Saturday, June 29, 2013

What to do with your first novel: write your own rejection slip

I've just read a friend's first novel on Kindle. I wish I hadn't.

Or rather, I wish I had read it in manuscript form, not as a published ebook.

And I wish she had asked me for a few tips.

But I imagine it's particularly painful asking for feedback when you are a senior communications consultant who has been writing reports and critiquing and correcting other people's work for the last 15 years. Or perhaps my friend wanted to keep fiction writing as a private treasure, not to be tinkered with by others.

The thing is, most people who actually finish a first novel quite rightly experience a burst of euphoria. Yes! To finish writing a novel is a mighty, marvelous, massive achievement. You are amazing! Your home town should declare a public holiday in honour of You and celebrate your achievement with fireworks and brass bands.

Even so, this was a first novel, written all alone in a creative cocoon. Is yours like the one I have just read — all description and no action? Endless cups of tea (or swigs of gin) and flashbacks? Characters that we can never like?

There are so many skills to learn as a novelist that it's impossible to master them all in one go: plot, character, dialogue, momentum, description, pace and structure are just the start. You learn little by little by writing more and more and more, again and again.

And then there's spelling. All first novels need a severe copy-edit, if nothing else, because we literally do not see our own errors of grammar, phrasing, spelling and formatting.

Kindle will not reject your unready manuscript: now you must write your own rejection slip — or at least a Needs more work letter. That's an impossible task for a new writer. With a first novel you are inexperienced by definition, so inevitably you misjudge the quality. It cannot be otherwise. Sometimes you think your book is much better than it really is.

So enjoy the euphoria. Celebrate. But please, for your own sake, don't publish your adored creation at this stage. You're a good writer and an expert business communicator, but you're not a novelist—yet. When you move on to the next stage and write something that's as much fun to read as it was to write, you'll be so relieved you didn't publish prematurely.

Years later, you'll look back on this manuscript in wonder. You'll toy with the idea of revising it, but it cannot be salvaged because you have moved on. Instead you may recycle one character or a snippet of conversation or perhaps the setting. And your next book will bring much more pleasure to you and your readers.

Image of Hypatia: in the public domain. I think she is rejecting her suitor. But he'll live.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Elsie's Scale of Terribleness: defusing a happy child's grief and despair

I thought I'd share with you Elsie's Scale of Terribleness.

You know how kids come home from school and say, "Today was the worst day in my entire life!" And they think life could hold nothing worse, because, thank heavens, nothing worse has happened to them so far.

But if they are inclined to dramatise and sob and collapse at the general Terribleness of Their Day, you might try using Elsie's Scale of Terribleness. That might bring a sense of proportion. Or not.

Here is the code to the glorious chart above.

Left Axis: the Scale of Terribleness, where 1 is only slightly terrible, and 10 is as terrible as it gets.
Bottom Axis: Terrible Events, as placed by Elsie, aged almost 10.

A = 1 (on the scale of terribleness)
I made a mistake at netball but it didn't change the score. (No harm done.)

B = 2  Someone was mean to me at school. (I suffered, I need sympathy. Moving on.)

C = 3 All day people kept putting the wrong size marble in our marble run, so one part kept breaking and I had to keep fixing it and the sellotape didn't stick properly and they didn't even say they were sorry. (Just let me vent, OK?)

D, E, F: no scenario for these so far. Any suggestions?

G = 7 When my Granny dies. (I can see this can't be fixed but only one person dies and it is inevitable.)

H = 8 When my dog Ivy had to be put down. (That really was terrible and it still makes me cry.)

I = 9 I might do an experiment that results in everybody getting frozen. I know how to undo the damage, but it would cause something worse to happen. (Purely hypothetical. I admit I have never had a 9 experience.)

J = 10 (I contributed this scenario.) War in Wellington. All the houses are burned to the ground and everybody in Wellington dies. (Affects many people, changes my life, and it can't be fixed.)

How to use Elsie's Scale of Terribleness
Your child or grandchild: "Today was the worst day in my entire life." Sigh, sob.
You (after hugging): "So how was it on the Scale of Terribleness?"
Your child, thoughtfully: "About a 2 or a 3."