Saturday, August 24, 2013

It never gets easier - and that's OK!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from drafting novels, it’s that the idea that it gets easier with each book is a myth. Every book brings a new set of problems, but I’ve found that every book also teaches me something new about writing.

My first novel, which was a long and rambling mess I started when I was 14, taught me two things: the importance of planning; and great characters do not a great novel make. I’d invented the characters when I was only 9 and they recurred in most short stories I wrote, but I knew they were destined for a greater purpose: a novel. The problem was that I was very good at starting stories, but terrible at finishing them. They either dwindled or were abandoned. At some point I realised: I’d have to start actually planning my books if I ever wanted a hope of finishing them! So I learnt the importance of outlining. I also learned the importance of writing every day, and sticking to one path. The constant changes had left my first novel a complete mess, but I knew that there was something salvageable in there.

But there were more things I’d neglected in the process of writing this first book, which was planned as the first in a long series: world-building, for one. I kept changing ideas for future books based on whims and every time, I’d need to rewrite most of the first book. But I never got to the heart of the problem: I didn’t really know anything about the world I’d set my books in! Not good. But when I came to rewrite that same book a few years later, I’d discovered the wonderful world of the Internet, and found a fantastic set of worldbuilding questions which really helped. Progress!

I also discovered the ‘snowflake method’ of planning a novel, which Kimberly mentioned in her last post. This was a godsend for me, as I was painfully aware of a problem I’d failed to address – I had a lot of ideas, but no plot. Well, not a clearly defined one, anyway.

So over the course of the next couple of years, I worked on the steps of the ‘snowflake’ – which involves writing a 1-sentence summary of the whole book, then a 1-paragraph summary and character arcs for each of the main players. I knew the characters extremely well, but my perfectionism meant that this took a while! I then tackled the summaries stage, writing 1 page for each book, then expanding to 4 pages per book, and writing summaries from the perspective of each main character. This whole process took about a year. Yep –I didn’t do things by halves! Then came detailed character profiles, and spreadsheets outlining every scene in each book, and more summaries…

If there’s one thing all this taught me, it’s that you can do TOO much planning. That became painfully clear when it came to the point when, after months of drafting, I was ready to send my first novel to agents. I wrote the book in summer 2010, did at least five re-edits and got feedback, rewrote again, honed my query and synopsis…this time, I didn’t do a step wrong, but all I got were rejections. Finally, I sought advice from an industry professional…and was told my idea wasn’t original enough.

Yes. Ten years of work…useless. Or so I thought. This was the next vital lesson: nothing is ever wasted. And it’s true. I shelved that book, but I’ve been borrowing extensively from it ever since. Characters, plot points, ideas. All the same, it was unbelievably hard to start a new project completely from scratch after so many years living in this world. But that turned out to be a good thing. My new book, The Puppet Spell, taught me the importance of breaking away from old ideas and doing something completely different, and how to put the fun back into writing! I used an outline but didn’t do anywhere near as much intense planning as I had with my last book, with the result that I had a complete blast with this one. There were moments of uncertainty and I did have to do a lot of rewriting, but ultimately, it was fun. It’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s more to writing than getting published, and publication wasn’t in mind at all when I wrote the book.

Now I approach all my projects the same way: I write an outline and do all the worldbuilding beforehand, but the first draft retains that wonderful feeling of adventure – and the fear that comes with it! Each book has its own challenges – I’ve written four series books and each has been a slightly different experience, and now I’m working on a standalone in a genre I’ve never written in before. I’ve now written seven books and each has brought new challenges and fears, and I can confidently say that it doesn’t get easier. But that can be a good thing!

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1 comment:

  1. I just started to use the Snowflake Method for outlining and I find it helps me. The more I plan, the more creative my writing is -- the less time I spend wondering what happens next so I can have more fun with language.

    But I agree, too much planning can kill the spirit of the book and your drive.