Turning Ideas into Books
How I went from a blank page to a finished first draft in six months
I have felt a compulsion to write ever since I was in kindergarten. No lies. It might have had something to do with the encyclopedia set my Dad bought the family when I was a just a snot-nosed nipper. The top shelf held the big people encyclopedias, all very stern in their burgundy hardcovers and each weighing enough to cause damage. The bottom shelf though. That bottom shelf held books that ignited my imagination with fascinating articles, colourful pictures, and DIY projects. I spent hours laying on my tummy in front of the bookshelf paging through these sets.
Despite my love of words and stories, it took me 40 years to finish my first book and then just five years to write six more. When I say 40 years to write my first book, I mean I tried on and off to write whatever fantasy stirred me to put pen to paper. Invariably, I’d write an opening scene; maybe a whole first chapter and then I’d lose interest. In reality, my first completed book took a year to plot, write, edit and rewrite.
Here is how I went from not being able to write a complete story to writing 6 books in 6 years
Picking the right genre
As a reader, there is nothing quite like discovering a great new historical fiction series to get stuck into and I have been reading books in the genre since I was a teenager. I find history is fascinating and it easy for me to lose an entire afternoon delving into articles and videos about our ancient past. Yet, every time I began to write a tale, I found myself writing in the fantasy genre.
Recognising that historical fiction was a better choice for me was a key factor in enabling me to visualise the Sons of Iberia story and plot it. As the cliché goes, write what you know. And I knew history and historical fiction. I’d been watching history programmes and reading historical fiction for years. Sure, I would need to do a ton of research, but guess what? I liked it. Often a little too much and I’d need to learn to focus my research, but better too much than too little.
Plotter versus Pantser
This is without a doubt my biggest revelation. A bonafide Pantser, I never used plots, preferring to let the story write itself. Well, that did not work out so well.
Plotting a story beforehand gives me a rough framework to build on. I begin with a blank MS Word document and make notes on what I expect to happen over roughly 24 chapters. This is just a very brief synopsis, and all told, is never longer than a thousand words.
I then open an MS Excel template that I created. The column headings I use are:
Summary of events per chapter,
Planned word count per chapter,
Character appearances per chapter.
My historical fiction books usually run to 24 chapters which I feel is a good number. Nothing is set in stone though.
I will refer back to this spreadsheet many times while writing, using it to keep the story from going too far off course. If, as I write, I need to evolve the story in a chapter from the original, I’ll update the summary accordingly.
I update the word count as I write and being Excel; it keeps a tally of my total word count which is a nice way of seeing my progress. I target 3500 words per chapter and find this is an ideal length for creating the scene, developing the plot and creating tension and ending with a cliff-hanger if possible.
I used to go to town on naming every character that belched, grunted, or smacked their lips. It is not necessary, and readers may become exasperated with all the names. I now limit the number of named characters in my stories, christening them only if they are integral to the plot. It’s not strictly necessary to record what chapters character appear in, but it can be helpful.
Despite the outline, I do still go part-pantser in chapters, but never full-pantser.
The plot summary and an ever-growing word count are big motivators. That is another reason 3500 words per chapter works for me. In the great scheme of things, it not a huge number and can be written in 8 hours over a day or two. Even if it takes 3 days to write, that means I can write 2 or 3 chapters per week. That’s 24 chapters in as little as 2 months. Or to call it what it is - a full first draft.
Honestly though, my greatest motivator is just writing a story that I would find interesting as a reader. I enjoy reading books from the genre I write in and writing a tale set in the genre is just as captivating when you put all other considerations aside.
I write in short bursts for the most part. There are times when I’ll sit and crank out 5000 words in a day, but more often, I write a few hundred words and then do something else for a bit. As a self-published author, there are no shortages of other things to do; research, book cover design, website maintenance, marketing, and writing other content.
Overcoming procrastination is an art and I have found that establishing a writing routine helps. Once I have established a routine of say three hours in the morning and two in the evening, it becomes easier to buckle down and do the work.
I use MS Office Word to write the first draft with a template format that includes elements such as font type, first paragraph style, body paragraph style, and front and end matter formats.
MS Office offers cloud storage via One Drive. I save the draft to my Cloud Drive regularly to avoid the calamity of losing days or weeks of hard work. I also save the plot outline docs, spreadsheets, and research material to the cloud to disaster-proof my projects.
Without a shadow of a doubt the more I write, the better I get at avoiding mistakes and at writing copy that readers will enjoy. When it comes time to edit, I use a universal edit checklist I created after writing the first two books in the Sons of Iberia series. I found I was prone to making the same mistakes and so I have built this checklist over the years so that I can quickly go through it and using Word's search function, search and amend in double-quick time.
I use ProWritingAid to help improve readability. I’ve used this software for the last three years and with it I am able to catch the use of repetitive words, strengthen sentence construction, and make the draft a good read. With over 25 different checks, ProWritingAid is an essential tool in helping me to work my first draft into a book.
It’s my view that book covers can make or break my sales figures. My first book covers were photoshopped from free images downloaded from sites like Pixaby. They were less than ideal and with hindsight; I think I was fortunate to sell the number of books I did with those covers. These days I purchase quality art from Arcangel Images Ltd (UK) and resize as needed for the book cover, design the title, and write the blurb for the back cover. The covers look infinitely better and fit together better when placed side by side.
Left: The original Warhorn cover. Right: The updated cover
Apart from being a member of various social media groups, I became an Author Member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (Alli) in 2019. Being a member of Alli has given me access to their bank of invaluable resources. Being part of the Alli community allows me to make connections with successful authors who are happy to share their knowledge and is an education in itself. Alli has arranged sizable discounts with suppliers of writing and publishing products and services that alone make the cost of joining them well worth it. See more about Alli at Alliance for Independent Authors. Full disclosure; as an author member, I am also an affiliate of Alli and will earn a small referral fee for new members that join through my affiliate link.
That’s how I went from never able to write more than a chapter to writing, at last count, 8 books with a 9th on the way. Yes, it is hard work. No argument there. What I did was stack the odds in my favour by creating a system that works for me. Now I am confident I can sit down any day of the week and whip out a plot outline and then, day by day, fill that outline in until in a few months I have a working draft.
Books on Writing
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Patrick Dunleavy (Author)
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