Itchy Bitesized 16: Three Things About Saggy Middles
Itchy Bitesized 18: Three Things About Chapters Breaks

Itchy Bitesized 17: Writing Course or Festival Finished? What Now?

I hope all you lovely Itchy reader-writers have had a good summer (or for my Antipodean readers, winter). I'm just getting my balance again after a mad two months of teaching and talking about writing: first, two different residential courses for Oxford on life-writing, memoir and creative non-fiction, and then two conferences: the Historical Novel Society's in Durham, and Jericho Writers' Festival of Writing in York. And of course there's the four cohorts a year of writers from the course Self-Editing Your Novel.  

Every author I know has their story of a turning-point moment: the festival, course or book which opened a door, the workshop or teacher who jumped their writing up a level, the off-hand comment which was the key to the kingdom. And it's moving for a teacher to watch the departing writers, and hope that maybe that's happening for some of them.

Luke-stackpoole-eWqOgJ-lfiI-unsplashBut when writers have finished a terrific course, or reeled home from the overload of a big festival stuffed with agents and editors, they can be full of the buzz and the new energy to get going, and still feel overwhelmed. Where to start? What to do first? Which paths to follow? What if different people said entirely opposite things? What if two sets of changes to your project both seem essential but are wholly incompatible? This post in the Itchy Bitesized Series is about the day after you get home.

1) Take stock, and take your time.

Never mind (for now) the details of how your MC needs to have more emotional depth or just be different, or that your saggy middle needs bolstering. I'd suggest making a big-picture list of the different kinds of next step, over time, that the festival or course has got you thinking are necessary or would be useful.

That might be revising and editing, or starting something new, or getting input and feedback from others, or engaging with the writing and publishing worlds. Put these under different headings, but mark them with how urgent and/or important (so not the same thing) each is, to fend off the Inner Critic which declares it's all impossible. You know what your headings would be; for what it's worth, mine might be:

  • this project: what work it still needs; first thoughts about the order it needs them in
  • other projects: what do you want to do about them?; what could you do now?
  • developing writing skills and confidence: for the later stages of this project; to enrich and grow future projects
  • the world out there: friendships and networks in the writing world to support you or bear creative fruit; useful knowledge about and connections to acquire in the industry 

And don't be afraid to take your time. Even if an agent or editor has asked to see a full manuscript (yay!), this is where the glacier-time of publishing is your friend. They won't even notice if you take a week or two to send it; if it'll be longer, it's polite (and good policy) to email to say how delighted you are they liked the sound of My Brilliant Novel, and you're just making a few adjustments; you hope that's OK, and it should be with them in X weeks. They'd always rather see an MS that is as good as you can get it than one which you know is still rough, however shiny the diamond it could yet become - and you don't want to use up their attention on things which you're quite capable of improving now.

2) Make a plan of campaign.

If you're drowning in drafts, scenes and beta-reading reports, you may need to start by taming your novel.

If it's reasonably under control, then I suggest you tackle your to-do list in terms of eating an elephant

If you have feedback you disagree with, or which is contradictory, try digging backwards from the symptoms each reader has described, to diagnose the original problem. Readers will often couch a problem they've found in terms of the solution they would like to see - but the real solution may be quite different.

If you think the work is pretty much ready to go, you could just check over my list of the Ten Line-Edits I Most Often Suggest, in case there's anything on there which could tighten things up even better.

If it's definitely ready, don't forget to check you're presenting it in a form which no agent could be annoyed by.

3) Know how you tick - and make the most of it.

Different kinds of work use different kinds of energy, need different degrees of silence and different amounts of unbroken time; some need an empty house and others a present writing-buddy; some need because-you're-worth-it positivity, and others ruthlessly honest self-scrutiny about how you and this project got to this point.

Of course you still need to push yourself to get on with it even when it's being difficult or discouraging: professional writers know that days like those are just business-as-usual, not an indication that they or the project are useless.

But it's well worth developing ways to make the best use of the human variables of mood and confidence. That's yet another reason for clear to-do lists: if what you planned to do this evening simply isn't possible, or you have an unexpected free morning, then you can change your plans and still use the time.

I hope that helps, and don't forget that there's a lot more on all these topics, and many others, in the Itch of Writing Tool-Kit. For more about what I offer groups, organisations and individual writers, click through to Teaching and Talking, and for more about where I'm teaching in the next few months, click through to Events.

Good luck!

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash