I’m often asked how exactly I went about writing my novels.
Unlike a number of the new writers I’ve spoken to, I have never started writing a novel, only to give up on it part way through.
(With the exception of the sequel to Flicker, which is currently paused on Chapter Five until I find out if the series will be published!)
Of course, this could simply be down to the fact that I’m really rather stubborn!
I’m the type of reader, who even if a book is atrocious, will have to read it to the end, because I have started it. If I start a story, I need to finish it. And I guess I apply this same attitude to my writing … though hopefully my books aren’t ‘atrocious’!
One blog reader recently commented that her reason for writing was a ‘selfish one’, in that she has to get her stories onto paper for her own sanity. This is definitely something I can empathise with. Quite often my head buzzes with a story all day, and I find myself literally racing home in order to commit it to virtual paper.
And so my disciplined writing style might just be the result of stubbornness, or of an unerring need to spill out my day’s plot-developments.
However, I like to think there are two key ‘secrets’ to how I have finished three complete novels, and all the necessary edits, in just two years.
Firstly, I have time.
As an ‘unpublished author’, the main problem is obviously lack of funds. You’ve found your vocation, but you’re not reaping any of the financial rewards. Unless you’re being supported by someone else, or are fortunate enough to have saved the funds to take a sabbatical from the more mundane side of life, you need to have a job.
But exactly what your day job is will affect your writing.
At university, when my mind was whirring all day, every day, I found if very hard to concentrate on anything particularly taxing in my ‘spare time’. I read very little, and the only things I ever wrote were essays. My time to read and write had always been my holidays. With my mind free from other distractions, I would not only digest one or two books a day, and also began to pen my own ideas. The concepts for Flicker and My Ten Future Lives were thought up during a particularly lazy ten days in a Miami Hostel at the end of my third year.
And as I described in ‘So am I an Author Yet?!’ Flicker went from an idea to a full novel during my year backpacking. Trapped on twenty-something hour-long bus journeys across South America, I had the time and the inclination to write.
However, no one can travel forever. And so I ended up in Whistler, Canada, feeling like I was at least a writer, if not an ‘author,’ but knowing that without a book deal, neither of those self descriptions was going to pay the bills.
Anyone who has read my bio will realise I’m a Type A overachiever. I studied Law at Cambridge, and went on to do a Masters. If I were back in London, my own conscience would have forced me into a stressful 80-hour week city job, and my writing would have been relegated to the back-burner once again.
However, for the past year and a half, I’ve been living in Whistler – a ski village full of Brits and Australians escaping their high-power jobs to feel sixteen again, and work in basic service industries, in return for a free ski pass. Everyone in Whistler is over-qualified. The guys behind the counter at McDonalds have MBAs, and the girls scanning your ski pass every morning have done six years at university to qualify as vets.
Being a nanny with a Cambridge Law Degree is completely acceptable … because everyone else working in Whistler is in the same boat. And so I unashamedly became a full-time babysitter.
Not only do I love children, but the job is perfect for my writing. If I am working during the day, the children wil normally nap for at least two hours, and if I’m working in the evening, then I have plenty of time to write once the kids are in bed. And when I’m not working, I’m never too mentally-drained to put pen to paper.
So, that is my first ‘secret’. Time, and a job, which provides it.
My second secret to efficient writing is the adoption of a writing routine.
I’m not simply talking about writing at the same time each day, though for me this definitely helps. A time-tested night owl, I know anything that I write in the evening will read far better than something written earlier in the day. I’ve also worked out, that for the most part, if I have trashy American TV playing on loop in the background, only having half my attention on my own story also seems to work!
But the main part of my routine, which seems to be pivotal in me finishing novels, is the template I have established for writing those books.
First I divide the book into a series of empty Word documents. One for each chapter. After planning out the story roughly in my head, I then split up my notes between these documents, working out roughly what ought to go where. I write my notes in italic font, and add to them liberally. When the rough outline of the book is down, I then begin with the first chapter. I brainstorm the section, play it out in my head, and write down anything and everything that comes to mind – phrases, scenes, rough ideas – again all in italics.
Once I’m happy I have the majority of the chapter planned, I then begin to write. I leave the italic notes at the bottom of the document, and write above them in normal font. And then, as and when I include something from those notes in the main text, I simply delete the notes.
Finally, while I am writing, I keep other documents related to the book in the same file on my computer. I have an on-going Excel sheet, which records the number of words in each chapter, and tallies the total word-count as I go. I also have a separate summary document, where I add the key facts and actions from each chapter, as I write them, so that I can trace different themes and stories throughout my own work. In this respect, it’s a little like an English Literature assignment, but back-to-front. Instead of dissecting the novel into its themes and various storylines, I’m working backwards to ensure my own themes and elements are consistent.
I doubt my routine would work for everyone, but I think it’s simply the establishment of a routine, which helps you as an author.
Stubbornness, Necessity, Time (and a Job which provides it) and a Routine.
Those are my secrets!
I’m sure other people have others – feel free to share yours in the comments page. And if you don’t have any secrets yet … well maybe it’s time for some trial and error to create your own!
Keep writing, (and reading!)