Posts Tagged how to write a good book
I adore, adore, adore my computer. I have acres of folders for each book I write, stuffed with research links, musings about characters, thoughts about the story’s overall direction. I have thematic notes, background, significant geography, historical events that might make a difference. I write my text on the computer, I have scribble files for experimenting, outtakes files and the text proper.
But there are some parts of my work that I have to do in ink.
I hadn’t thought about this until an email arrived from Robert Scanlon, who’s using Nail Your Novel with Scrivener and was wondering whether to put the beat sheet analysis into the note cards for each scene. The short answer is, yes if it works for you. Personally I wouldn’t write a beat sheet on the computer, but we all work in different ways.
So this will be a very idiosyncratic post, but I thought it might make a creative discussion. I’ll tell you mine, then you tell me yours, okay?
Going back to Robert’s question, I find the beat sheet’s distinctive methodology ( a sheet of A4, coloured pens and smiley faces) helps me to see it as a fresh phase and therefore to analyse the material for new ideas and narrative directions. So it’s paper beat sheets for me.
In a nutshell, the beat sheet is a way to analyse your entire novel for pacing, character arcs, structure, subplots and theme. It shrinks your novel to a few easily readable pages of A4. It’s singlehandedly saved me from literary chaos over and again.
I tried writing beat sheets on computer and they were a disaster. Something happens to my brain when I get keys under my fingers. It’s like letting a fresh horse step onto springy turf. I just go. Words gallop away and I end up with a long, musing essay about the book. Although this might do me good in some ways, it is useless for analysis.
So I have to write beat sheets on paper. The pen makes me aware of every mark. Some writers like spreadsheets because the format forces similar practical distance.
Index cards for synopses
When I’m outlining, I write the main events on index cards and shuffle them to get the best order. Although I’ve tried this on the computer, my brain thrives on complication and it always gets out of control. Index cards and a fat marker pen keep me focussed. (The cards game is also a tool from Nail Your Novel.)
I plan my Nail Your Novel books differently from my fiction. I write scribbled outlines on scraps of paper. The characters book is nearly finished and I’ve thrown its notes away, so this is the outline for NYN 3, which is in rough manuscript. Yes, those are bits of paper torn from the bin. I love the organic look of them, which reflects the feeling of a book evolving and becoming better. Don’t be fooled by the ramshackle appearance. They are highly organisational and will be much-consulted documents until the manuscript is ready for polishing.
Each book generates vast amounts of admin. Research needs to be done, books must be added to reading lists. I find it easier to keep track of this in a notebook. Then I also have the pleasure of crossing items off and they stay there, a testimony to another job done. Way more satisfying than erasing them with ‘delete’.
My notebook also contains charts for each book’s production. This is a legacy of my years in books and magazines, where I had to invent systems to keep track of 30 books at different editorial stages. It covers everything from checking cross-references, finalising spine wording, buying artwork, the websites I’ll need to update when new books come out etc. Again, I prefer this on paper because I can see the books developing at a glance.
Journals of scribbled ideas were the very first kind of notebook I kept. I still use them, but the ideas in them aren’t very findable. This irks me and I wish I could x-ray them to categorise all the useful stuff, but alas that would be a mammoth job. So I now dip into them as an inspiration slushpile. Most things I find are rubbish or irrelevant to my immediate needs, but I also uncover useful gems.
Why not Scrivener?
I clearly have the organisational mindset, and people often ask me why I don’t use Scrivener. Especially as Nail Your Novel fits it like a glove, I’m told. I’ve thought Scrivener might be fun, but I like to have some aspects of my books in touchable form, on scattered (but precisely organised) papers and notebooks. Also, I love inventing, period, and that includes systems for my books. Or put another way, I’m a nerd.
If there is a general pattern, I use handwritten notes to get clarity, distance, control and simplicity. The big picture stuff. I use the keyboard to indulge my creative riffing, musing, speculating and – of course – for the writing.
Now it’s your turn. When do you use the computer and when do you use ink and paper? Do you have set habits and how did you develop them?
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A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.
They were right
At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.
They were wrong
But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.
So how did I fix the book?
As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.
I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.
I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.
Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.
Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.
Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.
Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.
But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.
Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.
Thanks for the camel pic Loufi
In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss -
Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?
You can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print?
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