Living to Write/Writing to Live: How One Author Cracked the Code to Success.

            AndrewBlackman-300x233 A-Virtual-Love-Cover-195x300

Andrew Blackman is living “a writer’s life”, and you can learn all about it on his blog of the same title. The long and short of it is this: he was a Wall Street Journal staff writer for a while, then participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. During that month of intensive wordsmithing he finished a draft for his first novel, The Holloway Road, which went on to win the first ever Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2008. It was then published by Legend Press the following year to some acclaim, even earning a spot on the short list for the Dundee International Book Prize. He published his second novel, A Virtual Love, earlier this year and moved to the island of Crete soon thereafter for cheap rent and a view of the Mediterranean Sea, where he can “live simply and concentrate on writing,” according to his website. Jealous yet? Well, you’re not alone.

Blackman’s blog includes occasional insights to his life and career as a professional writer, as well as tips and tricks for up-and-comers in the industry. Subscribers get a free copy of the eBook “$250,000 Writing Contests”, which could potentially save any writer of short fiction many countless hours of outlet-searching for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a tedious research effort had the potential to morph into an all-consuming waste of time.

Fresh from a meditation retreat somewhere even quieter than his rural home site, Blackman was kind enough to speak with me via email about the writing process for both of his books and—spoiler alert—even clues me in about his progress on novel number three. It seems that a good relationship with a publisher—even a relatively small one—really can affect a writer’s approach. And even the pros are constantly learning, incorporating new information and experiences, and evolving with regard to their perspective and their process.

Here’s the unedited text of my questions to him and his email response, also unedited:

CB:  Maybe you can start by telling me a little about that first novel- how long did your first draft ultimately take? And what about the revision process? How many read-throughs were there before you set it free? Finally, did you find the process of writing your second novel to be similar to the first, or was it perhaps an altogether different experience?

AB:  Good questions. The process was completely different for each novel.

I wrote the complete first draft of my first novel On the Holloway Road in a month, and that first draft was remarkably close to what eventually got published. I went over it, added a few scenes, straightened out a few logical inconsistencies, fixed a few ugly sentences, and then let it go.

Shortly after finishing, I found out about a newly-established prize for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I sent off my manuscript, not expecting much, and was amazed when a few months later I was invited to an award ceremony in London and announced as the winner. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, a fairly small independent publisher in the UK.

After revelling in the win for a while, I panicked. They’d only judged the prize based on the first three chapters. What if they hated the rest? I spent a few frantic days making last-minute revisions, but I don’t think I changed anything much – it was more just agonising over words here and there.

To my surprise, my editor at Legend Press didn’t make or recommend any major changes either. It was more line-editing stuff, like breaking down some of my long and winding sentences into smaller pieces. So the process from start to finish was very easy, and the published novel was mostly completed in that one-month manic writing binge.

For my second novel, it was totally different. I wrote much more slowly, and edited much more thoroughly. With the first novel, I’d had the freedom of not expecting it to be published. Second time around, I had an agent and a wiling publisher, and knew the chances of publication were high. The second novel was also more complicated in theme and structure, so there was more work to do.

So I spent about a year and a half writing the first draft, and then wrote a second draft with major changes – whole chapters deleted, characters dropped and introduced, personalities and plot radically reshaped. And then a third draft, and I showed that to my agent, and he recommended some pretty major changes. For example, the novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, and he felt the voices were not distinct enough. Going back through the whole novel and changing the voices took months by itself, and then there were elements of the plot that had to be rethought, characters who had to be made more believable or sympathetic. I think this stage took another year. I showed it to him again, and he was happier, but recommended another draft.

Finally it was done, and it was just the publisher’s edit, which was pretty light again. All in all it was about four years from start to finish.

I’m now pretty close to the end of my third novel, and it’s a similar process to the second. I think that’s my way of working in general – slower and more considered. On the Holloway Road was more of a one-off. I’d been working on a novel before that for years (a novel which remains, and will always remain, unpublished!), and had got so sick of it that it felt incredibly liberating to free-write for a month without the burden of expectation. I was viewing it as an exercise, to rediscover the joy of writing, and never dreamed that I’d end up with anything publishable. Maybe I’ll try some speed-writing again one day if I get stuck, but for now the slower pace is working well for me, so I’ll stick with that.

All the best

Andrew

Do you have any experience with novel writing, NaNoWriMo, or a publishing success story you’d like to share? Leave a comment below or email me—I’d love to hear your take on things!

NaNoWriMo: Facing All of Your Worst Writing Fears in a Single Month

Copyright NaNoWriMo
Copyright NaNoWriMo

Anyone that has ever tried to publish a piece of writing knows that there are a number of steps along the way that can be downright terrifying. There is the intimidation wrought by that lone blinking vertical line on an empty Word Document to tend with, then the countless hours of tedious rereads and edits (also known as facing your own shortcomings), followed by forcing your writing on unwilling readers (friends and family), accepting criticism, and then perhaps worst of all, sharing your work with willing readers (strangers), at which point all control of the piece is out of your hands. At that point, your opinion of yourself is effectively handed over to the public, en masse.

If you’re like me, there is an additional fear associated with the anticipated length of a piece of writing. If it’s going to be very long, I have a tendency to shy away from working on a piece in favor of something much shorter and simpler. Writing short stories has always been an enjoyable pastime for me as I have grown comfortable in that 20-pages-or-less neighborhood. I can edit those 20 or 30 times before sending them in to a journal for a proper rejection, or even abandon one for a period of months and come back to it for a reread without having to dedicate a full week or more to the process. Great! But a novel has always been too big for me. The prospect of spending 200 full pages on a single story makes me shiver. Even worse is the thought of sharing any bit of the product with the world before it’s finished. What if it’s bad? What if I can’t publish after my work has been shared online? What if a big-time player in the publishing industry reads my work and is offended to the point of vomiting? Will I be blacklisted from ever publishing again?

If this level of anxiety seems at all too intense to maintain while still holding on to your sanity, that’s because it is. That being said, with respect to my own writing career, the process of getting from the level of amateur with no experience to that of a barely-paid professional has been all about conquering fears. We writers must learn to constantly face our fears head-on to survive. We tackle the fear of rejection with each query letter sent; we stumble awkwardly through the fear of humiliation with our first handful of interviews; we live with the threat of criticism from the moment we release a work and allow it to be published in any format.

National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org) is the chance to stand up to long-form fiction once and for all. The challenge is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. In short, the goal is to have a rough draft for that novel you have been dying to write banged out without any excuses by midnight on December 1. The organization responsible for NaNoWriMo even provides you with a word count feature, forums, motivational messages, and plenty of tips and tricks to keep you blasting through writer’s blocks along the way. And though we are almost one week in to the challenge, it’s not too late to start. Build your profile today and start by cranking out your first 2000 words. Stay on it each day and by Saturday’s Writing Marathon you’ll have a running start toward tacking ‘novelist’ on to your resume.

Happy National Novel Writing Month to all of you! I’d be happy to hear from you about your experience with NaNoWriMo or any other tips and tricks you might have with respect to writing long-form fiction.