Out of My Depth!

I’ve mentioned before my intention to enter the Good Housekeeping Novel Writing Competition and I’ve been beavering away at my entry since January. I wrote 20,000 words and then paused to take stock and prepare my entry which had to consist of the first 5,000 words plus a full synopsis. The synopsis was a challenge because until then I’d been writing without a detailed plan but after some thought I managed it.

Then I decided to send the 5,000 words and synopsis to novelist Patricia McAughey (who writes as Patricia Fawcett) for a critique. Patricia reads for the RNA New Writers’ Scheme and also runs a reasonably priced private critique service for all types of fiction except fantasy, sci-fi or children’s. She can be contacted through her website for a quote.

Patricia sent me a detailed report which very tactfully told me that my story didn’t work because I was still in ‘short story’ mode. She said, “Slow down. You are rushing things. I know it is tempting to try to get all the ideas down but you are writing a longer piece and there is no rush. Relax.”

She went on to explain that I was giving the reader no idea about the setting. One of the scenes was in a Derbyshire cafe but I didn’t describe the interior, the waitress, the view or even indicate whether the place was full or empty. Patricia suggested painting a broad picture of the scene and then honing in on small details such as a woman trying to get a pushchair through the gap in the chairs.

There was a similar problem with my characters. Patricia said, “… I don’t have any great affection as yet for either of the two central characters simply because I don’t know enough about them…”. I had omitted rather obvious details like what the heroine did for a living or what she looked like!

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. I did get words of praise for my dialogue (which I love writing) and my synopsis.

So if you’re trying to move from short stories to longer fiction, take a moment to check that you’ve added depth to your writing. Make sure you haven’t skimmed over the setting or the characters’ backgrounds. Have you described what it smells like in the kitchen? Have you mentioned what your hero is wearing as he meets the heroine for the first time?

Later this week Patsy Collins, a successful short story writer and debut novelist, will be guesting on this blog and attempting to explain how she made the leap from short stories to seeing her first novel published.

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  1. #1 by Patsy Collins on March 26, 2012 - 6:08 pm

    ‘Slow down and relax’ is great advice – I’ll try to remember it!

  2. #2 by susanjanejones on March 26, 2012 - 6:24 pm

    That is good advice. I think you’re brilliant at the flash fiction type stories Sally, we can quickly cram it all in to those can’t we? Novels are hard work, no doubt about it.

    • #3 by Sally Jenkins on March 26, 2012 - 7:32 pm

      Patsy – If you haven’t got a lot of writing time, it’s not very easy to relax – you want to get as much done as possible, don’t you?
      Susan – Yep, novels are hard work. I like flash fiction because it can be fiited in to odd bits of time.

  3. #4 by journeyofjordannaeast on March 26, 2012 - 9:22 pm

    This was massively helpful. I was never a short story writer, so I’m not stuck in a “mode” per se, but I know that I sometimes catch myself leaving out details simply because I know where something is or what a place looks like.

    Also, thanks for the info on the critique service! Def gonna check that out!

    • #5 by Sally Jenkins on March 27, 2012 - 12:04 pm

      Jordanna, you’re right – it is easy to leave stuff out just because it’s all obvious to you, the writer.

  4. #6 by blogaboutwriting on March 27, 2012 - 7:17 am

    Very interesting post, Sally and some great advice there. I agree, it’s very difficult to move from ‘short story mode’ to novel writing. Short story writing is much more disciplined, I think (which is probably why many novelists admit they can’t write short stories!!). Every word has to count in a short story and there’s no room for ‘fluff’ or detail that’s not relevant to moving the story on. I suppose though, in a novel, the reader really has to ‘breathe’ the atmosphere and feel that he is there – and get to the know the main character as though she is a real person and that takes longer to develop – and also requires a lot of skill!

    • #7 by Sally Jenkins on March 27, 2012 - 12:08 pm

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, Helen. If I ever go back to longer fiction I will have to cut the urgency and take the time top and stare at what’s going around the main action.

  5. #8 by Vikki (The View Outside) on March 27, 2012 - 7:17 am

    I have the opposite problem Sally….I started writing by doing two novels…..now I’m writing short stories im struggling condensing it lol

    Good luck


    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on March 27, 2012 - 12:05 pm

      Vikki – it’s nice to hear that people moving from long to short fiction have problems too!

  6. #10 by Tracy Fells on March 27, 2012 - 1:08 pm

    Some good feedback from Patricia on the trials of writing novels after short stories. Do hope you are still going to submit to Good Housekeeping. I am having a go with a novel that is 95% done (first draft anyway) – most novel competitions have quite a hefty entry fee and since this one is free (apart from the postage – for which I may need a second mortgage) then thought I’d try it. I expect every unpublished novelist in the UK is thinking the same though, but if you don’t submit…
    Good luck if you submit too 🙂

    • #11 by Sally Jenkins on March 28, 2012 - 7:17 am

      Yes, Tracy, I have submitted to the GH competition – even though I know my entry is not up to scratch (didn’t have time to go back and add all the depth I needed). As you say it was free and maybe they’ll spot a spark of potential in me! (and pigs might fly…)

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