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My Best and Worst Writing Habits by Emma Haughton

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My Best Habits

1. Plotting out my novels. It took me a while to catch onto this. My first – unsold – was a classic seat-of-the-pants job. Fun to do, but the story arcs were pretty saggy as a result. My second, based on a true story, needed a lot more thought about structure and timescales to make it work. I soon realised I’d need to plan it out more, and though at first I found having a plan inhibited the first draft, after a very little while my brain adapted and I found it much easier to write when I had a good idea where I was going.

So now I use a combination of things to get me started at the plotting stage – character questions, mind maps, generic plot questions – to stimulate ideas and force me to think through more possibilities before I embark on that scary first draft.

2. Using a spreadsheet. With my second novel, after I’d written the first draft, I realised I needed to pin down the tricky dual timeframes much more exactly. So I used an Excel spreadsheet, and it proved invaluable for more than just getting my dates right. Usually I list each chapter in the first column, then follow with columns for the characters who appear in that scene, location, date, time of day, and even weather. This helps me see at a glance, say, how often a character appears, or whether I’m overusing a certain location – cafes, for instance, seem to be my default setting.

3. Finding a path through the forest. Possibly the most useful habit I’ve developed is to work out my own writing method. When I started out, I had absolutely no idea how to go about writing a novel, and one of the hardest things was to discover my own process ie. what tools and techniques I needed to best get me from Chapter One to The End.

So I’ve built up a set of files for every stage – anal, moi? – from the initial plotting stage right through to publisher revisions. So my plotting file contains prompt sheets with useful character questions; plot generating tools like the Snowflake method (http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method); a list of plot questions, such as who is telling the story and why; and various ways to test my initial ideas. For later stages I use more specific tools, such as a scene checklist– have I got enough emotion, for instance, or is there too much exposition? My worksheet for the very end of the revision process reminds me go over fine detail like backloading sentences, and make sure I have enough variety in facial expressions.

In addition, I try to remember to keep a short journal, especially during those first draft agonies. There is nothing more reassuring when you’re staring at a blank word document than to go back and read how you felt exactly the same way last time you did this, and yet still managed to find a way through to the end.

My Worst Habits

1. Procrastinating aka ‘I’ll just have a little look at Facebook while I eat my breakfast and…whoops…it’s almost lunchtime.’ Nuff said.

2. Stretching out any writing activity to fill the available space. If I’ve got three months to edit something, I’ll take three months. When really, truthfully, I could probably have got it done in a couple of weeks. I can’t tell you how much this annoys me.

3. Being lazy. Not brainstorming enough in the early stages. Ignoring plot or character motivation problems in the hope that I’m just overthinking and no one else will notice. Resorting to a kind of mental shorthand rather than finding a more original way to say something. Leaving out sensory detail in a scene because I can’t be bothered to imagine it properly. Using ‘just’ and ‘almost’ in every other sentence.

Luckily this is exactly the sort of stuff a decent editor can spot a mile off, but many of my tools and lists aim at goading me to do something about it before I press ‘Send’.  After all, you don’t want to push your editor’s patience too far.

ImageProxy.mvcEmma Haughton
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Emma Haughton writes YA thrillers for Usborne. Her debut novel, ‘Now You See Me’, comes out on 1st May.

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One comment on “My Best and Worst Writing Habits by Emma Haughton

  1. dragonmis
    March 1, 2014

    Brilliant post. Definitely worth “wasting” writing time for.

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This entry was posted on March 1, 2014 by .

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