Doing it for real: writing a novel

OK. This is it. It is June and that was when I was going to start writing.

Plotting started in April and took a frantic turn in May. There’s still some research I need to do and a couple of character studies that need a bit more of a polish (What really drives Anna’s mum? I need to know!) but I’m in a position to start.

The starting line is an oddly scary place to be.

I’ve only just put fingertip to keyboard but I can already tell you something about the difference between NaNoWriMo and doing it for real. When you do it for real, the pressure is on. I can feel myself reining myself in even before I’ve started. The writing of this novel isn’t just about having fun but rather about creating something that I can share with the world. This is not high literature, that’s not where I’m going – not with this one – but at the end I want something that I’m not embarrassed to ask people to read. After all, the point is to share it, as widely as possible.

Here goes.

And so the plotting begins

To write a story, you need a plot. The longer the story, the more detail you need. This I have learned. I’m a somewhat seat-of-my-pants writer but am beginning to like to know where I’m going. And if I’m going a long distance – say, 100,000 words, for example – I want to have a good idea of the route. I’d get lost otherwise, I’d go nowhere, or in circles, boring my readers and myself. Since I’ve worked with this set of characters before, I know how I want them to change over the course of the book. So that’s great: character arcs are in place. The plot is another issue. I don’t have one. Or rather, I don’t have much of one. (This is what I’ve got: a chap dies and is found by our heroine. She’s put out.)

I’ve started working on the plot in a very similar way to the method I used for NaNoWriMo last year. This time I’m using a bigger piece of paper and many more coloured pens. It doesn’t look very structured and that’s OK. It isn’t. At the moment I’m at the brain-dump stage. I’ve put what little I know on a piece of paper, set out a time line and started putting in the few plot elements or scenes that I have. Hopefully, holes will become apparent and patterns will emerge. Then I can do research and generate ideas where the plot is weak. Finally, I’ll have a map. Then the writing starts.

Plotting begins in earnest. Timelines, interactions, mind-maps.
Plotting begins in earnest. Timelines, interactions, mind-maps. Sharpies!

Finishing: therein lies stories.

I read something the other day – a snippet of freely given internet advice – which said something like “don’t start anything until you’ve finished what you’re working on now”.

Good advice.

But a lot more difficult to follow than you might think.

The way I work, I have several projects on at the same time. Some are very short, some are longer and some are novel lenght. (I boast. This year is the first time I’ve got one of those on the go. I have yet to finish one outside of NaNoWriMo.) I have an idea, I take some notes, let it steep and ferment and then I write a draft. Then I leave it for a while – sometimes a very long while – before reading it and performing surgery. Once it’s in some kind of shape, it goes to my first reader for feedback. A brief hiatus follows.

After first reader, I make changes to the piece before sending it to a writers group or friendly editor (second review).  Then it sits. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for months. When I finally pick it up again, it is to do a final edit. The final edit isn’t as final as it sounds. It can take several rounds to get to the  final-final version. And even that isn’t really final.

I send the story out and depending on what comes back, I might make further changes before sending the story out a second time. And so it goes.

What was the advice again?

Don’t start anything before you’ve finished what you’re working on.

When you get going, coming up with ideas is a lot easier than finishing stories. Ideas take seconds; finishing a story takes hours, days and weeks.

For this year, I set myself the task of completing one story a month. I’m two months behind and I have eight stories on the go. One is on the concept stage, meaning, I’ve got notes and ideas but I haven’t written words yet. Three have some words, but not their full complement. One has been read by my first reader and the remaining three have been reviewed by my writers groups. If I sat down and finished editing those three I would catch up on my goal. Easy peasy. There are a host of reasons for why I don’t, not one of them particularly good.

It’s not always possible to work on only one thing at a time. Take my word for it: I freelance. External deadlines are useful to force you to finish things. Unfortunately, some of my works in progress don’t have markets, never mind deadlines. So I make excuses, allow myself to lose insterest and move off to other projects. To some extent, I think that’s OK. Not everything I write is worth finishing. Some of it wasn’t worth starting in the first place. That’s part of what this year is about: learning where to put my efforts. Still, the things that are sitting there, twice reviewed, I clearly like well enough to finish.

So I should finish them. Because drafts can’t be published.

There are plots that work…

…and presumably there are plots that don’t.

This is the story I told in my 2010 NaNoWriMo project:

A young private detective finds a body, and, investigating the death, makes new friends, including a murder suspect. The investigation touches her own family and she learns things about her mother’s past. She also learns that she can’t always trust old friends. With help from her new friends she solves the murder and realises that her mother is in mortal danger. Meanwhile, the police, who have been doing their own investigation, also solves it and saves the mother. The ex-suspect starts digitizing the family records and life continues much as it was, except that she now has a dad.

How does this plot differ from standard gum shoe stories?

  1. The main issue is that nothing much has changed at the end. The ‘grows up’ part of the plot needs to be bigger. I mean, if what she learns is so unimportant that I don’t even think it warrants a mention in a micro-summary it clearly lacks impact.
  2. The second problem is the parallel investigations. The main character normally works with the police, for example as a consultant. This way, they get access to information and suspects. On their own, they just don’t have all the information they need to solve the problem. Or they start looking into something that isn’t a murder, get embroiled and decide to solve it themselves. That’s more like my plot. Except, traditionally, the private detective confronts the murderer (catharsis). In my version, she figures out the problem, realises that someone is in danger and completely fails to get in contact with them (anti-climax).
  3. Family and friendship is central the story. These are important themes but they need to be more tightly integrated. The sudden appearance of the main character’s estranged dad is too important to be a throw-away at the end. It needs proper handling and introduction.

The novel I’m starting in June uses the same characters and many of the same settings as my NaNoWriMo projects. The plot will be very different. I’m spending the next couple of months working it out but I know that I need more plot than I’ve ever worked with before.

The imaginary strand of wool that is my main character’s journey from beginning to end needs twists, turns and maybe a knot or two. For colour and texture, my other characters needs their own strands. I look forward to messing all the strands up and then, carefully, untangling them again.

NaNoWriMo week four – we have an end

NaNoWriMo 2011 winner badgeI did it! In the end, I didn’t quite reach 65,000. I stopped at 61+.

What did I learn? In no particular order:

  • Plotting really helps and allows you to focus on telling the story instead of wondering what’s going to happen next.
  • Writing a couple of hours every day you can get a lot done.
  • Notes – on plot points, locations and characters – really help you keep track of where you are.
  • Microsoft Word is not the only writing tool.

My novel isn’t quite a fully formed object of beauty. There are a couple of threads that need to be tied up and a couple of leads that went nowhere. One or two of my characters are probably redundant and there’s an entire plot thread that I forgot to write. (Yes. Forgot.) That’s OK. The thing will sit in my Dropbox for the next couple of months before I look at it again and decide whether I want to edit it into shape. I might. Or I might not.

The purpose of this month was to write a lot on more or less the same topic. I did and what I produced is a lot more coherent than what I wrote last year, so it feels like positive progression. Now, I’ll glory in my achievement for a day or two and get back to editing the stories that I left on a shelf on Octber 31st.

NaNoWriMo week three – we have developments, of sorts

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badgeThis week I made a number of important changes. Not to the plot, as such, but to how I work.

First, I took a little time out every day to make sure I knew where I was going. A little bit of planning here and and there, a plot item or two. It gave me a list of scenes that needed to be written, making sure that I always knew had something that I could write. Waiting for ‘inspiration’ is a great way to get nothing written.

Half-way through the week I changed the tool I use to write with. I’m testing Scrivener because it now comes for Windows. (And it was recommended to me.) Previously, I’ve only ever used Microsoft Word to write and a combination of paper and Evernote to keep track of ideas and research. Even after years of working with Word I know it’s not the perfect tool for long documents. It’s not bad, it’s just not perfect. I’m hoping that Scrivener will make it a little easier to move sections around. That would save me lots of time.

I had a weekend away and learned that I still don’t have motion sickness but can write comfortably in the front seat of a car. I could only write two days out of three but managed to cover the word count for Saturday on Friday. So far, so good.

Last of all I changed the goalposts. It’s a good thing to do on a Monday morning. My target is now 65,000 words. As long as I write at least 2,100+ words a day for the next nine days, I will get there.

Tally at the end of week three: 43,751

NaNoWriMo week two – we have problems

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badgeI was doing well and the words were coming at a decent rate. Then the terror of weeks two. First I lost a day due to cold and then I fell out of love with one of my characters, two minutes into writing him. It’s happened before. The first time I tried writing a book-sized story I killed my main character after six pages because she irritated me. I then followed her white knight for another couple of pages before I got bored with him and gave up on writing a book. (I was 16. Cut me some slack.)

My experience this year was similar. I don’t remember having problems with my characters last year. Even (or should that be especially?) the outright silly ones wrote themselves. This guy and I have so little in common that I can’t be bothered with him. I have a number of scenes for him in my head that could be interesting to write, except that they don’t fit because I’m writing a first person narrative and he’s not the person whose eyes we look out of.

Luckily, there are solutions. Note the plural. I found ways to enjoy this character a little and to weave in a third person narrative into my straightforward first-person tale. Phew. I don’t want to have to re-think the entire structure or POV until I start editing, sometime next year.

Second week tally: 28,423

NaNoWriMo week one – we have words

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badge
Before starting NaNoWriMo this year I did a little planning. Well, a little plotting, at least. I also wrote a very rough synopsis of the action and my main character’s motivations. Some of my characters got fleshed further out in my notebook, caricatures and all but most didn’t. There’s still a lot of making it up as you go along with this short novel.

Week one has come to a close. How did it go? Over all, it went well.

Saying that it went well is not the same as saying that I’m on the way of  writing a really great novel. It means I’ve got the words in, and more, and that I’m not stuck. Yet. Apparently, week two offers despair and writers bloc. That’s this week.

I remember last year being fun but hard work. I had to work harder than this year to meet my word count. Maybe that’s because I had a weekend in London and was ill for three days so that I lost several writing days. So far this month, all is ease and relaxation. The words come and I’m keeping a decent writing speed. But then, I prepared more of the story so I know where I’m going.

I’ve cancelled as many social activities as possible to keep the month focused on writing. I still have two writer’s groups and that took some planning but I have submitted and can breathe easily. (Next month will be a challenge, though.)  This month, two other things help with my focus and my time management:

  • Firstly, C is travelling. For much of the month I’ll have no one but me to think of.
  • Secondly, I have a writing buddy! I’m not doing it entirely alone this year.

So what’s the tally? At the close of Monday, 18,756 words. I’m ahead by several days. It feels good to have a buffer. Bring on week two!

Writer’s block? Writing something that doesn’t matter might help

Writer’s block gets between you and the page. It can be different things to different people: a crippling fear of writing something that isn’t good, a head as empty as the page you’re looking at or an inability to find the time to get started. Whatever it is, it stops you from writing.

Seth Godin wrote a post about writer’s block and how to get over it. In hsort, he writes that if the problem is that you’re worried what you’re writing is rubbish, then write more so that you get better. It is very good advice. Write something, just anything. If you free yourself from the demand of perfect quality, you allow yourself to learn and can enjoy the experience. Writing is a craft and one that can be mastered. With practice.

There are ways to get over writer’s block. Most of them involve writing something. NaNoWriMo works for me. It focuses on quantity not quality: it’s all about the words. Get huge amounts of words on the page and don’t allow yourself to edit what y0u’ve written, just charge on. Some sentences – maybe even paragraphs – will be good. Many will be rubbish but it doesn’t matter. Just doing it – writing – is tremendous fun.

You can also get weekly pushes through Write Anything. They post prompts for their Friday Writing challenge weekly. The challenge is really simple: look at the prompt and then write about it for five minutes. You don’t have to stop after the five minutes – keep going if you want. Again, much of what you write might be nonsense but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you wrote something.

The more you write, the easier it gets. After working as a technical writer for over a decade I have no problems getting words on paper. My issue is finding kernels of a story I think is worth writing about. But I’ve learned to start, get going and just continue. Not everything I write is worth keeping or sharing but each effort makes the next one a little easier.

NaNoWriMo starts today! (Don’t call me. I’m busy.)

NaNoWriMo 2011 participant badgeNational Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about crafting a beautiful piece of work as chucking words on the page. I enjoy the experience and am hoping to produce something a little more coherent and less verbose than I did last year.

Between today and the 30th, I’ll write at least 50,000 words arranged in a roughly story-like fashion. That’s 1,667 words per day. I might write a little less during the week and a little more at the weekend… When I know where I’m going with a story, 1,600 words take a little over an hour and a half to write. The problem with NaNoWriMo is that I don’t know where I’m going. I’m making it up as I go along.

The end result, I hope, will be something that can be edited down to a novella (so down from 50,000 words to about 45,000), the sequel to last year’s effort. The characters were fun and I want to play with them some more.

At some point, the heavily edited novellas may make them on to this site. But they probably won’t. I think they’ll sit on my hard disk, unread but loved rather more than they merit.