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Episode Notes

We won’t call this a relaunch but a new beginning.

Can you write a novel during lockdown?

People often think that period of isolation would be the ideal environment for finally getting down to writing or completing that novel. But the truth is that writing anything much longer than a short story requires discipline and routine, and with the lockdown comes a breakdown in many of our normal routines.

This can give us a feeling of becoming unmoored from our daily lives, and I for one, am having trouble remembering what day it is.

If you want to get cracking and actually complete even a short novel, you are going to have to establish some clear and manageable routines.

There’s a very good reason that many people recommend writing every day, that is, that it works.

Daily practice of almost anything will lead to inevitable improvement, but gaps in that regular practice can set you back more than you might imagine.

If you’re thinking that you simply don’t have time to write every day, then let me reframe it a little bit and say that you need to put in some effort toward completing your task on as many days as you can possibly imagine.

That needn’t mean sitting down at a desk and typing, or writing longhand. It could be that you have a time when you walk the dog or perform some task that doesn’t need much concentration, and you could be jotting down some notes.

And just to be clear, I don’t think that simply thinking about your story will help. You should be doing that anyway. And if your story is any good, it will probably be occupying your mind for a lot of the time to some extent, for example, you might be thinking about it when you wake up or, while you’re have a shower.

But the reason I say that just thinking about your story isn’t enough, is that this you need to be getting this material out of your head and into some permanent form, because only then will it begin to take shape.

So it could be scribbled notes or Post-it notes stuck on the fridge, or it could be a speech recording made into your phone. I am recording the notes for this podcast on a simple speech recording app on my phone as I walk the dog. And I know full well that if I hadn’t pulled out my phone begun this recording, I would have set off with the best intentions, thinking about how I was going to put the podcast together, but five minutes into the walk, I would have forgotten all about it.

Just by simple act of taking my phone out and beginning the recording, I’m getting something done and that’s making me feel less frustrated about the process. It also means I have to keep stopping to throw a ball for the dog but that’s okay.

So every day, if you possibly can, start putting something down. It will build, and you’ll start to see progress.

Let’s compile a list of things you’re going to need, and you’ll be glad to see that these are very few.

You can get by with pencil and paper, and that’s great for notes and plans, but getting to grips with a word processor or text editor on your computer will pay dividends.

It need not be dedicated writing software, in fact, many of thos apps will have too many features for you, especially if this is your first novel.

If you want to splash out, Scrivener is a reasonably priced piece of software available for all platforms except Android, and it’s used by many people. But there are many text editors that will do the job just as well.

If you’re going to work from several places, you might benefit from an account on a cloud storage service such as Dropbox or Google Drive. In fact, you could write a whole novel on Google Docs.

Even if you’re using a cloud service, though, I would recommend that you take regular backups of your work and dedicated backup software is a good idea. I can’t go into a to long investigation into backup software here, but a trawl through some of the computer magazine and review sites will help you to decide if there is a solution there that will work for you.

Whatever you choose, it needs to be simple to set up, and it needs to be automated, so that you can set it up in a few minutes and leave it running without having to fuss over it. Otherwise, your technical troubles will become a displacement activity that will prevent you from finishing your project.

Having set up some kind of basic word processor or text editor, I suggest you create several documents: one for your first draft, one for your plans, and one for notes.

In the notes document, you should feel free to blast down ideas whenever you feel like it. This would be an ideal place for those thoughts you had while you were in the shower, walking the dog or whatever. Scribble down your plans, forgetting about the spelling and punctuation. Just blast your thoughts down. You might want to call that document ‘blast’ or something, just to remind yourself what to do when you have it in front of you. Don’t get hung up on it. Don’t spend too long on it.

The second document is for your plans. I’m hesitating to call it an outline because that seems to imbue it with too much significance.

You will need to do some planning in all likelihood, but I’d suggest that you leave this as free-form as possible, and that approach will remind you that the whole thing is open to negotiation and can be changed at any moment. It’s not something you’re wedded to, it is just what it says is, your plans.

I would suggest that you put a few headings in your plans, for example, characters would be a great heading to organise some notes under. Locations would be another.

Other headings depend on the genre partly, but if you are writing a mystery, you might want headings for clues and suspects.

Whatever editor you’re using, apply a heading level 1 to each heading, and then leave all your notes underneath it in normal, paragraph text.

This will allow you to navigate quickly from one section to another. These things are meant to be quick reference points. They are not an end in themselves, and we want to establish that right from the beginning.

Your plans should include some kind of timeline. It’s very helpful to keep track of the chronological order of events in your story. You need to know what happens in what order, and you need to know who was where.

It’s also a good idea to keep track of who knows what.

The timeline could be very simple: a list of dates and times with jotted notes underneath. And again, don’t worry about all the spelling and punctuation.

Let’s tackle the draft itself.

It’s a good idea to have a little target to hit every day. This could be in terms of time spent writing, or it could be in terms of word count.

Word counts can be dispiriting when you’re beginning, and you may find it difficult if you set it too high. Give yourself a low hurdle at first. Better to start low and build up.

You might want to set it at 500 words, say, and if that’s easy and you can always increase the target for the next day, depending on how you get on.

But bear in mind that, as in most pursuits, you’ll have good days and bad days. So don’t get downhearted if one day 2000 word is easy, and on the next day, 500 words feels like having your fingernails pulled out. That’s just the way it can go sometimes. It depends on how you’re getting on with your story.

A lack of progress is sometimes an indication that there’s something wrong with your story.

Maybe you need to do some alterations to your plans to fix the structure so it’s more satisfying.

As a general rule, I’d suggest that if you get stuck, go back to your characters and think about them.

Have you changed your mind about a character? Has their motivation altered? Did you start out thinking they were a villain and then realise you were going to redeem them as you went on?

Sometimes, it can feel hard to shift the course of your story. You know it isn’t right, and it makes you hesitant to carry on.

Take a step back, have a think. Are you on the right? Is there something you can do to put your story back on the rails. Have set off in the wrong direction?

All is not lost. It’s only typing. You can change it. You can delete it. And anyway, remember that a story can turn on a single sentence. What can you add to make it right?

Don’t afraid to try things out, but don’t tinker indefinitely. Make only those changes that are beneficial to the story. Blast down a paragraph, and if it makes the story work better, keep it in. Otherwise, delete it and have another go.

Writers’ Toolbox

Scrivener

A jack-of-all-trades for the writer, although some find the number of tools and options unfriendly.

This is an affiliate link – it doesn’t cost you anything,  but I get a small reward if you buy it using this link.

Typora

A distraction-free text editor

Focuswriter

A good tool for daily writing although the lack of auto-save is a concern.

Zoho Writer

A cloud document word processor, similar to google docs. It also has a desktop version.

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