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12 Books in 12 Months

writing books and blogging about it

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planning

Hayfever Sets In

Afternoon all, I trust you are well.

If not, maybe these links will cheer you up.  And don’t worry, I’ll be home soon, and all this scheduled post madness will be naught but a distant memory.

Hark, A Vagrant (comic by Kate Beaton)

To Plan or Not to Plan – a reader writes in to ask me whether I do this off the cuff.  I reply.

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Inspiration

A second email from Elaine of Dreams and Whispers fame.

Next I would like to find out a bit more about your inspiration for the twelve books – did you already have ideas before you started, or are you taking it book by book and seeing what develops for each one? As you write, do you find that most of your theme/plot/character ideas are coming from things you encounter in life, people you meet, your imagination, or somewhere else?

I had a few ideas before starting, many of which are laid out on the ‘Get Involved‘ page and in the Facebook photo album.  I went into it with the hope that members of the public would challenge me by giving me different suggestions to incorporate as I went along, giving the project a more interactive feel but also forcing me to plan things so that I’d include all their ideas.

As it happens, I think a lot of people find it intimidating to have me say ‘just suggest anything at all’.  For instance with book 2, where I got suggestions from staff at The Byre Theatre in St Andrews, basically everything I got was anecdotal stuff about working in a theatre.  Nobody seemed interested in motive, murder weapon, or red herrings, and I ended up going on Twitter when I’d already started writing to ask people to suggest names for characters I’d just invented.  This meant that the book developed much more out of my own brain than I think I expected.

At the other extreme, with the Western story I got a very in depth story suggestion from someone, but I ended up not using it because it would have required an awful lot of historical research on my part – the suggester obviously knew quite a bit of the history of the west and had some very specific ideas, which frankly I felt a bit dodgy about using!  So hopefully he will write it himself one day!  It helped me though, because when I read it I realised that a traditional story like that was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do, and came up with what I think was quite a strong idea to work from.

For paranormal romance I think the only suggestion I got was a name and occupation for the central character.  I used the name, Jennifer, but changed the occupation very slightly.  I hadn’t planned for it to be paranormal to begin with, and was hoping to do quite a bittersweet story.  I changed my mind to challenge myself – I’ve never quite got the appeal of paranormal romance and have slagged it off a bit, so I thought why not put my money where my mouth is and see if I can do any better.  With all that dithering, though, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if people had suggested things or not – I had a definite, but at the same time very woolly, plan!

This month is fantasy, and I’ve had a couple of pretty good suggestions for that – clearly it’s a genre that readers of this blog can relate to!  But even then they’re basically character suggestions, so it’ll be me that thinks of the plot, dialogue, narrative and so on.  That sounds like a complaint – it isn’t!  I love making things up – this would be a very strange project to be doing if I didn’t.

I am definitely taking it book by book.  I have to, really.  So far there hasn’t been time to plan any further ahead than that, and in most cases I’ve not even written an outline till I’ve got about 20k in.

None of my characters are directly based on anyone real, but there are elements of dialogue and characterisation which do draw a lot from encounters I’ve had or exchanges I’ve heard in real life.  The first line of my first book, for instance, was, “Nah mate, that’s lies!” because it was something I heard every single day from the kids that came in to my place of work.  For some reason most of my settings have been Scotland so far as well, although that was quite unintentional.

Having said that, I don’t think there’s a huge amount of point in ‘writing what I know’ verbatim.  I recently read an interview with Susan Hill in Mslexia Magazine where she pointed out that the whole point of reading fiction was to escape from the mundanity of every day life, so of course you should write everything from the imagination.  Who really cares about a character who is trying to make it as a freelance journalist whilst also writing fiction and occasionally arguing with her boyfriend about whose go it is to do the dishes?!  But occasionally real stuff bleeds through – hopefully funny, insightful or interesting things, though!

To Plan Or Not To Plan?

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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