Monthly Archives: September 2020

Getting serious about writing (wk 10): Stop thinking like a reader if you want to finish that book

When I turned thirty I made a promise to myself that before I reached forty I would have written ten books. I have to admit that even then it seemed a little ridiculous and within a few weeks, I had to admit to myself that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Inevitably, as the months went by, the promise looked less and less likely to bear fruit.

I did try. I wrote as much and as often as I could, but by the time I reached thirty-two I had lost count of the number of non-starters and unintentional short stories that I had written. I just couldn’t leave a story alone for more than a few days without writing an ending and rushing to fil in the blanks. It was an odd state of affairs: like a war between my inner novelist and my inner reader.

Completing any large project is tough. However, writing a full book seems to come with its own complications.

What writing isn’t…

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Writing a novel is not the same thing as reading one. This may seem obvious but there are some important truths behind this.

After all, before we write our first book we will have spent our lives reading books. On top of this, we will also consume a host of other media (be that TV shows/ movies/ plays/ or any other story format). I can’t help but wonder whether consuming stories in this manner inclines us to grow too accustomed to the catharsis of endings and the drive to know ‘what happens next’.

Our minds often scream out for a sense of completion in the stories we read and I think this was the root of my problem; I thought the ending was the important bit.

It took me a while to notice this inclination in myself. Often when writing I yearned for the ‘ending’, and when I wasn’t rushing for the ending I was desperate to reveal the twist, or I wanted to play out the life-changing revelation for the main character. Nothing else mattered; I needed to reach that goal. In short, I was looking at my stories as a reader, not as a writer.

It’s an easy, possibly inevitable, position to fall into when you start writing. After all, we may have been writing stories for years (starting as young children), but our experience of ‘the novel’ comes first and foremost from our experiences as readers. We don’t notice (at least on our first reading) the small hints, the foreshadowing, the scene-deepening detail, which a well-sculpted book unpacks before us.

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With a very select group of exceptions, my experiences as a reader followed the path of opening that next chapter to ‘see what happens next’. Writing isn’t like this, it would be utterly bizarre if I sat down to write and was steadily surprised at the story as it unfolded. Looking back, I think that this really was at the heart of what held me up for those first two years.

I’d like to say that there’s a simple solution to changing your perspective but there isn’t a quick fix (not that I’ve found anyway). However, there are a couple of things that hindsight tells me may have contributed to my own changed perspective and both of them happened in November 2014.

Perspective shift 1: I know what’s going to happen

In November 2014 I joined an online writing community who offered support to each other as we tried to get fifty-thousand words written in one month. They call themselves NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and they have a host of phenomenal resources to help you reach that goal. If I succeeded I would break my streak of unfinished work. I would get that book written.

I signed up five days late. The daily word count targets they set left me with thousands of words to write and I had no idea what to do to meet my target. However, having this much to catch up on forced me to get out of my own head and just write the first thing that came to mind.

A scene unfolded. I met my protagonist. I worked my mind around to see what I could do to add conflict in that first scene (conflict drives our writing, and usefully also drives readers to read on, win-win).

‘Pantsing’ with purpose

I was about to discover that the type of writing I was doing was what is known as ‘pantsing’; viz. writing ‘by the seat of your pants’, meaning that I was writing with no formal plan or structure in mind.

As I took a break and read tweets from others on as they discussed catching up on their own word counts, I came to find out more about ‘pantsing’ and how to make it work for you.

Writing with pen on paperMore experienced ‘pantsers’ explained that they keep a separate notebook and write notes as they write. These notes will contain plot ideas, possible endings, conflict-building scenarios, all that good stuff. In short, they do have a plan, they just unpack that plan in a different order than I expected.

So I started writing notes. I unpacked supporting characters pages before they appeared in the actual text. I had conflicts generate from small mistakes that we wouldn’t see until a chapter or two before the ending. In short, I got all that yearning for endings out in a separate document.

I got to have my cake and eat it too. I knew what was going to happen next but I also gave myself time to let those occurrences happen organically by keeping those ideas as separate notes.

In the years since I have moved away from the separate set of notes and made my manuscript into a working document. The notes go at the bottom. I set them in an end page, visually distinct from my main text.

As an added benefit this also gives me a ‘writing’ activity on hand for those days when inspiration is sluggish or absent. In my designated ‘writing time’, I can then sit down and organise my notes in order.

This is a very loose process but it helps set up an itinerary of sorts and as the book progresses it often morphs into a fairly coherent chapter plan. Pantsers might not plan in advance but they do plan and the book takes shape as a result.

Perspective shift 2: I don’t always know what’s going to happen (but someone does)

My second change in perspective happened at the end of my first week of writing, I was about five or six chapters in and something slowed. Despite having a plan (of sorts) in front of me I couldn’t get the next scene to play out properly.

I’ve since read about this phenomenon, and spoken to other authors about it but at the time I found it truly bizarre. I’ll backtrack for some context.

Prior to writing my NaNoWriMo project in 2014, I had never been able to finish a book. However, I had managed to reach chapter four, five, or six many times. I’ve now self-ascribed my problem as a mid-point obsession with backtracking; I know where I want to go but something drags me back and I start re-reading my first few chapters in search of what I can do to move forward.

My ‘pantsing’ notes told me otherwise; my answers were not in stuff I had already written, I was wasting time, instead, I leaned in a strange direction. By this point, I had a number of secondary characters with more notes about them than appearances in the text. One, in particular, jumped out at me and basically ‘told’ me what we were going to do next.

Obviously, this character is still part of my own mind but as I said earlier, I’ve spoken to other writers and this doesn’t seem to be a unique experience. Basically, your characters are a subconscious means of propping up and filling in the story. With years of reading experience we know what we like in a book, we know what we want to see. If we write a note about a character then it’s for a reason.

Somewhere deep inside we can feel something unbalanced in the story, or we may simply recognise a missed opportunity. When we write a secondary character (or even when we include secondary locations, objects, or other features) we give ourselves an additional tool which can be used in building the story and moving it forward.

These secondary characters are not just objects we use to fill a scene, they’re pockets of personality that we can use to move a story forward in ways in which our protagonist, antagonist, or any other primary character can’t. Derek Landy (who writes the fantastic Skulduggery Pleasant series of books*) is an absolute master of secondary character use.

I realised that, even with a plan in front of me, I sometimes didn’t know exactly how we were going to get from A to B. However, with well-rounded secondary characters in my notes, I had a new resource to draw from.

I never re-read during a first draft now. Those first-draft chapters will do nothing but slow you down. Instead, I always lean on my characters. When I don’t know how to move forward I look through my notes and ninety-nine percent of the time my characters have the answer.

Unpack and relax

Every year I enter another NaNoWriMo event and with each new one, it gets easier. I know what I need my book to do, my notes fill in the gaps and then I simply unpack what I need to move the story along at a reasonable pace.

You might not be a fan of note writing but if you take that inclination to find out ‘what happens next’ and put it into note form, you tend to create a nice set of instructions which can be unpacked and fleshed out at your leisure.

I had to stop thinking like a reader before I could think like a writer. I’m still not a hundred percent there but my writing gives me considerably fewer headaches with each new book.

Don’t stop reading

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I feel like I should add a small disclaimer at the end here. I say that reading books puts us in a bad position when it comes to our perspective as writers. However, this doesn’t mean I quit being a reader, instead, I had to give up the notion that I could look at my own book in the same way in which I look at the books that I read myself.

In my own writing, I know what’s going to happen, and even when I don’t it isn’t to be found in the book itself. The story lies in my mind, but, where that fails it also resides in the notes I write for myself.

Write good notes, don’t look back during your first draft, and you’ll have a book under your belt in no time. None of this stops you from being able to enjoy reading (after all it’s probably what made you want to write to begin with).

Follow a new self-published book all the way from working document, to printing press, to bookshelves

Thanks to the changed perspectives I highlight above (and a lot of support from a lot of different people) I reached my goal early. I have 10/11 books written, three in full self-published editions, others in various stages of drafting, and one in its final stage of being turned into another self-published book.

I write about the journey of self-publishing this new book every week in this blog. You can keep up to date with this process by following the blog, joining my mailing list, or simply by following me on Twitter.

If you are in the early stages of self-publishing, or even if you’re about to sit down and write your first book there should be plenty of help to be found in my posts.

What’s more, I’m always happy to discuss (in as frank a manner as I can) exactly what’s involved in self-publishing and what to expect from it. You can leave questions in the comments below or message me over on Twitter. I’m always happy to talk to other writers.

Thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

 

*Please note that some links on this site are affiliate links and I may receive a commission on purchases from Amazon.co.uk as a result

Getting Serious about Writing (Wk 6…&7, &8, &9!…): Turning a roadblock into your own personal fortress

Sorry for the VERY overdue post. Don’t worry, there’s a story behind the whole thing.

The whole family were isolated again a few weeks back. My youngest son developed a cough. Even in normal circumstances, this isn’t exactly a great thing but in our current situation, this was even more unwelcome than usual. We all got tested, mostly fine but something in his test wasn’t right. We got a home test. It was sod’s law but as we waited for the second set of results to come in his cough cleared up.

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However, despite a seemingly healthy family we were now locked down and had to await the go-ahead to resume ‘normal’ life. Finally, after more than a week stuck in the house, we got the result which confirmed that it had been, as we thought, just a cold. It was obviously better to be safe than sorry but it was still frustrating to lose a week. However, as you’ll see, and entirely due to my own actions, we lost a lot more time than that.

It was a great big upside-down experience. Among other things, I took the week off blogging. That week turned into two, then three, and now here we are.

I say I ‘took the week off’ but what I really mean is that I am now the proud owner of what I call a ‘deconstructed office’. This consists of a pile of boxes, disconnected computer equipment, and a very dusty desk.

My deconstructed office came about under the misplaced hope that reorganising my working space would be a two or three-day thing. In my mind this was worth the lost time; I would become more organised, get more room, and set myself up in a better working space, but…well here’s the story.

Locked in…

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For me and my wife, one of the more obvious side effects of being ‘locked in’ was that our home environment started to grate on us. After three or four days stuck inside, it was inevitable that some changes would have to be made. Our project of choice drifted around until finally settling on getting a ‘proper’ office space divided off in our room.

My office has always occupied a small corner of our bedroom and the plan was to shuffle things around and make the divide in room-use more pronounced. It was a simple plan, it was achievable, and most importantly it helped us both at once.

This ‘simple’ idea spiralled a little. It all started with one exploratory hole drilled in an oddly hollow patch of wall.

Taking a chance on writing

Before I go any further I should check in on what is so ‘writerly’ about this post. The short answer is that life happens (even to writers).

The longer answer is that sometimes we take a chance on things that will improve our ability to write, and sometimes that chance doesn’t play out exactly the way we thought it would.

For a long time, I’ve been contemplating the ‘long game’ in my writing career. Two big goals that are part of this are a podcast and a vlog. However, for both of these, I’ll need a more controlled environment and a more organised office space.

These seemed like distant ideas, something to do ‘when there was time’. That was until we got locked down and all of a sudden there was ‘plenty of time’.  No excuses.

“Just drill a hole…”

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Initially, I planned to reorganise the room. That was it. The desk would move to the window (nicer view than facing a wall), a new bookcase would be put up as a room divider, and a new delineated ‘office space’ would materialise where once there was none.

We set about moving things; packing possessions into boxes and doing a clear out of things that had lived at the bottom of a cupboard, serving no purpose, since the day we moved in.

At the time our shelves and cupboards spanned the entire length of our bedroom but about half of that was about to go. I had just finished clearing a built-in cupboard when I noticed how hollow its back wall sounded.

This cupboard had been built into the layout of the room years before we moved in. In fact, my parents used to live here, and it had been here before they owned it too. We thought we knew everything there was to know about the house, so hollow wall wasn’t to be ignored.

Desperate for any extra space we could get I wondered if it might be worth ripping back the plasterboard (‘drywall’ to American readers) for what looked to be an extra few inches of hollow space.

However, as I imagined the work that would take (and the fact that I couldn’t remove any mess/rubble while locked down) I almost gave up on the idea.

Then my wife suggested that I should drill a couple of holes to see what was in there. Maybe seeing the extra few inches would help us decide. I drilled the hole and here’s what I found:

So the wall came down.

A few inches could be debated, a few extra square feet of space was a whole other matter. As with most semi-structural work in an older building (our house is two-hundred/ two-hundred and fifty years old), there’s always a ripple effect.

We pulled down another wall. Then our planned room layout changed. This new layout necessitated moving the electrical sockets so that I could get my desk set up. I rewired that end of the room and installed new sockets. We noticed some areas where this new layout might lead to potential dampness/ poor air circulation so I added floor vents.

Then came the more recent discoveries like the fact that the old plaster on the brickwork needs to be repaired and, since we’re doing that we decided that we might as well decorate (I mean why wouldn’t you). That suggestion of ‘just drill a hole’ sort of got away from me…

I don’t have an office anymore. I barely have a bedroom. We basically live in a building site. Funny how a furniture move turned into a full room remodel (not ‘funny haha’ but you know…). We’ll get there eventually.

Plans change

I normally have my writing etc. scheduled out. All my weekly activities are laid out in a planner and I typically know what’s coming next. However, when you’re not allowed to leave the house you can get a lot of commitments cleared in surprisingly quick time.

Back in that lockdown week I dutifully got all of my most immediate commitments covered as I jumped into this surprise opportunity to improve my lot.

However, it has taken a lot longer than I anticipated so now I feel wildly behind on my writing. Sadly there’s no doubt that this will lead to a negative ripple effect in getting my next book ready in time and I can’t pretend that all of this delay isn’t affecting me. My anxiety levels are definitely high and I haven’t felt like a ‘proper writer’ for weeks.

However, I can’t miss the opportunity to jump ahead a couple of steps in my other writing plans.

I may sound a little negative at the moment but it will be amazing if this new situation works out. I can’t wait to start vlogging and getting my podcast up and running. Even a more dedicated writing space will be a solid payoff. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up taking me till Christmas to do it.

It’s a gamble, I know it is. I’m going to have to double down on the ‘real’ writing work once I get my office back in order (I’m writing this blog post on my phone as I’m currently without a computer). However, I don’t mind that if it means an overall improvement in what I can do as a writer.

What changes have you made for your writing?

Still not done… ;P

This experience got me thinking about other writers and the sacrifices/ changes many of us have probably made in order to take our writing more seriously.

A few years back I made a commitment to put my writing first. This meant a drop in earnings, a move to being more of a ‘house husband’, and a host of other small but noticeable changes in my day-to-day life.

It’s not easy becoming a ‘professional writer’ and the ‘professional’ part is a much greyer area than it originally looked from the outside.

Since committing to writing I’ve helped run people’s social media accounts, written copy for a local distillery, I’ve set up full websites for people, all alongside the more ‘obvious’ writer jobs like school author visits and other author events. (I’ve written about how writers earn money in more detail here.)

As a writer, you become a Jack of all trades and somehow you tell yourself that it all falls under the banner of ‘writer’. However, I wouldn’t change it. My changes so far were all worth it in the grand scheme of things, and I’m sure that being without an office for almost a month will prove to have been worth it in the end as well.

I know I’m not the only writer to have flipped their life a little upside down to make their dream happen. I also know that this isn’t the only way that this story goes, so I’d love to hear about your own experiences.

What changes have you made in your life in order to take your own writing more seriously? In hindsight would you regard any of these choices as mistakes? What were some of the more advantageous changes you made?

I’d love to hear from you, please feel free to leave responses in the comments below or catch up with me over on Twitter.

As always, thanks for reading. Hopefully, there won’t be such a gap between this and the next time I get to post.

All the best, John