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Writing for the Time Impoverished: How to Structure Your Writing to Make Sure You Finish Your Novel

What separates professional writers from amateurs? Author Matthew Harffy has the answer, and tips for ensuring that you make your publication dreams a reality.

So, you have an idea for a book? You’re not alone.

Joseph Epstein wrote in The New York Times in 2002 that “81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them—and that they should write it.” He then urged people not “to write that book ... Keep it inside you, where it belongs.”

(Embracing the Blank Page: Why All Writing is an Act of Courage)

Setting aside Epstein’s advice, it is obvious that far fewer than 81 percent of the population actually become published.

Why is that? What separates professional writers from amateurs? Whatever the perceived talent of each writer, which is subjective, it is an objective fact that every published author started out as an amateur writer. The first, and perhaps most important, difference between the professional and the aspiring writer, is that the published ones finished their books.

When I started writing my first novel, The Serpent Sword, time was the main thing holding me back. Or rather, a lack of it. I had a young family, a full-time job, and on top of that, I sang in a gigging rock band!

I quickly decided that if I was going to make writing work, I needed a plan that would help me to take advantage of what little time I had.

The first thing I did was to set myself a weekly target of three thousand words. It’s important to have challenging but achievable goals so that you have something to celebrate each week.

I only had small windows of time in which to write (an hour while my kids were at dance class, Taekwondo, or band practice, a couple of hours in an evening after they were in bed, that kind of thing). I didn't have the luxury of being able to sit down for hours on end waiting for the muse, so I structured my writing process around small chunks of time and wrote wherever I could (sitting at the edge of a sports hall, waiting in the car outside, in a coffee shop, on a plane, in a hotel room while on a work trip, on a train, anywhere).

Ten novels later, I am now a full-time writer, I’ve left the band, and my kids have grown up, but, although my word count target has increased, I still use the same basic approach to getting words on the page (or more accurately on the screen).

There are broadly speaking two approaches to writing: those who plan, and those who write by the seat of their pants (referred to in the writing community as “pantsers”). I don’t plan every detail upfront, as I would find that stifling, but I definitely do a certain amount of plotting. If you want to just start writing, good luck to you. There are plenty of successful authors who fall into that category, but I find that some form of roadmap helps with productivity.

A Time for Swords by Matthew Harffy

A Time for Swords by Matthew Harffy

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The first thing I do is map out the high-level synopsis of the novel. This is a very rough story outline; general ideas about the characters, what they will do, their goals and conflicts, significant events, and the overall story arc.

As I write historical fiction, at this stage, I need to do enough research to make sure that the story hangs together, but I try not to get bogged down in the minutiae. For me, story beats history every time.

By the time the synopsis is complete, I have the backbone of the novel.

Next, I break that down into chapters. For each chapter, I write a mini synopsis. If a chapter contains more than one scene, I break it down into smaller chunks. Each scene has its own short description, which can be just one sentence, like “Character A discusses the battle with Character B”). I try to keep the length of each scene to something I can ideally write in one sitting, typically between 500-1500 words. Completing a scene gives you a great sense of achievement.

One of the mistakes writers often make is to continually go back over what they have written, rewriting and tweaking. If you do that, the prose of your first chapter might become very polished, but it will take a long time to finish that elusive first draft. And without a completed manuscript, there is no chance of getting published.

So, avoid tinkering, and write chronologically. Start at the beginning and keep writing. Apart from keeping you focussed on getting the draft written, writing sequentially helps to give novels pace. If you are getting bored writing a certain section, you will hurry it up so that you can move on to the next, hopefully, more exciting part.

As I get to each unwritten chapter, I take stock of whether the original mini synopsis is still accurate. As I don’t plot out every single thing that happens in the story, new characters might have appeared, or events might have played out slightly differently than I originally anticipated. However, the general gist of the chapter is usually still intact.

When I sit down to write, I first re-read what I wrote in the last session and do some minor editing; just typos and fixing mistakes. This helps clean it up a bit, but more importantly, it gets me back into the story, allowing me to pick up the narrative easily.

As the word count adds up, things inevitably change from my original ideas, but I do not allow my progress to get derailed. If I get stuck on a point, such as a name, or a historical detail, I put the section in square brackets [like this] and carry on writing. In this way, my flow is not interrupted. The goal is to complete that first draft. For me, that is the biggest and most important milestone. After that, everything is polish and improvement, but the story is there.

Writing For the Time Impoverished: How to Structure Your Writing to Make Sure You Finish Your Novel

When you have finished the first draft, well done—you’re a writer! As soon as the warm glow of achievement wears off, search through your files for all the square brackets, and start filling in the gaps you left during the writing.

After doing that, I print the whole thing out and read it through. This is the closest I ever get to experiencing what it is like for a reader of my books. The first chapters were written months before, so I cannot remember all the details. This is the phase when I start critiquing the work.

While reading, you will find errors, and sections that need to be expanded, moved, or even deleted. Be truthful and ruthless.

After I have made the necessary changes, I send the book to a few trusted test readers, who provide me with completely fresh feedback.

Once I have addressed their comments, the book is ready to be sent to my editor. He will almost certainly ask for more changes, but from this point, the novel has been handed over and is part of the publishing process. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do—copy editing and proofreading, and the terror of strangers reading my writing. But that comes later and, hey, I wanted to be a writer, right?

Nobody said writing a novel would be easy, but if you can finish putting your story idea into words, you are that much closer to publication. Whether you decide to follow some of my process, or if you prefer to just sit down and go for it, or if you choose a different approach entirely, I wish you luck. Whatever happens, I’ll be rooting for you.

We authors need to stick together.

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Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly used, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer's arsenal.

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