A novel experience

Apologies to anyone wondering what has happened to the so-called Poem of the Week. They will return soon, I promise, but the work on getting the novels into print has had to take centre stage for the past few months. But finally, that work is now finished, and all that remains is the minor business of getting rid of the damned things – and at least for the moment, that’s coming along quite nicely, thank you very much.

So a little bit about the novels…

I first had the idea to write a sci-fi novel in 2009. My oldest son was eight at the time and I thought it might be a nice idea if I wrote a book for him. He was a very early reader, but even so, I figured I’d have a couple of years before I would have to deliver the finished product, and even then, it could be “kind of short, and kind of simple”.

I still have the notes I made back then, and it’s entertaining to see which aspects of the story survived the following ten year journey, and which were sensibly abandoned. The final storyline, for example, has nothing about a bunch of eco-terrorists trying to cover the whole of the surface of mars with fast-growing lichen.

In 2010 I moved out to Brazil, and for a while I had more important things to do with my time than creative writing. In fact, I wrote nothing at all for several months and then, once things had calmed down slightly, I discovered I’d acquired a severe case of writer’s block. In order to work my way through this I started writing a blog – mostly for friends and family back home – and this saw me through the following year, so that by the end of 2011 I finally felt ready to get going with some proper fiction once again.

It took me a year to write, which I thought was quite slow. I wasn’t working at it full time, but even so, I had assumed six months would be enough to get to to the end of a first draft. To be fair, I didn’t really write a first draft as no one had ever taught me how to write a novel and I spent most of my time editing, and re-editing, each chapter as I went along so that, in effect, what I arrived at at the end of the year was something equivalent to a fairly polished second draft. So maybe a year wasn’t so bad after all.

Not only did I have no experience at writing a novel, I also had no idea what to do with it once I’d finished. Find an agent, was the almost universal advice. So I tried that.

In case you don’t know this, there is a lot of advice available on how to go about finding yourself an agent; how to target the right ones, how to write a preliminary letter, how to write a covering letter, how to submit, how long to wait when you don’t hear anything, how to deal with rejection…

…and I was rubbish at all of it. Firstly, my self-promotional skills are virtually non-existent. Secondly, my enthusiasm for this aspect of the novelist’s life is also virtually non-existent. I wrote a novel because I wanted to write it, not because I wanted to get it published. Still, I did try, on and off, for the next year or so. I trawled through a list of all UK literary agents, eliminating the many who weren’t interested in science fiction, and then the ones who weren’t interested in YA submissions. From the remaining list, I sent my self-deprecating cover letter and my regulation 30 pages to twenty-two different agents. Several of them never bothered to reply. Most of the others rejected me, either quite politely, or with a standard rejection email. Two of them asked to read the entire novel, and then rejected me.

While all this was going on, I was not simply sitting idly at home waiting for the emails to come in. I was working on a follow-up novel. By now I was back living in the UK and had joined a writing group – so was interacting with other creative writers for the first time and benefitting from the experience, both through feedback and advice. And a lot of the advice was, don’t start work on the second novel in a series until you’ve got the first one published because there are bound to be so many changes required, you’ll just be creating so much more work for yourself further down the line. As sensible as this advice no doubt was, I chose to ignore it.

In many ways, the second novel was a lot harder to write than the first. Until I was about three-quarters of the way through The Phoenician Conspiracy, I thought of it as a self-contained story, and it was only as I began to draw the plot to a close that I realised there was a whole lot more I wanted to do with the characters. So when I began Cenotaph, I already knew it was going to be the middle novel in a series of three and this made the task ahead seem so much more daunting.

Having said that, the writing itself was a lot easier. By then I had found my ‘voice’ and I was able to increase the tediously slow 500-words-a-day rate of Phoenician to a blistering 1000-words-a-day (at least on the days I was actually writing), which meant I had a finished draft after about eight months – which for a novel with a final word count of 85,000 shows just how few days I spent working during those eight months.

And the thing was, I knew for the whole time I was writing it that as soon as it was finished, I had to start work on the third novel. By this point I was fairly sure the first novel wasn’t going to be picked up by an agent, so I figured my only option was to finish the trilogy and see if any of the agents were prepared to change their mind now I could show I had finished the whole thing. In the meantime, Cenotaph was going to be even more of a labour of love than Phoenician as there really wasn’t anything I could do with the middle novel in a trilogy except file it away for later.

And then I messed up. Instead of moving straight on to the third novel, I thought I would give myself a break and work on something else for a while. Thanks to one of the other writers in my group, I was introduced to the wonders of flash fiction and for about a year I concentrated on this. I wrote quite a bit, but I never really got to grips with the concept successfully enough to get more than a couple of pieces published and I began to realise that when it came to the shorter forms of creative writing, I was far happier writing poetry than I was flash fiction.

And anyway, I was supposed to be writing a novel.

What finally got me back to working on the trilogy was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the idea behind which is for authors to try and write 50,000 words during November. A few of the people in the writing group were going to give it a go, so I thought if I committed to it, I would have half a novel written in a single month.

Just so you know, it’s hard. Assuming you’re not going to write flat-out for thirty days (although I’m sure some people do) and will maybe take, say, Sundays off to spend with your family, then you’re looking at producing about 2000-2500 words each working day. Day after day. For a month.

I made sure I had a reasonable idea of the story beforehand and even had a chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot (by which I mean I’d written a few words for each just to remind me) ready for day one. And off I went.

I tried, I really did, but by the end of the month I had managed only 30,000 words. But more importantly, I’d written 30,000 words, or about a third of a novel, in a single month. And I was still going strong. I didn’t stop just because November had and I converted the challenge into NaNoWriSeason. I did take a break for Christmas, but by then the end was in sight – not just the end of the novel, but of the whole trilogy – and that was somewhat motivating. I don’t remember exactly how long it took before I was finished, but I do remember staying up all night to write that very final chapter.

As any novelist will tell you, though, finishing the first draft – even if it’s really a second-draft-quality first draft – is only the start of the adventure. But I think that’s enough for now. The journey from first draft to publication can wait till next time.

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