Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Writing: The Contents File

Every so often I will take a look at the work of writers who want to get their feet on the first rungs of the ladder leading to publication. But first let me make a distinction here. These are not wannabe writers since they are actually writing. They are not those who say, ‘I always wanted to write a book about so-and-so,’ to which the reply must always be, ‘Then why aren’t you writing it?’

Sometimes those who contact me are those in love with being a writer more than writing itself, though that is no barrier, just so long as they actually do write. Sometimes they are those trying to learn the secret handshakes and arcane rituals that will lead to publication. There aren’t any – you have to be stubborn, persistent, prepared to learn and take a lot of knocks, and in the end you have to write something a publisher thinks will make money.

I will look at a sample of the work these people produce if I am not right in the middle of something, if I happen to feel so inclined, if they are not rude and pushy and if I get some sense that they’re actually looking for advice, rather than praise. Sometimes I get that last one wrong, tear someone’s work apart, and know by the affronted response that they have learned nothing.

So what am I waffling about here? Having recently taken a look at someone’s work (Hi Khaled) and tried to ape the Peter Lavery scary pencil with a red pen, I thought it might be a good idea to start doing some posts here on what I see as the nuts-and-bolts of writing. As and when something occurs to me on that subject I’ll do a post here under the label ‘Writing’ to slowly build up what I hope will be a useful resource.

Today I’ll ramble on about a contents file:

A book is a large chunk of text. Now I know I’m stating the obvious but how, unless you have an eidetic memory, do you keep track of it all? Here’s my method. Generally my books are about twenty chapters long, each chapter broken into sections that can be just one or as many as six pages long. Each of these sections is written from the point of view of just one character. Let me digress for a moment:

To my mind a common mistake I see is the switching of POVs sometimes from one paragraph to the next. This is confusing for the reader. It can also cause the reader to fail to engage with the characters.

Continuing… I keep track of a book by first bookmarking each of my chapters as I write them. After I’ve written a couple, I then open another file with the pages (usually about two) switched to two-column mode. In the case of Gridlinked, for example, this file is called 'gridcontents'. In this I list the chapter number followed by a very short description of each section in that chapter. If required I’ll add timings. This is useful for keeping track but it’s also handy because I am writing down what happens in each section. If I can’t sum up ‘what happens’ this probably means I’m waffling and the section might be better cut, or the useful elements of it distributed elsewhere. Here’s a sample from 'orbuscontents':

Chapter 7.
U-space Missiles
Vrell hunts mutations.
Prador kamikazi
Orbus to hunt Vrell
Golgoloth to Oberon
Jain starts to wake

There's something further to add here. As many of you know, I don’t particularly do a lot of planning before writing a book, so I don't produce a summary or synopsis beforehand. However, after I've handed the book in and as it heads towards publication, my publisher wants to get people interested and give them some idea of what it’s all about. At this point, with the book finished, the contents sheet comes in useful for writing the synopses. I copy the contents sheet, get rid of column mode, then work through turning each short description into a paragraph or so. Next I take that and begin melding it; losing some of the straight-line chronology to focus on the story, on what it is all about. This usually results in about six pages of single-spaced text. After that I’ll make a couple of abstracts – one at about half the length and one summing it all up on a page.

The art of précis is well worth learning.

Here endeth today’s lesson.


Pip Green said...

Thanks for that Neal. Hope you'll post more. :)

Jebel Krong said...

nice post, very interesting. i think i'm far too chaotic-brained to ever be that methodical and pre-planned if i ever wrote a book though, tbh. as much as i loved doing research my dissertations/papers were always a bit... messy.

Hitch said...

Need more of these, the books that cover this subject... well, I dunno, they always seem crap to me!

I often fall into the POV change, I try my damndest not to but more often than not I go back over the work and end up having to re-write a lot of it just to get it back into one POV. I think my mind prefers the 3rd person view but, to me, its often very narrative and I think a lot won't like it so I force myself into a uncomfortable position then just end up with hours of work later fixing it anyway. Perhaps I should stick to what I feel happy in.

I also don't tend to plan ahead. I mostly end up jumping out of bed looking for my laptop because some awesome idea popped into my head, then I drop back to sleep and look at the ideas a few weeks down the line, this of course makes me often lose track of the idea (even though the basis is in front of me). When I do start to write though I leave large gaps filled with possible ideas, names, etc in the middle of the paragraphs.

I know this much Neal, if you ever read something of mine and ripped it apart, i'd take it well. Writing certainly isn't ego based for me, its bloody hard work and doesn't come naturally past the short story! I would class writing as the hardest job in the world tbh. For me anyway :)

beak said...

awesome, thanks for this, keep it coming!

(stuck trying to find a way to end my first chapter - I know how I want it to end, I just cant find the right words)

Neal Asher said...

I've already written the next one, Pippa - on short sentences.

Ah, you're missing the point, Jebel. I don't pre-plan. I'm just methodical as I write.

I'll have to do a post about the books on this subject I've read and found useful, Hitch.

However you do it, Alex, make sure it's a hook to draw the reader on to the next chapter.

beak said...

thanks Neal, this writing malarky is a lot harder than it looks ;)

Unknown said...

I will read with great interest any
further postings by you on the
craft of writing; though I long
ago came to the melancholic
realization that I lack any literary
abilities myself, I continue to be
fascinated by the 'nuts and bolts'
of the writers trade, the engineer's
work of T-squares and slide rules
(remember those?) that underlies
the artistry.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

does anyone else write like this? so logically organized, and seems less daunting when you put it this way. sorta writes itself after you have the 'tent' up.

you could make some money off this stuff son...

Neal Asher said...

Mybe I haven't been clear enough here. I write the synopses after I've written the book. I'll edit this post a bit.

Disco Stu said...

This ,sir, is most excellent and most welcome.

Disco Stu said...

You mentioned recently about the book you are currently birthing, that you had your chapter starts done - how does that work? (Or am I jumping ahead?)

Fader209 said...

Thankyou Neal for this post and the others which will follow. Getting tips from an author is always going to be much more helpful than from a "random" person on the net.

I'm currently working on a couple short stories and have other ideas scribbled down on paper but my main problem is motivation and getting it done. It's strange as once I'm into it I can get a lot done and really get involved.

Another thing I do is if I find myself with free time to kill when I'm out & about I get writing on my phone as it has Word on it (which is also dead handy if you need to jot down an idea anytime!)

Neal Asher said...

Stu, some of the chapter starts, the little bits that in the Polity books were from 'How It Is - by Gordon' etc, come from info dumps that I've dumped or I write after to elaborate on something.

Fader, motivation is the main problem. Why do you think it is that some authors, who are well-known and probably in no financial pain, only produce a book every two or three years? Let's face it, if I was a paragon of virtue, at the word rate I aim for I would be on half a million words a year - about three books.