Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Stay Sane While Writing a Book

In the middle of every book, there comes a point when I insist on believing that I don't know what I'm doing. This in spite of the fact that I have written over 40 books and I have survived all of them and even won an award or two.

Still, writing can be a scary process. There are no real rules, which makes it both wonderful and frightening. Without rules, there is no blueprint, no "this is how you do it." I suppose that's a good thing. If one could "write by number" simply by following the rules, the accomplishment of writing a book would be a lot less special.

And it is special. Finishing is wonderful. Knowing that you have a whole story with characters who come to life on the page is an extraordinarily fantastic sensation.

So…how to make things a bit less stressful while getting from Page 1 to The End? Here are some things that have worked for me. (I'm not going into plotting here. Not everyone plots, even though I do).

  1. Make a timeline. This may be something you do before you begin or it may be a work in progress as you go along. Depending on your book, it can be very detailed or very sketchy. I just find that it helps me to know where I am in the book. It grounds me.

  1. Somewhere, scribble down what your conflict (and all of its components are). It's easy to lose sight of the main problem once you get into the details. Don't lose your way. Write it down.

  1. Keep a list of characters as they come on the scene. As I'm writing along, sooner or later, I'm going to add a character I hadn't planned on. If I don't write that person's name down right then (and their role in the story), I can guarantee that somewhere down the line, I'll need to remember their details and unless I've written that info down, a hurried search will follow. (Note: don't forget the animals' names if there are any).

  1. Have all the details of your main characters at hand (eye color, background, problems, relationships with other characters). It saves time (and keeps you from making mistakes, especially if you've written a lot of books and a lot of characters).

  1. If you have a question about some fact (or word) and you don't want to lose your flow, highlight that section on your computer or post a note. Just remember to go back and fix that later.

  1. Start collecting a set of reference books or a list of websites that will help you when you need help fast and keep them at your fingertips. Whether it's something as simple as (which is also the same site as, a grammar site, a fact checking site or the one that holds the key to your heroine's career details, it helps to have all of that at the ready. You don't want to have to stop for too long once the story is moving.

  1. If you have difficulties with certain types of punctuation or a tendency to use the words "and then" (or whatever your problem words or phrases may be) all the time and you know these things, stick a big old note card on a bulletin board or the wall to remind yourself to go back and do a search for these things at the end. That takes the pressure off yourself now. You can worry about it later.

  1. Even if you're not a plotter, you'll (eventually) need to have certain things happen for your story to be tense and compelling. If it helps (but not if it doesn't), stop and think about what major events (problems) have happened and what still needs to happen for you to carry the story through to a satisfactory ending. Sometimes when I start to feel that I'm wandering off the path, it helps for me to stop and take stock of where I've been and where I'm going. Occasionally, I'll discover at this point that I've included a scene that doesn't really help the plot or I'll find that a scene has been written from the wrong character's viewpoint. If that happens, I may have to go back and rewrite. I'd rather do it now than continue down the wrong road, but this is a very personal choice. (I have been known to write brief notes titled "what must happen" just to keep myself on track. These are mere scribbles, but they work for me. They probably won't work for everyone).

  1. If it helps for you to edit as you go (I edit yesterday's pages before I write today's pages), don't let anyone tell you that you have to finish the book before editing. If this works for you, do it. If it doesn't, don't do it.

  1.  Scribble out a brief description of the main places where your book will take place, or even print out a picture (or put it on your computer) if you can find one. Knowing where everything is and not having to worry about whether you've inadvertently moved things around helps.

These are just some of the things I do (and I don't do all of them with every book) to make things easier on myself. Use what works for you and discard the rest. And if you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments section.

Best Wishes and Happy Reading (and Writing)! 

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