I’m very much the type of person who likes sit down at his laptop at nine every morning to begin work. If I don’t, I feel as though I’m trying to make up minutes—and words—for the rest of the day. Comfort, for me, is found inside the rigidity of a schedule. Discomfort lurks on the outside. Whichever I find often affects my day’s work.
This month, I changed things up.
I listened to my body more. I began work when it felt right, not when I felt I had to. Beforehand, if I wanted to read more of my book, I did. If I wanted to take Cassie for a longer walk, I did.
By half-nine I was usually at my laptop. Ten, on a couple of rare days. (I really was enjoying Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie.) I then wrote as normal. Except it wasn’t quite normal. By the end of each day I was usually happier with the amount and quality of what I’d written. (Whether or not I’ll still think that when I come to re-read it is another matter, but at this stage it’s far more important to have that belief; it’s a vital, fragile, self-sustainable fuel.)
February was in fact a good month, largely because it didn’t go to plan.
My target for the month was to produce 13,000 words. I missed that by over 1,200. That’s not a huge amount, but I set myself targets that aren’t just supposed to be met but obliterated. Doing so is good for morale. (The less said about not doing so, the better!)
By the second week I’d begun to struggle with what I was writing. I had all these great—he says—ideas, I just couldn’t get them onto the page in a way that I was happy with.
So I stopped writing.
And I went back to planning.
While this may have worried me last month, I didn’t find see it as a problem.
For the most part, I’ve always viewed planning and writing as two distinct, separate stages of an overall process, bridged by the welcome smattering of developing ideas. Once I’m writing, I don’t like to plan excessively, otherwise it feels like I’m taking a step back.
For me, though, I’ve finally discovered that planning and writing are a left and right foot, steps to be taken simultaneously, side-by-side.
By not restricting myself to a schedule, I allowed myself to take the time out of writing to look at what wasn’t going well and how I might fix it. With my trusty sketching pad and biro, I noted down everything that I wanted to cover in what I soon became to call Part One. After a few days, I had enough notes to type up into a new document. (Forever living in fear of losing the physical copies of my work, I’m always making digital back ups. Though, thanks to my spidery scrawl, they’re much easier to read!) I continued to work on this for about a week, adding and developing ideas, outlining certain scenes, testing for weaknesses, and making my story leaner.
As Everborne is the first book I’ve written, I’m working everything out by trial and error, including whether I’m a plotter or a pantser. I’m quite attracted to the latter, especially as the former can produce a rigid, less-organic story and as many of my most influential authors are self-professed pantsers.
But what works for one person doesn’t always work well for another. For me, I’ve found it invaluable to plan Part One. By breaking the book into Parts, my ideas—and how they should appear on the page—have become much clearer. However, I haven’t planned everything. I like think of my Part One plan as skeleton; the meat gets added when I write.
Once I had a fairly substantial amount of typed notes, I returned to writing, trying out various point-of-views and styles to see what I liked best. Despite my planning, I couldn’t quite settle on the start. In particular, I had a scene and a main character I wanted to begin with, but I also wanted to build up to that beforehand with another POV character.
That’s another thing. I’m trying to be less concerned by what will appear on the final page and what won’t. With this draft—alongside my planning—I’m trying to discover the story as I go and make it the best it can be. To anyone else, my manuscript probably looks a mess in some places. I’ve written scenes, unsure of where they’ll fit, just so I can flesh out characters and backstory. But that’s OK. It’s fine for now. My focus has shifted from the amount and quality of words written to a simple question: Am I happy with the story?
That’s my focus. While the amount and quality of words written is still very important, they are going to change over drafts, even disappear if the story demands it. So I’ve really tried to embrace the idea that the story comes first. It doesn’t matter whether I’ve written, planned, or done both in a day. All that matters is I’m working on the story in some way and that I’m happy with it.
I expect this approach is how I will continue to write Everborne. By writing and planning Parts at a time, I will incorporate both plotter and pantser approaches. I will plan enough to feel comfortable, but not too much to find myself restricted. In particular, other than a few helpful starting points, I like to discover character as a I write. As characters affect the story (and vice versa), I can plan each Part based on the one written before it, hopefully keeping the story organic by avoiding that feeling of shoe-horning characters into the illogical demands of the plot.
Breaking the overall story into Parts certainly helps me to write as it makes the whole approach becomes far less daunting. Having an idea of what’s to come in the following chapters helps to eliminate the anxiety of seeing a pristine white page.
I don’t yet know how many Parts there are, or if they will appear in the book as such, or if they are solely there for my own benefit. At the moment I’m envisioning around ten parts, divided over two narratives: a present and past. While the structure of two narratives has been there for a while, the structure of Parts came from my observation of the modern day audience, which I only became a part of this month when I subscribed to Netflix. (I know, I must be the last person on the planet!)
Arguably the most successful modern stories are being told through the medium of television. While I still want to write a novel, it would be a mistake to ignore the lessons that can be learnt from the storytelling in shows such as Stranger Things, Fargo, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones, Westworld, Breaking Bad, True Detective and many, many more.
I enjoy reading every day; it informs and improves my own writing. But I’m starting to feel like I need to watch more current, successful television as well. That may sound fun—even like a doss—but when I watch something the writer-part of my brain doesn’t, often to Emily’s annoyance, switch off. I analyse the story and learn from it, particularly what is done well and what I think could be done better. I don’t mean this in a snobbish way, either. I’m still learning the craft of writing stories and this is one way that helps me improve.
Although this structure of Parts is new for me and Everborne, it’s not anything that hasn’t been done before. From the books I read last year, several took a similar approach, such as The Fireman by Joe Hill, Wool by Hugh Howey, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. They still incorporate the classic three act structure that all stories (books, television, and film) contain, yet they’re hidden from unsuspecting eyes in a format similar to the episodes in a season of a television series. For me, it makes the story that more exciting, something I hope the reader will also feel.
I’m not for the moment worrying about the Parts ahead. As I’ve planned and started to write Part One, I’ve also made brief notes on Parts Two and Three, as and when the ideas have come to me, though I’ve put these aside for later on. Beyond them, my ideas are vague, non-concrete and ready to be shaped by what story is to come before it.
I have a rough idea (more of an expectation) of the length of Part One, but this may have to be properly realised once I know how many Parts there are and have an overall word count. For now, though, Part One will keep me busy and happy for March.
[Photos taken from one of those longer morning walks with Cassie.]