Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spew of Consciousness, or How I Write a Novel


Right, you didn’t ask for this, but you’re going to get it anyway: a blow-by-blow description of how I write a novel.

When I first switched from short stories to novels, I found it hard to transit, for the simple fact that once I had written any more than 3,000 words I felt the need to compulsively edit them until they were perfect. This didn’t work for me, which I realized one day when I looked at the file names of a book I was working on. I had only three chapters, at v17, v18, and v21 respectively. It had taken me almost a year to get to this point. Clearly I had a problem.

So, I resolved to mend my ways and ban any editing until I had a full first draft. From this simple decision, the following method evolved. It won’t work for everybody, but this is now the only way I can get it done.

Draft 1

Probably the best way to describe my early-stage writing process is ‘Spew of Consciousness’. For the last seven weeks, I have been sitting at my laptop barfing up ideas, plot twists, character quirks, thematic concepts, scenes and general mind frippery onto the page as soon as they occurred to me. The result is 74,000 words of the first draft of the sequel to Apocalypse Cow.

This jumble of words can only be called a book in the loosest sense of the word. It’s more akin to the first stage of putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle: the bit where you take all of those colourful little cutouts and turn them face up on the floor, perhaps making a half-hearted effort to find the corners and some of the edges, and hope your children don’t come rampaging through to kick them everywhere or jam them up their noses.

The purpose of this draft is simply to get everything in plain view, so I have a vague idea which characters are going to do what and when and, crucially, how it is going to end.

Draft 2

Now comes the laborious task of putting all these pieces together in the right order.

I will create complete profiles of every character in the book (as opposed to my early profiles hitting only the main points), even the minor ones. Each one will have histories full of details that won’t make it in the final text, physical descriptions, and arcs where appropriate (pop up, get eaten by a zombie badger isn’t really an arc). Since I have about 17, that’s going to take some work.

I will create a document laying out all of the rules for my world to ensure everybody and everything behaves as they should.

I will draw up a very large timeline on flip-chart paper, with the different POVs on different lines, that shows the major developments in plot and character. This is useful to provide me with an easy way of visualizing how the pace is progressing and whether I’m neglecting any one character for too long.

I will write a full and detailed outline of the book.

Once all of this is in place, I will go through the second draft turning all my notes and placeholders into proper scenes, with an eye mainly on pacing and inconsistencies in plot in terms of both reveals and placement of crucial elements.

Draft 3

I will go through it POV by POV (skipping chapters that change to other characters) to ensure I have the voices and actions/thoughts/emotions of these characters correct. This will include reading out every line of dialogue, perhaps in silly voices approximating each character, to make sure it sounds real.

Draft 4

I will go through it focusing on ensuring the rules of the world are followed everywhere.

Draft 5

I will go through it to check every ounce of comic potential is squeezed out.

Draft 6

I will go scene-by-scene and line-by-line to ensure the prose makes the story live and breathe.

Draft 7

By this point completely sick of the damn thing, I will start to despair and tell myself this is the biggest pile of dross ever written, but I will soldier on to check for typos and other little errors introduced by my constant editing.

Draft 8

With a complete manuscript, I will ask a group of readers to have a look at it and rip it to shreds (I always ask my readers to focus on what’s wrong, not what’s write. I will then gather all their feedback, consider what I agree with and don’t agree with, and go through it again.

Draft 9

I will then read it again, obsessively, just in case I’ve missed anything.

Draft 10

I will then compose an email to my agent, attach the manuscript and outline, and then hover with the mouse over the ‘send’ button. I will then delete this email, and go back to have one last look, honest. During this phase, I will catch loads of small mistakes and probably decide to make a few significant changes. Finally, exhausted and wondering why I ever became a writer, I will send it off and then spend the next couple of months expecting to get an email rejecting my latest work.