Trying to write during lockdown has set me pondering my Scribbler’s Progress.
I have learned a lot about writing over the years. Some came from experience; also, an occasional discovery of my own. But a lot was quite simply from reading great books or discussing with and listening to other writers.
Remembering has been a pleasure – and salutary for my next project. So I thought I would share, in case some of this might help someone else.
Scribbler’s Progress Milestone 1
I wrote stories very happily as long as I could remember. It was a nasty shock, therefore, when I found myself living half way up a cliff in Country Kerry re-writing the same scene for SIX WEEKS until I ran out of time and money.
So I cobbled something together and sent the thing off to publishers. They all turned it down. I heaved a sigh of relief and haven’t looked at it again.
But the experience shook me. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all? Until I vaguely remembered something I’d read…
It was in the cracking Wildfire at Midnight and I had to re-read the book to find it. As, indeed, I have just done again.
Well worth it, too. Fabulous story, beautifully told. It’s set at exactly this time of year, back when the Queen was being crowned and Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing where the first to reach the top of Mount Everest. I thoroughly recommend it.
My milestone insight comes in Chapter 3. The narrator’s ex-husband, a writer, appears unexpectedly and she notes his tension. “It couldn’t just be the strain of starting a new book, though some stages, I knew, we’re hell.”
Hell, yes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, dear Mary Stewart.
Scribbler’s Progress Milestone 2
Roll forward a couple of years. Mills and Boon published one of my books, and an author I enormously admired told me I must join the Romantic Novelists’ Association — 60 this year!
I did and went along to a meeting. I knew nobody — my mentor lived in Spain.
“Plotter or pantser?” asked a friendly woman whose name, sadly, I never discovered. I mumbled an answer and tiptoed away. Professional writers, I deduced, spoke a language that someone like me just didn’t understand.
I discovered that if I wrote a synopsis for my publisher, the synopsis, of itself, absolutely guaranteed that what I’d written was not what happened in the finished book.
So I could plot. But I couldn’t stick to it thereafter. Maybe a sort of Anti-matter Plotter?
Was I a pantser, then? I started a book on a rush of energy, flying into the mist.
But then, somewhere around Chapter Three, I would slow down. One bit of me would carry on writing. While another bit would start asking things like: who these people were, how they’d got here and where they were going.
And I’d start writing myself Notes. Piles of notes. Notebooks of Notes.
What’s more, I found that the two activities fed off each other. After Chapter Three, I was jumping between paths all the time.
What I worked out about the past then influenced what my characters did and felt in the now of the story. Not because I planned it. Because my characters were finding their way.
So my milestone discovery was that I don’t fit either template. I do a bit of both. And it has to be at the same time because they are inextricably interlinked, like a double helix.
If asked, these days, I say I’m an oscillator.
Scribbler’s Progress Milestone 3
My third milestone was the gift of historical author Anne Gracie. It occurred at a Romance Writers of Australia Conference after I’d made a white-knuckle trip round North Eastern Australia with the Birdwatcher.
I arrived in a state of zoned-out post-terror. Went to Anne’s workshop on the historical novel like a zombie.
A digression here: to Birdwatchers on a field trip, birds are the only thing that matter. Thus, in a small boat, on a river known to embrace crocodiles, the Birdwatchers kept their binoculars trained on the tree line. They were looking for Tawny Frogmouths and other exotica. The only person with their eyes on the water, especially every passing log, was ME. It was — interesting. I pumped a lot of adrenaline.
Listening to Anne, however, I revived. She demonstrated setting up a timeline for a novel. You had to look at the sequence of events in the novel itself and the critical events which preceded the story your characters lived, as well as in historical records. So we knew where the protagonist was coming from.
There was a ping and the light came on. I thought that’s what I need.
Suddenly I had an anchor and all those Notes sat on a time-chart.
Thank you a thousand times, Anne!
Scribbler’s Progress Milestone 4
I don’t need to run through this in detail, since Joanna blogged about it only a couple of weeks ago: Filing to Keep Your WIP Safe.
Ever since she sat me down and gave me her Little Talk on keeping my writing work straight, I have been more productive, more creative and less in a panic that at any time in my life before. (I think it’s showing in my writing now, too.)
It’s more than just filing, it’s a lifesaver. It has stopped me drowning and returned me to a place of Zen calm several times now.
For the book to which I am returning the moment I have finished this blog, I have amassed four discreet folders over the years. Can’t tell you how many documents.
These include — I don’t know — at least five versions of various bits of text, plus essential research, interesting research and stuff I have absolutely no idea why I bothered to file.
No longer. I am reformed. From today I operate filing the text of my novel on the Joanna System alone.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Joanna. You’re a star.
Thank God for friends and fellow authors — and especially for the people who are both.
Thoroughly intrigued by your six weeks halfway up a cliff! Not to mention croc city. You do live, Sophie.
I started off a plotter, very detailed. After rewriting the plots to most novels as I veered off, I decided plotting was a waste of time. Nowadays I fix a few necessary details, do a bit of place research with accompanying notes for my wayward memory and then off I go. As a result, I still don’t know who the murderer is on the wip despite being more than two thirds through. Is this writing on the edge, I wonder?
Coo, that sounds scary, Elizabeth. Do you have a short list of suspects?
There were a number of years between the cliffside (a deserted village whose Gaelic name meant village of the dead, apparently; there’s Gothic!) and Croc Central. And to be fair, I didn’t see any crocs. Unfortunately, they’re the one creature about which I have a phobia. As I discovered on that trip. Mice, snakes, spiders, sharks, no sweat. Crocs – frozen panic and sweating, just seeing one on television.
I share your aversion to crocs. In Africa, we saw those HUGE ones in rivers, looked like a flat tank!
I have a lot of suspects and ideas about whodunnit, but I have to wait for my sleuth to figure it out before I can be sure of the culprit. Actually this started from the first one when I thought it was one person from the start and it turned out to be somebody else halfway through. Since then, I’ve dithered, wondered, changed, and in the end just find waiting until it becomes clear in the writing is the best way. The last book I didn’t get who until almost the very end. Now that was disconcerting.
Such an interesting post, Sophie. I’m a pantster but sometimes wish I wasn’t. However, that tip about making a timeline for a historical novel is excellent and just what I need as I veer off in a different direction with one of WIP ideas! Thank you.
You’re very welcome, Rosemary. It’s saved my bacon more than once. Even writing a contemporary novel, it’s useful to remind me which characters are likely to remember the same stuff as I do and which of them are too young!