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Hi, I’m Rose and I’m a write-a-holic

In this blog I’ll be sharing my experiences of working as a freelance writer and becoming a published author, with all the emotional upheaval and social dysfunction that goes along with it.

I decided to start writing this for two reasons: one, the obvious one, that hopefully people will read it and take an interest in my work; two, maybe less obvious but at least as important to me, because being a writer is hard – trying to make a living from being creative is hard and trying to do it alone is even harder – and there have been so many times when I wished I could just talk to someone who understood how hard it is and had been through the same thing.

I really hope that someone will come across this and feel less alone, maybe more optimistic and certainly less incompetent, because as you will come to realise, I fall into the ‘scatty creative-type’ category far more than the ‘level-headed go-getter’ category, so if I can make a success of myself, you definitely can.

So, welcome to my blog; my original plan was to post at least once a week but I don’t seem to be keeping up with that, so in the interests of being realistic about it I think it’s best if I just commit to posting when I can. You can follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor if you haven’t had enough of me on here. Feel free to tweet me questions and I will try to address them in future posts, or if there are topics you would like to know more about, same thing.

I’ve never blogged before so this is somewhat of an experiment, but since I love to write, I’m sure I’ll figure it out 🙂

 

Exciting Times!

It’s amazing what a difference a week can make!

Last Monday I was really starting to wonder whether my career aspirations were just delusions. I felt like nothing was ever going to go right, and I was convinced that my novel had been rejected by the publisher I had submitted it to.

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I was just about holding it together. I hadn’t given up, but I can honestly say that it was starting to feel like nothing was ever going to come of it and that maybe it was time to start considering other options.

Well, on Tuesday, that all changed.

Not only had the publisher not rejected my submission, but the agent I had been in contact with emailed me back with some of the most glowing praise I’ve ever received in my life, and we arranged to speak on the phone on Friday to discuss what I should do next.

Let me give you some background about this novel. Anyone who knows me will already know the history, pretty much, but for those of you who don’t, here’s the basic outline.

I first got the idea for this book in about 2011, the same year I got married and then began my English Language and Literature degree with the Open University. I started working on the book, and in the meantime I began working as a freelance writer doing corporate content for an independent publisher.

By 2013 I had a fair chunk of the story written, I guess around half of it, maybe a little less. My mum was part of the Richard and Judy Book Club at the time, and she told me they were holding a competition for unpublished novelists, with the winner receiving agent representation and a publishing deal. It was free to enter so I thought I’d give it a bash, without really expecting anything to come of it.

In March 2014 I was contacted by the Richard and Judy team to say I had made it to the shortlist of the final seven, and I was sent a page of feedback from one of the fiction editors at Quercus to help me finish off the rest of the book in time for the deadline at the end of September.

Ultimately, I didn’t win, but the editor very kindly took an interest in the book anyway, and gave me some amazing notes to work from so that I could develop it further.

During the next few months I lost a very dear friend, my marriage broke down and I moved into my own place; at 31 years old, it was the first time I had ever lived by myself, and it took a lot of adjustment! I had to defer my English Literature exam in June because, well, I was mildly traumatised from ending a 14-year relationship, and I took the summer to recalibrate and start putting my life back together.

In October 2015 I started the first Creative Writing module of my degree, and I learned a massive amount over the next two years – the course covered so many vital aspects of writing including structure, narrative voice, dialogue, pacing, character development, tension and conflict, status, subtext, editing and the writing process as a whole.

Sadly, both my grandmothers died in the early part of 2016, and I was also working towards my driving test, which I passed in August of that year. The book ended up being put on the back-burner with so many other things swimming around in my head. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about it anymore, but there’s only so much energy a person can find when they’re working full-time and doing a degree, and I just didn’t have the focus to figure out what to do with it. I decided that it would make sense to finish the Advanced Creative Writing module before going back over it again, so that I would have the best possible chance of editing it to a publishable standard.

So, after I finished my studies last year and gave myself the summer to recover, I sat down with some sheets of A4 paper and wrote down every major plot point, then stuck them all onto a plastic board and worked through the whole thing with a red pen. I made some massive cuts – to whole sections of plot, parts of scenes and even characters – and reworked a lot of the material to create a more cohesive story, develop the narrative voice, give the settings more texture and the characters more depth, and expand on the use of imagery to give it a more ‘poetic’ feel. All that took a lot of time and effort, but I loved every second of it because I felt that I finally had the tools to craft a piece of work I could truly be proud of.

By March of this year I was ready to send it off again. I worked really hard on a cover letter and synopsis (very, very important things to get right!), using advice from online articles and ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ as a guideline, and I was ready to go!

I got back in touch with the editor I’d worked with, who had been so supportive and encouraging, and submitted the book to the publishing company she is now working for. She also put me in touch with an agent friend of hers and suggested I send it to her as well, which of course I did immediately!

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Then, due to a problem with the publisher’s submission system, I thought it had been rejected. And I still hadn’t heard from the agent, so it seemed as if all was lost…

Until…

Last Tuesday I had a message from the editor apologising and asking me to re-send my email address, and later that day I had the email from the agent, who was incredibly enthusiastic about my writing, my characters and the concept as a whole. She said some really flattering things and I genuinely made myself read through them several times to let them sink in. It was such a wonderful moment, to know that someone else believed my book was something special and I wasn’t just running head-first into a dead end.

After a couple more emails back-and-forth, she explained what she felt needed changing and I got my thinking cap on! It’s difficult when you’ve been invested in the same project for so long to look at it objectively and shift your perspective, but I had a few ideas and I jotted them down, scribbled some out and developed a couple of them that I thought had promise.

Our phone-call on Friday was amazing, and by then I’d come up with some potential solutions to the things she was concerned about. She agreed with my suggestions and said she’d be in touch with the publishers, who said they were of the same mind and that once I’d worked through the fixes we should all get together and discuss it.

Soooo… from Friday night until Sunday night I was glued to my laptop, reworking parts of the story (again!) and reading it through from start to finish to make sure it still flowed the way I wanted with all the amended sections – which was a task in itself, the current version is around 142,000 words! Lucky I read fast 😀

This morning I sent the latest version off and I’m waiting to see what the agent thinks about it. I’m so, so excited – basically, I’m a heartbeat away from not only having an agent but possibly my very first publishing deal as well!

I don’t want to jinx it by getting carried away, and I’m sure there’s still more work ahead of me – it’s possible that this will only be a starting point and nothing is certain at all –  but even if this particular opportunity doesn’t work out, I no longer have any doubt that I have what it takes to be an author. Receiving positive feedback from someone who spends all day every day working with writers and publishers has lit a fire in my belly, and I know that I just need to carry on working at it for as long as it takes to make things happen.

Even that won’t be the end of the story, just the beginning of another. My next novel will essentially be my thesis project for the master’s degree I’m starting in October, and although I know it’s really hard to get published even once, they say the second novel is the real goal because it means you have the potential to build a proper career.

I think over the years I have become one of those people who is always more concerned with reaching the next achievement than celebrating the last one, but I feel that sharing this is important because it’s vital to acknowledge to yourself when you’re on the right track. Celebrating your successes helps you get through the low times, and reminds you that hard work really does pay off eventually, even though sometimes it can seem like you’re putting everything in and getting nothing out.

Keep the faith, people. Keep working and keep dreaming.

There’s an amazing quote I’ll always remember (from the film ‘Rat Race’ – weirdly!), that ‘good things take time, but great things happen all at once.’

If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m at @RoseJamesAuthor. As soon as I have any more news, you’ll see it first there!

I promise I’ll get the second part of the structure post out as soon as I’m able, but for now I hope this might inspire some of you to pick up that project you’ve been avoiding working on, or to begin something new with a little more enthusiasm, or just to carry on plugging away with the knowledge that good things do happen.

You don’t need to be the most talented, or organised, or educated, or imaginative person to make something of yourself. You just need to make a decision that you’re going to succeed at achieving your goals, and then work your ass off until you do! Nothing worthwhile is easy, but if it was then everyone would do it 🙂

Rejection and Self-doubt

Apparently I’m pretty terrible at sticking to this one-post-per-week thing! This time it’s more down to personal issues than general lack of discipline, but I guess discipline is something that should apply even when you’re feeling crap, so I clearly need to work on that.

Part of the reason for my recent lapse in productivity is that the last few weeks have been marked by several rejections, so I suppose I should write about that, since it’s pretty much been the only thing on my mind.

It was my birthday last week – I’m now decidedly in my mid- rather than early-thirties – and for the first time in my life the day brought with it a sense of falling behind rather than moving forward. I’m an optimist by nature, even when things aren’t going well, and I started this year feeling really positive, like ‘this is the year I’m going to make things happen and everything is going to fall into place’. Of course positive mental attitude is important if you want to achieve significant goals, but that becomes hard to sustain when you keep encountering road blocks, and it’s felt very much like the universe just keeps piling on the challenges over the last month or so, with no sign of any pay-off.

I know that every author has to deal with rejection at some point in their career (if one more person tells me about J K Rowling’s long list of rejections, I might just scream!), but knowing it and experiencing it are very different things.

Writing is usually my primary form of therapy, but the latest run of rejections has left me feeling pretty exhausted, emotionally and physically, and that’s definitely impacted my productivity. When the motivation’s not there, it’s very difficult to force yourself to sit down at a screen and be creative, and unfortunately when your self-esteem is linked so closely to your ability to generate material, it tends to lead to a downward spiral that’s constantly reinforcing itself.

I definitely have a tendency to focus too much on the negatives. I could achieve something really brilliant one day, but the next day I’ll be back to worrying about all the things I haven’t achieved and examining every ‘failure’ under a microscope to figure out where I went wrong.

In the last month I’ve had a story short-listed in an online competition and I’ve been accepted onto a master’s programme, both of which I’m really pleased about, but I also had another story rejected and quite harshly (although not unfairly) critiqued, was rejected as a candidate for a mentoring programme I’d applied for, and thought my novel (baby/ life’s work/ precious outpouring of my soul) had been rejected by a publisher, although it turned out that was down to a fault with the email system and it’s still under consideration – eeeek! (Never underestimate the importance of a follow-up query!)

Anyway, as of yesterday, when I began writing this post, I thought it had been rejected and was accordingly depressed. It wasn’t just a case of figuring out where I’d gone wrong, it was a full-blown existential crisis: maybe I’m just not good enough to be a published author. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’ll never be exceptional at anything. Maybe all my hard work over the years has been a complete waste of time and I should start thinking about a different career plan. Maybe I should just crawl into a hole and stay there.

However, despite being crushed by the weight of my hopes and dreams collapsing around my ears, I still held firm to the belief that the main difference between success and failure is tenacity, and that giving up is the only real way to fail. So after flopping around pathetically for maybe an hour or so, I gave myself a stern talking-to, picked up my copy of the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ and started red-inking agents to submit my work to. There’s always another way forward, and if you can’t see it then you need to look harder.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a certain level of masochism is essential if you want to be successful in any creative industry. You have to be willing and able to take the hits if you’re going to push through to a win, and if you can’t, I suggest you give up now. Getting published is not for the faint-hearted.

Having your work dismissed by people whose opinion really counts is soul-destroying, especially since any long-term creative endeavour requires you to pour your heart into it and expose your deepest vulnerabilities. It feels like your essential self has been rejected, not just ‘something you did’, and that’s a hell of a blow, but it’s vital to keep in mind that there are many, many factors involved in why one particular publisher or agent or competition judge didn’t consider your work up to scratch, and not all of them are that it wasn’t ‘good’. There are market pressures and conflicts of interest to consider, as well as personal tastes, current social trends, blah blah blah.

I do think it’s important to try and be objective about your own work and realistic in your expectations. The fact is, you might not be as good as you wish to be, and you have to take that into consideration if your work is constantly being rejected. In the words of Kipling: ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too’. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Natural talent is often seen as the be-all and end-all of creativity, but in reality hard work counts for a lot; there are a huge number of super-talented people who will never get anywhere because they’re not prepared to put the work in, and conversely there are less-talented people with flourishing careers, who persisted and worked and developed the skills they needed to get where they wanted to go. That capacity shouldn’t be underestimated.

Anyway, that’s the latest update and partial explanation of why I haven’t been keeping up with the posts. I’m still planning to get part two of the structure post up, hopefully over the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some of this stuff because I know everyone struggles with rejection and sometimes it helps to know you’re not the only one.

Fingers crossed I’ll have some more positive news to share soon, but if not soon then hopefully in the future. I’m certainly not going to give up, no matter how much work it takes to get there.

If you want to share any of your experiences or thoughts on this subject, you’re welcome to post in the comments or follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor.

 

Battling with Stagnation

I was having a low day when I started writing this post, and since that’s part of what I want to use the blog for I decided to write about it, although I didn’t get round to finishing it until I started feeling better, which is pretty typical for me.

I was thinking about stagnation, which I’m sure is something every writer has struggled with at some point or another – in fact every creative person, regardless of their medium – and no matter how many times I find myself in the middle of it, it never gets any easier.

I’m not necessarily talking about a lack of productivity, although often the two things are interconnected. I’m talking about a protracted period of general restlessness – the feeling of treading water, having to wait on responses from agents, publishers, universities, competitions and being unable to move forward until The Email arrives.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a patient person. Relying on other people to get things done on my behalf makes me anxious and irritable. I think that’s because I spent most of my twenties working a day-job in customer service (which I hated) and going absolutely nowhere creatively. That was partly down to the fact that I couldn’t settle on an outlet for my creativity – I was in a heavy metal band and that was my Big Life Plan for a few years – so I floundered around instead of focusing my energies on one thing.

I was also tired from working at quite a physically demanding job, and at the same time I was involved in a pretty toxic relationship that ground me down to a nub and hollowed me out from the inside, leaving me very little energy for pursuing my goals and even less confidence that I was capable of achieving anything. Eventually I saw it for what it was and managed to end it, but since then I’ve had this feeling like I’m desperately scrambling to make up for lost time, so anything that puts the brakes on leaves me feeling really agitated.

I wouldn’t say I ‘have’ depression (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all), but I’m definitely prone to depressive moods if I’m not in control of what happens next, not just career-wise but with anything that’s important to me. The only reason I’m reluctant to label it is that I know people with serious depression and it’s completely debilitating, so I don’t want to minimise their struggles by saying my problems are the same as theirs. But the feeling I get when I’m down can leave me both lethargic and restless, and usually affects my sleep, my work and my general outlook on life, so even though I don’t suffer from it constantly I can sympathise with people who have to live with that on a daily basis. My heart goes out to them.

I can’t really say that this post offers any constructive advice for dealing with periods of stagnation or comes to any positive conclusion, other than maybe to say it’s fairly common for creative people and it will pass, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

On my low days I usually get very little achieved, even though I might really be looking forward to starting a new story or editing one I’ve already written. Quite often I’ll sit down at my laptop with the intention of getting something done and then suddenly lose enthusiasm/ energy – which makes me feel even worse because then it’s like I’ve failed at the thing I love to do more than anything – but I’ve learned to be kind to myself and recognise that it’s OK. It’ll pass. I just have to be patient and not beat myself up.

At other times, like yesterday, even though I wasn’t up to writing prose I did get some notes down for a book idea I’ve been chewing over for a while. I gave up pretty quickly and I don’t think I thought up anything new, it was more just writing down ideas that had been in my head already, but it was something.

Working as a freelance writer is something I enjoy and am very proud of, but it gets difficult sometimes to reconcile ‘business’ writing with ‘fun’ writing. Often I’m too worn out from staring at the screen all day to get started on a creative project in the evening, but again, it’s about making time for the things I care about and finding ways to compromise so that I can pay my bills and still pursue my dreams. I count myself very lucky that I’m able to have dreams at all, so I try to remind myself that life could be – and has been – a lot worse.

Periods of stagnation can be paralysing but they can also be opportunities to recharge your batteries and assess where you’re going next. Don’t get me wrong, I hate being in them, but sometimes you just have to shut down for a while and wait for things to get moving again on their own. If you’ve done all you can do then that work will pay off. I’m really not cut out for waiting patiently, but I suppose waiting impatiently has the same effect in the end, so I’ll have to make do with that.

If you want to follow me @RoseJamesAuthor I’m always happy to see what other people are up to and be reminded that the world keeps on turning. That’s usually enough to make me shrug out of my sulks and run to catch up again 🙂

 

Building the Foundations: Structure Part 1

Oops! Bit more of an interval than I intended between this post and the last – it’s been a mad couple of weeks, hopefully it’s worth the wait 🙂

Today, we’re talking structure.

What’s that I hear you cry? ‘Structure? Bleugh! Boring!’

Well, yes, structure seems like a pretty dull subject on the surface, but actually once you start applying it, it’s far more exciting than you’d expect, largely because of the effect it can have on your writing when you learn to play with it.

Before I started studying structure I’d only thought about it in a vague, abstract way. It was something I was aware of – as in I knew it existed – but had no idea about from a practical point of view. I wrestled with it repeatedly during my OU degree, with varying levels of success, and even though one blog post obviously won’t make you a black-belt in the art of structuring a narrative, a brief overview will still be useful if you’ve never considered it in detail before.

I’m assuming you’re familiar with the notion of beginning–middle–end when it comes to storytelling. It’s a common enough expression, but it’s not particularly informative if you’re trying to figure out how to apply that to your work. What makes up each part? How long should each section be? How do you know where one part ends and another begins? What happens if you get it wrong?

The first thing to say is that this isn’t a rigid set of rules. Like anything creative, rules are there to be bent frequently and with abandon, but I firmly believe that you need to be capable of wielding the tools before you decide to discard them. In other words, it should be a choice not a cop-out, and you should at least know which rules you’re bending/ breaking rather than just blundering along.

The type of structure I’m going to be talking about (which is the most common one for modern literature and drama) is called three-act structure. Once you understand it you’ll see it in everything, annoyingly! Don’t worry, the effect wears off… mostly… sort of.

So, what does it look like and how does it work?

The way I tend to begin plotting out the structure of my stories (definitely the longer ones but usually the short ones too, unless I’m feeling experimental) is to look at my plot outline (as discussed in the previous post) and decide at what point my narrative will begin and end. What am I planning to open with and how will the story conclude? Between these two points is the entirety of my narrative, so I try to choose them with care!

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Once I have these I can divide all the action in between into three acts (the clue’s in the name). Each act is equally important but not equal in length. Ideally, the first and third acts should take up roughly (and I do mean roughly) a quarter of the overall text each, and the second act should take up around half.

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With short fiction the first act takes up even less, probably around 10 per cent tops (sometimes just a couple of sentences will do!), and the third act is usually cut down too, although its length will vary depending on the specifics of the story.

The first act is about setting the scene: introducing the protagonist and providing relevant background. At this point you’re establishing the status quo: who is the key character (or characters), what makes them tick, and what do they do on a normal, uneventful day? That’s not to say it should be boring – don’t forget, it’s the part that will hopefully get the reader hooked – but it needs to provide enough context and characterisation for the ensuing action to flow smoothly, without the interruption of excess exposition.

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This is the beginning of your protagonist’s ‘arc’ (which I’ll discuss another time), so it’s important to bear in mind that the person they are at the beginning may not be the person they are at the end. It’s good to think about this early on, since you need to set them up to be transformed by the events that unfold later on.

The point that separates the first act from the second is called the inciting incident. This is VERY important. It’s the thing that sends the protagonist off on a mission and triggers the entire rest of the plot, so you have to make it count.

Likewise, the point that separates the second and third acts is vitally important. This is the climax, where the obstacle or challenge that was presented – the inciting incident – is finally overcome.

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The climax isn’t the same as the conclusion to the plot, but it’s definitely the point at which the drama is at its height: the final battle is fought and won, the protagonist wins the heart of their one true love, the family business is saved, the asteroid explodes just far enough away from Earth to avoid catastrophe. You get it.

Once you’ve figured out these four points, you have the bones of your story. Next, it’s time to get stuck into that second act and break it down a little further. We’ve all written those meandering stories that started well and had a really strong ending but seemed to get lost in the middle somewhere, and that’s why it’s essential to divide this act into smaller, more manageable sections.

Instead of viewing the second act as some barren wasteland that just happens to come between the ‘interesting bits’, you need to treat it with the respect it deserves. If you don’t pay attention to it, neither will the reader. Luckily, the second act is where things really get interesting, because this is where you get to wreak havoc with your protagonist (which we all love to do, don’t deny it!) and think up the most terrible, depraved ways of messing with their lives and pitting them against seemingly insurmountable odds – mua hahaha!! Yep, I’m talking about the dramatically named… (drum-roll)… midpoint!!! OK, it doesn’t sound very dramatic, but don’t let that fool you. It’s also called the second turning point (the first being the inciting incident), and in truth it doesn’t necessarily have to be slap-bang in the middle, but if you aim for that you can’t go too far wrong.

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The midpoint is the lowest of the low for the protagonist: the worst of all possible worlds – the thing that makes them want to give up and go home, get into their pyjamas, build a pillow-fort and never leave the house again. It’s the death of their dreams, a feeling of total failure, the apparent loss of everything they hold dear as their plans fall apart around them. But it’s also the point at which they decide they’re not going to give up and go home, and instead they’re going to roll up their sleeves, dig deep, square their shoulders and kick the arse of whatever it is they’re up against. Essentially, the midpoint is the one-slap-too-many that makes them Hulk out and fight back.

See? I told you it was the fun bit.

From this point until the climax the protagonist is basically clawing their way back from rock bottom and then pushing on even further to achieve their impossible dream. This struggle is what drives the momentum of your plot from the midpoint to the climax.

Exciting stuff, right?

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Now, strange as it may seem, I’m going to ask you to back up a bit and look at what’s going to happen before the midpoint. I know it seems like a backwards way to go about things, but I find that working out your midpoint first makes this part easier because it gives you something to build up towards. The effect of ‘building up towards’ something is called the rising action, and it’s about creating momentum to carry your protagonist from the inciting incident to the midpoint.

The rising action is the layering of tension – whether that’s done through fear, love, anger, sadness – so that the reader is driven to find out what happens next. It’s what creates that ‘just one more page’ feeling you get when you don’t want to put a book down, and it’s what stops you wallowing in the mire as a writer, because anything that doesn’t add to the tension at this point is probably not worth including.

The rising action can take all sorts of forms depending on the genre of your story, but generally it means developing the main theme(s) you introduced at the inciting incident and pushing towards the midpoint, where – as we know – it all goes wrong.

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OK, so now you have the first act: setting the scene, inciting incident, and the second act: rising action, midpoint, struggle (which can also be thought of as the second rising action) and climax. What happens next? No points for guessing: the third act!

This is the section between the climax and the conclusion, where the protagonist discovers the nature and extent of their own transformation and begins to see the impact of their actions. It can be seen as a reflection of the first act – winding down instead of ramping up – but I think of it more like a spot-the-difference picture: it’s about noting the differences and figuring out a new status quo, which may be better than/ worse than/ completely unlike the situation the protagonist started out with in the beginning.

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(It really irritates me that ‘transformation’ ran over the line but I didn’t want to waste another sheet of paper!)

It’s important for the reader (and the writer!) to get a sense of closure here: What has been achieved? What have we learned? How do we feel now that our dreams have been realised/ shattered/ completely reimagined? Was it worth it? What will happen next?

This act ends with the conclusion, which is where you tie all these threads together and try to resolve the themes and plot in a way that’s satisfying, although some writers prefer to leave the conclusion open to interpretation, or to leave the reader hanging and evoke a sense of dissatisfaction.

However you want your story to end, there should at least be a logical progression from the first act through to the second and the third: an overall arc that makes all the effort of writing and reading it make sense.

I promise you, playing with structure can be really fun if you approach it as a tool instead of an obligation. You can shift the focus of your narrative hugely depending on what takes place at each of the key points, giving more weight to one aspect or another depending on its position in relation to the other elements.

Next week I’m going to go into more depth by using the example of a plot outline from the previous post and examining the different ways that could be manipulated using structure to emphasise different elements.

If you want you could look at some of your own stories – or even pick something out by another author – and see if you can find the key points on the diagram above. How do they contribute to the pace of the narrative? What impact do they have on the themes?

Happy playing!

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor and to share any thoughts via the comments or via tweets 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

Begin at the Beginning: Key Characters and Plot Outlines

Starting work on a new novel is one of my absolute favourite things to do. It has all the magic and promise of Christmas Eve – anything is possible! There are new characters to meet, new places to see, new lessons to learn and ideas to explore. It’s the beginning of a whole new adventure.

There’s an immense rush of excitement and it’s really tempting to dive straight into writing, but over the years I’ve learned that if I do that I rarely get any further than the first few pages. I find it’s better to hold off until I have a destination in mind – a clear idea of where the narrative is heading. Otherwise I go off on a random tangent (or several), after which I generally lose interest and the whole thing falls apart. That’s happened to me many times, which is why I go about it differently now.

Some writers prefer not to know where the story’s going to lead them, including some of my favourite authors, but after years of trying and failing to write that way I’ve found that this method is a lot more effective for me. Finding a method that works for you is far better than trying to stick rigidly to someone else’s, but if you’re like me and you find it difficult to stay motivated without a clear plan, maybe give this a go.

Drawing up a plot outline is a great way to capitalise on that initial rush of enthusiasm for a new idea, because by the time you’ve completed it you have a concrete plan that will allow you to direct your writing towards a specific end. I find this helps with motivation because you have something to work towards.

I will say at this point that the stage after the plot outline is developing the structure, which I’ll be explaining in the next post. Structure is hugely important for fleshing out the details more fully, but a plot outline gives you the key points of beginning, middle and end so that you have a framework to start building on.

My ideas for novels always centre on a character, usually inspired by a conversation I’ve had, a book I’ve read, a film or a song that has prompted me to ask a question about the way humans interact with the world and each other. I love people and I love delving into their minds to see what makes them tick; for me writing a novel is the ultimate exploration of the human psyche in all its beautiful complexity.

Other writers prefer to start with a place or a situation, a concept they want to explore or a particular feeling they want to examine. Regardless of what inspired you initially, you can apply the following method and it will give you a rough framework around which to develop your story.

One cautionary note: I find it’s best not to go into too much detail with plot outlines, because that can restrict spontaneity in your writing (which is really important) and expel whatever feeling drove you to tell that particular story. Stay brief and concise, just a sentence or two to cover each of the major plot points, with no peripheral detail unless it’s an important sub-plot that you don’t want to forget.

The following is the process I use for longer stories. For short stories I usually map it out in my head rather than on paper because I don’t go into so much depth, but it’s just as useful for either.

First off, before drawing up a plot outline, I always work on who my central characters are going to be and identify the main obstacle or source of conflict I want them to overcome.

Here are some questions I would recommend asking yourself before you go any further. You don’t necessarily need all the answers, but at least considering the questions will help you figure out what kind of story you plan to tell.

  1. Who is your protagonist?

Get to know them like they’re your new best friend. What’s their name? What do they look like? What do they do for a living? What kind of music do they like? Where did they grow up? Where do they live? How do they speak? How do they move? Do they have any habits or fidgets? What are their best qualities? What are their worst qualities? What do they like/ dislike about themselves? What’s their biggest secret? What’s their biggest regret? Who do they love/ hate? What are their eating habits? Do they have pets/ friends/ romantic partners/ family/ a car? What are they proud of? How do they come across to strangers?

Glean as much of this information as you can before you begin to work on the story. If you want your characters to jump off the page they need to be real people, and real people are complex. You will learn more about your protagonist as you go along, and your perception of them may shift; don’t worry if your answers change later on, that just means you’re getting to know the character better. If you really know them well, they will do things that surprise you and sometimes say things you didn’t expect them to. Writing becomes really easy once you know your protagonist, because you can just drop them into a situation and they do their own thing.

  1. What is the main challenge your protagonist will encounter?

This could be an internal conflict or an external obstacle, but either way you need to know before you begin to write. This is the main point of your plot and you’ll use it to drive the narrative forward. Once you know what this is going to be, you have progressed from having a character to having a story to tell about that character, and everything else will be built around this point.

  1. Who is the antagonist?

This could also be the protagonist if you’re writing about internal conflict, or it could be another person/ group of people or an obstacle that needs to be overcome. It’s great to have a second character as a physical manifestation of the problem because that gives you tension, and tension drives narrative, but you don’t have to. Even if it is a person they don’t have to be an ‘enemy’ of the protagonist, just someone who prompts the protagonist to act.

If you’re going for an external antagonist you need to ask all the same questions about them as you’ve asked about your protagonist. They are the opposite and equal force to your protagonist, so you need to give them equal weight in your mind.

  1. How will the story conclude and what will the protagonist learn?

I find this is a vital point for me to know before I begin, even if I only have a sketchy idea. Will the protagonist achieve what they set out to achieve? Will they fail but realise that was for the best? Will they fail and learn an important lesson that helps them to grow as a person? What changes will they go through between the beginning and the end? Will they make peace with the antagonist? What will they lose or gain through the course of the conflict? Will they go back to the same life they have in the beginning or will it be impossible to go back?

It’s ok if this last one changes by the time you get to the end, but it’s a good idea to know what you’re aiming for before you start so that you can direct the action towards that goal. It gives you opportunities to drop hints or plant false clues for the reader, work in subtext and tailor the behaviour of the characters according to how their roles will play out.

Once you know these four things, you can draw up a rough plot outline, with all the major plot points from beginning to end. It might look something like this:

1922, Shropshire – PROTAGONIST lives in a small rural town with her family on the large country estate where she grew up.

One day she meets ANTAGONIST who is her sister’s boyfriend, and who dreams of moving abroad. They stay up all night talking – sense of possible romance.

ANTAGONIST moves abroad unexpectedly and PROTAGONIST decides to follow him, abandoning her life and the family fortune. She departs from Liverpool docks.

PROTAGONIST journeys alone across the continent in pursuit of ANTAGONIST, coming across various barriers as a lone woman with no experience of travel. She makes friends with another woman who helps her, and they travel down the Suez Canal to reach India.

She arrives in India and her friend helps her locate ANTAGONIST in Ceylon before they part ways. She learns he has a tea farm but has been struggling with money/ business issues.

She travels alone to find him and is met by him at the train station in Kandy.

Their reunion is stormy. He tells her to go home but she refuses. He has received a letter from her family, threatening to disown her unless she returns. She ignores it and sets herself up in his house, taking charge of his finances and communicating with the local people on his behalf.

After months of working together, ANTAGONIST falls in love with her and they get married.

Years later, after India’s independence, they return to England with their children, alone and destitute. Liverpool has changed beyond recognition, as has the country they both knew.

ANTAGONIST dies less than a year after returning. PROTAGONIST is devastated, but doesn’t regret her decision to follow him. She sets up a small tea shop in Liverpool, watches her children grow up and watches the ships come and go from the docks, reminding her of her adventure and the years of happiness she shared with her husband. One day she is visited by the friend she met on her travels and they sit down to tell each other their stories.

 

As you can see, this is a brief summary without any detail or in-depth character motivations. It’s essentially a minimal synopsis, but it contains all the important information you need before you start: who the main characters are, where they start and end, the key turning points, what research you need to do, what themes might develop as you continue. It allows you to start imagining scenes you might want to include, the dynamic between the characters, the imagery and the tone. I’ve found this is by far the best way to begin writing a book, because you know right from the beginning that you can build a complete story that will work.

Let me know how you get on with writing a plot outline for a new novel, or if you have another method you’ve developed that works for you 🙂

Follow me at @RoseJamesAuthor to keep up to date with daily goings-on – best of luck and get writing!

Next Monday we’ll look at the next stage: Structuring a narrative.

Post-creativity Comedown

I’m writing this sooner than my next scheduled post, mainly because it’s relevant to how I’ve been feeling lately and I use writing as a therapeutic tool, but also because I think the subject will resonate with a lot of other people, which makes it worth talking about.

I’m calling it ‘post-creativity comedown’ because that’s how I’ve come to think of it, but I’ve seen it referred to as ‘post-creation depression’, ‘post-project depression’ or ‘post-adrenaline blues’ in various different articles I’ve come across online.

If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time working on a single project, you’ll know the feeling I mean: you’ve been totally immersed in doing the thing you love most, and suddenly it’s over and you have to come back to Earth with a bump. It sucks. It really does. Life seems completely dull, dreary and meaningless; all you want is to go back to working on that project, but there’s nothing more you can do. It’s done. You’ve finished. It’s like ending a relationship that you’re not ready to let go of, or coming back home after an amazing holiday and wishing you could still be there.

This is something I’ve struggled with on many occasions throughout my creative life – I’ve performed in plays, toured with a band, recorded an EP and worked on several long-term writing projects – and to be honest, no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets any easier. I’m always left with that ache in my belly that won’t go away – that pining feeling that leaves you restless and irritable, and makes you a total pain in the arse to anyone unlucky enough to be around you.

See below for a visual representation of that feeling 😀 (Tip: Joining a heavy-metal band means you can scream in people’s faces and they just cheer louder!)

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Personally, I think this is what makes creativity so addictive: after riding the high of self-expression, excitement and imaginative indulgence, you’re left with a big gaping hole in your life that nothing else is able to fill.

Various studies have established links between depression and creativity, and there’s a good reason we’re all familiar with the cliché of the tortured artist. It’s almost a cultural norm to expect creative people to be slightly unhinged, as though depression is just the price that has to be paid for greatness.

That feeling of restlessness is – I believe – the reason so many writers, artists, actors and musicians end up with drink and drug problems, sex addictions and other forms of self-destructive behaviour. They’re chasing that euphoric feeling they get when they’re creating something, but really there is no substitute. Creation is the purest form of self-expression, in my opinion, and you can’t replace that with artificial stimulants, even if they make you feel sated for a while.

As a writer, expressing myself through fiction is the highest high I’ve ever felt. Nothing gets my blood singing like losing myself in a story; I can go without food, without sleep, without seeing or talking to anyone, without washing even, as long as I can keep writing. In fact, all those things become unwelcome distractions – obligations that ‘interrupt my flow’ (pretentious, moi?). But what goes up must come down, and in an effort to avoid becoming a cliché, I’ve learned to manage my post-creativity comedowns a little more… creatively.

Firstly, it’s really important to accept that you will have highs and lows – that’s natural – and there’s evidence to suggest that creative-types experience these things more intensely because we’re often more prone to dwelling on our thoughts and examining our deepest, darkest feelings. Having said that, there are coping mechanisms you can use to take the edge off and deal with your negative thoughts/ feelings in a healthy, productive way, and I’ve developed a few over the course of my writing life, which I want to share with you.

The biggest difference between my strategy now and my strategy of a few years ago is that now I actually have one! I have learned to anticipate, recognise and manage those feelings so that I don’t end up camping out on the sofa for days on end, binge-watching Netflix, surviving on biscuits and letting my house fester around me. (It’s fine if I’m doing that just to have a rest, but there’s a difference between resting and being crippled by negative thoughts.)

I know full well that when I come to the end of a project – or even the end of a section that’s been an emotional rollercoaster – I will need some recovery time and something to keep me occupied. The below suggestions are in no particular order, and for me each one can be more or less useful depending on my mood, but all of them have helped in the past, and sometimes I have to cycle through them until I land on the one that feels the most comforting at the time.

 

1) Have another project in the pipeline. I’m not talking about an in-depth proposal here, but an idea to daydream over, something to space out on so you’re not left feeling completely adrift. Maybe you’ve already had some ideas for initial research, or for a character you can develop or a plot you want to explore. Whatever it is, have something ready so you can ease yourself down off the creative high without plummeting face-first into the ground.

Having just finished a book I’ve been working on on-and-off for over seven years, I’m slap-bang in the middle of this feeling at the moment. But unlike on other occasions, this time I’ve been more proactive in preparing myself for the slump, and I’ve got a lot coming up this year including a masters degree to start in October (assuming I get accepted). As part of the application process I had to draw up a project proposal for my next book, which is great because now I already know what that’s going to be about, so I have an enormous amount of research to get stuck into whether I end up on the course or not.

2) Write a short story or a piece of flash fiction, or do some free-writing . Short fiction is great for using up that last bit of creative energy, with the added benefit that you now have another title to add to your body of work 🙂 Look at it as novel after-birth. You have this residual writing energy that needs to go somewhere, so why not use it to explore an idea or a feeling, or play with a character or a situation that takes your fancy?

Short-story form didn’t come naturally to me, but two years of creative writing study with the OU helped me develop my skills in that medium, and now I can even crack out a bit of flash fiction when the mood takes me. The more tools you have at your disposal the more options you have when you want to be creative, so if you’re like me and you prefer writing long, involved pieces, it’s still worth practising other forms for situations such as these.

3) Music, either playing or listening. I love to sing and I’m OK at guitar, so being able to get away from my laptop screen and fiddle around with songs is a great form of stress-relief for me. Having said that, sometimes I’m too exhausted to do anything more than listen – or sometimes I’d just rather be passive than active – and I find that cranking out my favourite heart-soaring, spine-tingling music, full blast through headphones, lying on the floor/ sofa with my eyes closed can be amazingly therapeutic.

Thirty Seconds To Mars is my main go-to band, but sometimes I’ll stick on Wildwood Kin, Florence and the Machine, Pink, James Bay, or something really heavy or grungy like Disturbed, Seether or Tool. As long as I can howl/ cry/ scream along to it, it does the trick: it gets those angsty visceral feelings out!

4) Next, kind of obvious but still really effective – read! Read something by one of your favourite authors, something with characters you know and love or at least characters you can invest in. Let a fellow-writer transport you somewhere outside your own head for a while, and remember why you fell in love with writing in the first place. A bit of escapism can do you the world of good, and if you find your thoughts drifting back to your own work, just remember that the book in your hand started out that way as well – let the positive thoughts have a turn.

5) There’s always the good ol’ TV option, but in my experience it has to be a film/ show you really, really love, something with a brilliant story that you find really absorbing. If it doesn’t grab you, you’ll just end up spacing out and brooding on your work, which puts you right back at square one.

Comedy works best for me because it jolts me out of feeling sorry for myself, and natural endorphins are the best way to beat the blues. I tend to go for comedy when I’m the least in the mood for it, because that’s when I know I need it the most. Black Books is great for that, or Cats Does Countdown, The IT Crowd or some Russell Howard, although I tend to avoid political satire when I’m a bit ‘on the edge’ because it can have the opposite effect to the one I’m going for. Save the doom and gloom (even if it’s conveyed in a funny way) for when you’re feeling more stable, and stick with the light-hearted nonsensical stuff when you’re low.

6) Go and see people. This one can be a bit hit-and-miss for me because if I’m feeling down I don’t always want to be around people, and other hoomans can be notoriously unpredictable! I have a few friends who are also creative, so they understand when I explain why I’m feeling poo, but if I’m really having a strop then seeing people doesn’t always help, and sometimes the feeling comes back as soon as I get home and I’m right back where I started.

This solution usually works best for me after I’ve done one or more of the others, when I’m already feeling a bit better and I want to engage with the world again. We’re all different though, so maybe for you it’s better to begin with this one. See how you feel about it and pay attention to the effect it has – at least you’ll know for next time.

 

I think that’s all of my top ones. Of course there are lots of other things you can do – go for a walk or a drive, call someone, do some gaming, cook something yum, binge-clean the house, go to the gym or the cinema, go out dancing with your friends, whatever gets you out of your own head and makes you engage with something other than the project you were working on.

In my experience, being able to channel my negative feelings into a new piece of work is the most positive way to avoid spiralling into depression, because I’m focusing that energy on being productive, which instantly makes me feel better about myself.

That’s another reason this blog is a good idea for me. When I first sat down to write this post, I was filled with that intense restlessness that makes it impossible to relax. I’d had a busy day – working on the blog, doing some freelance pieces, editing a short story and drawing up a rough outline for my next book – but I still felt too hyped-up to stop. That belly-ache was making itself felt.

Now, I’ve got 30STM on Spotify, a dog snuggling either side of me and a blanket over my lap, and as I come to the end of writing this I finally feel like I’ve got everything out of my system for the day.

I never thought I’d become the kind of person who gets agitated by inactivity, but I think once you start progressing your tolerance for work goes up, and when you stop it’s like peddling downhill – you have all that energy but nowhere for it to go. I’m counting that as a positive because it means I can use it to do more things, including writing this blog, but it’s taken me a while to learn how to channel it.

I hope this has helped – it’s certainly helped me as I’ve written it. Let me know what your coping strategies are or if any of these suggestions have helped, and don’t forget to check out my next official post on Monday on the first steps of beginning a new novel.

Feel free to tweet me @RoseJamesAuthor and take care of yourselves 🙂

Writers be crazy!

This first post is more of an introduction than anything. I want to tell you a bit about myself, just so you know what you’re getting into.

Literature is in my blood – reading it, writing it, studying it, arguing over it, if it involves story-telling, I’m in. My great-grandmother got an English degree from Liverpool University in 1910. She worked as an English teacher before getting married and joining the suffrage movement, where she put her education to good use campaigning for women’s rights. Her own daughter – my grandmother – completed her own English Literature degree with the Open University in 2009, at the age of 93. Yes, I know! How amazing is that?

As a child, my parents read to me all the time – Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, swash-buckling adventures and fairy-tales of all stripes – planting the seed for my profound love of stories that took root and blossomed. Despite that, career-wise I was quite a late-bloomer. I didn’t follow in my foremothers’ footsteps until the age of 27, when I began my OU degree in English Language and Literature. The next year I started working as a freelance writer and eight months after that I left my day-job in retail to write full time.

In 2014 my mum suggested I enter the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition with the novel I was working on at the time – I Am Aphrodite. I ended up on the shortlist of the final seven, and even though I didn’t win I had a tremendous amount of support and guidance from a kind fiction editor at Quercus who took pity on me, thankfully seeing potential in the extremely rough prose I submitted (which was 210,000 words long originally – eek).

I completed my degree in 2017 (with a first – woop woop!) and using the newly minted literary tools I had acquired over two years of creative writing study, I set about hacking my manuscript into some kind of recognisable shape – think Edward Scissorhands.

The picture below is the plot outline I drew up after I finished my degree so I could figure out what I needed to change. This was my guideline for structure, character development, new plot points and themes, none of which I had a clue about when I started writing the book. Every line in black ink is a plot point, and all the red is what I needed to do to fix it. As you can see, there was rather a lot 😀 (Tip – writing/ printing it out and arranging it all in one place like this can help give you a sense of the overall work. It also means when you’re watching telly and you get an idea, you can scribble it down without having to load up your laptop again 😉 )

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I’m now embarking on a magical quest for an agent and hopefully a publishing deal, and one day soon I hope to make another career transition, this time from freelance writer to fully fledged author.

Participating in the OU forum, several Facebook pages for writers and a real-life creative writing group has taught me the value of contact with my peers. I cannot overstate that. It’s so, so important to be able to vent, and not just to your friends and family but to people who get it. We all feel inadequate, isolated, anxious, depressed, unhinged and even borderline-homicidal sometimes, and I want to write a blog that not only offers advice and suggestions on how to develop your writing and your career, but also that reminds you to be a real-life person once in a while – that you’re not alone, that everyone struggles and that there are ways to make life easier on yourself.

Working freelance was something that took a lot of getting used to, and not in the ways I had anticipated. I’ve gone through phases of crippling self-doubt, which have rendered me completely useless at times; I’ve also suffered something bordering on depression several times over the course of my six-year writing career, although I hesitate to categorise it as that since I’ve never had an official diagnosis. Working alone can make your head a breeding ground for negative thoughts, and unfortunately they have nowhere to go but round and round and round. The only way I’ve found to break that pattern is to leave the house, visit friends and tell them how I’m feeling, then use their positive reassurances to get back on the creativity train and reinforce their points by getting something constructive done.

Social media is not a substitute for real-life human interaction. It slyly convinces you that it’s the same thing, but we are social animals and our brains aren’t configured to get the same stimulation from remote communication as from actual face-to-face interaction. Being part of peer groups online is important, but it’s not everything, as I learned after years of trying to keep my head above water. It’s a balance, and a vital one if you’re going to be productive and successful. You can always adjust during those times when you’re obsessing over the latest work-in-progress, but don’t forget to get your fix of human contact as soon as you get the chance.

Despite being solitary beasties on the whole, writers are still people (don’t believe everything you hear) and we still need to have support networks like anybody else. I don’t think this is something that gets talked about enough, so I’m going to talk about it here, along with other (hopefully) useful suggestions and ideas for honing your writing skills.

Some posts will focus on creative writing: exercises, techniques and the process of writing a novel; others on the scary stuff like compiling material for agents, pushing your work and getting out in front of the general public; and the rest will be about the ups and downs we all go through: what to do when you’re feeling low and how to deal with self-doubt and criticism.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor for daily updates and if you want to ask questions about anything I’ve posted. Next Monday I’ll be talking about one of the most exciting aspects of being a writer: the first stages of writing a novel!