Being a novice writer, I am still finding my writing process, but I am finally making progress. In fact, I just completed the first 50 pages of my first draft! As they say, the first fifty pages are the most difficult (actually, I do. I say that). They do also represent a good 20-25 % chunk of the book, which gives me a nice sense of accomplishment. And now that I have found what works for me, the writing ahead should go a lot faster.
In this post I give insight into two things that I have found that work for me, and one that doesn’t. Your mileage may vary.
The post-it method
As I mentioned in my earlier post, I need to know where I’m going before I can write it. With most of the research done for my cozy murder mystery (for now), I set about planning my first book in more detail. How to make sure that I serve all the characters in my story, and plan coherent story lines with necessary clues and several red herrings? What worked for me was the post-it method. So I took a nice piece of blank wall, four stacks of different color post-it notes, and started brainstorming scenes. Thanks to my long prep phase, they lined up nicely and begged for attention.
I wrote one scene or plot point on a post-it note, color-coding the strands as I went, and then stuck them on the wall in an order that made sense, weaving the different strands in. The main character and her backstory got her own color, the main points about the murder mystery had another color, red herring stories had yet another color, and finally recurring characters got their own color.
Then I took a step back and looked at what I had created. Were the colors clumped together, with a block of yellow here and another of red there, or were they well spaced throughout the wall? It was more of the former, so then I tweaked and re-arranged until the wall was looking nice and chaotically colorful. I then read through all the post-it notes a few times, and grouped some of them together to combine them into one scene. I also decided on the main events to mark the ends of first three acts, plugged narrative arc holes and re-stuck fallen post-it notes on the wall (damn you cheap knock offs of actual post-it brand!).
An additional step that was helpful was taking a few of the notes at a time and transcribing them onto the Mac’s version of excel. Each scene got its own row, with characters lined up at the top. Most scenes had several characters interacting, and so I wrote each characters’ story beats into each scene row into relevant character columns. I added also a location into the beginning, and a formula at the end that concatenated all the cells into a string of text, that basically included the whole scene in a sort of short hand. I then copy pasted these text strings into my book draft, and ta da! My book was done! Well, the high level, cliff notes version of it. Much will undoubtedly change, but this method, especially the excel table phase, lets me see which characters require more scenes to round out their arcs, whether I’ve planted clues and plot points early enough on, and where the main murder mystery needed another type of story strand to stir things up.
A rose by any other name
That right there was the big break through, and this item is a minor one on the side, but it has helped me. You see, I’m lousy with names. Can’t remember them. You introduce four people to me and five minutes later I have no idea of anyone’s name, or even if I remember one of the names, I can’t remember who it actually belongs to. Now imagine writing a book with almost two dozen characters. How on earth will I remember which character was “Raoul” or “Susan”? There’s just no way. So instead, I have place holders: “sexy barista”, “terrible colleague”, “Japanese doctor”, “killer” and “victim’s wife” (which may or may not be actual characters from my book).
I can remember the personalities and motivations of each character from the place holder, and a name would be just dead weight at this point. The place holders work just fine, as they capture the character’s main function, while which lets me get on with the writing. Besides, my characters hail from many cultures and countries, so I will have to do research to actually name them. Few “Anna Smiths” for me. In fact, long ago, when someone asked if I would ever consider writing fiction, my immediate response was “No, I couldn’t ever think of good names for the characters!”. It turns out that while still an issue, I’m not going to let that stop me writing my book.
Waiting for inspiration
Yeah, this doesn’t work. At all. There is always something else to do: an increasingly high pile of dishes to do, the latest cute kitten video demanding attention, latest episode of Outlander to watch. Many of the writing tips lists I have read say the same thing: do not wait for inspiration, but establish a routine and write every day. I’m still not quite there, but I am getting better. Having worked in an office for decades, I had gotten used to having an externally imposed routine. I guess this goes for most of us. Now that the whole day is mine to do with what I want, it is very difficult to discipline myself.
I find what works is actually getting out of the bed and going to my study, which is finally fully furnished. It helps having a space which is just for writing, with my colorful wall of post-it notes, and a rather clever (even if I say so myself) use of a digital photo frame. You see, much of my first book is based on specific experiences and places that I encountered on my Grand Adventure. So what I have done is upload photos from that specific location to my digital photo frame, so I have a revolving set of inspirational photos to remind me of the sights, smells and people I met and that I can now work into my story. But you, know, disclaimer: The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this book will be fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred.
Now that I have that super useful high level outline of my book ready, I can just pick a scene in the morning, any scene, and start writing. I don’t have to write in chronological order, if a scene later on catches my fancy. The cliff notes of the scene remind me of what character or story beats I need to meet in the scene, which points me in the right direction and off I go! I am managing around 5-10 pages a day, at a pace that still leaves me with some free time every day. Not bad! Now I just have to keep that up and get the book finished.
I don’t often do quotes, but this struck me as funny, punny and inspirational:
“If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.”
— Dan Poynter
p.s. the featured image from Pixabay might just be my favorite writing related image ever!