Saturday, 5 October 2013

Reaching The Summit

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had an idea for a novel. The galaxy in question was The Eirene Centre, Clopton, a tiny hamlet in rural Northamptonshire where we lived a very different sort of life; and it was so  long ago, only our oldest child was at school. This week I made what I believe is the last edit to that novel (at least without professional help) finally reaching the summit of writing mountain that has taken me the best part of a decade to reach.

At the time I had the initial thought for "Echo Hall" I had just taken a career break. After five years of juggling childcare with increasingly demanding jobs, I'd had enough.  So when Chris was appointed Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a job with a live-in flat, it was a no-brainer. The flat was tiny, it was in the middle of nowhere, looking after three children of five and under was both wonderful and gruelling, but for the first time in years I had time to think. And think I did.

I had always wanted to write a novel. In my twenties I had written 2/3 of one and had ideas for several more. But for years I had found excuses not to do it: I was doing a Masters, had a busy job, was falling in love, getting married, having children. There was just NO time. In 2004, conscious I was about to turn 40, that my sisters and friends were all doing writing courses and embarking on ambitious projects,  it suddenly occurred to me that if I didn't start now, I never would.  And sometime in that Spring, the first inkling of "Echo Hall" came to me. I had no idea  then, that it was going a) take over my life and b) take me the best part of a decade to write. I just had this compelling vision of a woman in a strange country house overhearing ghostly voices. It didn't take long to work out who those voices belonged to, what they were talking about, and the critical incident at the heart of the novel. Nor did it take long for me to work out the story was intergenerational, and something to do with family conflict. And I realised I also wanted to talk about international conflict. The 2003/4 Iraq war was still at its height, and felt too close to write about.  But thinking back to 1990, I remembered how the Gulf War was promoted as World War 2 all over again, with the Western allies, repeating their heroic role against Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler. So I set the beginning of the story there and the previous generation in World War 2. My parents lived through that war, and I have grown up listening to their experiences. Whilst the men (my father included) obviously had to directly deal with the horrors of war,  it was the women's stories that always affected me. My paternal grandmother had 3 sons in the forces; my maternal grandmother had a sick husband and a family of 6 to raise through the terror of the air raids; my aunt and godmother had three small children to care for whilst her husband was away in the RAF; another aunt married her husband one weekend and didn't see him for two and a half years. All of which was rich source material for a novel focussing on war seen from a distance, experienced by the people left behind.

At this point, I had to write something down, and came up with a prologue detailing my two protagonists, Ruth (in 1989) and Elsie (in 1939) arrival at their new home. The working title was "The Inheritance", and the house didn't even have a name. I think from memory Ruth's arrival ended with the ghostly voices, but I somehow lost the pages, and never got back to my computer. But, over the next three years, the story began to pursue me. I scribbled ideas down in notebooks, planned out the structure, drew lots of time lines and googled historical facts.

Gradually, I realised that I needed to go back a generation to World War 1, as the story of Leah and Jacob needed to be told. By the time we had moved to Oxford, and I was back at work, I had plotted out the novel entirely, working out a complex structure, which I haven't deviated from since. By 2007,  I had a little more time, and I began to tentatively write the opening chapters. Receiving a copy of Robert Fisk's Great War of Civilisation, gave me both my opening epigraph, and a new title for my novel: "The Echo Chamber", which soon changed to "Echo Hall" after I finally named the the Flint family's house.

It was then that I started a writing course. It seemed like a good idea at the time: an opportunity to hone my skills and carry on with the novel, and it was local. But it  didn't turn really turn out that way. My limited writing time was taken up with the demands of weekly homework and tough assignments every half term. The teaching was patchy, and I found an academic environment was the worst place for me to be developing my writing. Furthermore, I was itching to get on with my book, but there was never any time, which I began to resent. In the end, I resolved that dilemma by submitting sections  for assignments. This proved at times to be challenging, the critique I received of my first year portfolio left me despairing of ever being a writer. But it did get me going on all three stories. And in the second year, sharing chapters with my friend and fellow student Rachel Crowther, took me a lot further. I also spent a lot of time during this period researching the period parts of my novel. (I recognise 1989-1991 is also history, but since I lived it, it doesn't feel like that to me! Though I have found myself misremembering things, so I've had plenty of research to do there too). So when I finished the course in 2009, I had various bits of writing to show for it:

And then I really got going. My lovely tutor Dennis Hamley said I should show my opening chapters to an agent. Although, I was only really on the foothills of my book, I thought I might as well. I found the first person who seemed to fit in The Writer's Yearbook, sent the chapters off and thought no more of it.  And, I realised, that the course had left me an important legacy. In two years, I had become used to writing most days, cramming it in evenings, bus rides, cafes, and waiting for children to finish their activities.  It was natural and easy to keep that up with the novel. That autumn, I began to break the back of the first part, helped by a fantastic Faber Academy course at Shakespeare and Company which was both inspiring and practical. After that I had high hopes it would take me about a year to finish the first draft, but I didn't consider the impact of major projects at work crowding my brain so much there was nothing left for the novel, or how the death of my friend Pip, 2010 would bring me to a stuttering halt, unable to write a word. But despite these setbacks I managed to keep going. Joining  the Friday Flash writing community, kept me writing when I was stuck; a lovely retreat here, helped in the summer of 2010;and I was greatly encouraged when the agent liked my opening chapters. She gave me great feedback on the first section and kindly said she'd be happy to read more. And at last in August 2011, I finally finished my first draft. As I said at the time, it was a little thin, only about 5,000 words were any good and it was full of gaps (particularly the middle section) but I finally had something to show for 7 and a half years work:


I found that having text to work from, rewrite, edit and add to, was a much easier process than the difficult first draft. I took each separate story and edited them together, parts 1& 5 telling Ruth's story, 2 &4 telling Elsie's and 3 telling Rachel's. This helped me strengthen the individual narratives and spot where I could make links between them. Useful feedback from a Friday Flash buddy, Marc Nash kept me at it, and a lovely four day writing retreat here really helped me progress. Away from home I rose at 7 and wrote till 11 every night  able to focus entirely on the novel - a marvellous experience! Even so it still took just over a year to redraft into something a lot more substantial. And to help with the next set of re-writes I devised a colour code to assist with  edits pink indicated a major plot re-write, orange/yellow being terrible language:

Now it was time for the third edit. Fortunately my twin sister Julia Williams and my friend Anne Booth  were both working on novels, so we swapped (Julia's Midsummer Magic, was out in the summer, Anne's The Girl with the White Dog is out in March 2014!). I enjoyed their books enormously and their feedback on mine was immensely encouraging. This edit required some bold decisions:changing Elsie and Daniel's story into the present tense; restructuring the first part; reframing Rachel's middle story and adding chapters to it. I was so committed now, I was up at 6, putting in an hour before breakfast and resenting being dragged away to the days work, back at my laptop for the evening shift. In February, I had another wonderful writing retreat at the fabulous Gladstone's Library (which still deserves a blogpost all of it's own). Yet again, I worked from 7 till 11, an immensely productive time. And thanks to a writing challenge from Imran Siddiq on twitter, I kept totally focussed. It was an exhausting few months, but the end result was something that was beginning to resemble a book:

It still needed a lot of work, but I sent it off to the agent anyway, and set about on my fourth edit. This time I edited backwards, as I  had found that I ran out of steam as I came to an end of a revision, and was being less careful as a result. I also started paying attention to the balance of the parts, 1&2 were much heavier on words than 4 and 5, so I tried to bolster up bits that were light and shave off in other places where there were too many words. Just as I was coming to an end, the lovely agent sent me some extraordinarily good feedback, which gave me much food to thought. I finished the edit, and decided it was time to share a bit more widely:

Chris, who had read some of the earlier drafts was the first to complete it. Thank goodness, he enjoyed it, and gave me some great pointers for improvement.  My wonderful book club, The Cowley Consonants, not only took the time to read it, but insisted we had it as our September book, which was a great privilege. They too were both supportive and encouraging. I put all the feedback together and got to work on my fifth edit. I've just spent the last month using every spare minute to cut words, rewrite, add words in, shaping and rebalancing. Yet again, I edited each individual story first. As this late stage, I also decided to rewrite the central section as letters. Although it's one of the oldest parts of the novel, it's been one of the weakest. It was immensely hard work but it has paid off as I know this story is now much stronger. I did one last read through and spell check, and on Wednesday morning, I was done. I had finally made it to the top.

Of course, I now have another challenge ahead of me: I have to hook an agent (if not the lovely one I have been speaking to, someone else), then hopefully, a publisher. I am realistic to know that both these things might not happen, and even if they do, it could all go pear-shaped.  But after all this time, and with all the encouragement I have received, I believe in my novel. And I believe it's something that people will want to read. So it's time to come down from the mountain, to go out and spread the word so there's a chance of making it happen.


Anne Booth said...

Virginia - you so deserve success with this. It's a great story, you are a talented writer, and you have hard work and perseverance in your bones! I hope some discerning agent and or publisher picks this up as ap

Adrian Cotter said...

Way to go, coz. Look forward to reading it someday soon!

Anonymous said...

I've really enjoyed reading this post and marvelling at how much hard work you've put in what with the research and getting the first draft together and the courage you've had in revising and revising and taking on board all the feedback. And of course as a mother knowing how hard it was to juggle everything. You've done everything you can and I hope now you get the lucky break that will get you published as it sounds like a wonderful book.

Virginia Moffatt said...

Ah thanks's probably still not perfect but, here's hoping!