Reading just as fast as I can

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Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing these last two months. Like a long distance runner, I’m trying to put as much distance as I can between myself and the first draft of my manuscript Paris Next Week.

Why, you wonder? Well I’m not one of these people that can put a manuscript away for say nine months or a year. (For me that’s like those dreadful people who leave Easter eggs in the fridge for months! It’s just not happening!) Instead I find that the best way to bring new eyes to my work, after a short period of time, is to read a variety of books. As many as possible.

So what have I been reading since 23rd December last year? Well most are in the pic above and as you can see at a glance they are mostly NOT historical fiction. (And that I’m behind in my reviews.) There’s a self help book, an Australian novel written in the 1920s, a short introduction to a trilogy set in 1919 and the first book in the trilogy (yes, I know, historical fiction). There’s a collection of short stories by a popular English author, a biography, an autobiography, a memoir set in Greece, a crime novel set in London in the 1990s and a romance set in the US in the 1960s.

Looking at the list now I can see (although it was done mostly unconsciously) I have selected quite a range. I’m also currently reading a poetry collection and a collection of the Sunday Times 2016 short story competition finalists.

What I’m aiming for is immersing myself with writing that is very different from my own. Poetry is particularly good for this – the unusual word usage, juxtapositions and the sheer mesmerising difference between poetry and prose. Will it work? I’ll get back to you on that shortly.

The slow progress of a first draft

Pages written 1

Well, as you can see it’s a very crumpled messy piece of paper but it is the start of my manuscript with the working title of Paris Next Week. As you can also see the first two and a half pages were written over three years ago on the 5/8/2013. Being Australian that means the 5 August not the 8 May. On the 25/2/2014 I ended up with 43 and a half pages. Not a bad start but overall the slowest first draft I’ve ever written, However keeping a record such as this does help remind me of several things.

Firstly, as you can see near the top of the page there is a gap of three months. Not sure why now but probably had to stop and really think about what was happening with the novel and to check that I was heading in the right direction after the excitement of getting those first five pages down.

Secondly I can see now where I took breaks of over a week or two for research. These are breaks that I couldn’t be avoided by using hashtags (see my earlier posts). In May 2014 I took two weeks off looking for a suitable chateau by a river in France. In early October of the same year I took a week or so off researching Kings Cross. And then from late October 2014 to early July 2015 I didn’t write a page. I was doing a major rewrite of a previous manuscript for a couple of months and then during the first half of 2015 I was quite ill suffering from a severe flareup of eczema.

During 2015 and early this year I also wrote three short stories featuring a brand new character called Zach. More breaks to research Sydney Theatres and quite a long break researching 1920s actresses and their famous roles and also looking for 10 locations that my main character Sarah’s grandmother would have been tempted to sketch in the 1860s in Paris. Whew!

Pages written 4

Above is the home run with the very last entry written sidewise just last week, 4 and a half pages finishing the final chapter entitled S S Ormonde. I also did some editing checks and eliminated two words that I used a frightening number of times – one was the word ‘word’ and the other ‘beautiful’. I’ll be doing a lot more of this type of editing in the next draft but these two jumped out at me and I felt compelled to reduce them drastically.

And this is what makes it all worth while. A list of all the chapters and a rough page count.

List of chapters

35 chapters, 255 pages and 70,687 words. The page numbers are pretty much screwed after chapter 27 because I did add a page here and a page there to some scenes that had to be rewritten but it is close enough. This sheet is one thing I don’t keep up for the next few drafts as the manuscript is in a state of flux with rewriting and researching going on but I do tend to write another one of these up for the final draft.

Would love to hear how you all keep a record of your drafts. Probably not as old fashioned as this but the result will be the same – words into sentences, paragraphs into scenes, transformed into chapters to form a complete first draft of a manuscript. Happy writing and a Happy New Year!

Getting the facts right and/or those pesky hashtags

Hashtag_example

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is different of course and I’d love to hear how other writers do it. Mark their manuscripts where more facts need to be added or checked, I’m talking about. After the first draft of Tomaree I had over three hundred points to check. I can’t remember how I highlighted them. It might have been the first manuscript I began using hashtags but I know I had a long list that I wrote out and worked my way through over the next few drafts.

During the writing of Crossing Paths I had a lot of research assistants in the form of international bookcrossers. #site of traffic buildup in France after the tunnel from England? #popular make of car driven in Canada by an upwardly mobile young female executive? #the layout of Green Gables farm? One of my dear friends and bookcrosser Bill Staubi answered that one (and some other tricky ones) through emails and the forum at www.bookcrossing.com

Whilst writing one of the many later drafts of Tomaree I had a luncheon with some of the elderly female residents of Nelson Bay to check one or two pesky points. By this time we were firm friends and the conversation went something like this:

“So, one final thing. I’m just checking about letter boxes.” (The letters of my two young lovers were being passed in a letter box of Peggy’s neighbour, Sarah Linden, the main character in my current manuscript).

“Oh, darling, we didn’t have letter boxes in 1943.”

“What?” (Insert shocked expression on yours truly.) “What did you do about the mail?”

“We just picked it up from the post office, dear,” says another of my elderly ladies.

“So when did you all get letterboxes?”

(Insert animated conversation around the table. The consensus was 1946/1947 but definitely after the war.) I then had to rethink and rewrite how the letters would be passed/left between Peggy and Tom, her American GI boyfriend. I decided on a blue pot (from memory) that Sarah had around the side of her house.

With my last manuscript I Remember the White, a lot of my chasing the facts/hashtags has been chronicled in this blog and I seem to have been in tight control of all those pesky, time consuming points that needed to be checked. The main one that proved very frustrating and almost elusive, as Robert Watson will remember, was how to transport my heroine from Sydney to Salonika in late 1917. Submarines were making things very difficult so road and rail was involved.

With my current manuscript Paris Next Week in its first draft, I’m afraid I’ve been a bit blaze and as a consequence disarmed. This is a seemingly light novel told in the first person about two very wealthy girls, Sarah Montague and Louie Gilbraith who live in the exclusive suburbs of Elizabeth Bay and Darling Point in the 1920s. Lots of parties, beautiful clothes, stunning houses and the party to end all parties. Just the other day, getting near the final chapter or two of the novel, I thought I’d check the state of the hashtags. OMG! 214 and its only a 50,000 word manuscript! They must have snuck up on me. Just checked today. 228! They have been breeding. Well those pesky hashtags will have to wait until further drafts but more in my next blog.

Writing and the subconscious mind

John Sell Cottman Greta RiverThe subconscious for me, as a writer, is like a treasure chest. I might have deliberately or “unconsciously” stored stuff away that over the years I’ve forgotten about. It might be, for instance, a note to myself to read a book that for the life of me, I can’t see at the present moment that I need to read. Or as in the case of The Night Garden a book my subconscious has chosen for me.

It might be a memory or a fact that stays with me but I don’t know what to do with. In the 1990s I was doing research for my third manuscript with the working title of the The Nightingales. It was set over a period of twenty or so years from 1914 to 1937. Somewhere amidst all the pages I read and photocopied, was an account of a WWII army captain (from memory) who was on leave and on his honeymoon. The tyre blew out on their car whilst they were driving to their hotel. His bride died at the scene and later he killed himself in his hotel room. A simple thing for him to do as he had with him his full service kit.

The incident was seared into my subconscious but I didn’t expect I would be able to do anything with it. After all it was years after the period I was researching and at that time I wasn’t writing short stories. It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend asked me for a short story for an anthology he was putting together. The incident of the dead captain came straight to mind. Here was my chance to finally put him to rest. From that short story has come a new character and what I hope will be a series of short stories that I’m currently working on.

My new enigmatic character has memories from the first World War. This week I needed some idyllic memory that a soldier could go back to briefly, before he moved on to the next world. What came to my conscious mind? A bluebell wood I visited somewhere in England in 1976. I did some googling but they weren’t the sort of images I was looking for and the bluebell woods weren’t located in suitable places either. It was then I remembered a card of a bluebell wood I saved from twenty years ago.

It was a painting. Early morning I’m guessing with a green path leading to a wooden gate and bluebells spilling over the foreground. The light is diffused, almost healing in its otherworldliness. The painting was perfect to help me set the scene in my writing and I am so glad I saved the card.

These days I am more aware of things like this. If I get a little nudge to really take note of something, I obey my subconscious and write it down in my notebook, bookmark the page or as I’m doing now incorporate it into my blog.

Here is another nudge from my subconscious. It occurred last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of The Greats from the National Galleries of Scotland. Yes, here were a lot of paintings I had seen in art books during high school. 70 incredible sketches, paintings and watercolours spanning a period of 400 years from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Out of all these amazing artworks what stopped me in my tracks? The modest watercolour above – A pool in the River Greta near Rokeby.

The first thing I noticed was how modern the watercolour appeared to my eyes. Amazing to think Cotman painted it over two hundred years ago! Why did it have such an impact on me? I’m sure it is not just because it appears very modern. Maybe the beauty of the location and the name – Greta? There is a Greta north from where I live. It is a beautiful spot too. I can keep on speculating but the why of it ultimately doesn’t matter. I trust my subconscious. I’m sure it has its reasons.

My Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

old typewriter

A little while ago Anthony Scully of ABC Open invited me to do a post on writing tips for historical fiction. It has been quite a journey working out my tips and whitling down my list to five. Along the way I contacted Justin Go, the author of The Steady Running of the Hour. His webpage details the research journey the writing of his novel took him on. I hope you enjoy my tips and would love to hear yours. Writing Historical Fiction.

Keeping track of the chapters you’ve written

chaptersHello, I’m back! The mistress of old school. The beauty of this piece of paper is that all the chapters (or most of them) are visible at a glance. Writing programs will obviously show much more but that can be distracting. Along with my notebook and my record of pages written (see previous post) this is actually all the paper I deal with in writing. The rest is on my laptop. Oh and one draft I print out and edit on paper.

I usually keep this record only on my first draft and my last. The chapter list not only helps me keep a track of my chapters but the length of them. Luckily for me I name my chapters and by looking at the list I can see, for instance, that The Casino is 6 1/2 pages and Berry’s Bay is only 4 1/2. I can also look at the flow of the scenes. Generally, for me anyway, a chapter that is a bit short is often a problem chapter and needs more attention. The Winter Garden, for instance, does seem to be a bit short to me when I consider what happens in that chapter and the page count of the others.

Everyone is different in how they write of course but for me this list is too impractical for the next few drafts. My second, third and fourth drafts are the ones where I’m constantly adding or deleting pages. Therefore it would drive me (and most people) mad writing such a record out each time.

For the last draft though, it is very useful. I generally write it out again noting the changes in the chapters and also adding a word count for each chapter which gives me a final manuscript tally. If you don’t already keep such a record you might find it handy! I would love to hear what types of writing records you keep!

 

Coping with the rejection of your manuscript

GallianoYep, that’s what I’m doing. I’m back on the merry-go-round. Just received my first rejection for my current manuscript The Grey Silk Purse. And already resorted to drink! One bourbon and coke down and the Galliano pictured to go! Coping mechanism No. 1. Have a drink. That’s one strategy and being very generous of spirit, although down (but not beaten) I am going to offer some more.

2. Adopt a mantra. I submitted my first piece of writing way back in 1981 but it wasn’t until sometime after 1996 when I watched The Cable Guy and Carey said those marvellous words “Allrightee then!” that I adopted a mantra. I still repeat those eloquent words to myself on being rejected. I find they are very helpful, being such a mix of frustration and, dare I say, bloody-mindedness, that they sum up my feelings exactly and are very soothing.

3. Begin another project. As readers of this blog will know that’s what I’ve already done. I tell you, Paris is looking pretty good at the moment! I’d rather be writing about it than trying to work out where to send my manuscript next. But then maybe that’s why I still haven’t found a mainstream publisher for my novels. I tend to submit a handful of times and then retreat into a hole – generally the world of the first half of the 20th century. Each one of us has our own coping mechanisms, I guess, but obviously breaking through does require perhaps that one last gasp of air – that garganturan lunge to the finish line. Maybe I’m still ambling. How are you going?

4. Whinge to friends. This is a good one. Twitter and facebook friends are excellent. You can’t see them looking around for a means of escape and only those that feel like lending a friendly ear will respond to your tweets and posts.

5. Regroup. I do find that after a rejection (at least in the early stages of submitting) I am pushed back to have another look at the manuscript. This is my method of regrouping. After yesterday’s rejection I read for the 101st time, the crucial first page. I decided again, that yes, the manuscript did need a prologue but I slashed a few sentences. They were phrases that I had hesitated over previously. They are gone now and the first page is much cleaner.

6. Do not speculate! I’ve done it in the past, you know: “Oh why didn’t they accept my manuscript? Was it because of this, or that or maybe…etc. etc.” Don’t! It is a complete waste of time. Put your frustrated energy into something else. Maybe an idea for a co-operative, start up a meeting of like-minded friends or go to a workshop. Catch up with relatives or see a movie or a play. Anything is better than beating yourself up about it.

These are just a few suggestion. I hope they help. If you are wandering around in the wilderness, like I am, I would love to hear yours!

Writing the final draft of your novel…or maybe the second last draft

Words taking flight!

Words taking flight!

Sometimes it’s hard to tell! I’m currently on the 4th draft of The Grey Silk Purse. I believe it is the second last draft but then I thought the 5th draft of Tomaree was the last way back in around 2004. The last was actually finished (the 8th) in 2008 so you see it’s a tricky business!

Ideally, of course, when a writer believes they are on the home stretch they should put the manuscript away for a few months and only then have another look before completing the final draft. I wish! I’d love to have the luxury of being able to do that but, frankly, I would go mad! Not writing is not a option for me!

An alternative the experts say is a change of scene. Wouldn’t a European trip be lovely? Paris, Rome, several mountains in Switzerland, a week in Venice. A mediterranean cruise I’m sure would clear a few cobwebs. One can dream!!
Crossing out those two options, what can be done to clear the air so that we can approach our manuscript with fresh eyes? My suggestion and what I am currently doing is:

Read someone who writes completely differently from ourselves; preferably someone whose style, sentence constructions, choice of subject matter is alien. 

Immediately for me two writers step forward. The first is Philip Roth. In my review of The Human Stain I talk about what it is like to read a Philip Roth. It is like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and dragged along. You can kick and scream against the intensity and speed that you are travelling but somehow you just can’t put the book down.

The other writer is John Banville. In his magnificent novel The Sea the reader is relentlessly tossed and scoured by his prose which sweeps the reader from the shore to the depths of the ocean, often dragged mercilessly under to surface gasping for breath.

Either of these writers will do nicely to give me a fresh eye! I chose John Banville and here is my review of Eclipse, the first book in his Alexander Cleave trilogy.

Eclipse by John Banville

I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the other two books before going back to The Grey Silk Purse but I will try!