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…
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.
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.
More 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
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