Posts Tagged how to write your first novel

Ink or keyboard? When a computer-loving writer prefers a pen

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?

The beat sheet step by step – starring Harry PotterBeat sheet

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.)

mar13 003Non-fiction

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.

To-do notebook

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’.

001Schedules

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.

Ideas notebooks

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.mar13 004

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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Letter to a writer who is losing confidence

‘My friend Lucy has always loved writing but recently she’s lost confidence. I’ve just bought her your book Nail Your Novel for her birthday, but I wondered if you’d have time to write something in it to give her a little encouragement? Yours, Diane

I had this lovely email a few weeks ago. I started to scribble a few lines and it turned into a bit of a campaign. So I asked Lucy and Diane for permission to reproduce it here

Dear Lucy

Diane tells me you’ve found yourself writing a novel. Somehow writing sneaks up on a lot of us like that. A bit of typing here, an hour or two musing about characters and a story, and before we know it we have a regular appointment with the page.

She says you’re not always finding it easy. Well, I hope my book will hold your hand some of the way, but here are a few other things I’d say.

All writers doubt themselves

Will we have enough ideas? Will we be able to make the story work? Will our book live up to what we want it to be? And what is that anyway?

Writing a novel is a big job. You have a heck of a lot to get right. Plot, character, pace, theme, structure, description, logistics, language. If it’s your first novel, you’ve also got to learn the craft too. If you take it at all seriously (and thank goodness you clearly do), you’re bound to have wobbly times. Most professional novelists take at least 18 months to get a novel right – and they know what they’re doing.

Take your time and listen to your instincts. Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.

Your path won’t be the same as anyone else’s

… but reading about others’ helps. Writing is a self-directed quest, guided by the books you read and the book you want to do justice to. Plus, of course, whatever’s going on in your life – and that’s under nobody’s control at all. Enjoy your random, rambling learning process because it’s what will help you define your style, your way.

You often don’t realise how far you’ve come

Sometimes it helps to look back at what you wrote a year ago – or two – and compare it with how you’d do it now. Even, ask yourself what you did to make the difference – then you’ll see how your haphazard experiments are taking you somewhere.

Your style and voice

Have you got a style yet? Is your voice strong enough? This develops with mileage. There are no shortcuts, but until you’ve got it, play. Find a writer whose voice you adore and try ‘being’ them for a while, at least on the page. Most probably you won’t keep it up, but you might keep a new trick or a way of having fun with words.  One day, you’ll find you’re not writing like somebody else. You’ll have found the way to sound like you.

Top up the creative well

Read – and read actively. Not just craft books. Read fiction. Observe how other people make stories.

Read lots in your chosen genre, but go beyond that too – the techniques or traditions of another could give you fresh ideas.
Every time you read something that affects you, ask yourself why. Try to read the good stuff, of course, but occasionally find something with appalling reviews and read it to see what makes the difference.

Do you have an English literature degree? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t – most of them don’t teach you to write, or to read like a writer.

Notice the structure as well as the words

Novels are like machines. Under all the words, there is another force at work; the order of the events and the way you show them. Notice that as much as the pretty language.

Rewriting is completely normal

It takes time to get a novel right. We all have to look at what we’ve written and ask ourselves if it works. We all have to go through a scene multiple times in order to make it zing. We all have files full of stuff we’ve reluctantly deleted from our books because a nagging voice told us they didn’t fit.

Your first novel might not The One

Many people don’t get an agent or publisher – or aren’t ready to go public – with their first novel. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It also doesn’t mean it has to be wasted. Sometimes, after you have a few more novels under your belt, you can return with fresh eyes and finally do justice to your beloved characters and story.

Find others who are like you

All writers have blind spots, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Find yourself people whose opinions you can trust and who understand the kind of novel you want to write. This is unlikely to be friends and family. You need people who will give you critiques that will make your work stronger, but have the maturity not to shoehorn you into places you don’t fit. A critique group who writes genre such as paranormal or thrillers could set you on totally the wrong path if what you want to write is literary fiction (and vice versa).

Early on we need our trusted critics to help us grasp the basics. Much later, we still need them – perhaps because we’ve been pushing our limits and trying to do something ambitious.

Even the famous authors whose names are on the spines of your favourite books need guidance. The other day I heard an editor from Bloomsbury saying that several of her biggest-name authors had turned in manuscripts with significant problems. Sometimes it took several more drafts, with plenty of feedback, before the book came right.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to publish this as a post on my writing blog. Because, as I hope you can see from this, all writers are bumping along in the same enormous, haphazard sea. And whether experienced or emerging, we all need reassurance sometimes.

Thanks for the cliff-jump pic Mr Chris Johnson

What would you tell Lucy? Share in the comments!

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