I’ve been immersing myself in the world of my novel – and very much enjoying it. It does help that a lot of the locations in the novel (which takes place predominantly in Romania) are so picturesque.
I had big writing plans for 2016, in spite of the changes that I knew were coming: the move to the UK, the separation, the job-hunting. I was going to finish my WIP and send it through to a mentor for feedback and structural edits. I was going to publish enough poems to be able to fill a collection and start sending it around to poetry publishers. Of course, I was going to continue blogging, both here and on the Geneva Writers’ Group blog, plus all the reviewing and contributing behind the scenes to dVerse Poets Pub and other sites.
Eh, well, no! None of that happened.
I struggled to put pen to paper with my novel: the subject matter just felt too close to certain things which I was experiencing, so I kept putting it off. I did make some progress on it during the wonderful writing retreat in Burgundy (about 10,000 words’ worth of progress), but after that it all got very quiet again. It now languishes at the mid-way mark, about 50,000 words or so. However, the screenwriting workshop I went on last Saturday, run by Resource Productions has given me a new appetite for tackling it. I don’t expect to turn it into a screenplay (I don’t know enough about film-making for that), but I can approach it in a new way, perhaps storyboarding, photography etc., so that I finally get the story out of me. Then at least I have some raw material to work with, instead of just having a jumble in my brain. I also discovered the scriptwriting software Final Draft, which may be helpful for structuring thought and writing for novels too (but it’s darn expensive).
I did send out some poems but not in any systematic way. Although a few were accepted, I still don’t have a decent enough bunch to fill a whole volume. I did send out a selection of about 20 for two separate chapbook competitions, but was unsuccessful in both of those. However, I did have a great spurt of poetry in October, when I visited my friends in Provence and some of those poems are amongst the best things I’ve written to date. I seem to have made a bit of a creative jump onto the next step in my progression, and I really hope this is permanent rather than just temporary.
As for reviewing and blogging, I’ve been rather lax with that, at least when it comes to other websites. I’ve cut down on my commitments to reviewing, the Geneva Writers’ Group (no more newsletters, only very occasional blogging), dVerse Poets Pub (no more hosting, only occasional visits). I don’t like doing this, mind. These were some of the most fun activities I was engaging in – but I felt I could not do them justice when they were constantly jostling with other dull but necessary aspects of my life.
This week, just before the Christmas holidays (during which I will take a break from everything but reading), I tried to finish off a couple of projects I wanted to send off in early January. Alas, my Microsoft Office documents seem to be having trouble opening up and saving. I also hear that Yahoo accounts have been compromised. Hurrah, more technological woe to sort out… it will be back to pen and notebooks or semaphore code and smoke signals for me.
Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:
Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.
Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?
I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]
So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:
- List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
- Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
- Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
- Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
- Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)
I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:
Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.
That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.
Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.
By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?
Just over a month ago I took part in a meeting with agents and editors organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. We had to submit the 15 first pages of our completed novel and a synopsis for individual consultations. I had been sick and tired of Novel No. 1 for months by now and was raring to get going on Novel No. 2, but I dutifully sent out No. 1. But I had somehow never quite cottoned on to what a synopsis is supposed to be: a chronological description of everything that happens in the book, including giving away the ending. So, instead, what I sent was this:
‘Beyond the Woods’ by Marina Sofia
‘You think Eastern Europe is still part of Europe… but it’s an entirely different world. None of your rules or your notions of right and wrong apply here.’
Matt Johnson is content with his life: he has a promising scientific career ahead of him in London and a glamorous Romanian girlfriend, Cristina, whom he intends to marry as soon as she secures a divorce from her estranged husband back home. But suddenly his world collapses. On her trip home to see her parents, Cristina has a fatal car crash. Her friend, Eli, doesn’t believe it was an accident – she suspects that Cristina’s husband, Luca, now a rising star in Romanian politics, killed her. Matt is disinclined to believe conspiracy theories, but agrees to join Eli in Bucharest and figure out what happened.
As the mismatched pair trace Cristina’s last steps and conversations, Matt finds out things about his girlfriend’s past that he hadn’t known or wanted to believe before. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic local policeman, Matt and Eli begin a game of cat and mouse with Luca, who thwarts their efforts to find proof at every turn.
This is not just a simple whodunit. 1990s Romania is a society on the brink of collapse after the fall of Communism, where uncertainty is rife and no one seems able or willing to give straight answers in a murder investigation. How can you ever hope to uncover the truth or punish the perpetrators in such a place?
The comments I received were that it sounds like a good hook, but it’s not technically a synopsis. However, I now feel free to share it with you, because I have moved on to Novel No. 2 for the foreseeable future. How does it strike you? Would you want to read more? And what has your experience been with synopses?
Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…
I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?
So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?
After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?
WordPress wished me Happy Birthday today. Yes, it’s been exactly one year since I created this blog, although (ironically, given its title) I did not find time to post anything until the 7th of February, 2012.
I was not new to blogging. I had been writing a blog on my professional website for 2-3 years. But it was professional, neutral, business-like… bar an occasional foray into the vicissitudes of expat life. It was a blog I was very keen to promote and market, as it was a way to let prospective clients know what I was doing.
This writing blog was something I was very reluctant to share with anybody else. I started it mainly as a personal challenge. A means of holding myself accountable for giving pride of place to the thing that means so much to me in my life. Namely, writing. That thing which I have, nevertheless, always placed last in my list of priorities. Perhaps because I love it so much (even when it is painful and difficult), that it feels like sheer self-indulgence to be dedicating so much time to it. How could I possibly be selfish enough to write, when there are so many other claims on my time: money-making, laundry, children, husband, parents, friends, acquaintances, schools, society, the wider world?
So this blog was my little stake of selfishness that I drove into the permafrost of obligation and strict scheduling that my life had become. And I have been selfish in the way I present this blog: whatever comes into my mind, with no rhyme or reason, posting whenever I can and feel like it, following no rules.
Anything else – being read, receiving comments, making friends – has been a surprising and wonderful bonus.
For those who like facts and figures, here are some of the stats which delighted or dismayed me this past year:
- I have had 10,500 views over the past year. Many, many more than I ever expected.
- I have received 1,477 comments (well, OK, probably most of them are mine, replying to your comments) – but it is humbling to find that people take the time not only to read and ‘like’ something, but also to provide such insightful andor supportive comments.
- I have had visitors from 106 countries – so exciting for a global nomad such as myself! – with the most visitors from the US, then UK, France, Canada, Greece and Germany.
- My most popular post was certainly not what I expected – the rather snarky, opinionated post entitled Most Overrated Books. Meanwhile, my poor little anti-Valentine’s Day poem only got one view. So, should I understand that my readers are hard-nosed realists and critics, with a hidden romantic tremor?
But what these statistics do not show is my gratitude to all of you, who have given me such a wonderful sense of community, who have put up with far too frequent postings followed by long periods of silence, who have stayed with me despite a lack of consistent theme. It’s been a wonderful first year of blogging, and thank you for making it just that!
Almost a month ago exactly, I wrote ‘The End’ on the first draft of my novel. I printed it out and set it aside – yes, literally in a drawer – to marinade in its juices until I felt ready to tackle it again. Meanwhile, the end of school revelries, birthdays, professional obligations, family demands swept over me, pulling me under, all but drowning me in waves of joy and salt, of midsummer madness and unknowable sadness.
But now it’s just me and those 150+ pages of single-spaced writing eyeballing each other. I already know I have to take out some scenes, add others, move things around. I know I will wince when I see redundant adjectives and adverbs, will frown at repetitions, will fiercely attack typos and careless grammar. I am sure so much will escape me still…
And in the meantime, I continue to read and review crime fiction. Many writers say that they stop reading in their genre when they are writing a book, but I’ve been writing this book for 12 years now! Still, the reason for avoidance – to steer clear of contagion and envy – is becoming obvious. Gone are the days when I could read a thriller purely for fun. Now, if it’s a bestseller, like Simon Kernick or JoNesbø, I wish I could have that pace in plotting (even if they are light years removed from my own style). If it’s the wit and prose that win me over, like Stav Sherez or Patricia Highsmith, I flame up in desire to achieve that standard. And if it’s poorly written, I wallow in pools of self-pity: that I am unlikely to get published, when there is so much crime fiction already out there.
Yet none of these writers, admired or envied, are there with me. None of my friends, online or off, can be there with me. I step into the ring of fire, all alone. I know nothing about grilling except for the eating. I probably have the wrong weapons with me: my glasses, my pens and my notebooks. This time, it’s a battle to the death – and only one of us can emerge victorious.
This is taking me waaaay out of my comfort zone, sharing a small fragment (something more than seven lines) from the first draft of my novel. The usual disclaimers (rough, unedited, only a snippet etc.) apply. The only reason I am considering it is because some of you, dear readers, kindly asked to see some of it, and because it is part of the 15 day writing challenge devised by Jeff Goins.
By way of background to the story: it is a crime novel which takes place in Romania in 1995. This woman is a secondary character, the wife of the policeman who is helping my hero (who is English) and heroine (Romanian) in their crime-solving mission. Gina plays a small but crucial part in destroying the evidence. The fragment below describes her motivation for it to a certain extent. Any comments or suggestions would be much appreciated. Don’t be afraid to be cruel in order to be kind!
To her surprise, Gina had not found married life and parenthood as rewarding as she had been led to believe. She had been herded by her mother into the expectation that motherhood would confer new meaning to her life. But now she often found herself wondering: ‘Is this all? Is that all I have to look forward to in life from now to evermore?’ Oh, she loved the little blighter well enough, but she had to admit that she often did not like him much. He was selfish, prone to tantrums, overly spoilt by his dad and grandparents, and he took all of that out on her. As if she didn’t have enough troubles of her own!
All she had ever learnt about bookkeeping was out of date in the new market economy and had to be relearnt. There were other, younger accountants snapping at her heels, with their new-fangled degrees from private universities (luckily, still not officially recognised) and their mastery of foreign languages. She had been told she should learn some English or French too, that it would help further her career. What if their enterprise is privatised and sold off to foreigners: then where would she be, out on the streets? Whereas if she could chat with her would-be bosses in their own language, that might make a difference.
But when was she supposed to have the time to learn a foreign language? With the child still not sleeping through the night and Dinu often away on night-shift, or else dead to the world when he did get to sleep at home. She also had her mother-in-law to look after, who was not necessarily getting more decrepit every week, but certainly more demanding. Plus trying to maintain the fruit and vegetables weed-free and unbitten by pests on their small plot of land. She had been told that keeping a few chicken would be no trouble, and that having freshly laid eggs would be such a bonus to her son’s health. So now she had to feed and clean after those stinky, cackling nuisances.
And, to top it all, Dinu had now taken it into his head to build a house behind his parents’ old one. True, their current house was small, dark and old-fashioned, with only an electric plate in the kitchen. The running water was barely running, since the pipes had burst last winter. But now they had a building site to contend with as well. Dirt everywhere and drudgery from morning till bedtime! If Dinu ever took it into his dim little brain to mention having another child again, she would punch him right between his eyes!
Her only pleasure was spending her money on foreign chocolate. When she got her salary (in ever-increasing mounds of cash, which were actually worth very little in the current inflation), she would stop at a kiosk on the high street on the way back from work. She would buy pretty much the entire stock and hide it at the back of her wardrobe, trying to resist the temptation to have more than one entire tablet a day. She was beyond caring what her body might look like if she gained too much weight. She had no feeling of guilt at spending so much money on chocolate that she never shared with anyone else. After all, her husband was willing to spend every last leu of his on that child: it had to be all foreign nappies and toys for him, oh, yes! But he didn’t want to spend anything at all on her, his wife.
And now he was getting far too involved in this stupid case, all because a posh bird from Bucharest had batted her eyelashes at him. Well, she would teach him what Gina was capable of, that she would!
The men had been nicely suited, with those fashionable pastel-coloured broad ties that she wished her husband could wear instead of that sweaty police uniform. They had descended as a synchronised pair from their Dacia with tinted windows. They had been well-spoken, polite, not at all like the security forces of the olden days. Yet she had no doubt that was what they were. Any Romanian worth his or her salt could sniff out these people a mile off, no matter how many manners they might have acquired in the meantime.
They had expressed their concern at Dinu’s over-involvement in this case, which she fully agreed with. In fact, she hadn’t quite realised quite how many extra enquiries he had made in Pitesti and Bucharest on behalf of the posh bird until these gentlemen made her aware of them. They asked her if he kept any paperwork at home (she didn’t think so), if he had confided in her any details of the case. He hadn’t and she wasn’t interested anyway, as if she did not have enough worries of her own.
Upon hearing that, they expressed their sympathy. Delighted that someone was finally listening to her, she poured out much more of her daily anxieties than she had intended, even more than she had shared with her girlfriends. Not that she had many of them here, in this godforsaken little town. And the men had nodded and taken her seriously, instead of trying to laugh off her concerns. They had promised… well, she wasn’t quite sure what, but it sounded a relief, a solution to her problems. Nor was she quite sure if they actually promised anything. But, at any rate, they painted a picture of future possibilities. Lifetime employment for herself, a promotion for her husband, most likely a move to a more happening part of the country, a big city. Where her son could grow up in a civilised fashion, away from the dirt of the crumbling old house and animal shit. An escape from the clutches of her mother-in-law and the building site. A chance to put herself first, instead of slaving away for others. A chance to make that life for herself that she had hoped for, but which had somehow passed her by. Until now.
And all they asked in return was to find out where he kept his notes and evidence from the case, and to hand it over to them, or, failing that, to destroy them. Sink this nasty little story, which had nothing to do with them.
What could be simpler, more natural? If (or rather, when) Dinu found out, he would be furious at first, but surely it was time he realised he was not Colombo or whichever of those American detectives were his heroes. He would thank her once he realised how much they could gain from simply letting things rest. Leave things be. It wasn’t like they were hiding something, it was more about not wanting to dig any deeper and uncover unpleasantness.
So, if her husband wasn’t exactly forthcoming with the details, then she would have to snuffle them out herself. But she would have to be clever and resourceful, for there was no way that she could access any of his documents at work. That much was clear. Although she had little respect for the coffee-swilling, nail-painting and endlessly chatting ladies at the police station, she was sure that they had enough basic police training to know not to share any documents with outsiders. Even outsiders who were married to a police officer.
So what other solution was there? She would have to convince Dinu to bring his paperwork home.
12 years in gestation, 2 years in the writing, 98,000 words in the making… and yesterday, finally, finished. I never had as much satisfaction writing ‘The End’ as I did on the first draft of my novel.
So why does it not feel like more of an achievement? Why is the relentless thrumming and mournful wail (perhaps even the shouty anger) of the song ‘The End’ by The Doors a more accurate reflection of my feelings?
Perhaps because I have had this novel hanging over me like a bad conscience for so long that I have fallen out of love with it. Or because I already know that the first draft is inconsistent, the voice and tone shifting as I have grown more confident with practice (or with age). I already know there are gaping holes and inaccuracies, wonky timelines, characters that need some space to grow beyond the stereotype. But the plan is to let this badly written (but written, yes, nevertheless written) first draft lie in its marinade for the rest of the month and then do a rapid rewrite during July. This rewrite will give it a unified voice (hopefully), plug the gaps, be a rapid brushwork like in a fresco once the damp plaster has been put in place.
Just to give you a sense of how much I’ve been procrastinating: the germ of the idea for the story came to me in about 1997/98. I let it stew in my head for about 10 years, then plotted out the storyline and added some characters in 2008. But its existence was still limited to the confines of my head and nowhere else. At that point I was focusing on writing and submitting short stories (for which I have no talent) on all sorts of topics (most of which completely unappealing ) for competitions that terrified me, simply because I was convinced that only by winning a competition would I find a publisher for my (as yet unwritten) novel.
Enough with the parentheses!
Then in May 2010 I attended the Faber Academy course on getting published. I was a bit cheeky attending it really, since I had not written a single word of my novel yet. One of the requirements for attending was that we bring along the opening chapter or the first three pages of the novel. So, the night before the workshop, I hammered out 3-4 pages and read them out. The noises were encouraging. Much better than I deserved. The editor who ran the course, the cooly realistic yet very inspiring Hannah Griffiths, gave me the best advice I’d ever had up to that point: ‘If you want to write a novel, why are you writing short stories? Write the novel! Don’t waste your time on competitions if you don’t want to be doing that: in the end, none of these awards count as much as the quality of the work you are submitting to an agent or a publisher.’
It sounds obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop. I still dithered, I still hid behind my a million other professional and family obligations. But I did unofficially join NaNoWriMo in November 2010. Unofficially, because, well, I did tell you I don’t like publicly committing to challenges, didn’t I? Somehow, don’t ask me how, I successfully wrote 50,000 words of my novel that month. I continued some sporadic writing over the next couple of months, but then in February 2011 or so it ground to a halt again. Another Faber Academy course in May 2011 reignited my fire, despite the huge personal changes I was going through at the time. And no, honestly, I am not paid to advertise for Faber, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant as tutors: they really make a good team, with their contrasting styles but equal passion for words and stories. However, NaNoWriMo in 2011 was a bit of a failure, with me only managing to churn out about 20,000 words and the novel still nowhere near completion.
February 2012, however, was a turning point. Yes, I know I keep saying that, and I know that I shouldn’t depend on external events so much to motivate myself. A true writer always finds the courage and inspiration within his or her own self to keep going. But at the time I needed a push, a small dose of encouragement liberally sprinkled with reality. And I found that at the Geneva Writers’ Group conference, particularly in the words of Bret Lott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Tiberghien and Dinah Lee Küng. Since then I have left fear and procrastination, busy-ness and conflicting priorities behind. I have written every day, set up this blog, started sharing my work with others, learnt to accept critique. But still, still, still, no progress with my novel, even though I was so close to the finishing line.
And now, in a slow, steady trickle over days and weeks, this past weekend my world (of anxiety, procrastination and invention) and my novel ended. Not with bang, but a whimper. Or a long-drawn out breathy wail from Jim Morrison.
Take your pick!
I must be crazy… and yet, it’s working! (The sceptic in me feels obliged to add: ‘so far’)
I joined Jeff Goins’ 15 Day Writing Challenge. Yes, me, who never joins anything that requires commitment, promises, hard work, interacting with community, disclosing stuff about myself… Yesterday was Day 2 of the Callenge and it required us to get up this morning two hours earlier than usual and just write, without logging onto the Internet, without blogging, without distractions. You get the picture.
Except that I usually get up at 5 a.m., to have a bit of quiet time to write (and because I am a bit of an insomniac) before all hell of breakfasts, family demands, emails, business and admin breaks loose. So this meant that today I got up at 3 a.m. I did so through my natural biological alarm clock of ‘worryhead’. I stumbled to the guestroom and snuggled under the duvet with my brand new, gorgeous A4 Rhodia notebook… and actually wrote, for the first time in a month, on my novel.
Sure, I started writing one chapter and then suddenly discovered I wanted to write the final one instead. But I got two hours of uninterrupted thought and considerable amount of writing done. Then I went back to bed for another two hours.
Will I keep this up? Not the 3 a.m. start, but I think the 5 a.m. slot from now on will be dedicated to my novel in longhand, rather than to poetry or writing in my diary. Nice and necessary though those things are, completing my novel is now top priority. And the satisfaction of having done your word count, come what may today, is priceless!
I am now on my third cup of coffee, and have a business call lined up in two minutes. I suspect I will fall short of 40 cups of coffee (only just, though), but I can’t help thinking of the Bill Haley song.