69 days, 76,800 words, another manuscript finished

Today I finished the first draft of my third manuscript, ending a frenzied 69 days of flat out writing. When I began this marathon I’d only written the first chapter, so essentially I’ve written an 80,000 word book in two and a half months. I have mixed feelings about this.

Obviously, I’m proud of the achievement. I probably averaged six hours’ sleep a night, so I’m looking forward to re-programming my body to sleep past 5am again. I can give my brain (and my fingers) a break for a while. I’m now free to devote my time and energy to editing my other manuscript(s). I can once again have a conversation with my husband that goes beyond ‘Can’t talk; writing’. This is all good.

But all these benefits can’t quite make up for the weird sense of loss I feel. It’s like when you get to the end of a great book, only you created the characters, so they’re like your kids. I’m going to miss them. Some days they seemed more real to me than real people. I spent hours of time thinking about what they were going to do next, and now I have to let them go. The good part about writing a series is that I can go back to them again when I write the third book, and in the meantime I can make them even better in the two I’ve already written. But their next adventure is already beginning to percolate in my head. Luckily, I’ve got plenty of time to let it simmer, because next on the agenda is editing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not quite sure which manuscript is going to be up first. I hope it’s the first in the series, because that’s the one I really want to work on. Editing can be fun, but it’s nowhere near the high of the raw writing. There’s nothing like the feeling of the words flowing from my brain through my fingers and onto the screen as I create a world and manipulate characters within it. It’s like a drug; the more I do it, the more I want to do it.

So I’ve got the day off tomorrow. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I wake up at 5.30, as I do most mornings now. Normally, I’d lie in bed for a bit longer, thinking about where I’m up to in the story and where I’m going to go. Then I’d get up and start writing. It’s going to be weird to not have anything to do.

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The ups and downs of the 2010 Hachette Manuscript Development Program

OK, so I should really be using these last few days before going back to the real world to work on one, two or all three of my manuscripts. But after the ups and downs of the last five days, I have to get my thoughts down now before the whole episode becomes a series of fuzzy and half-remembered impressions.

I’m not quite sure how to describe what was one of the most intense experiences of my life, so I’ll start by recounting each day.

Friday

I arrived in Brisbane on Friday afternoon, checked into the apartments we’d been booked into and met up with my longtime friend, Bek. Bek and I have been friends since we were twelve years old. She moved to Brisbane just after we’d finished Year 12 and we’ve caught up only sporadically since. We’re both married now and she has a couple of kids, and yet whenever we see each other, it’s like we automatically revert to our immature high school selves. It’s awesome.

Later we were met by one of the Queensland Writers Centre staff, who escorted us the 10 minute walk to the State Library where the program was being held. We had a quick intro session, where we met each other and the publishers from Hachette, and each of us had the opportunity to say a bit about our manuscripts.

We were having drinks and canapes when the literary agent arrived and we were all introduced to him. He’d read the first 50 pages of each of our manuscripts, and in the middle of conversation he said: ‘There was one I was particularly interested in…’

He paused and you could feel all seven of us holding our collective breath and thinking please be mine, please be mine. Then he said ‘the Indian one’, and I almost dropped my glass in shock as I indicated that it was mine. This was easily one of the coolest moments of my life, and it lasted approximately half a second before he followed up by saying he’d been expecting to see an Indian migrant among us.

Heart drops. Back to reality. This has been something that’s worried me about this manuscript ever since I started it five years ago. You can’t write a book from the perspective of another culture and not expect the questions to come up. Fair call.

We ended the night with a quick meal at a pub on the way back to the apartments.

Saturday

This was the day of truth: where we each had an hour-long consultation with a publisher who had read our full manuscript, and I was up first.

I’m not precious about being critiqued. Let me make it clear that it was an honour to have my work evaluated by a publisher of this calibre and reputation, who actually thinks my writing is worthy of consideration. I fully expected to find out there were numerous plot, structure and technique flaws that needed to be fixed. What I didn’t expect was how much it was going to affect me.

The feedback wasn’t too bad – there’s stuff to fix, of course, but not as much as I’d expected. The biggest issue, and the one I’d always feared, is the one thing I can’t change – I’m not Indian, and this could be a big marketing problem. And a marketing problem inevitably means a barrier to publication. I can still edit the manuscript and submit it to Hachette for their consideration, but the problem is still going to be there. So I have a big decision to make about whether I persevere with it or consign it to the drawer of unfinished manuscripts and concentrate on other projects.

When I walked out, the other six participants were all waiting with friendly smiles, eager to hear how it went even as they were probably going internally berserk worrying about their own sessions. I’d like to think I was mature enough to put on my big girl pants and count my blessings to even be there in the first place, but I kind of felt like I’d been kicked in the guts.

I spent the rest of the day wallowing in self-pity. I didn’t do any writing. I didn’t read over my manuscript to start thinking about how to fix it. I just wanted to go home and back to the safety of not really knowing what I had.

But we had a group dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in West End that night, so I got dressed up, painted on a smile and forced myself to interact with everyone. By coincidence, I ended up sitting next to aforementioned literary agent, who gave me some good feedback on my first 50 pages. He didn’t seem to think the non-Indian thing was such a big deal, and he referred me to another book written by an Australian from the perspective of a different culture. So things didn’t seem quite so bad after all. And a few glasses of wine didn’t hurt either. We ended the night with the seven of us participants all cramming into my apartment for more writing chat before we passed out.

Sunday

The morning session was all about the publishing industry, the role of agents and publishers, and how bloody hard it is to get published. It was great to learn more about the process, and to find out that the industry isn’t the shark-infested ocean that I’d imagined. On the other hand, it was truly depressing to know how hard it really is to get a manuscript to publication, no matter how good you are. There are so many different elements the publishers need to consider before they’ll give it the go-ahead, and most of them are out of the writer’s control. Big reality check.

After lunch, I had a consultation session with Kim Wilkins, author of 21 books and mentor for the duration of the program. By this time, I was pretty low and starting to wonder what I was even doing there given that I was such a shithouse writer, but this session was a real turning point for me. Kim helped me to see that, while I was reluctant to let go of something I’d put so much into, I wasn’t passionate about the manuscript any more. I’ve moved on, and there’s no shame in having manuscripts that never quite made it. Most writers don’t get their first project published – Kim wrote 10 manuscripts before her first published novel (to the writing gods – I would like for this to not happen to me, please). Being able to acknowledge this without feeling like I’d failed in some way was huge.

That night a few of us gathered in one of our apartments for take-away Thai and yet more writing talk. You’d think we’d get sick of it, or run out of things to say, but not so. On this night we got an education in genre fiction, care of Charlotte, and I finally found out what steam punk is (and a few others I’d never even heard of, such as cyber punk and clock punk – the list is seemingly endless).

Monday

The morning session was on participating in writers festivals as an author, which was interesting, but I think all of us were feeling a bit gloomy about the prospect of ever making it to one after the previous day’s session. The afternoon was all free time, so I tried to write for a while, then gave up and went to the mall for a spot of shopping, followed by a bit more writing in my apartment. That night four of us went to a ramen noodle place for a quiet dinner.

Tuesday

This morning session was on book sellers and their relationships with publishers and authors. Again, interesting from an information perspective but seemed a little remote at this stage in our careers. After lunch, we each did a reading from our manuscripts, with the help of a glass of wine. I was quaking in my thongs at the prospect, as I am terrified of public speaking of any kind, let alone reading something so personal. But it was actually really good to hear the others’ work, and to realise how privileged I was to be there in the company of such talented writers. And I managed to read mine without making a fool of myself, so all good.

I went back to my apartment after this and did some more writing before getting ready to go out to dinner with the other participants. We all piled in a maxi taxi (love the term, wish they called them that here) and went to Kapsali’s, a Greek restaurant in Southbank, to celebrate our final night together. The food was good, the company excellent, and the main topic of conversation – writing, of course. After feeling homesick for the last few days, the thought of returning to the real world the next day was bittersweet. After dinner we went to Max Brenner’s, a chocolate lover’s paradise, where we drank Italian hot chocolate and sank into a chocolate coma.

Wednesday

The final session was on being a professional author, including building networks, finding agents, how advances and royalties work, and just generally not being a crazy person. It was all really interesting.

After lunch it was all over and time to go home, and suddenly the five days seemed to have flown by. While the whole thing was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, I definitely feel the better for it. It’s confirmed to me that I really can write, and that I’m actually quite good at it. And anyway, I couldn’t stop if I tried.

It was a fantastic experience, and the industry contacts I’ve made will be invaluable. And it was such a pleasure to spend five days in the company of other writers at a similar level. We’ve set up a Google group so we can stay in contact, and I look forward to hearing about their successes in the future, and hopefully be able to share some of my own!

So now I have a plan – pitch my other project to Hachette, and if they like the idea, I’ll work on that first. If not, I’ll go back to the other and make it the best it can be, knowing that anything that hones my craft is not wasted.

I still have this weird sense of unreality, like I’ve been in another world for the last five days. I’m struggling to deal with the idea of real life concepts again, like work, or walking my dog, or talking about other topics. It felt ridiculously self-indulgent to devote such a lot of time to learning about, thinking about and talking about…oh, and actually doing…writing.

It’s made me realise that this really is what I want to do. I’m not silly enough to think I can ever do it full time, but I can at least dream of the day I can devote at least half of my time to it.

Now, as I have spent far too long on this, I think it’s about time I went back to writing my novel, and finally finish the scene I started before I left…and hopefully the whole manuscript, so I can start the editing process.

You can’t force creativity

Here we are on day three of what has become our annual holiday to Yondah on the Yorke Peninsula, and I’ve got a lot to live up to since our inaugural visit last September. Back then I was on my second consecutive month of writing 1000 words a day, and in a tremendous burst of inspiration I wrote something like 10,000 words over the five days of our stay and finished the first draft.

The surroundings are certainly conducive to creativity – a luxurious ‘beach house’ with a wall of windows looking out over the sea towards Kangaroo Island, situated on 300 acres of farm land, with no neighbours for literally miles. Plus I’m most of the way through my first month of 1000 words a day on my next manuscript. I know exactly what’s going to happen with my characters, if not with the exact details of the plot. I was pretty confident that I’d get the stream of consciousness thing happening and hopefully double my daily word count.

But it’s not happening, god damn it. On our first day here I managed a whopping 318 words, but since we didn’t get here until 4.30pm I let myself go on that one. Yesterday was much better – I wrote more than 1500 words. That sounds good, but the writing has felt forced. The narrative is not flowing and I’m not happy with where it’s going. I feel like I’m doing my characters a disservice. I’m just marking time and writing shit until I get some inspiration. I know that’s what I have to do sometimes to keep the propulsion happening, but I’m not feeling good about it.

This is the third day now and I’m still not inspired. I probably shouldn’t be putting so much pressure on myself, considering this is supposed to be a holiday and I’m supposed to be relaxing. But I can’t help comparing this with my last visit when I was on literary fire. I’m not sure whether I should keep forcing the words out or just go with the flow (when there is one) and only write when the inspiration is there.

I know I’m not going to finish this draft in the next three days, so there’s no real hurry. The sun has just come out again after a morning shower, so maybe I’ll put the computer away for a while and get outside for some fresh air. Maybe later I’ll be ready to write again.

Another step in the road to publication

I’m not religious and I’m not sure whether or not I believe in fate, but sometimes it does seem as if random decisions converge to give you the opportunities you’ve been hoping for.

A couple of weeks ago I found out that I’d secured a place on the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program, but it didn’t happen quite as I’d expected it to. For one thing, I’d never intended to enter the manuscript that was chosen. The program asked for strong commercial fiction, so naturally I assumed my women’s contemporary mystery manuscript would be far more suitable than my first manuscript, which, while not exactly literary fiction, certainly wouldn’t have the same commercial appeal. Or so I thought.

A few days before applications closed, I remembered that first manuscript, which I’d sweated and toiled over through five drafts, two assessments and countless readings, and which had been languishing on my computer for longer than I’d ever intended. I sent an email to my mate Bek, who had read several of said drafts, and asked her if she thought I should enter it in the program as well.

‘Are you mental?’ she replied. ‘Of course you should enter it!’

So I paid the extra $50 and sent off my two manuscripts, still assuming that if one or the other would be successful, surely it’d be the mystery version.

Fast forward a couple of months and I get a hysterical email from Bek that her urban fantasy manuscript was one of 50 that had been long-listed for the program. Naturally I was happy for her, as all good friends would be, but I was kind of bummed out too. Great, I thought. Guess neither of mine got in. A week later I got an email from the Queensland Writers Centre to say that, unfortunately, on this occasion my application was unsuccessful. But we encourage you to keep writing, etc etc.

I was pretty disappointed, but I figured I’d left that first manuscript lying around for far too long and it was time to do something about it. I sent off a query email to a literary agent to see if they’d be interested in seeing a sample of the work, but I got a prompt response politely telling me to bugger off. Cue temporary depression, the bane of every writer. Maybe I’m just not good enough. Maybe I’ll never get published. Maybe the 5am starts have all been for nothing.

So I gave up on it again and I turned my attention to starting the second instalment in my mystery series. I came up with a plot and I started to write. And it was awesome. I remembered why I was doing this. If I never got published, it wouldn’t matter. I write because I’m a writer.

Then, one Friday morning at work I get a call from the Queensland Writers Centre. The publisher has requested your full manuscript, A Recipe For Balance. You’ve been long-listed. It never occurred to me to ask why the rejection email, why the call a full month after Bek got her call? I sent off the manuscript, the one I’d never expected to get in, and hoped for the best.

In the meantime, I began my annual 1000 words a day for 30 days jaunt. The words were flowing, I went back into the world of my characters that I hadn’t been able to let go after one book. And then the following Friday, I got another call. I’d got into the program. Oh my god. And even better, my friend Bek had got in too!

I’ve known Bek since I first moved to Murray Bridge in Year 7. We were the geeky girls who read books on the way to class and wrote stories during the lunch hour. We’ve always dreamt of being published, and over the years we’ve read each other’s work, praised and criticised it, but always supported each other towards our dream, even when we’ve lived at opposite ends of the country. And these two geeky girls are two of eight chosen ones, out of more than 220 entries from across Australia.

In November we’ll attend an intensive five day retreat in Brisbane where we’ll work with editors from a publishing house to develop our manuscripts to a publishable standard. We may not get published. We probably won’t. But the experience, the industry insight and the opportunity to meet other writers at similar stages in their writing careers will be invaluable, and something we’ll likely never forget.

Meanwhile, I’m still averaging 1000 words a day on my new novel. And once I’ve finished the first draft, I’ll go back for a third draft on the second one. I’ll probably work on three different manuscripts in as many months. And I’ve always thought I was hopeless at multi-tasking.

Going back to the fate thing, it’s amazing how you can be down in the dumps one minute, and the next you’re on top of the world. I wasn’t even going to enter A Recipe For Balance. I’d started to think it was unpublishable, unmarketable and simply not good. The validation that I’m doing something right has been worth it alone.

I can’t express my appreciation for the support and congratulations I’ve had from everyone, including my fantastic workplace, strongly enough.

Hopefully, in a few months’ time, I’ll have some more good news to share. But if I don’t, I know I’ll still be getting up at 5am, writing and re-drafting, cursing and rejoicing in my craft. Because I have to. I’m a writer.

The pitfalls of deadlines

Having a deadline is a great incentive to get things done, particularly at work. But for people like me, for whom procrastination is an art form, they can be dangerous too. I work so well to a deadline that not only do I leave things until the day they’re due, but sometimes until the final hours, or even minutes. I recently wrote about 80 per cent of a speech in 20 minutes after vacillating over it for an entire day.

I do some of my best work under extreme pressure, but it tends to give me a few grey hairs here and there too. But the real problem for me is setting personal deadlines when I don’t have others relying on me to get it done. My first novel took me around three years to finish, and other than submit it to a couple of competitions and a couple of publishers, it’s still sitting on my computer going nowhere. I’m contemplating whether to continue submitting it to publishers or find an agent (apparently just as difficult as finding a publisher), and not actually doing either.

And now I’m on the second draft of my second novel, and I’m dragging my feet. As I’ve mentioned previously, I wrote the first draft in two months and had really hoped I’d be able to keep the momentum going. And while it’s not going too badly, it’s not too great either.

An added problem is that I do have a deadline for this one. I’m intending to submit it to the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program competition, for which the prize is an intensive retreat with editors from a publishing house. They want strong commercial fiction, and my story is right up that alley. All I have to submit for the first round is the first 50 pages and a synopsis by mid July. Easy, you might say.

It would have been easy had I gone back to those first 50 pages a fortnight or so ago. But it seemed that I had all the time in the world, so in the meantime I’ve been pushing on with the story, fixing up my plot lines at a snail’s pace. I don’t have a synopsis, other than a working synopsis that I haven’t updated since before I started on the first draft. And synopses are incredibly difficult to write (especially when you still haven’t quite worked out how you’re going to tie up all those improbable subplots).

The other issue is that, should I be so lucky as to be long-listed for the program – and I have to be optimistic, right? – I’ll be expected to submit a full copy of the manuscript in mid August. And I’m only halfway through that.

So what do I focus on first? Do I try to hammer through the whole draft in the next 2-3 weeks to make sure I’ve got the story right in case I am long-listed? Or do I concentrate on honing those first 50 pages to utter perfection to make sure I have the best possible chance of getting through to the next round?

As difficult as the process is, I know if I’m lucky enough to win a spot on this retreat, I’ve got a real chance of developing a strong, marketable manuscript. If I can get it right, it has the potential to not only be published, but become a series.

The real burning question here is, why am I wasting time writing a blog post when I should be working on either of the above options?

On having too many commitments

For someone with a fairly strong lazy streak, I tend to pack a lot into my life.

This morning, for instance, I’m forcing myself to do some more editing on my manuscript in between coffee and breakfast, but there are a lot of other competing requirements.

My dog, Jedi, is bouncing around the house turning himself inside out with the sheer effort of letting me know just how important is it that he goes for a walk as soon as possible.

I should probably unstack the dishwasher before the dirty dishes start breeding and taking over the kitchen bench.

I should probably take some time to relax with my husband, George, after a long week of work.

I need to keep up with my exercise, because as much as it’s a pain in the proverbial to do it, I always feel better afterwards.

We have very little fresh food left in the house, so we’ll need to buy some fruit and veg sometime if we want to avoid scurvy.

I need to bring some firewood in so we can actually have fires at night without risking pulling out spider-infested logs in the dark.

At some stage I want to pull the bed out and vacuum underneath it, since there’s six years’ worth of dust and animal hair built up. (But actually, I’m kind of scared of what I might find under there)

I want to actually do something with the garden while the weather is still good and before the winter weeds take over.

And all this time, the clock is ticking down to 12.30 when I have to go and ride my horse, which again I always enjoy. But I’ll get home as the sun’s going down and I’ll be cold and tired and then I’ll have to get in the shower and get ready to go out for dinner with friends. Which I don’t begrudge, but suddenly the weekend is looking horribly short.

Is it any wonder I find it so difficult to get any editing/writing done? At the least, I have moved past a block I was having with my plot and am once again progressing, however slowly that might be.

Through all this, my cat is sitting next to me, purring away, with nothing more on his agenda for the day but sleep, sleep and more sleep.

So which of us is really the intelligent species here?

Every author who wants to be published must have a blog

That’s what they say, and far be it from me to argue with the ubiquitous ‘they’. Hence I have started this blog to talk about my writing. Because when your full time job almost entirely involves writing, and when you grab random, hard-earned moments of spare time for creative writing, a blog about writing (which by definition entails writing) is exactly what you need. Ah, yeah…

I’d like to think that I’ll post regularly on this blog, but given my slow progress with my current novel, I won’t commit to anything right now. You see, I’m currently working on the Dreaded Second Draft. Otherwise known as Second Draft Purgatory, where you go through that piece of writing that you thought was a masterpiece laden with wit and brilliance when you wrote it last year, and then you discover that it is in fact a pile of shit. So what I’m doing now is not so much writing as it is deleting, re-writing and swearing incessantly.

I dream of a life of Perfect First Drafts, where the plot is always sound, the characters are always heroes (or villains, or at least believable) and the imagery is always evocative. Because I love writing – I love the feeling of words flowing from my mind to my fingers to the screen; I love the burst of adrenaline it gives me, whether I’m writing a novel or a communications plan; and I love how my characters become so real to me that I mourn them like lost friends when the story comes to an end.

By contrast, second drafts are a hard slog where you’re forced to face up to the improbable plot lines you thought you could get away with, poor character motivations and whole scenes where you tell rather than show. It’s hard, and it’s demoralising, and you have to cut sentences, or scenes, or even characters that you just KNOW are brilliant in order to save the plot.

But in the end it’s always worth it, because you become even more intimate with your story, and over time it becomes everything you’d hoped it would be when you wrote the first sentence – even if you ended up deleting that first sentence.

This blog will be about my writing joys and miseries, but it won’t be exclusively about my writing, because if it was, every entry would be something like:

‘Got up at 5am to write. Had coffee, didn’t get much done. Love Rebecca.’

So I suspect I’ll also be talking about the other things in my life, like horse riding, cooking, eating, drinking, and stuff that gives me the shits. And hopefully I won’t be spending more time crafting these posts than I do working on my novel.