September ’22 – Into the Whirlwind

It feels like only a few hours ago that I was posting about celebrating my birthday in Devon. Yet an entire month has passed since then, and I’ve hardly had time to breathe, nevermind write. We started off the month with another bout of Covid — this time it was my partner who went down with it, which kept us in Devon a bit longer than we anticipated.

As soon as we got back home, though, I ended up with a monstrous cold that made work and writing and general concentration extremely difficult. I recovered just in time for us to head back to Devon — this time to celebrate the wedding of one of my partner’s close friends, who was marrying his childhood sweetheart. Even beyond the endearing lovestory behind it all, It was a beautiful ceremony… accompanied by three days of almost non-stop partying. We swam in a heated pool under the stars and slept in a tent in what felt like zero-degree weather.

Which of course meant that as soon as we got back home (again), I came down with yet another cold (AGAIN!). I’m only now starting to find my feet again, after the whirlwind of celebration and sickness that has been September. It’s left very little time to write — or even stay on top of work, though I’ve at least managed to meet the two major deadlines I had this month (even if only barely).

As for the rest of it… Well, there are many things I would’ve liked to achieve this month. There are many things that I would’ve preferred to be doing than lying ill in bed, struggling with the snot and the coughs and the tissues. But sometimes we need rest, and it’s okay to take that time to heal. No matter how full-on life is, we need to know what to prioritise and what we can let drop, and when worse comes to worst—

Sometimes you really do just need to take a break.

Monthly Roundup

Latest Instagram

Fiction and Prose

  • A Lullaby of Stolen Stars (YA Fantasy Novel) – Rewriting
  • Dear Evergreen (Experimental Short) – Composing
  • All the Pretty Little Lies (Autofiction Short) – Editing

Watching

  • Rings of Power
  • She-Ra (rewatching IN SPANISH!)
  • The Sandman

Listening

Dragon Age Inquisition Soundtrack (epic? why yes)

August ’22 – On Waiting

Today is my birthday. As I write this, I’m sitting at a kitchen table in south Devon, celebrating with my partner and his family.

August was a month of maybes. Between job uncertainty with my partner, a bout of depression, rising living costs and everything else, I found myself wondering what the future could possibly hold for us, whether we would be able to survive. For a few weeks at the beginning of the month, things looked terribly dire. I found myself constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But then a new opportunity turned up for my partner, and after a flurry of interviews, he landed a shiny new job in a shiny new city — a brilliant opportunity for both of us. We would be able to make a fresh start, go on a brand new adventure together. In less than two months now, we’ll be flying out, packing up our stuff to be shipped out of the country and leaving behind the house we’ve lived in for the past two years.

Two whole years. It seems like it’s been longer than that, but looking back on it now, I realize a lot of that feeling comes from the fact that Nottingham, for all the fun and friends we have here, has always felt more like a waiting room. We came here in the middle of the pandemic because London had nothing left for us. Living here allowed my partner to build his career in the games industry, and allowed me to start building my business. We made some great friends, but for all that…

It was never going to be the place we stayed for the rest of our lives. Nottingham was never the goal. Nottingham was a place to live and work and love while we waited for better things.

And now, at least a few of those things have manifested. So here’s to new opportunities and new horizons. Here’s to building new friends and new foundations. Here’s to Barcelona!

It’s amazing how quickly your life can change, even when you feel like all you’re doing is waiting.

Monthly Round Up

Fiction and Prose

  • A Lullaby of Stolen Stars (YA Fantasy Novel) – Rewriting
  • All the Pretty Little Lies (Autofiction Short) – Editing
  • We are Made to Bloom (Adult Fantasy Short) – Submitting

Watching

  • The Sandman
  • She-Ra (rewatching IN SPANISH!)
  • The Good Place

Listening

Closed on Sunday (For that Lo-Fi work ambience)

That Expat Girl’s Guide to Writing a Novel | Part 2: The First Draft (1)

Whenever I find myself in a new city — whether I’m planning to stay there for a while or only stopping by for a few hours or a couple of days — the first thing I make sure to do is get lost. Wandering through the streets of the city center and poking my head down any alleyways that look interesting, what I’ve found over the years is that pure exploration is by far the best method of getting to know a place.

Something similar could be said of my first drafts.

For me, as a gardener / pantster, my very first draft is an exploration and a prayer. In this post (and the next couple in this series), I’m going to give you some tips for constructing that all-important first draft of a novel. With 5 novel-length works under my belt (some of them closer to publication than others), I hope that my experience might help you find your way through the tangled maze that is writing the very first draft of your very first novel.

If you’ve read my previous post in this How to Write a Novel Guide, you should already have a few ideas and images floating about and a few thoughts on how those pieces of inspiration connect and intersect. Now all you have to do is put all of those ideas together in a first draft.

Easier said than done.

How you write: Roughs vs Firsts

There are actually more like two phases to constructing the first draft of a novel. The rough drafting phase involves getting your ideas down on paper in their most raw, unvarnished form. Much like artists doing gesture sketches and life studies before they commit their next masterpiece to canvas, the rough draft allows us to explore our ideas and flesh them out before the actual scene-writing and chapter-building.

For some, this may take the form of an intensive planning phase, where every plot twist and character flaw is noted down in excruciating detail (perhaps even using an excel spreadsheet or two to help organize). For others, the boundaries between rough drafting and first drafting may be less defined — you may waver back and forth between these two types of drafting as you work your way towards constructing a first complete draft.

However you work, remember that the rough draft is for your eyes only. It’s made up of all the raw ideas and unvarnished words that your brain spits out in the throws of inspiration, most of which will probably make sense only to you. Meanwhile, the first draft — while still not a fully fledged, ready-to-publish novel — is far more organized and probably makes a fair bit more sense when read from start to finish.

How you move from raw ideas to rough words to readable first draft depends a lot on your particular writing style. To steal the words of George R.R. Martin, some writers work more like architects, while others are more like gardeners. Perhaps, instead, you’re more familiar with the terms planner and pantster, or ‘outline’ vs ‘discovery’ writer — but no matter what you call these two modes of writing, figuring out which one you are will only ever help you nail down your writing process.

Gardeners

Pantsters, discovery writers, gardeners — some of us simply can’t be bound by outlines and spreadsheets. For gardeners, there’s no real boundary between the rough draft and the first draft. This is how I work, and I know that, for me, part of the thrill of writing comes from discovering aspects of my characters and plots that I never would have expected.

If you find that you can’t be bothered to write out scenes once you know exactly where they’re going, or that a plot outline never works for you once you arrive at the critical points, you may be a gardener. By far, my favourite part about writing in this mode is that most of my writing time is simply spent hanging out with my characters, letting them teach me about themselves in their own way. It’s far more of an exploration than outline writing, and you have unequaled freedom to incorporate new ideas and inspiration into your draft as you find it.

That said, writing as a gardener can make it too easy to get lost in the woods. Once that happens, finding your way out of tricky story twists and compounded plot holes may end up demotivating you more than inspiring you. Also, once you’ve gotten through the first draft, you may find your developmental and structural edits to be somewhat more intensive than our architect comrades.

Practical Tip: Stay organized! Even if most of the thrill comes from exploring new and unknown territory, it still helps to have some idea of the expanse you’re planning to venture into. Instead of scene-by-scene outlines, try coming up with minimalistic plot maps such as seven point structure, the main points on Freytag’s pyramid, or even simply knowing the ending first. And when you find out new things about your characters, make sure to keep track of all your discoveries by compiling character documents.

Architects

On the other end of the spectrum, there are architects, planners, or outline writers. For this sort of process, a clear delineation between rough draft and first draft is paramount. Much of the heavy lifting of character creation, plotting, and worldbuilding ends up being done long before a single complete sentence touches the page.

If you find you can’t even begin to write a scene until you know exactly what it’s leading up to, you’re likely an architect. I must admit, I’m slightly jealous of your ability! By planning out everything beforehand and using your rough drafting phase to outline exactly what happens at every point in your novel, you’re saving yourself time and heartache later on in the process. You’ll know early on whether a concept needs major reshaping before you’ve waded too far into a complete first draft, and you can’t use the excuse of not knowing what happens next to procrastinate on getting that draft done.

Of course, things don’t always go to plan, and novels can sometimes feel more like living breathing things than an outline gives them credit for. For architects, it can be difficult when all your meticulous planning leads up to a scene that ends up falling flat — or worse, dully predictable. You may also find it hard to let your characters breathe on the page, especially when they start acting more like real people, with quirks and desires only partially under your control.

Practical Tip: Don’t let the surprises throw you! It’s impossible to predict every single issue and detail that is going to crop up in a novel-length work. That’s why people read novels and not novel outlines. Surprises are part of the fun, and if you find that your characters want to go in a different direction, then let them lead the way, at least for a little bit. You’re not required to include the resulting scenes in your draft, but you never know how they might add to your final product.

What a First Draft is and Isn’t

In essence, your rough draft is a version of the story that you tell yourself, before sharing it with anyone else. It’s used to pin down the bones of your story, and get all those raw messy bits down on paper so you can see what you can do with them. Meanwhile, the first draft is a more organized version of those rough ideas. Your first draft should be readable from start to finish — but it will be far from perfect. There will always be several drafts to go before you can turn that first raw manuscript into a finished book.

This all goes to say that there really is no WRONG way to write a first draft. No matter what, so long as you’re getting the story down and moving forward with your words, you’re building a foundation for a successful novel.

A Practical Exercise to Get Started

In the next post in this series, I’ll be talking more about what you need to get started writing your first draft, whether you’re more architect or gardener or somewhere in between. But for now, if you’ve had an idea burning in the back of your mind for a while now, my biggest piece of advice would be to just get started by simply freewriting about your story idea. If you’ve never used this mode of writing before, you can find a guide on my editorial blog. Some prompts to use if you want to use your freewriting to build a novel:

As our story begins…

My protagonist/antagonist was born…

More than anything else, my protagonist/antagonist wants…

At the heart of this story is…

The scene I want to write most is…

This is the image I can’t get rid of: …

That fateful morning…

At the very end…

Bits of what you write now may or not make it into your novel’s first draft — perhaps only a single line or image may be worth keeping. But remember that no writing is ever wasted. In the next installment in this series, we’ll look at more exercises to get you off to a running start with your novel’s first draft, no matter whether you’re an architect, gardener, or something in between.

Until then, feel free to share your novel ideas in the comments! I’d love to hear them.

July ’22 – On Purpose

It’s been a whirlwind of a month, July, and I’m going to admit: I’ve been struggling.

I’ve been struggling with my health, with my work, with my stories. There were moments, in these past few weeks, where it felt like it was all just too much to deal with. There were days when I wanted to give up.

It’s at times like these when we start to question why we keep going. Why do we keep throwing ourselves into the whirlwind? Especially for those of us who are writers, what is it that makes us get up and face the blank page, instead of simply doing something, anything else? Especially when, so many times, it feels like we’re just shouting into the void?

For me, I’ve realised this month, it comes down to the urge to make myself heard. And I have a feeling that it’s the same for a lot of you as well. We write because we have something to say. We write because filling the page is easier than facing the emptiness. We write to find the meaning in our lives — and it’s our urge to share that meaning, in the hopes that others might see it, and understand it, and perhaps even benefit from it, that makes it all worthwhile.

So keep writing. Keep making yourself heard. If you have to shout into the void, then shout as loudly and as meaningfully as you can. You never know when someone might be listening.

June ’22 – On Holidays

“Do you even know what a holiday is?”

Confession time. I’ve just come back to the UK from a couple weeks in Malta. The Boy and I are hoping to move there soon, and so, even with work deadlines approaching, we decided to fly out and see whether we could sort out our accommodations and get the ball rolling.

To be fair, we both had to work for most of our time there, but there were at least a couple days that we’d put aside for proper holiday time. Even then, the Boy would find me on my laptop late at night, writing, editing, proofreading after coming home from the beach — or worse, sitting in the sun, scribbling down novel notes on the beach itself.

As far as I’m concerned, “A holiday is a block of time when you put aside the things that are urgent in order to focus on the things that are important.”

The Boy tells me that my definition isn’t exactly universal.

Fair enough, but I’ve never been comfortable enough to simply stake out a block of time for… what, exactly? I can’t imagine a holiday where I’d do nothing; my default is always to be writing, writing, writing — until I get too tired to form proper sentences, at which point I switch over to reading.

So yes, even on holiday, I was focusing on making progress with the current project: my first foray into adult fantasy and (judging by my current wordcount) my first truly epic novel. It’ll take a lot more holidays before I manage to finish the first draft, but to be honest, I’m rather enjoying the work.

And maybe that’s all that matters.

May ’22 – On New Adventures

Believe me, I am still alive… but boy, has it been a while. And it’s been a lot as well, but I suppose that’s the nature of life, to barrel on heedlessly while we cling on for dear life.

That said, I’m going to try to keep this blog updated more regularly, but part of the chaos that has recently ensued is actually a good thing. You see, I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve done the deep dive. I’ve unlocked a new level. No more 9-5 (or really, as it more often was, 7:30 to 6pm or 4am-2:30) for me.

I’ve gone freelance!

Check out my shiny new website. And I’d love it if you followed me on my (super) professional twitter.

I’ve always done a bit of editing and freelancing on the side, along with my writing, but due to a number of factors, I’m finally able to make it my main gig. And I hope you all will join me on the journey. For now, I’d just like to share a little something that I’ve posted over on my editing blog, just in case any of you were wondering how many drafts go into a published novel.

The answer is many.

In any case, I’m still praying for some good writing news, which always seems to be just around the corner, but never shows. When it does, you guys will be the first to know. For now — I’d love to know which draft you’re on in your writing journey, and whether any of you have had any good news lately? Can’t wait to hear it!

December – On Almosts

Dear 2021,

It’s been a while. We had such high hopes. Yet here we are, at the end of you, sitting amongst crumples of wrapping paper and the leftovers from Christmas dinner. And really, all I have to say to you right now is:

WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT?

It’s tempting to blame Covid for the strange, unsatisfactory gappiness of this year — but if I’m being honest, the most frustrating thing about you, 2021, is that you’ve been a year of almosts and near misses. So often I’ve come closer than I’ve ever been to grasping everything I’ve been working towards — only to have it snatched out of my fingertips.

The worst blow came at the beginning of the year. The novel that was shortlisted for three competitions (including two awards at major publishers) died on sub. This was the novel that got me my agent, and while we got a lot of positive feedback from editors, ultimately no one wanted to offer on it. And so, The Shape of the World has gone onto the back burner. It’s especially painful, considering that just over a month ago, I and the other Shortlistees of the Rivers of London Award were invited to Gollancz’s London offices for an intro to publishing day.

Meanwhile, a couple of my short stories have been making it into the final rounds of decision-making with a string of pro-rated magazines. And yet, still, again, ultimately, none of this has resulted in a single sale.

I’m going to be honest, some of this is difficult to think about, much less write about. Almosts are hard. They can be devastating, to have come so far and worked so hard, only to be told, once again, still, that it’s just not quite good enough. And perhaps it would be easier to write off 2021, in the same way that we all had to write off 2020, but we have to draw the line somewhere. And to be fair, there are some good things that happened this year:

For one thing, as you’re reading this, I’m putting final touches on the submission draft for my new middle grade project about diaspora kids, monsters, and the worlds we see in mirrors. For another, I’ve started the first, rough drafts of the book that is the book of my heart. These are small magics, but they are precious.

Finally, outside of the writing world, the Boy and I have officially gotten engaged. We can hardly wait until next year to gather all our friends together and celebrate everything we want to build together.

In a year full of setbacks and almosts and not-quite-theres, I find it important to remember this: nothing at all is guaranteed. So much of this industry, of this life, is out of our hands, subject to whims and luck and ephemeral happenstance. Ultimately, the only thing we can really do is take ownership of the things that we can control: the effort we invest in our work; the people we choose to spend time with; the moments we pay attention to.

So, my lovelies. Here I am, wishing you all the best of the last dark days of this year. And I hope, in the days to come, that you write more, write passionately, and treasure the people you love. Our time is always too short.

Be good,

xAmy

August – On Recovery

My, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I suppose it’s been a mad month so far. A mad few months, actually, seeing as July came with a lovely little bout of COVID, which (in my humble opinion), rather takes the cake.

Yes, I was double vaxxed. Yes, I did (and am continuing to) wear my mask in public places. And yes, I still managed to catch the Big-C, which not only knocked me out flat for about a week, but also gifted me the lovely lingering effect of debilitating fatigue. At least the timing was ideal — my symptoms cleared up and we were released from self-isolation a full week before our planned trip to Brighton. But even now, some month and a half after the illness has passed, I can’t go a full day without collapsing into bed around 9pm.

But so it goes. I suppose it may have been a bit overly-optimistic of me to expect to be fully healthy while juggling shifts at the bookshop and a 30k Camp Nanowrimo, never mind edits for my current MG WIP.

Speaking of which, with or without the post-viral fatigue, Adderix Charms Takes on the Human World is now approaching the end of it’s second major draft, and I am having a lot of fun stitching the pieces back together. This edit required some huge, major structural changes. Time lines were up-ended, motivations were undone. All of that means that the ending is still a bit of a mess, but day by day, it’s starting to come together. I think with another month’s work, I’ll be able to start looking at the scene and line-level of editorial things, hopefully to be able to be out on sub with it by October/November.

In any case, August has only just begun. Let’s see what it brings.

Last Month’s Reads: Wise Children | The Gilded Ones | A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue | Insurrecto

March – On Rejection

There are things they don’t tell you about being an agented fiction writer. Some of this stuff, I learned the hard way when I briefly picked up the interest of an agent’s assistant on my first novel, way back in 2012. The interest proved to be short-lived. When you’re in the querying trenches, it seems so simple: one yes is all it takes, and then it’s smooth sailing, right?

Some of this stuff, I’m still actively discovering. One thing I will say is that the publishing and writing process once an agent is involved is so very different from when you’re a lone novelist chipping away at a manuscript. This year, I’ve managed to turn around a manuscript in about five months from conception to agent draft. Certainly being on furlough from work helped, even if the ongoing pandemic didn’t — but still, that’s a record for me.

Of course, some of that difference comes from simply being a more experienced writer. Your first novel might take several years to develop, as you learn exactly how your process works. But being signed (and debuted!) on the first novel you’ve ever written is a rarity, and more likely you’ll have a second or a third novel under your belt before an agent takes notice of your work.

The main thing that you end up learning, though, is that the rejection doesn’t stop once you’ve signed. There will be ideas you have that your agent may not fully get behind, and other books that die on sub or in edits. There will be editors who love your work but still pass. Once you get a deal and all goes to print, there will still be those readers who hate your words.

I guess what I’m trying to come to terms with is this: as writers, we face a career path paved with rejections. That never, ever stops. Everyone cites that She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named faced a whopping 21 rejections before HP was picked up by Bloomsbury. And yet for most of us, that’s a mere drop in the bucket. I hate it every time someone brings that stat up. 21 rejections? They make it sound so easy.

More encouraging is Pierce Brown, who ramped up more than 140 rejections on various projects before Red Rising was published. Indeed, I cling to the truth that, if you haven’t collected upward of at least 75 rejections or so over your writing career, you likely haven’t been doing enough of the work: not just writing, but writing, finishing, editing, submitting, editing and submitting again.

So for everyone in the querying trenches right now, and my fellows in the submissions bunkers: hang in there. All you can do is do the work.

February – Lockdown Updates and Worldbuilding Questions

In the midst of a third lockdown without sight of any sort of relief on the horizon, things have felt a lot more grim lately. I didn’t think that I’d be missing parties and my bookselling job all that much, and yet, here we are, and all I really want is to actually hang out with humans other than the Boy. Don’t get me wrong, the Boy is wonderful, but if variety is the spice of life, then we’re kinda looking forward to at least another two months of blanched cauliflower. No salt.

That said, there have been a few good things while we’ve been in lockdown. This past Tuesday, I gave a webinar for Jericho Writers on developing speculative elements for fantasy and science fiction for their Genre Month series of online events. I must admit that my anxiety was well through the roof for at least three days beforehand, but once I actually started presenting, it was an amazing experience that I would love to do again. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to answer all of the questions that came up during the presentation, so I thought I might as well take the opportunity to share a few more insights here.


Question: How would you differentiate between fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction?

Genre is its own minefield (more on this in a future post!), but in general, the main difference between fantasy and sci-fi is that sci-fi tends to build on the laws of reality as we already know them. In short, sci-fi usually takes what we already know to be true and adds things on top, whereas fantasy tends to change the basics and build entirely new frameworks for understanding the story. Finally, speculative fiction is an umbrella term that contains both sci-fi and fantasy, as well as more subtle forms of reality-defying work, such as magical realism or dystopian fiction without a spec element.

Question: When submitting, how do you describe your book’s genre accurately, especially if it crosses traditional genre lines?

In this case, comp titles are your best friend. If you can find something that mixes stuff up and breaks down the boundaries in a similar way to what you’re working on, then you should lean into that when you’re querying. The other option would be to think really hard about which types of readers are most likely to appreciate your particular style of worldbuilding and storytelling, and pitch it as appealing to that audience.

Question: What tools do you use for writing and worldbuilding?

I’m a great fan of Scrivener for multiple reasons, but if you’re at all scatter-brained like me, it is an absolute godsend for getting your manuscripts into some kind of order, all while being super flexible, so you can still skip around in your process. As for more arty world-building focused stuff, It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I love maps. I’ve recently discovered Inkarnate for map-making, and it is SO FUN.


Anyway, hopefully it’s just a couple more months of cauliflower before we get to add some more spices back into the mix. Until then, I’m wishing all of you the best February possible under the circumstances.

We got this.