I received an email from a reader this week asking me for tips on how to write his first book. I decided to share my answer to him, hoping others in the same situation may find it helpful.
The internet is full of advice on how to write and, although I am not an expert, I wanted to share what is working well for me.
First of all, everyone is different, what works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another. In general, there are two types of writers; plotters and pantsers.
Pantsers are so called because they write by the seat of their pants, making things up as they go. There are many successful pantsers out there making a living, but it doesn’t work for me. For years, I tried this method to no avail. The stories would all start out well, but halfway through I didn’t know where to go next.
I prefer the second method, plotting, and the process I use to write is somewhat complicated, but works extremely well for me!
The first step, when I’m considering a story, is to create a short summary of what it is about. This will typically be anywhere from 1 to 3 pages in length. Currently, I have a number of these waiting to be developed further.
Next, I create a longer outline, based on the summary. This will detail out each chapter, though only with one or two lines per, to describe the general action etc.
My most time-consuming step is a comprehensive chapter synopsis. This is not necessarily done all in advance, although I do outline a few chapters at a time. Sometimes, I even detail out a chapter more when I finish writing the previous chapter. The word count for this is usually about half of the finished product.
This outline includes notes of things that I want to introduce, even some snippets of dialogue, but it’s in bullet form, and I don’t worry about punctuation or grammar. The advantage of this is that I can rearrange the bullet items to fit better, or I might think of something that I need to introduce earlier in the storyline so I can reference it, so I can go back to the other chapter and add it in.
At this point, I merely want to get the ideas down.
I often share this information with my wife, who is also my editor. Frequently, we will discuss a chapter in great detail with her making recommendations or suggest things to add.
The last step is the actual writing. I use a program called Scrivener, but any word processor will do. I have a large monitor, with my outline on one side and scrivener on the other. I write the manuscript, referring to my notes as I go.
I’m a touch typist and can type quite quickly, up to 140 words per minute, so this part is usually quite rapid. As this is before the editing phase, I don’t pay a lot of attention to things like spelling and grammar. I concentrate on trying to get the storyline down.
Now, with writing as my full-time job, I’ve disciplined myself into a routine, though I still take evenings and weekends off. I will often type out about 5,000 words a day, not including outline, but some days require more preparation than others, especially if I’m writing a new story.
So far, I’ve managed to maintain an output of about 22,000 words a week.
Once I’ve got some chapters written and done a read-over, which I do each day before starting that day's writing, it’s off to the editor. (This is easy since she’s sitting right beside me at her desk.)
She’ll begin editing, usually when I’m at least 5 chapters or so ahead of her, starting with a developmental edit (story and plot), then line edits (looking for repeated words, active vs passive voice etc.) and some spelling and grammar. (Note that a more intense spelling/grammar check is done later after BETA readers have had their say.)
And that’s the writing procedure that seems to work best for me.
Of course, there’s always more. I have background notes on characters, the world, politics etc. I actually have maps of the world stuck on the wall by my desk and a print out of all the nobles of the land above my monitor.
When I was working on my first book, Servant of the Crown, I was having trouble keeping track of character ages, especially since the story takes place over several years. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of birth dates and ages. Now I can just look up a year and see how old someone is supposed to be.
My first series is based on a Role Playing Game (pen and paper, not computer) that I ran over a period of three years. As a result, I have character sheets describing each of the main characters. I originally envisioned the overall campaign as a TV series, broken down into seasons and episodes, this let me organize the storyline and produce a satisfying conclusion at the end.
I have three more series in mind, and intend on detailing out the world in as much detail as I have for the first series, as it makes it much easier for me to write in a world that exists, even if it is only in my imagination, than it does to simply make it up as I go.
I hope this helps you with ideas of how you could create your own writing system!
Paul Bennett, Writer of Epic Fantasy Stories.