Discovering the story

So this writing thing is a pretty steep learning curve. I used to think that I planned my stories out in great detail before writing them, because an early experiment in just letting things unfold naturally led to me having to abandon a large chunk of my novel. I decided then that I needed to sort out plot before writing anything in future, so that when it came to the actual writing, I could just concentrate on character and description and dialogue without worrying about where things were headed…

And to be fair, I think that I partially achieved my goal. But the thing is that as you actually write out your carefully planned plot, things start to change. You realise that character has an impact on plot, because your hero suddenly refuses to do something that you had planned for her. And you also realise that perhaps you didn’t think the plot through as carefully as you might have, because you were anxious to get going with the writing, and here you are with a gaping big plot hole. And then, worst of all, you suddenly get a new idea, see something that just makes so much sense, that feels so right and lifts your story up a whole level.

What’s so awful about that, you ask? Because it messes up your carefully planned outline, makes you rewrite before you’ve even finished the first draft, throws out your fantasy about writing being an orderly and planned process of thinking things up and then writing them down in an efficient fashion.

I suppose it must be possible to spend so much time planning, and to do so in sufficient detail, that you do see everything before writing a word, and so all of your planning is the process of discovering the story, at the stage when changes are simple and easy to make. But it’s more likely that for most people, there must remain some element of discovery during the actual writing process, and so where you end up on the planning/discovery continuum probably depends on your patience for rewrites. M Night Shyamalan reportedly did not discover the key to his script for The Sixth Sense - the main character himself being a ghost - until the fifth draft. If you can’t handle doing a rewrite for the nth time, you’ll put more effort into the planning stage next time.

And of course with experience the writer becomes, like a chess grandmaster, able to spot problems and dead ends and to unconsciously close them off before they even arise, whether at the planning or the writing stage. It’s the old thing about writing being a journey. When you start out on a journey you take wrong turnings, you fall down a lot, but all those mistakes teach you to spot the right turning, avoid the pitfalls, and so your progress becomes much faster. This is why most first novels are never published. To think of them as a waste of time and effort, however, is a mistake. The failed first novel paved the way for the second and third and all the rest, in fact was the training ground, the boot camp, that made the writer. And it’s never about just one book, just as the journey is never completed at the first mile marker. To be a writer you have to be able to use your talent to tell many different stories. You are not your work, even though it’s sometimes hard to see that when all you’ve written is the work in progress of your first novel. If it works, fantastic. If it has too many flaws to overcome, leave it, move on to the next story. If the story is compelling enough you can return to it in time and re-tell it with the benefit of your new skills and experience. But you’ll probably find a hundred new stories that you’re itching to tell, and that’s what being a writer is: having more ideas than you’ll ever have the time to tell.

How I Write part II

In the first instalment I covered how I actually generate the text that makes up a book, by bashing it out on my iPhone. But of course there is much more to writing than just putting words into a document. I’m not one of those writers who can just start typing with no idea of how things are going to turn out: I need to outline the plot in a fair amount of detail, using index cards (one card per scene, usually), so that when I am writing, I can just concentrate on the description and the dialogue and so on, without also needing to generate the plot on the fly as well.

Obviously I don’t stick to the index cards slavishly: sometimes things turn out differently from the plan, as I realise that a character would behave in a different way, or if something isn’t working. But it’s what I need to get started. I went through the first couple of drafts of Aeropolis with just index cards and the individual iPhone documents, pasting them all into a big Word document when I wanted to revise, or give them to my beta readers (at that stage, it was only my wife). This was a huge pain, and it was then that I heard about Scrivener, through a writer friend.

Scrivener is writing software that was developed from the ground up (by a writer) to be a fantastic writing tool, and it succeeds in this task admirably. It’s an incredibly comprehensive offering, with tools that are useful for a wide range of writing, from journalism to academic articles, to screenplays, and of course, novels. The brilliant thing about Scrivener from my perspective is that it uses a system of individual documents, one per scene usually, that you can split, merge, drag around to put into a different order, et cetera, and then compile into a single complete document at the press of a button. In one of its views, you can even represent the individual documents as index cards!

So it was fairly straightforward, conceptually, for me to transfer all of my individual iPhone documents into Scrivener, and once this was done I was even able to synchronise Scrivener with the Elements folder in Dropbox, so that any writing or editing which I did on the iPhone was updated to my Scrivener project whenever I did a sync. Fantastic!

I was greatly aided in this endeavour by David Hewson’s Writing a Novel with Scrivener. David is the author of the popular Nic Costa thrillers, set in Rome, but his informative blog posts on his writing techniques have fascinated and informed me in equal measure. And this book is just wonderful, setting out in great detail how he uses Scrivener to produce his awesome output, with plenty of invaluable tips and tricks.

Scrivener makes revisions a lot easier, because you can easily see the flow of plot in the novel. You can even track things like point of view, so that you can compile a single point of view into one document, to check that it makes sense on a standalone basis. Structural problems become easier to see and to solve.

I use both paper and Kindle to revise, and Scrivener can output a very serviceable Kindle file, or a Word document. You can choose at the compile stage how the document should flow together, with page breaks and chapter headings (auto numbered if you desire), and of course you can recompile with different settings within seconds if something isn’t quite right.

I’ve heard it said that whenever two writers get together the conversation almost invariably turns, sooner or later, to a discussion of how great Scrivener is. I can well believe it.