First thoughts reading my first draft

On 31 May, I wrote ‘The End’ on my work in progress. Since then, I’ve been ‘letting it breathe’ like a wine, but unlike some wines which improve with age, my story is just the way I left it.

This week, I commenced the ‘First Official Edit’ which can be abbreviated as FOE because editing is the Enemy. (Not really, just a humorous acronym).

I’ve been doing as editor Nicola O’Shea suggests on writer Allison Tait’s blog:

Put your manuscript completely away from a month, then read it through in one go – preferably on hard copy and resisting the temptation to tweak.

However, I documented some thoughts I had while reading through my manuscript. For posterity.

I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • I’ve read the beginning so many times that it no longer holds any interest for me.
  • Too much dialogue and not enough ‘in between’ information.
  • Amateur hour.
  • Clumsy sentences galore.
  • I wish I could erase my brain so that I could see the story with fresh eyes.
  • I hate it.
  • Why is there a chapter break there?
  • Some of this is okay.
  • Why is everyone so sweaty?
  • I seem to be able to read this faster than I would a published book. Why?
  • Why is this character tooting his car horn when there is literally no one else in the street?
  • Ooh, I did some good foreshadowing. Give myself three points.
  • I thought I was bad at scene setting but it’s not as terrible as I thought.
  • There’s a decent sentence on this page.
  • Cliché city.
  • Points for using the word ‘festooned’.
  • I think if I didn’t already know what was going to happen, I’d be curious here.
  • My main character is a buffoon.
  • Why isn’t there a chapter break there?
  • It’s weird to describe a magpie as sturdy.
  • Boring.
  • Too much Story B.
  • Why is everyone placing their hands gently on main character’s shoulder?
  • Two characters are supposed to be fighting, yet a few scenes later they are friendly again with no explanation.
  • I thought I was good at sentence structuring but lots of backwards words seem.
  • The middle isn’t saggy, but it is daggy.
  • Should this be in first person?
  • In an attempt not to laden story with too much backstory, there is now no backstory and it doesn’t make any sense.
  • The chapter I thought I would delete, is actually my favourite.
  • I counted and there are ELEVEN similes in my work in progress. I thought there was only one. One terrible one. But there are eleven. Eleven terrible ones.

Side note: My husband did an impression of the face I was making while I was doing my read through, and apparently it looked a bit like this:

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In summary

I’m proud to announce that my first draft is pretty crap.

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Although I remain unconvinced that Stephen King’s first drafts are crap, it is more likely than not that most published authors don’t churn out beautiful pieces of prose on their first attempt.

Allison Tait shares what she learnt after participating in a writing webinar:

 …even the crappiest piece of writing, there was always one line or underlying concept that was an absolute cracker. And how a whole new piece could be written around that line or concept. And that’s when I came to appreciate the magic of the horrible first draft. That sometimes you can’t get to the cracker concept until all the crappy words have been poured out first.

The next steps

On her blog This Itch of Writing, writer Emma Darwin calls what I’m currently doing ‘revising’ rather than ‘editing’. Editing is what editors do, and I’m a writer. According to Emma, whatever you call it, editing or revising is where the hard work really starts:

Now that you know what the story’s really about, did you ask yourself if you’ve told it through the right pairs of eyes? In the right tense? Started and finished it in the right place? When did you open your ears and ask yourself if the voices are voices that a reader is willing to listen to, and for a whole novel?

The next step is to uncap the red pen and ask myself those questions. This baby is going to be littered with comments in my pursuit of ‘cracker concepts’.

What did you think of my first impression of my work in progress? Have you had similar thoughts when reading your own manuscript? Please let me know in the comments below.

 

Mystery of the Month – The Dark Lake

It’s a sweltering summer in the town of Smithson when popular schoolteacher, Rosalind Ryan, is found dead in the lake. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock remembers Rosalind from high school, but is unwilling to divulge just how well she knew her. One thing is for sure – this murder will dredge up memories from a past summer Gemma has tried in vain to forget.

I was hooked after reading the first few pages of The Dark Lake using the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon and immediately purchased the novel. It’s hard to believe this is the debut novel from Sarah Bailey as she writes like a seasoned author. She has turned the ‘small town, big secrets’ trope into a fresh and original story, due largely to her resilient yet fallible main character, Gemma.

Raised by her father after her mother’s death, Gemma now dotes on her little boy, Ben. She has an uneasy relationship with Ben’s father, Scott, who loves her and wants to marry her – but Gemma is too busy engaging in secret rendezvous with her partner, Felix, a married man with three daughters. An astute and driven detective, Gemma is no stranger to grisly scenes, having proved her worth early in her career when she uncovered a serial killer. However, Gemma is unsettled by the death of Rosalind, the enigmatic ‘Disney princess beauty’ who has always been lurking in the depths of her memory.

As Gemma and Felix work to find Rosalind’s killer, they interview her wealthy father, three older brothers, and Smithson High’s principal, who definitely has something to hide. Then there are Rosalind’s adoring students, many of whom were in the vicinity of the lake on the night she died after participating in a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, which Rosalind wrote and produced. Felix suspects Rodney – the play’s ‘Romeo’ – but Gemma is not convinced. Could it be because Rodney is the younger brother and spitting image of Gemma’s first love, Jacob?

The mystery poses intriguing questions about Rosalind’s parentage, her reputation with her younger male students and her reclusive lifestyle in a ‘modest cottage’ on the highway, where the walls are covered with movie posters. Links between characters are slowly revealed, with devastating consequences. Gemma doggedly pursues the killer, despite the many hurdles she encounters on the way, including suffering the pain of a miscarriage early in the novel, receiving ominous threats and navigating her tumultuous relationships with Felix and Scott. She’s got a tough exterior, but also demonstrates moments of great vulnerability as she laments past mistakes still weighing on her conscience, and makes questionable choices.

The Dark Lake is the page-turner I was hoping Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water would be. The narrative deftly weaves between the present day investigations into Rosalind’s death and key moments from Gemma’s past involving her relationship with Jacob. The present tense writing style and occasional changes in POV creates a sense of movement and increases the suspense, as does a gripping scene where Gemma is faced with a mother’s worst nightmare. The solution to the mystery is tangled up in illicit student/teacher relationships, adultery, family values, guilt and the power of a parent’s love.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Chief Superintendent Ken ‘Jonesy’ Jones who has a soft spot for Gemma, pushy ‘pocket-rocket reporter’ Candy Fyfe, sunny forensic pathologist Anna, and Gemma’s caring father – all of whom will hopefully become series regulars as Sarah Bailey is currently penning the follow-up novel.

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

Are your similes as fresh as a daisy?

I’m currently involved in a Twitter thread with fellow writer and blogger, Sarah Fiddelaers, which began when we were lamenting the difficulty of writing vivid and original similes.

It seemed to me that writing similes came easily to other authors. All the novels I’ve read recently, many of them by Australian writers, include similes that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic poem.

Sarah suggested we come up with 100 similes during May and tweet them, using the apt hashtag – #searchforasimile.

We soon realised that wasn’t going to work, as it’s now mid-June and I still haven’t thought of one (Sarah has written a few fantastic ones – follow her on Twitter to check them out). Instead, we’ve been using the hashtag to tweet some of our favourite similes from books and lyrics, as part of our mission to find out what makes a good simile.

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And Sarah included a few favourites from her dad.

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A simile compares two things that are usually not alike, often using ‘like’ or ‘as’, and uses their interplay to enrich what is being described, whether it be a characteristic, object, action, emotion, moment, or otherwise.

Here are some examples of similes from literary greats:

“Butlers can creep about as soft footed as cats.” – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

“Mrs. Reed was rather a stout woman; but, on hearing this strange and audacious declaration, she ran nimbly up the stair, swept me like a whirlwind into the nursery, and crushing me down on the edge of my crib, dared me in an emphatic voice to rise from that place, or utter one syllable during the remainder of the day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“Emma bit her wan lips, and rolling between her fingers a piece of coral that she had broken, fixed on Charles the burning glance of her eyes like two arrows of fire about to dart forth.” – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

These examples evoke much more feeling than simply stating that butlers can move quietly, or “Mrs. Reed ran up the stairs, picked me up and hurried me into the nursery.” A well-written simile can reveal information about character, setting and the themes of your story.

Refusing to be perplexed any further by the elusive simile, I’ve researched far and wide (i.e. I’ve done a few Google searches) and have devised a list of things to consider when composing your simile

1. Similes should enrich your story

Like other figures of speech, similes should conjure vivid imagery in the reader’s mind, lifting otherwise simple descriptions from the page and making them come to life. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Take time to think about the idea you want to express and make sure it’s clear. If the simile isn’t serving your story in any way, leave it out.

2. Beware the cliché!

Clichés are as dull as dishwater and they stand out like a sore thumb. In some situations, clichés may be appropriate, such as in a humorous story (or blog post). One or two will probably go unnoticed, but if your story is drowning in clichés, you run the risk of losing your reader’s interest. Think of ways you can say it differently and be creative, and original.

3. Use sparingly

Speaking of clichés, less is more when it comes to similes. A few subtle similes peppered throughout the story will add colour. A story littered with similes and metaphor is like asking all of your friends to bring cheesecake to the party. Cheesecake is great but after a few slices, you’ll be getting sick of it. Save some of those similes for the rest of us (or for your next manuscript).

4. Sometimes metaphor is stronger

A metaphor is an implied comparison of two things that are usually unrelated. Where a simile is ‘like’ something else, a metaphor ‘is’ something else. Consider the following metaphor:

“I was staring directly in front of me, at the back of the driver’s neck, which was a relief map of boil scars.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Another popular example is Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”. The suggestion that something ‘is’ something, is often more powerful than saying something is ‘like’ something. Imagine if Shakespeare had said “all the world is like a stage”. Consider which has more impact.

5. Stealthy similes for the win

A simile shouldn’t break the illusion created by the story world. This may happens if the writer is comparing two ideas that are too dissimilar for the reader to understand, or where the simile is too elaborate. In both examples, the meaning is lost and the reader is knocked out of the story. So if you’ve spent two days crafting a simile and the reader passes over it unnoticed, then congratulate yourself for blending beautiful imagery with the world of your story.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to keep your publishers as happy as a clam. Of course, the actual crafting of the simile is up to you. While it might not be as easy as pie, with practice you’ll soon be churning out similes as quick as a wink.

Clearly, I still need to do some work.

Do you have a favourite simile from literature? Or perhaps some proud prose from your own work in progress? Please share in the comments, or tweet them and use the hashtag #searchforasimile.

Mystery of the Month – Into the Water

An inauspicious river runs through the town of Beckford; women are drawn to its water and many have succumbed to its depths. Its latest victim is Nel Abbott, a single mother who was compiling a book about the Drowning Pool – ‘a place to get rid of troublesome women’. But it’s not the river that’s the villain of this story, it’s the residents of the small town through which it flows.

Paula Hawkins knows how to hook readers and her second novel, Into the Water, the follow-up to the international bestseller The Girl on the Train, has a compelling premise – a mystery about what really happened to these ‘troublesome women’ and an exploration of how memories can contradict the truth. Did Nel take her own life, like schoolgirl Katie Whittaker did earlier that year? Or was she pushed?

The town’s history is filled with gruesome fables of these women – from an accused witch bound by men and thrown into the pool in the 1600s, to a wife in the 1920s who drowned herself after slaughtering her husband. Then there are the rumours of a little boy who watched his mother jump from the cliff and into the Drowning Pool.

Into the Water has a lot of point-of-view characters. Nel’s estranged younger sister Jules Abbott returns to Beckford to care for Nel’s now orphaned daughter Lena. Jules’s narration is directed at Nel, whom she never forgave for a past wrong that occurred when they were teenagers. Lena is headstrong and proves to be a handful, and bursts onto the page demanding to know: ‘what the f**k do you think you’re doing?’

Then there’s Katie’s grieving mother, Louise Whittaker and little brother, Josh; Mark Henderson, a teacher who’s intent on escaping Beckford as soon as possible; resident psychic Nickie Sage, who is certain Nel didn’t kill herself; the Detective Inspector Sean Townsend, who’s investigating Nel’s death, his bland wife Helen, who has a peculiar relationship with Sean’s father, Patrick, a misogynist; and Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan who arrives from London and wonders why there isn’t a barrier on the cliff edge overlooking the Drowning Pool (but really – why isn’t there a barrier on the cliff edge?) Phew! With so many characters, it’s difficult to form connections with, or empathise with any of them, particularly Jules, who is a bit of a wet fish.

Into the Water is not the page-turner that The Girl on the Train was. It treads slowly and carefully through the storyline, quietly and pensively unravelling the lies, misunderstandings and misinterpretations beleaguering the residents of Beckford.

Hawkins has established an elaborate plot, cleverly interlocking the lives of her cast of characters together – all of whom have their part to play as each of their actions, even those that are seemingly small and of little consequence, have significant repercussions as the narrative heads towards its devastating conclusion. Although the clues required to solve the main puzzle are there from the very beginning, the final outcome is not obvious, but it is plausible. The ending feels like a sigh, a breath long held in and finally released in the very last sentence.

Inevitably, as The Girl on the Train became a Hollywood film, it’s likely this too will find its way to the screen, but would work best as a mini-series, similar to the suspicious small town portrayed in Broadchurch or the eerie and downright bizarre The Kettering Incident set in a Tasmanian coastal town.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday.

 

7 Tips for Staying A Writer

I recently read a quote from Harlan Ellison:

Anyone can become a writer, the trick is staying a writer.

I thought this was interesting. How does a writer stay a writer?

It’s true, writing is a commitment. It’s easy to find an excuse to procrastinate and to do anything other than writing. But it’s also about having the right attitude towards your writing, having a passion for what you’re doing and not giving up when confronted with obstacles.

With that in mind, here are my 7 tips for staying a writer.

1. Develop a writing habit

Most, if not all writers, will tell you to ‘write every day’. Even if you only write for five minutes. Even if what you are writing is utter drivel. It’s about getting into the habit.

As Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:

My goal is to write every day. I say it is my ideal. I am careful not to pass judgement or create anxiety if I do not do it. No one lives up to his ideal.

We all have other commitments, whether it’s a job, volunteer work, household duties or family commitments. It can be very difficult to find time in your busy day to write. If you need more tips for how to develop a writing habit, check out a course run by the Australian Writers’ Centre – Make Time to Write.

2. Exercise your writing muscles

Claire Bradshaw states the main thing that makes your writing better is to do more of it.

If you wanted to run a marathon, you wouldn’t start out by running all 42 kilometres. You’d work up to it in shorter bursts. The same goes for writing.

William Kenower refers to the ‘writing muscle’ when he talks about writers who question ‘who has a talent for writing?’:

The short answer is everyone, just as everyone has muscles in their arms and legs. The longer answer is that not everyone’s been using their writing muscle — a powerful combination of curiosity and imagination — because they’re not entirely sure it exists.

You may not be sure it exists, or perhaps you’ve forgotten about it. A child is naturally curious and imaginative but as we grow older, we can forget this part of ourselves.

The best way to remember you have a writing muscle is to use it. You use it by simply writing. This might be by doing writing exercises, perhaps using writing prompts, or by keeping a journal. You can also exercise your writing muscle by giving yourself permission to write whatever comes into your head – even if it’s total crap.

And remember that like all muscles, your writing muscle needs rest, too. Give your writing muscle a break by using your other muscles – exercise by going for a walk, or a jog. One of the best things about your writing muscle is that often when you’re resting it, new inspiration strikes!

3. Forget about being perfect

I could argue that most writers give up on writing because they don’t think they’re good enough. This may not be true of all writers, but I’m sure it is for a large portion.

There’s a well-known quote about perfectionism in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

If you’ve been obsessing about writing your novel for years, it might be hard to accept that when you do sit down to write it, it’s not going to be perfect. But even your favourite writers don’t sit down and immediately churn out pages of beautiful prose.

Chances are you will read over what you’ve written and think it’s rubbish. Self-criticism and the futile pursuit of perfection can be your worst enemy.

Natasha Lester states:

Don’t let the inner voice of doom make you stop writing. Make it your most powerful motivator instead.

Perfect is boring, anyway.

4. Continuous learning

Max Florschutz states:

Accept this now: You will never reach the peak. The mountain top we’re striving for? It’s ever growing. There should never be a time when we look at a topic and think to ourselves “I know all there is to know on this topic, so I’m not going to think about it.” There is always something new to gain.

A writer can always learn more about the practice of writing, and this includes experienced, published writers.

A writer can learn more by: –

  • Reading
    • Read books across a wide variety of genres. Read for enjoyment and then read again with the eye of a writer. Pick out something you liked in the writing and ask yourself what it was that made you like it. Then pick out something you didn’t like and work out why you didn’t like it.
    • Read books on the craft of writing. Some of my favourites are Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, On Writing by Stephen King and How to Write Your Blockbuster by Fiona McIntosh.
  • Writing courses
    • From a one day workshop to a Masters degree, there are plenty of formal learning opportunities available for writers. Many courses are self-paced and available online, which makes things even easier. In Australia, online courses are available at the Australian Writers’ Centre, The Writers’ Studio and The Australian Writers’ Marketplace. Check out Writers’ Centres in your state or territory, or your local library for more information about courses.

5. Act like a writer

Firstly, you have to call yourself a writer. As Chuck Wendig says:

Here are the two states in which you may exist: person who writes, or person who does not. If you write: you are a writer. If you do not write: you are not. Aspiring is a meaningless null state that romanticizes Not Writing.

Don’t wait for someone to tell you that you’re a writer. No one else will believe it unless you do.

Noelle Sterne talks about how dressing like a writer, rather than wearing your tracky-dacks and sitting with ‘sleep-mouth and sandy eyes’ at your writing desk can make you feel different and more motivated to write. On the flip side of this, Candice Fox finds inspiration when she writes in bed. Find what works for you and stick to it.

Acting like a writer also means listening, observing and being alert. This may involve anything from eavesdropping on conversations to hear the way people speak to one another and paying a lot of attention to the minute details of your everyday life so you can call upon those details when you are writing.

6. Never give up

Finish what you started. Finish that first draft, short story, essay, or blog post, and don’t give up when it gets hard.

As Nat Russo says, a writer is passionate and it’s his passion that he calls on in times of trouble:

In short, you know if you’re passionate about writing or just curious. The curious open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “guess I’m not a writer.” The passionate open a word processor, hit an obstacle and say “I’m a writer, dammit! I can solve this!”

A writer also needs to be prepared for rejection. Rejection and criticism are both inevitable at all stages of your writing career. Harry Potter was rejected by numerous publishers. And even as an established author, when JK Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, her first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling was rejected by several publishers, including one who advised her to take a writing course.

The same goes for criticism. Bestselling authors still get bad reviews.

7. Have fun

Writing is work. You’ll spend hours, days, weeks, months and years working at it. But don’t forget it’s meant to be fun. If writing is your passion, there is no greater reward than creating believable, authentic characters, putting them into rich settings and telling their stories.

There’s a great quote from Now Novel about the joy of writing:

…keep in mind that writing can be a lifelong endeavour. It has no upper age limit, and you do not have to reach any particular milestone by the age of 30, 40 or even 50. Pace yourself, and you will have an activity that can bring you joy throughout every stage of your life.

Mystery of the Month – The Hidden Hours

I’ve been searching for a book like The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster. It has all the elements of a cracking mystery – a dead body in the first chapter, a vulnerable protagonist you’re not sure if you can trust, a list of dubious murder suspects and my favourite possible setting for a murder mystery – London.

The Hidden Hours is the fifth psychological suspense novel from bestselling author Sara Foster. Her third novel Shallow Breath was long listed for the 2013 Davitt Award and having previously worked as an editor, Foster knows how to craft a compelling story.

Her world is beginning to unravel, pulling at the threads that bind the husk of her nine-year-old self, exposing the cruel edges of all that the years have failed to smother.”

Eleanor Brennan is a troubled woman in her early twenties with a habit of blocking traumatic events from her memory, including a horrifying scene from her childhood. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she’s just become embroiled in another shocking incident – the murder of glamorous marketing director, Arabella Lane.

Having recently moved to London from Australia, Eleanor hopes to start her life anew. She lives with her uncle, Ian and his wife, the formidable Susan, who gets her a job temping at Parker & Lane, the publishing company of which she is CEO. Eleanor is unsure of her aunt and uncle, aware of friction between the two, but develops a fondness for their daughters, Naeve and Savannah.

Desperate to fit in, Eleanor attends the Parker & Lane Christmas party. But the morning after, its employees are informed that Arabella Lane’s body has been dragged out of the Thames.

Eleanor knows she spoke to Arabella at the party. But she can’t be sure about anything that happened after Arabella slipped something into her drink.

“She squeezes her eyes shut and replays the evening again. She tries to fill in more of the night, but the harder she chases the memories, the faster they run until everything is dark and empty. The void is terrifying.”

As with all good fictional murder victims, Arabella was ‘livin’ la vida loca’. Drugs, affairs, strained relationships – lots of people had a reason for wanting Arabella dead. But could Eleanor be in some way responsible? And if she isn’t, then why does she have something of Arabella’s – something personal and important – in her handbag?

The narrative switches between two time lines – Eleanor’s childhood in Australia in 2004 and 2005, which begins just over a quarter of the way through the story, and the current timeline in London in 2016. As a child, Eleanor and her increasingly distant older brother, Aiden, are living in a shed with their parents while her enthusiastic and “relentlessly positive” father builds them a house from scratch on a perfect square of bushland.

Eleanor is haunted by these memories from her childhood, as a lonely and friendless young girl. The relationship between her father and mother is eroding, her absent brother gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and then there’s Solomon – the mysterious old widower living on the next property, who takes an interest in Eleanor’s sketching.

The reader really wants to know – what happened to Eleanor when she was a child? Who killed Arabella? But Sara Foster isn’t ready to tell us yet. Information is drip fed, chapter by chapter, dragging out the tension so the reader is filled with a sense of dread and unease, and compelled to keep turning those pages.

“Things are turning full circle, she can feel it: the ground is unsteady, as though the world is about to shift again. Something is coming. She needs to be vigilant. She needs to be ready.”

The Hidden Hours is really a story about Eleanor and the two major crises that happen in her life – one in the past and one in the present. Both timelines are written in present tense, highlighting how the events of Eleanor’s past still affect her in the present.

At times Eleanor is so vulnerable she almost becomes frustrating, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, particularly her awkward desperation at the Christmas party – everyone around her is talking and laughing while “she could feel herself slowly sinking away from them, invisible, despite every inch of her straining to fit in.” Every introvert who’s gone stag to a party will know how Eleanor feels in this moment.

Sara Foster builds a three dimensional world for the story by starting each chapter with short anecdotes from the point of view of other characters connected to Arabella – a doorman at the hotel where Arabella took her lovers, the chief pathologist, passers-by who saw Arabella the night she died, her drug dealer, and the paparazzi.

Eleanor’s relationships with those around her are believable, including a tentative flirtation with Parker & Lane art director Will Clayton, and with her cousins, particularly astute Naeve in whom Eleanor sees some of herself, drawing parallels between Naeve’s relationship with Ian and Eleanor’s tenuous relationship with her own father.

I’m always impressed when I’m wrong about the identity of the killer. Even as the story neared its conclusion and the list of suspects had dwindled, I was still surprised when Eleanor’s hidden hours were finally revealed.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster is published by Simon & Schuster.

Don’t mess up your novel by overthinking it

I am really thinking about words at the moment. This week I spent over two hours on a 100 word paragraph in my second first draft. Deliberating over which words to choose – ‘expanding’ or ‘stretching’? Which is better? I wanted to get it right. But if I keep this up, my novel will never be finished. For a 90,000 word novel, that’s about 2.5 months without sleeping.

Last year, I took an art class where the subject was drawing a tree. The tutor explained how to draw the tree in detail – how the roots curve into the ground, how the branches expand (stretch?) out, how to give the impression of leaves rather than draw each individual leaf. Then to add detail – where the light falls, maybe add a tree hollow or background features like a bird or a cute rock. She drew an example on the flip board and handed out instructions.

My first attempt at trying to copy the tree on the flip board was not good. It looked a bit like Carla Delgado – an octopus-like monster from Monsters University. My second attempt was only fractionally better and I still wasn’t feeling it. Frustrated, I thought: ‘I’ve just got to get this right!’

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On my third attempt, I tried something different. I kept in mind the tutor’s instructions about how to draw the tree, but let the pencil flow without thinking too hard about what I was doing. This tree, Tree Number Three, turned out okay. I mean, they’re not about to hang it in the National Art Gallery but it looks like a tree and not a CGI octopus, which is a big deal.

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Tree Number Three

 

Then I thought: ‘Is this a thing? Do I work better when I’m not thinking too hard about it?’ Turns out the answer is YES. And also, I’m a genius – because it is totally a thing. Based in SCIENCE.

The Scientific American wrote about a study where an associate professor at Stanford University Institute of Design and a behavioural scientist at Stanford’s School of Medicine designed an experiment based on Pictionary. Students were hooked up to a machine measuring brain activity and other technical science things, and given 30 seconds to draw a picture based on an action word. They indicated which word pictures they found more difficult to draw, while researchers decided which of their artistic efforts were the most creative. Turns out the participants’ left brains worked harder for the difficult word pictures and that they scored points for creativity when their right brain was more active.

Essentially, the less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative their drawings were. Manish Saggar, a psychiatrist at Stanford and the study’s lead author, summarized the findings: “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.”

I was messing up my tree because I was overthinking it. When I kept the tutor’s instructions about how to draw the tree in the back of my mind but didn’t overthink them, it actually became easier to draw. The same can apply to my writing. I know the process. The plot needs structure and turning points, and my settings need to be anchored, etc. – but when I write, I need to stop overthinking things and trust my right brain to pull the magic out of my subconscious.

This is summed up perfectly by K.M. Weiland on her blog, Helping Writers Become Authors:

Fiction is an amalgam of art and craft. We can think about craft. We should think about craft. Craft is an analytic, left-brain exercise. Art, on the hand, is a deeply subconscious, emotional journey. We shouldn’t think too hard about that—at least, not while we’re in the act. Thinking too hard dries up the creative side of the brain and dams up that subconscious flow of ideas, words, and images.

The left brain may still try to take over. Even when Tree Number Three was looking particularly tree-like, I used the eraser a few times when something wasn’t working, just like the way I might delete a sentence or paragraph.

And I was also compelled to keep adding to my illustration. What about a bit more shading here? Or another cute rock? The art tutor told me to stop – it was enough. So when you’re in your obsessive, creative right-brain state, you may add too many adjectives to describe the way your main character raises their eyebrows. It’s your first draft, and it’s not going to be perfect. But that’s okay.

As Robert Graham says in his book How to Write Fiction (And Think About It):

Each finished work will always in the end fall far short of the form you imagined it taking when you first conceived it. So it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s only so much you ought to do in the way of perfecting each piece of fiction you write; you might as well recognise that each new work you begin offers you a further opportunity to develop your craft, complete your masterpiece. There comes a point in the redrafting of everything you write when you will benefit from stopping and moving on to your next story or novel.

But redrafting is a blog post for another day, when we make friends with our left-brains again! Until then, I’ll keep my writing processes deeply rooted while I plant seeds of creativity and watch my novel grow as I think (but not overthink) about other terrible tree idioms.