Chapter Ten - Beginnings24 August 2010
This section focuses on the mechanics of writing, providing insights into the ways which I put my books together.
OK!! You’ve thought about it long and hard and decided to forge ahead as a writer regardless of the risks! What next?!? The early stages of writing a story or novel can be a daunting time for newcomers. Below you can find some of my advice and comments on my own experiences with getting the ball rolling. Let’s kick off with some blogs from my time spent working on the Mr Crepsley books…
MR CREPSLEY BOOK 1 BEGINNINGS
Started preparatory work today on what I hope will be my next series. Though I hope to start writing the first book later this week, I need to do quite a bit more work on it first—there are lots of notes that I have to write up, maybe a bit of research to cover, and then I have to work out all plot!! At the moment I have a few key scenes lined up, but I need to find ways to link them and develop the story. That’s how most stories begin for me—I get an idea of a certain scene (usually a dramatic one) ... then another ... maybe a few more ... and then I begin trying to connect them and construct a solid story around their bones. I’ve been playing about with ideas for this book for the last 2 or 3 years. I’ve had a few big scenes in mind for quite a long time, but I was missing an incendiary scene—something to fire my imagination, tie the others together, and launch me off on a several year writing task. Then, a few nights ago (as I commented on in this blog), I saw the recent BBC remake of “Dracula”. It was an OK film, nothing super-special. But the scene on the boat caught my imagination. It’s one of my favourite scenes from the book—Dracula comes to England on a boat, kills all the crew, straps the captain to the wheel, and waits for it to run aground. The new version didn’t do a great job of the boat scene (they probably didn’t have the budget), but I found myself thinking about it. And then, suddenly, I found myself thinking about a different boat ... a different scene ... one that would fit in with the ideas I’d been knocking around inside my head. It will be a dark, tragic, disturbing scene, and one that I knew I would have to write sooner rather than later—it’s just too juicy a scene to leave bottled up inside my head!! I want to share it with all you lot!!!! And so ... it begins.
Spent the day doing more preparation for the new series, writing up a series of notes. I don’t really enjoy this part of the process—I’d much prefer to dive in and start writing immediately, as that’s a lot more fun!!! But sometimes you just have to put your head down and drive through the dirty work. I know the books will be stronger for doing this now (indeed, I doubt I could even start them if I didn’t get all this stuff down straight on paper in advance—I’d quickly get lost), but I’m still itching to just GET STARTED!!!! Grrrrr!!! But that’s one of the drawbacks to being a published author—since there are fans out there who will (hopefully!) read your books, you have to take the time to make sure you serve up something decent for them! Back when I was learning how to write, I’d just launch myself from one book to another—if it didn’t work out, it didn’t matter, as nobody was going to read it anyway. These days I prefer to be a bit surer of what I’m getting into—if I waste 3 months of my life on a first draft that doesn’t stand a chance of making the grade, I’m not just wasting my time—I’m wasting YOUR time too. I’m not talking about playing things safe, just in making sure that when I begin a book, it’s a book that I REALLY want to write, and one that I’ll be able to do justice to.
Began working on my plot notes for my new series in the afternoon. This one’s going to be a tricky little beggar!!! Though it won’t be anywhere near as long as “The Saga” or “The Demonata”, it presents a different series of challenges which are going to deman a lot of me. If all goes well, it will read very simply and clearly—but right now it’s like juggling dozens of balls at the same time, while wearing a blindfold and trying to walk across a tightrope!!!! I’ve started by jotting down snippets of chapters and linking them to the book that I want them in. e.g. “I want to have a chapter set on a boat, and I want it to be in book 1.” “I want to have a chapter about a war, and I want it to be in book 3.” I’ve already got plenty of ideas and a very rough idea of how I’m going to structure the series, but I’ll need to jot down lots more tomorrow, then start to tie them all together tightly. Right now I’ve got a surplus of chapter ideas for the first book, but not so many for the rest—that situation will have to change, and pretty swiftly. I’m fairly confident that everything will fall into place over the next few days—planning a book, I’ve found, is a bit like an avalanche. Once you get those first few ideas rolling down the hill, they create all sorts of other ideas which quickly come crashing down around you. The trick is to sort the good ideas out from the bad ones ... to create order out of chaos ... to find the heart of the story and make all other ideas work around it ... and, of course, to avoid being crushed in the avalanche!!!!!!
Does all that sound confusing? Well, I guess it is—that’s why I try not to think too much about it!! Planning and then writing a book is a bit like running a marathon—you need to prepare carefully, and be aware of the overall size of the undertaking, but once you start running, you need to focus on it mile by mile, not worry too much about what’s going to happen 10, 15, or 20 miles down the road. You can get frightened by thinking too much about a thing like this—and fear is the start of that ominously infamous enemy of authors everywhere ... WRITER’S BLOCK!!!! I’ve always believe that you can avoid writer’s block simply by not thinking too much about all the things that can go wrong! So far that belief has served me well. Let’s hope this series proves no different to the my other books in that respect ...
Getting on well with my notes for the new series. After more work on them in the morning, I actually managed to set down a working draft of the plot outline for the first book!!! That’s a HUGE step forward—once you have the spine of a book’s plot in place, you have something real to play with and shape. I know some writers prefer not to set out their plot in advance, but to just wing it as they go along. And if that works for them, fine—I’ve done it myself from time to time, most noticeably with “Cirque Du Freak” when I just jotted down a very brief synopsis of the first book on a sheet of A4 paper and spun off from there. But by and large I think it helps to know where you’re going when you start a story. You can take detours, and maybe end up some place entirely different to where you thought you’d go, but I like having a map by my side when I drive through one of my stories.
The note-taking is over—for now, at least!! Managed to get down my rough ideas for the whole series yesterday, then wrote up a complete plot outline for the first book. That’s the way I write most of my books—after setting down my initial ideas on paper and playing about with them a bit, I like to write a rough chapter-by-chapter outline of the entire book, saying briefly what I want to happen in each chapter. That will change along the way as I progress—I’m sure some of the chapters will require more work than I imagine, while others will need to be changed or dropped. But for the most part I think I’ve got the structure in place now, and I’m ready to begin writing. I’ll hopefully be launching myself at the first chapter bright and early on Monday morning ...
I began work on the first book of my new series today! I was a bit worried in the lead-up to writing my first sentence, as I often am—what if nothing came? What if I’d lost the writing knack since I last sat down to work on new material? What if everything I wrote was awful? But, luckily, I know that that way writer’s block lies!!! Self-belief is vital to being a writer—you can’t let yourself worry about all the things that might go wrong. It’s better to stick your head down, believe that everything will go smoothly, and forge ahead as swiftly as possible. And that’s what happened today. I had the first sentence worked out by the time I sat down, and once I began typing, the story flowed pretty smoothly and before I knew it I’d churned out the first 11 pages. I settled into a rhythm and found the characters doing and saying whatever came naturally to them. This is the part of writing that most people don’t or can’t understand. I often talk about my characters taking on a life of their own—indeed, most writers will say similar things if you ask them. I know how strange that sounds, but it’s true. When you’re working on a good story, you surrender a certain amount of control. The story takes on a life of its own and you merely direct it in the way it wants to go. It’s a bit like rolling a heavy ball down a hill—you can set it off, and nudge it from left to right every so often to make it go the way you want, but you can’t control it fully once it gets go-ing; it rolls away under its own steam and won’t stop until it comes to the end of its road.
The difficult bit, of course, is setting the ball in motion. How does a writer slip into that zone? How do you get to the point where you’re able to let a story grow and flow in its own way? WHAT ARE THE SECRETS?!?!? I get asked that all the time—“Do you have any tips?” “How can I write books like yours?” “What do I have to do to be GOOD?” The honest, simple answer is—you. just. have. to. write. There are no shortcuts or magic spells. No tricks or hidden secrets. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better you get. When I started writing seriously, in my teens, I couldn’t write like this. I struggled with words. I couldn’t make characters do what I wanted them to do, or have them say what I wanted them to say, or describe things the way I wanted them to be described. So, instead, I did the best I could. I wrote weak, shapeless stories—and I learned from my mistakes. I tried writing different types of tales—and found what I was happiest with. I pushed myself, and challenged myself, and made myself try to write stories that I knew were beyond my ability—but I threw myself at them anyway.
One of my favourite quotes of all time is about the film director, Cecil B DeMille. His brother once said that the trouble with Cecil was that he always bit off more than he could chew—and then pro-ceeded to chew it!!!
That’s what you need to do if you want to be a writer. Aim big. Believe you can do anything. Push yourself to your limits, then find out what lies beyond. Tackle stories that you know you’re going to fail on—then tackle an even bigger story after that. Over time, through failure and disappointments, you’ll grow and learn and evolve. And eventually—and it may be a few years or a few decades; we all move at different speeds in life—you’ll find yourself scaling those heights and writing to the very best of your abilities, telling stories you never thought you’d be able to tell, in a voice barely recog-nisable as your own.
It’s hard. It’s demoralising at times. It means facing up to every one of your weaknesses and working on them, living with them, every day that you go to work and do some writing. But when, in the end, you can sit down and feel the words flowing through you like I did today ... man, that makes every one of those long days seem like a second, and every wintry mountain climbed like a short skip and a jump across a dry summer stream.
Now for some reports from plotting which I did on other books…
Did more work on Hell’s Horizon today—the twists are starting to kick in loud and fast!!! I got to wondering why I was enjoying this one so much compared to Procession of the Dead. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed going back to Procession, and I think it’s a very strong book. In fact, it’s the more imaginative and inventive of the two, and I suspect quite a few fans will prefer it when they read and compare the pair. HH isn’t quite as spectacular a serving, having quite a traditional detective-style story as its structural backbone. But what it has, and what I like so much about it, is a far smoother flow. As I’ve often said here, writing is a learning process—you have to keep writing and trying before you figure out how to do things. You can’t just be taught or told. I’m sure lots of you who write to me looking for advice get frustrated when I say, “Just keep writing!” but that really IS the only way to improve!!!
Procession is a step-by-step novel. What I mean by that is, each chapter features a certain scene or dramatic moment, and as the book goes along, each one builds on the foundation of the others, meaning it’s a bit of a jerky ride, i.e. you read chapter one and learn this; then you read chapter two and learn that; then you read chapter three ... and so on. It’s how I think most writers start, and it’s a very good way to start. When you’re planning a first-time novel, my advice would be to break it down into chapters and write a short paragraph saying what you want to happen in each chapter. Try and have something important happen in all the chapters, so that each one has a focal point, something that you can shape the chapter around. I think the hardest part of writing is the middle section of a book—it’s easy to get lost after a promising start, to find yourself mired in a sea where nothing much is happening fast, and characters don’t seem to be going anywhere. If you have a specific goal for each chapter at the beginning, that will make your job easier. And that’s what I had for Procession—twelve chapter headings, with something strange or shocking in each chapter. The book underwent many elaborations in later drafts, but the structure didn’t alter much from the very first draft, written way back when I had just turned 21.
Hell’s Horizon, as I said yesterday, was a far more chaotic affair. The first draft didn’t work. Nor did the second. That meant I had to rewrite, re-structure, bring in whole new segments and characters, junk a lot of what I’d written, play around with scenes and chapters and entire sections. It was a chaotic, messy affair—but out of the chaos, the story grew. And as a result it’s far more fluid than Procession. The story ebbs and flows, moving steadily in a forward direction, but with a less rigid structure. I think it’s a smoother, more natural read, one that will probably suck you in more quickly than Procession, and have you turning the pages a bit faster. Where reading Procession Of The Dead is like walking up a staircase, reading Hell’s Horizon is more like travelling on an escalator. Now, some people prefer stairs to escalators, but there’s no denying that on the whole esclators are a slicker, easier, more enjoyable way of getting from the bottom of a drop to the top. Likeways, though I’m sure some fans will prefer Procession to HH, there’s no doubt in my mind which is the better book. And I think Hell’s Horizon was the first time that I fully realised that flow, that I went beyond the step pattern and created something more flexible. And that’s probably why I enjoy it so much. It’s not my first literary child—nowhere near—but it was the first to take a jump, not just walk on its own two feet.
I began prep work on what MIGHT become my next series (meaning my next series AFTER the fantasy book and 4 book series that I’ve talked about on this blog before). As I said recently, I’ve been playing around with the basic idea for a few years, trying to find my way into the story. It began to come together more concretely over the past few weeks, and news ideas have been clicking into place in recent days. It’s still at a very early stage, with lots of blanks to fill in, but today I wrote up a very rough outline of what I want to do in the first 3 books, along with a full plot outline for the first book, which hopefully I’ll start writing tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, the books will be a bit shorter than my previous books (probably even shorter than any of The Saga books), but will hopefully be released at a faster pace than The Demonata—my aim is to write short, punchy books, many of which will end on cliffhangers, and each of which will run into the next—i.e. it would be like the Vampire Mountain trilogy, in that it’s one big story split up into parts, only this story would be split into quite a lot of parts!!! I’ve no idea how many books there might be in this series, or even how to develop the contral conflict at the heart of the storyline (although I have a vague sense of what that conflict will be). But, if all goes smoothly with the writing, I guess I’ll find out over the coming months and years ...
I’m both excited and nervous about this new series. Excited because it’s good to be back in the saddle after almost a year of not writing anything new—because of the way I work, I spent most of the last year editing several books (the last half of The Demonata, my three D B Shan books, the fantasy book, the 4 book series), and when you add in my tour dates, there hasn’t been much time for anything new. I get itchy when there’s a long gap between new books. First drafts are the lifeblood of any writer, and I’m always looking ahead to what comes next. Editing is more fun that writing a first draft (at least for me), but without a first draft, I have nothing to edit!! It’s exciting to be launching myself into something new again, to start out afresh and see where the story takes me.
But I’m also nervous because this is the first time I’ve ever consciously set out to write a multi-book series. The Saga and The Demonata grew organically—I got sucked into them. I was working onbook 3 of The Saga before I got a sense of the scale of the project, and I was five books intoThe Demonata before I figured out the main story!!!! This is the first time I’ve tried to plot out a series in advance. It’s not that I made a decision to write another series—I never work that way—I just knew, from the moment the idea first struck me, that this needed several books to work the way I felt it could. That’s the main reason why I didn’t start work on it earlier. I could probably have developed and written a first draft of book 1 during the past year, but I knew this wasn’t a book I could write and stop at. That is, Cirque Du Freak and Lord Loss were both conceived as one-off books. I knew with CDF that there would be a potential to write more vampire books, but I also knew that if I didn’t, the book could stand by itself. That’s not the case here—the first book of this series would have been nothing without more to follow it and take the story forward. I didn’t want to start it until I had a better idea of what came next.
A developing story is a bit like a developing photo. You can see a bit or two clearly to begin with. Then you get a very vague sense of everything around those bits. And then, as you focus in, the whole starts to reveal itself to you. The difference is, with a photo you KNOW the image will reveal itself. With a story, you have to work on it and plug away at it and force it to develop. For a long time, all I could see of this story was the bit or two that I’ve had in mind for the last couple of years. But now more and more is coming into focus, and the thing about writing is that once you get on a roll, the revelations start coming thick and fast. There’s still a lot about this series that’s a mystery to me, but now that I’ve cracked the first few books, I’m more confident that the rest will reveal itself too. In time ...
I received the following email from a fan called Kabz: Hey, Darren! Love the books! Anyway, I was watching a program and it was talking about book openings. Many people find it difficult to start writing books. They have the plans but can’t put pen to paper. Now, I wanted to look into this and found myself in the exact same predicament. So, I was merely wondering how you begin a story. How do you start it? Like in Lord Loss you began with: “Double History on a wednesday! Nightmare!” Or something like that. And that was really good and it stuck in my head. But, how did you come up with that. How did you come up with any of your story beginnings?
I think the best way to get a handle on good beginnings is to listen to what your teachers are telling you in English when you’re doing creative writing!! Let’s be honest—a lot of what we all learn in school isn’t actually practical when it comes to life in the outside world afterwards. But some of it IS, and if you want to be a writer, you’ll learn an awful lot if you pay attention in class. All that boring stuff that you think “real” writers probably don’t have to worry about, like grammar, needing to re-write and edit, and spelling? All pretty essential, I’m afraid!!!! As I’ve often said on this blog, there are no short-cuts to becoming a writer, and no matter how different you want to be (and it’s good to want to be different), you need to start off by learning the rules, the same as every other writer. Whether or not you obey them all later is down to you, but if you start out by not paying any attention to them, you’re going to start at a disadvantage.
In a novel, I don’t think the opening line matters as much as it does in a short story. You have a much bigger canvas to work with, and readers aren’t expecting the same sort of catchy opener that they would with a short—they’re prepared to go with you for a while, and see where you’re leading them. Having said that, a good opening line certainly doesn’t hurt!! And in school, working on short stories and essays, is where you’re going to learn most about that part of writing. If you can learn to open with a catchy line in short stories, you can take that experience ahead with you and apply it when you come to work on a novel.
In terms of where my opening lines come from… that’s the sort of question no writer can answer, as it’s far too specific—in most cases, I can’t remember!! Even if I could, every one came from a different place, under a different set of circumstances. But as a general rule of thumb, I think a good opening line should tie in with the main thrust of the novel, and should serve the purpose of easing readers into the narrative or giving them something that lets them identify with one or more of the leading characters instantly. e.g. the opening line of Lord Loss lets you know that Grubbs isn’t the keenest of students. By using the word nightmare, I also play on the upcoming real nightmare that he’s about to fall victim to. Ideally, every line in a book should serve a very real purpose, and connect to the main story in an important way. Of course that isn’t always possible, and indeed sometimes little detours are vital, but I do think an opening line should be there for a reason, and serve a very clear function.
I wrote up the plot notes for the third book of what is looking more and more likely to be my next series after my four-book series after The Demonata (heh—try saying that three times quickly!!). I probably won’t start the book until next week—my editor just sent through Hell’s Heroes with her notes, for my penultimate bit of work on it—but it’s all geared up and ready to go now. I often get questions from fans, asking how to go about plotting a story or book. While each writer works out their own way of doing this, this is how I normally approach it—I get some ideas for key scenes (they can be inspired by just about anything), play around with them inside my head for a bit (sometimes a few days, sometimes a few years)—when I feel confident that I can develop them, I sit down and start writing a plot outline (sometimes, like today, I’ll jot the key ideas down first)—I find that as I start writing a brief outline (no more than 2 pages usually), things begin to click into place and I automatically start to fill in blanks and figure out ways to make everything slot into place—and then I’m off!! The most important thing to note out of that is that things don’t normally fall into place UNTIL I start writing down my ideas—if you’re like me (and I think a lot of authors are)—you won’t be able to figure out everything in advance, inside your head. So don’t sit there worrying about an idea—get it down on paper and start playing around with it, and see where it leads you.
I’m still not 100% committed to the new series, even though I’ve now started work on the third book. I have no grand plan in mind yet—I have some ideas for where I want the story to go, but I don’t know for sure. It’s possible that I’ll get to the end of the third book and not be able to figure out a direction for the story, that I’ll have to junk it and move on. But I have faith that that won’t happen, that things will start slotting into place the more I work on the ideas, that I’ll be able to figure it all out and take things forward. You have to have faith in yourself if you want to be a writer. Writing is like a leap off a high wall into darkness. Each time you step up to the edge, you know there’s a chance you’ll go on falling forever. But you have to believe that you won’t, that you’ll land safely. So far I have, and if you work hard and have faith in yourself, the chances are that you will too.
Thinking hard all day—ouch!!! This is simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating part about being an author—the excitement of venturing into the unknown and discovering an entire new world of ideas, and the frustration of being at the mercy of those ideas until they reveal themselves. You don’t have any control over an idea until you have it clear in your head. Once it’s in place, you can play around with it, extend it, add to it, cut it—whatever the hell you like. You are its master and it does what you tell it!!! But when you’re not entirely certain of where you want to go with an idea, or how to link it in with other ideas, then it’s almost like it’s teasing you, mocking you—“I’m over here, just behind you, but you can’t find me!!!!”
To be honest, it was a very successful day on the thought front. I plotted out most of the major parts of the next two books in the new series. Most authors would be thrilled to plot out two books in a single day, and rightly so—it’s an incredible achievement!!! But I always like to ask more of myself, to challenge myself and push myself hard. I was hoping to unlock the secrets of the later books today too, to outline exactly where I wanted to go with the story, so that by close of business today I would know precisely what I wanted to do, and how many books it was going to be. I plotted out books 4 and 5 in the morning, so when I returned after lunch I was feeling extraordinarily confident—this was going to be a doddle!!! But the afternoon turned out to be a vague mishmash of conflicting ideas. I kept getting whiffs of the series outline, but couldn’t quite pin it down, and in the end I had to admit temporary defeat and leave it where it was for the time being. My brain obviously isn’t quite ready to take the whole series forward at the moment.
But what it IS ready to do is tackle books 4 and 5, so that’s what I’m going to do, starting tomorrow. I always think it’s important to forge ahead whenever possible where writing is concerned—if, for instance, you have a very clear idea of what you want to do with the first book of a trilogy, but you’re not sure where you’ll go with the second and third books, don’t sit around trying to figure out the later books—crack on and write book one. In my experience, you pick up ideas as you go along, as characters develop and the story throws surprises at you. If you sit thinking for too long, it can start to seem like an impossibility, like spitting and hitting the moon. But if you start to chip away at it and do what you can, you’ll find the next step much easier to take when you get there. The stubborn part of me would love to sit down tomorrow and keep stabbing away at the later books, to try and bend them to my will. The practical part of me knows that they’ll sort themselves out further down the line, and that my time will be much better utilised by starting work on book 4 ASAP. So that’s what I’m going to do!!
I don’t know if this is an old proverb, or something I just made up, but this just popped into my head—if you try to swallow an apple whole, you’ll choke—you need to devour it one small bite and swallow at a time. Happy chomping!