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ABNORMAL: a new approach to novel writing

ABNORMAL is a contemporary (and currently free) online novel that I’m penning from scratch in instalments. Edgy, pacey and daubed with humour, its unusual plot should nicely straddle current trends. The imagery-rich prose arises from my love of literary fiction. I’ve given the book a genre-free status, allowing me some general manoeuvrability.

This will be my sixth novel. I’ve been ‘properly’ writing since around 1994, garnering enough encouragement to keep my pen to paper. My second novel drew interest from Curtis Brown but was ultimately rejected after six months of nail-peeling deliberation via email; they killed me softly with their awesome feedback. A professional critique later confirmed that my writing was fine. The problem was finding the right story. And I’ve been chasing this elusive beast ever since…

That horrible rejection in 2006 was also a sign of changing times. Agents and publishers used to take on promising (though risky) new authors; nurturing and moulding them to perfection. Nowadays, they simply want ready-roasted bestsellers. End of story.

We therefore needed a digital revolution, a creaking-open door for writers; because trying to get published is hellish.

I’ve slumped with self-doubt and stopped writing for years; discarded half-written novels through that panicky sense of writing another wrong book. For some reason it took me forever to embrace our growing technological evolution.

Despite publications like Mslexia bleating on about blogging, urging me to forge an online presence, my original website (under a pseudonym) lay prettily untouched for years…

Ultimately suffocated, I think, by sustained isolation, this year I changed. A sparkling new plot had landed in my head, with the heady certainty that I should write the book online. Somehow the timing, the idea and the opportunities seemed ripe. I was more excited than daunted, despite knowing that this project would be hard and unfamiliar work. Successful online ventures are not just about the writing but about the promotion.

I dumped (yet) another (decent) novel midway through and starting learning about blogging. Being a techno-Neanderthal I knew nothing. I speedily taught myself how to set up the blog, to script, design and structure it; how to upload, create hyperlinks. Whilst discovering how to promote myself I rekindled countless lost friendships on facebook.

I wrote lengthy to do lists. I created a facebook page for ABNORMAL, reactivated my twitter account and starting networking. All of this whilst trying to actually write the new novel, live.

I write in instalments because the book simply isn’t written. My notebook bulges with developing plot, chapter and character outlines that I’ve sleeplessly compiled since May. I’ve now posted six instalments at roughly fortnightly intervals which, at the moment, I seem just about able to manage. Working part time for the NHS, in addition, means I’m continually tussling with time.

The endless publicising is tough but essential. I’m still working through that to do list now. (Register with search engines, find more platforms from which to spout, etc.) The seemingly trivial tweeting, blog-joining, commenting and socialising are extraordinarily time-consuming but I crowbar them in because making connections really does help.

So how is it all going? That’s hard to gauge, especially for a newbie like me. I’m creeping towards 2000 page-views, yet I still have minimal members (one being me.) People seem loath to publically commit to ventures till they’re tried and tested. But it’s precisely this visible commitment that I desperately need in order to elevate my status. It’s Catch 22.

I’m not short on comments though. My facebook page likes are slowly rising. It seems to me that the hardest thing is getting people to simply read the book – despite it being free, despite it being well-written.

But I realise I’m competing with busy schedules and a chasm of other online attractions. When ABNORMAL is read it’s well-received. All comments are positive. As my boyfriend reminds me: slowly but surely is best.

Interestingly, Abnormal has necessarily transformed my novel-writing technique. I would ordinarily rough draft 100,000 words before reading it through. Round two would see me tweaking the structure, swapping round chapters, deleting and embellishing and correcting plot issues. By round three I’d be polishing the prose and making headway. With this project, however, I have to do everything at once and hope for the best. This makes it scary, thrilling and dodgy. I’ve warned my readers that there may be changes ahead, but quite when I’ll get to them is anybody’s guess!

Ultimately, writing online is free and accessible and potentially so far-reaching in all kinds of ways. (Think fifty shades success.) It almost seems to be a question of: Can writers afford not to do it? Will we fall behind?

As my project, and I, now stand (so far unscathed), my advice would be: Just go for it, what have you got to lose?

Read Sara Sheikh’s “ABNORMAL” as it unfolds online here.

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