Posts Tagged writing routine
Sometimes I find there’s an inexplicable moment when the tune in my ears tells the story back to me and from then on is part of its world. My guest this week became wedded to a Ravel piano concerto when it started at exactly the moment he began a long, brooding sequence with a killer. He likes to write in public places and his playlist is forever topped up by suggestions from his wide fanbase. Indeed his musical roots run deep; in the 1970s he was in a band that recorded an album for Universal and which ultimately, minus him, became the gazillion-selling group Bread. How cool is that? As cool as this – songs he’s written have been recorded by a number of top artistes in several genres. Now he’s an Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of thrillers and mysteries. Could it get any cooler? His name is Timothy Hallinan and I’m thrilled to have him on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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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My guest this week is best known for his poetry collections, but has had a weakness for crime fiction ever since he was a 10-year-old, smuggling a radio to bed to catch Mystery Theater. Music – and a few fingers of bourbon – were his close companions when writing his first novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. The Hank Dogs made the main character a dark angel in a corrupt town. Billie Holiday stopped the romance getting too sweet. He is Dave Malone and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’ve now got Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes on repeat in my head – and so will you once you’ve read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack. Satie helped my guest conjure a lulling, heady summer in France; a five-year-old girl running wild while her mother grapples with tragedy, late pregnancy and looming disaster. The novel is The Night Rainbow, the author is Claire King, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack. Even better, you could win a copy for sharing the post and commenting!
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Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.
But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.
Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.
Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.
Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.
If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales. Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.
Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.
It also helps to define a few parameters.
- Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
- Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
- Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
- Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
- Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.
Still stuck? Push on anyway
Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.
‘What happens now?’
‘Bah, I don’t know.’
‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’
When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.
You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.
Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel.
Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik
Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!
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Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.
If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.
OMG I must write this
I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.
I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.
I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.
Make it fun
The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.
As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.
If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree.
Where to take the idea?
Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.
I start new lists for
- characters and what they want
- dramatic events that fit with the idea.
Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.
Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.
When is the idea strong enough?
Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:
- who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
- what people are trying to do
- how it will get worse
- what the setting is
- why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
- a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.
You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -
- increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
- make it more difficult for them to get what they want
- turn up the conflict between the characters.
You don’t have to get it all instantly
This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.
Partner it with another idea
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.
Don’t be afraid to restart
Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)
Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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Savoury chocolate, bad reviews, finding an agent and writer’s block – interview at Lorna Suzuki’s blog
If you come to my house for dinner, I will cook the most bizarre recipe I can find and it will be a dish I’ve never tried before – so an adventure for us all. That’s probably how I approach my fiction too, although I didn’t realise until Lorna Suzuki asked me a bunch of questions at her blog All Kinds of Writing. (Lorna’s pretty cool, BTW – she’s a fifth-dan instructor of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu which she draws on for her kick-ass fantasy series Imago.)
Once we’ve dispensed with the chocolate porcini risotto, we settle down to more useful matters – how to handle bad reviews, what to do if you’re struggling to find an agent, tips for self-publishers, how to handle writer’s block… Come on over (and bring a good supply of Lindt 99%)…
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Gamebooks, for the unnerdly, are interactive adventures (sometimes called Choose Your Own). The story is printed in scene sections, out of order, which end with a choice – trust the blind beggar or not, decide whether to look for your enemy in the town or the desert. Although I’m not a gamebook fan (apologies to those who are), I’m finding the process rather interesting.
Choices and consequences
First of all, what happens in each thread depends on the character’s personality and previous moral choices. So if they’re captaining a pirate ship, in one version they’re jolly tars and in the other it’s mutiny.
Choices are crucial to good stories. Stuff happens – not because a god dumped events into the plot, but because characters did things, usually under pressure. In a gamebook these choices create a unique path through the adventure. But whatever kind of story you’re writing, the chain reaction of choice and consequence is an essential.
Experimenting with scenes
To proof Dave’s books, I’m not reading one thread at a time, but front cover to back – which is jumbling the story into random episodes. It also means I encounter each scene in many versions.
This was like an x-ray of my plotting and revision process. I make copies of each scene and write umpteen iterations looking for tighter tension, more resonant changes, more interesting (but honest) ways to keep the reader on their toes. In fact my outtakes are rather like my novel in gamebook form, with all its possibilities – what if she says this, what if the characters had met before in different circumstances, what if y had happened before x?
(In fact Dave said this experimenting was part of the fun – he could play each scene several ways instead of having to settle for a single one as he would in a novel. The pic shows his flowcharts. BTW, the print books are Lulu editions for proofing only. Yes, we know the covers are horrible.)
Exploring possibilities is something that writers are often scared by. Often they want to keep a scene the way they first imagined it. But the more we squeeze a scene to see what it can do, the stronger a novel will be.
Because the gamebook contains many journeys, there are also many ends – deaths that are daft or valiant, failures to complete the quest, heroic rescues, solutions where honour wasn’t fully satisfied. Usually only one ending hits the mark. (In gamebooks that’s traditionally the last paragraph, by the way.)
Finding the right ending in a novel usually takes a lot of false starts. But you don’t get there unless you try all the permutations of success or failure and the shades between.
Get the experimenting mindset
To get in the experimenting mood, grab a gamebook and read it in a way it’s not intended to be – from page 1 to the end. You’ll see the many ways an encounter can go, the options for a scene of dialogue, the possibilities for your ending. Once you’re loosened up, go back to your WIP and play.
(Here’s the titles that are currently available in the series I’m proofing for Dave, but gamebook fans can probably point you to other goodies.)
Thanks for the signpost pic Shahram Sharif
Do you feel able to experiment with your stories? If so, what helps you? Share in the comments!
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‘Each song helped me see the main character a little more clearly’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Melissa Foster
My guest this week has always written in the grip of a wide-ranging playlist, but for one particular novel she found herself listening to three pieces intensively, maybe obsessively. In those songs she found her characters’ strengths and their more playful, softer sides, the great challenges they faced and the reserves they drew on to see them through. She is award-winning bestselling author, indie champion and women’s advocate Melissa Foster – and she’s on the Red Blog talking about Chasing Amanda and its Undercover Soundtrack.
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I had an email the other day from a writer who wanted to hire me to critique his novel, and said he’d already had it proof-read and copy edited at considerable expense. He wasn’t pleased when I pointed out that his money had probably been wasted.
Most professional critiques will raise enough points for a major rewrite, so you need to be prepared for that. Paying to get your manuscript copy-edited and proofed before this is not terribly sensible.
But if you’ve never been through the publishing process before, how do you know when to hire what help?
Here’s a critical path.
1. Write, revise etc. Send to beta-readers. Do you need to have the manuscript proof-read for them? No. Just try to make it as clear of errors as you can. There may be a lot of changes to come. When they give you feedback, revise as necessary.
2. When the book is the best you can make it, hire a professional editor.
3. When you get the report back, allow plenty of time for an in-depth rewrite. You may not need this, of course, but too many first-time writers tell me they’ve allowed just two weeks to whack through points raised in my notes. But what if I said a couple of characters needed to be spliced together, a sub-plot needed to be strengthened, your novel’s middle had a sludgy bit where nothing happened, the relationship between a pair of characters needed more complexity, your dialogue needed more spice? Any one of those points would probably take you more than a few weeks to sort but these are typical problem areas. Even seasoned novelists might find a critique throws up a fundamental problem – and so they know to allow plenty of time for this phase.
Why couldn’t these problems be spotted by beta readers? Obviously it depends who your beta readers are, but they tend not to have the book doctor’s eye. They’ll react like laypeople and fans of the genre. They’re extremely good for highlighting places they’re confused, losing interest, don’t believe what’s happening and characters they like and don’t like. But not for the real diagnosis and surgery.
4 Once you’ve rewritten – and preferably run the new version past some more readers, you’re ready for copy-editing.
What’s copy-editing? It’s checking the niggly details. Does Fenella always have blue eyes? Have you got a consistent style for spellings and hyphenation? Are the facts straight, as far as facts are relevant? Does the timeline work? Do any characters accidentally disappear? Are passages repeated from the inevitable cutting and pasting that went on in all the editing phases? As you can see, there will be a lot more changes from this stage. So sort all these questions out and only then…
5 …. proof-read or hire someone to do this. Proof-reading is for the final text, when you are ready to publish.
Another big mistake authors make is to get their cover designed too early. Yes, it’s so exciting to have a cover; believe me, I know. It means you’re Really Going To Publish It. But your cover must reflect the emotional promise of the book.
With some genres that will be easy because the story elements won’t change, but if your thematic emphasis might, you might not be fit to discuss covers until you’ve done your post-critique rewrite.
Don’t get your cover designed until you’ve made a final decision about the title. The title is part of the visual design, and a designer will position pictures, textures and so on so that they fit with the shape and size of the words. The images might have been chosen to go with the words too. If you change the title, chaos beckons (and probably more expense).
Once you’ve made the decision to self-publish and do it properly, it’s easy to panic about things being rough. But don’t rush to complete too quickly. Use my schedule to make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse.
Do you have any advice to add? What mistakes do you see writers making when they hire professional help? Have you had to learn the hard way yourself?
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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