As projects go, novel the first has been a complete disaster: no project management, no objectives, no targets, no deadlines. As a learning experience, it’s been great. Novels are sizeable undertakings and I’m trying to learn from my flouncing approach to this first one so that the second one will be easier. Working on the fourth, and hopefully pre-submission draft, I feel I can write down some of the lessons this review has driven home. Here are a few things I’ve learnt, in no particular order.

  • Do the research. Not all of the research has to be done before or during the first, very sketchy and quite bad draft, but it has to be done at some point.
  • Plan. I’m a bit of a seat of my pants writer but if I have more of a plan, the process becomes more linear. There are many different levels of planning. A story outline can be broken down in to chapter outlines can be broken down into scene outlines. Each level brings you closer to the written story.
  • Listen very carefully to what readers say. My first reader made a couple of comments that surprised me and that I couldn’t see. Instead of taking a fresh look and maybe addressing them, I put them down to personal quirks. My second reader made the same points. Ouch. If I’d listened properly, I would have used both my first and second readers’ time better.
  • Believe your brain. My gut speaks to me. It says things like “aaaaa, it’s all shit!”. It’s not a voice I should listen to. My brain speaks to me too. It says things like “you really need to think this through…” or “why is character A doing that?”. Sometimes I ignore my brain – it is a quiet and reasonable, not a shouting idiot like my gut. That is always a mistake. My brain says useful things. If I’m unsure how something works, or what has happened at a particular point in time, my characters will be unsure too which means that the reader has no idea. Experience has, finally, taught me that if I’m not sure something works, it probably doesn’t.
  • Use tools. I wrote character studies for the sequel that I’ve used for this project. It’s useful to get a reminder of what people look like, what they wear, what they like and how they behave. I’m also drawing detailed interiors for some of the main locations and outfit studies to remind me what characters wear. The novel is set over a month and I’ve found a calendar sheet with notes on what happens every day, including days just before and after the story, increadibly useful for reminding me about core events in the story. It also helps me work out when things should happen and visualise the rhythm of the action. Picking up the sequel again would be very difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a plot spreadsheet, a map of Edinburgh with important sites marked and a list of names, dates and characteristics of some of the minor characters, as well as a couple of location studies I made when I first plotted the thing.