Monthly Archives: September 2012

Creative writing courses

My book writing has slowed a little the past couple of days while I look after my 16 month old who has his first case of man flu (which as any man will tell you, can be deadly). While this has temporarily slowed progress on my first draft, in the small snatches of time where he doesn’t need attention I have been able to do a couple of things that I’ve been putting off.
The first is more research on the more technical aspects of the novel. I now have at least a basic understanding of the technology behind In vitro meat and human growth hormone, a phrase I never thought I’d ever write.
Secondly I’ve been able to have a look at a couple of free creative writing courses. The two I am looking at are the Open University’s Creative writing – Fiction (also available online here – thanks Jo) and Creative Writing: A master class, both available on iTunesU which has always been part of iTunes but now been updated with it’s own app in the latest iOS 6 release for iPhone and iPad. I’ll review each in detail separately in later blogs but I really do recommend you to look at them purely on the strength of their many interviews with famous authors, all talking about different aspects of their craft. What comes across is that there are many different ways to approach writing and that you need to find what works for you. At the same time there are certain areas you need to think through carefully before starting off and each Author provides ideas to help you think each stage through properly. And they’re free! So what’s stopping you from having a look?

3 days, 2 Chapters, 24 pages and 8000 words

I’m a few days into the writing process and here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

  • I need a few more characters than I first envisaged
  • It’s much easier to write descriptions if it’s based on somewhere I know well
  • Picking character names is much easier with the help of a random name generator
  • When it comes to understanding the more esoteric aspects of technology, wikipedia is my friend
  • I love writing

My plan is to carry on writing all the way through the first draft without stopping. Apparently (according to Will Self) it’s the best way of making sure you capture everything while it’s still fresh. Once complete, I can then spend a lot of time editing and rewriting the things I’m not happy with. However, the temptation to play with what I’ve already written is huge. I already know how I want to alter the first section of Chapter 1 to make it even more interesting and there is a large piece of exposition (also in Chapter 1) that I want to break up and disguise as the book goes on (I must remember: Show not Tell, Show not Tell).

It may be a while before I post again as I really am trying to avoid distractions, but please don’t stop sending in comments, support and tips, either here or through Facebook. They all really are appreciated and I promise to come back to you all properly once I trust myself a bit more.

We have lift off

I couldn’t help myself. I know when writing a book you are meant to plan, plan then plan some more. Each character is expected to be rounded, with a full bio behind them so you are clear on what they would be likely to do in any given situation. The problem is, I want to write.

For the past 3 weeks I have been creating and developing my plot, looking at the key characters, revising and rewriting the plot, refining the characters, reviewing and further refining the plot until, frankly, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to start. So I have.

I have started chapter 1 of my novel. I spent the first 20 minutes playing around with how exactly I was going to start the book and then I remembered some great advice I read by Neil Gaiman in his top 10 tips for writers of fiction.

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

So I set off and 3 hours later I am 2500 words into my first novel. What have I learnt?

  1. The first part of my chapter sets the scene and describes one of the lead characters, without literally describing him, while at the same time introducing us to the world around us. This I found incredibly hard to do and I’m not that happy with the results so far (but hey, it’s my first time and my first draft, what did I expect?)
  2. I found dialogue relatively straight forward and great fun to write. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to those that know me, I do like to talk.
  3. I loved the writing process and want to carry on. I know I am only 1 day in but this was my biggest worry.

So, 1% down, 99% to go.

This is more fun than I thought

As probably mentioned already, I had a very romantic notion about writing, which was very quickly quashed by a few days of Internet research. One of the things that often gets mentioned is what hard work writing is, how you need to knuckle down and plan carefully before you start actually writing your novel.

It must be how I’m programmed but so far, doing all the background work such as structuring the plot and defining the characters has been great fun. My last post was all about the frustration of finding plot holes and glitches in your idea, but actually it’s just a great big puzzle where the only set of rules are logic and realism.

Over the past week and a half I’ve written over 10,000 words and I still haven’t written a single word of my novel. As it stands, its unlikely that I’ll write a word of my novel for at least a few weeks more, but do you know what? I’m loving it!

Developing a plot is like hanging wallpaper

It’s been a tough day. You look at the newly papered wall with pride, noticing how perfectly aligned each panel is with its adjacencies. The disaster of the upside down sheet is swiftly forgotten as you bask in the glory of all that you have achieved. As your gaze lingers on the wall, the sunlight breaks out from behind the clouds, lighting up the room and illuminating a million dust motes dancing their brownian dance.

It’s then you notice the bubble.

Not to worry, it’s small enough that it can be easily dealt with. You pick up the brush from your workbench and smooth the offending blemish with ease. A quick step back to review and you find that it has gone, though another has risen to it’s left. Without thinking you deploy your brush quickly, extinguishing all evidence of the bubble’s existence before spotting two more, one above and one diagonally down to the right. You brush the top one only to see it pop up again, right beside where you just brushed!

It’s at that point you place your cheek to the wall, using the light that only a moment ago was your friend, to highlight the full lunar surface before you.

With every ounce of your being you master your emotions, slowly step backwards, place the brush back on your workbench

and contemplate closing the curtains.

So, yesterday I was happy with how my plot was developing. I had a good outline with enough detail to allow me to start developing the bio’s of the main characters in the novel. Part of developing a bio involves looking at each character’s goals and motivations, and at the same time plotting their individual story lines. It was during this phase I started to notice the bubbles.

Character X couldn’t possible have done Y because it’s totally out of character.  At the same time A couldn’t have happened because character B hasn’t been told about C yet as it won’t occur for another two chapters.

You start to adjust a character’s bio but then the character becomes less believable. You then adjust the plot but it raises further issues downstream. As a mental exercise it is both really exciting and really frustrating. How can this be happening? I’m the person making it all up for christ sakes!

The good news is I now have a more robust plot and haven’t had to resort to either a dream sequence or an amazing coincidence. The bad news is that I’m only half way through the character bio process and this is not including any new characters I may have to introduce to resolve as yet unforeseen issues. I’m also in the process of pulling together a timeline to double check everything is in order.

I can’t wait until I actually start writing.

Capturing ideas

Why do ideas hit you at the most inopportune moments? Driving a car, in the park, making dinner, even changing a nappy. I’ve had ideas for my novel in all these situations with no easy way to record them. You do your best to remember them but by the time you are ready to jot them down they are either gone or have lost their clarity. I wonder how much brilliance has been lost through a random interruption or through the lack of a pencil.

Paul McCartney famously dreamt the song “Yesterday” and wrote it down quickly after waking in the night before going back to sleep. Paul McCartney obviously didn’t have a sleep deprived wife next to him at the time…..

How to write a novel

I’ve no idea whether I’m similar to most prospective writers but the desire to write a novel has never until this point been followed by the question; how do you go about writing one?

For me this is really two questions, “what will I write about?” and secondly, “what methodology should I use to plan and structure a novel?”

While I don’t want to go into too much detail regarding plot ideas, the “what will I write about?” part was relatively easy. I first sat down and and thought about what type of things I’m interested in. I like politics and I’m very concerned at the direction politics in Western countries seems to be heading. I’m also interested in technology and our ability to overcome illness and disease. If I set the novel in the future, this would give me plenty of opportunity to give my perspective of where we could be heading. I then thought about the type of stories I liked to read. I love thrillers, plots with a lot of energy, twists and turns so you had no idea at the beginning of the book where it would end up. This was the start point for my overarching plot.

It’s at this point though that I thought I’d do a little research on how to plan and structure a novel. I might be a little naive but whenever I envisaged myself writing a novel, I just thought I’d come up with a rough idea and off I go. Stephen King often said that when he started a book he often had no idea how it would end. A couple if minutes on Google soon persuaded me that this wasn’t necessarily a good idea with your first book.

There are a number of authors who are happy to start with a rough idea and then keep writing but this is rare. Most have some form of methodology and nearly everyone agrees that you should have a well structured methodology before starting your first novel.

The good news is, there is an awful lot of information on how to structure a novel. The bad news is that there is a lot of disagreement on how to do this effectively and a lot of contradictory information. Most of the online information is there to give you a a flavour of a methodology before you then fork out for a book or online course.

As this is my first novel I decided to use a methodology called the Snowflake method (the website looks a bit suspect but the theory is good), because it was similar to the work I had been doing. In simple terms it is basic project management (how do you eat an elephant, a small piece at a time) which is something I’m very familiar with.

In the Snowflake Method you start with a broad plot, starting with a one liner as such as “A man is denied his birthright so goes into hiding and takes his revenge by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor”. From this point you gradually go into more detail, planning out your story “How did he lose his birthright?, Where does he hide? Was he on his own?” until you identify a set of characters. With the characters you start to build up their background and their motivations (“The lead character was a nobleman’s son”, “he came back from the war and saw the land was ruled by a despot”) and plotting out the story line of each character, how it develops and how it changes them during the story. As you go on, you take your time expanding each initial line or each step so that by the time you are ready to do the actual writing, you have a detailed plan of exactly what happens and when.

So this is where I am at the moment. I’ve got an overarching plot based around 4 main characters and a host of others. I’ve developed a bio for each of the main characters and a number of the minor characters and I’m in the process of polishing off the main plot and sub plots in the story and structured it into 3 acts. I’m not happy with all details of the plot so far but plan to iron these wrinkles out over the next few days.