August Newsletter: There’s still time to get unstuck

 In All About Writing, How to write a book, Newsletters

Is it only me? Like Douglas Adams’ deadlines, this year seems to have left no impression but a faint whooshing sound as it flew by over my head.  

Some of our community, though, have finished drafts, or begun working on second or even third drafts. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that huge achievement … Take a bow, guys … before they plunge into … (Be afraid, be very afraid) The Rewrite. 

Only kidding. This stage can be immensely rewarding and creative. In a minute, I’ll be chatting about how to approach it and what it involves.  

Before I do that, though, let me offer a lifeline to those, like me, who feel the end of year looming without having achieved half of what they hoped to. 

If you’re stuck – if your story, fiction or non-fiction, has run aground – our Hero’s Journey Course can give you the direction you need. 

Here’s what Tracy-Lynn said: “My memoir was stuck in the trenches until the Hero’s Journey provided the framing to understand I was starting with Act III instead of Act I. Now I’m flying. 

“The Hero’s Journey is a ‘must-do’ if you’re looking for signposts to guide you through the wilds and wonders of your writing adventure. It’s the writing macro-structure course in the suite of All About Writing offerings.” 

So, there you are. There is help available, and it does make a difference. Commit to getting unstuck today …

Sadly, we can’t make a gift of time … Ah, but hang on a sec, we can. And we will, if you’ll let us. Our Venice retreat provides a magical time out of time. We’ll spirit you from the mundane concerns of your life and give you the space to breathe, to think, to dream and to write. 

Join us for one week or two, from 11 to 18 October and/or 19 to 26 October. But do speak up soon – we have only a couple of places left in both weeks.  

Here’s what some of our former Venice travellers had to say: “The retreat was totally fabulous and it exceeded all my expectations,” said one. Another praised the “excellent creative sessions, feedback, encouragement, insight, caring…” Yet another called it “the experience of a lifetime.” More information here…

The Rewrite 

First of all, don’t panic if your manuscript has run far too long. And don’t beat yourself up about it. That’s what first drafts are for. 

One of our participants ran long because she tried to cover too much time, and because she recounted every moment of her protagonist’s life. Much of that was not important, or necessarily interesting, and could be cut away.  

Not only did she lose nothing by it, the novel because sharper, more dramatic. In the first draft, though, it helped her develop her voice. 

She could also afford to lose a subsidiary character – a friend – who, we decided, was an oxygen thief. She neither illuminated our main character nor moved the story along. 

Another of our participants ran long because his story began as one thing and gradually evolved into another. As a result, much of his early writing can be dispensed with. It was necessary – he was feeling his way, finding his story. (Nothing is ever wasted.) But now is the time to get ruthless. 

A second draft is never simply the moment to correct your apostrophes and search for synonyms. That comes much further down the line. I learnt recently that JM Coetzee writes at least twelve drafts before he’s satisfied. Another highly regarded writer told me that’s where his real writing begins – in the second draft. 

It’s what the best writers do. They rewrite, and rewrite and rewrite again. So, how should you approach this stage? First of all, change your head (your hat’s not quite enough). Take off your loving, nurturing head and replace it with the head of a kind stranger, one who will look at your manuscript with kindly dispassion.  

Print it out and read it in one go. Scribble notes in the margin, but don’t stop to fiddle with the small things. Consider the flow. Does the story only get going halfway through? Does it flounder in the middle? Are all your characters necessary? Does it build and grow in tension? 

Then, take a set of index cards (physically or electronically). Using a card for every chapter, note in one or two sentences what happens in every scene. Firstly, if you struggle to summarise the action of a scene, it may well have a problem. Secondly, you will end up with a long synopsis, which enables you to judge your story in its entirety. 

Don’t be scared to start again, to write a whole new beginning, or restart later in the book. You’re not really starting from scratch. Particularly if you’re a bit of a “pantser”, rather than a plotter, your first draft helped you find your way. Now it’ll provide the road map for the real work. 

It’s almost always hard and it takes time. But it can be the most rewarding and exciting part of the writing process, as you watch it taking the shape you hoped it would. 

Webinar: the whole writing process, through all its ups and drafts 

And don’t forget our free webinar on Wednesday 24 August at 5pm SA time (4pm UK time). Listen to one of our community who has done it: Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon wrote, rewrote and rewrote again. And it’s paid off, in the form of The Blinded City: Ten years in inner-city Johannesburg.  

Both he and his publisher, Andrea Nattrass of Pan Macmillan, will talk about the writing, editing and publishing process. Register here …

And here are the results of our June-July flash fiction challenge

For our June/July Flash Fiction Challenge you were asked to write a scene in which a young child plays alone with a favourite toy. We received a bucketful of entries which we have carefully sifted through to bring the best of the best to the surface. There were two tricky elements to the challenge. Firstly, if you chose to write it from the perspective of the child, you have to get the child’s voice right. Not easy. And secondly, of course, you had to avoid exposition like the plague, and allow the details of the child’s life to emerge naturally through his activity. 

Winner without a doubt was Dorothy Foster’s intriguing and mysterious portrait of a little girl who senses betrayal, but is too young to put a name to it.  Instead she colours the sun in her drawing… black. She captures the child’s perfectly. For you, our regular award: a literary assessment of 5000 words worth R2750/£150 or a voucher to the same value to use on one of our courses or programmes. Well done, Dorothy!

Clive Goodchild-Brown’s chilling depiction of a demonic child ritualistically preparing the annihilation of poor Uncle Max wins her a place on the podium. He chose to tell his story from the perspective of an adult, which I think was a wise decision. Read it, and you’ll see why.   

Other runners up include Jennifer Withers, for her moving and whimsical little scene (just 150 words long) of a boy racing his hobby-horse. She’s got the voice perfectly 

We loved Sarah Babb’s intriguing story of the little girl and her BaaBaa – even though we weren’t sure what was going on! But the close attachment to her protagonist, and the mysterious references to various members of the family, raised a dozen questions which we’d love answered.  

Linda Ravenhill’s depiction of a deeply disturbed child playing in a sandpit – told from an unashamedly authorial perspective – is also a worthy runner-up. Quite as chilling as Clive’s child. 

And finally, Mitzi Bunce-van Rooyen’s scene, also told from an adult perspective, captures the contradictory impulses generated by abuse very skilfully indeed. 

 Read the winning entries here…

Well done to all of you – and thanks to the many more who submitted entries. It’s always worthwhile taking on these challenges. So have a look at the next one detailed on our website. 

Happy writing, 


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Winners of the June/July Flash Fiction Challenge