Those exciting milestones

All writers have those milestones in their career that stick in the memory. The first time you actually finish a manuscript or a draft. That one alone suddenly moves you out of the “I’ve got a great idea for a book” category into the realm of a writer. There are many dubious stats but I’m sure that most people never even make it that far.

Then, and this one is like it was yesterday in my mind – the first time that a stranger buys your book. Over ten years ago I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book, The Busy Pagan. It had its own ISBN and when people ordered it from bookshops I sent it out to the wholesalers. The thought that someone was reading my words, not my family or friends but a stranger is the most wonderful thing. It’s the end of the writing process – so much more fulfilling than having a first draft in the bottom drawer of the desk.

Much more recently, I was going round the cycle of submitting the manuscript, getting rejections, making changes before going back to submitting it. After several years of this, getting the request to for a full manuscript was another landmark moment, thankfully followed by a publishing deal.

And then, at the beginning of this week, my publisher provided me with this link – The List – my project has grown from words on my screen to a real book. (It’s now available to pre-order, just saying.)  From now on it’ll be one thrill after another – when I get my physical copy, when the reviews come in, and of course when the first copy sells to a genuine stranger.

Looking back over this list one thing stands out. Writing is one of the loneliest professions – usually it’s just you and the words on the page. Once you get past the first one, which proves that you can write, the rest of the milestones are about sharing your work, letting other people breathe life into your words.

So this post is a long and rambling way to say thank-you. To the publishers, editors, cover designers and the readers. To everyone who reads what I write, and for a little while makes it live in their imagination, thank you. It is a strange and lovely thing that you are inhabiting the world I created in my head. You are the end of the process of being a writer. You make it all worthwhile.

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Burning down Hogwarts!

Apologies to those of you who don’t read Harry Potter, but I am father to three boys, aged 4, 8 and 11 so it is common currency in our house. Thinking about the series of books (and films, etc.) I realised something. By the end of the book, a lot of things that were axiomatic in the universe were destroyed. A dragon literally smashes through the wizard bank, Gringotts, and the relationship between wizards and the goblins who run the bank is changed. Coming back to the title of the post, Hogwarts is hugely damaged in an epic battle between good and evil. In interviews, JK Rowling actually said she wanted to kill off a certain number of major characters to indicate the seriousness of the final conflict.

Moving away from the world of Harry Potter, I noticed the same thing in Lord of the Rings. The books concern themselves with the end of one age and the dawning of a new one. Elves leave Middle Earth after thousands of years, dynasties are re-established, the world changes. Even Star Wars is about the end of the Jedi order which stood for a thousand years, guaranteeing peace.

I know these three examples are fantasy or science fiction, but I think they touch on something. Any plot requires a level of threat or upset to the established order. It is one thing that separates literary from commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, often large external matters are at stake, in literary fiction, it is often more personal, internal affairs that are dealt with. In chick-lit again it is personal institutions that are under threat. Often these books will start with the breakdown of a marriage, or a jilting, or a death or redundancy. Not as earth shattering on a global scale, but on the scale of one life, they are seismic events.

For any book not to be dull, you need a hero you can identify with who is under threat. The traditional way to start a book is to introduce the hero, in his world, and then rock that world. Shatter some institutions, put him or her under pressure, and a plot starts to emerge.

This is the classic, planned out way to start a book. You still have to decide which event actually opens the book – usually it’s not the main disruption to the whole plot. Again, to return to Harry Potter, it starts with Harry being rescued after the death of his parents, which illustrates a disrupting event in his life. But then, it establishes his life with his aunt and uncle, before the second big disruption – the invitation to Hogwarts arrives. From there on, as in any plot, you have a series of misfortunes and set-backs before wrapping it up.

As I say, this pattern follows through most successful fiction. When we get bored, my eleven year old and I watch children’s TV and analyse the basic plot points. Even the simplest cartoon still has the basic plot that I’ve outlined above. It appears to be a universal blue-print that we, as human beings and as lovers of stories, seem to need.

I think for a writer it requires a certain kind of bravery, especially if you’re writing a big novel, with large themes. You have, even with a happy-ever-after ending, to set up a world, and a hero, and then put them through troubles and hard times.

Still writing

Well, I’m doing something quite tricky here, I’m reading a book about plotting (Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell) and I’m still writing my novel. It’s similar to painting a picture and reading a book on how to paint in between times. I can already see differences in how I work.

The reason that I’m doing it this way is because I believe to be a writer you have to write. Every day. I’ve set myself a simple goal of one sentence a day, but often I get carried away and must be averaging a good few hundred words a day. In order to get over a block, I adopted a “write anything” policy, knowing that I can go back and edit. You can’t edit if you don’t have any words down on the screen! But now I’m reading about how to put plots together, and make scenes better, I’m toughening up on myself. Write anything is no longer good enough. I stop and think and craft my words. I re-read and go back and (hopefully) make things better, more vivid, more interesting.

I’m wanting to rush ahead in Plot & Structure as I know chapters on complex plots are coming up which will really help with me. Of course, when I was planning my current WIP – the Fifth Warrior – it was conceived in terms of big ideas and I grafted a plot on afterwards. So this idea of how to structure a plot is very useful to me. It’s also fascinating as I’m reading a Dean Koontz novel at the moment and I can see where his strengths are, and also that he tends to use fairly formulaic plots. But he is so good at them, and his characterisation and ideas are so strong that you don’t really notice.

I think that when it’s all written, the first rewrite will be fairly major. I don’t want to go wholesale down the American commercial route of writing page-turning thrillers. But on the other hand I would like my readers to be interested and want to finish the book, so I will take on some of the advice about crafting a decent plot.

>Past the block

>I’ve been thinking over the past few days and I think I’ve worked what I’m not happy about in my main book that I’m writing. So I’ve amended a bit and now it feels much more natural and “right” so I’m making progress again. Hopefully I’ll finish the Dark Age section and that’ll be about 40% of the way through.

I’ve also made a breakthrough on writing stuff for eldest DS to read – I’ve come up with a good mechanism to introduce traditional British folk stories.

Graham