A Short Story About Scarpetta

I’m heading to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate tomorrow morning (for the first time ever and feeling a bit like the new girl who switches schools half way through term and has to walk into a class where she doesn’t know anyone!) so this evening, while I procrastinate instead of pack, I thought I’d share with you a story about my introduction to crime (writing): Kay Scarpetta and the woman who invented her, Patricia Cornwell.

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One Christmas, back when I was (I think) either 12 or 13 (ish), a friend of mine lent me her older brother’s Patricia Cornwell paperbacks. Now, I’m not sure if she leant me one and then I bought the others, or if she lent me the whole lot and I just never gave any of them back – in fact, the more I think about this entire incident, the fewer tangible details I can recall – but I do know that several nights in a row, over the school holidays,  I stayed up reading until three or four in the morning because I couldn’t sleep until I got to THE END.

Now I’m sure I’d read other crime novels before that but there was something about Cornwell and her central character, Kay Scarpetta, that moved me from mild interest to totally obsessed. The feisty women, the high-octane plots, the autopsies (ewwww), the pristine house (I STILL want my own mud room and totally OTT home security system) and the detours into highly descriptive Italian cooking sessions (???) – I loved it all. (I never quite understood why a medical examiner would be out in the field investigating crimes, but anyway…) They would be my gateway drug into Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn (I was reading her long before Gone Girl was a blinking cursor on her computer screen HASHTAG SMUG), and all the other amazing crime/thriller fiction writers whose books I devour today.

Last August I finished my own thriller and when it came time to write the all important cover letter, I mentioned that Cornwell was my introduction to the genre:

Crime/thriller novels have been my reading passion ever since a friend’s older brother irresponsibly let me borrow his collection of Patricia Cornwell paperbacks when I was 12 and, if my apartment spontaneously burst into flames right now, my ‘grab’ item would be my limited-to-200-edition, numbered, gold-edged, slip-cased, red leather-bound copy of Nine Dragons that Michael Connelly personally inscribed to me as a competition prize. (Safe in the knowledge that my MS has been saved to Dropbox, mind you.)

Flash-forward now to the beginning of April this year. My superagent, Jane Gregory, has got me a 2-book deal with Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books, and although I’m not allowed tell everyone yet, I have told a few someones: my writing friends. A gang of us go out to dinner to celebrate in Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum. There’s five of us setting at the table – all either published or about to be – and three of us write crime while a fourth says she doesn’t but there’s a dead body in her book. (Although I’ve stopped saying she’s written crime because it’s starting to really annoy her, I think.)

(But it IS.)

[wink]

So the waiter arrives at our table to take our drink order, and we decide to order a bottle of wine. (Good decision.) Everyone elects me to choose which one. (Bad decision. I only started drinking wine in the last year – I actually started drinking it at the Irish Book Awards when I turned to Hazel Gaynor and uttered the immortal line, “How winey is that wine?” – and all I know about it is whether it’s white or red.) The waiter eventually steps in and says he’ll pick a wine for us, tells us nothing about his decision and then disappears to go get it.

This is what he brought back:

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Naturally, the table erupted. I couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t believe it now. (And no, the waiter knew nothing about who we were, what we did, why we were there or what we were celebrating.) Isn’t that amazing? I mean, what are the chances?

(And it was quite nice, by the way. If anyone knows where outside of Jamie’s Italian you can buy it, do let me know.)

I’m hoping it’s a good omen for the adventures ahead…

I finally caved and joined Instagram. Follow me there and on Twitter for updates from Harrogate and if you’re in Harrogate too, come and say hi! 

Side note: reading this back, you can tell that I’ve had a LOT of coffee today and that I cleaned out my talent for writing words more good getting the latest draft of Distress Signals done last week, can’t you?

Let’s Talk About Self-Publishing. In Dublin. Next Weekend.

(I know, I know – a blog post that’s not about The News. Surprise!)

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Next weekend, the Books Go Social Writers Conference takes place in Dublin. It promises to be an action-packed weekend with multiple “streams” or options for attendees to choose from, with topics ranging from how to get published to exploring in depth how to write a story that other people will want to read in the first place. There’s also a dinner for all speakers and attendees on the Saturday night, and the weekend will also offer some time to explore the city of Dublin.

I’ll be there on the Saturday afternoon talking about The Business of Self-Publishing.

You can find out more about the conference here.

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(Being) On Submission Syndrome

I know it’s only been five minutes since I last mentioned it, but I got a book deal. In true Publishing “Hurry Up and Wait” Industry style, it happened in a flash after a couple of decades of waiting for it to. The offer from Corvus came just six days short of Mousetrapped‘s five year anniversary – I self-published Mousetrapped on Monday 29th March 2010; the offer was made on Monday 23rd March 2015 – and only five days passed between my agent sending my novel out to publishers and an offer coming back. (The moral of that story? Finish your damn book.) This was a good thing, because I did not take being on submission well…

DAY 1: Thursday 12th March 2015

I send the final, final, FINAL (for now) version of the book back to my agent’s in-house editor extraordinaire, Stephanie. Instantaneously I develop a host of flu-like symptoms, including but not limited to: headache, chills, sinus pressure, sore throat, cough, general feeling that death is imminent. I crawl into bed with Netflix and sleep for fifteen hours.

DAY 2: Friday 13th March 2015

I e-mail my agent, trying to be as breezy and casual as I possibly can be, trying to find out if I’m already out on submission or if that horror is ahead of me yet. In other words: should I have already assumed the foetal position on the floor alongside my phone, or can that wait until Monday?

Think Crocs with socks, in a tornado. I am that breezy and casual. “So,” I type, “just, like, whenever you have a chance – no rush! – could you, like, maybe possibly potentially just give me a quick update on what happens next? BUT LIKE I DON’T EVEN CARE. Laters.”

Day 3: Saturday 14th March 2015

No response. It’s the weekend.

Day 4: Sunday 15th March 2015

No response because it’s still the weekend.

Day 5: Monday 16th March 2015

I’ve been in bed for weeks, it feels like, because it’s difficult to fall asleep when you’re anywhere else and sleep is the only respite I have from wondering which way I will fall off this precipice: into my dreams (an offer!) or into disaster (thanks but no thanks).

It’s the day before Patrick’s Day – which is falling on a Tuesday this year – so in Ireland, it’s unofficially an extension of the weekend. No one is doing anything, including me. I decide not to leave my sick-on-submission bed for college, and sleep more instead.

Sniff.

Day 6: Tuesday 17th March 2015

News breaks of a colossal book deal that a female writer in the UK has signed, a female writer who I’m sure is lovely and talented and works harder than me, but who this morning I can feel nothing for except stone cold hatred and contempt, seasoned liberally with jealousy. But her book sounds really intriguing and I say so on Twitter. The publicist tweets me that it IS really intriguing and says he’ll send me a proof when it comes out. DOES THIS MEAN SOMETHING?

I venture outside, just to check it’s still there. I do this about half an hour before Dublin’s Patrick’s Day parade starts and therefore I encounter strings of tour buses and people from other countries wearing leprechaun hats. I go back inside.

I sit on the sofa, eying the bed.

I get back into bed.

Day 7: Wednesday 18th March 2015

I’ve made a doctor’s appointment for 9:00am so that I (a)  might score some antibiotics and (b) am forced to get out of The Bed and keep going, further, until I’m out of the house.

It turns out to be a gorgeous sunny spring morning, fresh and warm with blue skies, and I am hemorrhaging positivity (that’s a thing, right?) as I skip down the street, light-headed from the oxygen. The doctor refuses to give me any drugs but that’s totally fine, because while I’m in the doctor’s surgery I forget for a whole twenty minutes about my Gmail account and when I remember it again – GASP! – there’s an e-mail from The Agent…

HEART BEAT HEART BEAT HEART BEAT HEART BEAT HEART BEAT

… that says sorry for the delay in replying, but all is well and she’ll be sending out a short description of The Book to a number of editors later today. Which means I’ve spent a whole week of my life fixating on something that wasn’t actually happening yet. But I have learned a valuable lesson.

Well, I’m sure I have. I’ll realize what it is eventually.

So now we’re back to:

Day 1 (for realsies, this time): Thursday 19th March 2015

Between finishing the book and then being horribly diseased, I feel like I haven’t been at college much lately. Even when I was there, my mind wasn’t really. Today is my first post-rewrite, post-post-rewrite-flu day back and I have a busy schedule of lectures and tutorials and catching up with college friends to do. It’s another gorgeous sunny day and as I sit in the sun off Dawson Street sipping a flat white, it occurs to me that I’m feeling great.

So great that I only check my phone, like, 3,051 times during business hours.

Day 2: Friday 20th March 2015

I have two essays due in 6 days, so I better start them, eh? I spend the solar eclipse in the library reading about the symbolism of curtains in Dubliners.

That evening I head out to Dun Laoghaire to the Mountains to Sea festival, to see crime writing stars SJ Watson and Paula Hawkins in conversation with Sinead Crowley (also a crime writer) with my friend Sheena (also a writer whose novel The Lake opens with the discovery of a dead body). Not the ideal way to take my mind off being on submission, it turns out.

Day 3: Saturday 21st March 2015

Turns out it’s near impossible to resist stalking editors on Twitter who you suspect have been contacted about your book. Wait, she says she’s reading something she’s enjoying? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Could it be my book? How much praise is “enjoying”? Is that like pre-empt enjoying, or thanks but no thanks enjoying? What if –

Oh, it was just a magazine article about Paris. Unless… Is that a clue that she really meant my book but can’t just come and say so because it’d be inappropriate at this tentative negotiation stage? Does “Paris” really mean “Catherine’s book”? Is it CODE? Is she trying to communicate with me over the medium of Twitter? Or –

Oh. She’s not even at work. She’s on maternity leave.

DAY 4: SUNDAY 22ND MARCH 2015

[Sleeps]

[Wakes up briefly]

[Turns over]

[Sleeps more]

DAY 5: MONDAY 23RD MARCH 2015

This morning, I have a stern talk with myself. I remind me that it could be weeks before I hear anything – my agent warned that it would be – and when I do, it could be less than amazing news. I need to move on.

Or at least I need to pretend that I’m moving on.

I get up early and do some work on one of the two essays that are due now in approximately 98 hours. My plan for the day is hectic compared to what I’ve been up to since I started suffering from On Submission Syndrome: I have a Romanticism lecture at 2pm and am meeting writing friends – Hazel and the aforementioned Sheena – at Le Petit Parisien at three. We’re meeting to celebrate the fact that Hazel won the Historical Fiction category at the RNA awards a few days before, and the publication of Sheena’s The Lake.

But at exactly one minute to one o’clock, Monday 23rd March 2015 becomes all about ME.

Lecture smecture. I can’t possibly go to that now. Instead, I text Hazel and Sheena to tell them that I am now AN ONGOING SITUATION and to meet me at the cafe ASAP because OMG stuff is happening and I’m like WTF with the all caps and the acronyms.

*THE* PHONE CALL: 12:59, MONDAY MARCH 23RD 2015

I was about fifteen minutes from walking out the door when my phone rang with a UK country code.

Instantly I know: it’s my agent, Jane. My heartbeat starts thundering in my ears but I’m pretty calm, cool and collected when I speak to her. I actually miss her call – I don’t get to the phone in time – and I call her straight back without listening to her voicemail which will later tell me that there is “terrifyingly good news”.

I think she is calling with a general update – what else could it be? The book went out on Wednesday – so I’m not prepared at all when she says, “We have an offer.” Two books from Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic, and an advance that means I can be a student for the next three years without having to live off of Aldi’s instant noodles. With this, I’ll be able to dine on McDonnell’s Super Noodles instead. Major brand noodles instead of own brand/generic.

Major brand noodles, people. Hooray!

One small thing: it’s a pre-empt and it has a 5pm deadline.

A pre-empt is basically an offer  that says, “We want this book and we don’t want anyone else to have the chance to make an offer for it too. We want it off the FOR SALE shelf, now.” It is not the opening bid in a potential auction, because if you say no at deadline time, the offer doesn’t stand. It will definitely drop significantly – the Super Noodles would be gone and I’d be back to those mystery noodles in Tesco’s Everyday Value range that are so cheap (12c a pack! Whaaa….?) I’m not entirely convinced they can be a foodstuff – or it might go away altogether.

You know that sequence in 24 that plays on either side of a commercial break? The beep… beep … beep… of the ticking clock that speeds up until it’s more like beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep? That’s what my afternoon was like that day. As I said I skipped the lecture, heading straight for Le Petit Parisien, where Sheena had thankfully dashed to a bit early so we could sit drinking coffee and staring at my phone together, waiting for my agent to ring back. Hazel eventually arrived too.

We did this for three hours. I forget how many coffees I had.

Beep…

Beep…

Beep…

Beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep.

We waited while Jane got more information, which she called me at about a minute to five to relay. Everything she came back with sounded like good news.

The editor, Sara, seemed to be incredibly enthusiastic, as shown by her coming back with a pre-empt just five days after the book went out. (My agent said it was the fastest deal she’d ever done.) Now I’ve had a foot in the publishing industry for the last three years or so and knew way more than I needed to about it before that, and what I’ve learned is that enthusiasm is everything. It can be hard to maintain through the long process of a publishing contract – for both sides – and so if you don’t start with oodles of it, you’re destined to be short of it later on.

So, on Wicklow Street, standing outside the cafe with my phone to my ear smelling the lovely stuff on offer in L’Occitane next door, I told Jane to accept the offer.

I know I’m incredibly lucky to have to suffer through only five days of being on submission – and for it to end in a deal – but that’s just as well, because it turns out that five days of being on submission is about all I could take!

The featured image is a view from the famous promenade in Nice, France. I love it there, and have spent many an hour sitting on benches like the one pictured, sunning myself and reading great books. It makes me feel the opposite of how being on submission felt. 

... and not enough of this.

HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.

2. MAKE A PLAN

This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

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Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

* * * * *

So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling? 

How Much Time Do You Need To Write?

In a few weeks’ time I’ll temporarily relocate to a lovely apartment in the south of France, making it three years in a row that I’ve done that, and I’ll try to complete my novel while I’m there, making it three years in a row that I’ve done that too

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The key word there is try. Why can’t I just finish this damn book?

In my defence, things are quite hectic in Catherineland. (But then people with far more hectic lives than me write books all the time.) And it hasn’t been the same novel for the last three years. (But it was the same novel this time last year.) And some progress has been made. (A messy ‘discovery’ draft completed, but what since then? You finished that at the end of July, for feck’s sake!)

Time is definitely a major factor—and I don’t mean a lack of it (because we all know you can make time for anything when you really want to) but more so, how much of it I need to write anything at all. I can’t remember who said it but years ago I heard an author say, ‘I need the whole day to write for an hour, the whole week to write for a day…’ (possible paraphrase alert) and I totally understood what she meant. It might only take me an hour to write a thousand words, but in order to write those thousand words, I need to feel as if I have the whole day, or at least a great big chunk of it. I’ve never been one of these writers who can get up an hour earlier and cheerfully bang out ten pages before work. My process is more like bang out a few paragraphs, swim around in them for a few hours, tinkering and changing and rearranging, bang out a couple more, repeat as required.

I know a writer who sits down at her desk and just writes, one word after the other, sentence by sentence, never looking back or even having to look back, until a perfectly coherent draft is completed. She immediately whisks it off to her editor, and the edits are always little polishes, never major reconstruction. To me, this sounds like voodoo. HOW IS SHE DOING THIS?!

My method, on the other hand, is very circular. That’s the only way I can explain it, and perhaps it’s not the best explanation. But although I know what has to happen in each chapter, I don’t know how I’m going to write about how it happened. I have all the words, and the facts, and I scribble down all of them onto the virtual page, and then I mess around with them for hours on end, seeing where they go, changing where they went, moving that line from the middle to the end, etc. etc. I’m constantly coming back to the start of the chapter to start again, afresh, until I’m somewhat satisfied with it. Only then do I move on. As I said above, I swim around in my chapters rather than write them from start to finish.

Is this normal? I’m starting to doubt it. But then is there any ‘normal’ way to write?

A few years I happened upon a documentary about John Banville that, quite honestly, made me want to throw things. In a scene set in his writing room, he introduced the audience to his writing process. It begins with him sitting at a desk, writing in longhand until he has perfected a sentence. This could and apparently does take all day. Then, when he has a perfect sentence, he turns to a second desk that’s at a right angle to the first and types that sentence into the MS Word document of his novel’s manuscript. Then the process begins again.

Now maybe that’s why Banville has won the Booker, may win the Nobel Prize and writes lines like the past beats inside me like a second heart, while I can’t kick an adverb habit or even finish my novel, but I just can’t fathom spending this much time dwelling on single lines.

Tell me: how much time do you need to write? What’s your process? How many words do you get done on an average day? And could you even imagine writing your book the Banville way?

11 Signs You’re Meant To Be A Writer

Yes, things have been a little quiet around here lately, but that’s only because, first of all, I was so busy there for a few weeks that I couldn’t even think straight and then, second of all, once the busyness was over, I awarded myself a whole day off—I didn’t even check my e-mails—and instead curled up with Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, and that felt so good that I gave myself another day off, and then I started feeling light-headed and strange and had to come back here (here being The Desk), and get back to work. So while I play catch-up with the 391 e-mails from people who still don’t seem to understand that I don’t review books, my lovely blogging friend Laura Pepper Wu is going to entertain you with a guest post I’m sure we can all relate to: 11 Signs You’re Meant To Be A Writer. And let’s play a little game: leave the number of things that apply to you in the comments. Welcome, Laura!

laura‘Since you are reading Catherine’s blog, you’ve no doubt accepted by now that you’re a writer. But just in case you haven’t or if you’ve been having doubts of late, here are 11 signs that you truly are meant to be writing – and always have been!

1. You bust out long emails without even flinching, and even your signature is like a paragraph long. Sometimes you start an email with the words “In a bit of a rush, so just a quick reply,” and still manage to bang out enough text for a Kindle Singles essay.

2. You’re the person who buys 10 postcards on holiday and actually delights in writing them. Oh, and each one has a different story on it, because writing the same thing to all 10 of your friends would feel like cheating.

3. You’ve dreamed of sitting in front of a typewriter/ computer and pouring your heart out on to it ever since you can remember. Whether your first inspiration was Clark Kent working at the fast-paced Daily Planet, or Carrie Bradshaw staring longingly out of her window in her knickers and a pair of sparkly earrings, you’ve wanted to do that forever.

4. You work your thoughts out better with a pen and paper than discussing the situation through verbally. If you’re trying to make a decision, make sense of something, or plan ahead for the weekend, it’s that trusty notebook and pen that you make a grab for first.

5. Staying home on a Friday night with a glass of wine and a good book sounds pretty much like you died and went to heaven.

6. You read the back of cereal packets and think about what you would write in place of the current copy (and think to yourself how you’d do a much better job at it).

7. You’re able to articulate and get your point across far better with written words than over the phone. Whenever you’re given a customer service number, your first question is, “is there an email address I can use?”

8. You’ve actually Googled “Can I expense coffee/ tea?” before.

Laura's newest venture, The Write Life magazine.

Laura’s newest venture, The Write Life magazine.

9. You read everything you can get your hands on, including the free leaflets from the supermarket or the book of coupons from the drug store.

10. You can’t walk past a stationery shop without popping in, “just to have a look.”

11. While you couldn’t give a hoot about playing Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, put a box of Scrabble or Scattegories in front of you and you suddenly get very competitive. That dinner party just got way more interesting.

How many did you nod your head along to? Many of us have wondered at one point or another what we need to do or achieve before we can legitimately call ourselves “a writer.” If that sounds remotely like you, stop that. If you truly love writing you probably know it and you always have, and that’s the only permission you need. Okay?’

Thanks, Laura! My number is 8, and it’ll be 9 in a minute after I Google “Can I expense coffee?”. My favorite part of Sex and the City was when Carrie sat at her little desk to write, but alas, my reality of this involves sweatpants, a tiny box room and a view of suburbia. Oh, well. 

Laura Pepper Wu is a writer and the editor for The Write Life Magazine: a lifestyle magazine for those of us who write. Check it out at TheWriteLifeMagazine.com. Laura is also the founder of Ladies Who Critique and 30 Day Books. Outside of her many writing-related ventures, she spends her time walking her spoiled dog in rainy Seattle, checking out local coffee shops, and learning (quite hopelessly) how to sing jazz. Connect with Laura on Twitter @laurapepwu.

My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

It was September 2006 and Ihad  just moved to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t have much money, no car and my job hadn’t commenced yet, so I basically knew no one. I spent most of my days wandering around Downtown Disney, tracing a path which always ended up in the Virgin Megastore on Westside (which is no longer there, sadly). Upstairs there were magazines, a bookstore, and a cafe: the perfect place for me. The bookstore wasn’t the kind where you could walk in with a book you wanted in mind and find it there on the shelf, though; this place was more of a let’s go in with an open mind and see what we find type of place.

savethecat

One day I found Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Synder and started to flip through it. Not only did it make me laugh, standing there in the aisle, but it also explained story in a way I could understand, and used examples from movies I was familiar with to show that like it or not—and done consciously or not—all the movies that leave us feeling really satisfied, that have us walking back out into the light after seeing it in the movie theatre and saying to our friend, ‘That was really good, wasn’t it?”, adhere in some way to these principles.

Even though I shouldn’t have been spending any money at all, I just had to buy the book so I could take it back to my crappy little apartment and read the rest.

Disney 7656

Have I shown you this before? This was my crappy Orlando apartment (the one I shared with partying Russians who never locked the front door). I believe that’s called 80s Office Chic. 

Which is where I discovered that this screenwriting book is amazing for plotting commercial fiction.

It’s even more amazing if you’re asked for a chapter-by-chapter outline, as I once was, before I’d even written a word of the book.

Need a one-page synopsis? Or your entire book down pared down to just three paragraphs? Whip out Save the Cat!, flip to the beat sheet page (my copy now just falls open there) and fill in a sentence—one sentence—for each of the fifteen beats. Divide into three, jazz up a bit and there you go: your one-page synopsis.

And if you can’t fill in a sentence for each of those fifteen beats? Then your structure might have a weak spot. There’s room to improve.

Putting The Fun Back Into Story

If you’ve read Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat! is like that only in a language you’ll understand and a length that won’t fry your brain. Save the Cat! is actually a fun read, and something you’ll return to again and again. The book isn’t that thick, even. Story is just too much for me. I can’t take it all in. It also seems to squeeze all the fun out of it, every last drop, until it just gets so technical and nit-bitty that it can only leave you feeling totally overwhelmed (I think).

Another thing I love about Snyder’s books is that he assumes you know what you’re doing. He takes it for granted that idea, characters, etc. are all already there. His beat sheet is more of a test, something you can lay down over the story you already have to check it for structural integrity, for weak spots and holes.

Now, yes, I am aware that I’m supposed to be writing books, not screenplays. But if you write commercial fiction, there is no real difference between you and a screenwriter in terms of the plot beats you should aim to hit. Only the novelist, I think, faces a much deeper, wider and darker chasm (100,000 words) than the screenwriter does (120 pages) and so if there’s help out there, why not take it? Especially when most of us have a great idea for a beginning, a vague idea for an end, a cast of characters and not much else.

How are you going to fill in the middle, eh?

‘Story Structure’ Does NOT Equal ‘Formula’

Let’s just take a moment here to address those of you whose teeth are already grinding and eyes are already a-rolling at the thought of doing anything to our work other than letting it run free and wild across the blank pages of Pretentious Meadow. A beat sheet isn’t about writing to a formula. This is about the elements of story which, if you’ll recall, is what all this is supposed to be about in the first place.

For example, let’s say that I came rushing up to you, breathless, and said, “Oh my god, you will not believe what’s just happened to me. I was sitting in traffic, right? Waiting for the light to turn red. Next thing I know this guy comes running up to my window and starts pounding on the glass!”

And then I abruptly stop talking.

What would be your reaction?

Wouldn’t it be to ask, “Yeah, and? What happened then?”

Because every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I clearly left out the ending of my traffic tale. Therefore, it doesn’t sit right with you. You know it’s missing something. You knew it as soon as you heard it, because you’re wired for story. So you have a natural, human reaction to hearing the beginning and middle of a story: you look for the end.

This is exactly what Save the Cat! and other “plotting” books, devices and advice is all about. The only difference is that they go much deeper than the basics of beginning, middle and end. For instance, Snyder can break a story into two halves (Opening Image <- Midpoint -> Final Image), four quarters (Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act II) or fifteen by way of his famous beat sheet (see the first Save the Cat! book for this).

But you can just take what you want or need, and leave the rest. For example, when planning my current WIP I thought of the story like this:

  • Half way through is the “midpoint”, where the hero does something that means he can never return to his “Before” life, a point of no return
  • Act II up until the midpoint is all about the hero being proactive, moving into a new life (without committing to it)
  • Act II after the midpoint is all about the hero resisting the (inevitable and permanent) change that’s up ahead
  • Act I is the “Before” or Old World, where if the hero keeps doing what he’s doing, life will be pretty sucky
  • Act III is the hero deciding to move into his “After” or New World, and settling there
  • At each turn (end of Act I, midpoint, end of Act II) there’s a significant stakes raise, greater than the one before.

My constant re-reading of Save the Cat! helped me fill in all the other bits as I went along, but when you’re first faced with the question Is this idea enough for a novel?, being able to figure out if your story has a beginning, middle and end can save you a lot of staring-out-the-window time.

I’ve mentioned this book before, but I wanted to post about it again because I recently re-read the other two books in the series, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat! Strikes Back, and remembered just how wonderful they are. Tragically Snyder passed away suddenly at the age of just 51 before Strikes Back had even hit the shelves, but not before he’d become famous (and appreciated!) in screenwriting circles and was traveling all over the world to help other writers with their scripts.

So if you’re struggling, give Save the Cat! a chance and see what it can do for you. At the very least, it’ll make you giggle.

Find Save the Cat! on Amazon and visit Blake Snyder’s website here.