Sunday, 3 July 2011

How Not To Write A Book

Last Sunday I finished the second draft of the book I've been working on since November (the first draft was unusual in that it broke off mid-sentence halfway through a scene, without resolving any of the plot, so what I actually mean is that I finished writing the book).

For about two seconds, I felt quite pleased with myself.

Then I realised that, even though this experience has (necessarily) turned me into a person who can write an entire book, beginning, middle and end, it has not had any other magical effect on my character - I am still someone who can spend an entire week sleeping without a pillowcase rather than go down one flight of stairs to pick out a new one, and it still takes me five days to write an email six words long, and I spent the next two days sulking about my ineffectiveness and general lack of purpose.

But anyway, since I now have real-life experience of sitting on my own a lot and stringing a foolish amount of words together, (so many, by the way, that the print-out of my manuscript doesn't fit in the ringbinder I bought for it. Oops.) I have decided to share my dubious wisdom with you, in case you want to do the same, and in the hopes that you won't do any of the damn stupid things that I have along the way. You will, of course, because that is how human beings work, but at least you might now do them in a subtly different way. That's the dream.


Robin's How Not To Write A Book

1. Don't do NaNoWriMo

No, seriously. Don't do it. Just don't. You may think it's a wonderful artsy crafty special lovely idea but the truth is that it is beyond the powers of human endurance to conceive of and write anything even vaguely meaningful in less than 30 days. Yes, Jack Kerouac did write On The Road in three manic coffee-fuelled weeks, but he spent the eight years previous to that living with his material, so he was not just spewing brilliance out of a void.

Last year, I actually managed to win NaNoWriMo, proving that writing 50000 words in one month is indeed physically possible, but when I looked back over what I had written afterwards I discovered that the words I had written were the intellectual equivalent of drool. They made no sense. I was rushing so much that most of my characters did not have either names or personalities, weeks had eight days, plot lines vanished mysteriously and then reappeared again as something completely different, and floating up between every line of text were invisible words that read OH MY GOD I'M RUNNING OUT OF TIME, WHAT AM I EVEN DOING, THIS IS SO AWFUL THAT I WANT TO BE SICK ALL OVER IT.

NaNoWriMo is a very nice idea that, I think, is horribly misused by 99% of the people who do it. It's very useful as a way of learning just how much time you really do have to spend sitting in front of your computer screen to achieve a novel, and of how many words you can actually write in a day if you stop being such a whiny procrastinator, but as a medium for actually writing a book it's awful.

What it should be used for is a jumping-off point for your novel, a way of spitting out all your random thoughts onto a page without the stress of having to create a coherent story for them. If I ever do take part in NaNo again, I think I'd use it as a sort of pre-book warm up: 50000 words of different characters' backstory, maybe, random scenes, place descriptions, world-building and so on, so that when I do begin to write the book for real I've got a useful basis to build on. What I am NEVER GOING TO DO AGAIN is try to write an actual BOOK in A MONTH. Because, dear readers, IT DOES NOT WORK.

That is all.

2. Take Notes

Draw maps of your locations to avoid characters walking out of rooms through windows, or spending time in rooms that shouldn't exist at all, or seeing straight through walls like Superman (unless they are Superman; I don't know your brain).

It's always better when each character has only one name, rather than two or three entirely different ones depending on which scene they are in. Similarly, siblings should share the same surname and entirely unrelated people should not. Endeavour to avoid this by making extensive notes about each of your characters before you begin to write your story.

If you do put down a detail in your story, such as someone's birthday or their hair colour or their uncle's name, make a note of it in your notebook (if you don't have a notebook, you should). Otherwise you'll inevitably forget it and once you've forgotten it it's a hellish faff to trawl through all bajillion pages of your magnum opus to find the one small word you need.

Assume you are stupid and make notes accordingly. Then make more notes. Then make notes about your notes. Notes, in case you have not realised, are really quite useful things.

3. Check Your Details

See above, really. Are your characters listening to their iPods in 1960? Is Tony Blair following a policy of appeasement against Napoleon in the 1930s? Have you given your Victorian servant girl a lifesaving liver transplant? If any of these things are so, you may have a problem.

Read your manuscipt, then read it again, and then read it once more to make sure, and then give it to someone else to read. You will keep on finding mistakes, which will be dispiriting, but at least you will have found them, which is far better than the alternative.

And following on from that:

4. Do Your Research

Always a rather good idea. It's probably better not to do what I did, which was write most of the book and then do the research, at which point I realised that I'd made quite a few really big historical mistakes. Don't do that. Research first! Take notes! Read the notes! Use the notes!

No but seriously. NOTES ARE GOLDEN.

5. Keep Writing (Long Scenes Are Long)

You will not believe how long it takes to write a book. No, really - it's almost impossible to conceive of it. It's like trying to imagine the universe, you just can't do it properly. Sure, you may be able to imagine beginning your book, and then finishing it some time later, and you will be dimly aware that time will pass between those two events, but the reality of the hours and hours you will spend just writing down word after word after word - it's mindblowing. It's probably sublime.

There you are, sitting there, and you begin to write a scene. And you write, and you write, and the scene keeps going, and you write and you write, and the scene keeps going and going, and then you begin to wonder if the scene will ever be done, or whether it will just carry on into eternity - you imagine yourself writing and writing while the world ends and Earth is swallowed up in fire and in water and the last trump sounds and the Beast rises from the Pit and there you'll be, still writing the same scene. You naturally worry that your potential readers may have shrivelled up and died before the end of this particular scene, out of sheer boredom and despair - and then you check how much you've written and see that in five hours you've managed 452 words.

But do not worry, dear potential writer. At some point between here and eternity, you will indeed finish writing your scene, and then you will finish writing your entire book, and then you will feel really weird about it and wonder where your purpose in life has gone.

At this point you should begin writing another book.

6. Retype Your First Draft

By far the most useful piece of advice anyone gave me during the writing of this book actually sprang from a misunderstanding, as all the best bits of advice tend to do. After I had finished my NaNo draft I was about ready to pull a Bulgakov and just feck the damn thing onto the nearest open fire, since it seemed so totally and irredeemably horrid.

Then my friend suggested that I take my first draft and type the whole thing out in a different document, making changes as I went. What she meant, it turned out later, was that I put two document windows up next to each other on my computer screen and do it all from there, but what I actually did was print out my manuscript and type from that into a new file. It felt, comfortingly, as though I was writing an entirely new book, and it made me feel free to alter plot and content at will, safe in the knowledge that I didn't have to keep any of the bits that were crap.

I think there's really something in doing something like this: it's very easy to start thinking that everything you write is unrepeatable genius that needs to be preserved like the Rosetta Stone when in fact about 70% of your output is shitty and strongly in need of deletion. If you wait a bit and then read over what you've written it's easier to work out which is which, and when you're retyping, removing whole scenes feels less painful and more like you're just naturally making your story better. Which you are.

7. Get It Published

I'm totally joking here. I have no idea how to get a book published, though I gather it's something that people do manage sometimes. If you know how to attain this marvellous Holy Grail please do share your wisdom with me. At the moment I've never got further than the Finishing The Book stage - after that, any additional effort seems just far too difficult. What do you mean? I have to do more things now? What am I, a wizard? For god's sake, I can't even put a new pillowcase on my bed.

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