Sunday, 30 May 2010

Planning and Writing a Novel: from Sticky Labels, How-To Books, and Computer Software

It's becoming increasingly difficult to keep this blog up to date. Not because I don't want to update it, but because free time is becoming a rarity! Inkspill Magazine is closing to submissions for Issue 2 tomorrow and I've got a lot of subs to read. Work has been hectic, with one of the editors I work for changing roles in the company. I'm off to Portugal next Sunday for a few days to attend a business conference. At the moment I'm still a little deaf from my trip into London to see The Frayed Laces. And on top of all that, I'm flat-hunting with my other half.

I've not managed to write another word of my novel over the past few weeks. BUT I have been making progress. I have been brainstorming and outlining like crazy. I've been trying to figure out how to weave all the history and past events of my novel's foundation into the present, without having to do lots of flashbacks. That's quite a challenge, but I'm getting there. It's hard to 'let go' of so much work, but I've realised that an awful lot of the foundations I've created are for my head only, and not necessarily for the readers' eyes.

I've been dipping in and out of a few books on novel writing, as I've never completed a novel before. An online friend, Bob Jacobs, recommended these books when he started writing his own novel. (I even won a signed copy of the third book through his blog!) The three I've been using are:

1. First Draft in 30 Days, by Karen S. Wiesner - This is a step-by-step walk through of how to build up a complete draft from scratch using worksheets in the back of the text. Interesting and relevant, but a bit too 'hand-holding' for me in parts. I feel like I can get lost in planning TOO much detail. Though the plot-building sections are the most useful.

2. Novel Writing, 16 Steps to Success by Evan Marshall - I've only skimmed about the first third of this, but it looks a bit too basic for me so far. It looks like it has a few interesting sections later on in the book, to do with submitting to publishers. Has some interesting ideas on 'sections', which brings me nicely to...

3. Make a Scene, Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld - This has been a very handy book. I'm still working my way through it, but it has helped me understand the foundations of a good plot is created through building a story scene by scene. It describes how different scenes work and how they fit together... This type of theory is what I've been finding most useful from the other two books, too.

Today I've been planning my plot further by thinking up scenes and writing them on sticky notes and sticking them on a big piece of cardboard. Very old-school. Then I remembered recently reading a blog post by Sandra Patterson about a piece of novel-writing software called Scrivener. It looked pretty damn cool, but I was gutted to learn it was just for Macs (I'm increasingly regretting buying another PC laptop instead of spending an extra £500 on a MacBook).

So I had a little hunt round the internet for alternatives. There are an awful lot. So many of them looked pretty crap, though. Then I stumbled across Liquid Story Binder XE by Black Obelisk Software, which looked pretty swanky. I've downloaded the 30-day free trial ($45 dollars for an access code if you want to keep it permanently) and I'm having a play around. Will let you know how I get on with it.

How do you go about planning and writing your novels? Have you ready any 'how-to' books that have really helped? What works best for you?


  1. Hi Sophie -- good to hear you are making progress with the big project. The third book you mention sounds interesting. I kind of naturally write in scenes, it is the only way I can continue on through the long haul but it might be a good idea to read why others do it and maybe how to do it better. As for Scrivener -- I use it. That program was actually the deciding factor for choosing Mac for my new laptop. It is fantastic for long projects. Highly recommend it. I did look at Liquid Story for PC a bit over-loading with tricks for me. I might have gotten lost just playing around with it and never gotten down to writing. I used Page Four and Free Notes on my PC and that kinda did the trick. Free Notes are index cards for your PC for outlining. Good luck with the project and keep us posted!

  2. The software I love is the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It really saves times at the editing stage and finds things that I've missed completely.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Sophie. I hope you find something within those books that makes writing your novel easier than it might have been.

  4. I've not written one yet, so I'm not sure which books will help. For genre writing stuff; The Writers Workshop of Horror has been invaluable to me. I'm due another read through of that.

    I have Thomas F Monteloene's Novel Writing for Dummies or something, probably a bit basic, but has some interesting stuff on abents etc.


  5. I'm being serious here, Sophie, and trying to help you with some honest advice. I've finished a 100K novel and am 75K through my next one. How did I do it?

    The first one I outlined down to the scene level using Michael A. Stackpole's free guide on his podcast: The Secrets. The second one I'm discovery writing, which is hard. But here comes the serious advice.

    You need to stop thinking about it and start writing. The only way to finish a novel is to sit your arse in the seat and keep on putting one word after another. You don't need to stick to a high word count target every day, your just need to chip away at it every day. Even if you only write 250 words a day you'll be finished in a year.

    All this other stuff; reading how-to-write books, planning, and blogging about it, it's all good, and will help, but it's NOT WRITING. You can do all that, but you need to write as well, and don't stop until you're done.

    The way I see a first draft is that it's allowed to be bad, awful in fact. Once you've churned it out you've got some really good material to work with, and then you can do all your planning, and editing. Don't start editing before you've finished writing though; that way lies madness.

    I hope my honest opinion is of some use to you.

  6. Barry, I never thanked you for this advice. I think about it all the time and am trying to follow it! :)


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