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Books

Wrote for luck (or: odds and sods I’ve picked up from writing a book)

I mentioned the other week that I’d written a book and promised to share some of the things I’ve picked up about the writing process, submitting to agents and all that stuff. And then I didn’t. Sorry, it’s been one of those weeks.

This is one of those posts for which the phrase “your mileage may vary” was coined: things that worked for me may not work for you, things that matter to me might not matter to you, resources that I’ve found may not be useful to you in the slightest, and it’s entirely possible that my book is a big load of shite that doesn’t deserve to be published. But on the off chance that some of this might be helpful, I’ll post it anyway.

What I did wrong the last 200 times I tried to write a book

I know this sounds incredibly basic, but the one thing my various abandoned book ideas have in common is that I eventually realised that I wasn’t interested in them. The plot didn’t work, or I had a brilliant start but no idea where to go from there, or my hero was an utter dick. Unsurprisingly, the books quickly ran out of steam, with cries of “this sucks!”, “This is too hard!” and “What a dick!” respectively.

This time out I had a rough idea of the whole thing (although it changed a lot as I scribbled) and more importantly, I liked the characters I’d come up with. It’s not in the text, but I know what kind of music they like, I know what kind of beer they’d drink, I know what they’d find funny and I reckon they’d be a hoot to go for a drink with. And because I know that, a lot of the writing process involved me sitting in the pub thinking “Okay, X needs to do this. How would he go about it? He wouldn’t do it that way or that way. Would he…?”

The other big mistake I’ve made in the past is trying to write in my usual writing environment. Obviously if you don’t write words for a living this probably won’t be an issue for you, but for me the combination of particular hardware and software keeps me in work mode, not making-stuff-up mode.

What I found really effective was to get away from computers altogether and work in a notebook (a paper one), with a nice pen, in the pub. When it was time to put it on the PC I used Apple’s Pages (I use MS Word for work) on the Mac or Office 2007 on the PC (which I don’t use for work words at all).

You need to make room to write

One of the other differences between writing on a PC and writing on paper is that unless you’ve got special magic paper, you aren’t constantly distracted by incoming emails, tweets, system boings, pop-ups and all the other crap that you get on a computer. A bit of distraction isn’t bad – it’s nice to let your mind wander and listen to music, and if you’re writing somewhere like a pub or a coffee shop the odd overheard conversation can give you ideas for dialogue – but for me the right environment was away from computers, mobile phone switched off, hunched over a notebook in the corner of the pub.

I found I needed a routine too. Pub night worked for me, as did scribbling in the early morning/late night when everybody was either still in bed or had gone to bed. I didn’t even think about the book during office hours (roughly 8am to 6pm), because that was work time.

The downside of that is that unless you want to spend ten years writing your book, you’ll need to sacrifice things. In my case that meant magazines, books, video games, DVDs, blogging and dicking about on the Internet.

Momentum matters more than details

Writing and editing involve completely different mindsets. I found that I got more done – and stayed cheerier – by ploughing on with the story and not worrying about errors until later. You’ll spend a lot of time editing (I went through six drafts) anyway, so there’s not much point in stopping every couple of pages to look for typos, fix formatting or any of the other things you’ll catch later.

For me at least, the feeling I was making progress was more important than worrying about whether things were adequately described, funny or even comprehensible. Better to write 9 pages that’ll need major editing later than spend six hours on a single sentence, I think. I always find that when I switch mental gears from writing to editing, I can’t switch back again.

You really ought to read Anne Mini’s blog

Author Author is a marvel. Anne Mini goes on a bit – deliberately – and repeats herself a lot – that’s deliberate too – but her blog is the best resource I’ve found for fiction writing. It’s written from the perspective of agency screeners, so a lot of it is how not to write: it details the traps people fall into, the danger of the Frankenstein manuscript and so on. It’s also superb on bigger issues such as how to deal with rejection, how to get the right kind of feedback from family and friends and anything else you might possibly want to know.

No matter how good you are, you’ll make some massive cock-ups

Once you’ve got something approaching a finished draft, it’s a very good idea to get people you trust to look at it – because they will spot all the cock-ups you missed. Stuff that seems obvious to you won’t be to anybody else, you’ll get names mixed up, you’ll have characters doing things that appear to be out of character or that don’t fit with the world you’ve described, and (in my case at least) things you think are really, really funny aren’t. Without help, you won’t spot them all.

You should really buy, borrow or blag a laser printer

You’re going to be doing a lot of printing, even before you start thinking about sending your stuff out (proofreading on paper works in a way that it simply doesn’t on screen. Mistakes jump out at you). A typical supermarket inkjet printer does about 100 pages to an ink cartridge.

I think that’s probably enough for now. I’ll no doubt come back to this in the not too distant future.