How I Write a Book – Step 2

As I’m snowed in with the kids – no school - I can’t write fiction or edit as they are too distracting and keep asking me daft questions about food (daughter’s obsession) and trains (son’s), but I can blog! Lucky you, eh?! This is the second in the occasional series on How I Write a Book – part 1 was on ideas, characters etc. This one is on plotting and getting started. I’ll use The Shoestring Club as an example as it’s the book I’m working on at the moment.

Darn, my fingers are so cold I can hardly type – OK, quick hand heat on the aga and here we go.

Now first the disclaimer: Every writer writes in a very, very different way. This is just the way I do it. And I’m certainly not suggesting it will work for everyone. It doesn’t even work for me sometimes! So take everything I say with a large sea rock of salt.

First comes 1/ The Initial Idea and 2/ The Characters or sometimes 1/ The Characters and 2/ The Idea I will also know my genre and age group – easy choices for me – but maybe not for everyone. For more details see the previous post ‘How I Write a Book Step 1 – you will find it in This Writer’s Life’.

So once I have my initial idea and characters, I start plotting the whole book. Before I start writing chapter one I will have a good idea of the date the book starts – yes, the actual date – 1st May, 3rd June etc – I use a calendar for this to make it accurate and I’ve taken to writing the date of the particular scene after the chapter number – it helps with the editing process and my editors appreciate it. It makes sense really, don’t know why I didn’t do it before. The dates come out for the final edit and book of course.

I then decide how long the book will span – a month, a year etc. Then I pick my starting point – usually this is bang in the middle of the action. I sometimes open with dialogue, mainly involving my main character. But don’t worry about openings yet, get your first draft down, that’s the nb thing!

Back to plotting. I grab my yellow legal notebook – always yellow – and start at chapter one and map out the different scenes. Now, these always change when I write the actual chapters, but it gives me the confidence to start writing. And then I update the plot plan constantly as I go along.

Think about your characters and your plot as often as you can – when walking, commuting, showering, in bed etc. The more you think, the easier it will be to write. KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. I can’t say it often enough. You will get to know them even better during your drafts too.

In the case of The Shoestring Club I knew exactly how the last 1/3 of the book was going to play out as I’d thought about it so much, and knew the characters backwards, and when it came to writing the scenes, they played out in my head and I just wrote what I was seeing happen. It’s a hard thing to describe, but if you know your characters and know how they will act and respond to different situations, it just flows. Sometimes my plot notes are vague and short, it’s just a quick sketch of a scene – here are the notes for the early chapters of The Shoestring Club. I’ve added bits in brackets to explain a bit.

Chapter 1 In the shop – Shoestring Pandora and Jules (Jules is the main character, Pandora is her sister) Flashback to what happened to Jules at Ed and Lainey’s engagement party (Ed is Jules’s ex and Lainey is her ex best friend) Chapter 2 Arietty comes into shop Arietty and Jules conspire over coffee to set up the Shoestring Club to share the dress The Shoestring Club is a time-sharing club for designer dresses. (Shoestring is the name of Pandora’s shop where Jules works. It’s a second hand designer shop.) Chapter 4 Ed comes into the shop – Jules upset – Bird (her granny who also works in the shop) sees how upset she is Flashback to Jules and her mum – Kirsten – dies when Jules is 9 – background of her relationship with Pandora etc

This all changed a lot and the early chapters are now completely different – but it gave the first draft a structure and allowed me to start writing in the first place.

The Opening

For the first draft, just start writing. Don’t agonise for weeks over your opening, just write. Fix the opening later.

So now you have 1/ your idea 2/ your characters 3/ some sort of plot plan (not everyone plots – if you are the kind of person who likes to know where their passport is weeks before a holiday, you may be a plotter!). The next step is writing the first draft. And to be honest, it’s just hard graft. But next time I’ll deal with motivation and the sticky half way point. Until then, happy writing.

And Happy Christmas and New Year’s of course. I hope all your writing dreams come true in 2011.

Yours in writing, Sarah XXX