Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Writing. How to do it?

Friday, April 20th, 2012

I am beginning to be frustrated by how I write. I know I’ve mentioned this before but I really wish that I was one of those people who plan meticulously and then write their scenes. I yearn for a neat plan of each chapter before I start writing. Not only because it would make things easier, but because in my experience it also makes them better. I can devote my entire mind to creating what is already sketched out for me, rather than the odd hybrid of planning and writing, and then re-writing. I’ve tried many, many times to be this way. With each new manuscript (or each new excuse that I can reasonably conjure up) I go out and buy new notebooks, new pens, coloured pens, sticky labels, plastic wallets, box files – you name it, I own it. And each time it is with the promise to myself that this WILL make me a more organised, structured and prolific writer. I will sit down daily with a clear plan for my working hours. I will know what I have to do and why and by when. And it will get done. I will be more disciplined. I will write for a solid hour and then make a cup of tea. I will not check my emails. I will not suddenly remember that the washing is on the line when it starts pouring with rain and leap up to get it in. I will be focussed.

And now shall I tell you what actually happens?

I wake up and (post-school run) I have no idea what I should do first. I make a cup of tea and I sit down at my desk. Then I remember that I also like to drink water while I’m writing so I get up again and fetch a glass of water. Then, should I edit what I have already written? Because, goodness me, it needs it. Or should I harness the early morning creativity and plough on with Chapter Four? But then an insidious voice pipes up – but how can you write when you haven’t planned? Oh yes….perhaps I’d better have a little think first about exactly what I am going to write. Hmm, where to start….with my main character, obviously. Let’s think long and hard about her and the points I want to make….but first I’d better check facebook. And twitter. Because it would be rude if someone has messaged me and I don’t reply. And then I’m sure that there were emails I needed to answer and a wedding invitation to RSVP to. And I can’t possibly concentrate until all of those little things have been attended to, so I’d better do that first. And then I open up the manuscript. And re-read bits to get me back into the way of thinking like my main character. Then I remember that I have done some planning so perhaps I’d better look at that. But the problem here is that at best, my planning consists of plain A4 sheets of paper with scrawled notes all over them, in no particular order and in no particular pen. I have a ruler on my desk for neatly underlining topic categories – it has never been used. I make rough notes as and when they occur to me which is either as I’m writing feverishly (makes sense because that’s when I buried deepest in the story) or when I’m in the middle of cooking the girls’ tea (makes sense because that’s when I’m most bored). That leaves me in the position of trying to marshall these random jottings into some semblance of order so that I can work from them – and this has never happened. So I end up ignoring the planning and jumping straight back into writing the story which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

I need to recognise that I don’t work tidily. I work instinctively. I can only write when I have fully submerged myself in the story and I am watching what happens. If I try and construct a conversation between A and B to make the point XYZ, I always fail. It will only work if the characters are making the points themselves. I can only plan in my mind, and only then by letting my subconscious do it for me. I cannot decide for myself what is good and what is bad and what is superfluous. At a latent level I think about my latest plot all the time, trying to guide the threads of the story because I am not quite there yet, I can’t quite see how to tie it all up and I am 12,536 words in. I suspect that with this manuscript I will have to edit heavily, that’s the only way it will work. I’m going to have to throw it all down onto (metaphorical) paper and then go through and decide what’s what, which isn’t something I’ve ever done before. I usually write pretty closely to what I eventually end up with.

And I think the thing I find most difficult about working this way is that I have to hold everything in my mind, rather than on paper. If I write it all down then it’s only moments before something else has occurred to me and I would have to change everything I’d written to incorporate it. But it isn’t as it sounds; what I am holding in my mind is just the essence of the story. For my main character I have an image of blond, curly hair and just that is enough for me remember exactly what she’s like and how she thinks and what she would say. I have different colours that I have linked mentally to different elements of the story and that tells me how to write it. I know this all sounds fantastically bizarre but the point I’m making is that I don’t have neat lists in my head, I am relying on my subconscious to present me with a picture of the story I need to tell, in whatever way it wants to do it. I’ve often thought about spider diagrams, and great big A1 white boards that I could easily alter, but the reality is that I only need the barest, minimum of facts written down to work from. The rest usually just flows. Usually. But of course with this method, on the days when my brain isn’t working quite at full capacity I am completely stuck and go round in circles and spend a lot of time staring at the screen with no idea how to proceed. It’s like looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures where you need to disengage your brain to see the real image; that’s what writing is like for me. And if I try too hard, I can’t do it.

I’m quite fascinated by, and in awe of, writers who are able to write diligently every day, no matter what. A few names from twitter spring to mind. If I do that then after a week or two my brain is exhausted and I need a good few days off before I can continue. I used to think that I was just indulging myself by doing this, but then I realised that I actually wasn’t. I genuinely need that break and write far better, and more prolifically, after it. For example, I didn’t write a thing for the entirety of the Easter holidays (four weeks). I kept thinking I should, even though it was near impossible to find the time, and very soon feelings of guilt crept in about not writing. Anything. But when the girls returned to school and I returned to the manuscript, I discovered that the break had given me the distance and clarity that I needed to see where I was going wrong. And now I have almost completely re-written the 10,000 words that I had. My sister had read the first chapters and returned a “Hmm, yes, quite good,” verdict, but “…you need a hook for the main character. I don’t know what she’s like.” And of course she was right. Once I’d immersed myself in the story I saw exactly what I was doing wrong and the main character now has far more shape and substance. She is an artist, for example, as I learned yesterday. That’s not a terribly convenient thing because I have little experience of, or interest in, painting, but it can’t be helped.

And as far as old writing goes, I’m afraid that I still don’t have any news about Daisychain. Things are happening with the manuscript, but I’m not really at liberty to discuss them. Which is very difficult for someone like me who is the most rubbish secret-keeper in the world. I have a natural compulsion to tell everyone, everything. I re-read bits of Daisychain recently to see if I still had the same confidence in it, and the answer was yes. Swiftly followed by a horrible lurch of self-doubt, something along the lines of “I will never be able to write anything to this standard ever again”. So I stopped reading it.

I’ve also been reading for pleasure a lot recently. Much more than normal. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve gone back to reading old favourites; lots of Charlotte Bingham and Rosamunde Pilcher and Penny Vincenzi. And that was what prompted my question on twitter the other day – which authors are writing in the style of these authors these days? There doesn’t seem to be anyone. The heyday of the Aga Saga is over (apparently), but in my view there is little on the market at the moment that does the same job. Although I may possibly speak too soon because a lovely author called Jane Sanderson saw my twitter plea and very kindly sent me a copy of her book, called ‘Netherwood’ which was published by Sphere on 29th September last year. I haven’t started reading it yet but as the cover quote by Milly Johnson is “A romping tale of history, ambition, greed and survival”, I am very intrigued to begin it.

And now, much as I’ve enjoyed writing this because it gives me slightly more clarity of thought, I really must go and do some proper writing. And proper defrosting food for dinner tonight. And seeing as I’ve signed up for the Great South Run this year, I’d also better do some proper running. It would be perfect of course if I could do all of these things in my subconscious as well, but sadly, I don’t see that happening.



Me, on the West Wittering beach during the Easter holidays.

The beginning of a long road.

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

As anyone who follows me regularly on twitter will know I have started writing Manuscript Number 3! It does have a name which I will keep to myself for a while; suffice to say it is one of my favourite words in the world. As the title of this blog says it is the beginning of a very long road so I thought I would write a post about each stage of it because I find the creation of a book a fascinating process. You can never predict what will happen or how it will happen, and right now I am at the very, very start of it all.

If I have one aim every time I start writing something new, it is to plan better than I ever have before. The number of times I look at my screen and just wish that I had detailed notes about what’s going to happen written down next to me is huge. But that would be a massive luxury and I am slowly learning that this isn’t how I work. And when I say slowly, I do mean very slowly  – it’s taken me approximately 440,000 words and six years to learn. I should have realised before, really. I aspire to be an organised person and I’m not. I would love to have set routines every day, but I don’t, I behave very much as the mood takes me. And my writing is no different. I spent about three solid days planning this manuscript and poured hours and hours more of thought into it. As I commented to someone on twitter I felt like I never stopped ‘working’. No matter what I was doing I found myself shifting ideas around in my head, peering through the tangles of potential plot lines, ruthlessly scything away anything that was superfluous and seizing upon all inspiration. It had to sort itself out. Once I had the bare outline of a plot I wrote it down. But I struggled here too; I mean, how do you create one, coherent document of what is going to happen in your book when it necessarily involves relationships between all the characters? I found that I couldn’t. So these are honestly the tags I have taped to my planning notebook (in order):

  1. ‘to remember’
  2. ‘main female character’
  3. ‘random details’
  4. ‘main female character and secondary female character’
  5. ‘main female character and main male character’
  6. ‘secondary male character’
  7. ‘plot construction’
  8. ‘secondary female character’
  9. ‘main male character’
  10. ‘PLOT’

And in between all of this well-behaved preparation the only thing I wanted to do was to start writing and bring the characters to life. And of course once I did the whole thing was out of my control anyway. I will never cease to be amazed by just how much a book constructs itself. Within a very few hundred words I had changed the POV which was a huge gamble for me but it seems to have paid off. I always email my sister chapters of my manuscript as I write it and she critiques it for me.  When I did so this time I deliberately didn’t mention the fact that I was writing it in the first person rather than the third person  and she didn’t  mention it in her reply so I’m assuming she didn’t notice and if she did she felt it worked. I sent her on this occasion the prologue and the first chapter and her comments were: “What’s the character’s name???? And what does she look like, I have no idea what she looks like! And the conversation between X&Y is too long and too boring.” Which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear but it did make me realise that I had made a grave and fundamental error which I instantly corrected and rewrote the chapter which she much preferred.

The characters do honestly bring themselves to life, decide their own names, where they live and so on and so forth. I have but the barest influence on them. I know that sounds delusional but it’s true. I’d named my characters before I started, nice names I thought, but whilst I was writing the correct names presented themselves to me and of course they were better. And once I had the correct names the characters themselves leaped and flared to life and once they’ve done that they start telling their story far more accurately than I can. It’s an amazing process. And it does feel like having a secret world to creep into. The best analogy I can think of is when you go camping, crawl into a tent and zip it up behind you. That’s what it feels like when I start writing in the morning.

And obviously now the girls are back at school I have plenty of time for writing. My manuscript currently stands at 5,211 words. Most of which was written in one day. I can’t keep that output up, my brain feels exhausted, but I hope to produce an amount of writing every single day. Apart from the weekends, maybe. I haven’t decided about those yet. My eldest daughter has Saturday school so technically I shall some free time but perhaps it would be better to try and stick to a traditional working week? My husband doubles over with mirth every time I tell him that I am ‘working’. But I am. I am sitting down and applying myself and not being distracted by Jeremy Kyle or Radio 4. Disparate potential distractions, I grant you. But I do feel like I’m constructing a new life for myself, I have never had this sort of time before. I’ve either been at school, Uni or had one or the other of the girls at home with me. This solitude and space to write is an absolute novelty to me – and I am loving it. I’m still wondrous every night when I put my younger daughter to bed that in the morning she’s going to get up and go back to school. Every day. I do miss having her around sometimes, but on the whole I feel everyone is going to be a lot happier with this new arrangement. She is thoroughly enjoying school and having a lot of fun, and I am able to be very creative and produce a lot of words, which is great. I wonder how long it will take me to write this book? Another interesting point is that I always feel that the current manuscript I am working on is the best thing I have ever written. I always feel that, and I don’t know why. Is it because I am filled with enthusiasm for the current project? Or is it really the best thing I have ever written because my writing is improving with time and practice? I don’t have the answer yet.

I have no more publisher news.  Which is partly nice because it means that I have no more rejections. It’s an odd feeling to be so far removed  from something that is so personal to me. Out there, somewhere, in some editor’s inbox my manuscript is sitting. And when it is commented upon it won’t be me that receives the news, it will be my agent. There’s a whole step between me and it. Which is nice in some ways; I can get on with writing the next one without having to worry about dealing with the previous one.

See! 1,272 words and it isn’t even ten o’ clock in the morning. I said I was being productive 🙂  xx