Current work: medical continuity
Listening to: Kathryn Williams
Reading: next on TBR
Writing a continuity must be much harder for a pantster than it is for a planner. Friends who aren’t planners say that if they plan a book out, they get seriously bored and end up writing something different. To work on a continuity, where you’re given a basic outline and character backgrounds, must be nigh impossible for them. Except, I guess, you’re working with other people to create a world, and that can be enormous fun.
I’m just very relieved that I’m a planner. I’ve found that the key to working on a continuity is actually the same as it is with all my books: character. As soon as I’ve made the characters ‘mine’, I can work. And the way I do that is to write a mini dirty draft. This means expanding the outline – which is basically a page or so long, and gives me the main plot points of my story as well as the continuity. Mine’s the firefighter and the school nurse, and he’s been pushed into the position of being a single dad. (By coincidence, my July Med is a ‘single dad’ book, though the cover makes it look more as if the heroine’s the single parent.) The outline says things like ‘medical emergencies throw Tom and Flora together’ – but it’s up to me what said emergencies are. So this means delving into my characters’ past and making said emergencies reflect their deepest fears etc.
I always write a synopsis, because I’m a planner and I like to know what’s going to happen – it’s a flexible synopsis because I can change it if the characters tell me something better, but the way I tackle any job is to break it down into smaller steps. This means breaking the synopsis down into chapters and expanding it slightly, so I know that the book is balanced and what I’m doing where. During this stage, I’m thinking about the characters’ backstory and emotional conflicts, and that tells me what I need to get into the chapters (i.e. where to introduce a layer of conflict, where to deepen it, and where to start the resolution). With this one, I’m sticking a highlighter over the bits I can’t change.
When I start breaking things down into chapters and expanding, sometimes conversations come into my head – and that’s where dirty drafting comes in.
Dirty drafting means just that. It’s a draft, and it’s dirty because it’s written in note form. That means no speechmarks (I write dialogue as a script, with a new line for each speech and usually the character’s initial and a colon at the beginning of the line, so I know who’s speaking). Actually, it means very little punctuation at all – all text that isn’t speech is punctuated by dashes. It’s also written in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy; and I guess it’s how I would describe the events if I were telling a friend what happens in the story.
It’s very liberating and also means I can write quickly, because I know it doesn’t matter if there are typos or holes, and I can also write out of sequence without it being a problem; at this stage, it’s easy to layer things. It’s not quite the same as giving myself permission to write absolutely anything (on the grounds that it’s easier to fix a page that doesn’t work than it is to fill a blank page). It’s getting down the bare bones of the story, and everything’s about what they say to each other, what they do, and how they feel.
Tidying up the dirty draft, though… now that’s what I really like. Because once the bare bones are down, I can see where the holes are and start asking why (and the answers, which fill the holes, all relate to character motivation and conflict). I can see exactly where I need to slow the pace down and where something might need more explanation. And it also means I don’t get down with too many speech tags. Not every speech needs to have a ‘he/she said’ to follow it. Sometimes an action works better to bring across a mood or a tone, and sometimes you don’t need one at all because it’s obvious who’s speaking – especially in a two-hander. (When it comes to speech tags, there’s nothing wrong with a simple ‘he/she said’. If you notice the speech tags, that means the writing’s pulling you out of the story, which rather misses the point.)
So, today – I still haven’t started chapter one properly, though I’ve written conversations for the first three chapters. I want everything else planned out first, so it’s all clear in my head, and then I’ll start. Which I guess won’t be today, as it’s guitar this morning and visiting Dad this afternoon. Hopefully he will be in a brighter frame of mind than he was at the last visit, and it would be lovely if we get a few minutes of lucidity. I will have Corelli in the car, though, because I’ll probably need that to chill me out on the way to school; I don’t want the kids to see how upset I am afterwards. Long goodbyes are definitely harder.