Using Word features to organize your thoughts

It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of what is happening when, especially if you write a longer book, or to remember if you’ve explained something already or if it’s just in your head.

When I write, I often let my mind wonder and let the fingers type away on my keyboard. I don’t worry too much about how it works in the overall story. I have the outline of the story in the back of my mind, but I don’t interfere or direct my thoughts in any one way or another.

In draft one, I have lots of scenes and patches written. Next step is about connecting and changing them so they make sense and fit together. I don’t write the whole story in the first draft.

Often I will have many open questions that remain unanswered for months on end, until I figure out what to do with them and how they fit in the story. It can range from a character I haven’t introduced or assigned a role yet, or a scene I don’t know where to place, but it can also be insiders that hint towards something, but I haven’t yet written the corresponding part to it. I need to remember to finish that thought somewhere. For this I use footnotes in Word a lot. I use them to remind myself of plot holes or things that don’t work at the moment. Often I will forget about them until I read the footnote (hence why I always write it down). And reading them repeatedly helps me remind myself of what I still need to figure out. These footnotes accumulate in the back of my mind so when I write new parts, or rewrite parts, I will remember them and incorporate them.

I also use colours when I want to highlight something that is currently written a certain way, but needs to be rewritten, but I can’t figure out how yet.

I also highlight important things that I know will be key moments in the story, so that when I look for them or want to double-check what I wrote previously, I can quickly find it. I use this for example when I introduce a character for the first time.

How do you organize your thoughts when you write?

How much is your book based on your own life?

I sometimes get asked if certain characters are a reflection of people around me, or if this or that scene is a direct reflection of my life due to some apparent similarities.

While I do get inspiration from my life, people around me, everyday situations, entertainment (movies, etc.), I don’t transpose “real” things directly into my books. I mostly get inspired by things you cannot really grasp, like a feeling, a look on someone’s face, a dynamic between two people. These are often also not things I’ve lived myself, but rather something I’ve observed.

If you look at the feeling of love as an example, there are different variations of it and different degrees of intensity, so you can explore it in different forms in a fictional setting. Some feelings are also nowadays very neglected such as loyalty, that can be interesting to investigate. If you’re finding it hard to get inspired by your own life, I’ve found that travelling and exploring other cultures can greatly inspire you. Obviously this is not really possible at the moment, but you can try things outside of your normal realm such as watch a movie that is absolutely not your genre, try out different cuisines, learn about a subject you’ve never thought of before.

You can also take something that happened in a real life, and flip it completely around into something creatively more interesting. For example you break up with your partner because he/she cheated. That’s (unfortunately) quite common in real life. But what if you take this and transpose it into a fictional setting; your two characters break up, but instead of being able to go their separate ways, they’re suddenly forced to work together because of… well whatever, you can make it up. And then you observe the character dynamics. Will they be able to put the cheating aside to work together? Are they going to talk about it or are they just going to pretend it didn’t happen and move on? Throw in an old boyfriend or girlfriend in some capacity or another, and see how that changes the dynamic.

Most of my inspiration is not directly linked to my personal life. I like to escape into my fantasy worlds and I don’t need too many reminders of my own life in there. So if there are similarities to my real life, these are purely coincidental. 🙂

Does great writing only come from pain?

There is a theory that all art is best when it’s fueled by pain. While I agree that some art created from pain is great, it can’t only be about pain, and it shouldn’t keep you from writing from a place of happiness.

When you’re in pain, you’re more in need of an outlet where you can share your pain, but “hide” behind the creative aspect of it. When you use a creative way to express your pain, you can direct your pain and manipulate it in a way that’s the most freeing for you. You’re in control of what happens; if you’re writing about a break-up, you can end it differently than it ended in real life. You can share your deepest darkest thoughts, live out a fantasy, and free yourself that way from your pain.

You can seek to be understood, but at the same time you’re separating yourself from your pain by turning it into art. That art is a piece of you, but only a piece and doesn’t reflect your true self (not always at least). And once you write out your pain, you can leave it and find peace.

There is also something interesting about exploring other people’s pains through their art (explore as in live, feel and share). Someone might be able to capture and express through their art what you feel, and it can liberate you as well. Art is a form of communication and a way to link people from across the globe together. Maybe it’s because we all struggle in some form or another in our lives, and it’s easier to connect to art that speaks to some aspect of our life. It gives us an escape, but at the same time it’s a way to be inspired, feel comforted and share our own experiences.

I said at the very top that it can’t only be about pain though. If a story is only about struggling, it can become very heavy and dark. So I think it’s about finding the right balance between pain and happiness. Writing (to me) is a reflection of the ups and downs of life, so it can’t be all good or all bad. It’s a mix between highs and lows. I also think it’s limiting to say that you can only write from a place of pain; I think writing is about exploring all your feelings, and expressing them whether they are happy or sad, angry or nostalgic.

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

Last week I explained the hardest part of the writing process for me, I thought this week I’d delve into what I found was the easiest.

Instinctively, I would say the easiest part was the character creation. I had a very clear image of the main characters and their motivation, partly because I base them on people I know, partly because whenever I experienced writer’s block I would spend time with my characters. This would often trigger ideas for the plot line. This also meant that when I then came up with ideas for the plot line, I knew if it would fit with the personalities of my characters, or if the plot line would need to be tweaked to make it work, or if my characters needed to be “strong-armed” into reacting the way I needed them to.

Character development along the plot line was a bit harder, but because I knew my characters pretty well, I knew what kind of catalysts I would need to make them evolve along the story. By extension, I also didn’t have too much trouble finding character names. Only the main character changed names several times.

Another easy part which I had alluded to in my previous post, was the editing process. It took a long time, but once you’ve written the story all the way through, you know where you want to go and you can more easily cut scenes that are not really advancing the plot. I’m basing this on working with an editor. He made this part infinitely easier. When he made suggestions, I knew if I liked his suggestions, or if I disagreed with them. This gives you perspective and makes it easier to trim your story and perfect the pacing.

In writing the sequel, I found it easier to start writing the beginning because I already have a base I can use. I would say I’ve written the first quarter easily, but then it slowed down. I have the ending figured out (more or less) and parts of the middle, but it’s connecting the parts and making it all flow that seems to be trickier. What do you find easy when writing? What is harder?

What is the hardest part in the writing process?

Every part of the the writing process has different challenges. Some come to me more naturally than others. Editing for example takes me a long time, but comes to me more easily than writing a first draft.

For me, the hardest part is coming up with the plot line, and I don’t mean just the initial idea, but the complete description/action in the book. If I take the example of When Colour Became Grey then the initial idea is described in the blurb. That’s the overall direction of travel, but what happens on those 300 pages needs to be much more precise and make sense. You can’t make something happen that wouldn’t fit the character’s personality or come up with “easy solutions” or over-dramatization (I’m thinking here of a particular action movie where the main character almost dies 7 times but somehow is always saved in the last second. After the third time I couldn’t take it seriously anymore). As the author you can write exactly what you want, but readers need to accept where you’re taking them and it needs to be somewhat plausible.

To me writing is like creating an intricate tapestry. You start off with just the overall idea and you add in layers of color, pattern, use different material to give the story a different feel as you move on. The reader only sees a small portion of the threads, as if they’re going over the tapestry with a magnifying glass. But as they read on, more and more of the tapestry is revealed until they see the whole piece, and ideally you write in a way that the reader understands “insiders” from earlier in the story that they only discover once they’ve finished the story.

Initially when writing a detailed plot line, I write what the story is about looking at it solely from the main character’s perspective. Then I think about the role of the secondary characters and how they interact with the plot line of the main character (so I’m still looking at it with a view on how it will influence the main character only); are they always helping the plot advance and how do they advance the plot line, or do they interfere and force the plot line of the main character to change? After this, I question whether it makes sense for the secondary characters to act the way I’ve described it; does it fit with their personality?

I leave room for spontaneity and for the story to take control over me; just like I’ve written in my post on how to bring characters to life I let my imagination take over and take me where it wants to go. It often leads to great ideas and scenes.

How to choose names for characters

Most of my characters have changed names during the process of writing When Colour Became Grey. That’s because I either didn’t like the name anymore, or the name didn’t fit the character/story as well as I thought in the beginning.

To come up with names and get inspired, I google different lists of baby names (top 100, most controversial, unusual names, unisex names, etc.) or typical names for different countries. You can also take a name and change it slightly to make it more unique; like changing “Peter” to “Peto” (no character in my book has either of those names, I made “Peto” up writing this post 🙂 ).

Sometimes I use a name that I come across in the real world, however I haven’t used anyone’s name that I know well. For me it’s too complicated to dissociate the character from the real-life person and it also opens you up to questions on whether or not that character is based (in its entirety) on that real person. You might use their name but completely make up their personality, but your friend or colleague might take offence, or sue you for damages or a piece of your fortune if you make lots of money.

When I tell people I write, they will often ask if either they can star in my book, or if any of my characters are based on them. And just like I wrote in my previous post, I prefer people don’t know who my characters are based on and that includes names. It also makes it easier to build a character if you don’t associate them too strongly with someone real.

I try to find names that really fit my characters and speak to their personalities. Sometimes that means also using a rare or unique name. But I try to make it still somewhat easy to pronounce. Nowadays when I read fantasy, I find more and more authors use really unique made-up names that are impossible to read or pronounce, sometimes with several characters having similar names. Every author is free to do whatever they want and write however they wish, but the uniqueness of a name doesn’t make the character. You can also have an amazing character with a more “ordinary” name.

Once I have a name I like, I imagine that character in action and other characters saying his or her name, to see if the name fits. How did you come up with character names?

How do I bring characters to life?

Most characters in When Colour Became Grey are based on real people. They may not be based on people I know personally, but they are based on people that exist. Some characters are built on fictional characters from tv shows or movies, or a mash-up of several people, but I don’t ever use the same visual traits of a given person and their name. I doubt anyone would be able to pinpoint who any of my characters are based on and I prefer to keep it that way.

[Don’t use a real person that exists and use their name as well (in fiction). This opens you up to possible legal issues, especially if you display the person in a bad light and it’s recognizable who you’re talking about! I would also advise against copying fictional characters like for like. You can use other people’s work to get inspiration, but don’t flat-out copy-paste it.]

For me to be able to give life to a character I need to visualize them, especially their face. If I can’t draw inspiration from anyone I know, I will google faces or names. It’s a great way to also get inspiration; seeing a face can trigger your imagination and make you create a character you may not even have thought of before.

That is how I visually choose a character. Their behavior or personality trait is not based on that same person. If I see a face I don’t know, it’s easy to assign them character traits. For people I know it’s harder to dissociate their real personality from the one I want to create for the book. So I often spend time with the characters outside of my book to get to know them.

I can still keep writing in the book, but I will leave the reactions and intensity of the characters to a minimum until I have fleshed them out. And when I can’t write (I’m commuting, cleaning, etc.), I “spend time” with the characters. I imagine what they’re like at home when they’re alone, when they are stressed or scared, how they react when they’re angry or challenged. I also imagine how they would interact with other characters of my book; if you look at yourself, you don’t always act the same depending on who you’re speaking with and I try to recreate that dynamic with my characters.

I might be the one giving them life in the beginning, but they develop a life of their own. Wherever I want the story to go and however I want the characters to interact, is not always up to me. Sometimes I have decided what will happen in the book in a scene, but I realize it doesn’t fit the personality of the character. And then I need to adjust the story to fit the characters.

By doing this, the story often improves because it doesn’t go as I had planned it, and often when you plan a story it can be too linear, too perfect, too predictable and boring. It makes the characters also come to life and not be two-dimensional. They are part of the story and should have their space in the story, not just be part of the decor and ready to nudge the plot on, as and when needed in the direction you want it to go.

If you think of the story you want to tell, not only from the main character’s point of view, but also from other character’s point of view, you may see an angle that could be interesting to explore. How are your characters reacting throughout the story and why? Does it fit with the story itself? If the main character is evolving over the course of the story, are the side-characters also evolving? Does a dramatic occurrence such as a death only influence the main character, or does it spill over into other characters?

How many drafts does it take to publish a book?

That depends (I feel like I say that often…) on the type of book you write, how long it is, how you write, etc.

The way I write drafts is probably not exactly how other authors write. I get the impression that other authors write one draft all the way through to the end, and then amend that first draft until they get the final version of the book.

I write in my first draft until I change a major aspect of the story, then move to draft two. So I save drafts as I go along. To visually explain how I write, it’s like knitting a scarf with patterns and colour changes; when I realize I don’t like what I’ve knitted, I undo parts of it and start again, add different colours or change the patterns. But I’m not knitting it all the way through and then undoing my work.

Once I’ve gotten all the way to the end, the majority of the work has already been done and I concentrate on editing and polishing the story. This type of writing drafts works for me because I have a rough idea of where I want to end up, but a lot of the details are unknown and only come to me as I write. So if I write half the story and realize I want to change something major a quarter in, I can’t make myself keep writing to finish the story, because I’ve already decided to change something earlier on. And as I rewrite and rework the story, more things change, sometimes even the ending!

For When Colour Became Grey I had 13 drafts before I had written all the way to the end. Then I polished it for another couple of drafts, and gave it to the editor. The version I handed to the editor was about 130.000 words, and the published version is at just over 100.000 words. So I also added a couple of drafts here.

So far I’m on draft three of the sequel and I don’t think I’ll need as many drafts as for the first book of the When Colour Became Grey series. In the first book I had to do world building and think about what the tone and focus of the book series should be. I’m finding writing the sequel in a way easier because I have a base I can build on, and I have a much clearer idea of where I want book two to go, although I’m still early in the book and things have a way of changing unexpectedly…

Afterword to my readers

If there are any subjects you would like me to write about in this blog, please feel free to comment here or comment/message me on my facebook author page. 🙂

How to create your book cover

I worked with a professional cover designer to create my book cover and I highly recommend if you can afford it, to use a professional.

The cover is the visual that will sell your book. If you don’t have a good cover, it will be hard to attract readers. It’s the first impression you make on them. Your book cover will determine if a reader picks up your book and reads the blurb. It’s a powerful marketing tool and you should not underestimate it.

When I started working with the cover designer, I had drawn a sketch of what I was looking for, but I was not married to the sketch I had drawn. My cover designer had made hundreds of book covers, so I trusted he knew what he was doing. I described the book and what I wanted to communicate with the cover. In his first draft, he had completely changed my sketch and made it much better than I ever could, because he had captured the atmosphere and feeling I wanted for the cover.

The most important thing for me, was that I communicated the tone of the book and the overall story, so readers could get a taste of what awaited them. I wanted to not only have a good cover, but also one that once you had read the book, you could look at again, and understand the cover better. So when you design yours, think of what your story is in one picture. What is the atmosphere in the book? Is it a romantic story? Is it a horror story? How is the story written? Is it full of puns and jokes, or is something else? Can you include something hidden, that only someone who has read the story will understand?

While I had read on several blogs, that a mat cover was better than a gloss and looked more professional, I decided to go with the gloss. I had ordered an author copy with a mat cover, but the moment you touched it, you fingers left traces on the book and within just a few minutes it looked dirty and smeared. Most books may be in mat cover, but since I’m publishing through Amazon as a self-published author, I cannot guarantee the quality of the printer and I found the gloss cover was a better choice.

Updating your book after publication

Normally when you update the content of your book, you need to update the edition so you don’t confuse readers. Some updates on the content can be done without changing the edition, like correcting for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors [depending on who you publish with, this can be easily done.]. This is because it doesn’t change anything fundamentally in the story and improves the quality of the book. I would however caution you to not publish and then check for spelling or grammatical mistakes. You should aim to publish a completed and finished version of your book.

It happens that a typo appears that you didn’t catch before, but once your book is published, you should assume you’re done with that piece of work. Otherwise your mind will be thinking that you can always change it, and you will not be as thorough in your review before publishing it. And again, if you spend time reviewing and correcting errors in an already published book, that is time that you don’t spend on your next book or another creative project.

What if you’ve published your book, and you get a professional review that suggests changing some major aspects in the story, or polish specific things such as character development, world building, pacing; should you rework your book?

This is up for you to decide.

If you feel the professional is right and there are actually improvements you could make beyond “typo corrections”, then you may want to rework the book. You can take it off the market and relaunch it once you’ve done the changes. I would stick to the rule above to then change the edition just to avoid reader confusion.

There is nothing that says you have to do what the professional reviewer says. If you disagree with what they’ve highlighted as needing improvement, then that’s ok as well. It’s your book after all, and you should trust your instincts. What someone thinks of your book or art is subjective and you need to accept that not everyone will like it. Some criticism may be fair (fair as in constructive criticism that you can take on board) and some is simply derogatory and useless that you can (and should!) brush off.