Archives: How I Write

Happy Days

I’m sitting here listening to The Last Jedi soundtrack and bawling my eyes out. (It’s cool, I’m in an empty house.) I love that film more than any other. And I love Rey more than words can describe. 

Seriously though I’m gonna have to reapply my eyeliner before I go out again. 

the last jedi rey GIF by Star Wars

Anyway, back to business. I have had, somewhat miraculously, an awesome day. 

In fact, miracles had nothing to do with it…

It began when I pulled out a notebook of mine from 2013 (pre messed-up) and read through my old to-do lists (riveting morning, eh?). Anyway, these to-do lists proved to be very illuminating, because I saw that I made a list each day of the scenes I wanted to map/write/edit, the characters I had to think about, research I had to do, elements I had to weave through the book… Basically, there was no talk of page or word counts, or first draft this, second draft that. I mean, I knew my approach used to be far more organic, but I didn’t realise, until seeing it right before me, just how messy my natural process is. 

Well, after reading it, I felt connected to that old me, and I immediately made a to-do list for the day. 

And then I got to work. And the writing felt awesome. And I felt in control of the book, and daunted by the project, but in a really good way. I removed my word count from Scrivener and have had no urge to look. 

It sounds so simple and obvious, but having a to-do list that operates only in terms of story (no cold word counts here) makes such a difference to my attitude. It’s kinda hard to explain…but all I know is I’m not giving up my to-do list ever again. 

I’m hoping this puts an end to the last fortnight of funky mood. I’m ready to feel good again. 

Key Characters

I write this while eating porridge direct from the pot. (And it is, if I may say so myself, a perfect batch of porridge. As any bear will tell you, it’s a notoriously difficult meal to get right.)

Anyway, I’ve spent the last few days mulling my book. To begin, I came up with a big list of questions that needed answering. Then I scribbled in my notebook, half-answering, half-waffling. I wasn’t getting far, so I decided to take each major character and brainstorm them individually.

This worked a treat. By mapping out their lives, I answered all of my questions indirectly. I know who everyone is and what they want. Before, I had only a vague idea.

Now, I’d typically map out the plot after building the characters, but I’m skipping that step this time. I want to keep exploring during the second draft, so I’m not going to anchor down any plot points. I do know who everyone is, and I have a better understanding of the setting, but apart from that, I’m going in blind again. 

I see the initial 25,000 words of exploration as the first draft. Now it’s time to take another stab at it, armed with better knowledge. It’s like exploring, but with a slightly better map. 

I’ve cut characters and plot lines, and expanded others. Most of it will be rewritten completely, but a few of those initial scenes might stay. 

And of course, the second draft will be written by hand. 

This is all new and strange for me, very unlike my traditional process. But I’m putting my faith in my creative brain, and the power of the pen. 

*deep breath*

Here we go. Round Two. 

shaun the sheep olympics GIF by Aardman Animations

Stuck in the Middle

I’m at page 61 of my manuscript (around 25,000 words) and I’m finally running out of steam. I’m not stuck, but I realised what the book was about earlier this week, and since then, my brain has been closing up the story before it needed to be closed. So what happened was I hit the midpoint around page 50, then jumped straight to the end. 

This is one of the issues with discovery writing; once the discovery has been made, it becomes a lot harder! I stopped writing during my third page today because my gut was screaming at me: everything I was writing today just wasn’t going to work. Now was the time to step back, look at the story, and start fleshing out and tightening all the plot-lines. I don’t believe it was fear or doubt or the critical voice; I believe it was my creative voice, warning me that I’d gone off track. 

I guess I’ve written about half the book, and it really is a skeleton. I haven’t written the ending, but I know roughly where the book is going. I’m hoping that because I have so much written already, I won’t get bored. My job now is to take my characters and story, and ramp them up to the next level. I have to make sure there are no plot holes; I have to write new scenes and dive deeper into characters. This initial stage was me discovering the story I want to write, now the time has come to write it out properly. 

I’m not quite sure how to approach it because I’ve never written so much by hand before. I think my plan will be to make a rough map on paper, sketch out the different plot-lines, identify the holes, and then keep writing new material. I want to stick to paper for as long as possible before typing up. The more I write by hand, the more I realise how much I hate typing and screens and computers in general. They kill my creativity. 

So, this is the plan. I’m working hard to stay positive, and to not let this dip affect my momentum. Writing a novel is a messy business, and because I can’t edit as I go as I’m writing by hand, it makes sense that there’d come a point when I’d have to go back and start fixing stuff. 

This is new territory for me. I’ve never had to approach a book like this before. We’ll see how it pans out…

Writing by Hand

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MUSINGS: I’m writing longhand. Yeah. Three pages a day, usually in the morning. It’s just me, the pen, paper, and a cup of tea. It’s all very calming and peaceful. Yes, it’s slower than typing, but it’s far more enjoyable. Also, there’s something rewarding in finishing a page, ripping it off and adding it to a growing pile. It feels real, like, I’m actually writing a book and not just making random words appear. And while I hate word counts, I like measuring my progress in pages. Maybe it’s because a book is made of pages, therefore it feels less cold? Och, I dunno. All I know is I’m loving this new method, and all this week writing has been a breeze. I’ll report back if it goes belly up. 

New Beginnings

Today I started a new book. 

studying hand-made GIF by Philippa Rice

It’s a pretty grand statement, and already I’m thinking nah, you’ll never finish it, but I’m going to drown out those nasty critical voices and push on regardless. 

In the end, with no good ideas coming to mind, I decided to go with the flow and make it all up as I go along. I love planning, but I’ve found that if I plan in advance, I suck all the joy out of writing, get bored, and give up. So, I think the best way for me to work is to plan a TEENY bit in advance – like, the next scene and nothing more – and then do loads of planning/musing in the revision stages, after the first ropey draft is complete. 

The hardest thing (apart from actually writing the bugger) will be ignoring word counts. I can’t allow myself to get drawn back into the mental torture of fixating on word counts, so I’ll need to stay vigilant. I do want to check in every day though, so I never lose the thread of the narrative. It’s especially important when there’s no plan to fall back on…

I also need to sketch out a rough schedule, but I’m a little nervous to do so given my abusive history with deadlines.

Why is writing so bloomin’ hard?

Day 1: Decent bit (half a scene); 10 miles (I’m nearly at Rivendell in my Walk to Mordor!).

When Not Writing is Writing

My lack of blogging recently means all’s been good. I’ve been plugging away at a couple of different projects, sticking to my qualitative approach to recording my days, and generally being a happy writer bunny. 

There have been times, however, when dodgy thoughts have crept into my head. One such thought appeared last week, when I was redoing the outline for my main WIP. A voice in my head said, “This isn’t really work.” 

And at first I believed it. After all, I’d done the outline the previous week. So this meant I was messing about, procrastinating, not really putting in any effort. 

But then I thought, “Hey. That’s crap. I am thinking; I am focused. I’m not on the internet, or daydreaming about nothing. I’m working on this bloody book. So it counts, Other Voice, and nothing you can say will make me change my mind!”

(Cue me fist-pumping the air in a busy Starbucks.)

This wee exchange got me thinking about work and writing. I think it’s problematic that one part of the process is actually writing, yet we call all of it writing. It’s also problematic when huge pressure to produce twists writers into thinking they can’t redo anything. In other words, they can’t make mistakes. 

I’m recovering from these toxic thoughts (only typing counts as work/every task must be completed only once), so now’s a good time to present the alternative. My current working model is this: choose the aspect of writing you enjoy most, and do as much learning there as you can. 

So, there are three parts to writing a novel: planning, drafting and revising. My approach now is to spend as much time in my favourite bit (planning), in the hope it reduces my time in the other two. Now, focusing on one area does not mean I’ll not make mistakes in the others. Every single part of the process will incur wrong-turns, errors, and realisations that the current stuff isn’t good enough. But hopefully by putting a lot of leg-work into the planning phase, it should reduce – not eliminate – the time spent in drafting and revising. 

As a thought experiment I worked through what my process would look like if I favoured any of the three parts.

Planning: I spend a lot of time refining outlines, building the world, checking the underlying structure, and fixing the foundations as much as I can, until I reach the natural point where I should begin drafting. Whenever I hit a snag in the drafting or revision phase, I immediately stop and go back to planning, and then continue where I left off. In theory, I shouldn’t draft too many wasted words, and revision shouldn’t be too hefty – dealing more with words and sentences than the underlying story.

Drafting: I spend a minimal amount of prep (if any) before diving into my story. I draft far more words than I need for manuscript, and learn about the story by writing it out. I read back every day, checking where the story has gone stale or off-course, and needs to be rewritten. By the time I reach The End, I’ve got a decent draft, thanks to all my rewriting along the way. Revision will be focused on little details. 

Revising: The typical Nano method. I spend a short amount of time on a plan, enough to get a general feel for the book, and then I vomit out a draft, not reading back, not correcting, but simply getting to The End no matter how hard it is. I turn off my inner editor and fly on momentum. Then, the hard work begins. I spend a large amount of time pulling the book apart and fixing it through revision. New scenes will need to be written, but drafting will be kept to a minimum. My job here is to fix what I have already. 

I favour planning, so my method looks more like the top description. I wish I favoured drafting, because I think that’s the best way to learn about your story. However, it doesn’t fit with my process. I certainly tried for a lot of the last couple of years to be the writer who explores everything through drafting, but I get stressed when I know I’m writing a mess, and then I get so deep into the book I can’t see where it’s gone wrong. I need to see the structure of a book from up high, usually in the form of many (many) spreadsheets. 

The point of all this is to demonstrate that every stage counts, and even if you’re not a lover of drafting, there are ways to get around it. Doesn’t make you any less of a storyteller.