Friday, August 12, 2011

How I write my novels

I'm going to share with you very quickly how I write my novels.

I did a workshop on some of this in my local writers' group and people really appreciated it so perhaps others may find it useful.

[Yes, I said novels. Okay, I know I've only had one and a half novels published, but I have written a few more, plus several unproduced screenplays and published and unpublished comics or graphic novels, and have two novels in manuscript form ready for publication. So I live in hope that at least one more will be published one day...!]

So here goes.

The idea

Firstly I come up with the ideas, which may or may not include ideas for characters at the same time. The ideas have to be gobsmackingly mindblowing, and usually there are too many ideas, because you can't have too many ideas. Or is it that you can have too many ideas?

The idea usually involves a beginning. The problem is this means you need an end - a resolution in some form of the problem set at the beginning.

And if I don't have an end then I don't know where I'm going - rather like setting out on a journey without a destination in mind. I can have a nice time wandering around, but I might never get anywhere interesting.

The summary

Then I formulate the plot in four sentences. The first sentence summarises the setup (the problem which the protagonist must solve), the last sentence the resolution, and the middle two - well, I think you can guess.

For example, here's a stab at King Lear in 4 sentences: an abdicating king separates his kingdom between two hypocritical sisters, leaving a third, who loves him the most, unrewarded. Having retired, he and his retinue seek in turn the hospitality of the two sisters but they are not so pleased to see him. Their greed and unpleasantness is reflected in civil war in the country at large and the king falls into despair and madness. He finally realises that it was the third daughter who loves him the most, but by then it's too late and everyone dies.

As you can see, this synopsis leaves out rather a lot; it's more like a sketch.

One thing it leaves out is subplots; actually it's helpful to come up with the same kind of four sentence summary for each subplot.

Next, I draw a line and put the main plot points on the line. I then think of more plot points and add them to the line as well. I add as many plot points as I can fit onto the line!

Maybe I will draw another line that is longer.

The scene cards

Then, I dig out a pile of blank index cards. Each of these is going to contain a scene or plot point.

Using the line as a reference, I write all the points out, one on each scene card. This is the really fun bit.

Notice how both generating the line and the scene cards can be done non-linearly. This is great, because that's exactly how the creative mind works. It darts all over the place like a busy bee.

I'm looking at my cards and thinking: right, if this is going to happen in this scene, then this needs to happen in a scene much earlier, and I need to add another scene in between this scene and that scene.

Maybe I need to switch these scenes around.

And so on.

I spread all of the cards on the table - or maybe the floor if I don't have a table big enough. Now I can see the layout of the entire plot like a bird of prey scanning the landscape below!


I can switch the cards around, add more points as I think of them to each card.

To start with, the cards might just contain a quick summary of what happens at that point. Just scribbled notes. But if I think of a scintillating line of dialogue or a beautifully poetic descriptive phrase, I will add that to the relevant card rather than just hope I will remember it later.

Next, I will assign colours to characters, and colour appropriately every card in which a given character appears.

Usually, characters live only in particular plot strands. For example, minor characters usually hang out for the most part just in their little own sub-plot, suddenly popping up in the main plotline - most likely to knock it off kilter.

Now I can take out all of the cards that have a particular colour on, and check this particular character's journey through my narrative to make sure that it makes sense.

I can do the same with subplots.

Alongside all this, I will create character sheets, detailing as much as I can possibly know about each character, usually by interviewing them in my head pretending to be either a cop, private dick, journalist or maybe they are on Desert Island Disc and Jenny Murray is asking the questions!

To this, I will also add what
each character thinks of each other character. That way I know, should they meet each other in the narrative, what their attitude will be to each other.

If there is a particularly important McGuffin, that might have its own colour as well, and this is recorded on the relevant cards just so that I don't lose track of it and always know where it is. Even if my characters don't, I need to!

The first draft

Playing with the scene cards might take some time and only when I am completely happy that everything is down there and there are no plot holes, loose strands, or undeveloped characters will I embark on the first draft.

The fact that the plot and character development are already now sorted out, means that in writing the draft, I can concentrate purely on style - which words to use to best describe what I want to say, and come up with scintillating lines of dialogue.

At this rate, I can write one or two thousand words a day, either dictating or typing. (Sometimes I dictate, as I am doing now, using a voice recognition program which is much faster than typing although the style is usually more conversational.)

On a good day, if I have more than a couple of hours free to write, I can write 5000 words. This means that a 50,000 word young adult novel can be written in a month.

But that's only the first draft. I mustn't get too excited! Actually, I probably think this draft is the best thing I've ever written. But of course it isn't. The novel of which I have just sent the opening pages and summary to David Fickling, has been through 11 drafts. That process has taken three years.

A novel is not to be undertaken lightly - at least by me.


The editing process is the one which I find the most difficult. Seeing your work as others might see it is usually only possible after you have put aside for a while.

I try to fool myself that I haven't seen it before. I do the basic editing on-screen. Printing it out makes it look different and I notice a different set of things to correct.

The same thing happens when reading it aloud - an essential step - new mistakes become obvious.

I give it to as many people as I can who I think will provide constructive feedback. Sometimes this produces conflicting advice and I am plagued by indecision.

Different drafts must be given to different people so that they are reading it afresh.

Even printing it out in a different typeface in a different format can force my brain to look at it in a different way.

But there really is no substitute for putting it aside for some months and then coming back to see it, as if for the first time.

That's when I notice the really huge howlers and wonder how I could possibly have missed them the first time around.

It goes without saying that I will use a spell check, but this is a poor substitute for proper proofreading.

And it should be properly proofread after the very final draft before sending it away, and assuming that anybody could possibly have any interest in these words which I regard as vital but which in the huge ocean of words that are out there, comprise but an insignificant drop.

This is why I am never precious about my work and always open to any kind of constructive criticism and observation.

It all goes into the mix, it is all useful.

But ultimately, it is on my judgment that the strength of the finished piece finally rests.

The end - but in real life there are no endings - except the big one!

Did I say finished? That's a joke. I don't regard anything as ever finished. It is only the existence of the deadline enforced by the publisher that makes it so.

Why is it that musicians may keep on reinterpreting and changing a song or piece of music that they have written forever, and an artist may keep painting variations of the same image, but that even in subsequent editions, a writer is never allowed to change anything but the slightest semi-colon once it is in print?

[By the way, I'm happy to run workshops on this topic if anyone would find it helpful.)