How My approach to Writing Novels has Changed

When I started my first novel, I was eighteen. I’d written many stories before this, but this one felt different. I didn’t know much then. I just enjoyed writing for the sake of it: building new worlds, creating new people to populate them. That hasn’t changed, but how I approached a new project has steadily evolved over time.

My first novel had so much planning before I started. There were maps, time-lines, character biographies and so on. I had chapter plans and little record cards with important notes for quick reference. I went through about five or six plans for the first chapter before I even put pen to paper. The whole thing took me about eight years on and off to write. Frankly, it’s about as good as you’d expect from something created by a teenager with no experience or teaching.

My next book only took five years. I still had a chapter plan (it’s saved in Evernote on my phone even now). This time thought, I didn’t worry about drawing out all the other details. Again, it wasn’t great. I thought it was at the time, but looking back on it is painful. I might go back to it one day. I like the setting and several of the characters, but my biggest problem was I didn’t really care about the main character.

Apple was spawned a little differently. I had the idea for the first chapter and it was only after I had written that and part of the next one that I really knew what genre story it was, let alone where it was going. Once I had worked out it was a horror story, I stopped and planned out the rest. I knew the end right from that point, which meant writing towards that climax was always a little painful, but I was happy with it. The story went through several changes as it progressed through editing and beta-readers, but the end was never going to change.

The focus on the ending continued with The Mortician’s Boy. I felt comfortable writing towards a destination, even if many of the stops on the way were vague and hazy. I think this story changed less through the editing stage. It was more about polishing the narrative than sculpting it. I didn’t bother writing down any time lines or character guides but I knew what the nexus points where and made my way between them.

Happily Ever After started with a thought sparked from a film, and again, was a first chapter I had to get down. I knew the ending, I had the perfect image in my head. I knew what the last couple of lines were going to be. I looked forward to getting to that point. It was going to be powerful, dramatic. And when I got about half-way through the book I knew it was never going to happen. The characters had got away from me, evolved in their own right and I knew if I forced that ending, then it would feel false. It was a little disappointing to know I’ll never get to portray that moment I saw so clearly, but I’d rather stay true to my characters.

And what of the latest project? This one is completely organic. I have no idea how it will end, and the setting is still working itself out in my head as I write. This means I’m almost certainly going to have a hell of an editing job when I get to that point, but on the other hand it’s exciting. I like the idea of giving the characters the rein and seeing what they do with the story.

How do you write? Are you a details planner, or do you just see what happens and go with it? If you’ve done both, what advantages and disadvantages have you found?

Moving On

Finishing up with one novel and starting to work on a new one feels to me what I imagine starting to date feels like after you’ve come out of a long- term relationship. You’ve got all these memories associated, all the good times, and the bad, and part of you wants to go back to it. But it’s over. Finished. You’ve come to terms with that, as much as you can.

And now there’s something new in your life. There’s all the promise, the excitement. It will be different this time, you tell yourself. I won’t make the same mistakes again. I’ll do it right. There’s an unmarked road stretched out in front of you, just waiting for you to leave your footprints.

When you get into it, though, the doubts start coming out. It felt different with the previous book. I’m sure I wrote my first chapter faster last time. Am I really making the right choices with this genre? Is the setting really going to work for me?

The old characters were comfortable, familiar, like an old pair of shoes. You knew exactly who they were, how they would act. You new their motivations, their hopes and fears. Who are these strangers? What do they want from life? Can I get inside their heads properly? What if they’re too¬†similar? What if I can’t get their voice right? Would a ten year old really
say that?

It’s scary. You start to question yourself and your abilities. You wonder if it will ever feel the same again. Sure, that first paragraph felt good, but the next one, and the next one? What if it doesn’t work out? I guess, much like jumping into a new relationship, there’s an element of faith. You have to believe in the book. You have to want to love it. And if you do, hopefully it will grow into something deep and powerful.