Friday, 4 September 2009

Coffee Morning: Time Envy and Middles

Well, hello everyone. Isn't the blank page exciting! (Well, I can see that was a bit of a conversation stopper.) My clenched, lying teeth will drop out if I'm not careful!

This is my first post as a new Novel Racer, and I must admit to feeling just a little bit nervous. I'm afraid you'll all have to budge up a bit and join me on my hotel balcony which overlooks the almost too-blue Mediterranean. Isn't the smell of pine trees mixed with lemons absolutely gorgeous and don't you just wish you could bottle it and take it home? I do feel quite fortunate to be able to offer you something a little bit different in the way of morning sustenance today. There's a nice little sun-wizened man down the road who has a nifty little machine that squeezes oranges while you wait, so I clambered out of bed at dawn and flip-flopped my way along the beach to fetch some for you, and while I was at it I followed my nose and called in at a bakery just off the tiny harbour and bought some freshly baked rolls and crossaints, a packet of best butter and some strawberry jam. I'm afraid the coffee is only out of the machine at the hotel, but there is cappuccino, espresso and a very nice latte - oh and decaff in little packets, plus an assortment of Twinings teas. Please help yourselves.

Righty-ho, here we go.

Time Envy

I'm not a jealous type of person, and can't be bothered to waste good thinking time on focusing on material possessions (apart from my neighbour's fabulous conservatory, that is!). We see things every day that we want. It’s the basis of our commercial society to create a need and then fill it. With me, it's time I envy most in others. Your time is the most precious thing you can give anyone and you shouldn't waste a single moment of it. People who waste time annoy me intensely. (Oh, dear, my teeth have clenched again and I might just need to throw a bread roll at my husband for calling me the queen of the time-wasters. He doesn't realise that writers are not actually wasting time when, in their heads, they are wandering around a fictional village in the Cotswolds, talking to people who don't exist.)

Unless you are lucky and don't have to expend huge amounts of your precious time earning money to live on, as a writer you have to create a space for your time-hungry writing. For me, the pleasure part of writing is easy - it's a welcome half an hour of relaxing relief after a hard day at work, but some days I'd rather do other things, especially if the weather is good.

The most productive part of the day for me, writing wise, is early mornings between 4.00 am and 7.00 am. It is what I call my golden time and I'm not prepared to give these precious hours to anyone. I write seriously then and I know it's when I'm at my best. Of course, this precious time comes at a price. There is an opportunity cost. If I want to write at dawn I have to go to bed between 9.00 and 10.00 pm.

When is your golden writing time and how do you create enough space for it in your busy lives?

Middles

The second thing I wanted to discuss with Novel Racers is 'middles'. Marina Oliver in her excellent book 'Writing Historical Fiction' says that good middles make novels great. She says middles are what distinguishes good writers from average ones. I recently attended her Advanced Novel Writing course in Caerleon and was quite taken with the section on middles. When I got back home I selected a few of my favourite books, and a couple of books I found mediocre and, surprise, surprise my favourite books all have very strong middle sections. How many times have you given up on a book in the middle? I know I have. I've also been guilty of padding out my own novels in the middle, creating sub-plots and waffling - even rushing through the plot to get to the exciting ending.

The mediocre books - the ones given up on before you finish them and the books where you can't remember what the story was about - all have weak middle sections. They might be fabulously written, but they inevitably get discarded along the dusty wayside of memory lane. The great books, the ones you read more than once and the ones where you can recall the story and the characters years later, all have strong middles.

How do you tackle the all important middle section of your novels? Could one way to make a novel great be to actually begin writing in the middle, and then let it flow backwards and forwards to make sure the middle is strong?

19 comments:

JJ Beattie said...

What a fantastic selection of breakfast goodies. Thank you - I'll have tea and croissant.

Great first coffee morning question, Annieye. I would have kept one of the questions for another time, but then I'm definitely guilty of padding out some of the middle in the draft I'm doing right now. I'm not worried about this because I recognised it. So it'll just get pulled out in the first edit. It's not something I had thought about though and I will pay attention to what I read to see how true that is. I don’t, I have to say, hardly ever, give up books in the middle.

Time is an interesting one. I can't work in Thailand - at least I can't work for money legally unless I teach English as a Foreign Language because with my useless range of degrees, I won't ever score a work permit for anything else. But this doesn't mean either that I don't work or that I have all the time in the world to write. I do various things as a volunteer and they are essential to my mental health. I take them on with a 'professional' attitude (I hope). You do what you say you’ll do when you said you'd do it. Just because you’re a volunteer, it doesn’t mean you turn up when you feel like it. I need the colour for my writing that I get in the work I do.

I also write best first thing in the morning so I write then unless I have a meeting for my other jobs and then I squeeze in my volunteer work before Son gets home and needs the whip cracking to get on with school work.

Debs said...

Great post, and thank you for flip-flopping to fetch the orange juice.

I'm not a morning person, and the most you can get out of me at 4am would be a growl. My writing time is usually from 6pm - 9pm, as that's when I've finished work/supper/etc. I have to stop at 9pm as, if I work any later, my eyes are too sore for work the next morning. On the weekends I work whenever I can.

You're so right about middles, and them needing to be strong. I deleted over 25,000 words from the beginning of my first book, and it made the beginning so much stronger to start later on, somewhere closer to the middle.

Fia said...

Brilliant questions Annie, thank you.

I've lost count of the number of books I've given up in the middle. Until I started writing, I never gave much thought as to why except that I had got bored with the characters or plot.

I do know that I will have to redraft again and again to try keep reader interest in the middle chapters.

As for time, I am lucky to work very part time - or unlucky as we live pretty hand to mouth at the moment. My shed is the only place I can go to and forget, for an hour or two, about cooking, cleaning, breaking up fights (between my children, although the neighbours are pretty volatile here)and the rest of the world.

Annie your descriptions are wonderful. I can smell the lemon grove from here:)

DOT said...

It's that word 'padding' that does the damage. It's as good for the middle of a book as a diet of Big Macs.

I believe this is where the theme of a book becomes most important and not contrived sub-plot - theme, in my definition, being the underlying idea the book is exploring.

Having said that, in the middle of Anna Karenin, the greatest of all novels, Tolstoy spends time riding his favourite hobby horse about farming techniques, which has nothing to do with the story.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Just tea for me, please, though my friend Jasfoup here would like a croissant.

I'm luck enough to be a partial housefrau at present, so I write during the day and stop at six, fitting tasks around the writing.

Middles do sag, and I think a strong plot is what carries a reader through them. Characters, too. If you need to know what a character does next it carries you through.

sheepish said...

Orange juice and croissant for me please.
I adore looking at a blank page, it holds such promise, my problem is the fear of not doing it justice. So for me the beginning sometimes doesn't make it to the page,the middle is then an irrelevance!!!
But I do know what you mean, I am struggling with the middle of my wip at the moment. The beginning and end came almost fully formed [although still took considerable effort to write]but filling in the middle with relevant story is proving trickier. Especially as ideas for the next novel keep popping into my head.

Time for me is not a problem but you would be very upset with me for the ways I find not to sit down in front of that blank page.

Which part of the med are you lucky enough to be overlooking at the moment, I am envious as I love the sea and would love to find a quiet spot to sit and write. Or think about writing!!

Well done on an excellent post.

Flowerpot said...

Decaff and croissant for me please! Good section on middles, though I give up on a book if it doesnt hook me by the first few pages. I used to forge on till I met an agent called Teresa Chris who said she used to do that and realised how many good books there were that she'd never read so why waste time n ones you're not enjoying? so I don't now! But I digress. Having just got a crit back from my novel, the middle seems to be OK but I know it's a common problem. As for time - I work best in the mornings. Sometimes afternoons but not often. I get exhausted! But like Debs I don't know how I'd function at 4am. Not a pleasant idea! Good for you for doing it though - that's amazing.

HelenMHunt said...

I don't really do early mornings, I'd be nodding off over the laptop I'm afraid. Late afternoon and early evening are my best times, but they tend to get interrupted by things like needing to eat.

I think the middle of my novel is quite 'busy' so hopefully it doesn't flag. What I don't know yet is whether it actually works or not. I'm about to start on the major edit, and I think that's when I'll start to pick out strands of the plot and see whether they really do carry the story forward in the way I want them to. If they don't, I'll have to work out how to change them so that they do. And that's the exciting bit, I hope!

Lane said...

What would I give for the smell of pine and lemon right now. The closest I'll get for a while though is loo cleaner.

Great questions Annie. Thank you. Would it be greedy of me to have juice, roll, croissant(s), butter jam and coffee. No? Good:-)

Time is always an issue. Mornings work best for me but not quite as early as your 4am.

As for sagging middles. That's just what I'm tackling at the moment.

When I'm reading, I'm hooked if I'm interested in the character or I want to find out how/why. If I'm not hooked by say .. the first fifth, I give up. I agree with Flowerpot - life's to short to plough on when time is limited and there are too many other books clamouring to be read.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday Annie. Bottle that scent for us.

ChrisH said...

Oh, seesh, that's scared the life out of me... I've never really thought about a great middle! Since I've just finished (yaaayyyyy!) yet another rewrite of FTT (Himself is red penning it as we speak) I shall now have a good look at the middle before considering it finished. Thanks for raising the topic.
As for time, I'm fotunate to be able to write full time, but the sacrifice is money; there's nothing to spare. Jobs round here are in any case few and far between and in the low-paid range of the spectrum. So I'd better make damn sure I don't have a saggy middle.
4am????? Respect!

ChrisH said...

Ps, I was going to have a croissant but if Jasfoup's got his eye on them I'll wait until he's finished!

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Graeme K Talboys said...

A bit late arriving, I'm afraid, so a mug of tea will be just fine.

As far as time goes, I am blessed. I had to give up paid work because of disability (hate that word - I have ME and FM and associated complications) and now write full time (in the sense that I write when I am fit enough, which is far from all the time). So, I can write when I want, but still feel the need to make the most of my fit times.

I am not a morning person. My clock starts at 10am and even then I am slow, so I tend to deal with e-mails, read the news, and otherwise clear the decks. Once I've had my elevenses (strong coffee) I begin to get into gear. On a good day I can keep going for hours (with breaks). On a bad day I stay in bed and read and scribble in my notebook.

Night is my most productive time, especially after everyone else has gone to bed. That's when all my imaginary friends like to come out to play.

Middles. As a one time avid reader of fantasy (before it became mostly extruded product), I can attest to all those trilogies with dull (if worthy) middle books. That taught me early on that a story should have a beginning and immediately start working toward the end. Whether I actually manage that in my writing is another matter altogether. U suppose it comes down to being certain that every scene and every chapter drives the story forward and moves the characters from A to B in terms of development as well.

liz fenwick said...

As I'm a day late I doubt there's anything left :-(

Great questions - I now stop books half way through because I have so many I want to read. I do feel terribly guilty about this and some times will pick them up later and try again. On a few it proved I was wrong to put them down that if must have been my state of mind or something and not the book but most were promptly put aside again.

Time is a funny issue. My life is about to take on a new phase with littelst leaving for school this week. My writing time had been during school hours. Now I suppose it will be during 'work' hours. During the summer I force the early start so that I can work uninterupted by kids yet it take me at least a half hour to find the flow. I think I most productive mid afternoon but I'm not sure.

I need to get a stop watch to hanf around my neck and click it time I am actually writing and not doing 'other' activities. This was recommended by an author this summer and when she did it to herself she found out of a whole day she only truly wrote for two hours.......
So when I am back to Dubai I plan to hang that stop watch around my neck to make me aware of all the actual writing time - not the making tea or coffee time or checking emails or .....

liz fenwick said...

As I'm a day late I doubt there's anything left :-(

Great questions - I now stop books half way through because I have so many I want to read. I do feel terribly guilty about this and some times will pick them up later and try again. On a few it proved I was wrong to put them down that if must have been my state of mind or something and not the book but most were promptly put aside again.

Time is a funny issue. My life is about to take on a new phase with littelst leaving for school this week. My writing time had been during school hours. Now I suppose it will be during 'work' hours. During the summer I force the early start so that I can work uninterupted by kids yet it take me at least a half hour to find the flow. I think I most productive mid afternoon but I'm not sure.

I need to get a stop watch to hanf around my neck and click it time I am actually writing and not doing 'other' activities. This was recommended by an author this summer and when she did it to herself she found out of a whole day she only truly wrote for two hours.......
So when I am back to Dubai I plan to hang that stop watch around my neck to make me aware of all the actual writing time - not the making tea or coffee time or checking emails or .....

Crystal Jigsaw said...

My goodness, 4am! Does that time actually exist?! I think my best is around mid-morning until around 2pm. I have to leave the house to collect my daughter from school at 3pm so my day is cut short. However, I have been known to write later at night, I'm definitely more of a night owl than a morning person.

Your creative writing course sounded very excited and worthwhile. I know it's said that the first page of a book is the most important, but the middle is equally as important to me. I too, have given up on a book half way through. And I had to smile when you said about rushing through the middle of your own book, in order to get to the exciting end. I'm at that stage now and I really have to be careful.

I doubt there are any croissants left but I would have had one if there had been!

CJ xx

Annieye said...

Thank you all for your comments. I'm back home now, after my annual fix of Mediterranean sun, sea, sand and sleep!

JJ - My son in law's father lives in Thailand, too. I must admit I sometimes feel tired in the afternoons because I get up so early.

Debs - I can't write in the evenings - my brain just doesn't seem to be switched on creatively. Deleting 25k words was brave - I hope you saved them somewhere!

Fia - I'd love to work part-time but it would seriously affect my pension at my time of life! Still, as Parkinson said 'work expands to fill the time available' and it is oh, so true! I am envious of your (and Debs's) sheds.

DOT - that is so interesting about Anna Karenina. I wonder how Tolstoy managed to pull it off?

Leatherdykeuk - Jasfoup was a pig -he ate all the crossaints! I think you are right: it's keeping the plot rolling, coupled with strong, believable characters and dialogue that adds to the story that keeps it from flagging in the middle.

Sheepish - it's not so much a blank page as a blank 'create post' box on a computer screen. We were in Cala Nova in Ibiza. It's on the north-east coat between Es Cana and Cala Llenya. The orange man sits on the road out of Es Cana towards the Hippy Market.

Flowerpot - I, too, have lost count of the books I abandon half way through and it startled me just how many have a brilliant start and then just sort of fizzle out.

Helen - I hope you are feeling better now. I think you are right when you say about keeping the novel busy in the middle. It's all about making everything count and keeping your characters buoyant.

Lane - which loo cleaner do you use? Someone might have got there before me! (LOL). I too, agree with Flowerpot and Teresa Chris. There are just too many books I want to read to waste time on something I'm not enjoying, but it has been useful to find out just why I give up.

ChrisH - it scared me too! I was in awe of Marina Oliver - she really knows her stuff. I can recommend her books on writing. They are little goldmines of information. Jasfoup ate all the croissants, I'm afraid. I don't know how Leatherdykeuk copes with him!

Aiden Thomas - wha?

Graeme - Imaginary friends - now there's a blast from the past. I'd love to meet yours! I bet nearly all writers had imaginary friends as children. With regard to middles I think you hit the nail on the head - it's just as important that every single word counts in the middle of a book as at the beginning and keeps the plot spinning along.

Liz - I feel guilty too, especially since trying to get published. I think of the poor author and almost feel obliged to plough on because I know how much work has gone into the writing. My grandson starts school on Monday next week and I have the dubious honour of being character-assassinated at the school gate each day by all the extremely efficient yummy mummies and grannies.

CJ - I think if I couldn't get up early, probably my next productive 'golden' slot would be about 10 am too. Picking kids up from school does sort of slice the day in half, doesn't it?

Angel Bluestocking said...

Hi Annieye

I'm with you and am often up and writing at 4-5am. However I can't bear breakfast until at least 10am and my first drink of the day is hot water with slice of lemon.

I was on Marina's course with you at Caerleon - this was a useful section indeed. Like Chrish I'm working on my 2nd re-write but following Marina's advice, paying particular attention to the middle!

Hope you're getting along ok.

Good to 'see' you

warm wishes
(Debbie)
x

Annieye said...

Hi Angel - Just popped over to your blog. It's lovely to see you here at Novel Racers. Wasn't Marina's course fabulous? I learned such a lot, and like you, I shall always think of her advice when I get to the middle of a novel. I hope you are well. Speak soon.