I’m not a creature of habit or routine – I’m more of an adapt and survive character. But over my years of writing, I have developed a process of sorts that seems to work for me. I learn with each new stage of each new project, but what I’ve arrived at now enables me to work pretty consistently and pretty quickly – which is what, it seems, is required by publishers in these straitened times.
The first part I call the back-boiler. It’s when you have an idea and just let it brew, perhaps for a year or more, without doing anything too conscious about it. I adopt a magpie approach, looking at pictures, taking cuttings, photos and notes whenever I see something that might possibly be useful, and reading novels and non-fiction that seem to relate to what I’m searching for. I’d like to say I store my findings in a big box, – and I once did this, for about a week – but it’s a little too disciplined for me. Mostly the notes go on my computer, my phone or in the Moleskine that is welded to my side. Oh, and I spend far too much time compiling a playlist of music to write to.
Gradually, like a perfume being put together, the novel begins to form. Place comes first for me, then characters, then the beginnings of a story. In the end, there’s a strong, distinct smell in my nostrils that tells me I’m ready to do the first draft, or, as I like to call it – because no-one ever sees it apart from me – Draft Zero. I prepare for this by sticking all my pictures up on my wall, reading through all my notes and setting the playlist loose and loud. Then…
My first ever novel (the one that will never see the light of day) was written during NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org), where the idea is to complete a 50,000-word novel in a month. That’s how I realised I could do it. The method – banishing the internal editors/naysayers and spewing words quickly, never looking back – really works for me, allowing all sorts of unexpected characters, events and places to spring into my story.
So I write, furiously, for a couple of months: living, sleeping and breathing my story and characters. In between spells at the desk I go for walks and runs – exercise is a very important part of it all for me, and I feel stunted without it. I used to take the Moleskine and stop to take notes whenever I got a thought. But now I’ve got an i-Phone I just record myself talking, holding it like a mic. This sometimes attracts strange looks. Simon Toyne suggested that I could hold it as if I were making a phone call and no one would look twice, but I can’t bring myself to do that. In any case, I might be discussing how I’m going to get rid of a body or something, so it could prove tricky to explain…
After Draft Zero’s done, I leave it for a week or two, then take a deep breath, print it out and read it, peeping at the words through my fingers. Some of it will be execrable. But some of it will have legs. The trick is in telling the difference.
Then it’s structure time. Hurrah! An opportunity to go to Smiths and buy stationery (and books…and some more books). I write each scene on a post-it and stick them all on a big black board. Then I move them around. Then I add missing bits and discard or combine others. It’s all colour coded with back-story, current story, points of view, characters and settings all outlined with a system of stickers and pens. The coding always gets over-complicated and I can find myself wasting half a day agonising over whether I should really put a blue star there or there. I have to keep telling myself that this stage is not procrastination, because it’s so much fun!
This seemingly reductive process actually goes deep into matters. It really makes me interrogate my story and characters, and I can throw away all the dross and doodads. With novel #3, for example, I’ve discarded a wonderful character called Jim Cohen. But Jim may resurface perhaps for novel #6, which could be all about him. You read it here first…
Then it’s time to get digital. I’m a real nerd – I used to design websites for a living – and I love my Mac. I use Scrivener for all early writing, because it allows you to be very flexible in how you organise your work. I transcribe my post-it plan onto the Scrivener virtual corkboard and move the surviving scene fragments of Draft Zero into their new places. I refine my colour coding, and continue to shift stuff about. I also make timelines and calendars for all of my characters, and I chart plot points, using various bits of software.
Finally, I write a list of research to be done. For example, Every Vow You Break opens with the discovery of a body buried in the desert. Luckily, I met Lisa Gardner at Harrogate 2011, and asked her what would happen after a year under sand. She told me all the gory details, which meant, thankfully, that I didn’t have to follow in her footsteps and visit a Body Farm…
Then I reach the point that I am now at with novel #3 – the proper first draft. The one that I will be sending out to my agent and my editor. The yikes one.
I need a deadline, so I agree it with the interested parties, then I portion up the time and give myself daily deadlines. Mini–targets: it’s the only way to go. You can’t stop till you meet your daily word count, but you are allowed to go over, and feel suitably fabulous.
Then, dear reader, I lock myself away and I write. And that’s what I’m going to do now with novel #3. See you in three months’ time!
Actually, that’s not strictly true, because I’ve got the launch of Every Vow You Break on 29 March, and I’ll be going about talking, blogging and writing about it all the time as well. But you get my drift.
Resources (things I just can’t do without):
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott