Where should you start your story?

11 Jun


My second draft manuscript has been in the breathing phase for two months now, while I’ve been mulling over the feedback I received from my critiquer. When she told me my story started in the wrong place – despite having prepared myself to hear this – I was crestfallen and frustrated, mostly because I had already deleted the first three chapters and reworked their content into the story.  Realizing that the first 18K words of your precious novel could in fact be superfluous is hard to swallow, and more so if you think you have actually followed the ‘no back-story’ and the ‘start in the action’ rules.

With my writing confidence somewhat bruised, I had to embark on a self-imposed reading exploration to find out where my story should actually start. My critiquer and my beta-readers indicated ‘somewhere around chapter six or seven’ as they felt this was where the story got really interesting.  Had I really filled the first six chapters with banal waffle so boring that it rendered the first fifth of my novel redundant? For two weeks, all I could think about was that I had worked on 18K words that were now useless to my overall 100K words. But then this is why there are third and fourth drafts, right?

Lagos Egri’s ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ has now spent about six weeks full-time by my side. I needed to fully understand conflict in all its power and how it drives a story forward. When I reached the chapter titled ‘Point of Attack’, my eyes and ears shot open. Egri states that ‘the curtain rises when at least one character has reached a turning point in his life.‘ At the end of the chapter Egri states that ‘It is imperative that your story starts in the middle, and not under any circumstances, at the beginning.’ 

With these two notes in mind, I had to think about all my main character’s conflicts that served my novel’s premise and decide which ones were actual ‘turning points’ in my protagonist’s life. There were lots of conflicts, but I had to go through the process of pin-pointing which events where so forceful that they revealed strong, true character traits witnessed only when a person faces a life changing conflict situation. Would it be when she makes a hard decision about a job, when she decides to accept less than stellar behavior from a loved one or when she makes a decision so pivotal that the outcome of the decision will determine the direction of her life, and also the novel story? Identify this conflict situation and this is where you start your story.

American Science Fiction author, Nancy Ann Dibble advises to ‘Make everybody fall out of the plane first, and then explain who they were and why they were in the plane to begin with.’  Back story is okay once the action is set up and being played out. Egri also states that ‘In conflict we are forced to reveal ourselves‘ and it is this character revealing conflict that will keep readers interested and move your story along for the get-go.

I’m still re-structuring and editing and not quite there yet but in simplest terms it looks like I am taking the first half of my novel and flipping the content on its head. Maybe I’ll get it right by the fourth draft!



Main image via here

Dublin Writers Festival 2013

22 May


This week it’s all about the Dublin Writers Festival – Ireland’s premier literary event, gathering the finest writers in the world to debate, provoke, delight and enthral. Running all week at various venues across Dublin city, the programme boasts writers such as Dan Brown, Caitlin Moran, Colum McCann, Roddy Doyle, Aleksandar Hemon and Kevin Powers.

Check out my Dublin Writers Festival event blog posts on Dan Brown and the amazing Colum McCann and then on Friday it’s the ‘Publish and Be Famed’ event.

An exciting week for writers in Dublin – see the full programme here


How long does it take to write a novel?

13 May


How long does it take to write a novel – a big writer’s question, right?  How long should you leave between each manuscript draft? Another big writer’s question. Might as well ask how long a piece of string is? And what if I am rushing the process and not allowing the all-important breathing room between drafts? How do I know if I am on-schedule or actually faffing about when there is no concrete benchmark to compare my writing schedule to?

I have been writing to the beat my own writing drum for over 15 months, with only my instincts to guide me. Over this time,  I have allowed my writing to control me or forced myself to control my writing. But how does my process compare to other first-time writers out there? The below was my process, how does it compare to yours?

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel – My story so far!

Phase 1 – Dec 2011 to April 2012  – The Brain Dump 

I always wrote, but this time it was different. This was the starting phase of my beginnings of trying to write a novel. I didn’t have a story all mapped out and I didn’t know what I was actually writing about – all I knew was that I had to get the stuff in my head out onto paper. I remember seeing a quote by James Baker Hall that read ‘Writing is no answer, but when you feel deeply there is little else to do.’ So I wrote day and night. About all the things that happened to me and how I processed them in my head. I wrote constantly for 4 months. When I stopped, I was exhausted and I couldn’t read any of what I had written, so I closed the file and stepped away.

Phase 2 – May 2012 – Sept 2012 – Rest & Breathing

Over the course of the summer, I dipped in and out of what I wrote and struggled enormously with what it all meant. Was there a novel in the 100k words I had poured out or was it just a cathartic experience that I had to go through. I read ‘Story’ by Robert McKee in July and it helped me to figure out what I was writing about and how I could go about morphing my rambling 100k words into something of substance. At times,  I read extracts of what I wrote and thought, ‘God, did I actually write that?’ It moved me, even though it was about me.  It was then I decided I needed a professional  to read what I wrote and give me a proper diagnosis of my writing.

Phase 3 – Oct 2012 – Critique Preparation

I prepared my work for a novel critiquer by way of low-level rewriting and proof-reading. I wanted the critiquer to see my work in its amateur, raw state and tell me if it had any potential. I went through phases of hating my writing, condemning it to the deleted files of my laptop, to days where I thought I might actually be on to something if I worked really, really hard. I had written from the heart mostly, so my writing was very emotional and psychological, but was it any good?

Phase 4 – Nov 2012 – Dec 2012  – Critique Review 

I needed a glass of wine when the email from my critiquer appeared in my email inbox on the first day of December 2012. I had prepared myself for a slating – to be told that what I wrote was a rambling mess and worst of all, that my aspirations as a novelist were lofty. In contrast, I remember seeing the words ‘you can write’ within the critique on the first read, and that was the best inspiration I could have asked for. The critique was filled with practical steps of how to move my 100k ramble into a coherent story that readers would like to read. I breathed a sigh of relief and realised I had the  motivation and commitment for the next phase thanks to the encouraging, honest feedback from my critiquer.

Phase 5 – Dec 2012- Jan 2013 –  Second Draft Preparation

It took me a full week of 14-hour days to map out my new fiction story. I went through 3 packs of Post-it notes. By the end of January, I had a complete new story structure for a novel, based on the 100k ramble I first wrote. My plan was to use the best elements of what I originally wrote and morph them into a new fiction story that readers would enjoy reading. I ended up with 44 scenes that I hoped would drive the story along, be compelling to the reader and most of all, tell the story I wanted to tell. I was now working with a complete fictional story but I was using the emotions of my own experiences to tell the story.

Phase 6 – Feb 2013 – mid- April 2013 – Second Draft Manuscript & second Critique

This is where I  went into recluse mode again – writing in solitude for 3 months. I had about 50k I could use from my original draft, so I needed another 50K of new material. I used my new story outline as a guide, but by scene 10 my story took a completely different direction from the random introduction of a new character.  This new character turned out to be pivotal to the story and she changed the entire substance of the novel. This scared me at first but I am glad I allowed myself the creative freedom to follow my instincts as I am much more excited about my story with this new character in it. She was what was missing and I happened upon her by complete accident. I finished up with 96K words, with the ratio of new:old material at about 60:40. I send the manuscript off to my critiquer and awaited the second review.

Phase  7 – Mid April 2013 – May 2013 – Second Critique Review and Rest & Breathing Room

I was less prepared for the views in the second critique. Although I knew I had no masterpiece on my hands, in my view it was actually a novel – with a coherent beginning, middle and end. It was a comprehensive story I thought, even if it did need lots of polishing, but the sheer elation of finishing the second draft was short lived. It’s hard to describe the writing cocoon to somebody who doesn’t write. You immerse yourself in knowing where & what every character moves & thinks  in the 100k words you have written and you hold vast amounts of information in your short term memory. It’s exhausting and you have little time to think of anything else. To consider that you have to do it all over again can be over-whelming, especially when you are so close to it, it is hard to read your writing objectively. So I am in the breathing stage again – mulling over the professional opinion of my critiquer, having people read my work and give honest feedback, all the while reading books about writing and the art of dramatics. The list of books I use can be found here.

It was here I got to believing that my time away from my manuscript is just as important as my time in my manuscript. I have to stop myself from feeling guilty that I am not writing 10 hours a day and to consider the benefits of getting some distance and allowing the dust to settle. In this phase, I believe objectivity of my writing is what matters.

Phase 7 – May 2013 – ? – Third Draft Manuscript

I worry that I don’t have the stamina to go through another 3 months of solitary writing to pull my manuscript through to the next level.  I know the amount of work the manuscript needs and I know the level of commitment and energy I need to have to get it to where I want it to be. Plus, in any writers terms I am still in the development stage and no-where near close-out stage of a final proof-read.

So I am right in giving myself time to think or do I need to dive right in grab the book by the pages? Have I taken too long or have I rushed things? My intuition tells me I am on track and that this is how long it is taking me to write a novel.


Image via here

%d bloggers like this: