How to start and then carry on

by SJ Griffin

I still maintain that, in general, the hardest thing about writing a book must be coming up with the story. Once you’ve got that I think you’ve won the biggest battle and you are ready to march on the citadel. But it’s actually the bit that comes next that gives me all the trouble.

It turns out that I’m not the sort of person who can sit down at the computer and just bang out words and more words without knowing where I am going. It’s too easy for the insecurity that stops me writing to creep in. If I don’t know what comes next I can’t get through the bit I’m on, it all feels insurmountable and unfixable. So I give in. I know I do, I have form for this. For me, it’s important that I don’t find any excuses to stop because, let’s be honest, writing a book is terrifying most of the time. It asks hard questions that often don’t have answers.

So, this is my four step strategy for getting to the page to write your book and staying there, if you are a planner like me.

1. Do not, and I am sorry to start with a negative, but do not attempt to summarise the whole story in a couple of paragraphs. I find this impossible. There is lots of advice out there that says this is step one. For me this is step one to stopping writing and going for a run, stopping writing and having a snack or stopping writing and firing up the internet. Sit down and forget about this. Make a decision not to do it. Then move on.

2. Do a chapter plan. I always go for an AA Milne Winnie the Pooh style description to start off because it amusing me and it makes it feel less important. I was going to include one of the chapter outlines for The Vanguard here but it was spoiler-rific so I’ve decided against it. They all start something like this: Chapter X in which Sorcha and Lola visit a hypnotist.
The chapter plan is a bit rough and it’s not exactly what ended up happening in the very final version but the only point of this is to set a direction so you can feel confident about setting out on the journey. Like saying I’m going to travel from London to Pairs and I will get the tube to St Pancras station, then I will go to the champagne bar then I will get on the eurostar then I will get on the Metro and go to Filles de Calvaire. Anything more than that goes in the great behemoth that is the scene by scene plan. This is not the place for details.

3. Do a scene by scene plan. For The Vanguard I did this after my first draft and I wished I had just sat down and thought everything through before I started. Although, it’s all a learning curve and I think I learnt more doing it a bit wrong than I would have done if I’d got it right. Not that there is a right and a wrong. You know what I mean.

I usually go like this:
7.1 – Sorcha and Lola are waiting outside Mr Gru’s building, near the Flyover.
7.2 – They go up to Mr Gru’s untidy office and talk about the problem.
7.3 –  Sorcha waits outside and remembers how she met Lola.
7.4 – (In the past) Lola’s car, driven by Hippolytan, crashes into Sorcha’s bike.

I think this is a really helpful thing to do because it sort of forces you to unfold the book in your head as though it were a movie. This stops the telling and encourages the showing. I am not a fan of the telling, although in science fiction you need some telling otherwise everything would be 5,000 pages long. Hey, on a Kindle this wouldn’t matter so much! It would have to be a magnificent story though, and one step at a time, yes? I think if you have real problems with this bit you need to go back to step zero and have a think about your story again. This is the part of the process where I ironed out most of the issues that would have derailed me later on and given me an excuse to stop writing.

4. Bang out the first draft. And I mean bang it out. Get it on the page. Don’t go back and fix bits. I know everyone says that but don’t. Keeping moving forward and don’t stop. Enjoy it. And most importantly save your strength because the second draft? That’s where the fun really starts. We can talk about that another time if you like.