RESURRECTING THE DEAD – Opening the Bottom Drawer

I don’t know about you, but I have a bottom drawer full of old manuscripts. Actually, I have a whole chest full. The first novel I ever wrote, “A Lesson in Darkness” will never see the light of day, it was my real training ground. It’s never even had a second draft. But I have three other projects that were precious book babies at some point but then, because of rejections real or imagined, became too hard to look at and were relegated to the bottom drawer.

What I’ve learnt over my twenty years of writing practice is never ever to give up on a piece of writing. Short pieces that were rejected for years, even decades, suddenly find the prefect home in better places than I’d ever dreamed of. “Mrs Sunshine” had done the rounds of many literary journals and competitions and then finally found a place in Best Australian Stories 2014. Other stories too, battle worn and bruised have risen to be published and paid for.

Even Thrill Seekers was resurrected from the dead after Barbara Mobbs, my then agent, told me to forget about it, put it in the bottom drawer and move on, after it was rejected by only one publisher. I wasn’t going to give up on it that easily. I submitted it to a worldwide call out and scored a contract with Ransom Publishing UK. It then went on to be shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards. It wouldn’t have, if I’d taken Barbara’s advice and let it perish unseen.

It takes courage to resurrect old writing, especially when it’s done the rounds a few times and faced a lot of rejection. “Remember,” I have to tell myself, “rejection doesn’t mean the work is bad, only that it hasn’t found the right home, or the right shape yet.”

I am not short on courage. I feel the fear and do things anyway. You have to be a risk taker to be a writer. But reviving “Dear Madman” and starting to work on it again after a break of some years has taken all my strength. When a book has been rejected, it’s not just the book that’s bruised, but the writer (actually, the book probably feels okay!). Sometimes you’ll have a loving spouse to drag the manuscript out of the rubbish bin, as Stephen King’s wife famously did for Carrie, his first breakthrough hit. But sometimes you have to be your own loving friend and do the same.

I have been working on “Dear Madman” on and off for over ten years. Yes, that long. This project is dear to, and deep inside, my heart. It began life as a memoir about the murder of my maternal grandmother’s sister as a child in the Lockyer Valley in 1912 but then evolved into a novel. The characters demanded it. I couldn’t shut them up. Besides, I felt the story was best portrayed as I saw it playing out in my mind – in scenes. I thought it worked well, but publishers didn’t agree. My agent at that time, Zeitgeist Media Group, were tireless in their efforts but couldn’t get it over the line. The rejection of this manuscript broke my heart. I started to believe it was cursed. That I was. And that’s never a good idea.

Recently, I attended Kris Olsson’s Memoir Bootcamp at the QLD Writers Centre with more recent memoir projects on my mind. However, once I started doing some of the preliminary exercises, I knew that the ghost of “Dear Madman” had called me there. Kris inspired me to take another look, to redo it as the memoir I’d originally intended, keeping the novelistic scenes if I wanted. That was weeks ago.

It took those weeks for me to gird my loins in order to tackle what seemed like a monumental task, the most difficult puzzle of my writing career. How to do it? The question loomed in my mind larger than the book itself. “Just do it!” I told myself like a sportswear commercial. “Feel the fear and do it anyway.”

I dug up the old files, the original memoir strand of 24 000 words, journal extracts from the time of my researching and writing, and the novel it all morphed into. Then I started fresh. I opened a new document and called it, “Dear Madman 2022” (I know, I know, we’re not there yet, but I’ll still be working on it then I know). Most importantly I added ROUGH DRAFT in very big letters. “Just muck around with it and play,” I intoned like a mantra.

So I played. I’m still playing. Anything goes. I’m shoving bits in, weaving things together. Writing new bits, writing about the process. Talking to the reader as if they know how tricky it is to braid these disparate strands. And guess what? It’s fun! I’m enjoying myself. After the first few days of timidity and self-criticism, noticing where I’d overwritten and made things worse, I’ve reached a stage where I’ve regained my creative confidence and my belief in the project. YAY! It’s all a huge schmozzle right now, but I have faith that it is becoming more like it is intended to be. It’s finding it’s shape at last and I’m enjoying the challenge.

And, quite literally, I’m resurrecting the dead as I write, or at least giving them another life on the page. Through writing, I’ve given that little murdered girl the chance to laugh and play with her sisters one more time.

If you have stories or novels or memoirs clogging up that bottom drawer, especially those that hurt to look at, especially them, dig them out and expose them to the air. Gird your loins, put on your grown-up pants, and tell yourself you’re just going to play and see what happens. Start a new document and dive right on in. Anything and everything goes. You can do no wrong.

Repeat after me, “I am confident and capable in my creative work.” You can do it! Who knows? You may even have fun. 

What projects have you buried that deserve a second chance at life? What projects have you resurrected? Any success stories out there? I’d love to hear them!

Come and get it!

Lots of love,

Edwina xx

SELF EDITING 101 – Putting on your critic’s hat :)

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So, you’ve been diligently working away on your story and you think it’s just about done. You’ll either think it’s a work of heartbreaking genius or the worst tripe you’ve ever read or written, or if you’re lucky somewhere in between those two extremes. But now what?

Creating new work and redrafting it use different sets of skills. For first drafts we have to show our inner critics the door in order to get anything done at all. Our imaginations need free reign to be as silly or as serious or off track as they need to be.

But then, once we’ve created the bulk of our draft – the chunk of stone our beautiful masterpiece will be sculpted from — the wonderful work of rewriting begins.

First drafts are only the beginning. The real fun starts at rewriting.

Let your new piece rest for a week or two (move onto something else). Then put on your critic’s hat!

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Yes! It’s time to get serious!

First of all is what professionals call THE STRUCTURAL EDIT.

Basically what that means is

THE BIG STUFF!elephant

 

  • Find the HEART of your story (what is the story really about?) and shape the next draft around it. Go deeper into this heart if you can.
  • Think about the STRUCTURE of your story – have you started and ended in the right place. Does it build in a satisfying way? Are you moving the reader between hope and fear?
  • HOOK – have you set up a hook within the first couple of paragraphs?
  • Is your story compelling?
  • Does your story reach a CLIMAX? Is it at the right place – almost at the end?
  • Write a list of all your SCENES – is there any repetition? Do all scenes need to be there? In each scene – get in late and get out early.
  • Check whether you’re writing in scenes, not just telling the story. SHOW mostly, TELL a little bit.
  • What is at STAKE? It must feel vital to the protagonist even if it’s something small.
  • Is there enough CONFLICT? And/or SURPRISE?
  • Your MAIN CHARACTER – Do they make efforts to achieve their goals? Do they ACT in some way? How has their CURSE or CALLING affected them? Do they show both good and bad? How have they CHANGED through the story?3 faces of eve
  • Other characters – have you developed the important ones fully?
  • DIALOGUE – have you included dialogue in your scenes to bring them to life?
  • Does your dialogue demonstrate character and further plot? WARNING – do not use dialogue for info dumps or to relate what happened in a scene we’ve already read.
  • SETTING – have you made the most of your settings to create mood, develop character and reflect emotion, hidden meanings? Specific sensory details?
  • POV and VOICE – have you chosen the right character to focus on? Would it be better from someone else or in 3rd/1stperson?
  • CUT irrelevant passages of description that don’t further the forward movement of your piece. CUT anything that isn’t moving the story forward.

“If you are writing without moving toward an ending, you are probably just piling up information and- it’s all but a dead certainty – being a bore.” Stephen Koch

Office Worker with Mountain of Paperwork

Then, once the big job of the structural edit is done it’s time for the line edit – or in other words –

CHECK THE NITTY GRITTY TOO! 

  • Reshuffle the order of paragraphs so the story makes more sense.
  • Cut any repetition – of words or ideas.
  • Correct any spelling or grammatical errors – read aloud to catch them.
  • Check that your sentences are meaning what you want them to say. Are they clear and easy to follow?
  • Cut almost all adjectives and adverbs and unnecessary speech tags.
  • Use specific nouns and strong verbs instead.
  • In dialogue, sometimes use a character’s actions beside their speech instead of speech tags.
  • Have characters speaking at cross purposes.
  • Do you finish with a strong image or memorable moment? Try ending sooner.

“You should aim for an effect similar to that of the final bars of a symphony. Hearing those, you as a listener know that this is the conclusion, that the work is finished.” H.R.F. Keating

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Once you’ve done all that, and a close proof reading as well for any spelling or grammatical errors, typos or formatting issues, then it’s time to get feedback from someone else, preferably another writer or an editor who’ll help you pin point things you may have missed.

Hope that helps!

If you’ve got a manuscript well under way and would like some advice on how to progress it further towards publication standard, come along to the next RELAX AND WRITE RETREAT! December 11 – 13 at Springbrook in the Gold Coast Hinterland. This retreat is specially for those with a substantial amount of work done on a larger piece of work or collection of shorter works, looking for some feedback, ideas for self-editing and help redrafting. See HERE for more details. HURRY! Spots are filling fast 🙂

And if you’d just like to get in touch, would like to get more info or sign up to my email list for lots of hints and tips and writing opportunities then CONTACT ME!

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Let me know how you go with your rewriting. Which do you prefer, first drafts or rewriting? I used to love first drafts much more but now I’m a fan of the fun of rewriting too 🙂

Take care and happy writing!

lots of love

Edwina