Thursday, 1 November 2012

On Writing, Re-Writing and Starting From (Almost) Scratch Again

November is here; so NaNoWriMo is here, too; and this year I'm a participant!

It's been really windy, and grey (speaking of which, my heart goes out to all who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy). The sun sets at about half past four here, so evenings are dark and slow.

I decided to write this post for myself, as an inspiration, a reminder of sorts. This is also to those embarking on the amazing journey of writing a book, or are currently working on a book and losing momentum; this post is for you.

Last year and this year have been crucially important for me as a writer. For two years, it's been nothing for me, but writing, nothing else. I wrote a novel before, and it was published back in 2009. And I wasn't entirely a full-time writer then.

Yet, I haven't been able to finish my current novel-in-progress... which I actually began to plot in 2009. It's dramatically changed... from the story of three Egyptian girlfriends and what they are dealing with to what I'm writing now: a complex, multi-layered, psychological/mystery novel focusing on the life of a child, later young woman and her family and all that is life about to throw at her.

I suppose I somehow always thought I'd always write romance novels. I'm not sure what happened. Have I changed? Yes, I have. My current novel-in-progress isn't a romance by any means; so if you're expecting something similar to my debut novel The Years of Silence, I hope you will not be disappointed. Because this time, at least for most of the book (or what it is so far), it's an anti-romance, or rather a love story gone sour and terribly wrong. Be warned!

Anyway, so for the past two years, I've been working on this novel which has changed so much it's unrecognisable from what I first had in mind.

By the start of this year, I had almost completed the first draft and all seemed to be going well.

But something did not feel right; and I wasn't sure what.

From 2011 to the start of this year, I had access to writing groups and critique partners. I could (give and) get all the feedback I wanted; I got more than the feedback I wanted... which was great.

For a while.

Probably it's because I'm an introvert, I work much better on my own. I don't think any type of critique is recommended while writing the first draft. As a matter of fact, I'd warn against it.

Up until a couple of years ago, I used to write for myself. I probably shouldn't say this, but there was no editor nagging all the time in my head; I was not a word perfectionist. I was a W.R.I.T.E.R. The Editor-in-me only emerged when I was revising later. But while I was writing, there was so much joy... I never judged my writing; I never lingered on EVERY single word, every single letter, how many words per chapter, the perfect scene - albeit contrived -, the "flawless" (no pun intended) characterization, the uncanny dialogue... The list goes on.

Because that's not the kind of book I want to read. And if that's the kind of novel you appreciate, then you may not like my book(s); and I'm being very, very honest.

The thing about getting feedback on the very first draft WHILE you're writing it... well, for me, it's a major distraction. You will unwillingly start to worry about what others want to read or think. A workshop has a group of roughly 8-10 people, and you submit your work bi-weekly... Let's for arguments' sake say you get about ten opinions every two weeks. That's still overwhelming (to me). I'm not saying this includes everyone who has critiqued my work; I must stress there were several people whose honest and constructive feedback I found helpful and whose opinions I still appreciate and value; those were usually writers whose writing I liked as well.

There were also "defensive" writers/readers who critique on a personal basis (critiquing you rather than your work) and somehow take it very personally if your feedback of their work has the slightest criticism. I found those are best avoided, if possible; you must always remember to keep it professional and non-personal. Otherwise, don't pay much attention to what they say. That's another thing: Only accept the feedback that resonates with you and your vision. But then if you're not going to accept everyone's opinion and/or feedback, then what is the point? And sometimes out of a whole group, only one or two get what you want to say and provide helpful comments (worst case scenario being none).

One thing that usually left me puzzled was why I, or any other writer, needed validation from others, judging our writing, seemingly to help or even offer support. The need for validation from an outside source is terribly wrong on so many levels, writing-wise, or life-wise. I think if you write for yourself, awaiting no validation, this is much better for you and your book. That is what I firmly believe now. And when you're happy and satisfied with your first/final draft, then you can have a few people you trust and who are familiar with your writing provide comments and feedback. This makes much more sense to me.

There are even more scenarios in work shops: Some people may attack you or act strangely around you, be tactless, rude or clueless, especially if they're intimidated by your writing or you, or if others - particularly tutors - praise your writing... and may resort to saying stupid or laughable things, to annoy you or make you feel less confident about your writing/work. You'll meet jealousy; people who say one thing and something else behind your back, or pretend to be friends, but don't want you in the spotlight. I didn't even know about that; but when I shared the topic with a writer friend of mine, I realized it could and does happen. Apparently some people act like the more writers they eliminate from the "competition",  the more chances they have in getting published. Some people may not even mind losing you... if that means getting published. Sad; but it's a sad, sad world we live in.

You'll learn to get over it. You'll be told writers need to have thick skin... even when you do. Anyway...

Feel free to agree or disagree with me; like I said, this post is meant to inspire me when I read it again later, and hopefully those who agree with me.

For instance, nowadays there are one or two people I currently reach out to (one of them in the publishing field, like myself). I trust them and know they are honest and want my best; that's crucial.  They don't provide much criticism, but rather gentle non-intrusive after-thoughts... gentle ones, and it leaves me inspired. That's what I want for now.

A first draft is like a recipe; you're still working on it, adding the right ingredients, substituting mild for hot chilli, and perhaps cumin for curry. You won't definitely know for sure until you put it in the oven, adjust the heat and wait for some time. Let it cool... then taste it. You may add more - or less - ingredients next time. Or you may leave it as it is. It's YOUR recipe. You can't allow others to taste your cooking/baking until it's done AND you're absolutely satisfied with it. And remember, others have different taste buds from yours. BUT if you're happy with it, don't change it for anyone else. Remember that.

So, back to what I was saying: I wrote and wrote... based on others' feedback, some of them professional writers and got amazing feedback. Several agents I met were very interested.

But something did not feel right.

I let the novel "simmer"; I decided to leave it alone, untouched... while catching up on my ever-growing to-read  list (reading inspires me to write... always) and a few books on writing - which indeed helped.

I decided to read my novel-in-progress again a couple of months later. Yes, I waited that long.

And I knew instantly what was wrong.

It was seemingly rich, perfect wording, immaculate scenes... yet a bit bland; above all, it was not me, and that hurt. I know writers shouldn't say this about their "babies" and novels-in-progress... but that's what came to mind. The thing is the novel itself was creating some sort of buzz apparently, and I started hearing from more agents.

I still had a problem; the novel was only about 75% finished, and my writer's block was now a permanent ailment. That's another sign. Writer's block is okay, but if it stays too long with you, it's your creative mind telling you something needs to be changed.

So, I realized I was "stuck", because that wasn't the way the novel was supposed to go. And I realized later again that a few characters weren't who they were supposed to be. For more than a year I was forcing them to be what others wanted them to be, even if it meant getting more positive feedback... Just like I was told how important it is to plot and draft ALL scenes beforehand. I did that... but it didn't feel right; and I felt bad for my characters and my book. So, I sulked for a while... or quite some time.

The thing is when you're reading my novel(s), I want you to feel this is actually someone's life. I, thankfully, achieved that with my debut novel. There are still some people who believe the book is somehow based on my life; but it is not. I've never even been to New York. I wanted my novel to feel like you accidentally came upon someone's diary... and all of a sudden, you have an access to someone else's world.

When you're in a writing group (or a couple of them), others will often ask you about the plot, rush it. I'm not saying you should keep writing if after completing half your novel you still have no plot. What I'm saying is you don't have to have a definite plot at first; and it's OKAY. Our lives don't have a plot, do they? We can plan all we want... but life happens, some other way.

I don't know why, but perfectly plotted novels usually feel contrived to me, and it's a major turn-off. The writer is usually paying too much attention to every word, expression, the perfect pause, the crystalline dialogue... inventing, moulding, but not creating. It's top-notch writing, but it's not for me. It's not my kind of book... or writing.

I want writing that jumps with life and spontaneity off the pages. I want to forget it's a book. I want to think it's a real life (I'm referring to fiction).

So... I decided to change things around in my current novel-in-progress. Everything I've written has made a difference, research and all that, but it doesn't have to be included in the novel. I know much more about my characters now and their world(s). I know more about my writing, and what I want to write about. Yes, what I want to write about... not what I'm expected and encouraged to write about.

I got a sign yesterday - or what I believe is one - a lovely reader gave five stars to my debut novel on GoodReads, and wrote: "It's a page turner; I couldn't put it down till I finished it."

The novel was published three and half years ago; someone still reading it and commenting on it means a lot to me. I think it all touched me because I realized this is what it's all about: the essence of the writing, whether it's "top-notch"/literary/whatever writing or not. This was my writing, all my writing, my creation.

So, my advice (to me and others) is: Write for yourself, writing can be a pain... but when you're working on and experimenting with your first draft it should bring some joy. Leave the pain for when you're revising, editing again, getting feedback, doing more editing based on the agent's advice and later editor... Leave it till then.

Never forget that it's YOUR book, your essence, your vision. Never let anyone rob you of that. You know more than anyone else; you know your characters much better. Leave the editing for later.

This must be one of the longest posts I've ever written; and this is also related to NaNoWriMo. I'm writing again... but rather slowly today.

Keep writing!

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