In my job as a copy editor, many manuscripts are sent to me for critical evaluation. Few have left me as impressed as ‘Becoming‘ by Chris Ord. Chris approached me earlier this year and I had the pleasure of reading his debut novel prior to its release.
‘Becoming‘ is now available to download or buy in physical form and, although it’s a YA novel, it really is one that I’d happily recommend for adults too. Chris is here to talk to us about his experience as a first time novelist and share some of the lessons he’s learned. Thanks for taking the time to appear on the blog, Chris – I can’t wait to read your next novel.
The first novel?
By Chris Ord
On September 23rd 2016 I published my first novel ‘Becoming’. It feels strange, almost surreal typing that, as only a year ago my words were filled with nothing more than intent. Now they fizz with the excitement of achievement, the realisation of something I have wanted to do all my life. There are mixed emotions though. There is pride and satisfaction, but apprehension too. Now the book is out I appreciate I’m revealing my creation to others – friends, relatives, and strangers. I’m exposing a bit of my soul. Now is the time for judgement and thick skin. I loved writing ‘Becoming’ and if others love it too that is a bonus. I wanted to write a story that I would enjoy reading, one that engages and entertains, but also challenges and provokes. If I achieve any combination of these I’ll be happy.
Except I have a confession, ‘Becoming’ isn’t my first novel. It’s the first I have published. I have another buried in my hard drive, seen only by the handful that ever will. I took a long time to write that novel, about twenty five years. Twenty four and a half of those I was gathering thoughts and intention. I called it research and planning. In truth, I was dithering. I had lots of ideas, some I wrote down, most I didn’t and forgot. There was one that kept coming back, and I decided there must be a reason so it had to be the story.
I reached the age of forty five and two family bereavements forced reflection and an existential crisis. Loss and grief made me realise I had to take chances before it was too late. So I gave up my full-time job in August 2015 to write. The years of planning were over. The moment was now. I was going to write that book. It was a risk, but I knew it was time to do what I love.
Most of the advice I read was to write what you know. This reassured me, as I needed all the structure and safety I could get. I was stepping into the unknown, trying to find an approach that would work, a method that would hold my hand. Writing from personal experience made perfect sense.
I developed my characters and my hero, someone whose story I had wanted to tell. I had a scenario. It was loose at first, but I was fine with that as I wanted the story to unfold and develop. I was looking to keep the process exciting and fresh, and I figured the more I made a storyboard before I began, the more barriers I was putting in my way. I know some writers like to plot their stories from the start, and I suspect with some types of novels it is essential. I don’t. Each to their own, as you have to find what works for you. I wanted to get the words down and see where they would take me.
I gave myself a minimum daily target of 1,000 words which I stuck to and often exceeded. The first draft flowed and the writing was fun. It was like a series of puzzles, and I love problem-solving. I had tough days, and scrapped a lot of words, but I kept going, spurred on by the growing sense of achievement. It was exciting and motivating to see the words mount and the story develop. I was disciplined, and above all else I would say that is the key quality you need to finish a novel. I suspect there are many great unfinished novels that would be completed with more structure and discipline. Page after page created my new world. Every day I would escape there and build, moulding and reshaping, bringing new characters to life, and getting rid of others. It was an exhilarating journey, and finally, the day came, I completed the first draft and was overcome with joy and relief. I had done it. I had written a novel, or at least a rough, unfinished first draft of a novel.
I asked myself – what do I do now? We all have someone who reads our work first. It has to be someone you trust, but who won’t sugarcoat the feedback. The early drafts are the beginning, but far from the end, and you need a first editor to tell you what does and doesn’t work and why. Eventually you will need a good copy-editor to look at a draft you’re happy with. External, professional input is vital, as no matter how good you think your work is it can be better and there are things you will miss. Before my draft ever got that far I wanted to give it to someone else for the first judgement.
I read somewhere you should never give your work to anyone you share Christmas dinner with. In my case we share a bed. Some would urge caution at giving your unfinished work to your wife. They may tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to. Thankfully, Julie doesn’t sweeten her feedback. She’s an English graduate, well-read, a teacher and, more importantly I trust and value her opinion. She’s honest, usually more than I would like. I used the term brutal to describe her comments, but she prefers honest and constructive.
I gave my wife a polished draft of my debut convinced she would love it. She was impressed, enjoyed it, and there were many things she admired about the novel. I was relieved. The quality of the writing was much higher than she’d expected, and I recall the phrase ‘it does read like a proper book’. My excitement was short-lived though. It was good, and there was a lot to build on, but it wasn’t there yet. It didn’t work. The characters and writing were strong, but the story was flimsy, too weak. This stung me, so I read it again, determined to convince myself she was wrong. She was right, as always. Her candour and constructive criticisms helped me realise where the faults lay in the book. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but it was too personal, and though the characters were strong I had been so desperate to capture them that I had wrapped their relationship around a dull plot. It read more like a screenplay than a novel, and there was too much dialogue and not enough action. I had tried to use the characters as a vehicle for my ideas and it felt contrived. In sum, it was a valiant first attempt, but it wasn’t good enough, at least not yet. I could do better.
This realisation was a blow. I had put months of my life into this, and the excitement of completion had convinced me that this was the one. Yet time and reflection away from the draft, along with some objective feedback left me with a big decision. Did I persevere with the draft and make it better? Could I rewrite it, make it more literary and less cinematic? How could I improve the story-line and make it more dramatic and compelling? Failing all of that, should I put it to one side, learn from the experience, move on and write something else? I guess these are the questions writers ask all the time, or at least should.
This was a learning process and though I hadn’t succeeded with this novel, at least I knew where I had gone wrong. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but for me this reassuring structure had been a constraint. For the ‘known’ I had drawn on the autobiographical too much, taken personal experiences and woven a shaky plot around them. Sometimes this works. In my case it didn’t. My desire was to bring particular characters to life, but in doing so I had overlooked a critical element of all good writing, the story. Of course, characters are important, but readers love a good narrative. More importantly, I hadn’t written a book I would want to read, I had written one I thought I should write. I had played safe and sometimes safe is dull.
I made a bold decision, set the manuscript to one side, buried it in a cyber vault. I decided to start again, write another, something different, based around a wild and imaginary scenario and setting. I focused on the story and let my imagination run free. This novel would not be about what I knew, but would be one that I would love to read. I kept my structure of determination and daily discipline, and allowed things to develop and unfold. This was the journey that led to ‘Becoming’, my second novel, but the first I am happy with, and have published. The failed first attempt was very important though. Without the failure and the lessons taken from it, ‘Becoming’ might never have been written.
What have I learned from my experience of writing my first novel? Discipline and humility are two of the most important qualities you need to be a writer. Being honest, even brutal, with yourself may be the next. Criticism of your writing will hurt, but being critical from draft one will save you more pain in the long term. Trust the opinion of someone who will be frank with you about your work. Don’t let ego or excitement overcome common sense and critical judgement. Give yourself plenty of time between edits, as it is good to look at something again with fresh eyes. At times it is important to admit to yourself that something doesn’t work. The first novel you complete may not be the first you should let the world see. Readers are often strangers who owe you nothing. If your first attempt makes the grade I applaud you, but there’s no shame in burying it. Keep it though, as it may come in useful in the future, and some of it will be good enough to steal. We learn from every writing experience, especially the ones that don’t turn out as we had hoped. We need the courage to move on and be better, but also to never give up.