Working on the bus: the things we do to write

As I write this, I’m on the bus. It’s a one-hour bus ride to the place I’m working. Cutting two hours off my daily allotment of free time removes a lot of options from my life and it puts stress on the weekend, turning it into my main writing time. The thing is, there are other things to do on the weekend, like sleep, spend time with my partner, run errands.

I’m not a morning person so getting up early to write isn’t an option. Staying up late is, but then I’d probably oversleep and miss the bus. There is only one bus. (Luckily, not a metaphor.)

I’ve been trying to use the time. First, to edit. It’s not the easiest thing in the world (the drivers are out to kill us, the tablet keyboard is tiny and I press mostly the wrong keys) but with practice I think it will become easier. Saying that, it took me six journeys to do what I thought would be a two-hour edit.

Next, I tried writing. First version writing: chuck it all in and see what comes out. At the moment, putting words in seems easier than refining them. That worked quite well and I now have a small handful of short stories to edit.

Next week, I’m editing again. This time, I’m not editing directly. Instead, I’ll read one or two chapters a day, mark them up and make the changes when I get home (or at the weekend if they are too extensive). I’m hoping to get through the first edit of one of my resting projects this way. It’s been waiting for my attention for a few months and with Anna I in fresh memory, now I a good time to work on it again.

If this approach works, I’ll have a proper first draft of Anna II in six weeks. If it doesn’t, it’ll take a lot longer. I’m curious to find out which it will be.


Finish one, start another

So I finished a novel: it took ages. Mountains rose and were worn down to pebbles.

Before I had finished project 1 properly, I started project 2, the sequel to project 1. That one I planned – unlike the first – so when I came back to it after a hiatus of 12+ months, having diverted myself with the completely unrelated joys of project 3, I had chapter notes and plot progressions that told me where I was going. That’s what we call a good thing: I don’t remember details like plot, characters and the point of it all between novel-writing sessions.

Over the last couple of months, ever since completing project 1, I’ve been working hard on the sequel. Three days ago, I reached a crucial milestone: I completed the toilet-paper draft. In my process, that’s the draft before the first draft: something that shows the bones of the story, and has a whole bunch of colour and cheerful exchanges but usually in the wrong places. The toilet-paper draft is plump with enthusiasm but thin on anything else, including grammar. It’s too rough to share.

Now, it needs to rest.

The keyboard and the pen – writing by hand

A while back, I wrote about why I write using a keyboard instead of a pen. Since I wrote that, things have changed. I still write a lot fingertip to keyboard – this blog post, for example – but I’ve started writing fiction by hand.

Why? I think it was because I needed to do something to change my habits of non-writing to try to get back to writing. Last year wasn’t very productive and I had a novel (Just the one? Why, now that you ask, no.) that I wanted to finish. To finish a novel one has to write it. It’s an absolute causal relationship.

Writing by hand is supposed to give you a better first draft. It’s something about the direct connection between brain and hand. Disclaimer: I’m not sure I believe in that without research to support it and I’m not going looking for the research. I am still hoping to get a slightly better draft by writing by hand for several reasons.

Cafés are convenient spaces when there are no libraries nearby.
Cafés are convenient spaces when there are no libraries nearby.

Firstly, I write slower by hand which means that I have more time to think. My hope is that slowing down allows me to construct better sentences and to figure out what comes next so that I can write for longer without having to stop. I can type fairly quickly and if I charge ahead on the keyboard, I sometimes type myself into a wall because I write down what’s in my head and don’t have time to think about the plot.

The second important reason I write by hand is that it stops me from eternal editing. There’s only so many changes you can do on a page of paper before the text becomes completely illegible. Which is why I write in ink*, not pencil.

The third reason for hand writing is that the transcription process allows me a first edit. It doesn’t count as a draft at all until al the text is on file, you see. Transcription is, basically, a soft re-write.

There’s a fourth reason for writing by hand that I’ve found after starting this process. Pen and paper is easier to carry around than a laptop. It’s faster to boot up. When I was working in an office, I went to a local café at lunchtime to write for half an hour. I might not have written much, but I wrote a little every day and something’s much better than nothing. The barrier to writing is lower when all you need is pen and paper.

Transcription. Now that’s dull.

When I’ve finished the first draft, I will let it rest for a month or so before doing a first read-through. That’s when I’ll find out whether writing slowly has made my first draft better than I believe it would have been otherwise.

Science doesn’t have a look-in. The important thing here is to continue writing. Anything that keeps me doing that is OK with me**.


* Recently, I’ve been writing with glitter gel pens. The first one was just a test, but I was charmed by the ridiculous sparkles, the cheerful colours and the smooth ink flow. Especially the smooth ink flow.

** Glitter gel pens.

What do you mean you didn’t plan your first novel? You did, I know you did.

Last year, I posted a picture of the plan for novel the first (NTF). I use the word plan in vain: what I had was a loose timeline with a few important events marked in and something a little bit like a mind-map that explained something about some of the characters.

At the time, that felt like a plan, even a pretty detailed one. But it wasn’t. I found this out when I got stuck for the first time and looked back at the multi-coloured lines to see if there was a solution there. There wasn’t. Of course not: one of the colourful blobs that had filled me with such satisfaction when I first drew the plan said ‘other big event’. That’s a problem, not a solution. Identifying problems upfront when you start a project is useful but it is not the same as solving them. This happens when I plan: I get so far, then I realise that something else is needed but I’m not sure what that something is. (I once submitted a partial story to my writer’s group with the word ‘epiphany’ where said event needed to go. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I knew I needed one.) Then, being an eager kind of person, I get writing, powering through the parts that I know something about and writing myself into a corner.

At one point, I tried to make a better plan and wrote a chapter breakdown. I got a detailed breakdown of the first half. That was the half I’d already written. So, not really a plan.

I learned a lot writing NTF, but I need to learn more before I get something I can send out. That’s why I’m moving on to novel the second. This time I’m planning it properly. Yes, the first draft of my plot spreadsheet looked something like the colourful drawing I made last time, but as I’ve revised it, questions have popped up (and a few answers – so far mostly to events in NTF, so yay!, there’s hope for it still.) and I’m forcing myself to deal with them. This time, I’m thinking about pacing and emotions before I start writing. I hope this will give me a better book. Practice isn’t just doing the same thing again and again but changing your technique to improve it. Hence my tweaking from a more planned approach – pantsing it, to miss-quote Chris Hill, didn’t work for me, so I need to change something. I also think I need to be more focussed, to think about it more, and work faster, so I’m allowing this story to take over most of my spare brainpower.

Obsession, planning and focus. It’s the way forward.

New year, new goals – new project

I’ve thrown out last year’s plans and started over. Plans are good, but I’m not sure that I’m in a position to make realistic ones.

Last year, my plans were numeric: this many short stories, this much income from writing, this number of performances. Not so this year. I want to write a few more short stories – it’s more fun to send out new stories than ones that have been knocking around for a while. But more importantly, I want to draft the sequel to my first novel. And I want to do it quickly. To this end, I’m changing my approach. A natural gardener, or seat-of-pants, writer, I’m going to try to develop a plan, a plot, an outline.

Novel the first, still not quite there, was only half plotted. A lot changed as I wrote – the killer, for example, and the structure. Novel the second will be fully plotted. I’m spending January outlining it and doing proper background work on my characters so that I can then spend the next four months writing. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m still interested in writing the story once I’ve worked out what’s happening when and how. Most of what I’ve written to date has been grown instead of being built and there are stories in my drawer without endings. Hopefully, this year will give me time to decide what to do with some of these, which to complete and which to retire.

One of the problems with novel the first is that I’ve forgotten what its all about. Because I’ve had long breaks in the writing, and because there’s no firm outline, I’ve forgotten about my characters’ motivations and I’ve forgotten things I meant to put in. What does that tell me? I need to work things out more fully before I start, and I need to keep better notes. To return to the architect and gardener metaphor, I’m going to try architecture for a while since gardening has proved too thorny.

Novel the first began as a job of joy and folly but ended up a mess. I’m hoping that a more structured approach will take the second one further. The process might also help me sort out some of the problems of the first one. It’s resting for now, but it will come out of the drawer at some point.

In the meanwhile, I will learn useful lessons about plotting a novel and have a lot of fun making life difficult for my favourite characters.

Getting on with it: a novel struggle

I wanted to have the first, rough-as-shark-hide draft of my novel done by the end of November. That didn’t happen. I didn’t allocate nearly enough time. No, time allocation wasn’t the issue: prioritization was. I allowed the novel to slip down the list until it sat below watching the Grimm box set. It’s difficult to rise back up from a position that low.