Thursday, September 01, 2011

How to Write Chapters and How to Re-Write - actual writing tips. Woah.

I've had a message on facebook from Ellie Baker, who's 13 and working on her first book. She asked me some really good questions about the technique of writing, so I thought I'd share some of her quetsions (and some of my answer) with you.

Ellie wrote:
Sorry to bother you but I love writing stories and I am writing one at the moment and I have been given some tips by Bill Hopkinson, i'm not sure if you have heard of him but he gives his opinion for stories and plays for a living. Erm the tips he gave me include me writing entire parts of the book again and I was wondering if you did this while you wrote your books? Also how did you manage to put chapters in your books? I have been reading the Jimmy Coates lately and the chapters are almost a perfect length and are in the right places and i would love if you would give some tips.

So here's what I replied:

Hi Ellie,

Thanks for your brilliant message. I'm really excited to hear that you've been working on a book!
Yes, I do always re-write parts of my books over and over again, but ONLY once I've finished writing a complete first draft. If you think about re-writing before you finish the first rough version then the editor part of your brain can get in the way of the creator part of your brain - and that's what leads to writers' block!

So what I do is forget about re-writing to start with, and just write something that I KNOW is going to be RUBBISH. It gives me the freedom to write ANYTHING without worrying about how good it's going to be or even whether it makes sense. I don't even re-read what I wrote the day before, I just pick up where I left off and CARRY ON WRITING. Then once I've reached the end of the story I go back and CHALLENGE EVERYTHING. It's like switching a different bit of my brain back on again. It's incredibly important to re-write.

I would never show my first draft (or even my second or third re-writes) to ANYBODY.

Now, the reason that I can just WRITE and keep going when I'm doing a first draft is because I've already PLANNED EVERYTHING OUT really carefully. That's the first part of the process. I go over and over my story in an outline of the plot until it's PERFECT and everything works beautifully. Only then do I start writing anything.

So what about chapters? I know roughly how long a chapter of one of my books should be (anywhere between 1500 and 3000 words, though some are longer and some are shorter) so when I'm re-writing I go roughly that many words through the text and look for a good place to break the story - either a natural break where the scene changes, or an UNNATURAL break where I can tweak what I've written to create a sort of mini-cliffhanger between chapters - in other words, breaking the middle of an action sequence or a scene and re-writing it where I've broken it so it reads like it's the end of a chapter, then re-writing the next bit to sound like the start of a chapter.

Some writers do their plan in chapters - they work out what's going to happen in each chapter. I don't do that. If it feels natural and obvious to put in a chapter break as I'm writing then I do, but otherwise I go through afterwards and work out (almost mathematically) where the chapter breaks should come. It's about the rhythm of the story but also word count! And of course word count changes each time I re-write, because I'm always cutting or adding bits.

Here's one more thought about RE-WRITING. Lots of writers will tell you that you have to do it, but not many will give you tips about HOW to do it. Here's how I do it:

I have a list. My list has some items on it that never change, but other items are things that I've scribbled down as I've been writing the first draft because they've occurred to me at that moment, but it isn't the moment to deal with them (because I don't want to be distracted by RE-WRITING when I'm trying to just WRITE!).

My list will usually look something like this:


and so on. The list usually ends up having about a dozen items on it.

Then I start at the beginning of what I've written and go through the whole story JUST looking at the first item on my list: for example, all the dialogue. I re-write every word of it. I beef it up, or tone it down. I tweak it or cut it or whatever. Through the whole book, ignoring everything else.

If something else obvious strikes me as I'm going through the book then fine, I address it, but basically I'm JUST looking at the first item on the list.

Then I do the second item on the list. Again, I start at the beginning and go through the whole thing JUST looking at item number two.

For something like 'JIMMY'S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS FATHER' you might think that would involve only scenes that involve Jimmy and his father. But that's not right. I look for ANY opportunity for the other characters and the rest of the story to show something about Jimmy and his father and that relationship. So it might be a scene where someone else talks about their father, or something much less obvious where someone does something in a slightly fatherly manner, or in one of my favourite scenes in the series, it can be Jimmy getting angry with a bottle top and throwing the bottle at the wall - it all adds up to create a fuller and more complex, interesting picture of Jimmy's relationship with his father.

That's just one example that's always on my list. But I go through looking at ALL the relationships between the various characters.

Then, once I've gone through my whole list and for each item on the list gone through the whole book (sometimes more than once) I start again and look at the story as a whole and see what else comes to me. I go through it a few times and make a new list as I'm going through. Then I start the process again with my new list.

I keep doing this until I can't find anything to put on another list.

So that's how I re-write.

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