Coming off the Back Burner

It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s hard to get back on track when life, a visa application, an international move, and so many small things have derailed what little normalcy you had.  But all those personal things — they aren’t really what this blog is about.  They have a tendency to push into and wind around the structure of writing time, nudging it further and further towards the back burner.

Recently I wasn’t as successful at pushing back.  Granted, those things involved immigration and a few starts at nonfiction pieces influenced by the whole experience, but after finally getting moved and somewhat settled, I have felt my writing’s absence.  It’s in how I end even busy days feeling I accomplished little; it’s in my persistent restlessness.

State of Mind by Amrita Bagchi

Last year I received my report from the Literary Consultancy about my novel-in-progress, part of my New Fiction Bursary from the Northern Writers’ Awards.  It offered numerous pages of critique on themes, plot, structure, characterization, and style of prose, concluding with a summary and section on commercial consideration.  Although I was complemented on my “generally sturdy and competent” prose, descriptions of natural scenes and certain encounters, as well as “usually convincing and engaging” dialogue, the TLC editor concluded that it is not ready for submission to any agent or publisher yet.  (I include the “yet” because he did)

His recommendation basically boiled down to this:  either take on the demanding and difficult task of remedying the problems with the plot, or set it aside as a practice piece and move on to the next project.

I think there’s a little piece of everyone that, when submitting something for feedback or evaluation, we want to be told it is wonderful just as it is.  It would validate the work we put into it, and honestly, feel like nearly-instant gratification.  But that would be too simple; eventually, such immediate success would lose its meaning.  If everything anyone did was instantly successful, it also would lack the development and depth gained through multiple drafts and reworks.

After receiving this feedback, I took some time away from my novel, thinking about the implications of either option.  If I set this work aside, a part of me would feel like all the work I put into it was somewhat wasted, though I know it wouldn’t be.  The next time I begin a novel, I would hope I’ve learned enough drafting this one to be able to avoid some of my mistakes.  Most importantly, I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I hoped to say — and with the depth I’d hoped to say it.  I’d hoped to address complicated themes of family and identity, and I wasn’t entirely successful in this pursuit.  I still have things to say, and because my initial idea is rooted in family history, I still have questions and ideas to delve into further.

By Gabriel Moreno

With Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel in hand, I began considering the ways I could rework my novel.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of line editing, so I wanted help with structuring how I tackled the different aspects that needed work.  I was inspired to add a new character, to strengthen certain characters’ personal plots, and I was still considering how to strengthen some themes, and then life intervened.

Now, a few months later, I’m finally trying to pick up the pieces of what I dropped then.

In month since I began writing this post (embarrassing, I know), I have set aside Ray’s book.  I’ve taken a few tips from it, such as his charts and index card ideas.  I’ll pick it up again at some point, but jump forward a little in it.  I grew frustrated with the book because I reached a section that recommended strengthening a romantic triangle between the characters.  Does every novel really need to be so focused on romance?  I could write a whole post on just that.  I even wrote a scene in my novel to dispel any idea of romance developing between the two main characters.  I know lust and love are strong motivations, and I could see the use of considering triangles of tension between character, but must it be romance?

The charts have been useful though.  Now not only do I have a revised plot diagram (I decided to stick with a “three-hump” structure), I also have grids I made while reviewing my draft, considering:

  • Characters:  Name, role (protagonist, antagonists, etc); an object associated with them (something they carry, use, or which represents them).  The objects section can be expanded upon further, in a separate list; when you see an object surfacing in association with a character three or more times, it can become a symbol.  Becoming aware of this can help tighten the story.  Ray considers objects in these categories:  jewelry, vehicles, weapons, wardrobe items, food, drinks, tools, money.
  • Subplots:  Tied to characters besides the protagonist; entry/exit arc; an object; how the character is connected to the protagonist (blood, money, power, organization, back story, etc).  Ray recommended you identify six.  I explored this chart further through free writing, alongside developing back story further.
  • Flashback:  Location in plot (act, scene); character; trigger; setting; purpose.  This helps identify if you’re relying too heavily on past events; too many flashbacks can kill the story’s momentum.  Ray suggests using them more in Act Two.  He also examines books with unusual structures, such as The English Patient.
  • Scenes:  This is the grid I will probably be using most for a little while.  It helps you track the plot of your novel:  scene name (I just did Act #, Scene #); setting (where, time of day, weather if important); characters involved; objects present; and the important action of the scene.

I made the final list a while ago, but in the process of getting back to work on editing, I transferred the grid to index cards, which I then hung on the wall near my desk:

notecards

As you can see, I’ve already made a few notes on different cards and marked some with sticky notes… some of which haven’t stuck very well, unfortunately.  This is basically storyboarding though, in written form.  While the chart was useful and travels well, I’m a fairly visual person.  Having these cards to refer to makes it easier for me.  As I add scenes or change scenes, I can rewrite or add cards.  When I review the board, I can add sticky notes or highlight things to call my attention to new ideas as I’m writing and rewriting.

If you’re editing a novel, I would recommend referring to Robert J. Ray’s book.  It’s given me some new ideas for structuring the editing process, and he goes into depth about the meaning of these grids/lists and the things you should consider while reworking your book.  As with anything though, take it with a grain of salt.  This is, after all, your book.

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The deadline for this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards is Monday, February 2.

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To Surprise Myself Again

I feel pretty guilty that my unplanned hiatus from this blog lasted so long.  I’ve kept up with other things—Facebook, posting relevant articles and lists I’ve found on Twitter, trying to keep up with events in the writing communities I follow—but what began as taking some time off blogging to finish my final assignment for my MA grew into procrastination, and I guess a little bit of avoidance.

When I submitted that final section of my novel for my final class, I was excited, scared, and relieved.  I was a little unsure about my experience in the MA program.  While I had made some wonderful friends, learned some things, and got to work with excellent writers/professors, I hadn’t felt as pressured to improve as I had hoped.  Yes, I did improve as a writer, but I feel like that happened more in the final push to complete assignments before they were due, rather than regularly over a long period of time.  I continued to do what I’ve always done: have a general idea of what I’ll include in an assignment or story, do some work on it, but not get it all down in writing until just before it’s due.

Of course I was relieved and excited to submit my final work for my master’s—I had just spent a while finishing writing it, then reading through and editing it quite a few times.  I had completed it before the deadline, and while it wasn’t perfectly how I’d hope for it to be, it was very close.  I could relax and enjoy the fact that, regardless of my grade, I knew I would graduate with a pretty decent overall average.  I had completed my master’s degree.

Yahoo. I’m actually missing the graduation ceremony though.

But that’s where my trouble began—I relaxed.  I let go of worrying about deadlines, and after the (I think) allowable week of said relaxing and being lazy, I didn’t pick the reins of writing back up; or if I did, I did so lightly, without much drive or intent.  I didn’t want to write about writing when I wasn’t doing very much of it.  It felt a little like lying, and it was easy just to keep putting off updating until later.

When I let a piece of writing lie for so long, I begin to feel I am losing the threads that hold the whole piece together.  The only way I’ve been able to describe writing a novel is that it is like building a tiny world of balsa wood.  For everything to stand, to make sense and flow naturally, there has to be a balance of many elements.  If you aren’t careful, pieces can fall on you, and you have to rebuild that section, which inevitably leads to fixing the adjoining sections (whether in narrative or subject) as well.  In the time before completing that first draft, some of the pieces might be held up by little strings of ideas, and the tension in those strings maintains the balance of it all, when you have not yet built the rest of the structure that will support it in the end.  So maybe it’s a little like Jenga too.

The longer I spent away from my work, the more I felt these strings loosening.  When I talked to people about my novel-in-progress, I would feel them slipping, and I couldn’t produce a cohesive synopsis of where my story was going.  The more I felt this loss, the more I knew I needed to reimmerse myself in the world of my story.

I have known for a while that I am a slow writer.  Where some writers seem to be able to crack out immense amounts of creative work, on a number of projects, in no time at all, I am the type to slowly chip away at a story.  Even a short story seems to take me a while to compose.  This is not a fault, and I know there are many other writers who are like this, but it can be disheartening at times.  I ask myself, how long am I really going to take with this project?  How can I even make a dent on the writing world if I’m so slow at generating pieces to submit to competitions, magazines, etc?

As my friend and fellow writer, Kelvin M. Knight, said in a comment recently, my Northern Writing Award is my “base camp.”  Even when I felt most disconnected from my novel-in-progress, even when those threads felt most far from my hands, I remembered the feeling I had when I read the email telling me I had won, so many months ago.  It was like a balloon filling in my chest, making me so full and in awe.  I know my luck.  There are writers in the world who are as good or better than me, there’s no denying it.  They could have won my award and flown by me already with the amazing things they could write in this span of time.  But for one moment, I mattered in the writing world.  I know I cannot disappoint the judges who believed in me enough to award me that honor, but even more than that, I cannot, I will not, disappoint that part of me that is still surprised I have not woken to find that it was just a dream.

So I will keep writing.  I will keep pushing against the everyday forces that deter me from making progress on my novel, I will keep working to better my writing, so that one day I may surprise myself again.

I won a Northern Writers’ Award!

I am honored and amazed to announce that I have won a Northern Writers’ Award!

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The awards were established in 2000 by New Writing North.  If you are a writer or someone with a strong literary interest living in the northeast of England, you will undoubtedly have heard of NWN.  They work to support writers in the area through a variety of projects, workshops, competitions, events, publications, etc, to help with career development and opportunities.  They’re also partnered with Arts Council England and various universities, such as my own, Northumbria University.  Basically, if you’re a writer living in the area, you need to know about NWN.

The news about the awards was embargoed until the awards dinner Tuesday night, after which a press release was issued.  My name is not specifically mentioned, but you can find me on the list of winners and on my profile page.  I won my award for my novel-in-progress, called The Unfamiliar Land.  Hopefully NWN will be adding photos of the event to their Flickr page soon.

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The ceremony was held in Northumbria University’s Sutherland building

My award is a New Fiction Bursary, which gives an in-depth editorial report of my novel from The Literary Consultancy worth £500.  I have yet to begin the process of submitting my manuscript to them, but I am excited about getting professional feedback.  Simon Armitage, winner of multiple awards for poetry, shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and ambassador for the Northern Writers’ Awards, said something I have to agree with:

“To an emerging writer, an award of this kind can often be the difference between carrying on and giving up, and can be a huge boost to confidence as well as providing financial backing. Many writers, like myself, can look back to an award or bursary at an early stage in their career as being the pivotal moment, one that gave them the courage and means to continue.”

When I received the news about winning, I had to read the email about five times before I actually understood what I was reading.  I just couldn’t believe it—that I, this small, unknown person just trying to do what I love, could possibly succeed in such an important competition.  It is a huge encouragement, not just about my work, but an encouragement to keep doing this, and keep working to improve my writing.  Although I have been feeling what Chuck Sambuchino described in his recent article for Writer’s Digest—that the more this piece is becoming a novel, the more I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing—I feel renewed in my hope for it.

I also felt very honored to be sharing the evening with my first creative writing professor, Carolyn Jess-Cooke.  She won a Northern Promise Award in 2008, and this year she won a Poetry Award for her upcoming collection of poetry focusing on the topic of motherhood.  I have read some of her poetry before and know she is extremely gifted and deserving of this award, so I’m looking forward to the new collection.  You can read some of her previously published poems on her website.

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Carolyn Jess-Cooke and me

This morning I was surprised to receive an email from Carolyn Jess-Cooke asking if it would be alright if she shared some of my work on her blog.  None of the short stories I’d like to share are short enough for a blog excerpt, but I’d still like to get more of my prose out into the world now (see one of my poems here), so I sent her the first 700 words of my novel.  Therefore, the opening of my novel will debut in digital form on CJC’s website sometime in the next few days.  Be sure to check it out here.  In return, I am excited to have received her permission to share one of her poems on my blog!  Again, check back soon, and have a read.

The Northern Writers’ Awards were created to help new and established writers work towards publication and to progress in their careers as writers.  Past winners have included Carolyn Jess-Cooke (2008), my first creative writing professor; Kitty Fitzgerald (2003), whom I met through volunteering with Iron Press’s Iron Age festival last month; Carol Clewlow (2002), another wonderful writer and person I met through the Iron Age festival; Peter Mortimer (2001), the kind and wonderful founder of Iron Press; and many other great writers.  (See the full list here)

This year the judge for prose was Sarah Hall, who has written such novels as Haweswater (2002) which won the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize; The Electric Michelangelo (2004), shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize; and The Carhullan Army (2007), which won the 2007 John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction.

At the ceremony last night, Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North, noted that about 70% of Northern Writers’ Awards winners go on to publish the work for which they won an award.  It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly seems better than without this accomplishment; I like those odds.  So as I return to my desk, or cushy chair, or wherever I end up writing next, I sit, still in awe of this amazing thing that has happened to me, and I am so thankful for all the people that have encouraged me throughout the years.  From teachers, to professors, to friends; to the strong support from my sister and extended family; to my fiancé Sam, for putting up with my eccentricities and fears, for reading through drafts, for always telling me keep working at it; but most of all to my parents, to my mother who tears up with pride no matter how crappy a draft might be, and to my father who always, always, tells me I can do this.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.