Part 2 – Brewing a Novel (and Draining the Dregs)

In the months leading up to embarking on my creative writing MA, I began writing something I would later name my ‘practice novel.’

Although I cringe when I read it back now, writing that novel alongside my studies was absolutely crucial to the creation of the novel I later sent out to my agent.

I made many mistakes in my first book – I had very little in the way of a solid plan and no real consideration for structure, narrative or character arcs.

I did love my (very rough) plot idea and I enjoyed going on a journey into the unknown with my characters. Reaching the end and knowing I could achieve the word count of a full novel was also really encouraging. I tried to polish and pretty-it up, and was really excited about the idea of ‘getting it out there,’ despite knowing deep down that I was not quite ready – that this was not the ‘right’ novel for me to make my debut with.

I spoke to a trusted mentor and tutor on my MA who gently imparted some wise words into my over-excited and impatient mind. She advised me not to sell myself short by sending work out into the world that wasn’t ready, just because I wanted it ‘now.’ She encouraged me to believe in myself, and in the bigger picture of a long-term writing career.

I’m so glad I took her advice. I went home a little deflated and overwhelmed by the work my book still needed. I knew in reality that it would require a complete rewrite.

Perhaps one day, I will tackle that rewrite (when it’s had plenty of space to breathe,) but the kernels of another story began to take root – a story that felt just right for the ‘now.’ It was a story I knew would enable me to say what I wanted to; one that was from a world in which I’d had some true experience.

This time the words flowed with greater ease (most days!) The characters felt like real people to me and I could visualise what was going on around them with more clarity than before.

The first draft was written in six months. Then almost as soon as I’d written the last paragraph, I attended a residential weekend on my course that revolutionised the way I saw storytelling. By then, I had already looked briefly at structure, narrative arcs and character development. But learning the art and science behind the reader’s experience of story and realising the importance of hitting the right notes at the right times in order to keep the tension sustained, helped me to see that yet again, my work would need a restructure. This time, I knew my story was worth it and set to work.

I allowed myself to experiment and go ‘outside the box’ in terms of how I would normally write. I included elements I wouldn’t usually use (such as angels and demons in the background of the story!) Many of those aspects were later edited out, but introducing them in the first place gave the novel (and my approach to writing) a freshness that helped me to keep going.

Top tip: if you feel stuck with your work in progress – try throwing something in that is completely unexpected. It may work brilliantly, leading you to keep it -or it may not – but it could get you out of a ‘slump’ and stop you from feeling stuck.

Excellent examples of suprising elements that alter the tone of otherwise ‘this-worldly’ stories can be found in novels such as ‘Himself, ‘The Hoarder’ and ‘Things in Jars’ by Jess Kidd.

After having my new book-baby beta read by a few trusted friends and family members, I made some suggested adjustments and edited and edited and edited again. I then began the exhilarating yet terrifying process of submitting to literary agents. If you’d like to know more about that part of the journey and how I found the process, please look out for my next post: ‘Submitting to Agents (& Getting THAT Call.’)

Published by Jessica Ryn

Jessica Ryn is the author of 'The Extraordinary Hope of Dawn Brightside,' published May 2020 with HarperCollins imprint: HQ Stories. Her writing is represented by literary agent: Sarah Hornsley from The Bent Agency. Jessica is a creative writing MA student at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is a former midwife and resettlement worker for homeless adults. Jessica lives in Dover with her husband, two children and high-spirited springer spaniel.

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