A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Hello, lovely Author Allsorts readers! Today, a post on How I Write; the mechanics of the thing, like whether I use a notepad and pencil or type onto my computer, and why.
Which, on the surface of it, seems like a lovely straightforward topic. But… eh, not so much.
This is because How I Write varies pretty widely depending on what I’m writing, and every time that I think I’ve got some kind of useful, efficient process hammered out, a new story will come along that wants to be written in a different way, and my brain rebels and I have to go back and figure it all out again. As a certain Gene Wolf was once heard to say:
“You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”
Novels each have their own personality, you see, that is a little bit about the personality of the characters in them, and a little bit about the voice that needs to be allowed to speak in your head order to let those characters move around the story in the best and most truthful way, and a little bit about what’s IN the story (the events, the plot, the arc, whatever you like to call it) and a little bit about the atmosphere of the thing, and a little bit about the setting/s, and a little bit about strange ideas floating nebulously in the back of your head like, wouldn’t it be interesting to divide the book into three parts with each part corresponding to a fragment of the character’s fracturing identity and also the thematic haiku that gives the story its title.
And also, I’ve recently learned, it depends very much on whether you’re writing a book, or a series. Because in a series you can’t have a sudden revelation midway through and go back and change the beginning. The beginning was published a month ago and is fixed. So you have to stop your plot or characterisation suddenly going off on a tangent, no matter how exciting. You have to have things set in your head and much more carefully planned out.
The first thing that I *usually* do these days when I have a bright idea is to fire up Microsoft OneNote, which is this brilliant, flexible little programme that basically lets you make a mess of a page in whatever way you like. I used to do this in an actual notebook, but the problem with notebooks is that you can lose them, and also run out of pages, or else mess up and be faced with the choice of either ripping pages out or having to get a black marker pen and scribble over stuff (both sacrilege for a notebook lover like me). None of these things apply to OneNote. If the spark’s a small yet interesting one, I probably make a new page in my general ideas notebook. If it’s really bright and shiny I might give it’s own new section in the general ideas notebook. And if it’s a conflagration, it gets a new notebook all to itself (all this stuff can be fixed later – a page can be turned into a notebook – which is part of what makes OneNote so great).
Normally I start out making a bullet-pointed list of everything I know about this idea. Then I make notes on the bullet points, paste in links to bits of research, copy and paste in things I’ve written elsewhere (like in my writer’s group) which suddenly strike me as applicable, or quotes that strike a chord, or bits of poetry. At some point I make a new bullet-pointed list of new ideas that seem even better, and then I start making notes on those… you get the idea.
Sometimes, though, it all just becomes too big to contain on neat pages like these. My brain starts to meltdown as All The Ideas begin streaming through it at once and just can’t keep track. No bullet-points can contain this stuff. I need to break out my emergency containment kit:
Having a giant sheet of paper like this means that I can see everything that’s going on in my head for this story at once, which isn’t possible on OneNote once you get past one A4 page. Sometimes just writing down a great big swirl of ideas (as in the middle picture above) is enough to calm me down because I know they’re all pinned down and none of them can wriggle away. This is also great for creating a time-line (as in picture one, with the post-its) because, again, you can see all the events at once. That makes it a lot easier to swap them around.
So, having created a giant mess of ideas – plot twists, characters, character arcs, settings, other nebulous stuff – I usually now start to think about imagery and atmosphere, visuals. This is where I turn to Pinterest. Feel free to check out my boards. Sometimes images that I find will spark more ideas, which all end up in OneNote or on the big boards.
Throughout all this, I’m waiting for enough ideas to accrue to trigger one, vital thing. The voice. My character’s voice.
I sometimes tell stories with multiple viewpoints. Sometimes I use both third and first person. But there’s always one main character who I see as my focal point, and so far they’ve always spoken to me in first person. It’s their voice I need to hear to begin work properly, to actually start putting words down on the page or in a Word doc.
And I literally mean their voice here, by the way. What normally happens is that they ‘speak’ to me – chime up, in the back of my head – to tell me the first line of the book. For Zira in Daughter of the Flames it was:
“I never knew my mother’s name.”
For my current project, it was:
“There is a monster in the forest…”
This gives me an immediate insight into my main viewpoint character. How they think, what they’re focused on, how the story will start to unfold. It doesn’t tell me everything, but because I write in a completely linear way – from Chapter One right through to The End, with no skipping around or ahead – getting the beginning right is incredibly important. I can’t start until that voice chimes in and tells me how and where.
Once I know the first line of the story, it’s time to pick out a physical notebook, which will come with me everywhere from that point on. I know that I said I love OneNote, but OneNote can’t come with me everywhere – into a doctor’s waiting room, onto a bus, in the bath – and pen or pencil and paper can. Plus, I am a stationary freak, and I need an excuse to feed my addiction. I have a collection of around fifty notebooks stowed away in my Writing Cave, so I get them out, look them over, and pick one that seems right for the story (I usually end up going through two to three notebooks per novel, so I’ll be doing this again before the end – but the first notebook seems especially significant).
Once I’ve written the book’s working title and the date on the first page of the notebook, I go about personalising it for the story:
I do the vast majority of my drafting longhand. There are exceptions – for example, that notebook above was for a book called FrostFire, the first book I wrote after I went full-time, and I probably drafted 70% of that straight onto my computer. In general, though, the results are much better if I scribble into my notebook first. I write longhand for maybe an hour and a half in the morning, then type up my scribbles into my Word doc, revising and rewriting as I go. In the afternoon I do the same thing again, although sometimes I don’t have enough time to type everything up before I need to stop for the day, take my dog for his afternoon walk, and make dinner.
In the evenings, if I’m feeling enthusiastic, I’ll often open that Word doc up again and noodle around with the day’s work, or do a bit more drafting before I go to bed.
On occasion, especially if the story is one that has a bit of a complex structure or needs a few narrative tricks, I might need to stop midway through and assess where I am and what I need to do next. This is more to reassure myself that I’m not lost in the wilderness than anything else. But I find it soothing. Sometimes I come up with plot diagrams, like these:
When I’m finished, I normally print the manuscript off straight away, usually changing the font and line spacing so that a) the manuscript looks different to me than the document I’ve been working on for months and b) it saves paper (double-spacing kills the rainforest). Then I put the manuscript in a folder and the folder in a draw, and go off and do other things for as long as I can stand it, maybe two or three weeks, in order to get some distance.
When I come back, I read through the manuscript and mark it up:
Then input all the changes into the Word document, and finally send it off to my editor and agent. Whoop!
And that’s how I mostly write most of the time. Sometimes. You get the idea.