Sunday, 13 May 2018

Novel-Writing Tips from an Expert (Not)

By Rosemary Johnson

I penned my first novel at the age of twelve, in a lined, school exercise book.  I've written many others since, even submitted some of them to publishers, but - as you realise - Rosemary Johnson is not yet a household name.  The novel I started writing for Nano in 2015, and which I'm still editing, has proved to be one of the most emotionally demanding things I've ever done, up there with programming and bringing up children.

Some authors can knock off two or three novels per year - like Alexander McCall Smith - but, on the other hand, I understand that it's quite common to spend ten years writing a novel.  I've never been a planner:  I've found that plots and characters move as I write them and get to understand them more.  Below are some of the techniques I've found myself using:

  • Editing plot-lines thematically - by which I mean picking out bits of each plot-line and editing them separately - as well as going through whole chapters.
  • For consistency in characters' appearances,  Notepad files for each character.  I copy into them all descriptions - eyes, hair, height, weight, and mannerisms - immediately after I write them in the text.  Previously, as recommended by pundits, I have attempted to complete tables for each character, but I found that much of the data I was entering was flannel and, certainly, has not been used.  I have to 'feel' a character's appearance and mannerisms by writing them into the story.
  • A to-do list of passages which need changing, adding or removing.  This stops me going over the earlier chapters endlessly. 
  • A checklist  (also in Notepad) of what I have written about particular events and situations in each chapter, so as not to repeat or contradict myself.
  • Dump files, separate for each chapter, containing all longish deletions.
  • A database of biographical information for each character.  I don't often use surnames in the text, so I therefore forget them.

Still, I'm finding it really hard gathering everything together in a way that holds water and is interesting and exciting.  Actually, it's not just hard, but stressful.  I worry about getting it right.  And I'm ready to move on to something else.

Whilst invigilating an exam the other day, I drew some pictorial representations of what The Novel is about.  Has anyone else done this, for planning or editing?

Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction.  In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat.  Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.

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