This post is the second in a short series about how to write a book – or at least, how I write books. In part 1, I discussed inspiration and imagineering. Now I pick up with the planning and writing stages. I hope you enjoy it.
You can’t imagineer forever. After a while imagineering starts to mutate into procrastination, and before I get to that point, I must transition into planning mode. This is where I work things out and start to impose some order and structure onto my ideas. I don’t plan out every single detail – that would be both tedious and impractical – but I do need to pin down the basic structure, timeline and main character arcs.
Everyone knows a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but that’s only the basic scaffolding. How do I transition from one to the other? Who will be involved, and at what stage? What journey am I taking each character on, and how do they come and go? Very often they are inter-dependent, which means getting a basic arc for each and then weaving them together, synchronising their timings and understanding what their interactions with each other will be.
I need to know timings and I need to know locations, otherwise my story will be a chaos of confusion, jumping around all over the place with no clear markers in time or space. That means writing out a timeline and fixing specific ideas and events to specific dates. Then I have a reference for all other events and their relationship in sequence. I also need to have my map ready, at least in broad brushstrokes, to know where each character starts off, where they will end up, and what comes in-between. Again, not in exhaustive detail – a lot of that will come out in the writing – but I need to know enough to begin writing with confidence and clarity. If I don’t know where my characters are, the readers have no chance.
Finally, I find it helpful to carve up my overall structure with chapter breaks. This not only helps clarify and sharpen the progression and sequence of the story, but also breaks up the daunting mass of a whole book into manageable, bitesize chunks. When you’ve only got to write the next chapter, everything seems so much more achievable. I write basic outlines of each chapter, together with some who, what, where, when, why and how bullet points for each. Once I’ve done that, I’m ready to go.
Only now, at stage four, do I actually write. You might be surprised to hear how much happens before the writing. And by writing, I mean actual, long-hand prose (of course I write down lots of things before now, but mostly just notes, bullet points and outlines). Think of it this way: if writing is like building a house, then a lot of vital preparatory work needs to happen first before the visible structure shows: plans must be made, the ground marked out and foundations dug. Skip those stages, and the house will come crashing down later.
It’s simply not possible to write a story without being inspired first. That would be like trying to answer a blank exam paper. It is possible to write a story without the imagineering, but it’s much more difficult. And it is possible to write without planning – I can and have done that – but nowadays I find the planning is essential. It makes the first draft much easier, much better, and much more cohesive. Without the planning I’d end up having to do far more re-writing and editing just to make it coherent, so actually I think every hour of planning before writing saves me two hours of repair work after writing, if not more.
So here I am, suitably inspired, fully equipped with plans and a rich ingredients list from my imagineering. Now I write. Just write. Don’t worry too much about what you write exactly, just get something down. Don’t critique yourself as you go, or you’ll lose all your confidence. Don’t edit as you go, or you’ll never finish. Just write.
Get your bum on the seat and write. Write every day if you can, or at least on a regular basis, as this helps with flow. Most books never get written because they get abandoned half-way or edited to death before they can form a complete first draft. Just keep writing until you’ve finished. It doesn’t matter how good it is, that will come later. The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. Getting acquainted. You’ve got plenty of time later to go back and improve it, but you can’t improve something you haven’t got in the first place.
I start with chapter one, and go from there. Thanks to my planning I have a ready formed outline, timeline and cast. But with the writing I flesh it out and bring it all together. I might pause to consider the right words or consult my map. I might sidetrack occasionally to research a specific point or question, but mostly I just write. And I try to enjoy the writing, like I’m the reader discovering the real story as I go along.
This post will conclude in Part 3, where I will discuss the Editing and Re-Writing stages, along with talking about the supporting material you need. Come back next week to read the rest, or better yet, subscribe to this blog, so you never miss a post.