Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Trial and Error: a Writer's Learning Curve

About three years ago I wrote my first novel in English. I had a story all lined up in my head and the writing flowed, page after page after page, until I had what I thought was a great book.

I gave it the usual checks for spelling mistakes and typos and then started sending it out to agents and publishers.

All 155,000 words of it.

Naturally rejection letters kept coming back, mostly standard replies of the “remember that this is a subjective business, so don’t be discouraged” kind, which it’s easier said than done.

I shelved the book and moved on to other projects, short stories, a novella, another novel. I published the short stories with Ether Books and started talking to other writers, reading blogs, learning about writing.

It was with my third novel – Playing on Cotton Clouds – that I struck lucky and found a publisher. Or I should say I worked harder to hone my craft and reaped the rewards. 

Because it takes time to become a good writer, it takes a lot of mistakes and a lot of learning.

I am happy with Playing On Cotton Clouds and the way it has been received, but I still have affection for my first story, the characters that had filled so many nights and small hours, I still reckon there is potential for a good book there, if only I could reshape it and improve the style.

Of course that is call editing, another side to writing I had to master.

In the last few days, I picked up the manuscript and went through it. Its flaws finally jumped at me. How could I not see them before? Simple: because I had fallen into the same traps many new writers find themselves in.

More specifically, I now can highlight the following “in need of improvement” areas, which with time have actually become pet hates of mine.

1. Length. 155K words? Seriously? My published novel clocked at around 90K, which is more or less the recommended length for a novel – if at all possible try to keep a book under 100K. So my novel is a good 65,000 words too long for a start and a lot will need to be chopped off. I’ll need to be brutal to be kind.

2. Telling. The easiest trap of all for inexperienced writers. Filling pages with details that could be easily left out, repeating and hammering concepts. 

Just one passage out of a hat-full:  

Sally scrutinised him. Ewan confused her with his habit of changing from indifferent to hostile to friendly in a short space of time. She was never sure of what he was thinking, what opinion he had of her. At times Sally had the feeling he resented her for taking Jonah’s friendship away from him. At that precise moment he was smiling again and she decided to give him another chance to have a chat.  

I would have done better to show what was happening and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions. The middle sentence is completely redundant. I had already said that Sally finds Ewan’s confusing.                                                          

Compare with an extract from my published novel:  

Seth had learnt to tune in to the disappointed nuances of her voice, the flashes of annoyance in her eyes.
They were darting at him now, as she thanked him for the taxi ride.
“I hope you enjoyed the evening,” [Nicole] added.
“I did. Your friends are nice people.”
“I’m glad you liked them,” she continued sweetly, her nostrils opening wider as she inhaled. “You didn’t talk to them much.”
“Yeah, sorry, you know me. I’m not very good with people.”
“Unless you know them, of course,” she simpered. “But then, I suppose, we all do it.”
“I’m sorry.” Seth’s sensed a reproach. “I’ll do better next time.”

There is definitely more showing going on here and the readers can sense the confusion Seth is experiencing while trying to read Nicole’s mind and what she’s really thinking, without me having to tell them.

3. POV jumps. I used to do this a lot. In the aforementioned chapter I kept skipping from Sally’s point of view to Ewan’s and back again. Again, that leads to telling, as I’m describing what is happening from the outside, rather than showing the scene through one of the character’s eyes. Multiple POV is fine – I had three main POVs in my published novel - but they need to appear in separate sections/chapters, so that each scene is always seen just from one character’s POV.

4. Too many speech tags. He said, she asked, they replied… It’s easy to litter dialogue with them. Personally I find they slow down the pace. Speech tags are useful when it is necessary to specify who’s talking or we want to better describe how a line is delivered – as in the example above – but often I prefer to leave them out and describe what the characters are doing or what they look like instead. 

Here’s another example from Playing on Cotton Clouds:

“Well…” Aidan lowered his mug back on the table. “He’s not my son and not my brother either or my friend. A friend sticks around. For what he knows, I could be dead.”
“Oh, he knows you’re alive.” Mrs Johnson’s eyes twinkled. “He knows you come here to see me and that you are a good friend to me. I tell him about you and I think he misses you, like you miss him, if you’re honest with yourself. You always find a way to ask of him, when you come here.”
“No, I don’t.” Aidan hid his face behind the mug once more.

More effective.

So, here are four main points to work on to make what I still consider a cracking little story with well developed characters into a better book.

Have you any tips to give? Any mistake/bad habit you have corrected with time and experience?


  1. Great post thanks, lots of good advice. My advice to theyounger writing me would be to plot in advance rather than sitting down and trusting in the characters to tell their story. Which they do, but perhaps not in the most of em, commercial of directions! :-)

  2. Great post, Michela. Yes, it's shocking what you spot when you revisit old manuscripts. Bet you've had a few giggles.

    In my earlier (unpublished) writing days, I used to insist way too much on historical geographic accuracy. Now I know to allow some leeway, especially in terms of setting. I once told a fellow historical fiction writer who wanted to set a castle in the Pentland Hills (on our doorstep) that there's never been a castle in that area, so her idea wasn't the greatest! Her reaction was a blunt 'mind your own business' type of reply. ;-) And right she was. My bad...

    Loved the snippets. Fab stuff!

  3. I can't say I'm experienced enough to give any advice, or handy little snippets of knowledge, but what I can say is that a little more than a year ago my first published novel (Aug2011) was handled by an editor who will always remain dear to me. She didn't beat about the bush. In some areas she said things like 'longwinded'; 'far too many exclamation points' ...and she even said 'this section is boring'. Did I whinge? No, but I did cringe A LOT, and then I did a slash and burn. That ms still has a lot of first-timer errors but BY GOD I LEARNED A LOT! Keep at it Michela. Even if it never gets published it will be worth it.

  4. I wouldn't call 155,000 words too long. Your average Stephen King/Dan Brown is about 150,000-180,000. The length of the tale, Michela, is the length of the tale.

    It's what's in those 155,000 words that matters and you appear to have a good hook on what's wrong.

    Bet of luck with it.

    1. True. Harry Potter books from IV onwards are another example or very long novels that got published. But that can happen when you are established. Many publishers don't consider work from a new author if it's over 100K. Of course Rowling, Dan Brown and Stephen King are going to be published, whatever the length of their novels.
      That said, Harry Potter #5 could have easily done with a good 100 pages less, IMO.

  5. Brown's last effort could have lost the final 60 pages for me.

    I recall an interview with Tom Sharpe year ago, and he said his first Novel, Riotous Assemblies was way too long, so he did the obvious thing and turned it into two books.