Part Two: From Concept to Completion
If you read Part One of my writing story and you are waiting to hear about my first novel and its inception, please bear with me. I promise to get to it very soon, but first I want to go back a good few years to give you a little context.
One day, in my twenties, I wrote an outline for a book, the bare bones of 3 character profiles and the opening paragraphs of a story. I scribbled the notes for the idea on some airmail writing paper, originally purchased for letters to my grandparents, and left the pages shoved in a box with old cards and keepsakes. For a long time there they stayed. I decided I needed to experience more of life before I could write the ‘book inside me’.
As you have probably guessed, those life experiences ended up consuming all my time – until 2007. I had just begun working with Rachel Bamber, a brilliant coach, to achieve a step-change in several areas; something was missing and, as a coach myself, I knew I wasn’t reaching my potential. After an enlightening goal setting session, two ‘sensible’ goals emerged around health and career, and a third, heart-flutteringly exciting goal, around creativity.
As goals go it wasn’t particularly S.M.A.R.T.; quite the opposite, I’d describe it as nebulous, at best! So much of my time in my job was focused, targeted and measured, the last thing I wanted was another specific goal. Still, I had to connect with something, so I took inspiration from the lyrics of a Killers song, and my creative goal became ‘Magic Soaking My Spine’, from ‘Read My Mind’. Technically, this phrase is subject to copyright, a fact I later discovered during my research, more of which later, but it represented the perfect mantra, describing the anticipatory thrill of unleashing my creativity. It became even more poignant when I realised the goal would be to write a book. In fact, it remained as the working title of my novel, until very recently, when I finally renamed it, Pivotal.
And so, to the light bulb moment mentioned in Part One. Here I must apologise for getting your hopes up. Unfortunately I am unable to explain the premise for the book, which came from that flash of inspiration back in 2007. Why? It would be the biggest spoiler in the history of storytelling; a trailer for a mystery movie, spilling all its secrets in 120 seconds. (Those who know me well would tell you just how much of a bugbear this is of mine!)
I can tell you Pivotal is a relationship mystery, with multiple twists and turns. I can tell you there is complexity in the ordinary lives of the characters, where the past regularly informs the paths they choose, when faced with an extraordinary dilemma. I can tell you the only place you will find the story’s reason for being is in the very last few pages of the book. I’m afraid if you want to uncover the mystery, there’s only one way; you’ll need to keep reading to the end.
Back to the writing then. When I tell people I’ve written a novel, the most common question anyone asks, apart from ‘What’s it about?’ is ‘How did you even know where to start?’ It’s possible it may differ from book to book, author to author, but in this case, my answer is simple: at the beginning.
Sitting, wind-whipped, in a camping chair whilst on holiday in the Gower Peninsula, Wales, watching the children fly kites and the adults untangle them, I took out my pristine journal and began at the beginning. With the overarching concept in my head, the characters came to life as soon as my nib made its first mark. Over the next two months I wrote a little every day, quickly reaching 20,000 words. Almost as soon as I had started, my goal changed from ‘write a book’ to ‘publish a novel.’ It may have been naïve optimism, or the early encouragement from a trusted friend; either way I found the beginning fluid, joyful and dare I say it – easy. I can’t speak for other writers or of other books (yet) but I liken this experience to a musician’s debut album, full of the pent-up creativity of all of the years leading to that first collection of songs. The ideas are there, the tap is switched on and the words flow.
By now there is sure to be another question on your lips: If it was all so easy in 2007, what took you so long? Aside from an often quoted writers’ anecdote, where penning the middle of the book is like wading through a quagmire, I’ll respond with some of the specific challenges I faced along the way. Broadly my difficulties fell into three categories: knowhow, confidence and focus.
Starting a novel with naïve enthusiasm is one thing, finishing it is quite another. Pretty soon I recognised there were many gaps in my knowledge, stemming both from a desire to give my fiction authenticity and a complete ignorance of the publishing process. There’s nothing like giving yourself a challenge; much of the action takes place in Gloucester, somewhere I had never been; all bar one of the main characters does a job I have never done; one, even has an obsession with high end fashion labels I have never purchased. Lots of research was needed!
I also set about exploring the publishing world. Searching for answers to potential copyright issues over references to brands and lyrics, attending writers’ conferences and literary events, I began to piece together a bank of knowledge, tips and advice. For example my decision to follow a traditional publishing route came from one such conference. I’ll save the detail for another time, but let’s just say I’d like to reach the biggest possible audience and see my physical book on a physical shelf!
Most of the writers I have met or heard speak, including very successful best-selling authors, battle to maintain their writing confidence. I suspect the reason lies in the subjective nature of creativity. We thrive on positive feedback and yet even the thought of a negative review or comment can gnaw away at you, resulting in enough self-doubt to bring your word count to a grinding halt.
Being my own harshest critic, I decided I needed to be brave and start to share my work. I figured if I could build my resilience and learn how to handle constructive criticism, my writing would improve and my book would benefit. Of course, one of the most difficult challenges with a novel is the lack of opportunity for feedback during the writing process; aside from the odd paragraph read out loud to family, I felt it needed to be read in its entirety for any meaningful judgement to be made. So, what did I share? How did I practice my skills and test out my work, during the months (years) spent in the book doldrums? I found two solutions. First, the blog. This has given me the opportunity to capture my thoughts and get immediate feedback; a little dopamine hit each time I connect with a reader. It’s interactive, much as a theatre actor experiences on stage. Second, short story competitions. These have a medium term turnaround, and whilst it’s rare for an unsuccessful entry to get specific feedback from the judges, I have found willing volunteers to critique my efforts. I have also used the opportunity to try out new ideas and styles in an effort to step outside my comfort zone. The more feedback I get, the more competitions I enter, the easier I have found myself dealing with rejection.
At a recent Elle magazine event, Laura Barnett – best-selling author of The Versions of Us, gave me a very good confidence boosting tip. Whilst she advocates the need to seek out early-readers who will give no-holds-barred, honest pre-submission feedback, she stressed the importance of finding your super fan. This person, be they your partner, best friend or agent, is the person you turn to on a grey February afternoon, when nothing is working and you need someone to remind you just how brilliant a writer you are. My super fan is my wonderful husband, with an unshakeable faith in my ability to produce a bestseller!
If you have ever embarked on a project of any description, at work or at home, you will know one of the key elements of success is focus. Keeping on track when we are bombarded with multiple distractions and responsibilities is no mean feat.
During the writing of the book I have certainly had my share of moments when I have been pulled off course; sent on a diversion, where my internal sat nav kept telling me to make a U-turn or else I would end up even further away. Sometimes life just gets in the way. At points it would have been easy to think I would never reach my destination but, even when I went for months without writing a word, I never gave up.
To force my way through the sticky bit in the middle, though, I recognised my need to get unstuck. Even coaches need support sometimes. Once again I turned to coaching and three fabulous coaches. Initially I worked with Leigh Howes to reconnect with my vision and kick-start the project with, for the first time, some structure and a plan. Then Nadia Finer, whilst I worked on my business and the launch of my writers’ community, The Writers’ Pod, and most recently with Julia Bickerstaff through the amazing 100day Goal program. Each time their unique expertise helped me channel my focus and put the necessary disciplines in place.
The End…or is it?
Finally in 2016 with my business re-launched and life on a more even keel, the murk cleared and I saw a way forward. I set a clear goal of 1000 words per day, checked in with my writing buddy each day to review progress and focused on completing my first draft.
I still found this phase a hard slog. My characters misbehaved, not following the story as I had planned and meandering off down rabbit holes; serious doubt crept in as the pressure of the self-imposed word-count seemed to impact on the quality of my output. I often felt as I’d imagine a method actor might feel; inhabiting the world of my characters thoughts and feelings, and suffering with them. At times the finish line appeared as if it were a mirage, always tantalisingly close yet just out of reach. Thankfully as the end approached and I began to count the workload in days rather than weeks, the tangible prospect of a finished manuscript spurred me on. At last, just tipping into February 2017, I finished the last of 90000 words of draft number one!
Of course this is not the end, merely the end of the beginning. Keep following for Part Three, when I enter the scary world of edits and share more lessons learnt along the way…