The writing life 1
Michelle Edwards joined The Writers’ Masterclass in 2017 and wrote the first draft of a work of fiction during that year. That draft became her debut novel Go Away Birds, which is to be published in March by Modjaji. She was back on the class last year to write her second novel, which is nearing completion. This is the first of a two-part interview. Here she talks about her writing process.
Publication is the dream of all writers, I assume this dream started many years ago for you?
Until I was sitting with the completed manuscript of Go Away Birds on my PC at the end of 2017, after having finished it during the Writers’ Masterclass, I hadn’t ever really considered getting published. Initially, when I started writing fiction, as a teenager, I was just writing to get the story in my head into some kind of visible form, even if only as letters on a screen. And when I started writing Go Away Birds in 2015, I didn’t think of it as an actual book – it was a story I was telling myself so that the characters (Skye and Rory, especially) could stop taking up all my mental space.
I’m not a massively ambitious person and not much of a dreamer, generally, but I’m deeply stubborn, so once I had completed the manuscript, I decided to try my best to get it taken by a publisher. If Modjaji hadn’t accepted it in 2019, I’d probably still be trying to flog it somewhere.
Do you have a drawer of failed manuscripts or is Go Away Birds the first novel you’ve ever written?
If you don’t count anything I wrote while I was in high school (one story about a girl called Amber who was struggling to cope with her new stepmother while watching her own mother fading away; another about a group of friends in boarding school who never did anything other than talk – like Dawson’s Creek in manuscript form, made up almost entirely of dialogue), then Go Away Birds is the first novel I’ve written.
Was there ever a time when you thought the process of finding a publisher for your manuscript was truly daunting?
Oh, yes. It became this huge influence on my self-esteem and confidence in my writing when I didn’t get a “yes” immediately. It was wild – in the space of a few months, I went from being someone who hadn’t really considered getting published to someone who was obsessed with the idea of getting a “yes” from a publisher.
I wouldn’t wish that kind of uncertainty on anyone, especially not with something that becomes as personal as a manuscript for a novel – something like “art”.
But it was a very good lesson in patience and not stressing about things outside of my own control. That’s the thing with pitching to publishers that I found so hard – my manuscript was fully in my control until I sent it out into the ether, and then suddenly it didn’t really belong to me anymore.
Had you started thinking about your second novel before Go Away Birds was accepted?
I started thinking about it almost immediately after I got the “yes” from Modjaji. I hadn’t signed yet, but the manuscript had been accepted, so I felt like I could mentally move on (at least for a few months) from Go Away Birds.
It was the best thing I could have done – working on something else while waiting for the contract to come through. It meant I stopped obsessing over Go Away Birds and could start something new and fresh and lovely.
The catalyst to start was a low-key traumatic even that took place in the bush in Zambia in August 2019, which is when the second novel kicks off, with an event that is very similar to what I went through.
Do you think you’re now into a way of life and you’re always going to have a writing project on the go?
I think so – at least to take my mind off the manuscript I’m trying to get published! I don’t get other stories or characters presenting themselves to me while I’m busy writing one story. Some writers, I think, are almost constantly bombarded by ideas, but my characters are polite enough to wait for me to finish one manuscript before making themselves known.
I must say, here, that I am aware of how privileged I am to have a writing project on the go at all, ever, as a full-time working mother. I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t have flexible work hours, the resources to allow me to spend time on writing fiction as a hobby as opposed to writing to pay the bills, and a very supportive childcare network. There are undoubtedly a whole host of women’s voices we’re not getting to hear because they don’t have these privileges and so are never afforded the time or space to write. When I’ve had to put in long hours on edits and on writing Go Away Birds, I’ve always tried to frame it as a luxury, having the time to work on something that I’m doing, essentially, as a hobby.
Let’s talk about the writing: when you’re writing a dramatic scene do you find that it takes a while to get it all down or can you write it quite quickly?
I write quickly but edit extremely slowly.
I know you don’t dash out the first draft as I’ve watched two of your novels develop, so I expect you are more tortoise than hare but how much can you get done in a day?
With my job and my kids, I can expect to get down about 1 000 words a day if I’m lucky. Like I said, I write fairly fast, perhaps because I have already “rehearsed” most of the story in my head (or at least, the characters have rehearsed most of the scenes), but I am a constant editor. I like to go over and over and over a scene once it’s written to make sure it’s as close to what I want as I can get it, and I find it difficult to move on until I’ve done that. This is why I try to get big chunks down in one shot, so that I have more to work with and so that I can at least move the plot forward a little before going back and editing for language.
And is there constant revision?
Absolutely. I know it’s not recommended, and that it’s better to just get the story down before becoming bogged down in detail, but I suppose it’s an occupational hazard and a hangover from my job as an editor.
You lived in Zambia while writing some of the second novel and you seemed to experience long periods of electricity outages fairly often, if not daily, does this mean you tend to write more in long hand or do the hours of electricity give you enough time at the laptop?
I left Zambia in June 2020, but while we were there, we were out of mains power for around 14 hours a day but thankfully had invertors that kept us going pretty much the whole time. I’ve never written long hand, no matter how many pretty notebooks I buy myself as incentives to jot ideas down on paper. I have a touch-typing speed of around 75 words a minute (my convent school’s typing classes have one-hundred-percent paid off), so I type much faster than I could ever hope to write, and this serves me well, especially when I’m short on time.
You did two years on the Masterclass so I guess you must have found it beneficial. What in particular brought you back for the second year?
I really needed direction when it came to plot. Because I feel my characters just sort-of get up to their own thing, I always need someone objective to tell me if what they’re doing is credible. My strength is in writing descriptions – plotting, not so much. I’ve never written a single note. I don’t plot or plan. I just go with it and write – which is dangerous and not at all advisable. So I really need someone to tell me at regular intervals, “nope, this would never happen”, so that I can go back and tweak as I go along and don’t end up with a manuscript that hinges on a ridiculous plot.
The encouragement and support help immensely, too. Everyone knows writing is lonely work, so being able to share a work in progress with other people, especially people who know what they’re talking about, is an incredible gift.
Part two next week.
Get more out of your writing.
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