It’s almost the end of another year and time to start thinking about what you have achieved in 2012 and what you want to achieve in 2013.
Time goes by so fast that I find it’s important to set concrete goals otherwise you end up at the end of another year with little to show for it.
In today’s podcast, I discuss taking writing seriously with Iain Broome and we talk about some actions you can take around productivity and goal-setting if you want to take your writing seriously in 2013.
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Podcast Episode: Taking your writing seriously
(1) Setting goals around your life and your book
We all have the same number of hours in the day and we are all busy people. But in order to take writing seriously, you need to make time for it. Often it means you have to give something up.
- I moved to 4 days a week, so 80% of my income, in order to focus on writing and building my business.
- I also used to write at 5am before my day job.
- We also got rid of the TV about 4.5 years ago, although we still watch shows on iTunes
- I’m evaluating my business for next year – currently, I have my speaking business, my fiction, non-fiction, the blog, the online courses plus blogging and marketing. I need to re-evaluate what I spent my time on because something has to give!
(2) Diarizing and chunking your time
I schedule my time using an old-school Filofax, so I know what days I can be inwardly focused and write fiction, or outwardly focused for speaking etc. I schedule months in advance, for things that involve other people but also for my writing time, exercise etc. I make sure my weeks are planned in advance.
- For each 90 min segment of time, focus on creating something e.g. in this 90 mins I am writing fiction, or creating a blog post.
Iain talks about making time on his commute for writing. John Grisham wrote ‘A Time to Kill’ in his lunch hours, so it can be done.
I also mention Ruth Ann Nordin, romance writer, who writes 5+ books per year and has 3 very active children. In this interview, she talks about how she snatches moments to write a line or two. Amazing!
(3) Understanding Resistance
Resistance is everything that will stop you creating something worthwhile – the little voice that says your writing is terrible, procrastination, social media time-wasting. Once you acknowledge that it will happen, you can fight back against it. I read the quote on my wall over my desk:
“On the field of the self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day.” Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.
There’s nothing wrong with anything we do e.g. twitter/Facebook, but we have to recognize when we are taking from our writing.
(4) Setting word count goals
When you sit down for a writing session, set a goal e.g. 1000 or 2000 words. It’s much easier to get the words out if you have already planned what you will write, e.g. in fiction, the scene’s setting and characters and what will happen, for non-fiction, the topic you will write on.
If you want to have a book written by a date e.g. 90,000 words done by July – you need to look at how much you have to achieve every week to reach that goal.
Of course, be forgiving and understand why you don’t hit your goals – but also remember, if you don’t set them and try to achieve them, you’re unlikely to achieve anything.
(5) Plotting and organizing your book with Scrivener
Iain talks about his complicated folder structure for his first book and how he is moving to Scrivener. I talk about how the software changed my life and how I now use the tools for tracking word count.
(6) “Shitty first drafts” and the internal editor
I talk about ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott which is where the quote “shitty first drafts” comes from. I talk about first draft material and how it is only the beginning of the process. Let it all out and only censor on the next rewrite.
Iain talks about his MA in Creative Writing, and writing his first book. I haven’t got a degree in writing but I think I have learned far more from writing 3 books and going through the editing process than I would have done in studying writing. Iain states the best thing about the MA was being around other writers, a community. He also says that his agent, Tibor Jones helped him to craft the book with editing input. I think this is rare these days as most agents expect a polished manuscript.
(7) Cycles of writing
You need to understand the cycles of a writing project:
Iain’s book is ‘A is for Angelica‘, a literary fiction novel set in a suburban street and my books are international, fast-paced thrillers, so the books are very different but we both have a similar process.
I recommend Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Great book, and also here’s an interview with Larry on Story Engineering.
Do you have any productivity tips for writing more effectively?
Please do leave a comment below, and join the conversation.
Transcript of Interview with Iain Broome
Iain Broome: Hello and welcome to the Write for Your Life podcast. This week, I’m joined by the fantastic Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and various other projects and books and all kinds of things. So welcome Joanna.
Joanna: Thanks, Iain. It’s great to be here. We’ve got lots of exciting things to discuss today.
Iain: We absolutely have. And it’s all about…when we come up to the new year, I’ve got some plans for the new year. I’ve got a new job, and I’ve got a new baby. So lots of new plans for 2013, but one of my big plans is going to be about getting back to writing my second novel.
So it’s all about writing seriously in 2013. Does that sound about right?
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. And I think both of us already take our writing seriously to a point, but I really think about this time of year, you need to decide on your goals and what are the things you actually want to achieve. It’s almost like, one is sort of the attitude of the mind, but two, actually putting some concrete goals around it. So yeah, we’re going to get into it.
Iain: It’s about having a plan, I think.
Joanna: Yeah, definitely.
Iain: Okay, the podcast is generally going to be framed. This episode is about writing seriously; that’s kind of the framework. But we have a few points and I think it probably makes sense just to go through them more or less one by one and see where the conversation goes. Does that sound okay?
Iain: Number one is about understanding larger goals around your life and your book or whatever your writing project is and thinking about what you’re going to give up. Now, this is something I’ve written about before. I wrote a post about sacrifice. If I say so myself, I think it’s one of the better things I’ve written on the blog. Because I genuinely believe that if you’re going to finish any work of any substance, then there will come not even just a point, there will come many points where you literally have to decide between your writing and something else that you probably really love to. And it could be friends, it could be family, it could be anything. And so for me, the keyword is sacrifice.
And you do genuinely have to sit down with yourself, and probably your partner or loved one or whoever they may be, and make a decision about what it is that you’re going to give up in order to really take your writing seriously for usually a specific period of time. It’s that the experience you’ve had as well Joanna?
Joanna: I wrote the first couple of novels while I was working full time as an IT consultant. I did a couple of things. I moved to four days a week, which I think changed my life. So by actually giving up 20% of my income, I moved to 80% in exchange for a day off basically. And that day made a huge difference to my writing life.
And then I also gave up some sleep time. I used to do a lot of 5 o’clock in the morning, which I must say was easier in Australia when the sun’s off at sort of half past four. And then I also gave up TV. We got rid of the TV about four years ago. I still watch shows on iTunes and things but without all the adverts and without just sitting there brainlessly for hours. It’s actually a really good thing to do. So that’s what happened when I had a full-time job
And now, I’m full time on the author entrepreneur thing, what I am evaluating for next year is there’s only one of me and I have to decide about my business. Because at the moment, I’m an author entrepreneur. So I’ve got the fiction. I’ve also got non-fiction. I’ve got my blog which I could spend forever on. I’ve got courses that I sell, digital courses that I create and sell. And then I’ve got my speaking business. I’m trying to decide what can I give up in order to focus more on fiction, which I’m finding is what I really enjoy.
This year I’ve only written one book basically, which isn’t enough. Yeah, so it’s funny. I think at different times of your life, you have to think about the different things you’re going to balance. If I want to become a brand name fiction author, which I do, then I have to focus on fiction.
What about you Iain? Because you’ve got two new twins. You’ve got baby twins. Obviously, you can’t give up time with your children. So how are you going to manage it with a young family which I know a lot of people struggle with?
Iain: Well, one of things I’ve always done is take on lots of projects outside of work. Some paid, but very often and probably more often than not, unpaid. So I just like doing stuff. If someone offers me something interesting to do, then I usually say yes. I think that probably the first thing that I need to do is to start saying no.
The one thing that I’ve noticed with having children is that your priorities become much clearer than they were before. So my priorities are obviously the kids, and family, and obviously having a full-time job again, which I will have from January. And then my plan is literally to make my third most important thing, bearing in mind, the first of the year I kind of won’t be in it is to make novel number two, the next book. And then closely behind that is Write For Your Life, this podcast, it’s the blog, and all the things that go along with promoting the first book, A is for Angelica. So as I’ve spoken before on the podcast, it just so happened that my first, and after waiting for many years, my first novel was published at the same time that I decided to be a dad and have two children at the same time.
Joanna: You had a big week.
Iain: I had a heck of a week, a heck of a couple of months. And I’m still kind of in awe which is fine. It’s all wonderful really. But it’s meant that my novel, A is for Angelica, I’ve not really been able to market it and promote it in the manner that I would have liked. It’s not been ideal. But I can remedy that by making it a huge priority.
So sometimes when you’re blogging, I like to say you can kind of blog forever. Sometimes, it feels like that…pointless isn’t the right word. But it feels like it’s not the most important thing but actually is. Certainly for me, it’s going to be the biggest tool I have really for marketing my first book once I’m writing the second. It’s more a case of getting rid of all those projects, paid or unpaid that aren’t really focused on actually getting another book written and out there.
Joanna: For me, I love my podcast, I love my blog, I love speaking. I love doing all these things as well. And I think it’s also, moving into the second thing, talking about diarising and chunking your time, I think that’s probably a way to manage it. So I’m a chronic diariser. If we were on video, I’d show you my Filofax which I’ve had for years now. I have whole days that I chunk out now for writing fiction.
I go to the London library. I actually get away from my desk, because, at home, I feel like I’m in quite a business mode and I do my non-fiction, I do my courses, calls like this. I’m more outwardly focused. And when I want to be inwardly focused and do my fiction, I find it easier to be physically somewhere else.
So I go to the library. And at the moment, I’ve been doing probably two days a week in the library. And I want to make that three or four days a week in 2013 because I think that will double my output in terms of fiction. And then I will make sure I have one big chunk of time for scheduling the blog, doing the podcast, doing Twitter, all of these things that we really enjoy, but we can probably get them all done in a chunk of time. So maybe that will work for you as well.
Iain: I definitely think it’s the way that I need to go. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with really. I do chunk my time. It’s how I naturally write. If I’m writing fiction, then I do tend to be completely in the zone for about 25 minutes and then get to the end of the paragraph or page if I’m lucky. And on the surface, I think crikey, what has happened there? The time is gone and then I have sort of five or ten minutes away, and then I’ll come back and I’ll do exactly the same thing again. So it is chunking of sort but it’s more naturally how I write. It does make it quite difficult to put that kind of thing in the diary. But it’s absolutely what I need to do and I’m hoping that around work, I can do that too.
Something simple like I’m going to have my previous job. I didn’t really have a commute. I worked quite close and so I would walk. And although that’s good for ideas, it’s not brilliant for actually jotting them down because you might walk into a tree or something. But the chances are I’m going to be going on the bus, so I’m going to take a notepad, I’m going to have a 20 minute journey to sit and think. And it sounds like nothing but having that little bit of time that I do routinely every day, I think is going to be really quite valuable for me.
I think that probably is the keyword is to get into a routine, which is something that is very easy to slip out of. And I’ve slipped in and out of routines constantly over the years. And I think that’s something I’m going to try and do.
Joanna: I had a lady called Ruth Ann Nordin on the show a couple of years ago now, I think. Ruth Ann writes romance, and she writes four or five novels a year. And romance novels are shorter but she has four kids I think, three or four boys. And she said that she actually had to switch. I mean, I like big chunks of hours to write. She would write one or two sentences every time there’s a spare moment. And I was amazed at that. It was kind of like, “Oh my goodness. How do you do that?” She was like, “Well, with three boys running around being mad, you have to snatch every moment you can.” I think the lesson for us both is that it doesn’t really matter.
You can do it either way. You just have to do it. You just have to fit it in, don’t you?
Iain: Absolutely. And it’s funny you should say that because on last week’s podcast, I was talking to children’s author Catherine Wise, in brackets, who happens to be my mother-in-law. And she does the same thing. And I’ve seen her do it. And I think, ‘What’s she doing?’ She just seems to keep going off to the laptop. But the laptop isn’t away in an office somewhere. It is permanently open and it’s not in the kitchen. It’s in the dining room where other people are. And it’s where other people are sat watching television. Every now and again, she will just stop what she’s doing, wander off to the laptop, tippy tap for about four, five minutes, and then go back to whatever it was. And it works. It really works for her.
Joanna: That’s amazing. Let’s talk again in a year because I want to know if men can do that as well or if it’s just women.
Iain: Well, I wouldn’t like to comment now, but I suspect whatever you’re thinking is probably true.
Joanna: Okay, right. What’s our next one?
Iain: The next one is about understanding Resistance and getting through it.
Joanna: I don’t know if you know about…I mean I know I wrote this list down, but Resistance being Steven Pressfield’s concept from the War of Art.
If people don’t know about it Resistance is almost a physical force that we all face. But it’s everything that comes up that will stop you creating something good, or creating anything in fact. It’s that little voice in your head that says your writing is crap. It’s the voice that say’s “I’m really tired.” or “I’m terrible”, or it’s the feeling that blogging is more important, or it’s the Facebook page that keeps your attention. It’s anything that stops you from creating something.
And once you understand that Resistance will be there whatever you do, then you can actually concentrate on fighting that. And I’ve got on my wall a quote which I’ve talked about on the podcast before, but I’ll read it out for everyone. “On the field of the self stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight, Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day.” So that’s Steven Pressfield.
I love that quote. Does that resonate for you?
Iain: I think it resonates for every human being in the civilized world. Frustratingly, all these possibilities that open up for authors with the internet and Amazon’s digital publishing, the whole thing has opened up for everyone, but at the same time along came Twitter and Facebook to make it more difficult to actually get the work done. And it’s a problem.
I’ve changed the way that I use social media for instance in the last few months anyway just because I simply haven’t had time. I’ve had babies to look after and that kind of thing. So I used to use Twitter. I was myself but I was also a kind of a service. I used to provide a lot more links than I do now and I used to be reading articles all the time and posting on that. And that was one of the things I decided I had to go. I just didn’t have time to be that service. But it’s meant that I’ve actually built a few closer relationships using Twitter because I’ve just been myself much more, a bit more conversational.
Sort of like, get back to someone like Mike who runs the 70 decibels network who’s done the podcast with me the last series. Everyone knows Mike. That sort of relationship that’s come through, I guess my change in the way that I use Twitter. But it means that I’ve used it less, and hopefully a bit more constructively.
And working freelance the last couple of months, I’ve been working as a freelance writer, as a copywriter for the last two or three months. But I’ve been working from home. And of course, the temptation, as you say, when you’re in the place, in this example, the place where I guess I use the internet for leisure, the computer for leisure, I’ve had to really stop that because it’s now a place of work. And that has helped me get into that, change my mindset slightly in the way that I use these things and to have the wherewithal to realize when I’m giving into the resistance. And hopefully in 2013, that’s something that I’ll be able to fight with my fiction too.
Joanna: I really recommend that book to anybody. That’s the War of Art by Steven Pressfield. And also Turning Pro, which he released this year. I’ve actually got it in print on my desk, which is very unusual for me because I’m an ebook girl. But I absolutely recommend those books for writers.
The next thing I think, and I think resistance is part of it is the word count goal, which I actually resisted for quite awhile. But now when I sit down for a writing session, like we talked about focused time, whether that’s a 90 minute sort of I’m going to sit down and write or sometimes like a whole day if you can spare it or whatever, I now set word count goals, and I normally go for 2000 words. I do 2000 words if it’s a short session and 4000 if it’s a longer session. I’ve never made it past 4000 in a day.
Iain: How long would that usually take you to write 2000 words?
Joanna: I can do 2000 words in 90 minutes if I have already planned the scene. I never sit down with nothing on my head. I’ll sit down and I will have the scene would say something like Morgan Sierra is going to Abu Simbel in Egypt where this will happen. XX will meet this person and this will happen. I know the characters I’m going to be writing and the place I’m going to be writing and what’s going to be happening. I roughly plot, and then I do first draft material which then gets re-written later. But if I sit down and I have that one line out, I can write for 90 minutes and write 2000 words.
Iain: Yes. And I think that’s something that I’m planning to do more of with the second novel. The first one was written not on the hoof…that would be slightly harsh on myself. I planned ahead but I would come to a chapter and I wouldn’t have exactly what was going to happen planned out. And I think that that is something that I will need in order to be able to write quicker, frankly.
Word count goals, I think are good. My only issue is that, I think it’s more about if you don’t hit them, is to think about why you didn’t hit the goals. So let’s say it is you want to write 2000 words in 90 minutes. I know for me that that’s going to be quite ambitious but that’s fine. I’m fine with that. But for me, I’m thinking about, if you don’t hit the targets, it’s thinking about why you didn’t hit the targets. Is it because you spent 20 minutes halfway through on Twitter or Facebook or doing something else instead?
And therefore at the end of those, at the end of your 90 minutes when you’ve only written a thousand words, then you are able to chastise yourself and feel terrible about it and hopefully do something about it. If you’ve only written a thousand words but it was for some reason, in that particular session, you came across a particular problem with your writing, or a scene, or even a sentence where you really had to work hard on a specific thing, then that’s kind of fine. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t beat yourself up. That’s just my opinion. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t hit word count goals, but at least try and understand why you didn’t so that you can either put it right or understand it for next time.
Joanna: The thing is, I don’t write every day. I don’t write fiction every day. So like NaNoWriMo, which has just gone past, I did 28,000 in a month. So that if you do my 2000 word in a session, that’s only 14 days worth in the month that I wrote in those session. But I also had a big plotting day when I went through and I also do a lot of research for my books so I kind of factor on those days too.
And also, people should set lower goals. So if you do a thousand words a day, or a thousand words every writing session, then your thousand words might be better than my 2000 words because I do so much editing later on. There’s no need to measure yourself against anybody else.
I do think that you have to work backward. For example, if you have a 90,000-word novel that you want to have finished by next July like you want to have not the book finished, you want to have first draft finished, like 90,000 words of first draft material, then you have to work back over the six months. How many words do I have to do every month? And then you can break that down.
It doesn’t have to be a daily goal. It can be just a weekly goal. But the thing is if we’re going to take this seriously and our topic is writing seriously, and we have to finish work and get it out there, we do have to set some kind of goals around finishing work. I think that would be my opinion.
Iain: Yup. I agree entirely. Okay, point five, for anyone that’s counting. Plotting or scene planning. So I’m not sure if this is probably going to…
Joanna: We kind of talked about that, haven’t we?
Iain: Oh, we just talked about it.
We’ve got Scrivener written down here and that’s what I’m going to be using for my second novel. It wasn’t around when I started my first novel.
Joanna: You’ve been writing for so long, yeah?
Iain: I know. Everything was done in Word. Lots of Word documents, lots of PDFs, downloads from the internet, all that kind of thing, all over the place in some kind of folder structure that I concocted myself. I also used post-it notes, which actually I probably will still use again because I like the visual aspects of having post-it notes on the wall in front of me. I’m going to be using Scrivener. And I’m sure lots of people listening will have heard of Scrivener. I’m sure many people use it.
It has lots of built in tools for plotting and scene planning. Is this something that you use?
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. I recently interviewed Gwen Hernandez. He wrote Scrivener for Dummies. So he’s been on the blog recently. Scrivener has changed my life. I don’t write in order, I write in scenes. And then I move the scenes around.
And especially with a thriller like mine, often you’re writing different points of view, and then you chop the scenes up and intersperse the points of view to keep the suspense going. It’s great with Scrivener because you can drag and drop things around. And when you’re just writing writing, first draft writing, what I do is I create just one line. It’s like I say, I create sort of 30 one-liners on the Scrivener main page which you can view as a pin board with sort of post it notes.
Then, when I sit down to do the writing session, I open up that scene into the full-screen mode so it’s a black background, white page. That’s all that’s on my computer. Then, there’s a tool for watching your word count, it’s like a traffic light. So it starts at red, and as you type it goes orange and then green as you get closer to your daily goal. So I do that, and once I’ve got my word counts, then I can close it and I’ve done it. I’ve just really started that in the last few months opening up that word count thing and having that almost encouraging me to finish that. And I’m definitely going to be doing that next year.
Iain: And I’m going to be doing that, doing the same with my second novel, but I actually also started writing, I think it’s going to be a screenplay, stages.
Iain: Indeed. And Scrivener is great for that too. It’s got all the kind of all the formatting things built in, which is very handy for me because I’ve had not any specific training on how to format a screenplay or a script. So it’s very much a Swiss army knife of writing applications, I think.
Joanna: It is. And it’s great for non-fiction too. And I’ll just mention in case anyone doesn’t know, you can also use it to output, well compile your books in Kindle, Mobi formats, in epub, pdf, word, whatever. So you don’t even need an ebook formatter. You can just do it straight from the software. And it’s only 45 bucks. So even if you just use it for publishing your ebooks, it’s fantastic.
Iain: And again, just talking about the fact that I’m expecting to do at least some note taking, maybe some actual writing while I’m commuting or even maybe on my lunch break, I’m probably going to use my iPad for that. The reason an iPad, Scrivener for iPad, yes, there is apparently one in the works but you can sync between your iPad and your desktop computer version of Scrivener by using dropbox and various other ways. I’ve read an article about this. It’s really handy because part of reason some people I’ve heard are a bit worried about Scrivener because it feels like everything has to be in there and you have to have your computer and Scrivener open in order to do anything. But actually, it has lots of useful syncing tools and you can use other word processors and it can up. So yeah, I’ve written an article about that which I’ll put on the show next.
Iain: Okay, point six. Rubbish first drafts and the internal editor.
Joanna: This is a direct quote.
It’s the quote “shitty first drafts” which is from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Have you read that book? It’s amazing.
Iain: I haven’t read the book. I was just censoring your potty mouth.
Joanna: No. It’s a direct quote. Bird by Bird is a brilliant book which I highly recommend to people. Anne Lamott is an amazing writer. And it really is about a censoring the internal editor. And that’s why I like to call my 2000 words first draft material. Because what I write in my first draft material, you are very unlikely to see, maybe even 90% of that in the finished book. Because when I write first draft material, a lot of it is a load of crap. And there might be some gems in there but it will need severe editing, and it will also need moving around and all this. The point is when you’re writing first draft material, is just to let it all out, and to really put your editor in a box and just get on with it.
I know there are some writers like Lee Child, who I heard speak, he’s a great thriller writer. He only writes one draft and he gives it to the editor and it gets published. That’s it. He doesn’t do any re-writing. He doesn’t get any edits anymore. He just gets published like that. But most of us don’t have that ability. Plus he was a screenwriter for years. So I think he internalized the aspects of writing. But I think this is really important. I actually think that you are unlikely to get very far with a book in general unless you write really terrible first drafts so that you can then edit them and re-write them later on.
Iain: Yup. Again, this is something that I’m planning to do much more of. I’m a copywriter by trade. I have plain English training. That was my first job. I had to learn how to write in plain English. Every word had to be perfect. And that’s very much how I wrote my first novel as well. I was meticulous about every sentence, every word, every paragraph. I have quite an economical writing style as well, so that adds to the meticulousness of it all. But it does put time on it. It does add time to the process.
And yes, so when I handed my manuscript over to my agent, and then my publisher, they did say, “Wow, I hardly had to do any work on this in terms of typos, in terms of grammar problems, in terms of timing issues,” that kind of thing. But it probably took me a lot longer that I would have done if I just put it all out there in the first draft and then gone back to it.
So again, this is all about what we said earlier about being focused with your time, and just going for it, and not worrying too much that first time around. It’s definitely something that I plan to do with this novel. And I think it’s important. I think importantly, it comes down to being precious about your writing as well. I’m very precious about my writing in the sense that it means an awful lot to me. It means the world to me, really, that my writing is as good as I can possibly make it. And I would hope that that’s the same for most people. But there is an element of being precious about every single draft. And it’s not just necessary. It’s overkill, I think, if anything. Does that make sense?
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. And I was going to challenge you, I’m going to challenge you on this now. Because we’ve had this conversation before about the masters in creative writing, which I think, that’s how you wrote your novel, wasn’t it?
Iain: It was so strange because I wasn’t writing my novel while I was on the MA. I was doing short stories and then I switched when I finished the top part of the process. It was written within the confines of a creative writing course where there was specific targets and I had a tutor and that kind of thing yes.
Joanna: I’m about to publish Exodus, my third novel. The feedback from my beta readers was this is significantly better than the first book. And actually, I have just re-written Pentecost, the first book, because I feel my writing has gotten better. So I’ve actually re-written that. The book is not re-written in terms of the plot is all exactly the same. It’s just my language has moved on and that type of thing.
I was talking to someone who’d done an MFA, and I said to them, “You know what, I think I’ve learned more from writing three books reasonably quickly and getting them all edited, going through the editing process, then I think I could have ever learned from several years on one book.”
Because it’s been over a couple of years that I’ve written three books; I think I’ve learned more from doing that than I would on a Masters course. What do you reckon about that?
Iain: I would say so. I get asked all the type if it’s worth doing an MA as I did. And I say yes, but I very much say, the most valuable thing that I got from an MA I think that most people get is being in a writing environment. Because as most people, I would argue don’t come from a writing community all the time. It’s very often people who are doing it for the first time. So they don’t have a load of writers around them. So the most valuable thing for me was to be around other people with the same goals. Especially because I was only 23 at that time so I could have easily lost interest quickly. But because I was surrounded by people who were taking it very seriously, that was really valuable.
But I agree. With A is for Angelica, my first novel, I got my agent for it with a first draft of sorts. I got to a point where I thought, “This is just as good as I’m going to make it. I’m going to try and get an agent.” And it so happens that my agent who I’ve worked with since then on it and who ended up selling the novel, they worked with me really intensively for about six months. And in that six months was where I really learned how to put a book together. I kind of knew how to write before, but that six month working with the team of James, that was where I learned how to actually turn it into a proper book.
It wasn’t a proper book beforehand. I was a good writer with some good ideas and some really good chapters. But they weren’t in the right order, the pace was slightly off. And they saw the writing and they went, “Right, we can help this new chap.” And then they did. I went through not the same experience but similar in the sense that that period of intensive writing with someone who knows what they’re talking about and who cares about the book and was willing to give good critical advice, that was what really made the difference for me I think.
Joanna: Our last thing on series writing is the cycles of writing. I had a big structural edit on the first novel and I think a structural edit is exactly what you’re saying. It’s the whole story structure. It’s like a thriller has to hang together in a certain way, romance hangs together in another way.
You write literary fiction, but there are always ways to make a story better. I have my line edits back for the latest book. And a line editor is word choice and all of that. And then I also have a proofreader. And then I have beta readers who are people who read the book and give me feedback. I have all these different voices that come in later to make things better, which I think is also important about writing seriously.
That’s when you let the editor back in, the internal editor and the external editors, and to really polish the book and make it as good as it can be. So you obviously have that full editing experience as well.
Iain: Absolutely. I’m just actually looking at my notes which I made last week on this topic. And I’ve got the points there. We’ve got cycles of writing, all the things you’ve just talked about. And then over in my notes, it’s a frightening prospect. I had people on the MA, and then a tutor, and eventually my editor. And I’ve written that the one period of writing that didn’t work so well was when I was entirely on my own. You need to break it up, you need to get help, which I think is absolutely the case.
And it’s not easy to do, especially if you’re a new writer. Because I know, I’m sure there’s lots of people who are listening to this who are really new to writing. So everyone’s talking about editors and beta readers and all these kinds of things might and it might all sound completely alien. I think whatever stage you’re at, really, for me it’s just about not thinking that you’re on your own in terms of there aren’t other writers in the same position. But you can get advice, you can get help from a number of sources. It’s just about choosing the right sources.
Your beta readers aren’t, it’s not just any old Tom, Dick, and Harry. Presumably, you’ve chosen those people quite carefully.
Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m not somebody who likes a critique group. I know some people do have a critique group where they go every week and they read each others work. But I don’t let anyone see my book until I’ve re-written it, at least, three times. Because I actually had an email from a listener, and she said, “I’d really like to know how different your first draft is from your finished product. I really like your books but can I see that so I can understand how that works?” And I was just like, “Sorry, but no. My first drafts don’t go anywhere because they really are very basic.” So I just couldn’t do that. But some people really like a critique group.
And certainly, some people have said to me they can’t afford professional editing. As an independent author, if you’re going to self-publish, you need to get your own editor basically.
And in fact, even if you want traditional publishing now, your book normally has to be pretty edited before you get it anywhere first. It needs to be edited before it goes to an agent because they’re not necessarily going to help you like yours did for you, Iain. They want something that’s very polished. And yeah, so I think if you can’t afford personal editing then often a critique group, even an online critique group, can really help and you can almost barter your time and help other writers maybe say, to someone in the same genre, “I’ll critique yours and you critique mine.” So yeah, I think people can do that too.
Iain: Usually in those kinds of relationships, you have to give a bit back.
You may have to do some critiquing yourself in order to get your own work critiqued. But it’s about finding people that you trust basically. I guess it’s the same with many things in life.
Joanna: And I also want to add on this. You and I are really good I think doing this together because you’ve written this literary fiction novel that it happens on the street, doesn’t it? As in, it’s quite contained; the book is quite contained. There’s a guy in his living room. Whereas mine is sort of international thrillers where people running around the world, hunting things and blowing things up. Completely, completely different genres.
And the type of people who like our books may be completely different people, or they might be the same people in a different mood. But what we have to remember, and what I want everyone to remember is there is a market for everything now. And that’s one of the amazing things. So if you’re writing a book which is completely different to everything …maybe you write, like my friend Ruth Ann Nordin who writes Mormon romance. That’s not a genre I’m going to read but there’s a market for it. And that’s fantastic so I really want to encourage people to write what you want to write and what you love to write. And both Iain and I write very differently, but we still can talk about this whole process in the same way.
Iain: Absolutely. I mean, writing is writing at the end of the day.
If it’s got a good story and the plot is in a sensible order and it makes sense then you can’t go far wrong really.
Joanna: And actually, I have another book recommendation. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which is excellent and taught me about writing in scenes which I think when that penny dropped for me, that’s how I understood a lot more about writing a book. So I really recommend that Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.
Iain: Absolutely. And all the things that we’ve mentioned, all the books, all the bits, and pieces, I will put into the show notes which will be on The Creative Penn blog and on the Write for Your Life blog and my blog.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, I think we’re almost done, are we?
Iain: I think we are and I think my nose has gradually become more bunged up the longer I’ve talked. Sorry about that.
Joanna: That’s alright. Well, it’s been fantastic talking with you, Iain.
Iain: You too. Where can everyone find you on the internet if they should want too?
Jonna: Oh, right. I write fiction under J.F. Penn. So I’m at jfpenn.com, and I also have a blog for writers at thecreativepenn.com, and a podcast on iTunes as well if you want another podcast on writing, The Creative Penn on iTunes.
Iain: A smashing podcast on writing too. You can find me on Twitter, I’m Iain Broome there, I-A-I-N-B-R-O-O-M-E. It seems crazy that I have to spell my own name every week but I do. And of course, there’s the blog of the podcast which is Write for Your Life. And you can find that at iainbroome/blog. And that’s it. Thanks very much Joanna.
Joanna: No worries. Thanks for having me.
Iain: No problem. Hopefully speak to you soon.
Joanna: Bye. Thanks for listening today. I hope you find it helpful. You can get more information on writing, publishing options, sales, and promotion for your book at www.thecreativepenn.com. And that’s Penn with a double n. And you can also your free How to be an Author workbook at www.howtobeanauthor.com. See you next time.