How I did it….

….or how I organised myself to write that first book….

This post is about the best way I found to write the first novel. I’m sure that there are many approaches, but this post describes the approach that I found worked for me.

I’ve been an avid thriller reader over many years, but never really stopped to think about the construction of a thriller. Now as I started writing my own books I was faced with all these aspects to consider:

What’s Different About a Novel?

A novel – a piece of fiction – means that you both have to invent the story and then tell it.

We all have different ways of working, and writing a novel is quite different to writing a textbook or instruction manual (I’ve written a couple of those).

A textbook or instruction manual has a structure which is imposed by the topic or syllabus – say Grade 2 Math, or the piece of machinery – say a DVD player.

However, with a novel you have to build the structure yourself.

Starting Out, Writing Styles and Perspectives

I had to find a writing style that suited me, my vocabulary and my market (techno-thriller readers). In fact my style is a mixture between factual reporting about technology and technology trends, and straight narrative – ie story telling, with dialogue as well.

When I started, I just sat down with an idea for a story and my laptop. Then as I wrote the first chapter, I realised I’d have to decide the ‘person’ in which I’d write the story. That is, I am I the main character (or one of the characters) or am I talking about the ‘hero’ from an external standpoint.

Yes, I know, I really prepared myself (irony)!

Some people start by going to a writers school. Others buy a book (I did in fact buy such a book many years ago – I think it was called ‘Is There A Book In You?’). I’m sure that these days there are DVD sets which lead you right through the process, plenty of web site and guides, eBooks – it is easy to find help.

Keep Focused

I’d heard that the way to do it was to write a few chapters and then start sending them to publishers. I tried that – a thoroughly disheartening process. I have heard that some people send as many as a thousand letters to publishers. I wrote three chapters and went through the submission process (half-heartedly, I’ll admit). Then, I thought – (swearword), what if someone took me up on this and paid me to complete the book?

That was 6 years ago. So, instead of writing my book, the publishing process got in the way and I got disheartened and moved on to other things.

Then this last year, I got in to writing and selling ebooks (under a different name), and found out about self publishing on the web.

A close friend persuaded me to go back to my novel – I felt more hopeful now that there were mechanisms for publishing myself.

Organising My Writing

After that interlude of several years, I re-opened the chapters and read them, and thought “this is not bad stuff after all”.

So, I tried to map out the story – I hadn’t done that before though I had created a synopsis to accompany my submissions to publishers. I started writing chapters again.

Now, I don’t have the sort of brain that copes well with multiple plots and storylines, and the chapters were becoming muddled, as was my brain. This was one of the reasons I stopped all those years ago – I thought that it was beyond my capabilities (though I had come away with the feeling that I could tell a story).

So one day, I tore the chapters apart and organised them into ‘threads’ – basically each thread told the story of one character or aspect of the story.

I identified these threads as, for example, Climax 1, Main Plot, Climax 2. It seems to work well for me. I do write occasional paragraphs which crosslink the threads – the threads don’t each exist in total isolation from each other as I write. Obviously, as the climaxes are built, then the threads become more intimate (if you know what I mean). And no, I wasn’t writing sexual thrillers.

Each thread is written in blocks  – a block being an event or a few paragraphs of information or extrapolation (this novel is set in the near future).

Ultimately, in the final edit, I interweave the threads and divide the complete story into Chapters.

Some writers pin large sheets of paper on the wall, each sheet recording the details of each character – physical description, background, personal aspects and so on.

This can be done conveniently using, say, a spreadsheet. That works for me as I travel a lot, but it certainly is not as handy as being able to look up from your desk and read it straight off the wall.

Hanging Endings

I’m now up to about 50,000 words and learning how to end my ‘blocks’ with hooks or hanging endings to maintain the interest of the reader and encourage them to pick up that thread later on. It also maintains continuity e.g.

Block ends ..”and that would be the next step in the plan.”

When thread restarts…”The next step would be to…”

That is a very simple illustration, but hopefully conveys the idea (my actual writing is far ‘richer’ than that, I hope!) In reality, there’s a bit more substance there to provide the continuity and help the reader remember where the thread left off previously, and think “Ah yes, I remember …” and thereby maintain interest.

Background Research

I put a lot of factual background into my work, and having immediate access to the internet means that research is done on the fly. I doubt that I could work in the way that novelists did before the web came along. I do need to cross check facts though – not everything you read on the web can be believed (surprise, surprise) – and some research has to be revisited later.

On my laptop I keep a folder of links to web sites and sources.

Keeping Focus and Tracking my Progress

Yes, that word ‘focus’ again!

I keep a spreadsheet workbook which has several sections:

– Daily Progress

I track the number of words in the thread on daily basis and set myself a goal of 1500 words a day, 10,000 words a week. You’ll see a sample further down this post.

– Rework Sheet
This keeps track of areas where I need to rework the story or the writing itself. I also put [RECHECK OR REWRITE] in the text where I run out of steam.

– Background Calculations
Some of the story involves numbers – aircraft ranges, commodity prices – eg gold, and so on. I keep all these calculations together.

– Timeline
This is sheet which has a simple calendar and allows me to make sure that the threads and dates used maintain their coherence in the story, recording events in the sheet against dates and seasons.

Working Method

I aim to write 500 words before breakfast, 500 words late morning and 500 words late afternoon.

Often, I run out of ideas on a thread and then need a day or two to come up with the way forward for that thread.

With several threads on the go at a given time, when I run out of steam on one, then there are others I can work on and thereby maintain progress.

Way back, years ago, I doubted that I could develop complexity in a plot. Now, as I write a thread, a situation might arise and I think “How will he/she get out of that?”

Then, a couple of days later, I have the idea – maybe in the shower – of how the situation will be resolved and start writing again. In this way, plot complexity almost develops itself, and the size of the book grows (being able to write ‘enough’ was a major concern for me early on). After a time I gained confidence that I would solve the conundrums (or is that conundra?) as they cropped up.

So, that is a KEY POINT for me – my stories develop themselves, and it really is a fascinating way to work.

Occasionally, I will feel ‘blocked’ – so I’ve come to understand what ‘writer’s block’ is – but then I’ll open another thread, maybe do a bit of rework and add a few paragraphs. That’s still progress and it takes my mind off the blockage in the other thread. I call it parallel writing. There’s no way I could write a book in sequence from beginning to end, I just don’t have the brain for it.

I record my daily wordcount progress, by thread in the spreadsheet.

Here’s a sample:


THREAD 17-Nov 21-Nov 28-Nov 05-Dec 06-Dec
Encryption 3151 3966 5237 7606 7770
Research 680 1325 1325 1325 1325
Baldwin 5075 5075 12390 14416 15159
Climax1 862 862 862 862 862
Climax2 1848 1848 3492 4485 5313
Climax 3 600 600
Hijack 1530 1530 1530 1530 1530
Plot 5030 6292 9420 12403 12403
Process 1470 2323 2323 2944 2944
Total 19646 23221 36579 46171 47906
Day 1733 734 2312 1735
Week 3575 13358 6426 6279
average 8466.5 9892 3139.5

So, I do fall short of my target, but hey – this is a creative process!

Now, I know that more words doesn’t mean more quality, and maybe 20% of what I write will not be in the final version after I have woven the threads and blocks together, but it does keep a focus and a target in sight.

I expect the completed version to run to maybe 120,000 words.

Other Activities

As I proceed with the writing, I have other activities which I also work on:

– the marketing plan for the novel, requiring article writing, web site preparation (book and author), biography, blog and so on.

– learning about web based self publishing – the various mechanisms, the ‘trade’ language about sizes, layouts, cover graphics and so on. I’m not sure yet precisely how I will go about it, but there is plenty of guidance on the Amazon POD (print on demand) site  – this company has come in for some criticism in the blogs, but is a useful resource.

– deciding on graphics, cover design
– ISBN number
– how to ensure that I am on the trade book lists

Fortunately many of these tasks only need be done once for one’s first book.

There will be more to follow this post, so click the link, become a follower and track my progress!