2019 June / July Update

Hello friends!

Like all of you know writing is hard work. Though the rhythm and habit of writing daily are established – I must say I do very much enjoy the morning bursts of creativity! – it is developing my craft that slows this journey for me. With good reason and great results.

Where did we leave off? I believe the last time I posted, I was very excited because the date to send my manuscript to the editor had been set. Well I went into full overdrive. Not only did I complete draft five, but I compressed the story I wanted to work with her with into a sixth draft where it all seemed to come together. I did spend two entire weekend and most mornings and evenings, one could say the better part of two weeks, on finalizing that.

Then I did two things. First, a number of people agreed to read my draft. On purpose I picked a mix of people close to me and complete strangers. The company I work at has offices around the world, and so happens has a fantasy bookclub in one of our offices. Great!

To them I am very grateful, because I received feedback all along the spectrum, from I did not finish, past I love this world, all the way to I enjoyed reading this story! Not only are all of their notes insightful, I agree with many faults they point out, but having people other than my three greatest fans (wife, mum and dad) actually read this was both an emotional eye-opener for me and a rite of passage into the world of writing for other people. It is hard, and although all I really want to hear is that people enjoyed the story, to be honest, I learnt a great deal about how important it is to understand the reader’s experience at this stage. The work can only improve from it.

Here are the three things about how I experienced letting people read my draft.

First, opinions will vary and that is okay. Not everyone will love my story. Just like the market, unless I had picked a group of people with homogenous reading tastes. I learnt something from each comment they left. Some even took the time to write me an email with their thoughts. This provided me with a number of insights, which helped me pinpoint problems with craft – and therefore the story. Numerous points require my attention. Readers are readers, they are entitled to their opinion. My job as the writer is to work hard to deliver a reading experience that is enjoyable. In all cases, this was not yet the case.

Second, be honest. Upfront I told everyone who wrote that I share this with them to learn and grow as a writer. Respectful, brutal honesty about their experience is welcome. It will help me. It is tough. As long as the feedback is on the problems with the craft, it is fine. That is how craft develops; by figuring out what to improve. Keep in mind thought that people have varying skills in giving feedback, so do not take harshness in this setting personal. Assume people are coming from a good place. They did after all spend time with your writing and if they did not enjoy it, it is unlikely other a paying readership will.

Third, clear to me does not mean clear to the reader. The lesson here is that such things break their experience reading. Such interruptions disrupt the flow of the activity, making it more likely that the story not enjoyed as much. However, instead of rewriting these mistakes in such a draft, I will invest the time into adding and cutting passages which improve the story. Once I have all the scenes and chapters needed, work on clarity will commence. In the meantime I have bought some coaching on this aspect of the craft so I can improve as I go along.

Storytelling is an art, and to do so in the written word is skill as much dependent on my command of the language as the development of my craft. More about that a bit later.

At the same time I sent this manuscript to the editor I choose to work with on this project, Cate Hogan, who I had sent a chapter for review late 2018 and she delivered great feedback: twenty pages worth of chapter notes and 90 minutes worth of recorded notes and thoughts on character, plot and style. In that order. I followed up with some questions and received another 30 minutes of notes, meaning that I have two hours worth of audio material about my book at this stage from someone with a keen eye for detail and ideas and tips on how to improve my craft. Exactly what I needed!

Look, I’ll be very honest. Both the readers and the editor pointed out similar problem with my story, and one or two of the readers actually has an editor’s eye. The difference with the professional editor is that her feedback focussed on three key aspects of my craft that were the cause of the problems in the story. This advice is golden.

Certainly other aspiring writers struggle with these issues as well, so she sees this a lot. My characters are a bit flat, and the protagonist’s motivations are unclear. Knowing how my characters affected my readers, I could see this needed improvement. She showed me how. The plot did not resolve enough arcs opened. Apparently a part of a good reading experience is the satisfaction of learning how things work out for the characters. Something I forgot while writing. Armed with these two insights, I now know which specific elements of story I must rework.

What makes this feedback so useful is that, with clear examples, she helped me pinpoint problems and see them in my own writing, as well as give me ideas on how to improve my craft. An editor’s job is not to rewrite, it is to help me turn my writing into a coherent, publishable, sellable work. To me the investment was worth it and I will do so again.

That puts us in the middle of June. What have I been doing since? Well, rather than dig into the manuscript I am doing two things.

Characters! Yes, I am digging into to their lives. I spend time writing scenes that characterize them. Not for the main story, but things that may have happened to them. Exploring them so helps me develop their voice, and thus I find it easier to write them into the events of the story. Also, knowing their values and desires means that I can better use these to drive interesting conflict and create more tension in scenes, chapters and acts. It takes time, yes, but I see how it is paying off already.

Plot! Ok, so I have a main storyline and it has some good twists and build-ups to these twists. Now I do not intend to write a 150K word debut novel. 50K is fine. What I want is a good story, well told. I have an outline now, which contains 67 scenes. As I write some of these scenes they change. My characters you know. Since they have such clear values and desires and they really conflict with each other, the plot very much is influenced by their actions.

There are many, many more lessons here, but for now this is it. Am I still enjoying myself? You betcha! In fact, I am having such a good time I cannot wait to get draft eight done by August 1. That will be the next milestone.

Thank you for reading and for being interested!
Until next time,

Toby

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