Friday, 25 March 2016

Knowing when to stop

I am not very good at washing my kitchen floor. No, actually, I am good at it, but I like to do it thoroughly and I loathe doing it, so, since it is of a colour and material that doesn’t really show the dirt (or so I kid myself) I make do with hoovering it regularly (actually that’s a child’s job) and it gets washed maybe (whisper it) four times a year… 

What is the relevance of my kitchen floor in this blog about books and writing? It’s about getting on with things you know you need to do. Specifically the novel – Cupcake – I’m currently working on the third draft of.

Again? I hear. Yet another whinge about how you’re prevaricating?


Because that’s what writers do, isn’t it? They moan about how hard it is to do the thing they love to do. It’s right up there with papering walls with rejection letters and wondering how to answer people who ask where ideas come from.

So – to continue:

Cupcake is too long. It’s too long because I keep adding more words in the hope that it’ll magically sort out all the problems instead of stepping back and fixing it. Which is rather like the way I find myself ironing tea towels or cleaning out the fridge when what really needs doing is that the floor needs washing! (Side note: there are other people in this house who could also wash the floor but who seem to have an imperviousness to the necessity of housework). Also, bear in mind that if I wash the floor, the fact that the windows need cleaning will come into focus, not to speak of the unfathomable problem of dust.

There is a distinct possibility that my 500-words-a-day target isn’t helping with my Cupcake problem. When I’ve been out all day and then I’ve made dinner and answered my emails and taken some child somewhere and hung around for them, it’s much easier to write another 500 words of the thing I’ve been writing anyway than wrangle plot holes and inconsistencies, let alone tackle something new. Although, hey, here are today’s words, they’re all new, and I’m writing these first thing in the morning because today is going to be one of those days when otherwise I won’t have a chance until 10.30 and then who knows what gibberish I’d be writing. Today is the eighty-third day of the year and I have 47,000 words under my belt this year – but it’s entirely possible that 15 to 20,000 of those will have to go from Cupcake when I have a chance and the courage to get ruthless with it.

Of course, it is also entirely possible that having written these words only to lose them will be no bad thing. In the past, I have tended to write short and then when editing I’ve seen the holes and filled them. Writing long and cutting’s a thing, though, isn’t it? Just because I will have to get rid of words doesn’t mean writing them has been a waste of time. It doesn’t feel like a waste of time. It feels like a different way of writing. I was much less sure of the story of Cupcake before I started than I have been with previous books. I knew more-or-less where I was going but much less about how I was going to get there or why. Which is odd for me, because generally it’s the why that gets me going, some underlying idea that I’m out to explore. Maybe with Cupcake I needed to do the writing to discover it.

Two days later. Another 1,000 words added. Floor still unwashed.

What I fear, what all writers fear, I suspect, is that when I stop and take the time to look at what I’ve done, I’m going to find out it’s worthless. By which I mean worse than rubbish. Rubbish can be reused and recycled, shaped to form something useful and worthwhile. But what if nothing I’ve written is salvageable?

On the positive side, I always think this. As I work, I’m often pleased with the last little bit I’ve written, but disappointed in the whole and terrified that I’m just wasting words on something that has no substance. But so far, when I’ve put a bit of space between myself and the writing, I’ve always found what I’ve written better than I thought: clearer, wholer. I think most writers do find this, and as long as there’s no publisher breathing down your neck, a couple of months of drawer time is certainly a good idea. You could go on for years, working on your novel, sticking it in a drawer and bringing it out again and still not be satisfied. The trick is to know when you’ve done enough. Not being able to do that is one reason why most writers will never read their own published books again. That and the fact that they already know the story…

To get on with Cupcake, what I actually need to do is to stop. I need to finish reading the last couple of chapters and filling in my spreadsheet of what happens where. I need to tweak the obvious things and leave myself some signposts about how I’m going to fix the things that definitely still need fixing. And then I must force myself to stop, put it away. I’m giving myself a week. Come the first of April, Cupcake is in the drawer.

There’s still the matter of my 500 words a day, of course. But fortunately I happen to have something else up my sleeve. It’s something I’ve been trying very hard not to write for the past few months, though a few pieces have sneaked in because I just couldn’t stop them (9,500 words actually). This time, I’m going for a different approach (see my last blog). I’m going to make a very precise plan before I start in the hope that I can avoid some of this fannying around wondering if what I’m writing works or not when I’m nearly at the end. In fact, I’m going to devote several whole child-free days to my plan. Though I’m also going to have to keep up the 500 words, so the book’ll probably be growing at the same time.

I like a plan.

Maybe I’ll get the kitchen floor washed too.

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Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. 
Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? 
You can read the first chapter here.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Sticking to the plan

Amongst writers of fiction, there are two distinct camps: those who plan a book down to the finest detail before they start (the plotters) and those who start with the first line of page one and fly by the seat of their pants until they see where it takes them (the pantsers).

Of course, not everyone fits into one category or the other, and, of the people I’ve discussed this question with, the majority come down at some point in the middle, although most seem more inclined to the plotter end than the pantser. At the very least, they are likely to have some idea of the beginning and end of the novel they’re working on, even if they are not entirely sure what is going to happen in the middle.

The advantages of intense plotting before you start are obvious: if you have a careful plan, you will never be stuck wondering what to do with your characters next and you shouldn’t end up with a manuscript full of holes and inconsistencies. You can work in all that stuff writing courses and manuals talk about: narrative arc, point of no return, hero’s journey … You can make sure your subplot doesn’t take over and that you never put a gun on the mantelpiece and don’t fire it.

The disadvantages are just as clear: if it’s all mapped out before you put hand to keyboard, isn’t the actual writing going to be tedious writing-by-numbers? Certainly that’s how the arch-pantser sees it. For them, the joy of writing is waiting for the muse to strike, the penny to drop, the lightbulb to appear above their head.

Have you seen those walls covered in post-its that some writers use to work out their plots? Those terrify me. What is on each of those tiny bits of paper? How do you remember if you’ve worked each one into your novel? And the graphs with the lines that build up and plummet and build up again. 

What does that mean? When I started using the trial version of Scrivener, the writing program, it just confused me. I need to make a page (card? panel?) for each character? And for each setting? I suppose it makes sense, but, I thought either it’s all there in my head, or else it’s not but it’ll come out when it’s needed, no need to spend an age working out what some minor character’s mother’s called, not if it’s not important.

The trouble with going for the plotter approach is that plotting is a lot like doing exam revision. You may know that once you do it, you’ll be able to achieve your best work. But there’s always something more exciting to do than revision, and people keep telling you so many different ways of going about your revision that you get confused and then you’re completely turned off the whole thing, and, you know, what the hell, it doesn’t matter that much, you’re clever, you’ll manage perfectly well without bothering.

In my writing to date, I have generally started with a setting and an idea where I’m going, plus a few of the stops along the way, I might even have a couple of pages of planning. But it’s only when I’ve finished that I review how the plot has worked – or how it hasn’t. As I do my first edit, I make a spreadsheet of what happens in each chapter, what the timescale is, the setting, the word count and notes about what needs fixing. I suppose, in essence, it’s what serious plotters do before they start.

With my first book, I worked this way because I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, or whether I’d ever even finish the book. Now that I know a bit more – from talking and reading and thinking about writing as well as quite a few years of practice – I’m beginning to acknowledge that this is an approach that wastes a lot of time. As I write, I’m concentrating too much on where what I’m writing is going and not enough on the fine detail of the scene I’m currently working on. And when I reach the end, I have no easy way to judge whether what I’ve written really works. I rely instead on instinct, which is, I suspect, skewed by the fact that this is my new baby. Putting the manuscript away for a while works, but adds yet more time to the process and means I have to keep coming back to a previous story when my head’s already moved on to the next thing.

Recently I’ve been struggling with an unruly plot that seems to be taking far too many words to get to where I’m headed. I’m on the brink of finishing – I’ve written the end – but I know there’s something wrong with it. I feel unable to stop and take stock until I’m certain that I’ve supplied whatever it is that’s missing. I’m perfectly well aware that some of what I’m writing is going to have to go, but I can’t see a sensible way to pull out of the story without making it harder to sort out.

I’ve also been reading The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne and my dog-walk listening of choice is the Story Grid podcast. The Story Grid is a system for planning and editing your writing. It’s intense and precise and requires a lot of work beyond actually putting words on screen, both before you start and once you’ve finished. Gradually all that stuff about points-of-no-return and inciting incidents and rising and releasing of tension is coming into focus for me. It’s not that I didn’t understand those things before; I just thought they’d come naturally as I wrote, the same way spelling and punctuation do.

I was just starting to come round to the idea that serious plotting before I start to write is a good idea. I like to experiment with my writing method. (I may even write by hand one day – but probably not; imagine all the crossing out.) I’ve been asking all the writers I know about their writing methods, and one of them mentioned that she’d spent six weeks at the end of last year doing intense plotting. My first thought was, “Six weeks? That’s way too long. What a waste of writing time.” But then she told me how much quicker writing the actual book was when she’d done the plotting first. And not just quicker, but also more immersive. She started each writing session already deep in her characters’ world and didn’t leave it until she stopped.

That’s the thing that’s sold plotting to me: the idea that you can step so lightly into the world you’ve created.

So, I’m considering working out my next book to a scene-by-scene level before writing a word. I’m planning a series of four so I suppose I’ll have to give due consideration to what happens in the sequels too.

Though I have to admit, I haven’t been able to stop myself from writing a few scenes already...

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Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.