The state of the lost dabs project

An update

So it turns out that it’s not as easy as I thought it would be to write a book and update a blog at the same time! One of them always gives way to the other.

When I started writing this blog, I wasn’t doing any writing, I was making notes and thinking about things that affected the book. I wanted to discuss my thoughts with other writers to draw on their experience, and I used the blog to channel this. All my writing was in blog posts and it really helped structure this project.

Now I have moved on to writing my book, I’ve found I don’t have the time to write on here, and it shows. I’m not posting anything, no ones interested in the project – and why would they be? For all anyone knows, I’ve given up and decided to do something else instead.

The word count

So here’s an update. I’m still going! In fact, I’ve been pretty productive this past week. I don’t really want a word count on the blog as word counts are no measure of quality (I might as well write the word ‘porridge’ 70000 times, but that wouldn’t make it a book). However, I feel that as part of an update on productivity, the word count is a good metric to use – you’ll just have to trust me on my own measure of quality!

In my post https://haroldhuscin.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/fixed-deadline-go-flexible-on-the-plot/  bejamin4 added a comment to say that he structures his writing by chunking it up into 10000 (10k) word blocks. The idea that it is easier to get to the end of one block rather than to fixate on the total 70k word book. It’s worth reading his comments in our conversation on this post as they really made sense to me.

So now I’m shamelessly copying bejamin4’s style on writing – and I think it really works. My original structure of a beginning, and end and five middle sections also goes with this – I’m now aiming for them to all be 10k words each, rather than the complicated split of sections I described elsewhere on this blog. I’ve already defined what the sections are going to be about, I just need to work out the detail whenever I start a new section.

I’ve also established a new timetable for writing: write a thousand words every day for ten days. Edit for three days. Repeat. Seven times in total means a book of 70k words in 91 days. I’m planning to edit the full manuscript during December, ready for the launch before Christmas. Sounds easy!

So where am I now? I’ve written 7000 words so far. This was a great achievement last night as it constitutes 10% of the whole. Reaching this landmark has made me realise the end is achievable. The Lost Dabs project is good!!

Going forward

So my question to the world is… what do I write about on the blog? Some of you write loads about your books and I always like to read what other people are doing and where their writing is going. How do you find the time? Do you find it worthwhile to take a break to blog about something different rather than always concentrating on writing the book?

All the comments I’ve had on my blog so far have been really helpful and inspired me to carry on and have steered the way I’ve thought about this project. In my mind, I need to keep reading as I write and take as much collaborative input I can into this process, posting my thoughts as I go along. If there’s anything I’m missing, or any thoughts that are useful to publish, then I’d love to hear what you think. As always, I am completely open to sharing and discussing all thoughts on the writing process, so please leave me a comment below if you’d like to join in.

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Is there any value in posting your work in progress?

The critics

Writing a blog is about drip-feeding your thoughts to anyone who’ll listen in the world and getting immediate feedback on it. Seems to work well. Writing a book is all about the big bang. Landing an entire magnum opus on the reader and expecting them to devour it in one sitting, hopefully emerging full of praise on the other side.

So is there any middle ground? Is it worth getting the opinion of the community on some half-written text before the big release? Does any interim feedback simply serve as self-gratifying validation for the author, rather than gently steering them in the right direction?

I recently wrote a screenplay for an amateur animator friend. It was pretty intense work and included eight songs, all of which I recorded and posted on youtube for her. I sent over the first act and she liked it. Buoyed by this response I carried on with the screenplay and eventually completed it. It had taken about three months but had been a labour of love and a great writing experience.

After sending it over, it took my friend a while to go through it. When we finally caught up, it was a very different conversation. She picked the smallest holes throughout the plot and put up barriers to show why she couldn’t start planning the filming. I guess she didn’t really want to make it in the first place.

So I don’t like a critic, is that the problem? I guess I don’t mind a few general pointers, hints, even criticisms, as long as it’s constructive and not just negative for the sake of it. In my case, I’d written a three act script and eight songs which I was pretty proud of, but I don’t think my friend even listened to them. She just read the words in the script and moved on to where she thought the problems were. I wouldn’t mind, but I’m sure anyone could find just one tiny piece of positive to reflect the obvious effort I’d put in.

Publish as you go

I’ve been thinking about publishing some of my writing for the book on this blog as I go along. Mainly so that I can show a bit of a flavour of where it’s heading, but also to get some feedback on what I’ve done. Following my recent experience, I’m not sure if this is the best idea.

When I wrote the screenplay, I was writing on my own. I showed it to one other person and got their take on it. The other person had some different views to me so we ended in a stalemate – how I wanted to write the story versus how she wanted to animate it. It was my word against hers.

Now I am pitching to a bigger audience, is it a good idea to encourage feedback on work in progress? Does anyone have experience, either positive or negative with this? I am completely open to comments on anything I write, as long as it’s constructive. In fact, I am always hoping to enter into a discussion around everything I do, as long as it helps the learning and improving process.

One issue around reviewing someone else’s work is personal opinion. When I am reading other people’s work I try to be objective about it. I may not like the genre, but if the writing’s good then that’s the feedback to give. If the writing’s bad then I try to say what’s wrong with it and not let the subject matter influence me. This can be tricky but it’s the most important thing about writing – different people like to read different things. There’s a market for everything, and that’s why we do it.

My view is that I want to share as much as I can and encourage all comments and opinion from anyone with an interest. It’s then up to me how much I take on board and adapt my writing accordingly. The only issue is that too much influence from outside could put a strain on the timing of the project, but at least I won’t end up in a one-on-one stalemate like I had with my now defunct screenplay.

As always, I’d really like to hear any comments or thoughts you have on this, and will be happy to discuss them below.

A minimalist approach to writing good characters

What’s in a character?

What makes a good character? It’s an age old question and I’m sure it gets asked all the time by writers in moments of idleness, block or fancy. I’ve spent the day thinking about this and have come up with my own answer, something I hope will simplify my future self’s writing no end.

So what is a character? When I’m writing, I tend to think of my protagonists and antagonists in eye colours, hair lengths, nose sizes, glasses wearers… I don’t necessarily think of them as people with emotions, political agendas or ponderous beings. I simply throw them into situations and observe how they react in my writing.

Readers, on the other hand have a completely different perspective than my writing self. They want to see under the skin of the character and feel what he feels. The reader reads the description about how tall and pimply the new restaurant critic is, but will instantly make up their own minds about what she looks like as she performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man in a dinner jacket who’s just been shouting at his wife. All this means is that readers care more about the person than what they look like. If only we could all be more like that in real life!

So where does this leave me in defining my characters for this project? Am I saying I shouldn’t work out up front all the different ear sizes of everyone on my island? Maybe I don’t need to go to that much detail, but I will need to describe roughly what people will look like, even if this is likely to be adapted or misread by the reader. Although I’ll do a bit of the descriptive and not care too much if it gets changed, there’s something much more important I need to do as well.

What drives a character?

I wanted to be able to describe everyone in a couple of sentences so that when I’m halfway through writing my book and I don’t know what a character will do next, I can reread their description and immediately know how they will react. In any situation.

I’ve done this by describing their motivations for the duration of the story. From the beginning to the end, everyone has a motivation – something that drives them. It might be money, or power, or not being shouted at by your husband in a busy restaurant. It could be having a tidy garden, or making sure you’re always one up on the neighbours. Whatever it is, these motivations will be able to fit into any situation and cause an identifiable reaction.

Does this make my characters one dimensional and predictable? Probably? What if they had more than one motivation, or they had a close friend whose motivation caused conflict with theirs? What if they had a particular motivation that is only realised when a triggering event occurs? Would that make them more interesting? I’m hoping so.

My motivation is to describe all the characters of my book briefly and precisely so I can aid my own writing whenever they are in the plot. If I can do that, I’m hoping I’ll create interesting, diverse characters whose behaviours will become so familiar to me I’ll be able to write them with my eyes shut.

How do you create your characters? Can you really define everyone in your book with just a couple of lines of description or does it take reams of notes and back stories to allow them to really leap from the page? Leave me a comment below if you have any thoughts on this.

Fixed deadline? Go flexible on the plot

Plot chunks

So my full plan for writing a book by Christmas is now in place. And guess what, it looks like a load of neatly arranged boxes!

I’ll try to explain how this will fit together, at the very least so I can refer to it at the end and reflect how the project went. If you can follow how it works from my description, brilliant, well played you! Leave me a comment to let me know what you think about it.

I explained in a previous post that I will write the book by linking a beginning and an end and then writing as much middle as I can in the time allows. The trick is to ensure that the story makes sense, regardless of the length of the book. The downside of this is working out how to plan the plot to cope with any amount of chapters in between a beginning and end.

A plan of the plan

So, here’s what’s going to happen. The bulk of the story will be split into five separate and specific time periods, called eras. These will operate independently of each other and I’ll be able to pick any number of these to finish the book. Ideally, a minimum of three eras would be enough to describe a good chain of events and deliver a book of a reasonable length.

The eras will be further split between three families of characters, although I could probably cut one of these if it looks like I will overrun. There will also be a main character whose story will intertwine with these families.

This format provides a 2-D grid of available stories – 3 families multiplied across five different eras. Each of these stories can be written independently of each other – there will be minimal interaction between them all. In fact, apart from at the beginning and the end, it is only really the main character that draws everyone together. If I run out of time halfway through a story, I can simply drop that section and finish the book without it.

I have a couple of other storylines which can be linked to the families in the same way as the main character. These are very much nice-to-haves and can also be cut if there’s a shortage of time.

So this leaves me with the following todo list:

  • Start section, kicking off all the main storylines.
  • Somewhere between 6 and 15 middle sections* which will incorporate the main character and other sub stories where possible.
  • An end section, wrapping up all the themes and completing the book.

Simple! This means I have defined an absolute minimum to achieve before publishing – with less than 6 middle sections, I haven’t got a book. How long these sections are still needs to be established, but the main worry now is how long it will take to write each of these to a high standard and whether the minimum can be completed before Christmas.

I drew up a picture to describe the above, but it ended up looking like the Dulux colour chart so I’ve decided not to share it now. I’ll put some work in and post the update hopefully early next week.

I’m really keen to hear your thoughts on my approach, especially if you’ve used something similar yourself.

* 6 middle sections is made up of 2 families x 3 eras; 15 middle sections is made up of 3 families x 5 eras.

How long is a piece of writing?

How long should a book be? 

As long as it takes to tell the story, probably.

If one person writes a book of, say, 100 000 words, the completion date of the book is determined by how fast they write. If you want to get it quicker, you either have to cut down the number of words, or reduce the quality, ie churn out a manuscript with very little copy editing. In practice, neither of these options are favourable as writers rarely want to lose any of their story and no one wants to ready sloppy writing.

The only other option available is to take as long as it takes to write a book, making sure that all parts of the plot are included and that every word has been scrutinised to ensure the story is told to the writer’s high standards.

How does this affect me? 

Enormously!

I don’t have the luxury of an ever extending arbitrary deadline. My deadline is fixed. Absolutely. It is the fundamental reason behind the whole project.

I also don’t have the luxury of a team of writers and editors to help craft this book. I’m on my own – all output will be created by me alone.

The quality of the book is also a pretty major consideration for me. I reckon I could bang out a feature length first draft of ill thought out characters and nonsensical plot-lines in a month or so. Maybe less if I’m allowed spelling mistakes. I don’t want to do this though – I want something I can be proud of at the end of the project.

So what is left then? If all else is firmly fixed, the only thing I can change is the length of the book. Does this mean it’ll be a very short book at the end? It all depends on my production rate. If I write 100 words of absolute top quality prose every week then the length of the book will be 100 words x the number of weeks work. Hopefully I can write a bit quicker than that.

The other consideration is that I don’t want to write a book that suddenly ends because I ran out of time. I need a proper beginning, middle and end. This is forming part of my planning right now – I’m considering how to end the book before I’ve started. I’ll then look at how the story starts and then what can go in the middle.

The tricky bit

If the start can join directly to the end, then I have a book, albeit rather a short one. If I can “plug in” a block of middle between the start and end, I have a slightly longer book with more story line. If I have more time, I’ll work on another middle block of writing to add in, ensuring the start and end both remain logical to the extended story. I guess the easiest way to think about this is in chapters – write the first and last chapter so the story makes sense. Then add as many chapters in the middle that the plot and the time limit allow.

This is my very early thought around managing the scope of the book. If this has made any sense and you think it’s a good idea or if I can improve upon it, leave me a comment and we can discuss.