Here’s One Way To Write A First Draft

I’ve been working on a new way of writing the first draft of my novel. And it’s been working really well… so far…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. Apologies for the hair. Still in lockdown and two weeks till I get a haircut, so this is going to get worse before it gets better. Anyway, I’m working on the first draft of Skyclad, the third Witches of Woodville book.

Regulars will know that I used to be a big outliner when it came to writing, but I’m becoming more and more of a pantser or discovery writer, whatever you want to call it.

That is, I’m making it up as I go along. Well, sort of. I do have a rough idea of where I’m going and I know how I want the story to end. And I have a few key notes on a few key moments, but I thought you might be interested to know how I’m working with this one. Again, regulars might know that I have a different notebook dedicated to each project. Here’s the one for Book Three of the witches of Woodville, Skyclad.

This was bought at the National Trust Gift Shop at the White Cliffs of Dover, which is a little clue as to where some of the book will take place. What I’ve taken to doing with this story is switching from day to day between paper — the notebook — and the screen — the laptop — and it’s really working for me. So to give you some idea… On, say, Monday, I will start noodling ideas for what happens next in the story in The Notebook.

So here I’ve written in big letters, “How can the Poltergeist exorcism go wrong?” Slight spoiler, but it’s the opening scene. I’ve made notes on what can happen in that scene and they are imperfect notes. I’ve given myself permission to wander off, and noodle and try different scenarios, and scribble stuff out, and put other things in boxes and underline them, and highlight them. And what I find is that by the end of the writing session, I have a really good idea of how that chapter pans out.

The level of detail varies from session to session. But the next day, Tuesday, when I open up the laptop, I’m not victim to the tyranny of the blinking cursor. You know that feeling when you look at a blank page of Word or Scrivener that bastard cursor is flashing at you, “Go on, write something. What are you waiting for? Call yourself a writer?” Well, now I just go to my notes and start typing, and before I know it I’m up and running. I used the less formalised version of this with The Crow Folk and the second book, Babes in the Wood, available to pre-order now.

And it worked really well. So this is an evolution of that. A few caveats. I’m only 10,000 words into this novel and, in my experience, openings are pretty easy when compared to the rest of the book… not least the middle section, which can lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. So I’ll check in with this in about a month’s time and see if I’m feeling quite so smug still. Also, I’m writing the third book in a series.

I know the characters and situations really well. I have a very good idea of how people will react when presented with challenges. And that makes a writer’s life much, much easier and makes me wonder why it’s taken me so long to write a series. This is so much fun. Anyway, I hope you found that helpful. How is your writing going? Does this sort of method work for you? Pop a comment below or drop me a line. In the meantime, happy writing.

The First Round of Edits Are Away!

Why do I love editors? Because they help me create a better book. I’ve spent the last week or so in the first round of edits for my next book Babes in the Wood, and here’s what I learned…

Apologies in advance for… the wind…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here. Last time we talked, I’d just started the edits on book two of the
Witches of Woodville: Babes in the Wood. Well, after a week and a bit
of intense editorialising they’re done.
They’re off to my… Well, I say “done”. This is probably the first round, but they’re off to my editor, Simon & Schuster, Bethan, for her to have a look at. Lessons learned? Well, um, this took longer than the first book. Now, the first book was Alpha-read and Beta-read up the wazzoo. Lots of eyes on that before it went off to any publisher. So it was in very, very good shape.
This one was in good shape, too. But, uh, there is a murder mystery element to it.
Which… Writing any kind of mystery like that is, is storytelling with the hood off, you know, everyone can see the working parts because you put them there on display for people to… To notice things. And if everything doesn’t quite make sense, then it really stands out in a way that other stories, you know, you can probably get away with the odd teeny weeny plot hole. So this one, most of Bethan’s notes were just little clarifications. Can you make this a bit clearer? Can you hang a lantern on this? You know, can you emphasise this a bit more? Uh, of course, during, uh, during my edit, I realised one massive plot hole was that I have a murder and never once explain how the murder was done. Only I could do that. Um, this is why you have editors, folks. So, uh, that was handy. I was able to… The thing is I’d written it down. I put it in my notebook. This is one good reason why you should have a notebook, folks, for each project that you’re doing, because I had actually written it down. I just hadn’t put it in the actual novel. Small point. But, you know, we always catch it in the end, which is good.
So, yeah, really happy with it.
And it gave me the opportunity to add a few extra layers, a few extra flourishes that… Particularly towards the end I wanted to ramp up the tension a little bit more. So I’m really happy with it. Really happy with it. So that’s gone off to Bethan. She’s in the middle of editing another book. So it might be a few weeks before I see it again.
But until then, I’ve got a short story to edit. I’ve got a short story to finish. These are the Miss Charlotte Quartet stories. So, I’m gonna spend this weekend… Beautiful… I’m gonna spend this weekend rereading that and giving that a final polish, and getting that ready. So if you subscribe to my newsletter, you can get these stories for free. Free! Number one’s out already.
I know.
Good, innit?
Number two is coming on the fourth of April in ebook and audio… Got to record that too. And then
three and four are on their way. So that’ll keep me busy. That’ll keep me out of trouble. So yeah. If I hear any more on the edit…
I’ll let you know. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, I’m just going to pop into my local library.
Happy reading.
Happy writing. See you again soon.

FIVE TIPS: BEFORE YOU EDIT YOUR NOVEL

I’ve got the notes from my editor on my manuscript. Now what? After a week of avoiding my edits, it’s time to knuckle down. Here are five quick tips to help you sort through editor notes before you start your next draft…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, about a week ago, I put up a video talking about how I just got my edit notes from my editor, Bethan at Simon & Schuster, for the next book in the Witches of Woodville series, the The Babes in the Wood book.
And if you were watching that video, you might think, oh, he’s got his notes. And we talked a bit about things like the edit triage and and, you know, just looking at headlines, bullet points
and making notes and stuff like that. And you’d be perfectly forgiven for thinking that immediately upon me, you know, finishing that video, I would jump straight into the edit. So what have I been up to since then? Procrastination, mainly, we can talk about procrastination, if you like,
maybe later. But, actually to be fair, I have had a couple of rewrites on two short stories and also some light rewriting on a horror movie which essentially took all week. So, you know, I’ve been doing that. I think, to be honest, it is a good thing not to jump in with both feet. As soon as you get your edit notes, you know those ideas, you know, you read and review those notes that your editor has sent you. Let them simmer in your brain, gain some acceptance from that time. Procrastinating.
That’s my excuse. And I’m sticking to it, During the meanwhilst, here are five tips on the first things to do before you start your edit…

Save a copy.
Seriously, save it. The original one that your editor sent you. Save it, file it away, leave it untouched. Don’t change anything because there will come a point in the edit where you’ll come across something and you think, oh, what did my editor say about that? And you won’t have any way of knowing…

Accept all changes.
I’m going to show a little video here. There’s a thing in Word and other similar word processors called “track changes” where the editor will turn that on and every single change that they
make comes up as a change. And you have a choice to accept or reject that change. Frankly, when it comes to the punctuation and grammar changes, there will be hundreds of them. Just “accept all”, you know, there’ll be a way of doing that easily on your bit of software. Google it. You’ll find a YouTube video that will tell you how to do that just “accept all” because frankly, they know their
punctuation and grammar. Just accept it.
They may make changes to a sentence or may make changes to a particular word. A good editor will leave a note saying, “I’ve changed this… Is that OK?” Or “Does this make more sense?” And, you know, you can maybe go back to your original document, which you will have saved, and have a look and see if that change is harmful or gratuitous in some way. But frankly, in my experience, they don’t make any crucial difference. These these are words that, you know, just there for clarity… Changes
are just there for the reader. This draft is not for you. It is for the reader. Hence, all drafts from now will be for the reader as well. Just ask yourself, “Is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”
Because in my experience, by the time you got round to the copy edit and the proof edit you’re kind of… You can’t even remember what that word was anyway, so just accept all changes.

So after that, you’ll be left with the comments. I’ve got about three hundred and thirty comments left on my document now from down from five hundred something. Go through those comments, read, make notes, reply to yourself, you know, make quick fixes if you want. Sometimes, you know, you’ll have duplicated word in a sentence or a paragraph and they’re pretty easy to fix. But don’t be tempted to make any big changes yet. Wait till you get to the end, because sometimes editors will see something that bumps them out of the story, make a comment about it, suggest changing it, and then later on, when they get to the end, they realised that was actually part of a plot twist all along. So don’t change it because it may be something that just needs a little bit of clarification or might be fine, just as it is. So read the comments, make notes.

Don’t just focus on the criticism. Look at the praise, too, because a good editor will leave you praise. It’s called the praise sandwich. It’s like, “This works.” “This is a bit rubbish.” “This is wonderful.” Fragile egos of writers strikes again. But actually praise is really helpful because it tells you what’s working. Lean into that when you rewrite.

And don’t feel you need to reply to the editor’s comments. You know, sometimes they’re just posing a question just to prompt a thought from you. You know, they’ll say, is this really necessary? Do you really… Does this make sense? Did they really do that back then? So the editor isn’t necessarily asking for a reply when you send back the next draft, although if you feel you would just want to clarify a point, that’s fine. But it’s usually a good sign that it’s something that’s bumped them out of the story. Might need a quick fix. So think of it that way.

So, folks, five tips. I think that was five. Pretty sure it’s five… Five tips for when you start your edit. I hope that was useful. If it was, give us a thumbs up, leave a comment. All that jazz. Share with writing groups, all that good stuff. If you’ve got any comments pop them below and I will reply. Stay tuned for some goodnews coming about the next book. Some cool news coming on Friday (cover reveal). So, yeah, stay tuned for that. And in the meantime, happy writing.

The First Edits for Babes in the Wood…

I’ve just got my first set of notes back from my editor for the next Witches of Woodville book BABES IN THE WOOD, so this is a great time to take you on the journey with me from editing a book to publication. I run through what a marked-up manuscript from an editor looks like and how I plan to tackle over 500 changes and comments…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, Mark Stay here.
The second Witches of Woodville book Babes in the Wood, is coming in October 2021, October 28th, I think, just in time for Halloween. And it’s March now, March the 5th. And I’ve just had my first round of line edits turn from my editor, Bethan, at Simon and Schuster. So I thought what I’d do on the ol’ YouTubes is start a whole new thread of the road to publication for Babes in the Woods, starting now. So where I am now, I’ve already written a couple of drafts which have gone to friends, beta readers who’ve made comments and sent thoughts back to me, and I’ve made changes before sending it off to Bethan. I’ve also had… This book involves Kindertransport children, so Jewish children fleeing the blitzkrieg and the Holocaust and coming to England. And I’ve already had a reader, a Jewish reader, go through that and give me all sorts of feedback and notes on that as well. So it’s in pretty good shape. Bethan has come back with a marked-up Word manuscript, which has got… 560 comments or changes, which I’m pretty happy with, actually, I think my first book Robot Overlords had well over 3000 comments and changes on there, so that’s doing pretty, pretty good. So, yeah, we got the first round of edits. I got this marked up manuscript of all sorts of little bumps in the road. So we have a look at some of these on screen. So Bethan’s… uh… Just if you’ve never done this before, we have a thing on Word and Pages and bits of software like that could tracked changes where any changes or comments that your editor makes is marked up so you can see it and easily recognise where a change has been made and accept or reject that change. And also, she’s left comments. And Bethan is brilliant because she doesn’t miss a thing. She notices all the little bumps, all the little things I got wrong,anything that bumps her out the story. But she also does the old “praise sandwich” as well, which is where you say, “Oh, this is good, this needs work, but this is great.” So the author’s poor, fragile, ego isn’t too bruised. What I’ve got now is what I call the edit triage, which is where I go through the comments. I make my own notes in a notebook. I try and take it off the page. And also Bethan has sent me a separate document as a kind of summary of her editorial notes of the big, big problems to solve, which is why the triage thing comes in. If you’ve got you know, do you think of your book as a patient lying on a gurney, you know, what do you have to fix first to save their life? You know, what’s the what’s the biggest injury? So rather than worrying about, you know, slightly… Any punctuation or grammar or anything like that, at the moment, you look at the bigger picture, start wide and move in and move in. So, yeah, really, really good notes. I’ve got a month to sort this out, which should be plenty of time. So we’re in March now. Book is published in October…

Yes, October.
Babes in the Wood is book two of the Witches of Woodville series and available to pre-order from retailers now. Visit your retailer of choice or go to the bookshop at WitchesOfWoodville.com and now back to your regular programming

… which if you’re an indie author thinking, well, why are you taking so long? Why does it take so long to get the book to market? Well, part of that is that we’re working to retailer critical paths. So someone like Simon & Schuster will be selling in two retailers, six, seven, eight, nine months in advance of publication. For some retailers, they ask for a lot longer ahead of publication or sometimes over a year. So, yeah, that’s one of the reasons. And of course, you know, a publisher Simon & Schuster will be doing it in forty, fifty, sixty books a month depending on the month. So the marketing departments, the publicity, the art departments, they’ve all got to you know, they’ve got huge, huge workloads to work through. So better to give yourself plenty of time to do it properly, then have it as a last minute rush. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to this. I’m going to I’m going to dig in and start figuring out the big changes I need to make. There’s a murder mystery element to this, which I’ve never done before. And what’s been great with Bethan’s notes is, you know, she just said: a bit of clarity here, a little bit more mystery here. Wouldn’t she have thought this here, stuff like that. So it’s it’s been very, very helpful. So, yeah, I’m going to jump in and maybe check in in a week or maybe two weeks to give you an idea of how I’m getting on. And then after that, we’ll go through the whole rest of the process.

Things like looking at bits of cover art, looking at the blurb, looking at how we might publicise this one, what with lockdown, hopefully not being a thing by the time this comes out. So, yeah, first step on the path to publication. I hope you’ll join me further down the road.

How To Market Your Book On YouTube – Episode 14

In this series author Mark Stay & video marketer Jeremy Mason lift the lid on how to market a book. The series is a real-life case study – as we catalogue the book marketing journey of Mark’s latest book The Crow Folk (Simon & Schuster). Each episode comes laden with book marketing tips, offers insights into book publishing as well as ideas about author marketing.

In this episode we cover: book blog tours (and why they’re critical to a post-launch book marketing strategy) – how to find your dream book editorbeta readers (why you need them, and how to find them) – using StreamYard for virtual book launches

The Development of The Crow Folk

How long did The Crow Folk take to develop? A lot longer than you might think. In this second part of the highlights of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I talk about false starts, rewrites, junking old versions, nearly self-publishing, and how some notes from my agent changed my mind.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, welcome to the second part of the highlights from the episode of the Bestseller experiment, we talked about all about this thing.

And in this one, we talk about the development of the book, how long it’s been swishing around in my mind, versions that I got rid of, how it was nearly self published. And we feature notes from my editor. All of this in about eight, nine minutes. It’s jam packed. So do please enjoy…

That’s really what I wanted to ask as well. Mark, a bit about this come up a lot, actually. And people are very curious about how the book was developed. And and Mike Revell,
thanks for your question. Mike, he said, I’d love to know more about your writing process for the book. Now, if I’m if I’m not mistaken, this book was written with the two
hundred word a day challenge, wasn’t it?

No, that’s book two.

That’s book two.

Yes, yes.
Way ahead.

Yeah. But this this was well, the thing is, I had as I said, I had entire drafts of scripts and novels dating back over 10 years and I just got sick of rewriting the same thing over and over again.

So I got rid of it all.

You just what you just chucked it all away?

You just said, well, it’s filed away.

Okay.

Yeah, very little of those… The village is the same, the name of the village, some of the magical background, but essentially most of it’s gone. Did you actually go through a process as you as you were archiving those notes of saying, what am I going to keep from this? Or was it just..

Yes, yeah. But you kind of think, OK, what’s evergreen? What’s what’s going to… What’s the good stuff? And there wasn’t a lot of it, although one of…The story might come back for book four or five if I get there, you know, because that there’s something about that story that I do want to come back to. But it will be told from Faye’s point of view, not the creature’s point of view. So because I was going for kind of a Swamp Thing vibe with with the original and it just didn’t work. And anyway, so so I had I had all these old drafts and pretty much all of it was jettisoned.

So interesting. And so how did you how did you kind of go through the process from initial notes to outline and draft? Mike asks.

Well, it was because it’s the first in a series, I kind of saw it as a bit of a superhero origin story. Faye finds magic, learns how to use it against a terrible foe, her first real test as a character. And I spent a little time making sure I had the main characters right. I kind of discovered where I wanted her to be by the end of the book, and I did pretty much jump into it. So it wasn’t… I didn’t outline very much. I’d outlined The End of Magic heavily, as you know, Back to Reality. We outlined heavily because we were working together. This was this was much lighter. Now, I was… I’ve been prepping this all afternoon, so I did try and find notes and it’s been quite hard to find where I made the switch. I basically started this in December 2018. That was the point where I think I jettisoned all the other stuff, looking at the different old Scrivener files, you know, so and that draft, that, that first draft I found is pretty similar to what’s been published. And also the other thing is I had planned to self publish, inspired by our own Ian W Sainsbury, friend of the podcast, award winning author. I was going to do a quick release, three novellas, Boom, boom, boom, because and I think what helped was mentally, I was thinking, okay, these are going to be short about forty five, fifty thousand words,
so just jump in and have fun. And I did. I had loads of fun.

So that was, that was the thinking behind that one.

It’s just.
Yeah.

Go for it.

And how many words in the book One? you remember how it turned out.

There’s a little story behind that. And Rhoda asks a question later on about how… Because I got to about forty five in the end it ended up at about sixty five. So still quite short.

But actually Rhoda asks she says, I heard the book started out as a novella and ended up being a full book. Is that right.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

So how did you go about extending it.

Good question. And I did dig out my notes. I’ve got my email from Ed. So let me let me read you…

Ed being your agent, correct?

Yes. Yes.

Ed Wilson, the lovely Ed Wilson. And this is great. So I and I said to him up front, I want to self publish this, but have a look at it and see what you think. And I got his email. He said nothing too major, but all ties into my big point. Why is this book only forty five thousand words? Woodville is completely effing brilliant. And he has, bless him, starred out out the “uck” there. He says tonally, tonally spot on.

Just in case it ever got read out on a podcast.

Exactly.

He’s always thinking ahead.

Yes, he’s a smart man, is Ed.

Yeah, he says tonally spot on, perfectly realised, structured and paced, deliciously readable. This is cozy fantasy. The genre mash up we didn’t know we needed the characters zing off the page. You develop a real emotional connection in such a short space of time. I was in pieces at the end, you bastard, which is great.

He’s just written the blurb right there.

And we’ve talked about the praise sandwich on here before. You know how you give criticism. You start with this is good. You know, there’s a but coming thundering over the horizon. OK, so he says but there is sooooooo… I think there’s seven O’s in that so and it’s all in caps. So that’s more you can do because you’ve limited the work and you don’t have time to properly establish the setting before you get stuck into the plot. We need to see more normal village life, more Dad’s Army war preparations, more vicars and oversized veg and tongue in cheek Archer’s style village politics before the talking pumpkins appear, or rather before the villagers see the talking pumpkins. The way you’ve written it, we have the big reveal and the fantastical events go above ground within the first third of the book. And in a book this length that’s too soon, you’re giving up too easy and losing the fundamental tension of what is and isn’t real. Who is and isn’t barmy. When you have more twists and turns, more tension around who and what Faye, Charlotte and Mrs Teach … Those are the witches… Are. You can keep structure and tone the same. Fundamentally, that doesn’t have to change. Just add more tension, intrigue, spooky goings on. Sow seeds for future books. And then once you’ve established the series, you can do pretty much what you want. This first book is vital to establish the series. You’ve got to properly establish it. Book one is too important to have it dismissed as just a novella. So this was great. And I had a manuscript from him marked up all the way through with notes all the way through. So that was my jumping off point to answer Rhoda’s question. It was, you know, the the tension, the questions. I was kind of giving it all away too quickly and just dig a little deeper as a result.

So I’ve got a I’ve got to say, you know, that is the reason why you try and get an agent, because so many people think so many think agents are just, you know, you give given the book and then they go and flog it. You know, they go off and they have a beer or a glass of wine with with their connections. And then they try and sell the book over lunch. But people don’t realize that good agents are your best friends and your best, you know, constructive critics as well. And it sounds like, Ed, at that point in the journey really gave you the crossroads to say, look, these are all the things you can do without. I mean, if somebody is self publishing without an agent, for example they wouldn’t have known where to go at that point. They may have just put it out as a forty five thousand word self published and missed out on what potentially could have been the most incredible ride of their life. So that’s absolutely fantastic. And what a great insight as well to hear that stage of the journey at that point. Absolutely brilliant.

Thank you, folks. Really hope you enjoyed that. All sorts of fun stuff coming up in future episodes, including how I worked with historical language. Writing a book without any swear words. That’s a first for me. I’m comparing my different publishing experiences. So that’s know working in crowd funding and self publishing and traditional publishing, looking at how those all work and all sorts of other good fun stuff. So do please subscribe and I’ll see you next time.

Where I got the idea for The Crow Folk

We had a special episode of the Bestseller Experiment this week and Mark Desvaux asked me a bunch of listener questions about The Crow Folk. I’ve broken them up into short videos, and in this first episode I talk about how the idea developed from a contemporary TV pilot into the Second World War novel that’s out now.

You can listen to the whole podcast episode here.

Discover more about the Crow Folk and the Witches of Woodville here.

TRANSCRIPT:

MARK STAY: Hello folks, it’s here! Look! Finished, gorgeous. Thanks to everyone who bought the book, read the book, said lovely things about the book, a huge thank you to all of you. It really means a lot. What you’re going to see today… We had a special episode of The Bestseller Experiment where I answered a whole bunch of listener questions and rather than one big lump of video I’m going to do them in little chunks over time, in more digestible chunks. So the first of these, people ask me where I got the idea from and how it developed. And this has been in development for some time. Be warned: this video contains gratuitous bellringing.

MARK DESVAUX: But let’s let’s dive in because there’s a lot there’s a lot of things people want to know about this book. And the first thing the first question is from Jan Carr, and Jan asks, where did you get your idea from?

MS: Classic, classic, and just to reassure listeners, so I’m going to try and make the answers as helpful for writers as possible, and it’s not just going to be me blowing smoke up my own bum for an hour, I mean, maybe for just forty five minutes. So hopefully we’ll get some insight into working with agents, editors, development, ideas, writing for series historical fiction, stuff like that. So Chris asked the same question. Chris Lowenstein: Where did you get the idea? Matt says, of all the story ideas you likely had before you started this book, why did you choose this one? Tanya says, How do you decide if it’s a book or TV thing? What made you a great idea for a novel? A lot of variations on that. But here’s the thing. I’ve got files going back on this idea going all the way back to 2008. So it’s… and it probably dates to before that. I mean, this has been mulling around for a long, long time. And it did, weirdly, it started out as a TV idea, but it was very different.
First of all, I think the big problem with it was I had the point of view completely wrong, and it only took me about 10 years to figure that out. And the period was wrong too, because it was contemporary. Set in the here and now. So a few things had to change to sort of make the idea fall into place. And for me, it really started getting momentum in its current form when we were visiting friends in Chiddingtone in Sussex. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Chiddingstone. It’s on the border of Sussex and Kent. And it is your archetypal English village. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Weirdly, I work with the chap who lives there called Mark Streatfeild, who is kind of Lord of the Manor at Chiddingstone castle. He’s related to Noel Streatfeild who wrote Ballet Shoes. And they have… The family have their own coat of arms and everything. And Claire was down there, bellringing And while she was ringing, me and the kids sat outside a pub and the kids challenged me to come up with an idea for Doctor Who. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a whole session of bellringing? But they do something at the end. They ring down the bells because the bells have to be put in a position where they kind of put up and then they’re rung down and something happens to the bells, the bells and ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. They start ringing very, very closely together, really, really closely together. And it creates this incredible sound, an absolutely incredible sound. It’s like the lost chord from the beginning of the universe. It just creates this incredible magical hum and… And I got something from that I thought that could be that could be something magical, but that’s a good MacGuffin. I could use that. And of course, we’ve been using bells to fight off evil since time began. So bells…. Bells was something… Going to be very important and also Claire hosts… The bellringers will go on journeys. They’ll go from Surrey to Kent and back for the day back or whatever. And they they use us as a base for a couple of days. So sort of twice a day they come back and I’d have to make 40 cups of tea and then double up 40 lots of sandwiches or whatever. And I joked to them, oh, this is just after The End of Magic came out. I joked that I would make bellringers the heroes in my next book. So so the whole bell ringing MacGuffin was coming together. And it does play a really important part in The Crow Folk and then the time period thing put it into place, because it was still a TV idea. My TV agent, my script agent said, why don’t you set it… Instead of making it contemporary, why don’t you set it in the Second World War? Because that period England… Downton Abbey is an easier sell to Americans and overseas people than contemporary England. And that just… Another sort of thing sorted into place. Okay, great: World War Two and… I’ve moved to Kent. Moving here made a big, big difference because… Moving to the country made a big difference. And World War Two, I mean, it happened here with the Battle of Britain right above our heads. So moving here made all the difference.

MD: I got to say…

MS: Slotted into place and then.

MD: I was going to say, yes, that’s kind of like and it’s an extreme case, isn’t it, of a book research is to actually leave leave the suburbs of London and buy a house and therefore you’ve immersed yourself in it. Must have changed a lot because immersing yourself in kind of a village kind of environment must have given you an amazing kind of sense of backdrop for the book. Right?

MS: Completely. Completely. I mean, one of the nice notes I’ve got from someone who read the book said they said you write nature really well, and it’s just being here. You become a lot more aware of the nature and the surroundings. And then the big thing that clicked into places I got the POV right. In and the original version had been the monster’s POV. With this, I created a created a character called Faye Bright. She’s this young girl. She’s your classic, you know, hero… ingenue, kind of, you know, of character. And it all kind of started to click into place. And going back to I think it was Matt who said, why choose this one? It was just the idea that just would not go away. And I couldn’t figure out why… I’d write other things. And whenever I finish those things, I came back and this idea just kept coming back: a magical wood, a village. And, you know, the other thing is I knew this had series potential, you know, that endless well of story. And for years I’ve been trying to think of a series idea, something I could come back to. Well, could it be a science fiction idea? Fantasy idea, what have you? And this it all clicked into place about a character that was able to grow with the series. You know, she’s 17 in this book, but she’ll grow as it goes on. And it just took a really, really long time to see what was right in front of me. But, yeah, that’s a very, very long answer. But it had a very, very long gestation. It’s been around for 13 years. And ten of those it was kind of swimming about and it was completely wrong. So if anyone out there is thinking, you know, I’ve got this idea and it just won’t gel, just be patient. Just if it keeps coming back, if it keeps nagging you, there’s something in there. There’s there’s gold in them thar hills. And you just have to have the tenacity to hang in there because eventually it will reveal itself.

MD: I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant testament really to that idea. And we often call it signposting where you get to you know, you get an opportunity in life where you can start something new or you can try something and you look at the signposts and the different things that you could do at that point in your life. And if there’s a signpost is always there, it’s always like this is this I’m not going away. I’m not leaving you. If you see that enough times, you really have to follow up. And it sounds like intuitively you went right now. But it’s also about timing, is it? Well, I mean, you couldn’t have written this book five, ten years ago, right?

MS: Well, I did. I did write the book. I mean, that’s the thing. I mean, we’ve got questions about development later on. I finished many, many drafts of the wrong book, you know, that eventually kind of and scripts, you know, TV pilot scripts, feature length scripts that I got to the end of. And they still didn’t work. So, you know, it’s I did write it, but it was it was just wrong. It was it was wrong, wrong, wrong era and not the right character for you to write the right book as well.

If you enjoyed that, folks, there’s more to come. I’m going to be talking about future episodes, things like development, the writing process, writing historical language, historical dialogue and comparing my experiences in crowdfunding and indie publishing and traditional publishing, all that good stuff. So subscribe and don’t miss an episode. See you soon. And happy writing.

Plotting vs Pantsing

When you write, do you prefer to outline beforehand? Or write by the seat of your pants?

I go for a walk without a map and discuss plotting versus pantsing. Beware: heavy-handed metaphors ahead!

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m on a walk today.
One of the things I want to talk about today is plotting versus pantsing. Something that’s been on my mind quite a bit. And I’m on a walk because, and you should be aware of this, there are some heavy-handed metaphors on their way, because I’m going on this journey today and I have no idea where I’m going. Hey, hey, hey. Plotting, pantsing, eh?! Anyway, so let’s get on with it.

So, yeah , let’s define some terms first. So, a plotter is someone who outlines before they write. A pantser is somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. And this term was completely new to me before I started the podcast I hadn’t heard of it before. I think it’s an Americanism, frankly. But yeah, it kind of makes sense. You know, there are people who make it up as they go along. And I’ll be honest, I was, uh… the idea of that always kind of terrified me and I was always a very big outliner. And anyone who’s listened to the bestseller experiment podcast will know that I got quite a bollocking for that from Ben Aaronovitch, because my outline was, well, for Back to Reality that I’d written with Mark Desvaux was some 50-odd-thousand words long. Which is, to be fair, is quite a lot. And it was quite a wake-up call for me. In my defence my background’s in screenwriting and in screenwriting, you have to outline everything because you need to serve stuff up to directors and producers, pitching stuff that you haven’t actually written yet. I’ve done it. Just this week, I put together a 10-page outline for a TV show for the director to see. Now, I’d rather write that 10-page outline than a 50-page pilot show that he then doesn’t like at all, you know, so it makes a lot of sense to do that, certainly in the film world. And certainly if you have a deal with a publisher, they’re gonna ask to see synopses upfront, but not big ones, usually just three paragraphs tops, usually. So, you know, you do have to outline a bit and certainly Ben Aaronovitch says he does, like, a page. You know, before he writes anything and other authors we’ve spoken to, people like Martina Cole, you know, they do a page. The important thing is they have an ending. They know where they’re going. They know where the protagonist is going. Anyway, back to me. and my fifty thousand word outline.

Ben’s bollocking was quite a wake up call because it made me think, actually should I really be… is this is the right way to do this? Is there a right way or wrong way to do this? So the book I’d been working on before the podcast that I put aside to write Back to Reality was my fantasy novel, The End of Magic, which I had outlined very, very heavily. You know, I had three plot strands going on and I needed to know where they were going. And I felt outlining would really, really help me. And I’d done it. I’d finished the draft before starting the podcast, put it away. And then sort of a year later, after we wrote Back to Reality, I picked it up again, had a look at it and realised two of the threads were fine, really, really good. There was one character that just wasn’t working. A character called Oskar, and he needed work. I had a choice, then. I could have sat down and outlined it very heavily. Or I could have pantsed it. Fly by the seat of my pants. Well, that’s what I did and I loved it. It was great. I mean, I had the safety mat in that I knew everything that was going on all around him, you know, I knew what’s happening with the other characters. I knew how the story was going to end. I had a very good idea of how I wanted his story to end. So I approached the rewrites of his chapters just with the attitude of “What happens next?” What can be the most interesting thing that happens to poor old Oskar? I made his life hell. Very difficult. And I loved it. I had a great experience. And what’s interesting is in a lot of the reviews, people single out Oskar’s thread as their favorite bit. So that was a lesson learned, you know, and I took that to heart. So when I started working on my next project, which was the Woodville books, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants this one. And I did.

The Witches of Woodville Books, starting with The Crow Folk. OK, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants these. A little bit of history on the books. I’d been writing them on and off for about ten years, basically as contemporary fiction set in the current day. You know, with magic and what have you. It just wasn’t working. And so I put them away and it was my TV agent who said, you know, why don’t you set them in the Second World War? He figured I could sell a TV series like that to the Americans. Much to his annoyance, probably, I started writing it as a book series. And it all clicked into place. But what I did was abandon any previous story ideas. I worked on the characters, particularly the character of Faye, and just figured where I wanted her to end up and headed towards that ending. So I did kind of a one-page outline and got to know Faye. I wrote the book up and around her. And I would ask the question, what happens next? How can I test her? How can I make life difficult for her? How will she recover? And pick herself up? And dust herself off and become a better person? And it was fun. It was really freeing.

The other habit I started was I got a notebook and at the end of my writing day, which is only a couple of hours each morning, I would write what happens next or write down sort of half baked ideas, “What happens next?” Or finish mid-sentence. And the old brain— Wow, look at this. The old brain would be ticking away. And I would usually have ideas at some point during the day. Send them to myself. And the next morning I knew what I was going to be writing. So, in a weird way I was still outlining. But just, you know, one nibble at a time. And it worked and it needed surprisingly few rewrites as well. Because that’s the thing with outlining. I think I always viewed it as a safety net. I always viewed it as that thing… How rude. I always viewed it as that thing of, you know, at least I know where I’m going. But, you know, I’ve been writing for so long now, I kind of know story structure. I kind of have a good idea of what should happen next. And then I heard on the Script Notes podcast, a brilliant talk by the screenwriter Craig Mazin, where he said what he uses is, he knows where he wants his character to end up. He kind of has his ending in place. And then he writes from the opposite of that, you know, so he knows how they’re going to change over the course of the story. So he says, whenever I got stuck, I would just think, OK, I’m going from “this” to “the opposite of this”. How is this chapter affecting that? How is my character changing in this part of the story? And it’s such a simple rule and it works. So I use that. And I’ve used it for the second book in the Woodville books, which I’ve just handed in to my agent. You know, that’s kind of been my method. But that’s not to say that I’ve abandoned plotting altogether. I have to do it with screenplays. It’s just like I said, I’ve just done a TV thing. So this idea that it needs to be an either/or thing is hooey. I think George R.R. Martin says, you know, writers are either architects or gardeners. You know, they build something or they let it grow organically. I don’t see why you can’t be an architect with a garden, frankly. Why the hell not? Yeah. By the way, this is where we shot the video for The Crow Folk. It’s changed a bit since the summer, hasn’t it? There’s normally a path here. These are new!

That’s not to poo poo people who outline, you know, outlining, I’ve done it and it’s been successful for me, you know, if that’s the way you do it, go for it. All power to you. But I don’t think you have to define yourself as one or the other. You know, allow your writing style to evolve over time, allow yourself the flexibility to change the outline, because, by all means, study the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, all of those seven point story things or whatever. Understanding structure is important. Definitely important because it allows you when you are stuck to maybe fix things. But what I would say is all those books, you know, on why Thelma and Louise and Silence of the Lambs is, you know, the greatest structured screenplay ever. They’re all done from a point of analysis. After the fact. The screenwriters weren’t thinking like that. You know, they were just thinking what happens next? And either through experience or their own insight, they were able to come up with great solutions. And believe me, they didn’t come up with it first time. They would have rewritten and rewritten until they got it right. See, don’t let anyone define what you should be as a writer. You have to figure it out for yourself. That takes time. It’s taken me over 20 years.

So here’s the heavy-handed metaphor bit. When I left the house this morning. I didn’t know which way I was going to walk. I knew that I was going for a walk, but I didn’t have a preplanned route. But I know the area really well. I didn’t realize it was going to be so muddy back there. But I got through it because I’ve been here before and I sort of know the way. Huh? I told you. It’s heavy-handed, didn’t I? I’m a writer. I do metaphors, me. Oh, yeah. But, you know, I’ve ended up here. I’m pretty happy with that. Yeah, it’s not bad. All things considered, at the end of it, I’m going to reward myself with a cup of tea, maybe a little cookie or something. Here we go. Till next time, happy writing. And if you get lost, don’t worry. There’s usually a path somewhere.