Saturday, 28 August 2010

Your First Novel

Writing your first novel is an amazing thing. Everything's exciting and new, and sometimes incredibly hard. But eventually, you finish. And you know what? It'll suck.

I'm not telling you this to put you down, or to dishearten you, or to swear off writing forever. I'm telling you this so that you know what to expect when you go to revise your fresh new novel and realise its nothing like a normal book should be. Here's why.

As you go, there are a lot of things you learn about; writing, your voice, characters, and what works for you. During the process, things start changing which you can't really control. You might find that the beginning seems to be a much better quality than the end. This is because of progress. Finding your footing in writing can be an exhausting experience, but it's something that will make you a better writer. You just have to get there first. So yeah, the paragraphs might be all over the place, the dialogue may not fit with the character anymore and there might be more plot changes and sudden decisions than you can keep up with. But you're learning. And that's what first novels are all about.

I'm not saying this will take away from the impact of finishing your first draft. Finishing a novel is one of the happiest experiences in the world. To finish that final sentence of the manuscript, scrolling up and down the Word document and realise that every word belongs to you. Every part of it was made my you.

I finished my third novel around about a month ago, and there were still tears in my eyes when I thought, 'I did it'. If I'm going to be honest, even when I'm redrafting some of previous work, I realise it's terrible. That there are continuity issues and awkward phrasing and the character dialogue isn't right ... but sometimes, I still get teary eyed. Because no matter how awful parts of it are, I'm proud of every single word on that page. That single feeling is what keeps me motivated. One day, when you've finished that dream first novel, it'll motivate you too.

Another bonus - everything can be redrafted. A first draft really means nothing in a way of an end product. During redrafting I find myself scrapping whole paragraphs and editing sentences, changing little parts of the plot and twisting things so they work. But I'm OK with this, because I know that I'm not deleting hard work and effort. I'm polishing it until it's perfect.

So yes, your first novel may suck. But writing is a learned practise. The more you write and edit, the better you become. You've just got to trust that behind that scramble of words and dialogue is something with the potential to be shine.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Mockingjay Review

This will include a few spoilers, so if you haven't read Mockingjay yet, please wait until you have to read this!

Nobody could argue that Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins was one (if not the) most hotly tipped book of the summer. In the past two years, the Hunger Games has boasted an incredible fan base, and this looks to become even bigger if the film of the first book is put in the works. I bought Mockingjay yesterday from Waterstones Picadilly, and finished it yesterday feeling ... kind of unsatisfied, if I'm honest.

With the increase in fanbase, it was inevitable that Mockingjay would be built up to be something amazing. The previous books have been incredible, fast paced, unpredictable, with very realistic and lifelike characters, as well as a brilliant narrator, Katniss Everdeen. Suzanne Collins sucks you into the story and plotline, while still managing to keep everything real. And with such a huge build up to the final climax of the trilogy, it was only natural that people went in expecting something astounding, myself included. The only thing I can really compare it to is what happened to Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn in 2008. People expected everything from it, and came out the other end feeling disappointed and upset that the series hadn't come to a conclusion they wanted. I read Breaking Dawn when it came out, after following the series for a while, and luckily I was not one of these people. Maybe that's why I didn't think to hold back my expectations for Mockingjay.

Let me explain why I didn't feel completely satisfied with Mockingjay. From the very start, there was something off about Katniss's voice in this book. Though the same elements of her character were there, it just seemed to lack the continuity of the other books. This is understandable, what with the strain and horror of everything that has happened to Katniss, it's only logical that she should change as a character. But in my opinion, the change was too big. The main character that people fell in love with during the first two books - strong, independent, fierce, a survivor - completely fell through the cracks here. By the end of the book, Collins presented us with a drug-addicted, depressed and frankly, ruined version of Katniss. Once again I understand that the impact of everything that happened in Mockingjay, and the build up to it would alter her character. But it didn't feel right to me, how much Katniss changed and altered from her previous personality. Like Collins was trying to keep with reality so much, she lost a sense of the real character.

Another thing I didn't like about the book was the pace. In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the pace has been one of the best things about it. There was never a dull or boring moment, and everything flowed easily. They were page turners, right from the start. But in Mockingkjay, the pace was completely different, and it suffered for it. In the beginning, I have to say the pace was incredibly slow. It starts of a few months after the bombing of District 12, with Katniss narrating what happened to the District, and how District 13 became their home, as well as their part in the Quarter Quell. (I have some issues with this as well, but I'll get to that later). But in the first hundred pages or so, while Katniss is making the decision to become the Mockingjay, a task we already knew she would take on, the book drags. It is as lifeless as Katniss, and had I been reading this book without being invested in the series, I probably would have stopped. The book should have started when Katniss became the Mockingjay. I don't particularly understand why there was any build up for this, because that was what she accepted in the arena, when she shot the arrow into the forcefield. That there was a rebellion, and that she was the face of it. Katniss, the girl on fire. Even with all the emotional trauma, what was the point in delaying this?

On the other end of the scale, still speaking about pace, we have the climax of the novel, when they are in the Capitol. Here, the pace moves to fast. Way too fast. Main characters are dying left, right and centre, in a way that seems sloppily done by Collins. Finnick, a character who has become central in Mockingjay, dies abruptly. One moment he's there, the next he's being eaten by Mutts. But it just seems like with this, Collins is trying too hard to play on the reader's emotions. The death of Rue in The Hunger Games was extremely well executed. But the death of Finnick? Not even close. Everything is moving so fast, it's hard to take in, and even if this is the reality of the battle, it just seems like Finnick is one more person to add to Katniss's death count. A non-entity.

After this, the pace was so fast I almost couldn't keep up. One minute they're in the underground, the next they're on the street. I was sitting there reading thinking, 'wait, where is this taking place? Where are they?' because I honestly didn't know. Maybe that was my fault as a reader. Being pulled along by the fast pace meant I was reading quickly. I could have skimmed some details accidently, or not let the words sink in, so that might be my fault. I'm planning on reading the entire series again soon, so then I could see where I was wrong. But one of the things that really confused me while reading the climax was the end. How did Prim end up with the Capitol children? This isn't really explained even after this, which is irritating, seeing as Prim was another central character who died abruptly. No time or care was taken to consider this death, and even in Katniss's aftermath she seems empty about his. Then it skips to Katniss being in a hospital bed. I'm sorry, but what just happened? There wasn't even a line break to show this. Just a tab break, and suddenly Katniss is in hospital, the entire climax scene is over, and oh yeah, Prim's dead. Too much time was wasted in the build up, and too little in the execution for the war itself. There wasn't balance, and as I result, I didn't feel satisfied.

One final thing was the epilogue. I've known for a long time that the series was going in this direction, Katniss ending up with Peeta. In a way, it was inevitable, and despite the character development Gale has in this book, he's never presented as a real contender. Just a distraction. Which, if we look at the amount of time agonising over this in the previous books, doesn't give Gale much credit at all. Then it seems since the war, he’s not featured in Katniss’s life at all, which doesn’t seem like Gale. He would want to be in Katniss’s life, even if it wasn’t as her partner. Like the rest of the book, the ending is far too abrupt. Katniss falls in love with Peeta, they have children, the end. This just didn't sit well with me. After all the time and effort Collins has spent to create this story and world, you would think more would have been put into its final conclusion. But there's not, and the reader is left feeling disillusioned and incomplete, just as I did when I shut the book. I thought to myself, 'is that it?' I guess so.

There are good points to this book. I disliked Coin immediately, and Collins presented her in a way that she was a real contender for Snow, something I didn't think was possible. I liked the twist at the end, where Katniss has been manipulated again, because it encompasses everything about the series - Katniss will always be used as a piece in their games. Until Katniss has her own revenge on Coin, that cycle wouldn't have broken. Also, I liked that Finnick was brought into more detail, seeing as he'd been something of a question mark in Catching Fire. One more thing Collins did well was answer questions, about Snow, the blood and roses, District 13, and Haymitch. The only thing that troubled me about District 13 was how different it was, compared to what we were lead to believe in the previous books. I didn't expect the resistance there to be like what it was, so while my questions about the District were answered, I felt slightly disappointed it wasn't what I expected. But again, that was my fault.

I don't mean to criticise Collins with this. At all. She's done a fabulous job in creating characters, a world, and a concept that people truly care about. After The Hunger Games, the nature of things like reality TV and what people will and won't do for power rests on a lot of people's minds, and it is definitely a series that makes you think. The characters are very real as well, I just wish they'd had a better end.

Sorry for this little rant about Mockingjay. I've got a few more writing and publishing related blog posts planned, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Why Covers Work

Being a writer for YA, I thought I would feature a few of my favourite YA covers, and the reasons why they work.

Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

I'll admit I much prefer the UK covers for this series (though they've been redesigned now, something I wasn't happy about). The first thing that drew me to these books was the covers. I'd never heard anything about Scott Westerfeld or the Uglies series before, but it was the controversial covers that drew me to the books. This series prompted me to become an avid follower of Westerfeld.

Nobody can deny that these covers make a statement. Broken Barbies in the surgical bowl. The image itself is simplistic, but instantly it grabs you. In a way, this is pretty macabre, with the unattached limbs in a bowl. But it's the doll plastic that makes it less of a horrifying image, and more of a thought-provoking one. It draws the audience in, and if you know the book, it's a pretty well thought representation. The rest of the covers for this series were fantastic as well, each one not only making a statement about the book itself but intriguing the audience. It's just one example of how a cover can gain readers, and even a future fan.

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Again, another book where I personally prefer the UK covers. This cover is absolutely beautiful. I love everything about it; the colour scheme, the tree branches, the falling leaves and title font. The cover is very aesthetically pleasing, and definitely appeals to its target audience. I would be ecstatic if I published a book with a cover anywhere near as gorgeous as this. Like the Uglies series, the image actually tells us about the book. The forest setting is relevant, as most of the drama and action in the book revolves around the woods, and the dripping blood used in the font tells us there's an aspect of danger in the book, which are the wolves in Mercy Falls. Its sequel Linger is equally fantastic, and I think the Scholastic cover and art department did an amazing job on this.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

This cover tells us a lot about the book itself. Teenagers in parts, ready to be assembled. Because it’s such a recognisable image of an assembly pack, Shusterman is allowed to draw the reader into the horror of the book without the cover doing all the work, but still being incorporated into this. The colour scheme is pretty good as well, the white on metallic blue is very striking, and visually pleasing. Another small detail to note is that the art department have paid attention to the book itself. On the cover, one girl and two boy’s heads are displayed. Unwind revolves around the journey of one girl called Risa, and two boys called Connor and Levi.

This is actually a very rare thing in the publishing industry. It’s common for a cover to be completely irrelevant or inaccurate, even going as far as whitewashing characters. Take what happened to Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Her character was not Caucasian. This was clearly described in the books, yet her publishers used a white model for the first cover of Liar. Due to the controversy and backlash, they were forced to change this to a more accurate representation. But it just shows how far publishers will misrepresent books in covers to sell.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It's such a simple design, but I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. The parchment paper tells us that the story itself is old. The image tells us about the main character Lisiel, and that she is a teenage girl. It also shows her main struggle through-out the book - she is dancing with death. It's the contrast between the two images, the pretty girl and the disturbing skeleton, that tells the reader there is something more to this book, and that in itself gets the reader to reading. And at the end of the day, isn't that one of main functions of a cover?

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Many people would argue with this and say that the cover was boring, irrelevant to the book, and plain. But what many people don't want to see is how iconic this image is. With the massive rise in popularity of the Twilight Saga, there are not many people now who could see the image of the apple in the hands and not know what it was referring to. This single cover has been copied by so many other books, replicated to try and attract the same audience.

I was angry to see Graceling by Kristin Cashore had a cover design which replicated the font and black background of Twilight. The cover quote advertises the book as '[Cashore] will slake the thirst of Twilight fans'. I can say right now that Graceling is nothing like Twilight. At all. The fact that it has been pigeonholed into something it’s not to try and gain readers honestly horrifies me. But do you know why? Because that cover image sells. Twilight sells. So while it may be degrading to incredible writers like Kristin Cashore, you can't argue that the cover art for Twilight has become something iconic and recognisable, a statement even. That's why it works.

The main points mentioned here are:
- Relevant
- Controversial
- Makes a statement
- Draws the reader in

That is what makes a good cover. Another thing that is interesting to note is that all those books are popular. While you may not have heard of some of them, all the books featured do have a big fan base. So maybe there is a link between how far an art department will work to make an effective cover, and the potential of the book. Publishers want to make their book sell, and good covers can do this, so it might not be so coincidental. It's still interesting to consider though :)

*Sorry about the size of some of the pictures, I couldn't get them smaller.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


In writing, balance is crucial, both in story and yourself.

A novel needs balance. It can't be too weighty on character, description or plot, otherwise things start to get complicated. Unless you are a proclaimed literary genius (Charles Dickens for description, J.D. Salinger for character etc.), there is no way you will get away with this. Also, things like plot holes, grammar flaws and general messiness in your manuscript are a lot easier to spot than genuine talent.

Balance is also key as a writer. Writing is tiring. Coming up with the right words, the correct scene, best dialogue and making a novel flow is hard work, and you have to know the difference between 'if I keep writing I'll get through this' and 'if I keep writing all I'll end up with is babble'. While it can be motivating to set yourself a deadline, it can also be restrictive. Putting things like deadlines and targets on writing can hinder you, and it can be even more frustrating when you don't meet them.

Keeping balance between these things is hard, but if you do, your writing will be a lot better for it. Sometimes it's easy to keep this balance, and sometimes it's the hardest thing in the world. You've just got to know your limits, and always have the determination to be better. I don't know how I would write without them.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Keeping the Secret Can be Hard Sometimes

Very, very hard. Take yesterday.

I needed editing supplies, which meant getting three pocket folders, post-its, subject dividers, and a ream of paper. So I needed to get all of that, and get it back home without my roomates - who I was shopping with - noticing that I'd bought it all. A pretty hard task, right? It involved splitting up with everybody, running from Ryman Stationary to Tescos and back, and carrying around a 500 sheet pack of paper for two hours, as well as everything else. I literally had cuts on my hands from carrying the heavy plastic bag around, because the handle kept cutting into my hands. Ow.

I printed off a lot of chapters for my editing work, and though I've printed off 100+ pages, it's only over a quater of the actual novel. I had to print all the chapters while said roomates were out or busy, so they didn't stumble onto me printing lots of pages of writing. And now, we don't have much paper. So to keep suspicion down - I hardly ever print anything - I can't bring up the fact that there is low paper, or low ink. Now, I've got to wait for somebody else to discover this and buy a new cartridge before printing new chapters. I would buy the ink myself, but not only do I have no idea how to put it in the printer, but after a big London shopping trip, editing supplies and new haircut, I have no money.

Keeping the secret is hard, expensive work. But I hold onto the hope that it will all be worth it in the end. If seeing the finished product is anywhere near as emotional as finishing a first draft, I'll deifnitely have a good return.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

About to Enter...

There's a place one of my favourite bloggers, Karen Mahoney, calls the Revision Cave. The Revision Cave is cold, dark, lonely, and very long.

Truth be told, I'm scared of the Revision Cave. And I'm about to enter it.

Due to my insane amount of writing, and procrastination of revison, I will soon have four first draft novels to revise. All of these novels are 100,000+ words, and its going to take a long time to revise them all. Yesterday, I decided that I had to stop being scared of the Revision Cave, and actually enter it sometime soon. I'm going to finish the fourth first draft by the end of summer (maybe sooner), and after that, I'm doing no more writing until the NaNoWriMo in November. I'm effectively banning myself to the Revision Cave for over two months. And while it's going to be hard, it'll be good for me. I'm starting some new courses and resuming my job, and other things in September (I'm on a break at the moment), so things will get busy. There will be less time to write, though I'll make time for it when November comes. And I'm in dire need of revisions.

I actually started doing some editing today. Usually, I hate it. When I'm trying to revise things on the computer, it's harder to see the flaws. So today I took the initiative to print some chapters out from the first novel I'm redrafting, and I couldn't believe what a difference it made. It was so much easier to see the flaws! I now have a whole chapter filled with red pen, scrawled with changes and instructions and things to add and take away, and while it is a little bit of a mess, its the first real progress I've made revision wise in a long time. And the most surprising thing ... I enjoyed it. Maybe the Revision Cave won't be so bad, or maybe it's because I'm only starting to crawl into it.

Wish me luck. It's going to be a long journey...

Monday, 9 August 2010

Things I've Learnt

There are a few things I've learnt while writing. Some more practical than others. Some I found out the hard way.

- There's an enter and tab button for a reason. Bad formatting will make hell for revisions. There was a very, very old manuscript attempt that I wanted to try and salvage, and found it almost impossible to read. Put simply, it was all over the place. I thank dearly whatever possessed me to learn to use these buttons before I started my first real novel.

- Do not abuse commas, or semi-colons, or regular colons, or any other punctuation you may be fond of using. They are precious things, and do not like to be abused. It makes your writing another nightmare to revise, when you're automatically pausing because of a comma or semi-colon every five seconds. The same goes for words you have a habit of repeating.

- Make every chapter roughly the same size, especially first time writers. Things start to get a little silly when one chapter lasts for ten pages when another lasts for five, simply because you couldn't be bothered to finish it and wanted to move onto something else.

- Contents pages make the world of good. So do timelines. And outlines. I'd be lost without these things now, and if you ever want to be organised, keep them.

- Be prepared to waver from an outline sometimes. Characters have an annoying habit of springing things on you out of nowhere. They love to disrupt scenes and plots with their crazy actions, and resisting this will only make it worse. Characters don't do this to hurt you, they do it to make your story better. When they are alive, even if it does disrupt things, it is better than a character who always bends to your will. But don't let your characters own you, it's your novel after all. Be prepared to chnage things. Most of the time (if not all), it works out for the better.

- Don't be afraid to chop and change. To cut whole sentences and paragraphs (and if it is as disasterous as the pre-first novel, whole chapters) as you are redrafting. Less is more. Quality not quantity. They might be old sayings, but in writing, they are usually right.

- Never revolve a novel around word count. At the end of the day, word count - for first drafts especially - is meaningless. When redrafting, you will almost always end up with a lower word count than when you started. There are guidelines, of course, if you are thinking about the publishing market. 60,000-80,000 words for a Young Adult novel. 80,000-120,000 (though even that is pushing it), for an Adult novel. But there are always exceptions, so don't let word count dictate you, or your novel.

- You're only human. If something isn't working, don't blindly push on, just because you're too stubborn to change it or take a break. You will only end up with more redrafting to do, and nobody wants more redrafting.

- And finally, be proud of your work. (Hopefully no blood), sweat and tears went into your novel. Nothing worth having is ever gained easily. It is hard. And it takes a lot of motivation, determination, time and effort to create a new world, new characters and novel, so don't be ashamed of what you've created. It's beautiful, even if it hasn't had enough redrafting to make it shine.

None of what I said should be taken extremely. What works for one person may not work for another, and everybody is different. This is only what I've learned personally, and I hope it helps.


So, I have a secret.

I write.

It's not a big secret to anybody but myself, but it's still a secret I keep close to my chest. Put simply, I don't want others to know about the worlds I escape to or the characters my mind occasionally talks to and how they dictate me, doing whatever they with my words and plans and changing scenes or dialogue. I don't want people to know my escape plan, for fear they'll never let me return to it. I'm not crazy. I'm just a writer. And my worlds - nor I - are ready for other people to invade them yet.

I know I sound crazy. Sometimes you have to be, to do what I do. I guess you could say all writers are like uncool spies. We live double lives, appearing as one mousey, quiet individual, and living vicariously through our characters in worlds that don't quite exist, until we embark upon the asinine world of publishing. But I'm nowhere close to that mountain, and I probably won't be for a long time.

So here's my secret. Here's my blog. I hope you enjoy my crazy world as much as I do.