THE WRITING LIFE – attempting a detailed outline

In my last post, I talked about the huge decision to put the novel I was working on aside. I’ve recovered from the trauma now, although I’m still missing my lovely character whose company I’d been enjoying. I’ll go back to her, though, and in the meantime, I’m hoping the deepest parts of my subconscious will be playing around with ideas for her story.

In the meantime, I have a book to write. As I said last time, my agent has long been trying to persuade me to become more of a planner than a pantster. She suggested I write a detailed synopsis – not the one or two page selling synopsis you’d send to an agent, but a much longer document, possibly as much as six pages, showing how the plot develops, what the characters’ motivations are, where the dramatic events occur, and quite importantly, how it ends. I have tried several times to do this in the past and failed. But I promised I’d give it a go and so I settled down to the painful task of trying to wrench an entire story from somewhere deep within the creative part of my brain.

I won’t give away too much about the new book, but suffice to say there will be mention of crows, and this picture  really chimes with me in terms of the atmosphere, at least in the past strand of the novel

The first day yielded but a paragraph or two. It was vague, I didn’t know much about the characters, and nothing much was happening. By the time I forced myself to open the document again a few days later, I had a little more to go on. I’d started to feel pleased with myself when I’d written a whole page, until it dawned on me that everything I’d written up to that point was back story. Which is all well and good, because I do need to know the back story, but I was supposed to be writing about what happens in the book. I tried again over several days, adding little bits here and there, trying to work out what it was that motivated my two female characters.

What was nagging at me was that I was far more interested in one of these women than the other. And then I thought, so why am I not just telling her story from her point of view? Her story is so much stronger, and if I try to force a story on to the other character, it’ll show. Almost at the same point as I made the decision to stick to one viewpoint, I realised that Leah, in whom I’m the most interested, was in fact a character from a short story I wrote some years ago, but she had appeared to me in disguise and so I hadn’t recognised her. The moment I realised who she was and I remembered her tragic and rather frightening back story, everything seemed to fall into place.

I started to look forward to opening the document entitled Synopsis, book 4B, And within a couple of days I had written a 3000 word synopsis with all the major points in place and a possible ending  I read it, I liked it, it seemed to make sense. This has NEVER happened to me before, and so I naturally assumed that I was missing something. But then the OH read it, and he liked it. But he’s not a writer. So then I gave it to a couple of writing mates and they liked it too. And then, oh joy of joy, I sne it to my agent, and she liked it. My editor has yet to see it, but I’m feeling confident, and I’ve made a start, and given that I have the story mapped out, I’ve set myself a target of 1000 words a day which, so far, I’ve stuck to.

I’m so excited about this that I feel I have more to say, but I’ll leave it for another post.

Other things going on in my Writing Life at the moment:

  • Just finished the copy edits for What She Lost, which will be out in January, so that feels a step nearer. 
  • This coming Saturday, 23rd of July, is the last in the current series of How to Write a novel workshops. This one is called Steps to Publication – we’ll be looking at traditional, digital, and self-publishing, we’ll show you how to write a query letter and offer some one-to-one feedback, and we’ll also advise you on writing a synopsis. All for £40 for the day – it really is a bargain! Full details are on the workshops page of My website

That’s about it, I think, but please do follow me on Facebook or say hello on Twitter

The Writing Life – working hard but …

I have to start with a newsflash because both my books are on a special e-book promotion for the whole of June. The Things We Never Said Amazon UK  is just 99p, and
The Secrets We Left Behind Amazon UK is just 1.99. They’ll be back to full whack on 1st of July.

Right, that’s that out of the way. Now, I see that it’s over six weeks since I last blogged. This is because I’ve been thinking of the blog as being about my progress on the current novel (number four, as yet untitled), and as there has been no progress – none, zilch, nada – there has been no blog. But when I thought about it properly, the blog is called The Writing Life, and sometimes, part of the writing life is having to accept that you’re not making any progress, despite still putting in the hours.

So how can I be working hard and not making progress? This novel started well, in that I love my 1960s protagonist and her story and I couldn’t wait to explore her life and its difficulties. The problem came when I tried to write the contemporary strand that I’d originally planned. Every time I tried to explain it – to my agent, to my editor, or to writing friends – they got confused. And yes, I had worried that it was a little complicated. Ultimately, I realised that not only was that strand too complicated, but it didn’t really fit with the 1960s story in a satisfying enough way, so I was going to have to rethink the whole thing.

And that’s where the hard work comes in. My agent impressed upon me the value of planning – something I find very difficult, if not impossible. Usually, I plan a little, write a little, plan a little more, write a little more, and that’s how I discover the story. But this time, I seem to have written myself down a blind alley. I have spent several weeks now trying to plot a second strand that will fit with the first and offer a satisfying conclusion. But I seem to be getting nowhere fast.

My agent has been an amazing and spent almost two hours with me on the phone a couple of weeks ago, trying to get to the heart of it all. With her usual insight, she has, I think, identified the main problem, which is that I’ve been trying to mix two genres – the 1960s story, which is an exploration of an unconventional relationship and the traumas and joys that accompany it, and the contemporary strand, which I was trying to make a bit more ‘plotty’. I’m pleased with the 60s story and think it is perhaps some of my best writing, but then my agent asked the killer question: ‘what is going to make the reader turn the pages?’

And that made me realise that while I hoped that a sheer love of the character and interest in her life would be enough, given that my first three novels (the third, What She Lost, is out in January) have all had some buried secret driving the narrative, a ‘quieter’ book might not go down so well. And yes, I’d love to write a book that does both things – explores the relationship in depth and also has a mystery at its heart, which is why I was going for the dual narrative again. But the secret I’d been relying on turned out to be too complicated, so I’m almost back to square one, and I’ve been thinking and thinking and thinking until my brain hurts, but I keep hitting dead ends.

In the worst case scenario, I put this novel aside for another time and I start something new. The idea terrifies me – I’ve written almost 70,000 words, although 25,000 of those were the contemporary strand that I now know doesn’t work. I have around 45,000 words that I like so it seems a lot to give up on. But having said that, I abandoned my very first novel at around 40k words and went on instead to write The Things We Never Said. And regular readers might remember the struggle I had with What She Lost – I ended up rewriting almost 80 per cent. So it’s not something I’m ruling out entirely. (although it really will be ‘putting aside for another time’ rather than dumping altogether.)

So, I’m still in that horrible phase of uncertainty, still trying to find a way through with what I’ve already written while vaguely sketching out other ideas should I have no alternative but to start again. My agent has kindly agreed to read the 1960s strand so that we can discuss it again, and while I hate revealing what I’ve written at this early stage, I don’t want to carry on blindly if it’s clear that it’s just not going to work. We shall see.

Have you ever put a novel aside and written a new one? What do you do when you find you’ve written yourself to a dead end? (Apart from drink gin, obvs)

Ooh, by the way – if you’re in or near Sheffield, there are still a few spaces on the two redrafting workshops coming up on Saturday 11th & Saturday 18th of June. If you book for one, is £40, if you book for both, it’s £70. Have a look at the workshops page of my website for details.


Last week, I posted the first blog in a series of 10 in which I share my writing process over 10 weeks with anyone who’s interested. Here’s week 2:
Tuesday, 1 July
Tuesday is when I publish this blog, so I spent some time last night and this morning tidying up the first post. I’m making notes as I go along, keeping a record of what I’ve done each day, but I still needed to write the introduction and do some editing. Once I’d published the first in the series, I went off to meet a friend for a coffee shop writing session. A fairly brief one today, because I’m teaching this evening and have students’ work to look at. Most of today’s writing was actually rewriting, but I clocked up another 658 words, even after deleting some. I’ve almost reached the point in the narrative where I need to jump forward in time, which will be tricky. On the plus side, as I was rewriting a scene I wrote ages ago, I realised I’d forgotten what happened next. When I read it, it actually made me gasp! Happy with that!  Word count: 658 

Wednesday, 2 July
Bitty day today – admin stuff in the morning, then an enjoyable half an hour so on Twitter before meeting friends for coffee and cake. Did some editing after lunch but didn’t really get into any new writing because I knew I’d have to stop at 3pm for babysitting. Did manage to do some reading, though. Just started We Are Called To Rise, by Laura McBride. I don’t feel too bad about not writing if I feel I am learning from what I read, although this book is so stunning, it just makes me think, why can’t I write like that? 

Did a bit of background work today, too. This is a great tip: go through your notebooks and copy out those one-line notes or snippets such as: ‘A wears cufflinks’; ‘B has asthma’; ‘C reads A’s letters’ onto a separate card/piece of paper and chuck it in a shoebox. When redrafting, just take each card and when you’ve incorporated what’s on it, you can throw the note away. I found this really helpful with my second novel, especially as, when looking through notebooks a while after my first novel was published, I found loads of things I’d intended to include but had forgotten about.  Today’s word count: 0 

Thursday 3 July
Started with emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Read over the last scene I worked on – quite a dramatic one – and now realise I need to rewrite the next scene, too. I don’t usually do much rewriting until the first draft is complete, but in this case, I need to rewrite in order to be able to move on. Made a few cuts, then off to a coffee shop for a writing session with two friends. Fairly happy with the day’s work and could have carried on, but it was our book club tonight, so we closed our laptops and went off to the pub, all agreeing that the promise of a glass of wine at the end of the session was a great incentive. Word count: 1519; Glasses of wine: a few
Friday 4th July
Babysitting from 11am until 12 noon tomorrow. Squeezed out a few words before they arrived, then managed to do a bit of editing  while half watching Peppa Pig (it’s ever so good, you know!) but that just reduced the word count again. Still, at least I’ve done something.  Word count: 230
Saturday 5th July
Not much progress today. I’ve got to that point where I’m writing everything the characters do. Does that happen to you? It’s boring, and if I’m bored, the reader will be bored. I need to jump ahead in time, but I also need to know what happens to the characters during that period, and that’s why I’m stuck on a never-ending road. Stared at the screen for ages, then came to the conclusion that perhaps I should just write the next bit of the story in a boring  ‘tell-y’ sort of way (she did this, then she did that, then three years later, this happened and so on).  Might help me learn what happens to the characters in the ‘off-stage’ sections.  Feel very fed up. This is one of those days when the wine count exceeds the word count. Words: 0; Glasses of wine: 3

Sunday 6th July
Feel really stuck today, even when trying to put into place what I decided yesterday. One of my main characters is 15 now, and she and her mum are at a crisis point. I need to jump ahead about ten years, but I just don’t know what happens in those ten years. Went for a walk to think about it. Maybe I should just skip ahead and write scenes that’ll come later in the novel? Popped into a coffee shop, took out my notebook and began writing a very rough draft of a scene that might come later in the novel. Didn’t get very far with it, so word count for today: 360
Monday 7th July
It’s amazing how keeping a daily writing journal for the purposes of this blog can concentrate the mind. Did some editing this morning, then really got stuck in to a scene that comes ten years later. It’s very rough, and there’s a large chunk of ‘info-dumping’, but it has told me something about what may have happened during those ten years. I’m sure I’ll look at this scene tomorrow and decide it’s all dreadful. So maybe I shouldn’t look at it? Perhaps I’ll just try to move on… Word count 1023

Nice things this week:  
Lovely email about The Secrets We Left Behind from a male reader. The first novel went down well with men, so I’m pleased this one is appealing to male readers, too.
New Amazon reviews this week:
The Secrets We Left Behind: No new ones this week, but some nice Twitter comments.
The Things We Never Said: one 3-star review and two 5-stars – particularly chuffed with this one (posted on Goodreads, too)

I didn’t hit my target of 4000 words this week, but wasn’t too far off at 3790. Total word count now: 38, 213 (Didn’t count how many words I deleted, but it would seem to be about 2000. Oh well…)
The coming week:
This is going to be a tough week: babysitting tomorrow (Tuesday), then my mother is visiting Wednesday-Saturday, then we’re staying with friends the Saturday-Sunday. My target this week is very modest – I simply want to make sure I do something on the novel every day. Aiming for maybe 2000 words as well.  Wish me luck!
For more about me and my work, visit my website or ‘like’ my Facebook ‘Writer’ page  (and of course, you can follow me on twitter: @sewelliot )