Thursday, 4 October 2012

Writing a book the Liz Kessler way (by Liz Kessler)

Some writers have an idea and just start writing. Some writers like to do a bit of plotting first. A few of them like to do a lot of plotting.
And then there’s me. I plot, a LOT. In fact, I plot so much that the plotting is the longest part of my whole process. But the great thing is that once I’ve finished plotting, all I’ve got to do is write the book! Oh, and then edit it. And think of a title. And – ok, so writing a book has quite a lot to it!
So here is an insight into how I write my books.
The very first thing is the IDEA. This can come from anywhere and anything. Quite often, it is a place that inspires my ideas. This was the case with Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist. I visited a place called St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and found it so magical and mysterious that I knew it had to feature in an Emily Windsnap book! The actual place itself isn’t in the book, but it gave birth to the whole idea. Here it is.

Looks like quite a magical place, huh?
So, OK, I’ve got the idea. It’s a brilliant starting point, but that’s all it is – a start. So then I do all sorts of things to try to develop the idea. The first thing I do is either go to the place – if it’s somewhere real that I can actually get to – like Cornwall, or even Bermuda, or in the case of my brand new Emily Windsnap book, the arctic landscape of the north seas. If it’s not somewhere I can get to (for example a frozen land that you can only get to by crawling through a hole in time) then I have to research it online or in books – or purely in my own imagination.
At this point, I need a nice notebook! Here are a few of my notebooks…

I LOVE this stage. I wander around, staring into space and scribbling notes in my lovely book. And the best thing about it – I can call it work!!!
After a few weeks of doing this, I’ll come to a couple of realisations. The first realisation is that I’ve got a LOT of notes and thoughts about my new book – which is good. The second realisation is that I’ve got NO IDEA how any of them fit together. Not so good.
So here’s what I do next. I type up all the notes from my notebook, and then I cut them up into pieces! Yep you heard right. I cut the whole lot into a hundred tiny pieces. (Actually, for the latest book, it was more like 150 – but who’s counting?) Each separate idea goes on a separate piece of paper. Then I spread the ideas all over the biggest table in the house, until it looks a bit like this…

Then I go and make a cup of tea (see the cup in the top left corner?) and I sit staring at the enormous amount of tiny pieces of paper and wonder how on earth I’m ever going to piece them together.
This is usually the time when I suddenly remember all sorts of important things that need doing. Put the washing in, clean the bathroom, phone my mum, check out my emails etc etc etc. At some point, though, I realise I’ve exhausted all my excuses and I really need to figure out the next step.
So I take a few deep breaths and I sit down and I start reading through all the notes. And then something a little bit magical happens.
It starts to fit together!
This piece goes with that piece; this idea has to happen before that one; these three all say the same thing so I can throw two of them out; these two have to happen at the beginning; this one belongs at the end. And so on and so on, until, after maybe a few hours or maybe a few days, a pattern begins to emerge. The story is taking shape.
Once I’ve figured out a rough shape for my notes, I work and work on them, building them up, adding more detail, figuring out the nooks and crannies of my story. Once I think I might have enough notes to make a whole book, I break it into chapters. If I seem to have roughly the right number of chapters, it means I’ve got the plot sorted! Yay!
At the same time as the plot is taking shape, I like to try a few more tricks to figure out what’s going on. This is where I’ll spend an afternoon ripping pictures out of magazines to get a better picture of my characters, or doing big mind maps to come up with more ideas about my story.
Here’s a mind map I made whilst writing Philippa Fisher’s Fairy Godsister.

Anyone who knows this book quite well might notice that only a few of the ideas here actually made it into the book! This is something that happens quite a lot when writing a book. One of the things you have to learn to do is recognise that not all of your ideas fit into the book. Sometimes it’s the ideas you like the most that don’t belong – and it’s hard, but you have to cut them out!
So eventually, I’m happy with the plot and I’ve got to know my characters pretty well. It’s time to write the book!
The good thing is, I usually do this fairly quickly. I’ll usually aim for around 2,000 words a day. I do sometimes make changes along the way. The plot outline is there to help guide me – but every now and then the characters want to take a little diversion along the way.
But after a few months, I get to that wonderful moment where I reach the two words that give any writer a wonderful feeling.
The End
And I do actually write ‘the end’. It gets taken out before the book is published, but I like the feeling of writing it. Except that it isn’t actually the end quite yet. Oh no-ho-ho! The end of writing the first draft means the beginning of the editing.
Luckily, I have BRILLIANT editors and working with them is great fun. Here’s an example of a page of my writing that’s in the middle of the editing process. The black type is my original draft, the blue type is my editor’s notes, and the red ink all over the paper is my re-written thoughts after reading what my editor said.

Bear in mind – not every page ends up looking like this! But quite a few of them do. Sometimes it can be quite a job figuring out how to type up all the changes I’ve made, as there are so many squiggles and arrows and numbers that all made perfect sense when I was writing them but take a bit of imagination to unravel later! Other pages just have smiley faces on them or things like ‘Ooh lovely!’ or ‘I like this!’ That’s because my editor is really, really nice as well as really clever!
What happens next is a bit like a tennis match. I write a draft and send it over to my editor. She edits it and then bats it back over the net. And so on and so on until we both agree that we think it’s done.
And then….ta dah…hip hip hooray…woohooo…it’s DONE! The book is written!!
This is the point where I usually collapse in an exhausted but happy heap, and then take a few weeks off before the next job…
…starting the next book.

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PS This article first appeared as part of the US Girl Scouts' Behind The Scenes project, but I wanted to share it with some fellow authors and other adults as well, so I hope you don't mind me posting it here too! 


Lynne Garner said...

A fab post Liz and one I am going to book mark so I can use it when I teach my creative writing class. It answers so many of the questions my students ask.

Vivienne said...

Brilliant post Liz. I love the way you write. Thanks for sharing your process with us.

Stroppy Author said...

Lovely - you are the goddess of plotting! I would like to try doing that. At least the cutting up pieces of paper. I'm good at cutting up. I'm not good at planning...

Penny Dolan said...

Delighted - thanks to the Girl Scouts too - that you did post up this article, Liz. A fascinating approach.

Celia Rees said...

You little plotter!

Nicola Morgan said...

I'm with Stroppy. In awe. And wanting to do lots of cutting up. But then the wind would blow and then where would I be? Yes, I'm in awe.

Sue Ransom said...

It's great to see how someone else does their plotting - I have huge sheets with sticky notes (solves the wind-blowing-them-away problem), and have always wondered what others do. Love the mind maps too!

Emma Barnes said...

Fascinating to see the bread-and-butter (or glue-and-paper) technique of your plotting laid bare, Liz. And that you plot so much! It find it's so tempting just to start writing and see what happens...think I might try your methods and see if it can work for me!

C.J.Busby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C.J.Busby said...

This is fascinating - and a great antidote to those authors who airily say "Oh, I just have an idea and start writing and it goes off in all sorts of directions I never imagined..." I can't work out whether some people really do do this, or whether they just don't want to admit that they have a box file of plotting diagrams hidden in the cupboard... Or maybe some people have their plotting faculty buried deep in their subconscious, and it guides them through without them realising it? Anyway - always interesting to hear how other people do it, so thanks!

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks for the kind comments. I had wondered if this post might just send other authors running for the hills, so it's nice to see that it's of interest and doesn't just seem scary and bonkers!


Linda Strachan said...

Liz this definitely does NOT seem bonkers, but I think I might find it scary if I thought I had to do it that way.
Like others have said above, I love your process - but I know it would never work for me.

I find if I plot too much it takes away the buzz I get when I am writing, because I like to discover the story along with the characters. I often know what is going to happen in the end but the journey to get there is what keeps me writing.

C.J. I don't have a have "box file of plotting diagrams hidden in the cupboard." and I have no idea if I have a plotting mechanism hiding in my subconscious... but I have tried plotting it all out beforehand and I just can't make it work for me.

Thanks for sharing, Liz.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I am in awe of anyone who can construct plot. Plot is my Achilles heel - possibly because I don't understand maths or algebra or logic or common sense or cause and effect. Not really really. And I love your idea of typing out your notebooks and cutting them up into pieces! I shall try that - although I doubt it will help me arrive at a finished plot. Perhaps a poem.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

I am in awe of anyone who can construct plot. Plot is my Achilles heel - possibly because I don't understand maths or algebra or logic or common sense or cause and effect. Not really really. And I love your idea of typing out your notebooks and cutting them up into pieces! I shall try that - although I doubt it will help me arrive at a finished plot. Perhaps a poem.