Christmas can be an interesting time for authors, whether writing novels is a full-time job for us or we fit the writing in with another job. It often means the festive break is anything but a break. Either editors send their revision notes in just before the Christmas break to (understandably) clear their desks, or Christmas is an author's only chance to actually get some solid writing done with some offices closing for the festive period. And for those of us who don’t have any deadlines and are looking to take a break, we’re conflicted because while we know we need to rest, our brains won't stop returning to the ideas swirling around them.
For me, I’ve tried to clear the ‘decks’ (like what I did there?!) so I can focus on family and friends for two weeks. Proofs are all signed off for the US and UK release of my next novel, The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US) and publicity plans are underway. Next on my list is to begin work on a brand new novel. So while officially I’ve cleared the decks, truth is, that novel will be on my mind a lot. So now doubt I’ll use the break as a chance to mull it over during some festive walks and mulled wine musings in front of the fire.
What about other authors? I thought I'd ask authors I know what Christmas means for them this year. Here’s what they said…
Psychological thriller author Charlotte Duckworth: For me it means a massive break from my first draft! For the past three years I've tried to write my first draft between September - December, which has worked really well (got about 6k left for this year - limping towards the finish line!). I love Christmas and so it's really important for me to have a proper break and I usually take at least three weeks off, with NO writing, probably not even any reading, nothing book related at all - and then start my second draft in January, aiming to have a readable MS by Easter. It's especially important to me I think because we are a freelance family so we so rarely have holidays - one week in May when we go away but that's it - the rest of the year we've both always got something going on as home and work life is so blurred. Also, my birthday is on January 3 so I like to have a restful lead up to that too!
Writer of escapist romantic fiction Isabelle Broom: My structural edit has landed with Christmas this year – and it's a beast. Despite this, however, I am allowing myself from 24th-29th off (well, sort of, I'll still be reading heaps of March books to review), because I need it. Hell, the book needs it. I have such a small window between hand-in of first draft and beginning of second these days that I can't help but be thrown into a fit of turmoil. I need a bit of distance in order to do a better edit. That said, I will probably cave and start plotting the next book instead in those few days. If I don't write, it sends me just as bananas as the edit.
USA Today bestseller Janelle Harris: I literally had an email two hours ago detailing my editing schedule. Structural (a monster) and copy all to be complete by Jan 3rd. Oh and I have end of Jan deadline for first draft for different publisher. Along with managing five kids, school runs and xmas shopping that I've barely started. I'm completely panicking 😲
Women’s fiction author Kerry Fisher: Like Charlotte, we're also a freelance family and I take a break. My editor is very organised and we agree a schedule for edits several weeks, if not months, before they arrive so they never just turn up out of the blue.
Mystery author Terry Lynn Thomas: My edits are due on the 2nd and I've got tons to do. Going to try to turn the next book in by June so I don't have to do this over Christmas. This has been my routine for the past three years. Kind of over it.
Debut crime writer Victoria Selman: Excitement that the holidays are here. Dread that I’m not going to get any work done.
I hear ya, Victoria! If you're an author reading this, let me know what your plans are in the comments. In the meantime, have a wonderful break whatever it is you're doing and a fruitful New Year!
Pic by Marco Verch.
In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. Maggie writes great teen fiction and her Shiver series focusing on werewolves are a huge hit. And yet in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, specifically a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
I found this a bit vague though. How can a mood be the core of a novel?
When I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with a brilliant editor called Eli Dryden. When she sent me the revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, I remembered Maggie Steifvater's blog post again and it suddenly made sense. As my editor Eli wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when the focus on ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title to match the core, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
Let's look at some other examples from books, TV and film. Many of these 'cores' are up for discussion, but this is my take on them and the core ranges from a sentence to a mood to one simple word.
Bodyguard (BBC series): Crushed vulnerability of the seemingly strong (breakdowns, wavering, fear)
The Greatest Showman: Expressing what makes us different (a show being the ultimate expression)
Big Little Lies: The ebb and flow of female connection (like the sea, a strong focus of the novel)
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town, but also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: a landslide and, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, the ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?
My advice? As you toy with ideas for your novel, or tackle revisions for your novel, think about the core that brings it all together
Are you an aspiring writer working on a novel right now, or hoping to write one? I'll be running some workshops so sign up your interest here.