One piece of writing advice that I have heard and seen written in a million different ways is "first drafts are crap, but that's ok". That is one thing that everyone that has anything to say about writing seems to agree on. But just because there is a consensus on it, doesn't make it any easier for a newbie like myself to wrap my head around. Reading someone else's published book - that will be version 3, 6, 12 or however many rounds of editing they did to get it to a state they were happy with. Logically I know that I can't compare my embryonic, rambling first draft with that. But emotionally, I still did. And because of that my writing stalled. I kept going over the same scene over and over. It needed fleshing out, the dialogue needed polishing etc etc.
What helped me move forward was nothing more than a sleight of hand. I tricked myself. And continue to do so. But it works, so I'm keeping it.
Instead of looking at the document I was writing as my Book, I named it "Skeleton". I am compiling the bones of the story. A bit of dialogue here, a bit of action, a bit of description - and occasionally a bit in coloured italic saying something like “and here there needs to be a scene where such and such is revealed”.
It is amazing how freeing that change of viewpoint was. I went from constantly getting stuck and struggling to get going the next day, to always being able to write something (when I managed to get my bum in front of the computer that is, but that is a different problem for a different day). Each day I no longer started (and got stuck on) staring at all the things that needed fixing in what I wrote yesterday. Instead I left it, safe in the knowledge that I will come back and do lots of work on it - once I have finished the skeleton of the story. Because ultimately, once I get all the pieces of the story down on paper there may be scenes that are no longer needed or needs to be very different to how I first wrote them. So why spend lots of time on polishing something that may end up on the cutting room floor?
I know - seems like such a small thing to have such an impact. And it may not work for you. But for me, it changed me from being constantly bogged down to constantly pushing the story forwards. Every day I sit down and ask myself "and then what happens?" and start typing.
Sometimes stuff comes out that I really like, sometimes it feels really clumsy and horrible. But that's fine - as long as the story bones continue to pile on, that means I am moving forward. And sometimes something turns up in a day's writing that means something I wrote earlier might not quite fit. If that happens, I'll add a comment to the earlier part in the document pointing out the potential issue so when the time comes to progress to Draft 2, I know there is an inconsistency in there. And then I move on.
If you look up plotting on the internet, you will come up against the concept of there being writers who are plotters (people that plot and plan before writing) and pantsers (people that write by the seat of their pants, figuring it out as they go). I been forced to realise that against all logic I fall into the second camp, but I cannot identify with that naming convention. Probably because I am used to UK English where pants mean either underwear or that something is a bit crap.
A little while ago I watched a YouTube lecture delivered by, I think, Brandon Sanderson, but whoever it was, they used the term discovery writer. A writer who discover their story through the act of writing it. Now that is a label I feel a lot more comfortable with and weirdly, because who would have thought something as silly as a label makes such a difference, it has helped me reconcile myself to my true writer self.
In my day-to-day life I am a naturally organised, plan-ey type of person - in fact, I've essentially made a career out of being good at it. So of course, I assumed that if I was going to write something longer, I would have to start with a clear idea of the story arc, the start & the end and there would be lots of character sheets. And since I never seemed to be coming up with anything even resembling that - instead turning up nuggets of scenes, snippets of dialogue and weird and wonderful premises - I never pursued the idea of writing a novel.
Cue me signing myself up to a week-long residential writing course for aspiring fiction writers and being faced with the fact that pretty much every exercise we did I ended up writing snippets involving the same character in different stages of what was clearly an urban fantasy style story. A character and story I had never had the least thought of in any way before that week. But when I put pen to paper all sorts of scenes and dialogue appeared revealing different parts of this story. It was amazing and very, very disconcerting. I was encouraged by the feedback from the tutors and my fellow attendees to try to keep working on the story afterwards, with the view of creating a novel.
For the longest time, I got stuck and didn't write much on it at all. For one simple reason. I still hadn't accepted the reality of what it means to be a discovery writer. I didn't sit my bum down to write because I felt that I didn't know what to write. Even with all the different little snippets I had come up with during the course, I didn't know what the story was really about and I most certainly didn't have a clue how it was meant to end. And I thought that until I know what I should write, I can't sit down and write.
As it turns out, what I had to do was to sit down, look at what I'd last written and ask myself "and then what happens?". And once I started writing something always turned up on the page - some of it is not very good writing, some of it will most likely disappear or be changed - but more and more of the story was turning up. It is a seriously odd feeling to sit down and not know what is going to happen next. I always used to think that people that do write in that way were exaggerating when they said they didn't know where the story was going to go or what the ending was. I can now confirm that it is perfectly possible to create a story that way. It is sort of like one of those computer games where the map of the zone is clouded over until you've cleared the area, so you wade in there not knowing what monsters, treasure and quicksand might be hiding around the corner. Scary - yes, but doable.
That's not to say that I have not done any plotting along the way at all. I have. I got to a certain stage where what was ahead of me wasn't just dense fog that I needed to work my way through. It was a brick wall and only by applying a little bit of gentle plotting work could I blow a little hole in it to crawl through.
Because my natural inclination is for planning and lists and schedules and all that, I needed something a bit more detailed than "there's supposed to be 3 acts". I read reviews of various different systems for breaking it down further and decided to give Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" system a go. The reason he gives in his book as to why he designed his system really resonated with me. He explains that someone had clued him in on the concept that a story has to have 3 acts.
"Oh! Three acts! Imagine that? And yet, it was not enough. Like a swimmer in a vast ocean, there was a lot of open water in between those two Act Breaks. And a lot of empty script space in which to get lost, panic and drown. I needed more islands, shorter swims."Blake Snyder
For this reason I have found his system immensely helpful. It gives me more places to aim for and his concept of a board with index cards with scenes on it has been super helpful. So I flip between forcing myself to write my way through the fog and when I hit a brick wall, I go stare at my board and talk at my other half or the lovely people in my writers' group to help me find a way past that brick wall. I wouldn't say that means that I have a system. This is the very first novel I am attempting to write and it may or may not end up good enough to be interesting to a publisher. So this is more me sharing with you my journey of discovery of what appears to be working for me and not - and most importantly why, so you have a chance of figuring whether said thing might work for you or not.
Confession time. I love nice stationery.
Nice pens, beautiful notebooks, clever organisers/calendars, pretty stickers.
The problem is that as much as I love them, I struggle to find a use for them.
Every 6 months or so I see a really clever organiser and start trying to find a reason to buy it. But as clever as a paper calendar/organiser might be - it still cannot bingle at me an hour before my dentist appointment or automatically enter bi-weekly reminders to put out the right kind of bin for collection for the rest of the year. And more importantly, if the council suddenly makes a change, I might have to cross out and re-do all the entries if I was using a paper calendar.
The other draw back of a physical calendar is that you have to remember to bring it everywhere for it to be useful - but if it is big enough to have everything in - it is going to be too big to want to haul around everywhere.
And finally, there's the biggie. Sharing. In my Google Calendar I have all my own stuff, but I also have access to the Family calendar for stuff that we are doing together as well as the other half's calendar and his many sub-calendars for the various bands he plays in - practices and gigs and recordings etc. And if I have to create an appointment for us to take one of the cats to the vet straight after work one day, I can invite our work calendars to that appointment, so we remember that we cannot work late that day.
So as much as I adore the idea of a physical calendar, it just doesn't have the ability to be front and centre the way an electronic calendar can be, with me having access to it from my phone, from my tablet, my computer, my work computer or in fact any device with a web browser.
With a beautiful notebook there is not so much need for it to be able to do anything, so in that sense the difference between a physical notebook and an electronic notebook is not really that big. Again, like with organisers, I have tried using paper notebooks on and off, but ultimately the practicalities of the electronic notebook outweighs the paper notebook most of the time for me.
One issue is that if I am writing something in a notebook that I want to use for anything - a blog post, part of a story - I then have to plonk myself in front of the computer to enter it on there anyway. On the flip-side, I have to agree that sometimes it can be a lot easier to circumvent your inner editor when writing by hand than when typing. If you are in the mode where you have told yourself to just keep writing no matter what is coming out in an attempt to get ideas down, it is a lot harder on a computer to stop yourself from pausing to correct anything from spelling to phrasing.
I do sometimes resort to using a paper notepad to get things done for that reason, but I will then always enter it into my electronic notepad of choice (Evernote at the moment). The reason for this is searchability. This might sound trivial, but I have snippets of writing covering decades involving all sorts of different types of scenes and characters and every now and then I want to use one of them. If they lived in a set of notebooks on my bookshelf (oh, to have the room for a bookshelf), I would never find it - unless I used some kind of complex indexing system.
I am also concerned about losing what I have written, which is why I prefer to use electronic notepads that are automatically synced to the cloud rather than a physical notebook which can be damaged or lost.
What is a poor stationery addict to do when stuck on the head versus heart, practical versus pretty? Personally, I have taken up writing a diary or journal or whatever you want to call it. Each day I get to fill a page (or more if necessary) in a gorgeous day-a-page calendar, which also gives me the opportunity to practice my cursive writing. This has also led me to get interested in calligraphy and brush lettering, so I now have a good excuse to get some nice pens and pads for practising that in.
Until I actively started to try to write more regularly I had never realised how hard it is to write on command.
I have always enjoyed writing. In school if we were given a prompt for any type of story, I had no problems to come up with something. My mum recently moved house and found a folder of my old stories from my school days. One of them from when I was 14 or so, was apparently meant to have been a writing exercise describing an afternoon walk the class had taken down to an old fort. My story did describe the lovely summer weather and the coolness inside the little stone fort and such. But then there were also Russian spies (it was Sweden in the late 80s - what can I say) disguised as cows. Amongst other things.
Inspiration is a great thing, when it happens. It can be something as small as a phrase or a picture that somehow captures your imagination and turns that little nugget of something into a whole scene, or more. Writing when you have that piece of inspiration is the best thing ever. You sit with your notebook or keyboard and the words just flow onto the page effortlessly. That is the type of writing I have done for forever. I get a prompt or an idea and sit down and let it flow. Super enjoyable. Should do it more often.
As part of my plan to get into the act of writing as regular thing, I signed up for a 1-day writing workshop. I really boosted my confidence in my abilities, so I signed up for the same person's 2-day workshop a few months later. The workshops really wet my appetite for getting into writing fiction, in an intentional way. I took the plunge and signed up to a 5-day residential course on how to start to write fiction.
That course was the start of a journey of writing that I never expected. I had somehow imagined that if I ever ended up writing something like a book, it would be in the romance genre. I do like a good romance. But every exercise we did in the course I kept getting scenes relating to a couple of characters dealing with hell-spawns and werewolves and curses. It wasn't a story or a set of characters I had come up with beforehand. But there they were and they weren't going away. I would get a prompt and stuff about these characters would just turn up on the page. Where did it all come from? It was the freakiest feeling. But the tutors and my fellow students couldn't have been more supportive and encouraging of my fledgling efforts, so I came away from the course with the determination to attempt to harness these nuggets of ideas into a book. Don't get me wrong. I love the fantasy genre, particularly urban fantasy. I just never expected to be trying to write one. Though as it is based in England it is more of a rural fantasy. Or at most a town fantasy.
Away from the focused environment of the course, writing is hard. Even though I find it enjoyable, I really struggle making myself sit down and write. Particularly as I'm generally not working from juicy lightning strikes of inspiration, so it isn't an enjoyable outpouring of ideas. It feels more like pushing a heavy piece of furniture forward, inch by inch. However, speaking to other aspiring writers and reading the advice of authors, I have come to understand that that is to be expected. Inspiration is a rare thing, but writing needs to happen whether it strikes or not.
So I slog on. Some weeks are better than others, but I have to be mindful of the fact that I do have a full-time job and various other musts and wants that need my time too. I was plugging away at the regular writing habit (I know it should be daily, but I also have to be realistic) and had gotten into quite a good rhythm. Then the Corona virus lock down hit and I have really struggled to create much of anything since. I'm not even quite sure why. Sure, the first couple of weeks were insanely crazy and stressful work-wise as I am one of the few people that were responsible for making sure we emptied out a couple of offices containing about 110 people in a matter of days - with no planning time. And then there were all the questions about people that were not office-based and how that would work that needed resolving. But we're now on week 6 of this new world and things are more settled at work, so I need to figure out a way to get out of this funk and back into my writing rhythm. I read somewhere a blog post, or maybe it was an interview, by a woman who had taken a 6 month sabbatical to get her book written. She said that she had assumed now that she had all that time available, it should be no problem to get the writing done. Turns out she found it really hard to sit down and do the writing. She said that what helped her was a sort of writing journal where she took stock of where her writing was at, what was going well, what wasn't going so well, what was stopping her from writing - that kind of thing.
So there may be posts of that kind of ilk. There may not. Seeing as this is the first post on this blog site, I am not quite sure what will end up turning up here. I guess we'll have to find out as we go along.
Judi Goodwin runs fantastic writing workshops. Without her and her workshops I would never have had the confidence to attend a residential writing course.
Arvon. I have only experienced one of their 5-day residential courses, but it certainly was life-changing for me. The location, the tutors, the course were all fantastic. And I have been lucky enough to make friends with some fantastic people, some of whom have created a writers' group where we meet every month to give feedback, encouragement, tips and ideas. Invaluable!