Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing a novel diary: Part 4

So, after months of preparation, I sit down and start writing. I have my chapter map beside me, my character descriptions nearby and I'll also have typed up or copied and pasted research into a folder on my desktop for easy access whilst writing. Internet ready, cup of tea made, seat adjusted, knuckles cracked and away I go!

Something that a lot of people struggle with when it comes to writing a full length novel is procrastination. Sudddenly faced with the prospect of having to type anything up to 100,000 words, doing housework, gardening, food shopping and watching television suddenly become much sought-after past times. I've met quite a few authors who suffer from this, and read of many more on their various blogs etc.

Sitting down and writing for the better part of 8 hours a day is, frankly, quite difficult. I have my own way of dealing with the issue: I just break my day up into sections. I only sit at the computer and write for a maximum of about two hours at a time. In between these mini-marathon sessions I'll go for a walk, do other chores, read somebody else's novel etc. These little breaks help to ease any difficulty with motivation ( and also give my eyes a rest !).

On average I write about 3,000 words per day once I've started a first-draft, and this usually yeilds a complete manuscript in about a month. This is largely due to the fact that I'm fortunate enough to be able to write full-time, working five days a week. When I was holding down a full time job, as the vast majority of authors do, I used to write for an hour or so most evenings and then all day on Sundays. I used to complete a full manuscript in about two to three months back then.

Writing a novel is ultimately about having the determination to sit down and get started. It's much like physical fitness, in that it's often said that the hardest part of getting fit is getting out of the door with your trainers on. You just have to sit down and get on with it. I used to find that even when I really didn't feel like writing, once I actually sat down and got started the hours would fly by and I'd suddenly find myself staring at 10 completed pages. Once you're on your way, it gets easier.

As I write the first draft, I often discover new and unexpected opportunities to adjust and improve the story line. There are two ways to deal with this. As a rule, it's worth just continuing on with the draft after making notes about the new idea. This avoids having to deal with repercussions of the new idea later in the draft, and having to think on the fly as you write later scenes in the book. It can be tricky to mentally juggle everything at once and keep creativity flowing, so this is the method I generally use. New scenes and stuff can be added in the re-drafts and edits. Very occasionally I'll alter something whilst writing a draft, but generally only if it requires one or two extra events or scenes that are easy to add: maybe a character says something, that later becomes important to the hero of the story. A quick note in my chapter map reminds me to add the new realisation later, and all's good.

There are also a few "habits" that some authors say you shouldn't do when writing a novel, and chief of these is that you shouldn't read a novel whilst writing one. I used to subscribe to this point of view, fearing that reading somebody else's work might somehow contaminate my own, but in recent years I've rejected this. Reading whilst writing just serves to give you a distraction, a reward and escape if you like, for all your hard work, and often provides great inspiration. I recall reading action scenes in other novels and thinking to myself: "Look how dynamic that was compared to the action scene I wrote. I could do so much more with my own work when I start the edits!" Bottom line: if you like reading outside of your own work, just carry on - you've already got your own story sorted.

Another temptation for an author is to re-draft a chapter immediately after completing it, just a little brush-up and tidy. DON'T! Start with page one and keep on going, all the way to the end. The reason for this is that you'll keep tinkering with previous chapters and slow your own progress, perhaps never even finishing the novel. Furthermore, it's only after a break away from a draft that you really see how good or bad it is. Redrafting on the fly NEVER works, so don't do it. Sure, make notes at the end of your writing day on things you felt you weren't happy with, ready for the edits that will come later, but don't dwell on them. Keep moving forward.

A final tip for avoiding procrastination, writer's block and inspiration all at once: at the end of your writing day, make sure wherever possible that you finish writing in the middle of a chapter. Don't be tempted to finish it. If you're in the middle of a great scene that you're enjoying, then definitely leave it. You'll come back to the manuscript eager to keep going and excited to continue the story, much as your readers will hopefully be when they get to the same chapter. That enthusiasm will remain as you continue into the next chapter, keeping you moving forwards.

In the next post I'll describe a few methods that I use to help capture my imagination in order to "lose myself" in the story, and also some ways in which to improve dialogue, narrative and creativity whilst writing.

ETHAN WARNER BOOK 5: As I write this, I am currently at the 25,000 word stage of my latest novel, two weeks into the draft.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The e-book revolution.

It seems that virtually every post I read at the moment regarding the publishing world concerns the big questions about the rise of digital print, of self-publishing, of the role of agents and publishers within this ever changing environment and of how it's all going to come crashing down around us etc etc etc.

Personally, I don't get what the big fuss is. Ancient Egypt once did a cracking trade in papyrus reeds until paper came along. Coal was essential for foggy London postcard scenes until electricity sparked into life. Vinyl records were all the rage until a flashy little disc appeared, and that flashy little disc is now itself disappearing with the rise of digital memory.

Things change. Those who move forward and change with it tend to succeed - those who grumble and dig in their heels tend to vanish with yesterday's news. One of the big questions hangs over the price of digital books: why so expensive? Why can't they be cheaper? Why should we pay nearly the same for a Kindle book as a paperback? Well, I agree, from an author's point of view - cheaper e-book titles make for more sales, which makes for a happy author and publisher. But the same people asking those questions are often also those who lament the demise of the traditional bookshop, and what do they think will happen to traditionally published books if all electronic titles are re-branded at, say, £2.99? They'll vanish, of course. People will use bookshops as super-sized shopping lists, jot down the titles that they see on the shelves at £7.99, then pop off home and download them for less than half the price on the Internet.

It is, I suspect, inevitable that electronic print will eventually all but replace traditional books, but the publishing industry is right to make that change slowly. If they re-branded their pricing structure overnight, virtually every bookshop in the country would close within months, the entire print industry would suffer a catastrophic loss of business and corresponding loss of jobs / livelihoods etc, and there would likely be an outcry over publishers abandoning their roots in favour of quicker profits from digital print. They can't win, whichever way they go. Those readers who prefer physical books are far outnumbered by those who would rather save a fiver, especially these days.

It's true that some e-books are hugely over-priced, but most are already a couple of pounds cheaper than their three-dimensional counterparts and represent a saving. I'm sure that over the coming years that price gap will increase as digital slowly but surely overtakes traditional publishing. Better to let it do so at a manageable rate than to let an entire sub-industry implode on itself.

And while we're on the subject, self-published authors may rejoice at the chance to be put on an even keel with their more famous traditionally published brethren. Don't bother. Publishers will still be able to provide their authors with something of extreme value: advertising power. Just because indie author Clint Cumperdink might one day find himself next to Clive Cussler on Amazon's author list doesn't mean he'll be seeing his books in the same position on the ranks. This isn't to detract from the fact that there are many talented authors self-publishing out there. However, sites such as Twitter and Goodreads are awash with indie authors "following" 30,000 people, proclaiming themselves as "Amazon best-sellers", writing reviews slating traditionally published authors and telling all of how it "should be done", but their sales figures reveal the real picture. They're utterly unknown, and no amount of blogging, Twittering or reviewing will help them. They should be busy sharpening their writing skills, not flapping about on the Internet.

Publishers, agents and editors of established publishing houses will all survive the current chaos because they can provide the brand awareness and advertising reach that virtually no author can achieve on their own. And only the best and most commercially viable authors will be able to gain their representation, just as is the case now. If you want to be one of those authors, keep writing, keep improving your skills and keep searching for an agent and a real publisher, because the more everything changes, the more it stays the same.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Writing a novel diary: Part 3

Before I sit down behind my computer and start frantically typing out the 100,000 or so words that make up each of the Ethan Warner novels, I like to be certain that I have a plan that I can follow. I'm not the type of author who can sit in front of a blank screen and just start typing. Much like Frederick Forsythe, who at last years' CrimeFest in Bristol revealed that he plots and plans for months before writing, I love having an ABC guide that keeps me on track during the process.

To this end, I write three final documents:

The first is my Chapter Map. Using my ( often copious ) notes gathered over many weeks or even months, I start with Chapter 1 and write a brief, succinct line about what should happen in that chapter. It's usually just a few words, and I sometimes will add a few more in red pen if there's something important that must occur which has major consequences later on in the story. These are my plants and pick-ups - information given to the reader, sometimes very subtly, that come into play much later. Sometimes it's a red-herring, other times it's something that's said or done that must occur in order for other later events to make logical sense. For instance, if Ethan realises that a vehicle is about to blow up, he must logically at some point already have learned that there's a bomb on board.

The Chapter Map usually covers about 60 chapters or so, written on a couple of sides of A4 paper. Although as the novel is written and re-drafted this map may change, it serves as a vital guide that prevents me from waffling on to long or losing my way in the plot.

The second document is my Character Map. For each character in the story I write a short paragraph that describes their nature and motivation within the story. As I write each chapter of the novel, I refer to these notes depending on who's appearing in the relevant scenes. This provides consistency in the way characters in my novels act and speak, ensuring that they are all as distinct as possible from each other in the reader's mind.

The final document is the Synopsis. Many authors hate writing a synopsis, especially those who don't like to plan ahead too much. But for me it serves two vital purposes. Firstly, because a synopsis should flow like a brief version of the story it can often highlight errors in logic or scenes that perhaps stretch the reader's imagination too far. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it provides an update to my agent and editor, giving them a detailed account of how the final novel will appear and the chance to raise any questions or doubts they may have about the work.

I write my synopsis in the same manner as the novel: double spaced, Times New Roman, 12 point, and try to keep it about 12 pages long. It's not easy to cram an entire novel efficiently into such a small space but the final product can often be as tense, interesting and gripping as the final novel. It's a case of bringing all of the energy and interest you're hoping for in the final work and distilling it into a single, short document that should entice and excite anybody who reads it. Think of the movie trailers you see at the cinema: although a synopsis should not be overblown like a movie trailer, and should remain a logical blow-by-blow account of the story, that doesn't mean it can't be an exciting read.

With the synopsis done and a thumbs-up from my agent and editor, it's time to sit down and get writing! In the next post I'll reveal a few of my tips and techniques for dealing with motivation, discipline and further ways of avoiding writer's block.