Before we authors can embark upon the unenviable task of marketing a book, we have to write it. So for this first post-proper, we’ll return to the dim and distant past, aka autumn 2019.
I had the idea of writing a fictional music oral history after finishing reading Dylan Jones’s Bowie oral history, David Bowie: A Life. I love oral histories – and diaries. They get to the nub, none of your flowery overmatter or showing off. An oral history is rather like a screenplay, just dialogue. I enjoy writing dialogue, consider it to be one of my strengths, and prefer to avoid penning descriptive passages, plus I’ve read a ton of music books and know my punk and post-punk pretty much inside-out. A punk/post-punk oral history it would be.
Write what you know.
(Incidentally, this was my first decent – felt workable – book idea in almost a decade. I was excited.)
I’ve written four long-form books before, two fiction, two non-fiction. Two things changed in my modus operandi this time, both of which really helped the process.
- I used Scrivener (see image), which I found a bind to get into – the instructions aren’t great – but once I had, a major boon. As you can see, there’s a section for character studies, as well as research notes, basically all your background material, as well as your individual chapters, on the left-hand side. On the right-hand side, space for a Synopsis (I rarely bothered) and Notes, which I used plenty. Previously, I’d have had notebooks, bits of paper, fag-packet ends scrawled on, all over my desk. Suddenly all that crap was in one place: on-screen. If you forget how old a character’s supposed to be, just click into their character study then back to the writing window. The other great feature of Scrivener is its Compile function: you can turn your MS into ePub, Mobi, pdf, Word, etc etc. Pretty much anything, at the touch of a button. Scrivener ain’t cheap but I can’t recommend it highly enough. Never again Word for me.
- I bombed through it. On earlier books, I’d pain over each word and revisit a paragraph on umpteen occasions, tweaking, tweaking. It made for slow progress, and often I’d find myself reading the same three paragraphs over and over again. Dumb. This time, I whacked through, revisiting only sparely. I’m currently studying for an MA in Comedy Writing and the same is advised for scripts: bang it out (called a spit draft). If you can’t think of a line of dialogue, leave it blank, move on. Not sure I’d apply the same to book-writing, but definitely writing fast worked for me. I also set myself word-count targets, allowing myself weekends off (so if I was behind with my targets I’d work weekends). I started at 500 words a day; once I was into my characters and could hear them talk, I upped that to 750 words. If your book’s 75,000 words long, that’s 100 days. My first draft was less than 60,000, so I was finished in three months. Except, of course, that first draft was very first-drafty and required oh-so-many revisions. Happily, selling the thing to agents and publishers – next post – took so long that I was able to rewrite in the background. But that’s the caveat: if you write fast, expect months and months of rewriting. Worked for me.
Finally, of course, get other people to read the thing. You cannot edit yourself. My near-neighbour, Dave, quite some way into the process, suggested more depth to my Roy and Gary characters. He was so right, it really lifted them and the book as a whole. My final MS came in at 78,000, so I’d added roughly 20K words since the first draft. That’s the kind of work required.
Next, it gets harder.