Web/Tech Writing

So how do you start a book?

Arnold Clover 2 is delivered (hope it works). Finishing a book is always a funny time for me. I’ve been obsessed with one particular project since starting it in January. Now it’s gone I always feel a little deflated. It’s hard to go from dealing with a list of complex characters, locations and events on a daily basis to looking at a blank screen.

Inevitably, I begin to think… what next? How do I start the book that follows?

First things first. I do not start writing into a blank page. If that works for you, fine. Not for me. Neither am I the sort of highly efficient writer who can sit down and outline a whole story from beginning to end then fill in the blanks. What I need before I begin is some idea of direction, of structure, of the kind of book I’m trying to write. A framework, I guess.

For the last few years I’ve been handling this task in Evernote, a good solution though one that, as time goes by, tends to get unwieldy. Evernote stores all your projects in one big lump, divided into notebooks which don’t have any real sub-folders. It’s either big and complex or rather too simple at times.

This time round I’m going back to OneNote which I get as part of my Office 365 subscription. It runs on PCs, Macs, iPad and Android phones very well. Plus, like Evernote, it has a very handy browser clipper extension. This is really useful for storing stuff from the web and if you choose the article option it will cut out all the fluff and give you a plain entry that’s great for reading and annotating.

OneNote’s browser extension – save full page, a section as a screenshot, or a reduced format article or bookmark. You can highlight something as you save too.

But let’s get back to structure. In OneNote it’s very definitely one notebook for an individual novel, and it will look something like this for me.

OneNote novel notebook — four labels for four parts of the project.

I set up four different labels under a single notebook.

The first is Story which breaks down into five separate pages…

  • An outline. This may be as short or as long as I want and consist of chapter headings and scenes.
  • Themes. The story beneath the story which is so important. What are the issues at hand here? How do they reflect on the characters?
  • Events. What a script writer would call ‘beats’. Something important happens to move the story along — a revelation, the entry of a key character or piece of information. Here it goes. At some point these entries will go into the outline. But on a separate page they can stay until I see where to place them.
  • What happened. This is an obscure but important one. At the end of a mystery the reader will discover the answer to the puzzle they’ve hopefully been hooked on all along. What is it? What really happened? Truth is I probably haven’t a clue when I start. Here is where I jot down ideas about that as I write. If you’ve read The Garden of Angels you’ll know there’s a massive twist in the story two thirds of the way through. That’s something I came up with and jotted down here perhaps fifty pages before it appeared. These things emerge as the story is revealed. It’s vital you write them down before you forget.
  • Diary. More on this below.

Then we have Characters which is just what it says. A list of characters, with descriptions lifted from how they are described in the text. I don’t believe in writing down detailed descriptions first. I let that flow naturally from the story then record the outcome in the character post after. That way the two match and, as with locations, I can try and avoid any continuity errors. If you’re writing a series you can copy and paste characters from one book to another to keep them in sync.

Locations is pretty much the same but about places, not people. Again, I copy and paste in what I’ve said in the book, but here I may add some local descriptions and photos too just to keep things straight. I don’t write down every last location. Only the important ones.

Finally… Research. What it says. Background documents I’ve culled from the web and from books (I just take a photo of the page) plus any notes I’ve made myself.

The Diary entry in that Story tab is a single page with weekly posts of running word counts and feelings about the project as they come. This is useful for reminding yourself you’re making progress too, and for seeing how the word count and your approach to the project change over time.

A one-page project diary in OneNote. There’s a handy shortcut for inserting the date (check for your system – on Windows it’s Alt-Shift-D.)

Don’t do anything too complicated and do keep it to one page so it’s easy to read. That advice stands for everything here.

Here, from Evernote, is a typical weekly entry I made about a year ago as I was closing in on the final draft of The Medici Murders.

A total word count, the number written that week, and a note on some experimental point of view things I was trying.

The diary page is also great for checklists, things that nag you from time, often in my case when I’m away from the computer. Here’s part of a checklist I kept of things to watch out for — a description of a minor character I used in Book One who reappears in Book Two.

Screenshot added from The Medici Murders to ensure consistency when the same chap comes into book two.

Just as well I did since the two descriptions didn’t match at all. That was a gotcha I noted down on my phone while out on long walk. Writing isn’t just about tapping out words on a keyboard. It’s also about making little notes to yourself when an idea or potential problem crops up. You can create a to do checklist item anywhere in OneNote with a simple Ctrl-1 (Ctrl-Shift-C on Evernote) and it’s invaluable.

If you’re stuck for titles, it’s also worth setting up a page for that too and jotting down ideas as they come (and yes you will be astounded how daft some of those will sound when you read them later).

What’s really important for me about this sort of notebook is that it’s easily accessible anywhere and anytime I want it — on my phone, on a tablet, my desktop or laptop. Both Evernote and OneNote do this brilliantly. I can take a photo with my phone and place it directly into the research folder if I want, or just note down ideas whenever I feel like it. If you have a tablet or laptop with a stylus OneNote is excellent at letting you scribble on your pages too, which is great for playing around with material on a train or plane.

It’s also vital this is a fluid document, one that changes over time as the story develops. Not a prison I feel I’m bound by and have to follow. Writing for me is like climbing Everest: I can see the peak off in the distance and I have a few ideas of the waypoints that will take me there, but a lot of the journey needs to be discovered along the way. A notebook like this is both a crude map of the route I plan to take and a record of what I find as I travel towards the conclusion.

Anyway, it’s now in place. Over the next few weeks, I will populate it with material. Then, probably by the end of October, get down to the real work.

Oh, and one final point. Whenever I talk about things like this, someone always says, ‘Oh, David. You’re so organised!’

Poppycock. I’m very much not. That’s exactly why I need stuff like this.