Kirsten Krauth shares the secrets she learnt while creating just_a_girl, her debut novel released by UWA Publishing in June:
1. Delete the word ‘easy’ from the above title
Writers looking to publish a novel these days need the following skills and experience:
• research skills
• the ability to focus on one thing at a time
• an iron will to withstand the distractions of Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, chat messages, email, apps
• a partner who does all the cooking, cleaning, and looks after the kids during the day — if applicable
• the ability to prise secrets from people
• a heart of gold — because you will need to give all your time with little in return
• a thick skin — to withstand constant rejection
• a fertile imagination
• a love of isolation
• a big bottom with extra padding to withstand the pressure of sitting in a seat for hours on end
• creativity under pressure
• endurance to see it through to the end
2. Set aside time and keep it sacred
So you’re still reading? Well done. So many writers I have talked to over the years (including myself, there’s that little voice in my head again) say they just can’t find the time to write. The day job. Fun. Kids. Pets. Dentist appointments. They all eat into the schedule. But to write a novel you have to sit down. Set aside time each week. Put it in your diary. Even if it’s two hours a week. That time is yours. And don’t eat into your time by suddenly clicking onto Twitter and starting a conversation. And avoid taking on other writing work (if you are a paid writer) at this time, because you will always put that first. Believe me.
3. Learn how to switch off
For many writers (and scientists, so I’m told), the inspiration and solutions to problems come not when you’re at the writing desk but when you’re doing something else. Having a shower. Walking the dog. Just after meditating. I often wake up with things on the tip of my tongue. The missing pieces of the puzzle. The connections between characters. Don’t be afraid of letting it come to you.
4. Write as much as you can in the set time
Now some writers work slowly, agonising over each sentence, each word. I’m not one of them. I write like stream of consciousness. I churn out words. I purge. I set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day. I think this is do-able. Often I write a lot more. The more words you have, the more options you have, the more ideas to explore, the more stuff to delete. And the more you have to delete the better. When I’m starting out, I write paragraphs. Fragments. I keep going until a voice emerges that attaches itself to me. One I want to fall in love with.
5. Carry around that little notebook
Oh sure, it can look pretentious pulling out your Moleskin on the train. But ideas beget ideas. If you start recording them all, it’s amazing how many more surface. Your mind and body become attune to taking notice, to picking up things that are relevant. If you can type fast, put it into your mobile. But I think the nature of a notebook is that you can look back over it and use ideas for various things. Some ideas will never go anywhere, some will be relevant right now for your work, and some will fuel future writings. I have different coloured highlighters: pink for ‘this project’, yellow for ‘future’. Sometimes I look back on notebooks ten years down the track for inspiration. It can get to the point where you are constantly writing things down, when you’re deep in the thick of the novel, and this is an exciting time, when you have the momentum to keep going until you finish. You’ll recognise it when it comes.
6. Use other people’s stories
I’m a bowerbird. I’m constantly listening to other people’s words, letting items on Facebook or in the newspaper grab my attention. I get a little curl in the pit of my stomach, a little charge of excitement, that says ‘remember that’. I want to go deeper then. I often write a story in my notebook and then note down who said it (if it’s a friend or family member). I believe in letting people know if you’re using them in fiction. Most are happy and many are thrilled. For just_a_girl, my best friend had a great story about a man who accosted her on the bus, who had such a foot fetish that he bent down and started stroking her feet. What a story! I had to use it.
7. Balance the research and writing
I’ve worked out a wonderful system where I write in the morning (churning out those 1,000 words) and then research in the afternoon. I’m a morning person. I’m brightest at about 8am when it comes to actually thinking. If I start early, I can get a fair bit of writing done by 12. After lunch, I do research for the next day (or beyond). I explore the internet, look up libraries, read books, talk to people. Then I leave it alone by dinner. During the night magic seems to happen. I come to the page the next morning (or beyond) and start working on my character, sometimes working the research in, if it’s ready. At the moment I can only devote a day a week to writing. But I still find this theory works. If you’re a night person, sorry, I can’t help you out. Perhaps the other way round?
8. No judgement or critical words for first draft
I’m an editor by trade and used to looking at words critically. I’m always ready to chop excess material and fuss over grammar. But I don’t do that in a first draft. For the first 70,000 words (actually, let’s double that) I write with no aim in mind. I let the characters emerge. I don’t structure. I don’t edit and I don’t critique. And I don’t fuss over which font I’m going to use (I like fussing over fonts). When I’ve nutted out as much as I can, when the characters have become quite familiar to me, I go back and put my editor’s hat on.
9. When you’ve finished the first draft, take a break for a month and don’t look at it
If you’ve got the luxury of time, take a complete break. Put the manuscript under your bed, or the file hidden somewhere, and don’t be tempted to peak or tweak. After a month, on re-reading, you’ll be surprised how clear the voices are (or aren’t). You’ll realise that some characters are inconsistent, that the pace is lagging in some spots, and some voices resonate more than others. You’ll also want to start slashing huge reams of material that you thought were clever the first time (or important research you just had to include for its own sake) — and the real core of the novel will start to reveal itself.
10. Do another five drafts (at least) before you send it to a publisher or agent
This sounds like a lot, I know. But I’d advise doing two more drafts focusing on characterisation, one focusing on structure and pacing, one checking spelling and grammar, and a final as a proofread. Don’t be tempted to send a first draft (or second) to a publisher or agent. Most readers can tell after the first couple of pages how much work has gone into a manuscript and whether they want to pursue it until the very end. I didn’t believe this until I started judging the SMH Young Australian Novelists award this year, which involved reading 22 novels in three months. When you read so many novels in a binge session, it’s extremely clear which writers have put the hard yards in. Think about how many manuscripts publishers and agents receive. And also how tough the market is. It’s hard enough to get your manuscript read in the first place. With book sales decreasing, and inhouse editors diminishing, there’s little time to redraft with writers. This is a shame, as many writers just need a little help with polishing, but it’s how things are. Many readers also remember the standard of the first manuscript you sent them. If it’s not up to scratch, they may not want to read other examples of your work.
Publishing just_a_girl took about 12 years from go to whoooaaaah. The writing itself only took two or three. But I worked around having two little kids, part time paid work, a masters degree, and moving to regional Victoria from Sydney. Most writers have these bits and pieces lives. It’s not easy to balance it all. And most writers don’t do fiction for the money. But if it’s the process you love — as I do — you’ll stick with it. And now I’m off to start the second ...
Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor who lives in Castlemaine. She edits the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite and blogs at Wild Colonial Girl
Her first book just_a_girl is available as a paperback or ebook from UWA Publishing, at your local bookstore or online. Here’s more info about the book:
Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home. Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.
just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.
Book Club Notes are available for this title.
Click here to read an extract from just_a_girl.