and gave it three stars out of five, on the basis that the book was full of editing errors. For this, she was then trolled by another member – not the author in question, but I suspect she was a friend of the author, although it is not impossible it was just someone out to cause trouble.

This troll was furious that anyone would mark down a book for being poorly edited and poorly formatted. She then went on to personally attack the reviewer. I don’t know the outcome, but I certainly hope a complaint was made and the troll blocked from Goodreads.

I wonder, have we really got to a point where it is considered perfectly acceptable to publish something of poor quality and no one is allowed to point out this fact? Is this another consequence of the self-publishing phenomenon coupled with many people’s unwillingness to tolerate any views other than their own?

Self Publishing – a Blessing or a Curse?

That depends on who you talk to, of course.

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The self publishing boom has given rise to the publication of millions of new books, the majority of which would never have been published traditionally because they would be either deemed to be of insufficient interest to return a profit to the publishers or because they were, frankly, just too terrible to see the light of day.

How good a book is can be very subjective in many ways, but certain rules must apply.

If you buy a traditionally published book, you may be reasonably certain that it has been edited and proof-read to a high standard, the printing and layout of the book is of good quality, and the actual contents – plot, dialogue, character development et al – are sufficiently well written as to repay your reading time.

There are no such guarantees with a self published book.

As a member of several Goodreads groups, I receive regular emails which consist largely of other members promoting their books. These promotions frequently consist of a synopsis of the book, extracts, and links. All well and good, but the number of extracts that are poorly written, unedited (it would seem), with poor print layout, and the number of synopses that are equally poor, is very high indeed. Probably the majority, unfortunately. And should I follow the link to the ebook sales site and read a longer extract, frequently this, too, is filled with more of the same errors.

As far as the plot and dialogue and all that goes with that is concerned, I admit that may be partly down to taste. I have no doubt that some poorly written and poorly plotted books still give great pleasure to many readers, and good luck to them. There are certainly examples of the same amongst traditionally published books. And styles go in and out of fashion, anyway.

What I do take issue with, though, is poor, sloppy editing.

Most people cannot afford to pay for professional editing – I certainly can’t. I understand that. It means doing the job yourself, but taking infinite time and care over it. Check it over and over again until it is the best you can do. The odd mistake will slip through, but that happens even in a professionally edited work. Persuade others to act as beta readers for you. They may not be professionals, but they will spot things you don’t. You are too close to the work, anyway.

If you can’t do that, don’t publish the book.

Let’s take layout first. It only takes a careful look at half a dozen professionally published books to get a good idea of what that layout should look like. And you can buy books that supply more detail. If you are serious about your book, you should do that.

Spellcheck is a useful tool, but only if it is used properly. It recognises a correctly spelled word in its database, but has nothing to say about the suitability of its use. I do find it particularly irritating to come across passages where the completely wrong word has been used, no doubt because Spellcheck flagged it up as the correct spelling. Common examples are groyne / groin, sheer / shear, alter / altar etc. etc. etc.

Grammar is the biggest minefield, though. We all get that wrong at times, even the best of us. But at least avoid the biggest howlers – the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for example. Put the manuscript through a program such as Grammarly, which is free to download, to pick up the majority of the errors.

Another phenomenon I have seen recently is a 4,000 word story published on Amazon as a ‘Novella’. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with selling a story that length, but anything that comes in at 4,000 words is a short story. And quite a short one at that. To describe it as a novella, no matter what price it is being sold at is, quite frankly, a bit of a bloody cheek.

Please don’t do that.

And I’m sure many other readers have their own pet peeves.

 

Playing Around…

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Little oranges in a bowl – but not how we usually see them.

Just a bit of fun with photographs, again. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, rather than try to create the perfect photo – which never looks natural, anyway – I like to take them ‘down’ a little; strip them down towards something simpler and more basic. Something more artistic, I like to think.

Or kid myself, perhaps.

But there seems to be so little time at the moment. So far, I’ve only managed a second edit on two of the short stories for ‘A Dozen Destinies‘, leaving (obviously!) a grand total of ten still to do. And that’s before I hurl them towards a second beta reader.

Out by Christmas? In my dreams…

Grumble Mutter Whinge

It is the first of March, today.

Meteorologically, it is the first day of spring. So, that virtually guarantees what weather we will have today; the sky is overcast and grey, there is a bitterly chill wind blowing and a spiteful, thin drizzle.

Spring! Oh, humour!

Arf!

Admittedly, the astronomical calendar tells us spring doesn’t arrive until around the 20th March, so winter still has cate blanchett to do whatever it will.

So that’s fine; it sort of reflects my mood at the moment, anyway. But at least going out for a walk always lifts my mood a little, and today is no exception. I’ve been working on my new novel quite intensely for a while, and I suddenly need to step back from it for a week or two.

Come up for air, as it were.

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Not this one!

And so I go for a walk in the miserably wintery springy weather. Ten minutes or so through the streets brings me to the common – a wooded area on the edge of the town which, on good days, is a pleasant enough place to walk, even if it doesn’t have any convenient mountains or long distance trails.

On bad days, though, it is full of dog walkers.

That sounds a bit mean, you may say. And, okay, you’re right. It is. But in my defence, when I say full of dog walkers (and dogs), I mean full!

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This one!

It is not unusual to be surrounded by dozens of dogs running madly around, the air filled with strident shouts of ‘Gawain! Guinevere! Come here at once!’ ‘Will you come here!’ ‘Put that down!’ ‘Keep still and he won’t hurt you!’ and then some wretched little tyke suddenly tugging at your trouser leg with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, to be followed by another shout of ‘Keep still, I said!’ from a voice that could etch glass.

But not today, fortunately.

And having had my walk, I can sort out a couple of other things on my writing list.

Once I got back, I edited a short story I promised for a project for our writing group. Job done – tick.

Next, I’ll begin the edit of a very long short story that has been hanging around for ages. So long, in fact, that I mentioned it in the ‘My Writing’ section on this blog when I first set it up, a year and a half ago. Tut. It’ll be good to get that finished, anyway. It’s my first attempt at a traditional murder mystery, and I rather got lost in my own convolutions.

If I get it to the point where I’m happy with it, I might put it out as an e-book, just to see what people think of it.

Ahem…if anyone buys it, of course.

And, as a bonus, I had an idea for another short story while I was out walking, so hooray!

Now to barricade the door against all the angry dog walkers.

Ooh, it’s nearly finished!

I’m getting excited, now.

My novel, ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ is hopefully ready for its final edit.

This part of the journey seems to be taking a great deal of time, but this might be because it is my first foray into publishing. I know that there is still much to do – formatting, advertising, proof-reading, the publishing itself, amongst a plethora of smaller but no less important tasks – but I am finally beginning to feel that I am getting there.

Curiously, after what I wrote in my last post, I never found any of the characters threatening to hijack the plot in any way. Although I never planned it out in any detail, I had a rough plan in my head, which, remarkably, I kept to. Perhaps it is because the subject matter is strong. I don’t know.

And I think that I have settled upon the cover (the artwork is my own).

Making Friends With The Crocodile cover 1

I may play around with the wording, slightly, for example I might take out the words ‘A Novel’.

For some background; the story is set in a village in Northern India, some fifteen odd years ago. It is about the deteriorating relationship between two women in a family: the mother and her daughter in law. Like this relationship frequently is, it is a strained, fractious one, not helped by that society’s attitudes towards women and their roles in general. And when one of them gets caught up in events beyond her control, these attitudes become dreadfully destructive.

As always, your thoughts would be very much appreciated.

Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.

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And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.

Speech:

Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.

Narrator:

If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.

 

Pitfalls for Writers 3

Pitfalls for Writers, an occasional series; part 3) Spellcheck and Distractions

 

Spellcheck.

There are particular problems with the English language, when it comes to muddling words up, since we seem to be blessed (or otherwise) with a large number of groups of similar words. Within each group, they’re pronounced the same, although their meaning and spelling are different.

Did you see what I did there?

You might alter something, but then leave it on an altar.

Then there are, for example, groyne and groin; although in the US, groyne is spelled groin. Do you know which language your spellcheck uses? The default on my computer is US English, so I had to manually alter it to UK English, since I live in UK.

(This is referring to groyne / groin as in a breakwater, not an anatomical term)

Of course, if I was writing a piece to be published in the US, I would then need to alter many of the spellings to US usage.

Are you still with me?

Naturally, as writers, we should all understand the difference between ‘they’re, their and there’, but when using spellcheck it is perhaps easy, or perhaps lazy, to get them muddled up.

There. That’s what I did.

There is no substitute for a dictionary and a good knowledge of grammar.

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Distractions

Oh, I’m so easily distracted. When I am spending a day writing, be it on a novel or short story or on a piece for my blog, I turn to the internet to look something up and before I know it, I’m reading something else, which then encourages me to follow a thread somewhere to something I spotted that looks awfully interesting and then…

Obviously, if there is cricket going on, then that is understandable. Everybody needs to keep up with the score, don’t they? But it is just as likely to be an unrelated distraction.

I do understand the importance of a timetable, and I admit that I am hopeless at following my own advice, here. Occasionally I will scrawl down a note in my diary for the day that reads something along the lines of ‘Breakfast, then 9 am writing. 12 noon emails and lunch. 1 pm – 4 pm writing.’

When I do manage to have a working day that is disciplined, I invariably find that I get a lot more done. And one of the most important things, for me, is not to look at emails before lunchtime. As soon as I do, I’m no longer thinking about writing, but answering these various emails, and whatever it is they’re about.

Ooh, hang on, I need to go and check the cricket. No, no, it’s important. I’ll be back in a moment…

Dull day

It is a particularly dull and miserable day, today, with unbroken thick grey cloud overhead, an unpleasant, damp cold, and a very thin rain in the air. I read bits of my novel, and I yearn at this moment to be in India. That I am looking through a few of the photographs I took in India, at the moment, does not help.

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I am now at the stage of giving my short novel its first edit. I have written the book from the point of view of an adult female in a rural community in Northern India. It is primarily about both the relationship between the two main characters; a woman and her daughter-in-law, and about the roles and the treatment of women in a male dominated society. The way that I have written it, it is essential for the reader to be able to get inside the head of one of the main protagonists. So, for this reason, I felt that the narrator had to be one of them.

It is a little unusual, of course, but hardly unheard of, for a writer to write with the voice of someone of the opposite sex, although it is more usual for female authors to adopt the voice of a male narrator, rather than the other way round.

(Is that because we are so shallow and easily understood? Don’t answer that, it might be a post for another time, although if I did attempt to write it, I probably wouldn’t have the courage to finish.)

Anyway, whether this voice I have used in my novel sounds authentic or not, might be quite another matter.

I can imagine several areas where I might have succeeded less well than I would have hoped;

a) It might sound like a male voice, especially to female readers.

b) I may have painted a vague, shallow picture of my narrator, subconsciously avoiding difficulties.

c) I may therefore have painted minor characters more brightly than the protagonists.

d) By doing this, I may present as an arrogant westerner, thereby fulfilling images of ex-colonial stereotypes.

On my CV, however, I do have a few months when I was living and working in a small town in Northern India, much of the time spent in rural areas, amongst a dozen or so visits to India in total.

It probably goes without saying that I also have a keen interest in most things Indian, many books about India and, of course, we all have Google.

And writers do, all the time, write about places and situations that are outside their experience, and it is never really possible for anyone to fully understand the thought processes of someone from another time, another culture, or another gender, and so it is a level playing field in that respect.

So, with a glance out of the window at the gloom outside, I’ll get on with it. I do wonder how many male writers have tried to write with a female voice, though, and how successful they felt they were…

…anyone want to come in at this point?