The Road to Publication: Remember, the first draft is always sh*t

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just start writing and everything that came out of your head arrived in beautiful prose? That the ideas just kept flowing, and it all made perfect sense? How do other writers find it so easy?

The answer is they don’t. Most of the work to produce a novel comes after the first draft, in the seemingly endless rounds of edits.

The best piece of advice I ever received about writing was from a tweet by Caitlin Moran describing her first draft as ‘word vomit’. The idea that a first draft is always sh*t is quite reassuring.

The problem is that you are probably comparing your first draft to a published book which will have gone through several drafts and editorial stages. The finished product on the shelves looks very, very different from the first draft on your computer.

So, let your characters change age, name and gender half-way through. Relax when your setting changes from the South of France to Southport, when your plot veers in strange directions and hangs on unlikely coincidences, when you’re convinced that what you’re writing makes no sense whatsoever and never will.

In your first draft you can leave out scenes altogether and skip to the more interesting parts. You can add backstory that you know you will end up cutting. You can type XXX when you need to do some research. You can bring characters back to life if you killed them off too early. You just have to keep going!

I am nearing the end of the first draft of book three. I hope to have it completed by the end of January. And it is very much ‘word vomit’. It’s not something I would ever let anyone read.

But it’s easier to edit 80,000 of word vomit than it is to edit a blank page.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

On the shelf: January 2021 reads

In December, I read:

  • Expectation by Anna Hope
  • The Confession by Jessie Burton
  • The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #2)
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • The End of Her by Shari Lapena
  • Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman

I really enjoyed Expectation – a story that follows three women as they grow up from their student days into their 40s. I could really relate to the characters as they were the same age as me and it gave me lots to think about.

A Little Life is certainly not a little book. Nor is it a particularly cheerful one and I did struggle with it for that reason. It was really well-written, and I am glad I finished it, but I’m not sure I would read it again! Warning – some of the themes in this book are very dark.

I would recommend Daemon Voices to any writers out there – it is a very inspiring examination of art, literature, religion and Pullman’s own work. I didn’t always agree with him, but I thought it was a very thought-provoking and enjoyable read.

In January 2021, I am planning to read:

  • The Holiday by T M Logan
  • The Catch by T M Logan
  • One by One by Ruth Ware
  • Shed No Tears by Caz Frear
  • Stone Cold Heart by Caz Frear

What are your reading plans for 2021?

On the shelf: December 2020

In November, I read:

  • One Way Out by A A Dhand
  • Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
  • The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan
  • Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (Poirot #1)

The stand-out title for me was Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton which is the story of a high school siege in the UK. At first, I wasn’t sure how realistic this was, but I found myself drawn into the narrative and couldn’t put it down. The story of the two refugee brothers from Syria was very compelling and sensitively done.

Also recommended was One Way Out by A A Dhand. His plots are always so fast-paced, and this was no exception. Another story about a terrorist attack, although quite different from Three Hours. I work in Bradford, so I like the way he uses places and buildings I know very well in his books. I also like the way he weaves big issues into a thrilling plot.  

After signing up to Sophie Hannah’s email newsletter and getting a free guide to the Poirot novels, I decided to revisit the Queen of Crime Fiction and start reading the Poirot novels in order. I must admit I got a bit lost with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie clearly knew her stuff when it comes to poison, but I found that aspect a little over-complicated. She had me going down completely the wrong path when it came to ‘whodunnit’ though!  

If I have time in December I am going to read the next Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links.

In December I plan to read:

  • Expectation by Anna Hope
  • The Confession by Jessie Burton
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

On the shelf: November 2020

Last month, I took a break from psychological thrillers and read:

  • The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  • The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
  • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
  • Still Me by JoJo Moyes

My favourite of these was The Clockmaker’s Daughter. It’s been on my ‘to be read’ list since I received a copy for Christmas and I don’t know what took me so long, as I always enjoy Kate Morton’s novels.

The novel follows different households who occupy a grand manor house over 200 years. It includes elements of the supernatural which I really enjoyed. The characters were all quite unexpected and fascinating, particularly the eponymous Clockmaker’s Daughter, who goes from pickpocketing on the streets of Victorian London to becoming an artist’s muse.

The Glass Woman took me a while to get into as it is set in 17th century Iceland. Once I got into it, I was hooked, and I loved all the detail of daily life in such a harsh environment. It has elements of Jane Eyre and Rebecca in it that I loved.  

The Giver of Stars was another book I struggled to get into. It’s beautifully written but I didn’t engage with it as much as I thought I would. Having said that, I have recommended it to quite a few other people. I haven’t finished reading Still Me yet so I will save my thoughts until December.  

I also read a proof of a debut novel called The Chalet by Catherine Cooper. I enjoyed this fast-paced psychological thriller set in the French Alps.  

This month, I am going back to crime and planning to read:

  • One Way Out by A A Dhand
  • Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan
  • Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

The Road to Publication: Editing Book Two

So, at the start of September I was writing the first draft of Book Three and aiming to write 3,000 words a week. This was going quite well, and I had just passed the 30,000 words mark when I received a positive response from a literary agent for Book Two!

It wasn’t an offer of representation but some positive feedback about how I could improve the novel. After months of silence from agents, it felt brilliant to have someone come back with an enthusiastic response.

I had a lot of feedback from beta readers and some thoughts of my own to add to the feedback from the agent so I decided to put Book Three on hold and embark on the fifth draft of my second book, provisionally and unimaginatively, called THE WEDDING.  

Thanks to Jericho Writers, I had been introduced to Rachael Herron’s method for revising a book and I decided to give it a go. You can find out more at her website:

I wrote down all the feedback from the agent and beta readers on post-it notes and then read through the manuscript making more post-it notes as I went along. By the time I had finished, I had nearly 120 post-it notes.

I then created an Excel spreadsheet with a line for every chapter and columns for the following: Chapter Number; what happens; point of view; time and location; revisions that need to be made; research and character arc. I then inputted all the post-it notes into the relevant columns.

This took a few days but by the end I had a comprehensive editing plan. I can now see at one glance how much work each chapter needs and where the major changes are.

I am aiming to finish draft five by early November using this method and then resubmit to the agent. In the first two weeks I have managed to edit about 25% of the novel so it’s going well.

What methods do you use for editing?

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

On the shelf: October 2020

In September, I read:

  • Black River by Will Dean
  • We Know You Know by Erin Kelly
  • The Taking of Annie Thorne by C J Tudor
  • The Lost Man by Jane Harper

All these books had evocative settings. Black River is set in a Swedish forest around midsummer and there are some really graphic descriptions of the bugs. We Know You Know, originally published as Stone Mothers, is set in a disused asylum which plays a key role in the action. The Taking of Annie Thorne is set in a small Nottinghamshire village and a disused mine. The Lost Man is set in the Australian outback in an incredibly barren terrain.

My favourite of these was The Taking of Annie Thorne by C J Tudor and I have just downloaded her next book, The Other People. They’re thrillers but with a touch of horror and I liked the 80s nostalgia in this book and the creepy setting.

I also read a couple of books by writer friends. All Our Squandered Beauty by Amanda Huggins is a coming-of-age novella set in the 1970s. It will be published by Victorina Press in January 2021.

All Our Squandered Beauty is a beautifully told coming-of-age tale. Kara is 18 and has her whole life ahead of her but will she choose the bright lights of London or the familiar call of the sea?

With exquisite prose, Huggins perfectly captures that transition to womanhood as Kara moves from her parochial seaside town to spend the summer in Greece with her art tutor and his bohemian friends.  

The novella is full of evocative descriptions which transport the reader to a different time and place. The poignant ending is perfectly pitched.

Reminiscent of Bonjour Tristesse, this is a story which will capture your heart and deserves to be a classic.  

You can pre-order All Our Squandered Beauty here.

I also read a great collection of short stories by Bradford crown court reporter Jenifer Loweth called Crook Who’s Talking!

Based on real-life cases, and with a nod to the Canterbury Tales, these stories are written from the point-of-view of those in the dock (apart from one who is the defendant’s brother). Loweth takes us behind the headlines into the minds of the criminals, who are mostly justifying their misdemeanours.

Some are comical, some are tragic, and one is particularly chilling, but you are left with the feeling that justice has been served.

And finally, I was lucky enough to be sent a proof of The Chalet by Catherine Cooper which has another evocative setting – a ski chalet in France. I haven’t finished it yet but will post a review when I do.

I’m going to move away from psychological thrillers in October. After I finish The Chalet, I am planning to read:

  • Still Me by JoJo Moyes
  • The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes – recommended by my friend
  • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – a Christmas present
  • The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea – borrowed from my mum

What are you reading? Any recommendations?

The Road to Publication: Writing a first draft

I am currently writing the first draft of Book Three, as yet untitled.

Every writer is different, but I usually take around six to eight months to write my first draft. I aim to write 3,000 words a week for around 30 weeks, but life sometimes gets in the way.

I started writing my first draft on 1 July and so far, I have written 24,000 words so I am about on target to finish by the end of January / early February.

I will then take a break for around six weeks while I do some research before tackling my second draft. It’s usually after the third draft that I feel comfortable showing it to anyone.

You may have heard of ‘pantsers’ and ‘planners’ but I’m neither. I like to have an outline to work to, but I don’t plan my books too much before I start. Otherwise I feel like I have already written it and I quickly lose passion for the story. Likewise, I can’t just start writing with no idea where I’m heading so pantsing doesn’t work for me either.

I like the snowflake method of writing. If you haven’t heard of it, there is a very good ebook available which explains the method. You basically alternate between developing character and plot and work from the very essence of the novel outwards, writing and plotting as you go.

I have also recently read Save the Cat, so I am trying to structure my book according to the 15 story beats. A lot of writers struggle with a ‘flabby middle’ (where nothing really happens in the book), so I think it’s important to have a good midpoint twist. I’m quite excited about mine!

I’ll keep you posted how I get on!

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

On the shelf: September 2020

On average, I read a book a week. Unsurprisingly, my favourite genre is crime and I try to keep up with the latest psychological thrillers as they are published. However, I have broad tastes and also like literary fiction, ‘chick-lit’, book club fiction, fantasy and YA. I am less keen on historical fiction although I do read it.

My favourite authors are Khaled Hosseini, Tracy Chevalier and Emily Barr, and I will read pretty much anything by Cara Hunter, Ruth Ware, Shari Lapena and C L Taylor.

In August, I read:

  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Knife by Jo Nesbo
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes

My favourite of these was Knife by Jo Nesbo. His books are pretty violent, but they are full of story and Harry Hole is such a good character. I have read almost all of Nesbo’s books. If you’re new to this Norwegian writer, I would start with The Snowman or The Redeemer.  

In September, I plan to read:

  • The Lost Man by Jane Harper
  • We Know You Know by Erin Kelly
  • The Taking of Annie Thorne by C J Tudor
  • Black River by Will Dean

What are you reading? Any recommendations?