How to Write A Book When You Can’t Write A Book

This one’s about getting very, very stuck on a book and how I got it written. I can’t promise it’ll help anyone else, but it’s what I did. Warning: epic length. If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, look away now.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

So. Back in the Before Times, I decided to write a trilogy: the Will Darling Adventures. 1920s pulp adventure romance, with a ‘difficult’ love interest who was in fact so difficult that the romance arc would take place over three books and there wouldn’t be a full Happy Ever After (HEA) till book 3. I wrote book 1, set the self publishing in motion, started work on book 2, and–oops! Covid!

I got book 1 out. I even managed to finish book 2, though I had to delay publication by two months. And then I went into book 3, Subtle Blood, like a LandRover driving into a tar pit, and like that LandRover, I stuck.

I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was full of writers screaming that their average writing speed had dropped to twelve words an hour, that their characters had become plastic mannequins, plots withered on the vine, inspiration turned to dust. The only creative boom was in people writing articles about how the pandemic was destroying creativity. Apparently when the world is going to shit and people are dying and you’re scared for yourself and your loved ones, your brain diverts resources away from inventing stories and towards survival.

Note to brain: That doesn’t help when you make your living inventing stories.

I created the Subtle Blood Scrivener folder in July 2020. By January 2021 I had four folders of false starts for the damn thing, none of which were going anywhere.

Image of four folders labelled: Subtle Blood, Subtle Blood v2, Subtle Blood 3 the Resubtlening, and Subtle Blood 4 JFC

I also had an entirely separate book that I’d written in the hope of loosening up my writing muscles. That book was a doddle. I still couldn’t write this one.

I’d plot it out, sit down, dig in, write a chapter, and feel myself thinking, No, wait, this isn’t it, start again. Over, and over, and over. None of my multiple versions got past chapter 7. Every word I wrote, every path I took, immediately seemed worse than all the other possible ones, like the supermarket trolley queue choice from hell. I wrote and rewrote and flailed.

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

Well, first I sat down and tried to work out what my problems actually were.

  • Global pandemic: pervasive terror, existential threat to way of life, homeschooling. Not much to be done about that.
  • Sequel panic: the incapacitating fear that if the third book isn’t good enough I’ll ruin everything and disappoint everyone like a terrible person. Solution: to have started therapy years ago. Also on the Not Much To Be Done About That pile.
  • Indecision.

That was the big one. I knew what the romance arc would be, that was easy. I had an inciting incident for the suspense plot: a murder in a gentleman’s club. But I could not work out how the suspense plot should develop. Every time I tried to write it, it fell apart in my hands like too-short pastry. To convey how bad this got: I wrote the first five chapters three times over with the same character as, respectively, the murderer, the victim, and the key witness. I’m only astonished he was never the detective. I tried, I really did. I just couldn’t make it work.

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

Clearly I needed to sit down and plan the bastard. I had tried to do this once or twice already (*Herbert Lom eye twitch*) but what I did now was to take a different visual approach.

You may be familiar with the advice to proofread your work in a different format–print out the text or proofread on your ereader, or even just change the font dramatically (people often say to Comic Sans, but let’s not go overboard). The idea is that the visual change makes your brain see the text as new and therefore pick up errors you previously skimmed over. This is why you get your finished print copy, open it at random, and instantly see a typo.

To achieve my different format, I bought a piece of mind mapping software called Scapple. This is in effect an infinitely scrolling piece of paper so you can keep on going as long as you like, in as much detail as you need, as well as off at tangents in all directions. (The lack of infinity, I now realise, is why mind mapping on paper has never worked for me.) It has bells and whistles I didn’t explore, but what it gave me was that open space, on–let me stress the importance of this–a different coloured background.

I feel quite embarrassed typing that. But the fact is, it looked proper different, and that helped.

Planning stage: Make decisions

I had to make a couple of big decisions even to start putting the mind map thing down. Part of this, not going to lie, was saying “Just pick one” to myself and sticking to it. This is because there is not one single Platonic ideal shape for a book to be. Every decision you make takes you off at a different tangent and makes the plot a different shape. Some of those decisions would be actually wrong (“Kim drinks an oddly coloured cocktail and turns into a velociraptor”) and others not great, but there will always be several paths that could lead to perfectly satisfactory outcomes.

Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.

So I opened Scapple. I picked the suspense plot path that I hoped would take me to the best place, and stuck to it, resisting every temptation (there were many) to jack it in and go back to the start with a different one. I bunged it down in note form, with all my questions and plot holes and options. I mucked about with that till I had a rough shape, adding and pruning as seemed good, exploring options if I felt compelled to, and dumping them if they didn’t work. If I didn’t have a specific event in mind, I put in what plot effects it needed to have (VILLAIN DISCOVERS PLAN SOMEHOW, BAD THING RESULTS) and came back later to work out how.

Once I had a rough outline most of the way (up to the climatic drama point of the third act, as I wasn’t sure how to play the ending), I put another set of notes above the main plot in red, giving the events from the villain’s perspective, i.e. what was happening behind the scenes at the same time. That let me make sure events made sense, and start to shape the ending. It meant going back to the main plot, answering questions, fiddling events to make them fit, getting things in logical order. By this point I was beginning to believe in the plot course I’d chosen. That helped a lot.

Next, I added in the romance arc as a set of notes below the suspense plot, this time in blue, again lined up with the timescheme.

Can you see the problem here?

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control.

Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

Specifically, what was missing was the conflict I had been building up to in the first two books but had somehow not followed through here. And, in fact, this conflict was starting to emerge organically now I’d nailed the suspense plot, because the events of the one set off emotional bombs in the other. Which is pretty much exactly what you want to happen.

And–you will be way ahead of me–once I started digging into the issues and interweaving the romance and the suspense plots properly, the damn thing really began to come together.

Looking at a different picture on the screen, laying it out a different way, helped me identify problems and see the job anew, as well as letting me regain a sense that I controlled it.

Writing stage: Don’t go back

So I made my mind map thing, worked out my plot strands, made decisions as I went, and I ended up with an outline.

Unfortunately, I don’t work well with outlines. I have form for coming up with a detailed synopsis, selling it to a publisher, and then delivering something completely different. (For example: an enemies to lovers romance with a pornographer and a crusading lawyer became a fluff-fest with a taxidermist and a gentle lodging house keeper. Whoops.)

I knew I was going to change things as I went along. And here we were going to hit the rocks, because I’m a looper.

What’s that? Well, some authors are plotters (get it all planned first) and some are what people insist on calling pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. deciding what happens next as you go). I define myself as a looper because my writing process basically goes:

  • Have a loose idea of the opening, the main plot, and the ending
  • Write the first two chapters. Realise the main plot isn’t quite what I thought. Loop back through the first two chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Write the next two chapters. Discover that actually the character needs to do X earlier for it to work. Loop back through the first four chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Get to chapter six. Decide that a lot of what I’ve done is unnecessary scaffolding. Loop back to chapter one and start cutting…

And so on. What this usually means is I get to 70% pretty slowly, but with an MS in excellent shape and a clear path to the end, which I then write at white heat. It works for me.

Until it didn’t. Because the looping had broken with Subtle Blood. I’d got trapped: going over the same five chapters again and again and again, like someone in a bad time-travel movie. Possibly one called Looper.

I didn’t want to start that again. So I vowed: no fixing, no checking. If I tweaked the plot as I went along, I would write XX FIX THIS at the point it diverged from the previous text, and carry on in the new direction. I would not go back and change anything until I’d reached the end. I would fill the MS with XX CHECK and XX REPETITION?? and any amount of work for Future Me, but I would have a finished draft before I tried to tidy up anything in it.

(XX is simply an easy way to pick these things up in search. You need to make them searchable or you end up with SEX SCENE HERE going off to your editor and then you’ll feel stupid.)

I decided this, and I wrote. I wrote plot scaffolding, and left it there. I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

We used to do a challenge at school where you had to eat a jam doughnut with sugar on the outside without licking your lips. This felt like that. It goes against everything that I stand for as an editor, writer, and human to knowingly ignore errors and plot holes and crap writing. But I had to get out of the loop, and that meant pointing my face to The End and not changing direction till I got there.

And, very slowly, I started to feel like the book was becoming mine. The plot clicked into place. There were ‘oh, of course it’s like this!’ moments. The characters stirred into life; the words started to flow; I woke up in the morning with new exciting ideas. I whipped through the last two chapters like…well, like a writer who was enjoying her book. And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional, and not some illiterate Phantom of the Opera hammering at the keyboard.

Cover of Subtle Blood

Then I sent it to my first trusted reader. She promptly identified several gigantic structural flaws I had been hoping were my imagination. I hate that.

I did some large-scale rewriting. Then I sent it to my second trusted reader. She identified more flaws, but at a more zoomed-in level, which was promising. Same for the third. (I sent these in succession, fixing the identified problems before passing the Death Spot to the next person.)

I spent weeks of eight-hour days doing nothing but edit. I switched fonts twice to refresh my vision. (Courier to Times New Roman to Calibri, since you ask. I was never quite desperate enough for Comic Sans.)

Now, over-editing is a thing. It is entirely possible to go through a MS so much that you kill whatever zizz it had, and create something that’s well-formed but lifeless. I suspect that’s a thing that happens with MSS that start off with loads of vigour but lack polish–whereas what I had here was a MS with the bare bones in place but lacking the animating spark. (If you’re thinking about Frankenstein’s monster at this point, you aren’t the only one.)

Because as I went through and tidied up and pulled it together and rewrote, rewrote, rewrote…

…it came to life. I had dug deep enough into the characters and motivations and done enough of the scut work that I could actually get into the fun parts, and it finally goddamn well came to life under my hands. Kim and Will sparked in my imagination, ideas bubbled out to refine and improve it, the hidden motivations and links and feelings revealed themselves, and the whole thing began to sing. It was glorious. And when I sent it to the last trusted reader, she told me it worked, and I very nearly cried.

So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

***

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

Because the first draft doesn’t have to be good, or even okay: it just has to exist. Once it exists you can make it better. Granted, writing like this isn’t fun, and editing it is chew-your-hand-off stuff, and you need good people who will tell you what’s wrong with it when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

But it’s still a lot easier than editing a blank page.


I didn’t spend ten months writing this bloody thing for people not to buy it, okay?

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

Goodreads reviews so you don’t have to take my word for it

8 replies
  1. Ruth Bygrave
    Ruth Bygrave says:

    I’m unpublished myself. I answer a lot of questions on Quora (social media involving questions) about “What to do when I’ve written/am writing” a book, and “how do I pitch it to an editor?” and “What do I do when I have an idea for a book?”

    I make sensible suggestions like “the Rules for Submissions is your friend”, “put it in a drawer when you think it’s finished to wait, look at it fresh and rewrite.”

    What I usually want to suggest to most of them is that there are signs that their idea of being a beginning writer is like the training montage from an action movie, only with more typewriters…

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      People rarely think of the ‘pure slog’ aspect, but you do a lot more of that than of the ‘frantic inspiration typing’ stuff.

      Reply
  2. Ruth Bygrave
    Ruth Bygrave says:

    …and then I scrolled down your Twitter feed and found your Kermit visual is absolutely the best representation of “training montage with more typewriters” that I could have imagined!

    Reply
  3. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    Oh, I love this. I love that I’m not the only ‘looper.’ Pre-ordered ten seconds after getting the newsletter alert, and now I have a happy June ahead of re-reading things to get ready for the new thing. The only way this could be better would be if I had release day scheduled off so I could immediately read Subtle Blood.

    Also: LOL at your scrivener files. ‘JFC’ happens to be my abbreviation for ‘jesus f***ing christ.’ That comes up on my work log less often than ‘FML,’ but it does come up. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Murky Master
    Murky Master says:

    This article just sold you a book! I read the whole thing, had to check out Slippery Creatures, read the sample and bam, it’s in my library now. You weren’t kidding when you said Will Darling ADVENTURES

    Reply
  5. Rachel Lindstrom
    Rachel Lindstrom says:

    Looper is the method I was secretly looking for back when I was in school and rather desperately looking for writing help and reading large numbers of books that purported to contain useful writing help. Not for me they didn’t.

    Thank you and may the gods of your choice, if any, shower you with blessings. So helpful!

    Reply

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