Writing by numbers

There is nothing more unnerving than having to write an outline for a story you’ve already started and (let’s be honest here) are struggling to finish. Happy-go-lucky, write-first-ask-questions-later gal that I am, I’ve just had to do that for the second time with the same manuscript.

IMG_3365I’m sure there were writers in the past (as there will probably be in the future) who could simply sit down, write like mad, edit, and one year later, have a phenomenal book published, immortalised, raved about, and so on. The type of writer that discovers an amazing story while writing it. I always told myself that if you plan a story from start to finish and then write it, you’re ruining the punchline – even if it’s just for yourself. So I decided that outlines were for other people. Besides, I had a plan: my plan was, once I reached 80,000 words, I was done. Easy, right? Wrong.Here’s a fun fact if you’re a first-time author: that’s bollocks. I mean, hell, even Hemingway had a system. And Hemingway, as we all know, was the man. So what makes me so special?

This mindset brought me back to familiar territory. The kind of circumstance where you’ve already assembled half the vacuum cleaner before reading the instructions, and then have to re-trace your steps, with the manual in hand this time, to figure out what went wrong and reassemble it piece by piece, so that by the time you plug it into the wall, you get the desired result.

At school, we were always encouraged to write five-paragraph summaries of the books we were forced to read. Every story, we were told, could be summarised into one page. So it seemed natural to me, quite a number of months ago, that I should summarise my story this way, and then apply the summary to the manuscript, even if by then some 30,000 were already written.

I know it sounds straightforward, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for people who manage to write in this way. I understand how writing a summary can be useful (for instance, to present your finished product to an agent or publisher), but in terms of setting an outline, it made me more confused than a cow on Astro Turf.

So I decided to abandon the idea of an outline and stick to my no-system method.

Here’s another fun fact: after you reach 130 A4 pages of written material, finding the “bits” you want to work on ad-hoc is pretty much impossible. Meaning, if you want to work on a bit of your draft, you might as well re-do the whole thing, because that’s how long it’s going to take for you to find what you’re looking for. I mean, I reached the point that I couldn’t number my chapters, because I had no idea what was where.

Back to the drawing board. I needed to find a system that worked for me. I found out the hard way that, without a system, my story wasn’t that good, because nobody outside my head would be able to understand it. And because my mind (as you’re probably discovering) is a rather chaotic place, chances are the more structure the better.

Raise your hand if you now anything – anything at all – more structured than an Excel sheet. This was a godsend to creating method for my madness – three columns, one for chapter number, one for page number, and one for a short description of the chapter. It’s been a week since I’ve put this together, and in a matter of hours I was able to see where the loopholes were in the story, what I needed to work on in terms of character development, and most importantly, where were the blanks that needed to be filled.

Now we’re talking.

I’d love to stay and chat some more, but as you probably gather, I’ve got some writing to do.

Thank you for reading! Let’s do this again some time, shall we?


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