Writing is rewriting

This is my third post in a short series on how I write. In the first post I talked about how I generate story ideas. In the last post I explained how I sequence them into a plot with a timeline and a three act structure. In this post I will share how I actually do the writing. The picture below shows my writing tool kit. 
recorder and notes

My writing kit

I have a pretty old Windows laptop that makes a lot of noise and generates heat, which is good in winter as my writing room gets cold. I used to write in Word as most people do but I found the way Word deals with your book as one monolithic chunk of text too cumbersome. Once you get beyond the 10,000 word mark you need something a bit more flexible. I’ve come to use Scriviner which for these who don’t know it is a mix between a word processor and a writing project tool. I’ll talk about how I use Scriviner in another post but for our purposes here lets just say that it is how the words get stored in story form. It’s the end of the process I am going to describe below. 

Start by hand

I am a lousy typist; 60 wpm and 40 mistakes and this gets in the way of my thinking so I can’t do a first draft on the computer. The first draft is always handwritten, usually on the back of a printed draft of a previous work. The plus of this approach is that I can and do write anywhere. In pubs and coffee bars, on station platforms and in public libraries where they won’t let you plug into the mains.  When I get into the flow there is a joy in being able to race ahead in the story without the computer pointing out all my spelling mistakes and poor punctuation. I don’t let the grammar get in the way of revealing the story. Rewriting is where that gets fixed. A consequence of handwriting is that my productivity will never get beyond 4000 words in a session. That is about half a days handwriting by which time I am physically and mentally done in. I usually average 2000-3000 words although sometimes it can be half that. My target is not to complete the word count but to finish the scene. There is a sense of achievement is being able to tick off one of my post it notes and to look at my timeline becoming more marked up. This is what it looks like at the end.

scene edits

Timeline showing scene edits

Each line on the note represents an individual draft and the circle says I have incorporated comments from my beta readers. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Because of my lack of typing prowess I dictate my hand written draft into the computer. I use Dragon dictation software to transcribe the recording from my little Olympus dictation recorder.There are lots of versions of both and I would recommend going for the cheaper models especially if you are not sure this is for you. Argos and Amazon often have offers on both. I use a small lapel mike so I don’t have to hold the recorder to my mouth and this works fine. I find speaking the first draft helps me to pick up on anything that sounds odd or poorly phrased. I don’t correct it on the recording I just note it on the draft. It takes about an hour to record 3000 words and about the same time for the computer to transcribe it. You train the Dragon software to understand your pronunciation and it does get better over time, but there are still typos and it won’t put in any punctuation you’ve missed out. I’ve tended to wait until I’ve completed the whole book as a hand written manuscript before I start dictation. This means there are limits of how much speaking I can do before the voice starts to go and then the Dragon software makes so many mistakes that it is not worth using it in the first place. Usually I can record 10,000 – 12,0000 words a day and while I am sitting in front of the TV in the evening the Dragon software is transcribing those scenes in about three hours. I can finish a book in about a week. (The recorder has a huge capacity and can easily hold a hundred thousand word plus book in its memory. You can also download the MP3, WMA or WMV files to your hard drive via a USB link to your computer. (I plan to try recording my first audio book version with the recorder but that’s another post.)

Editing on screen

My next stage is to edit the transcript on the screen. I’ve saved the Dragon files as separate work documents titled by the main action in the scene as described on my post it notes, e.g. `Hannah and Tito are kidnapped.docx‘ I copy and paste these scenes into Scriviner and get the running order (see the left hand margin on the pc screen in the picture). I start to read and edit the story in its running order. This will be the first time I have run through the story from start to finish. I may have created the manuscript draft out of sync, especially where I want to make sure that I tie up the consequences of what happened in Chapter 2 with the results in Chapter 7 even though the intervening chapters have not been written. In this edit I discover that: I have called the same person by different names or different spellings; I have repeated the same dialogue in different places; I have gaps in the plot that need new scenes to fill; I have a killer bit of text that now seems out of place and should go into the out takes file (nothing is ever thrown away). I address the errors, punctuation and fact checking issues and then I print out a Word version and leave it for 24 hours. This first computer edit can take as long as the dictation to produce.

I come back to the Word document with my readers hat on. I read the story for enjoyment and ask myself is that what I wanted to write. If it’s not I make a note on the typed manuscript of what needs to be fixed. By the end of this read through the text is a blood bath of red pen and post it notes. There is probably not a page without some comment on it. This is where the real writing starts. I start my rewrite in Scriviner dealing with all the comments I have made. When I am finished I take a snapshot (version) of the each section of the text, add some on line notes about what I have changed and change the colour of the flag for the document. This approach allows me to assemble a draft using any versions of different scenes. All this happens in Scriviner. I don’t think that is possible in Word. I leave this third draft for a week before I read it again. I make my final changes and than that is the end of the book I set out to write.

FeedbackWatch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Next it is over to my beta readers to find out if it is the book they want to read. From Scriviner I output a Word manuscript version and then do some global edits. Scene titles are replaced with chapter numbers, page layout is titivated etc. I produce a pdf of this version to send to my beta readers. I’ll talk more about the challenge of beta readers in another post. It is nice to know what they liked but it is more important to me to find out what they found Confusing, Unbelievable or Dull (CUD). My next draft is about taking the CUD out of the book. There is a real challenge in dealing with this feedback and not just about being over sensitive to criticism of your baby. If the reader is a friend rather than a fan of the genre they you have to try and mediate what they say, although they will help you to spot gross errors.

I will let the de-CUD’ed draft sit for about ten days before revisiting it. This is my last read and a final sense check before it goes to an editor. To be honest I am a  bit bored with it by this stage and my enthusiasm is moving towards my next project so I am looking at this one in housekeeping mode making sure that all the ancillaries for publication have been completed. This is really checklist stuff. What comes back from the editor hopefully the comments are about points of detail not questions about plot and structure.  Once I’ve taken those on board I use Scriviner to product the publication versions in various formats. But that’s another story.

Well that’s my process, what’s yours?

Developing the plotline

This is my second post in the How I work series. In the first post I talked about how I developed ideas. it was a fairly haphazard process but my post it notes do start to resemble ideas for scenes and characters after a while. Now is the time to organise them into a storyline. I use a very simple manual method to construct my plot line. It looks like this.

Timeline of scenes

On one wall of my writing room I’ve stuck some plain lining paper. This is my story timeline from left to right. The two blue vertical bars divide the story into three acts. By the end of act one there must be a trigger that compels my protagonist to act. The call to action must be irresistible even though he/she (and sometimes me) are not sure what they should be doing. By the second blue line the momentum of events must be unstoppable and lead inevitably to the conclusion. Between the two blue lines the second act contains a number of gains and reversals of fortune during which it is by no means certain that my protagonist will succeed. I’m talking here specifically about the format for my crime thrillers although the principle of irresistible action and inevitable conclusion are pretty much genre agnostic and provide the engine for most of my work.
The yellow post it notes contain scene summaries.  Some scene summaries may already be sketched in outline. Some may just be place holders for scenes to be written. The purpose of this timeline is to give me a roadmap for the story. Where it starts and finishes and the highs and lows of the terrain it covers. I find this helps to focus my writing and keep me from getting lost.For each of these scenes I try and get an overview before I start writing. I try to answer some questions.

  • Who is in this scene?
  • Where are they?
  • What are they doing?
  • What is the conflict in this scene?
  • What is my hook to get you to read the next one?

Then I’m ready to start writing.

It would be a lie to say everything is so neatly prepared before I start. Often I get an idea for a action scene or a piece of dialogue between two characters and the ideas are flowing so well I just have to write it out, there and then. It helps if one of these bits of inspiration is for a key scene, either the prologue; the trigger that compels the protagonist to act; the action that leads to the conclusion or the epilogue. These are my way points on which the rest of the story hangs. They do not need to be written in order and it is often better to start at the end and work back in a first draft.  The crime thriller genre is very much plot driven so I don’t have a problem diving into the action with characters and locations very loosely sketched or in some cases with no details.

By the way the pink post it notes are reminders for characters, locations and technical props I need to flesh out.It is good to have these in eye shot as I write so I can avoid giving the same character different names or spellings as I get stuck into the detail.


As I write the story the time line gets added to, edited and amended as the words come. The yellow post it notes get a mass of felt tip marks that tell me which draft of the scene I am in and what remains to be done. The timeline is a simple visual way to chart my progress and to make sure the story still hangs together as I add the detail. I can still move scenes around and add emphasis to different sections. I can also check that my scenes which trigger the transition between acts are still strong enough once the detail had been added. Sometimes these get rewritten as well. The Scrivener writing software I use stores my book as individual scenes and allows me to move the text around as easily as moving the post it notes so trying out new plot lines is no hardship.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Well that’s the planning method I’ve evolved over four books. It’s not very sophisticated but it allows me to move from ideas to scenes to plot fairly easily. If you are stuck for how to start I would recommend it.

I would be happy to hear from anyone who uses a similar method for plotting their stories or indeed any radical alternatives.

Getting ideas

How I got to here 

To date I’ve written four books, although as I write this post I’ve yet to publish one. Looking across my work there are two full novels and two sets of short stories, some of which would count as novellas. All in all then about 30 items that have required plots, characters, events and dialogue. Until two years ago I had never written a word so it came as a surprise to me that  I had something to say once yet alone thirty times!

To date I can trace everything back loosely to my experiences and the experiences of friends so my difficult third album will be my third novel where I will have to project into a world I have no experience of. All the creative writing books caution against doing this but if that were the case there would be no science fiction or fantasy adventure, all crime stories would be written by police or crooks and all erotica produced by people working in the sex trade. So that can’t be true can it?


Box of ideas

What has worked for me so far in generating ideas is to keep an ideas box. Here it is.
photo of post it notes

box of ideas

This is where I talk to myself, just like I’m doing now only in much shorter tweet-like fragments. They are random jottings `Russians buying up London’, `George Cross and train tickets stubs in an old cigar box’, `Wife discovers husbands infidelity due to his over attentiveness’  and so on. The inspiration can come from anywhere and can be about plot, characters, events, locations, fragments of dialogue and so on. The point here is just to try and capture them without trying to make sense of them. Locking them physically in a box frees up my mind for the next lot. When I have  about 10 – 20 of these snippets and they have been germinating in the dark for a while, I get them out and spread them on a table. Sometimes natural groupings appear from what’s there and often new jottings are prompted. I’ll isolate a promising group of jottings and start to think about who would be involved and what they would be saying. The tone of the fragments of dialogue give me a clue to the sort of plot it will become, e.g. quest, adventure, revenge, forbidden love, redemption etc. I write a one pager, maybe a summary of the story or just a pivotal scene and then leave it for a while; like a week or so. This will sound stupid but during this time my subconscious is working on the story. I know this because when I come back to it I seem to know more about the who, where, when, why, what and how without being aware of having thought about it. I then write a series of one liners to describe scenes that will start to form chapters. It’s not the whole book but I know how it is going to end. I don’t start unless I know how it is going to end, even if during the course of writing the ending turns out to be something different.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Is there more to it than this?

Looking at what I’ve just written it seems a bit naff and unprofessional but I’m still finding my voice. The box of ideas produces a bare skeleton which still needs to be fleshed out properly with characters, plot and everything else but at least it is a starting point. Perhaps over time I will become more slick. I don’t know whether to be envious or dismayed at those writers who can sketch out a ten book series and plough through writing them. I’ve read enough series to know that a certain familiarity is needed to keep readers coming back to something they enjoy, but how do you avoid just writing the same book over again? I’m sure the successful ones are not loosing sleep over it.