Sunday, September 12, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Writing Your First Novel

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for Writing Your First Novel

"Suggestions, tips, advice, ideas, opportunities to help all those who would like to write.
Juliet Marillier, Richard Harland, Leanne Hall, Carol Ryles (chair)"

J: I’ve always found long form easier than short form, but just because life is like that, I went off and did a bunch of jobs that had nothing to do with creative writing.  I spent a lot of time growing up and making mistakes, and I learned a bunch of stuff about what makes the world tick and what makes people tick, and I went to write my first novel in my 40s, and it wasn’t until I made a major life change in my late 40s, and made a serious commitment to being creative, and that’s where my first published book, Daughter of the Forest, came from.  It’s based around a fairy tale I love, it’s called 6 swans – I didn’t want to write a fairytale, but I wanted to look at the impact that would have on this family, suddenly her brothers were gone and she had to do everything, as well as try to bring them back, and all without speaking.  So how would it change her, how would it change them, her bothers, who were turned into swans for 3 years and saw their sister undergoing all these hardships, and it took me 3 years to write it while having a full-time job and two teenage children.  Luckily I sent the novel off when it was done, and I was picked up right away.  If I had to ship it around 75 times I don’t think I could have dealt with the rejection, so I sent it out twice, once to a publisher who was known for sending good feedback, and then I sent it off to another publisher who picked it up.  I’s not a YA book, but I think the experience is the same when you’re writing your first book, YA or adult.

J: E.P.I.C. – Empathy (with your character – see from their perspective – if you can’t be your character while writing, that character will not come across as true), Passion (don’t write what you think the market wants, write the book you feel passionate about – if you don’t put the best of yourself into the book, that’s not a book the editor’s going to pick up and say ‘wow!’), Imagination (you can dip into the cauldron of traditional elements, but without imagination you’re never going to make it out of the slush pile of 3,000 other manuscripts), Craft (you must have the craft first – practice, practice, practice, writing is hard, you need to learn what the tools are and know how to use them).

R: I’ll just talk about my first novels and leave writing tips for later.  For me the most interesting ones are the almost-novels – when I’d just left uni and was 21, I wrote a novel that was complete except for the last chapter.  I ran into a blank wall with that one because I started to get obsessed with a fact of the world – each island was based on different elements such as metal or trash, and that started taking over and that’s a danger.  I was getting too hung up on a particular thing, and eventually I’d lost the impetus of the story.  I should have asked people to look it over and put me back on the right track, but I didn’t.  My other unpublished novel ended up being 40,000 words, and that’s unpublishable length, which means I did the right thing and wrote the story to be the length it needed to be, but you need to keep those consideration in mind.  When I wrote the Vicar of Morving Vile, I wrote one tenth one year, two fifths the next year, two third the next year, five sixths the next years, and really what I should have done was get something out, get feedback and sit back and consider it, but I’m a perfectionist, so I had to do it my way.  The Dark Edge is my first mainstream novel, but it does what many first novels does, which is try to have too many ideas in it, and I tried to make it my ultimate novel, but being a published author,, you learn that every idea finds it’s true home eventually.  I have 25 years of unpublished writing, 30 unfinished novels, and what I’ve found is that the ideas, and worthwhile ideas, keep coming back and they find their place in another novel, and it works.

L: I’m 32 and I’ve just had my first novel published.  I spent a lot of my 20s sitting in cafes navel-gazing  and talking about writing, and someone told me when I was at university that I should write short stories to learn the craft, and it was good advice, I think, because your name gets around, it’s good for grants, those kinds of things.  It took me 3 years to write my first novel, and part of that was telling my family I was writing it, so that every  Christmas or gathering they’d all ask me how I was going, and if I hadn’t worked on it I felt shamed into doing more.  I felt a little behind when all my friends from university started getting full-time jobs and I was still working part-time, not really going anywhere because I was making time for writing, and 3 years is a long time to spend doing something with no idea whether or not it was ever going to pay off.  I think the process of writing your first novel is fun and should be fun, because you need that, to take your time, to not have someone looking over your shoulder asking you hen it’s going to be done.  My path to publication was a little unusual, I entered a prize and I won and was published, which worked because it gave me a deadline, and I think that worked for me, because I was having so much fun that I probably would have just kept writing and never finished it.

C: I started writing my first novel when I was 12, but because I’m a perfectionist I would write something, read it, and see that it was crap, put it away, start again, and keep doing that and I still didn’t have anything by the time I was 18, then life got in the way.  I started writing short stories after that, and it was very natural, I’d put a couple of words on the page and go from there, but that didn’t work when it came to write my novel for my PhD, I had to write a synopsis, and that turned out to be great because now I had a plan, and I never stick to my plans, but at least it’s there.  One of the things I find the most daunting is a blank new chapter page, so to get around that I sometimes borrow a line from another author, and I put it in red so I know it’s not mine, and I write the chapter, then I go back and erase that line and make up my own one, just as a way of getting around the terror of the blank page.  I went through 8 versions of my first draft, and realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I had to just choose one and keep going, only then I had 130,000 words and no setting, so now I’m rewriting it, because in Steampunk the setting kind of needs to be a character in and of itself, so this time I’m going through and there’s an actual pace, rather than a chapter every 3 or 4 months.

C: I wanted to ask the panel about getting feedback from family or friends, what do you think?

J: I think I deal a lot better with an editor who can reject from arm’s length, rather than getting a family member to read it and maybe say “yeah, that was interesting” but it’s not particularly honest.  I’m of the idea that feedback on the first draft isn’t really useful, possibly because I tend to write incomplete drafts, and I edit as I go, which is slow in the initial stages, but by the time I actually get to chapter 16 and the end, much of the novel will have been revised and redrafted.   But I think if you seek peer feedback too early, it can have the effect of crippling you and slowing you down and taking away your confidence, and I say that as an experienced novelist now, which 13 books published, and it still has that effect on me.  I like to work with a group of other writers who aren’t all in the spec fic genre, and it helps to do it with people you respect, and whose work you respect.  Feedback from family members cannot be particularly useful, because it can be hard at giving critique, and not everyone is good at receiving critique.  I think belonging to a critiquing group is a good idea for everyone because it takes us away from our intense involvement with the story and lets you take a more analytical step back.

R: I think you can never have too much feedback, but for those 25 years I was too proud to show my work to anyone, and I didn’t have a kind of flow I could work toward, I needed people to tell me what was working and what was not, and I didn’t get that, and it was very demoralizing.  When I finish a novel these days, the first thing I do is show it to sample readers, rather than ordinary readers, because ordinary readers don’t think too much about what they’re reading.  If you show your manuscript to someone hoping for praise, you may as well not bother.  You need to know what doesn’t work just as much as you need to know what does, so don’t think about praise, don’t care about praise, that’s not what helps you.  You’ve got to recognize that certain writers serve other purposes, and open up your mind and maybe give you more ideas or suggestions, and that’s very liberating because as the author you have to have an event straight in your head, but the possibility of it happening another way opens up your mind to other possibilities. 

L: I didn’t seek any feedback on my novel until I had a complete first draft, then showed it to my two closest friends, and that’s something I’ll probably repeat with my second novel.  I do spend a lot of time talking about plot with my friends,, because I consider plotting one of my weaker points, but going into a publisher’s meeting where there were 7 people ripping my manuscript to shreds until there was kind of nothing left, but I loved it because after working in isolation so long it was great to see what other people thoughts.

C:If you get other writers to read over your story, you need to be able to interpret a comment to be from their perspective, too, because certain writers like certain things, and they’ll try to rewrite your story the way they would, so you just need to be aware of it so you can continue to take your story in your direction, rather than theirs.

J: I just wanted to add that you can learn a tremendous amount about writing by critiquing others’ work and having yours critiqued – it’s always a two-way process.

R: You need a critiquing group where everyone is almost on the same level, and you need people who have tact, because there are some people who build themselves up by knocking others down, and you don’t need that, the writer’s ego is a fragile thing.

C: You do need a little bit of praise, though, to tell you that the whole thing isn’t just rubbish.

R: When it comes to responding to critiques, you need to actually take note of what they’re saying, you don’t just do it because they told you to, you should feel excited about the fact that it’s improving and really take what they’re saying on board.  There are generally two types of responses that are bad: there’s the person who doesn’t want a critique at all, they don’t want to change anything and you’re just changing things to make other people happy, and it’s bad, it’s not a good attitude.  The other way is just as bad, that’s diminishing yourself by saying “They know better than me so I should do everything exactly as they say” because you’re subsuming your own creative drive to what you think you should be doing and it’s not going to really make those revisions stand out.

J: There are sometimes points on which you disagree with your editor and if it’s something you really love and can’t let go of, if you can bring the book up to the level of what they’re looking for, generally you’ll be able to keep the thing you love.

R: I have a rule, you should never rely on just one person, if one reader hates this particular section, maybe you’re writing about grandmothers  and they have a hangup on grandmothers, so it’s only when the same advice keeps coming in from several places that you really need to sit up and pay attention.

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