Thursday, 17 July 2014

Writing Your First Novel? Avoid this Rookie Mistake.

About two years ago, I opened a new Word document and started writing a book. Just like that. It was simple. I had an idea about how this book would begin and who the protagonist was. So I started typing.

Somewhere along the way, after a few thousand words and realising that I had already changed the direction in which I thought the story would be going, I made a few handwritten notes in my diary about what was happening. This was my attempt at plotting. Ridiculous in hindsight, but it was all I needed at that point to keep me going.

Further down the track, probably around eight thousand words, I decided I needed something a little better to help me keep track of what was happening. I felt a little silly, to be honest. This is my story, with my characters - how can I possibly "lose track" of what's happening? But I was losing track, so I started a file in Microsoft OneNote to list my characters and create a basic outline of where I thought the story was going.

By twenty-thousand words I found myself in quite a quandary. My writing windows were (and continue to be) very small and often sporadic. So when I'd sit down to write, I felt that I really needed something to refer back to (like, I don't know....a plan?) to keep me on track. And just as I'd make the decision to focus on developing my plan (which was, at that point, about 5 or 6 sentences and a crude flowchart), I'd realise that if I put all my time into the plan, I'd have no time to write. So I'd try to write, only to face the unsettling fact that I couldn't confidently remember who was who, where they were or what they looked like.

This in turn meant that I would have to retrace my steps and before I knew it, my window was closed and I'd essentially done nothing. I repeated this fruitless process so many times that I truly questioned why I was bothering.

Knowing something  had to give, I begrudgingly tried to dedicate some time to building my plan. I extended my file in OneNote to develop some character profiles and a timeline. At the time, whilst I knew deep down that I would benefit from more effort here,  it was again enough to get me back on track so I left it at that. I should point out here that my character profiles were embarrassingly brief, inconsistently arranged and simply non-existent in some cases. And don't even start me on the timeline! I continued to struggle through, my writing time often eaten up by the necessary back tracking that came with my poor planning.

At thirty-thousand words I was becoming quite desperate and finally made the effort to plan out each chapter of the book, including those I'd already written. Knowing what I wanted to include in each chapter made each step incredibly easy in comparison to the way I had been working. Having a reference of chapters already written was also a huge help as I could easily refer back to specific scenes when I needed to. But the more detail I included in my OneNote file, the more I wanted to include and the more I wondered if there was a better way to do this.

As it turns out, there is. There are programs you can use specifically designed for this purpose. Who'd have thought it? Everyone else as it turns out! So not only do I feel like a fool for thinking that I should be able to write an eighty thousand word novel without any support strategy (as I now realise that everybody has some sort of method to organise their thoughts when writing), I also feel like a fool for not assuming there would be really good systems available to do it with.

I heard about a program called Scrivener and after a little bit of further research, I'm convinced this is the way forward for me. I'm yet to use it though, despite it's relatively cheap price point and the endless organisational possibilities it offers. Why? Because I'm now at forty-two thousand words! I'm halfway through my first draft and I'm afraid that if I use my time to enter everything into Scrivener, I'll never find time to keep writing. I'm hopelessly stuck!

My advice to you? Invest in such a system before you start - even if you don't know what to put into it! You can add as you go, knowing that you have a far better chance of completing your project with it than without it.

And I have made a promise to myself because I have many stories in my head that I hope to tell. No matter how much I plan to be a pantser in the future, I must also prepare to be a plotter, or risk being neither.

Are you planning to write a book? Do you have a system in place?