Books have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember: I have a precious copy of AA Milne’s The World of Pooh which was awarded to me as a Sunday School prize in the year I turned three. The characters in books were my friends, and the worlds I read about were as real as my own world, and invariably more exciting.
I don’t recall the moment when I made the conscious decision to write. I didn’t know anything about writing a book. I hadn’t ever met a writer, hadn’t at that time read any ‘how to’ books or attended any conferences or workshops. But I had characters in my head who needed to be set free, so I picked up my pen and wrote.
Eight completed books later, I still can’t claim to have a much more sophisticated writing process, but through trial and error, I’ve found that these are the steps that work for me.
Deciding what to write
I have notebooks scattered around the house brimming with ideas: sometimes nothing more than a word or phrase, or a quotation that once caught my eye; sometimes two or three pages of notes about a possible character. I have folders with clippings from newspapers and magazines, and a virtual version on my iPad.
The intention, of course, is that I’ll browse through all these ideas and pick one to write about. The truth? I haven’t looked back at them yet. Much like my cat, I’m easily seduced by the new and the shiny, and I tend to go with whatever sparks my interest at the time I’m ready to write.
Others may call this planning, but I can’t pretend to do anything as formal as that. I work out the beginning and the end, and a few key scenes to act as route markers along the way, but other than that it’s down to the characters to decide what they want to do.
The one proper piece of preparation I do is to fill in character questionnaires, although it’s something I only started recently. I haven’t discovered the perfect set of questions yet, but it certainly helps to get to know my characters better at the start, although I still find I need to write about them to truly understand them.
I might not spend time on a chapter by chapter synopsis, but research is essential before I start writing, particularly if a character has a job, a hobby or a medical condition that I need to know more about.
Visual inspiration is important for me, and I create a Pinterest board while I’m preparing to start writing. This can include anything from pictures of people who resemble my characters, to houses where they might live, or clothes they might wear in a certain scene. Even minor details can help bring a scene to life in my head: for example, for The Magic of Ramblings, I included a picture of a tea light holder that would stand on each table during an engagement party. I even spent a long time researching whether it was possible to buy tartan balloons! (It wasn’t!)
The first draft
I always write the first draft by hand. There’s something about a pen running smoothly across the page that helps the words flow much better than by staring at a computer screen. Recently I’ve started writing the first page on a scrap sheet of paper first, only copying it into my notebook when I’m satisfied that it works. If I have a neat opening page, it’s much easier to convince myself that the book has some merit when the inevitable self-doubt creeps in!
A first draft can take up to ten months, as I fit writing round a day job and family life. I am a slow writer, and can often spend ten minutes mulling over one sentence, not writing it down until I have the right words in the best possible order. I write the whole book in chronological order, with no editing as I go along.
It’s not the most efficient system. I envy writers who can spit out a ‘quick and dirty’ first draft and then luxuriate over the editing. There are often moments when, without a plan, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next chapter and have to take a break until I figure it out. But I know I will get there in the end.
The first job after reaching the end of the first draft is to type it up. It’s a slog, and with each book I tell myself that I’m going to type it up as I go along – but each time the temptation to keep writing drowns out that sensible voice. This is the first round of editing: I won’t bother typing terrible sentences.
Once typed up, I’ll walk away for as long as I can before reading it through again. I only change typos at this point, but fill the margin with comments about aspects that need more work: extra research, more emotion, checking the timeline, or sometimes just the desperate instruction ‘make this better!’. The proper editing starts after that, and I have one guiding rule: if in doubt, cut it out. As I experience a lot of self-doubt, this can be a ruthless process!
After the initial brutal edits, I will go through the book several more times, tweaking paragraphs, polishing sentences, until the time comes to send it out.
So that’s my process. I can’t advocate it as the perfect way to write, but it’s my way. The important thing is to write, and to set those characters free, however you go about it.
Kate Field lives in Lancashire with her husband, daughter and cat. Her debut novel, The Magic of Ramblings, won the Romantic Novelists’ Association Joan Hessayon Award for new writers.
Sometimes the hardest person to be honest with is yourself…
Five years ago Helen Walters walked out on her ‘perfect’ life with the ‘perfect’ man. Wealthy, glamorous and bored, she longed for something more.
Now a talented artist with a small business, Helen creates crazy patchwork crafts to support her young daughter, Megan. Penniless, content and single, she is almost unrecognisable.
But when her past unexpectedly collides with her new life, Helen finds herself torn. She knows what the easiest choice is, but is it what she wants?