THE WRITING LIFE – half a draft in eight weeks

Last time, I talked about the value of the visual stimulus in helping to get to the end of the first draft, or ‘zero’ draft as I prefer to call it – this is the draft where there are superfluous characters, scenes that simply tread water, plot holes as big as a house, and page upon page of tell-y back story which will eventually (hopefully) form the basis of some useful scenes.

The main visual aid that’s keeping me going is an idea I picked up from the Mslexia Facebook page. Their suggestion was that you print out a calendar and mark a cross in the box for every day you write some words, ‘no matter how many or how few’, with the aim that you never break the chain (cue Fleetwood Mac).

Now that ”no matter how few” could catch me out, because strictly speaking, that means ten words would count, or three! So I decided to set myself a target of 1000 words a day, but with an absolute minimum of 200 words. So if I write 195, no cross on the calendar! If I hit 200, I get a cross, and if I write 1000 words or more, I get across and a little dot. Here’s how I’m doing so far:

As you can see, things slowed down a little after the first few weeks, but in my defence, this summer has been quite busy with family visits, holidays and so on. Also, of course, the further on that you get with a story, the more complicated it becomes, because so many things have been established that there is more chance of problems arising. I’m resisting the temptation to deal with those at this stage, (unless of course the problem is so big it’s preventing me from moving forward) because that can all be dealt with in the next draft.

The other thing I’m using to coax myself to the end of this draft is partly visual, but part reward incentive. I’m assuming this draft will be around 90,000 words, So in the left-hand glass, I put 90 small coins – 1p & 5p. Every time I write another 1000 words, I take one of those small coins and put it back in my purse and I put a pound coin in the right-hand glass. so when I get to the end, I’ll have £90 with which to celebrate before I embark on a decent first draft. That should be a pretty good night out for myself and Mr EW!

Both these methods are working very well for me – I love seeing the level in that right-hand glass go up while the level in the left-hand glass goes down. And with the calendar, my desire to not break the chain has become so strong that I’m now finding myself getting twitchy each day until I’ve got at least 200 words down. The other night after a long and tiring day, it was gone 11.30 when I realised that I hadn’t ‘done my words’. I was so shattered that I almost just climbed into bed, but when I thought about that empty square on the calendar, I just couldn’t do it, so I picked up a pen (too tired to climb the stairs to my study) and managed to drag 230 words from somewhere.

As of today, I’m now at a total of 48,000 words, which, given my usual agonisingly slow pace, I feel is not too shabby.

In other news, What She Lost is progressing nicely and I will very soon be able to reveal the cover, so watch this space! In the meantime, I’m currently reading through the page proofs. This is a lovely stage to get to, because it’s the first time my words start to look like a real book. I’m still finding the odd error, even though the book has been read many, many times, thoroughly edited and copyedited. Still the odd thing creeps through.

That’s about it for this time. I’ll post again in a couple of weeks by which time I hope to be well on my way to 60,000 words. I’m also hoping to reveal the cover for What She Lost.

By the way, if you’re new to this blog, you might like to know that my writing doesn’t always go this smoothly. In fact, until now, it has NEVER gone smoothly. If you fancy trawling back through some of the old posts, you’ll see just what a struggle I had writing my third novel, What She Lost.  I mention this because if you’re struggling with a draft at the moment, it might help you to see how badly I went wrong, and how I managed to eventually turn it into something I’m quite proud of. I almost felt like giving up, but I knew I had a story to tell, so I kept at it. You can, too. No one said this writing lark was going to be easy…

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to sign up for one of the 1-day Writing a Novel workshops (the next one, Planning and Plotting, is on 24th of September – £45 for the whole day, and it’s a cracking workshop, even though I say so myself information) visit my website You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook


Weeks to deadline 0
Days to deadline 0

At the beginning of January this year, I submitted a first draft of my third novel. It was a pile of poo. I knew it was bad, but I hadn’t realised quite how bad.I was too close to it, I think.There were some parts that were good, and the heart of the story was in there somewhere, but I’d lost sight of it a bit, gone off at a tangent, and got myself in a hell of a state with the structure. Had I been a new, unpublished novelist trying to get an agent, that manuscript would have been returned with a polite rejection.

But fortunately, I have a track record and so my agent and editor were willing to spend a few hours with me talking through various ideas and ways forward. Almost exactly seven months after that wonderfully creative and productive meeting, I have finished this draft!

After that meeting, even more ideas dropped into my head, so I came home and took the novel apart, sacked a few characters, combined a few others, and more or less started again. Here’s a fun post I wrote at the time about getting rid of characters: The Home for Redundant Characters

I’ve been blogging for just over a year specifically about my experience of writing this novel. First post here. I called the blog The Writing Life, because initially, I’d only intended to write a series of ten weekly posts, partly to encourage myself by publicly committing to a certain amount of work, but also because I’m so frequently asked about my working day, especially the question “how many hours a day do you write?” If I’m editing, I have to be dragged away from my desk after eight or nine hours. However, if I’m drafting, I often only spend two or three hours a day actually writing. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the day is spent reclining on a chaise longue drinking gin and tonic ( I wish!)

There are lots of other non-writing tasks, some of which are desk-based, others which involve being out and about, either for research, or for the purpose of talking with other writers – an essential part of the job, in my opinion. Also, we don’t have normal weeks and weekends, so while it might seem that I have a lot of free time because I meet a friend for lunch on a Tuesday or have a day out on Thursday, that’s only because I’ll be here at my desk all day Saturday and Sunday.

Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by how other writers work, so I just wanted to open the door into my own daily life as a full-time writer. I had such a positive response to those first ten posts, I decided to continue with this blog, weekly or fortnightly, depending on what was going on. The response has continued to be incredibly positive, with frequent praise for the honesty and openness of the posts. Basically, I’m willing to admit that I find this job extremely difficult (though I love it and there is nothing I would rather do), and also that I am perfectly capable of writing rubbish and not recognising the fact until it’s been pointed out.

Anyway, the point is, it’s taken me seven months to complete this re-draft, but I have produced 94,000 words, around 75,000 of which are completely new. I have struggled enormously with this book – more than the first, I think, and definitely more than the second, but I’ve done it, and just before the weekend, I pressed the blue button!

I’m not kidding myself that it’s anywhere near perfect, but I know it’s much better than the first, or ‘zero’ draft. There will be more work to do, but it now seems like something that is actually doable. So I shall now bite my nails until I receive feedback from my agent and editor, and I’ll blog about it when I do, good or bad. Well, good and bad – it won’t be one or the other.

I’d just like to say thank you to everyone who has supported this blog over the last year. It’s been wonderful to know that so many of you have found my experiences encouraging in your own work. thank you all so much too for your comments, tweets, and re-tweets.

I think the point I’m always trying to make is, writing a novel is difficult, and it’s incredibly hard work. You will go wrong, you will write crap, you will write yourself down blind alleys, and you will create characters who don’t work, (or who do work, but don’t belong in the novel you’re writing.) Unfortunately, all you can do is cut the bits that don’t work and start again; there are no shortcuts. But if you’re determined, even if you end up rewriting the entire novel, as I have, it will improve, and you’ll get there in the end.

I’m hoping I won’t have to do another complete rewrite, but if I need to, I will. And I’ll blog about it. Thank you again for your support, lovely readers! See you again soon.

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, or if you’d like to attend one of my workshops, please visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on twitter


Countdown to deadline – two weeks to go!

The blog’s a bit late this week because I only got back from my latest writing retreat (more below) yesterday evening. If you’re new to this blog, I’m sharing the experience of writing my third novel. It’s been a challenge! I submitted a crappy first draft in January – I’m calling that a ‘zero draft’, or draft 1.A so I’m referring to this one as draft 1.B. It’s now two weeks to my deadline…

Anyway, it’s been a brilliantly productive week. This is what I said at the end of last week’s post:

So, my goal for next week: edit seven chapters, draft final two (or three) chapters. 

How did I do? Mission accomplished! I ended up doing more editing than planned, because I ticked off those seven chapters, and then went back and did more tweaking and twiddling on a few others. Writing the final two chapters led to some changes I needed to make earlier in the novel, and there are still things I need to add in. I wasn’t sure if it would be two or three chapters, but now I think it’ll just be two, although I’ve also started drafting a short epilogue. Nothing detailed, just a brief sort of ‘this is where they all are six months later‘.

The other thing I’ve done this week is to move from working in Scrivener to working on a Word document. I compiled the draft in Scrivener, saved it in Word, and from now on, will be working entirely on that document. Spent ages this week checking the indentations, making sure the chapters are numbered and spaced correctly etc etc – boring stuff, but it has to be done.

One of the reasons I’ve managed to achieve and exceed my goal this week is that I spent a few days on a writing retreat. I’ve been here several times before and can highly recommend it.

The wonderful host, Annie, who is also a writer so understands writers’ needs perfectly, brings delicious, home-cooked meals to your room at agreed times so you don’t have to think about anything but your writing. You get your own room with shower and loo and your own back door so you can come and go as you please (though I didn’t even leave the room this time!) There’s also a lovely balcony overlooking the Forest of Dean, so in fine weather, you can even sit outside and work.

So, I got loads of work done, even though I lost half a day’s work due to some ongoing stomach problems. Actually, I should warn you, next week’s post may contain a bit of moaning and shameless requests for sympathy, because on Monday, which is my usual blog-writing day, I’m having a gastroscopy (camera down the throat and into the stomach). Had these twice before, and it’s NOT my idea of a fun day out!

Anyway, let’s not think about that (oh shit, now I’m thinking about that…)

Time to set a goal for next week: Edit my final two chapters, finish drafting the epilogue, and add in two little incidents I’ve come up with for earlier in the book. That’s probably enough, given that I only have five days before I’ll be posting again. Then I’ll have a full week to read the manuscript and make any final alterations and corrections before submitting this draft.

Finally, I came back from the retreat to find my author copies of the Polish version of The Things We Never Said. The title is Przemilczenia, which Google translates as Silence, though there might be more nuance than that. I have three copies to give away if you read Polish, or have Polish friends who might fancy it. There are also three German copies going spare. The German version is called Ich Habe Dich Immer Geliebt, which translates as, I Have Always Loved You.

If you’re in the UK and you’d like one of these, get in touch through the contact page of my website (the ‘comments’ facility on blogger isn’t always reliable) with your name and address, and I’ll post you a copy. First-come, first-served, obviously.

See you next week, when it’s one week to deadline!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work, visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter


Countdown to deadline – three weeks to go!

Very quick post this week. If you’re not familiar with this blog, I’m sharing the experience of writing my third novel. It’s been a challenge! I submitted a dreadful first draft in January, so bad it barely counted as a first draft – more a zero draft. I’m much happier with what I’m doing now, although with just three weeks to go, I’m too close to it to really be objective, so we’ll see!

I’m setting myself targets each week, so looking back at last week’s post, this is the goal I set myself:

My goal for next week is to have sorted out the order of the chapters and to have a draft, even if it’s rough, of the penultimate chapter. 

So how did I do? Well, I did sort out the chapter order so that we now dip into the past a little sooner. Also, I’ve split some of the longer chapters into two and done a great deal of cutting and trimming, which is gradually tightening things up. I’ve started drafting that penultimate chapter, but haven’t completed the draft yet.

I’ve done most of the bigger changes now and am well under way with the line by line editing – the tweaking and twiddling. I use Scrivener, and the corkboard has a wonderful feature which allows you to label each little ‘card’ to show what stage it’s at. As of this morning, 33 of my 42 cards are labelled ‘revised draft’, seven are still ‘first draft’, and two are still labelled ‘to do’ (as in, they’ve not yet been drafted).

So, all in all, progress is good. I do still have those last two (maybe even three) chapters to write, though. The ending is important to get right (obviously!) So I want to give it a bit more thought. I’m going to carry on with editing the remaining seven chapters now, and I’m hoping I can get that done in the next couple of days, because on Thursday, I’m off on a writing retreat details here  and I really want to spend that time working on the ending. I’ll have four clear days to focus entirely on the novel, so although the blog post will be a day late next week – I intend to publish on Tuesday – by that time I should be almost there.

So, my goal for next week: edit seven chapters, draft final two (or three) chapters.

After that, when I have two weeks ago, I’ll need to read through the whole thing again, and then revise those last few chapters.

See you next week!

If you’d like to know more about me and my writing, or if you’re interested in attending my workshops, please visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on twitter


Countdown to deadline: 4 weeks to go!

Regular readers will know that I’m blogging weekly now until my deadline on 31st of August. This is the deadline for submitting the current draft of my third novel (which I’m calling Draft 1.B because although i’s technically a second draft, so much has changed it’s more like a first draft) to my editor at Simon & Schuster, and my agent.

This book has been something of a challenge – it still is – but I think it’s coming together now, and although I know there will be a lot more redrafting when I have their feedback, I’m feeling a little more confident about it, in that it’s beginning to feel ‘do-able’ in a way it didn’t for a very long time.

So, I’ve just looked back at the goal I set for myself last week which was this:

My goal for this time next week is to made the tense changes and to have at least begun reading through from the start and making notes. I’ve started what I think will be the penultimate chapter, but I’m a bit stuck at the moment. l’ll keep going back to it over the next few days, but I’m not going to make that my focus just yet.

I’m still stuck on those last two chapters, but I’m not going to worry about that just now. I’ve finished making the tense changes, and I’ve read through the whole draft as it stands (minus the last two chapters and an epilogue) and made lots of notes on the manuscript, as well as a list of ‘jobs’ that need doing. I’ve also listed the chapters and put a little symbol beside each to show whether it’s in the present or the past, and I’ve noted the chapter length.

Here’s my editing table today. As you can see, I’m still, even at this late stage, unsure about one of the character’s names. I have a couple more ideas, so I’m going to do a ‘find and replace’ and see how the new choices feel as I’m working with them.

Looking at my list with the chapter length and symbol showing whether its past or present, I noticed that there’s a rather big clump of ‘present’ at the beginning of the book. It may be that it’s appropriate, or it may be that breaking that up would cause other structural problems, but at the moment, I’m looking for a way of bringing one or two earlier episodes up to the front, so that we start to dip back into the past a little sooner.

Although I’m working on Scrivener, which makes it relatively easy to move things around, I still prefer to separate the printed manuscript into chapters, which I’ve spent a good chunk of the morning doing. This makes it easier to see how the story will flow if I change the position of a chapter.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that some of my chapters are, in my opinion, anyway, overly long, so I’ve been reading through those to find appropriate points at which to split them.

All in all, I’m making progress.  I’m having to resist the temptation to start making the tiny, line-editing changes at this stage, because there are bigger things that I want to change first. Some of my chapters need quite a bit of trimming, so I want to do that before I start tweaking and twiddling with the sentences that remain.

My goal for next week is to have sorted out the order of the chapters and to have a draft, even if it’s rough, of the penultimate chapter. See you next week, when I’ll have just three weeks to go!

If you’d like to know more about me and my writing, or if you’re interested in attending my workshops, please visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter


For no other reason than I love this picture and don’t want to publish this blog without including something pretty to look at, here’s a snap I took in November while on an Arvon writing retreat at Lumb Bank

By ‘eck, I’ve been working hard these last two weeks. Not that I don’t always work hard, you understand, but now I’m talking back-aching, neck and shoulder-aching, brain-hurting sort of hard. It’s structure, you see. I keep thinking I’ve got it nailed, then as I start to write, I realise, Oh, that can’t go there, because that hasn’t happened yet and it’ll give away that other thing … Or something along those lines. This has happened several times over the last couple of weeks, and I really feel as though I’m taking two steps forward and one and a half back; maybe one, if I’m being optimistic.

The main problem is, I think, that I have two viewpoint characters, one whose head we’re in both in the present and in the past, and the other who we only see from the first character’s viewpoint in the present, but into whose head we go in the past. So I’m basically juggling Character A present, Character A past (both from her viewpoint), Character B present (from character A’s viewpoint) and Character B past, from her own viewpoint. With me so far?  Thought not. If anyone knows any novels where something similar happens, pleeeeeease let me know!

Anyway, in my last post, I mentioned having cut more than half my original draft. It was scary, but necessary. I had lots of lovely supportive comments both on Twitter, and on the post itself. My thanks particularly to Rachael Dunlop who said that she’d had a similar experience, but rather than cutting, she put the original MS aside and started again from the beginning, because, she says, “at least this means the word count goes up and not down.” This is good psychology! I’ve now done the same thing, starting with 15,000 words (all completely new or significantly rewritten). I still have all the original scenes on my desktop for when I need to refer to them, but so much has changed that there’s very little, if anything, that I can simply paste into the new draft.

Because of the structural issues, there is a great deal of thinking to do, and while I’m normally in favour of taking a break now and again to let my subconscious do some of the work, I spent one day away from it last week and found that it set me back considerably because I lost the train of thought I’d been following with a particular problem. Having said that, it’s not good to have no breaks at all, so the best solution I can think of for now is to make sure I look at the work every day, just so that I stay familiar with it, and also to keep a large notepad beside me so I can write down every idea/possible solution as it comes to me. Then I just need to cross it out if I decide not to use it.

The current new word count is 23,760, so I’m not quite making my target of 5000 words a week, but then I know it’ll be much higher some weeks because it’ll simply be a question of rewriting, rather than completely rethinking. So, I’m plodding on, slowly but surely.

I’m trying to stay positive and optimistic, and it really helps that spring is on the way – here’s another lovely picture to prove it:

And just to round off, I’d like to share a couple of nice things that have happened since my last post: I’ve been invited to speak at the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch on 26th March, which I’m looking forward to immensely, and also, I’ve had another one of those rather special reader emails. It’s always lovely to hear from readers (and I always reply), and I particularly like the emails where they include something about themselves, or why the book had particular resonance for them. Just after my last blogpost, I received an email from a reader who said that, due to family/work circumstances, she’d got out of the habit of reading and hadn’t read much at all for the last twelve years. My books, she said, had ‘reignited’ her love of reading. How lovely is that?

This is the second time a reader has told me that one or both of my books have started them reading again after a long break. I can’t think of many things you could say to an author that would be more pleasing than this. And as always, I’m immensely touched when a reader takes the time to write and let me know that they’ve enjoyed my books. In fact, even as I’m typing this, I’m smiling!

And on that note, I’ll sign off and see you in two weeks time with another update!

To find out more about me and my work, please visit my website, follow me on Twitter @sewelliot, or like my Facebook page


When I last posted two weeks ago, I’d done lots of thinking and planning for this gargantuan re-draft. I hadn’t started the actual rewriting at that point, but was hopeful about the progress I’d make while on a writing retreat in the Forest of Dean. Here’s a picture of the balcony outside my room, bathed in golden afternoon sunlight.

Part of my revision process has involved getting rid of a character who’d had quite a substantial part in the novel. What I’d realised, though, was that while he did have some important work to do, the storyline that sprang from him was complicating matters, and wasn’t really relevant, so he had to go. Here’s the fun post in which I gave him the sack! The home for redundant characters

But as I say, he did have an important role, so I then went through every chapter that featured him and identified what was essential to the storyline, the things I just couldn’t afford to lose. I decided that most of those areas could be covered by another character, so her role has now become much more important. I’ve essentially combined two (possibly three) characters.

I marked the bits from the original character that  I wanted to keep and the rest, even the good stuff, had to go. Before I left for the retreat, I’d cut 36,000 words from the draft, and I did it (almost) without flinching.

I then printed out the remaining 59,000 words. First, I identified chapters that I thought (in my foolish naivete) could be kept with minimal rewriting. I went through the rest with a highlighter pen, marking out what to keep rather than what to cut. I didn’t start deleting at this point, though – I’m brave, but not that brave! I knew there would be a lot more to go, but I didn’t think I could take seeing the word count plummet much lower until I had some new words to replace them.
Off I went on my retreat with the chapters I’d decided to keep – about 30 of the original 50. I wrote a new opening chapter, then rewrote what I’d decided should be chapter 2, and that was the point at which I realised that, because of the changes in character, location, the year in which it’s set, and the order in which I’m telling the story, I need to rewrite virtually everything. Yep, everything. Because even the events that are staying, even the conversations, even the characters’ thoughts – will all be at least slightly different because of the other changes.
At this point – understandably, I’d argue – I muttered a few choice expletives. Then to calm myself, I opened the doors to the balcony, took a few deep breaths and feasted my eyes on the lovely morning sunshine before returning to my laptop.

It was good that this realisation hit me on the first morning of a four-day retreat; if I’d have been at home, I think I might have gone back to bed or hit the gin or something. But I cracked on. If I’m going to make this novel as good as I think it can be, then twiddling about with paragraphs I’ve grown fond of is only going to cause me more problems in the long run. So I wrote new chapters, I rewrote existing ones to the extent that often only a tiny part of the scene remained.

I’m still struggling with the structure, because although, like my first two novels, this story is about how the past can affect the present, it’s a more complicated timespan showing two characters’ lives over a number of years. I’ve started in the present, and need to gradually reveal the past. I tried planning the whole thing, but found that impossible, especially as so much has changed, but I’ve planned the order of the first few chapters and will continue to write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit etc. By the end of my four days, I’d ditched more than half of the original draft, and had written just over 15,000 words, about half of which were completely new.

Now I’m back home, I’ve printed out the ‘to keep’ chapters – these are chapters with an important message or emotion, but which may still be set in the wrong place and time, and may still contain redundant characters. I’ve written a couple of lines at the top of each one explaining why the chapter is important, and this is helping me to rewrite as I go along.

Despite the huge changes, the heart of this novel remains the same, and despite the mammoth amount of work I have to do, I’m feeling passionate about it. Please tune in in two weeks to see where I’m up to!

In the meantime, if you fancy coming to a one-day writing workshop in Sheffield, there are two coming up – check out the workshops page of my website

To keep an eye on what I’m up to, you can like my facebook page or follow me on Twitter  @sewelliot


As I write this, the sky outside my window is an unbroken blue and the sun is bouncing off rooftops and windowpanes. Snowdrops are out, and even daffodils are stretching their heads upwards. Everything is growing, everything is full of life. This is the perfect time to be ‘creating’, and I’m trying to harness all that wonderful creative energy so that I can pour it into my novel.

In last week’s post, I talked about the feedback I’d received and the massive amounts of work I now realise I have to do on novel number three. I said that undertaking a major re-draft is a bit like climbing a mountain. Last week, I was standing at the foot of that mountain looking up into the foggy distance and wondering where I would be now, a week later.

Well, the summit is still shrouded in mist, but I have taken a few steps up the mountainside. I’ve been working pretty hard this week, although it feels a bit frustrating, because I still haven’t done any actual rewriting. There’s been a great deal of thinking and planning, making new timelines, writing scene summaries and moving index cards around.

Finding a timeline that will work has been incredibly difficult. I thought I had it sorted until I realised that it made one of the characters much too young for what happens at the time. The timeline is a microcosm of the whole novel in that if you change one thing, everything else shifts as well. Anyway, I think I have a workable timeline now. I’ve written a list of the key scenes chronologically, including dates of birth and deaths, and now I just (ha! “just”!) have to work out the order in which these things are revealed to the reader. This is fairly complicated, because there are two viewpoints and the story happens both in real time, and over a number of years before the novel opens. One day, I’m going to make life easy (well, easier) for myself and write a novel that is set in real time and where the story happens as we go along!

The amount of work I have to do is daunting but I’m also feeling excited about it again now, because even though I can’t quite see the top of my writing mounting, I’ve started the trek, and that feels good.

If you’re at a similar stage with your work, it might help if I share this comforting advice from my lovely agent when we were discussing this recently. She told me to look after myself and be kind to myself, because this stage is the literary equivalent of the metaphorical ‘eating for two’ in pregnancy – not literally ‘eating’, of course, but nourishing and nurturing yourself in order to feed the baby (novel) you’re growing, and building up your strength in readiness for the massive output to come,

So I’ve been trying to do that. Yes, I’ve been working every day, but I’m also allowing myself time to read, time to think and the odd non-working trip to a coffee shop – maybe even featuring cake!

I’m going to leave it there for this week. I’ll post again in two weeks’ time when I come back from my retreat in the Forest of Dean. details here I’ll have four clear days where I don’t have to think about shopping, cooking, walking the dog or any other domestic responsibilities. I’m hoping I’ll have significant progress to report on 23rd of February.

Oh, and before I go, I should mention that I’m running a couple of one-day writing workshops in Sheffield soon, on 28th of February and 28th March. These days are always fun, always productive, and, people tell me, incredibly inspiring. If you know anyone who might be interested, the full details are here.

Happy ‘almost Spring’ everyone, and happy writing!

If you’d like to keep an eye on what I’m up to, please visit my website, ‘like’ my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter @sewelliot


Following on from my fun post The Home for Redundant Characters last week, I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been thinking/doing since the wonderfully useful editorial meeting with my editor and agent.

Many of you will know that this novel, my third, has been a struggle from day one. I know there’s something really good in here, but I’m struggling to pin it down and I’d got myself in a bit of a mess. After discussing it in detail at the meeting, I have a clearer idea of what needs to be done. The downside is, it ain’t gonna be easy!

Before I talk about that, it’s worth mentioning an interesting point that was made in the comments on my post on 19th Jan: If I didn’t already have a publishing contract and submitted this draft to an agent,would I be taken on? The honest answer is, I doubt it. The draft shows I can write, but as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘the first draft of anything is shit’. One of the many joys of having an agent and an editor is that I have their support and expert editorial advice on hand to help me make it less shit.

The thing is, I have a track record, so they both know I can do it. If you’re a new author seeking an agent, you may be a far better writer than me, but if you submitted something like this, which really is a first draft, the agent has no evidence that you’ll be able to make a decent novel out of it. Also, of course, you wouldn’t actually send a first draft out to agents (though some people do).

So what does a new author do at this stage? I’d suggest doing what I did with my first novel – pay for professional editorial advice. It wasn’t easy for me to find the money – I was on a low income – but the feedback I received was excellent and I’d say it was money very well-spent. Make sure you check the credentials of any organisation or individual offering this service, though.

On to my writing life: as I’ve said, the editorial meeting was incredibly useful and productive. The biggest problem by far (which I knew) is the structure and timeline, and with three of us discussing it, it became clear just how complicated it’s going to be to sort this out, especially as re-jigging the order in which things happen causes all sorts of other problems to rise to the surface. It also became clear that there were a couple of scenes that weren’t really convincing, and one or two characters that just weren’t pulling their weight.

So, how do I approach this? First, I listed summaries of every single scene in the existing draft. Then I went through with a pen and made notes on which scenes I know will be cut, which need significant changes, and which can stay – with some rewriting.

Next, I moved all the ‘to cut’ scenes to a different list. They need to be cut from this novel, but there might be little character details, little bits of description or something else that will come in useful at some point. Tip: never discard anything completely!

I printed the list of scenes that I’m keeping for the moment. Of course, more may go, and I need quite a few new ones, too, but I’ll worry about that later. Then I gathered the essential equipment: index cards, glue, paper cutter, ready for a ‘sticking’ session.

And then I settled down to stick the scene summaries onto the cards, ready to shuffle into some sort of coherent order. Two things occurred to me: the first is that ‘sticking’ is not as much fun as it sounds, (and it takes a fecking long time). The second is that finding a coherent – that being the operative word – order is going to be, shall we say, challenging.

Still, there’s always coffee, and there’s always cake. (And wine, but I’d better not start on that until later!) I have absolutely no idea how long this is going to take me, and as I write this post, I’m wondering where I’ll be up to when I post again. I’ve booked a few days away at a writing retreat in a couple of weeks, so I’ll do a brief update post next Monday 9th Feb and I’ll post again after the retreat.

Doing a major redraft on a novel is, I imagine, a bit like climbing a mountain in that it’s hard work and it looks insurmountable, but it’s worth it in the end. On that note, I don’t usually talk much about reviews, but I was delighted to see this in an Amazon review of The Secrets We Left Behind: “I fell in love with the character ‘Eve’ – I will miss her now I’ve finished the book.” How lovely. That’s the sort of thing that makes it all worthwhile!

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Just a short post this week to keep you up-to-date. The last post was about me celebrating – drinking champagne, no less – because I’d finished and sent off the first draft of my 3rd novel. In that post, I made it clear that I was expecting to have to do a lot more work. I knew there were problems, particularly with the structure, but I’d got too close to be able to look at it objectively.

My wonderful agent and editor both read it quickly – they knew I’d be biting my nails down to the knuckles. Also, I’ve never pretended this book wasn’t proving particularly difficult, so perhaps they both suspected there would be a lot to do and wanted to get a head start!

Anyway, there is a lot to do, as expected. From our initial chats and emails, it looks like it will be a VERY, VERY LOT. More, even, than I’d anticipated. I’ll know more after we have a meeting next week, but it seems there’s a lot that’s not working at the moment. I suspect it won’t be so much a case of murdering a few darlings as embarking on some wholesale slaughter!

About halfway through writing this draft (which had already gone through a major change of plan from the original idea – I cut a whole storyline and about 30,000 words!) I began to understand what I was really writing about. And therein lies one of the major problems, I think.

Of course I went back and did a lots of rewriting when my characters began to go in a different direction, but in hindsight, I wonder if what I was doing was the equivalent of realising I’d made a chicken dopiaza instead of a chicken madras and then trying to sort it out by pouring off half the sauce and whacking in the extra spices. What I really need to do is wash all the sauce off, grab some fresh garlic and ginger and start combining the spices again from scratch.

I have lots of ingredients; some of them are good ingredients which are right for this novel; some are good ingredients but need to be set aside for something else, and the remainder need to be binned completely. I also need to bring in some fresh ingredients. Okay, I can no longer bear the screams of that metaphor so I’ll stop torturing it. But you get the gist.

On the upside this week, I’ve been catching up with some reading, including 50,000 words of a novel I started writing a few years ago and abandoned because I got stuck. While I can’t instantly see where that novel should go, there’s a lot of good material there which I’m sure will form the basis for my 4th novel.

I’m thinking a lot about book three, of course, but am very much looking forward to those thoughts becoming more focused after the meeting next week. There’s a lot of thinking ahead, and a serious amount of hard work, but I know it’ll be worth it, so bring it on!

Here’s a picture that may just be the light at the end of the tunnel – something I hope to see before too long!

If you’d like to know more about me and my work or keep an eye on what I’m up to, visit my website, ‘like’ my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter @sewelliot