A time-travelling exploration of writing – Lily Graham
By Lily Graham
I’ve been given the time-travelling Delorean on loan, just for the day. Doc Brown is a dear friend. There’s room here take a seat, we aren’t going too far. Marty doesn’t mind that you’re using his chair. Have a slice of lemon cake, while I punch in the date, I believe it was 18 February 2014, if I recall? I’ll just have a quick look at the flux capacitor and check that the plutonium is in ready supply for our trip back. Okay, all good. Here we go. Don’t worry about us being seen, a certain wizard named Harry has lent us this roomy cloak, which let’s us turn invisible … so no need to worry, our old selves won’t see us, so no need to rip apart the fabric of time.♥
Ah there we are. Safe landing. Come a little closer, let’s get under this cloak. Oh bless, there I am. Gosh, that’s a little cubicle I’m in. Hardly any room at all. How’s that hair? Do I even own a brush? Sigh. That was a thin year… I remember those trousers. They don’t go past my knees now. What’s that that I’m working on? Oh it’s a blog … oh I remember that. Never took off, as a phone call later on today changed my life forever, and I never went back to it. But we’ll get to that later. Funny, that old desk drawer is open. Let’s go a bit closer, shall we? It’s full to the brim of what looks like reams and reams of paper. Oh look, they’re manuscripts! Let’s take a closer look. We’ll be careful.
Let me just use this handy device, I got off an obliging troll, it drowns out all noise, while I open it further. Oh, how strange. There’s about six … no wait seven. Seven! Unfinished manuscripts here! Oh yes, this was when I was waiting for the Perfect Fairy to come … you know, the one who would magically turn my words into perfect prose.
Quick, I’m looking this way shut the drawer. Phew, she didn’t notice, we’re safe. I’m shutting down my computer. Now I’m leaving! Let’s follow after her, I mean me. I’m going home. Let’s drive along in the Delorean, we’ll get there before her.
Oh look, there’s the hubby. He seems a bit agitated. I’m coming through the door now. He’s telling the other me that my best friend has been tying to call. I’m checking the ringer. The phone must have been silent. Oh, now I’m worried. I remember that, I started panicking that something had happened. I’m putting down my bags, the phone is ringing, and it’s my best friend. I answer it and take a seat on the edge of the bed.
Let’s use these enhanced hearing devices I got from a pair of naughty twins. Go on, just put in your ear. There you go. Now we can hear. ‘Cath what’s wrong?’ … See that’s me asking her. Here comes her reply: ‘Nothing’s wrong! You have no idea … I ran into this woman at my mother’s work and she runs a cat shelter and she publishes books directly onto Amazon and oh my god, you have to do this. You don’t need a publisher; she makes a living doing what she loves. Like a really amazing living. She has forty cats. She works in her pajamas. You’ve got to go and look at this right now its called kindle something direct or publishing kindle or Amazon something. Just Google it. Google it. And finish one of those bloody books, pick one and do it. I’ll help edit it. But do it. Do it now, DO IT this year. Maybe that women’s fiction one you started, like eight years ago …’
Okay yes … that was the moment, I didn’t know it yet but everything from then on out was about to change. At first I was tempted to make a note to look into this Amazon Kindle something a bit later, but the more I thought about it, I knew that something momentous had just happened, and I’d better treat it as such. Come with me, let’s go back to the Delorean …
After I made sense of what my BFF had been telling me, breaking our qausi millennial code of only ever texting to actually phone me (which is why I knew it was truly momentous indeed) I sat down and Googled as she had advised.
Over the next year I discovered three secrets of going from not having a book finished to having one not only finished, but also eventually published. And here they are.
Secret No 1 +2 : Show your work to someone who loves what you write and write in the margins of your days.
By the end of the evening of The Phone Call, I’d picked one of the manuscripts that I thought might be worth self-publishing. Then I read it. Then laughed like an idiot. It was pretty awful. Then from around the next day I started to rewrite what would eventually, seven months later, become my first completed novel. I wrote in the margins of my days. Before work started. During lunch. I’d lie to my beloved colleagues and say I needed to finish up work instead of going out with them, so I could get down a chapter or a scene. I kept going even when I thought what I had was crappy. Even when I knew it was.
I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing. I read Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I discovered all about ‘Shitty First Drafts’ and why that matters so much. I discovered The Creative Penn podcast. I read more books on writing. Then I read some more. I found a whole world of indie writers. I read their books on writing.
Then I said, enough bloody reading about how other people have done it. I’m just going to do it. So I did. First, I changed the setting, the plot, even the characters. But I kept the original premise which was: what if someone ran away from their whole life? Why would they do it, what would really compel someone to do it?
The whole time I consulted with my best friend. Sending her completed chapters. Half finished scenes. Emails. Texts. Asking her things like. Crete – yes? How about a vineyard? Should the love interest resemble Tom Hiddleston? How about loosely, very loosely, basing it on the myth of Theseus? What if all the names had secret meanings? Like Ria’s surname which is Laburinthos, which means labyrinth? Should her story be a metaphorical labyrinth? Should it be a love story? What if it’s also a mystery? Like a ten-year cover-up? And she’d answer: yes, yes, and yes. Or no, there needs more sizzle. What about adding in fairy lights? That kiss … it needs some drama. Seriously, can’t they just have some sex? Then when I’d start doubting myself and overwriting bits, she’d send messages like: ‘Do not cut out the bits I love. I will cut you. Just stop it.’ And she’d pop back in the original, and tell me to get on with things and that I’d better tell her what happens before the end of the week as she doesn’t have anything good to read.
As I wrote, I’d be thinking. ‘Oh, she will love that.’ Or ‘Haha, I can just picture her face … she won’t expect that.’ Sometimes she’d text me after midnight and say. ‘No! No … how could you do that to her?’ And I’d laugh, a bit evilly. While the hubby grouched that he wanted to sleep.
I cannot tell you the immense value of having a friend like this. We met at varsity, and instantly became best friends. I think two words sealed our geeky friendship forever: Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett people, are often my people. We are both huge readers, and lend each other mountains of books. Then when I told her I was writing my own book, she asked to read it.
Now, in the past I had made the mistake of showing my work to people before. One friend, and he is a very dear friend, made me turn my back on a novel for six years because he decried it was too much in the style of Terry Pratchett. It took us years to realize that it might not have been a bad thing, and I should really have just carried on and perhaps I’d have found my own style soon. You can’t always know which type of friend or relative you’ll have until they read it, of course.
But you will know instantly when you’ve got that special friend. Cath read my first one. And my second, third, fourth, fifth etc.; … she would enquire after each half-finished manuscript as if they were my children. She still does. She’s the first person who reads my work and is usually the first editor. It helps that she has a masters in linguistics.
But my advice to anyone starting out would be: your friend, spouse/partner, relative who reads it must love it. Period. They don’t need to know the comma from the em dash, but they must love your writing. That sounds selfish, but it isn’t. Someone who doesn’t like what you write could do more damage than good, especially when you’re just finding your voice and your courage. You’ll know if they really do love it because they will bug you for more. Simple as that. If they don’t, move on. Don’t waste your time or theirs. Wait for great.
If you aren’t lucky enough to find that special friend, then you must love it first. Write to tell yourself a story. All it needs to do is make sense. Scenes should serve a purpose. If they don’t, make them. Shock yourself. Laugh at your own jokes. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Trust me on this, I let perfect get in the way for eight years. Perfect doesn’t exist. Its real name is fear. Fear in a fancy dress, but fear nonetheless.
Secret no 3: Make the deadline a finished book. Not a perfect one.
Why I can write this post is because in 2014, my best friend helped me change the goal post. I’d spent eight years trying to write perfect prose. Each time I’d get to a spot in a new book, generally around 20K in, and then get stuck because I was sure whatever came next would ruin the story. So I’d abandon it, and start a new one. This happened eight times. So by making the goal: a finished novel by end of the year. Things changed. I had no choice but to work out what happened next. To write imperfect words so that I could get to the other side. Sometimes I’d just write X, because I didn’t quite know how to get X to Y, but I knew Y, so I’d write that, then go back and fill in X later. When I did finally finish my first book in 2014, I thought that I had a big pile of rubbish, I really did. But after letting it rest for a month or so, I realized I had a first draft, one that eventually tuned into a completed manuscript not long after.
Then as I had finished my first novel, and now my brain knew it could finish things, I wrote another novel, and self-published that, and a month or two later, my first novel as well, which I called An Invincible Summer, after my favourite quote by Albert Camus. This was the novel that would eventually be republished as The Summer Escape, and lead to a three-book publishing deal with Bookouture, one year later.
Imagine, if after that phone call from my best friend, I’d ignored her advice. Perhaps I’d still be in the cubicle, ignoring all those manuscripts, and focusing on something else because I was too scared to go after what I really wanted. That’s really the secret after all – deciding to just go for it, and sometimes getting the push you need.
Lily Graham has been telling stories since she was a child, starting with her imaginary rabbit, Stephanus, and their adventures in the enchanted peach tree in her garden. She’s never really got out of the habit of making things up, and still thinks of Stephanus rather fondly. Her first two novels were Amazon bestsellers, and are being re-published by Bookouture, starting with The Summer Escape in May 2016.