Thursday, 18 October 2012

2. Getting Started


The writing of “The Marguerite Effect” was, in many ways, a chaotic experience. It doesn’t show now because the finished product is actually the ninth major version. The chaos made the writing process both fun and deeply frustrating and I vowed to do it differently the next time. Without a plan I had no plot line to follow and no idea what was going to happen - even on the next page. In many ways, it was more like reading a book than writing one. My creative writing course notes and teaching literature suggested different methods of working, and several established authors were kind enough to contribute insights on their own practices, but I think it was too soon for me: I had to make the mistakes to realise the wisdom in their words. It’s important to remember at this point that there is no “right way” to write a book. I’m simply letting you know what happened during the writing of my first novel and how I responded to these challenges to facilitate the second. Nothing is set in stone, but I haven’t made any real changes to how I work for six months or more now, so it looks as though I may have arrived at my own “optimal” solution.
Below is a summary of how I work. If you’re struggling to get started, or to stay focussed, try these methods and adapt them to you. They’re all pretty loose and don’t require any special software but, for the record, I use Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft OneNote and will refer to them. Each can be replaced with other software and some can be replaced with paper-based solutions as you wish. “Other software packages are available” as they say on the BBC.

Write the Synopsis First

By the time I began writing “The Blue Angels”, I had learned my lesson about writing without a plan, so I wrote the synopsis first. In this case, the synopsis was a bunch of bullet points, in (broadly) chronological order that together expressed the turning points of the story. Each bullet point can be a sentence or a paragraph and need not be written in well-formed language. The important thing is that each moves the story on in some way by expression an action. Here is a typical example from my OneNote notebook:
Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.
Keep on adding bullet points until you have the outline of your plot. This will guide you when you feel lost or temporarily overwhelmed.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Character Development

Once the plot outline is complete, you will have what is effectively a child’s version of your story. I say a child’s version, as each part of the plot may well lack any nod to character motivation. “A does this. A does that. B does something to A” Now is the time to ask yourself why these things happen. Revisit your synopsis and ask yourself questions: Why would A do this? Could it happen? What would be necessary for it to happen? What would the effects of it be and do they chime with the plot points further down? How would A have to be feeling in order to do this and how would it make B feel? By asking these questions and expanding your bullet points with thoughts as to the answers, you will address several fundamental issues. For one, you will start to consider your character’s personalities. You will also start to think more about the setting and the backdrop to the story. You will probably want to make a note of your characters’ personality traits, handedness, appearance etc. (again, I use OneNote) so that motivations and descriptions are consistent throughout the plot. You might be surprised how much the plot outline changes at this stage but that’s fine: it’s all a part of the process. It’s far better to have to make big changes now when you have perhaps 3,000 words rather than later, when you have 83,000.

Revisit Your Synopsis for Continuity

Now that you know what happens and why, you’ll also want to think about where it happens, when it happens, and how long it all takes. If you don’t consider these dimensions, you might find your characters live in a world of permanent daylight, or take a day to walk across the room. These are extreme mistakes, but are surprisingly easy to commit. At this stage, I find it useful to annotate the bullet points with location, start date/time and end date/time. Again, the plot may change at this stage, but I find that, by now, things will be much more stable.

[Day 6, 14:00CDT to 15:00CDT, Church compound, Texas] Hayle forces Milton to appear with him as "Plato" in a televised press conference, threatening Lynda's life if he doesn't go along with it.

Model Your Characters, Locations and Equipment

By now your characters will be well defined, at least in terms of their motivations, but what do they look like? How do they move? Are they left-handed, musical etc. What brought them to where they are?
These questions may appear daunting, but it’s worth taking a little effort here for the sake of continuity and to help you get inside your character’s heads, which is vital for convincing dialogue and flow. By a “little effort” I mean, “as much as is necessary at this stage”. Don’t feel that you have to write full CVs for everyone, and remember that not everything you decide upon here needs to end up in your story: it’s there to inform you, the author. How much of it is given to the reader, and how quickly, is up to you. I use OneNote to create a page for each character and location used, and hyperlink them together to establish relationships. Here is an example that I created for “Milton Styles” who is the main character of the “The Blue Angels”.

·         Hero
·         Aged 38
·         Widower of Cathy
·         Father of Stacey (deceased)
·         Disafter member
·         Friend and lover of Lynda
·         Lives in Croverbridge
·         6'2"

That was all I needed to get started. Each of the links leads to a separate page which describes the character, location or item of equipment as appropriate. As I write, I may throw in an eye colour, or handedness. If so, I should add it here, so that I can remember what I wrote and keep it consistent later. I also created a page for a “Beretta M9”, which is a pistol that appears in the story. I know a lot about people, but very little about guns, so for that “character” I did a lot of research and created a couple of pages with pictures and technical details so that I could write about it accurately and realistically.


If your story concerns themes, locations or items etc. with which you are unfamiliar, then research them. The internet is obviously a great resource for this but it’s only one, and some of the “facts” reported on it may not be totally unreliable. It’s up to you how thorough to be, but the more you learn, the more confident you will be and the more detailed and realistic your prose will be. It’s unlikely that you will perform all of your research before you write a word (I’m always too impatient to start) but that’s OK: you can do it parallel, or as a break from writing every now and then.

Write Your First Draft

Now all of your plot points have cause and effect, place, time and duration. You understand your characters and why they act the way they do. You feel confident that you can refer in a realistic way to the locations and equipment used, even if you might have to top-up as you go. All that remains now is for you to flesh out the bones and to write your first draft. Don’t be afraid to revisit your synopsis during the writing process as you may still have fresh ideas but beware: if you don’t knuckle down you might find that you never finish! If you find that the rate of change exceeds the rate of progress, then you probably need more work on your synopsis. Stop what you’re doing and revisit it. The most important thing here is to finish your first draft. Once you have that, you will have done most of the hard creative work. You will need to redraft and perform some rework but, if you follow the hints above, your redrafts will probably more akin to wallpapering or installing a nice new rug than to building an extension. As a result, you will be a happier, less stressed author. Well, that’s my experience anyway.

Coming soon: "How to Load a Beretta M9" and "Keeping Track of Progress" #mixedbag J

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