Further to yesterday’s shout out for guest bloggers, Captain Fantastic writes:

Ali,

I read on the blog that you are shamelessly trying to spin out more books than Sir Terry of Pratchett. For someone that’s spent many a year dreaming of writing an epic fantasy novel, yet produced less than diddly squat, I’m wondering how you get going with the process each time you start a new book.

I’ve read lots of different guides on how to get started writing, but everything I read says to start by planning the plot, or the characters. I’ve tried both and failed – horribly. The planning really bores me – like reading the Silmarillion – it’s dry and dusty and it takes forever. I really want to just spew out the random jumble of words in my head and weave them into a story as I go, but everything I read says ‘no! bad dog! Start by planning, plot, characters, themes, snore, snore, snore, ya-de-ya – have a biscuit’. I probably shouldn’t look for guidance in dog books…

I was wondering then, how do you plan your writing. Do you do anything to keep the planning side of things interesting or do you just leap right in and start writing? How do you make the actual writing process itself fun so that it’s not a chore to sit down and churn out 2000 words in a day? Any thoughts?

Fantastic Regards

The Captain

Tuesday 25/4/11

Dear Captain,

The only book I have really planned thus far was the one I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year.  And even then, the ‘planning’ consisted predominantly of  reading a few books in my chosen genre, then choosing 30 cliffhangers and assigning them to different chapters.  I knew what the two main characters were called before I began, but I added everyone else in as I went along and got to know them as I wrote them.

Book One of this project, Caligula’s Blog, was planned in the sense that I read some history books and had a rough time line of Caligula’s life, and I tried to write according to that – but exact details are a bit woolly when your get that far back so it wasn’t done with military precision.

I tend to take the view that if you are bored with what you’re doing – especially at that early stage – the reader will be too.  When I planned out that first book, I couldn’t wait to start writing it, and doing so was much easier than the ill-considered NaNo attempt of 2009.

Kids author Andy Stanton makes chapter planning interesting... Or silly, at any rate. http://ow.ly/user/AndyStantonTM

With 12 Books, part of me tends to feel like there’s no time for planning (other than thinking about it in my head a bit!), so I’ve been inclined to jump in and start on the first of the month – either at a point I am looking forward to doing, or a cursory opening scene just to get something out there.  So far none of the openings I’ve written have stayed at the start for long, but they help me to get into the new story.

I think there’s a danger that if you plan too much you’ll overthink it, which is why the overarching theme of this project is to get something on paper and worry about continuity and plot holes later.  Once you have that first 50k in front of you, it’s got to be easier to plan the next 50k than if you’re still stuck faffing about with outlines.  And you may well see that themes and things have started to appear of their own accord, merely needing you to hone them a bit.

Having said all that, I do think having an outline can help you keep on track, as there are one or two problems with jumping straight in.  Frinstance:

– You occasionally find you’ve written the same thing more than once.

– Sometimes you can get quite far in and then change your mind about something, or find it tails off unexpectedly, so you end up having to lose chunks of what you’ve written.  But honestly I think that would happen with any first draft, because by the time you’ve done 50k+, left it a couple of months, and come back to it with fresh eyes, you’re going to have come up with new ideas, better ways of putting things, and so on.

– Jumping right in can mean you can lose sight of what you wanted to do.  With book 3, I thought I had a very clear idea in my head, but I hadn’t written it down in any detail. Immersed in the tale, I got to around 20k, but then unexpectedly got stuck.  I ended up breaking my ‘no editing’ rule and going back to read over it properly and change the chapters around.  That helped me to decide on a direction, and I didn’t need to lose any of it – but I can’t guarantee that result every time, and on that occasion fell very short of the arbitrary word count goal!

As a general rule with 12 books I decided to write and write until I get to 50k – even if I know some of it is nonsense.  After all it’s a first draft which is going to be severely edited – first by me and then by long suffering friends who’ll be asked to read it over before sending it to an agent who’d presumably make further suggestions before sending it to a publisher.  There’s just no need to get bogged down in detailed planning at this stage, because when you get going you’ll almost certainly change your mind about at least a couple of things.

In answer to your last point, this means keeping things fun isn’t that hard at this stage.  The process of coming up with first drafts is arguably one of the funnest, most creative parts of writing a novel.  It’s the point where you can try things out, and it’s a bit of a challenge getting to that 2000 words a day which is enjoyable as long as you don’t let it become a stress or something YOU MUST DO at the cost of all else.  The editing process, on the other hand, is far more laborious – that’s where writing becomes a job, and it’s how I reckon authors really earn their keep!

Hope this answers your question, and best of luck with the fantasy epic!

Ali

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