I recently sent off the last big structural edit for Precious Things and it’s such a relief. It was the most fun edit I’ve done to date, because it feels like the book is so close to completion now… I can hardly believe it. Just one more copy edit and a proofread, then it goes off to print.
A friend asked me if I wouldn’t mind sharing with her writing group what I’ve learned. I’ve been mulling over what to say for weeks now, so here’s a few important points I wish I’d known beforehand, in case it might help you too:
1) Novels need conflict (it seems obvious, right? It wasn’t to me, not at first). I thought I could create a story about perfect characters who led fabulous lives and did everything better than me… That’s before I realised it would also make my book incredibly BORING. Cue putting them through the wringer in the name of good storytelling. Once I figured this out, it was more enjoyable throwing obstacles in their way than you might think.
2) It’s alright to create a bad first draft, but it’s also near impossible to do otherwise. Trust that you’ll get there after many rewrites and efforts at polishing. ‘Shitty first drafts’ is one of the tenets of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the best book on writing I’ve read. In fact, just read Bird by Bird and you’re already streets ahead.
3) Give yourself time between edits. This is one of those things I find hardest to do, but damn it works. I had about five months off between the last structural edit and the one before, where I forced myself not to tinker with it. The flaws just jumped out at me when I finally picked it up again. Some days I wish I could go back and give all my early books the same luxury.
4) There are hardly ever the perfect conditions for writing. There’ll be family dramas or house problems, or work issues going on at the same time, pretty much always. There’s only one option and that’s to ‘turn it on’ when you need to, no matter what the circumstances – even if your house is being pulled down around your ears like ours has been recently. If I waited for those days when inspiration strikes or everything was quiet and calm, I wouldn’t have written more than a few chapters. As Henry Miller put it when devising a writing plan to finish his first novel, ‘when you can’t create, you can work.’ It’s a good point.
5) Every sentence and every word should have a purpose. If it’s not giving the reader any new or important information, it shouldn’t be in there. You might need to ‘waste’ tens of thousands of words figuring it out (I did… maybe over 100,000) but that’s what it comes down to in the end; precise prose.
6) Description is necessary at the beginning of a book but needs to give way to action the closer you are to reaching the end. This keeps the pace ticking along nicely and spurs readers on. When it’s successful, they’ll feel like they can’t put it down. When it’s not, great swathes of description or unnecessary scenes should be cut out or shifted to earlier in the book to keep the story moving.
7) Similarly, each chapter should contain a miniature story arc that climaxes at the end so that readers feel compelled to keep turning the pages. Even if you’re not writing commercial fiction, this really works. I’m convinced the massive success of The Hunger Games trilogy is thanks to Suzanne Collins’ supreme understanding and mastery of this skill.
8) And this is more of a personal preference; every year I take a few days’ out to visit Sydney Writers’ Festival and see those sessions I think I’ll get the most out of. It’s like a cheap crash-writing course. Similarly, I listen to advice from other writers on what works for them, and am prepared to give anything a go when I’m stuck. I saw Graeme Simsion’s session at SWF this year and his answer to writers’ block is to a) focus on another scene or b) lower his standards, trusting that he’ll improve with the next draft. It’s so easy to get fixated on getting something right, you can waste days or even weeks ‘perfecting’ things. That’s a killer piece of advice and it really works – momentum is everything!