I know just how you feel about that pressure, Tracy! It's such a shame that short stories don't carry the same weight as the novel. Short stories are becoming increasingly popular genre with readers. So, did your novel spring from a short story you'd written or did you have a totally separate idea bubbling away in the background?
That's a good question. It was always an idea for a novel because it is a complex story with many characters. At first I found it hard to pick up the momentum (or energy) to work on something that was going to be >80,000 words (which seemed both terrifying and impossible). To make the task easier, or more achievable, I started to write a series of short stories based on characters from the novel. Not the main characters, but lesser ones who had interesting back stories to tell. This really helped to make progress with the main narrative, as I was able to weave aspects of the short stories into the novel. This also worked wonders with achieving a weekly word count - insert a short story and YAY target done for the week! Can I just add here that one of these short stories went on to be shortlisted for the 2014 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize (which is my biggest success to date).
Wow, well done on being shortlisted for such a prestigious literary competition! I like the idea of writing a series of short stories based on characters from your novel. It’s an interesting way of working. Can you tell us what genre the novel is and what sparked the idea?
It sounds wonderfully quirky! And thank you for giving us an insight into how you're inspired. What aspects of novel writing did you find most difficult? Was it the structure? Plotting? Setting? Viewpoint?
I'm now in the editing stage, so thankfully the bulk of the writing is done. Thinking honestly about this question I'd have to say the plotting has been the most challenging aspect of the writing. From early on I knew the structure and viewpoints that I wanted to work with. But the story has numerous plot strands that had to be woven together and I was terrified of leaving something dangling. I use index cards to help with this. Using different coloured cards for each PoV, I sketched out chapters and then played around with order. However, once I seriously got underway with the writing I completely forgot about the cards! A large whiteboard is also essential for working through character arcs - but so far I've not found one large enough to do the job!
It all sounds like a complicated system, but it's great to get an insight into your working methods. I often think writing a novel is like spinning plates. Did you manage to continue writing short stories while you wrote the novel or did you have a complete break from writing them?
Funny that you mention spinning plates, as one of my beta readers commented on how many plates I had spinning in the novel. I wish I could say I was able to balance all my writing projects, but the short stories and drama all suffered. At first I tried writing one chapter a month and continued to work on short fiction, but the novel was progressing so slowly and the writing felt disjointed. Other writing friends kept nagging that the only way to make progress was to complete absorb myself in the novel. They were right. As I'm also working on a part-time MA in Creative Writing (at Chichester Uni), I decided to devote the summer recess of June-September to writing the novel. I was able to write >60K words and get the bulk of it done. The sacrifice was giving up the short stories for that time. And I went a bit cold turkey ... when the MA term started up again I was gagging to get back to writing short stories. I wish I could find the perfect balance, but so far the two writing forms have to be kept apart. For me, anyway.
Yes, I know what you mean. I find it difficult to write short stories alongside the novel, but the novel always seems to lose out! You wrote 60K in a very short space of time. Well done! So, you say you're now editing your first draft? Have you already started approaching agents or will you wait?
I found the trick was to break down the word count to a weekly target and then a monthly target. I found I could write 20K words a month. Yes, I'm now on third draft. I've actually been approached by a couple of agents asking to see extracts. At present I'm trying to come up with a list of agents who I'd love to work with. When I have a polished, gleaming mss then I will begin to send it out. That's the horrible bit and I'm planning to postpone it for as long as possible. Having invested so much time and effort into the novel any rejection will be painful. Bit like someone telling you what you they think of your beloved offspring ...
I know! That awful fear of failure. So, how did you manage to get agents approaching you? Was it a result of your Commonwealth shortlisting?
That's very useful to know! What about the dreaded synopsis? I take it you’ve written one? How did you find that experience? Any tips?