This picture of my cat, Alan, has no relevance to this post, but if you’re feeling a bit down, it might cheer you up.
Last November I was an official NaNoWriMo coach – answering questions on Twitter and generally encouraging participants along. (For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an event where participants undertake to write a 50,000 word novel in November.) As part of my duties I also wrote a blog post for the NaNoWriMo website. We’re now nearly approaching the middle of November, so for those participating this year, I thought some advice on saggy middles might be appropriate. And if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, but taking your time about writing a novel hopefully these suggestions could be helpful to you too.
For many writers the middle of your novel is often where your story starts to sag. You might have an idea of the ending, or even have it all planned out, but how you’re going to get there is unclear. Here, then, are six ideas to work those saggy middles to keep them strong, toned and looking good:
Make things even more difficult for your main characters.
She lies on the sofa dreaming of librarians and love, naked Swimming Lessons and Ottolenghi. Envelopes fall through the letterbox and the telephone rings, the dinner needs cooking and the cat is hungry, still she sleeps on. Behind her closed lids a garden grows beside the sea.
‘What did you do with your life?’ A higher-being asks, turning the wheels and handles of its population-sized filing cabinet. The machine clunks and sticks on F.
‘I was working on my novel,’ she says.
‘Pah!’ Higher-being replies. ‘You were sleeping.’
She wakes, sits up and begins to write.
This week Rochelle Wisoff-Fields and our Friday Fictioneers host has selected one of my pictures for people to write to. And for those who don’t know, the picture is of the stacks in the university library where my husband works. The stacks is a system in the basement for storing books and documents. Click here to join in or here to read other people’s stories. My story this week is true.
If you’re so inclined it would be lovely if you would vote for my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days in the Edinburgh First novel award, and you’ll have a chance of winning a copy of all 56 novels nominated. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)
All writers have little tricks for how to get the first draft of their novel down on paper. I don’t plan at all, but I do allow myself to go back each time I sit down to write and do a little bit of editing; perhaps just 20% of the writing time I have available. I tell myself it’s to get ‘in the zone,’ but really it’s because I worry that I might be run over by a bus and someone would see my crappy first draft. Another way I mitigate this possibility is by writing [THIS IS SHITE] (square brackets included) every so often. This technique (which I wouldn’t really recommend) also silences my inner critic for a little while which means I can carry on churning out words.
But what other tips and tricks do writers use? I asked a few author friends and below I have compiled the top ten ways of pushing your word count forward.
- Make notes as you go along. Kerry Drewery: I work with a notebook by my side and never ever look back until I get to the end. But if I decide something needs changing as I’m going along, for example, if character’s age or details need changing, I make a note of it. Then when I’ve finished the first draft I work through it with the notebook. Jo Bloom: I do the same thing using Scrivener.
- Allow yourself to write badly. Sarah Jasmon: Give yourself permission to sometimes write badly and not worry. It was such a relief when I realised I didn’t have to get it right all the time. Shelley Harris: I write a ‘Fuck-it’ draft – a dirty first draft where I push on and don’t look back.
- Give yourself a word count. Fionnuala Kearney: I bash out that first draft and I mean bash it out! I avoid too much editing as I go along by giving myself a daily word count target. Me: I keep a daily diary of what I’ve been writing and what my word count is – it’s very motivating to see it going up.
- Write something you’re interested in. Jon Teckman: Sometimes I stick in a scene about something I’m really interested in, just to keep writing. For example, if I get really stuck, I make up an excellent Chinese restaurant and take myself off for an imaginary pig-out! Me: Sometimes I skip to a scene further along in the novel that is more exciting to write.
- Read a few pages of someone else’s book. Me: If I know that I’m struggling to write new words because I can’t get the style correct, I’ll sometimes stop and re-read a few pages of a book that I really admire to get into the zone again. At the moment Richard Ford’s Wildlife seems to work quite well.
- Write a mini-first draft. Fleur Smithwick: I compromise on planning by bashing out a mini-first draft of about 20,000 words. It’s like a condensed book, split into around 70-80 scenes with a bit of dialogue. This way when I’m writing the full novel it flows, it’s fun to do and I don’t lose the momentum.
- Do a bit of editing and then move forward. Vanessa Lafaye: I can get caught in the trap of endlessly polishing and not moving on, so I try to limit myself to reading only the previous scene. I do some tinkering, but it doesn’t slow me down that much, and does put me in the ‘zone’ again.
- Write a chapter plan. Terry Stiastny: Sometimes bashing ahead with no plan can leave you with lots of words but no book. My approach is a compromise – a chapter-by-chapter outline, so I have an idea of what needs to happen next. Vanessa Lafaye: My chapter plan is literally one line with the main events. It shows me the shape of the book and whether it’s logical, and where the gaps are. And sometimes it reads, ‘Something happens here’ when I don’t know. Jo Bloom: I’ve realised that I’m a compromiser. I need to have one hand on a plan – and know the shape and skeleton of the story – but I leave a lot of room for the story to shape on the page. Kerry Drewery: I have a start, probable finish and key points along the way, but I need to give it room to develop a little and can’t plan much more than that. Sarah Vaughan: I do a chapter by chapter plan that changes between drafts.
- Don’t worry about what you might cut later. Sarah Vaughan: Whenever I get despondent about having to cut thousands of words, I remind myself that nothing is wasted. All writing is good practice.
- And the bottom line? Jo Bloom: SHUT THE VOICES UP and just keep writing.
Do you have any other tips on how to write a first draft? Please share them in the comments.
Once you’ve got your first draft down, read the second in this series of blog posts on revising.