Writing a Book: Week Four – Getting Creative

My first draft is MESSY! Really messy!

Yesterday I decided to change the plot extensively. It was too predictable. Everything felt like it had been done before. The plot felt OK when I did the synopsis but when I came to actually writing the scenes, I found I was getting bored and that wasn’t a good sign.

So, I gave my characters free rein. One of them decided to marry the bad guy – which definitely wasn’t in my original plan – and a new point-of-view voice emerged. My main characters also aged a decade. They might go back to being younger at some point.  

I’ve lost control of my story!

But I think that’s a good thing. It’s alright having a plan, but if it’s not working, then you just have to throw it out of the window and see what happens. There is no point in resolutely sticking to a plan that you know isn’t right.

Life has taken over a bit this week and as a result, I have slipped behind on my schedule. I had planned to write the first 20,000 words of the first draft by the end of August, but I have only managed 16,028.

I am not overly worried about this. I have redone my schedule so instead of aiming to finish the first draft by Christmas, I have given myself another month. As this book is not under contract, this isn’t a problem. Hopefully I will now finish the first draft by the end of January 2023.

Writing a book, Week One – the blank page

Is there anything worse than staring at a blank page? You have all these ideas but the minute you open that notebook or Word document, you don’t know where to start.

I think the main problem I face when starting a book is that I want everything to be perfect. I want that first line to be brilliant, quotable even. I want that opening page to shine. But usually at this point I just have some random thoughts that have no coherence. I don’t want to make a mess of that first page.  

The solution to the blank page? Start writing. Don’t worry about the quality. You can come back and fix that later. Don’t worry if you’re not starting at the beginning of the story. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense. Just write whatever comes into your head. It may not make the final cut but that’s fine. The important thing is to get the words out.

Tell yourself this is draft zero, the ‘vomit draft’, and that everything will be edited many, many times. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.  

I started my new book on Monday, 1 August. It’s a novel I first started writing in 2018 but I abandoned it after 30,000 words. I know where I went wrong and my main character – Kelly – has been in the back of my mind ever since, wanting me to tell her story.

So how do you start a novel? Well, every writer is different, but I started by re-reading some craft books. My favourite is How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermason. I don’t follow this method to the letter but it’s the one that works best for me. You alternate working on your plot and developing your characters so when you get stuck on one you shift over to the other. You also start with the synopsis and then expand out which works for me as I don’t always write chronologically.

I also like Stealing Hollywood: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff. Sokoloff recommends the four-act structure which is similar to a three-act structure but with a significant midpoint.

This time around, I am reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This was recommended by a writing friend of mine and it’s the first time I’ve read it. It’s a bit intimidating but it is making me up my game.  

The first thing I did was sketch out what I know about the plot so far and the main characters. I sort of know what is going to happen at the beginning, middle and end although I’m not 100% sure how I am going to structure the story yet. There are three chunks of time in the novel and I’m not sure whether to present them chronologically or have two timelines running concurrently. I’m going to worry about that later.

I put together 20 plot points which will take me from the start to the end, but I may move things around a bit. This is enough for me to start writing. 20 plot points is 20 scenes and, at around 500 words each, that will give me the first 10,000 words. I will then go back and expand each scene and add others in between.

I don’t always start writing at chapter one. I write whatever interests me at the time, so I may write later scenes, but I do try to keep them in some sort of order.

I write in a Word document, and I label each scene with a heading so I can easily move them around. Some people use Scrivener for this, but I prefer Word. I usually number my scenes but for some reason, I want to name them this time. That may well change, but it feels right for this book at the moment.

I am aiming for 4,000 words a week, but I managed 6,175 words in my first week. This was largely because I transferred some across from my original draft. I knew I wanted to keep at least two scenes even though the rest of the book is going to change. At this stage I am not doing much research, but I keep a running list of what I need to find out about.

In between writing sessions, I keep a notebook with me at all times, and every time I have a spare 20 minutes or so, I sketch out ideas. Sometimes these are lists of things I want to include, or they might be snippets of conversation between the characters or free writing when I write whatever comes into my head.

I am aiming to complete this first draft before Christmas (4,000 words a week for 20 weeks) but I know other things will get in the way, so I just have to hope for the best! 

The Road to Publication: Remember, the first draft is always sh*t

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just start writing and everything that came out of your head arrived in beautiful prose? That the ideas just kept flowing, and it all made perfect sense? How do other writers find it so easy?

The answer is they don’t. Most of the work to produce a novel comes after the first draft, in the seemingly endless rounds of edits.

The best piece of advice I ever received about writing was from a tweet by Caitlin Moran describing her first draft as ‘word vomit’. The idea that a first draft is always sh*t is quite reassuring.

The problem is that you are probably comparing your first draft to a published book which will have gone through several drafts and editorial stages. The finished product on the shelves looks very, very different from the first draft on your computer.

So, let your characters change age, name and gender half-way through. Relax when your setting changes from the South of France to Southport, when your plot veers in strange directions and hangs on unlikely coincidences, when you’re convinced that what you’re writing makes no sense whatsoever and never will.

In your first draft you can leave out scenes altogether and skip to the more interesting parts. You can add backstory that you know you will end up cutting. You can type XXX when you need to do some research. You can bring characters back to life if you killed them off too early. You just have to keep going!

I am nearing the end of the first draft of book three. I hope to have it completed by the end of January. And it is very much ‘word vomit’. It’s not something I would ever let anyone read.

But it’s easier to edit 80,000 of word vomit than it is to edit a blank page.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The road to publication: hitting ‘the wall’

After a month away from book three to concentrate on editing book two, I returned to it at the start of November raring to go!

I considered using NaNoWriMo to catch up with the time I had missed but decided against it. In case you have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is a writing challenge to write 50,000 words in November. The idea behind it is to write quickly, not worrying too much about the quality, and then you have something to edit by the end. 50,000 words is not really long enough to be a novel but it’s a very good start.  

Some of the benefits of NaNoWriMo are the companionship of others taking part in the challenge, word sprints where you aim to reach a certain number of words in a short space of time, and writing prompts on social media. I know a lot of people who use NaNoWriMo successfully, but I have only tried it once and it wasn’t for me.

I like to plod along, adding to my word count slowly and steadily. I decided instead to aim to write 1,000 words a day for three days then have the fourth day for planning and research so completing around 5,000 – 6,000 words a week. This was considerably more than I was writing in October.

At first it went well but then my lack of planning meant I ground to a halt. I literally did not know what happened next in the plot. My characters were in a dilemma but then they were kind of stuck there and nothing was happening. I knew the ending, but I didn’t know how I was going to get them there.

I took a few days off, brainstormed a few ideas, and then carried on writing. I asked myself what was the worst thing that could happen to my characters now, and what was the best thing? What were they hoping for? What did they fear? Nothing was off the table. I told myself it would be OK to include an alien invasion if that’s what needed to happen to move the plot along. I came up with a few scenes. I wrote some more words.

And then nothing. I have never really experienced writer’s block, and I’m not sure this even counts, but I just couldn’t find any enthusiasm to write. My story was stupid, no-one would want to read it, why was I bothering? I had hit ‘the wall’.

I took the weekend off. I gave myself permission to give up writing altogether or start something new if I wanted to. I felt miserable and tired. I rested. And then this morning, at 3am (thanks insomnia!) I woke up fuelled with ideas. The words started flowing again. I have a feeling it’s going to be a rocky road ahead but at least that word count is heading in the right direction.

What do you do to keep going if you hit a wall? Any tips?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash