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I’m at that delicious between-novels stage. I’ve sent the first draft of my latest to a few beta-readers and to my editor, and am hoping they’ll take a good couple of weeks or more to get back to me with feedback. I have an idea for the next one, but I need to pull together various notes and try to make a complete story out of them, which will take a while. There’s also some research needed.

While first-drafting I tend to ignore everything else, including this blog. But now I’ve a bit of time to raise my head above the parapet and see what’s going on. Over a month since I posted here – shocking!

Anyway, I thought I’d do a brief post on how I go about writing my dual timeline novels.

Firstly, I start with the idea: a number of notes jotted over time on my phone, in notebooks, on backs of envelopes or whatever is to hand. Then I have to do some thinking to try to pull the notes into order, and see if I’ve got enough story. When I think I have, I’ll then have a go at writing a synopsis – about 300-500 words, outlining the novel.

After that I write character sheets for the main characters in both timelines, interviewing them. They tell me their deepest fears, what makes them happy, what they dreamed of last night, as well as boring stuff such as hair colour, date of birth, name etc.

Then I write a plan – a spreadsheet with a couple of sentences on what’s going to happen in each chapter. I aim for 90,000 words in each novel, and around 3,000 per chapter, but I need to begin and end with the contemporary story, which means there has to be an odd number of chapters. I go for 29 or 31. Sometimes there’s a prologue from the historical timeline, acting as a hook – depends if I feel the novel needs it or not.

Next it’s time to start writing. I’ve got two stories to write and interweave. I don’t write the chapters in the order they end up in the book, though. I will always write the first one or two from both timelines to get into it (and to send to my editor for approval if she asks for it), and then I usually steam ahead on the historical story right to the end, before going back to the contemporary story to slot around it.

One novel I wrote in sequence, alternating the chapters as they appear in the book, but this felt too choppy and I found it harder to get really immersed in each timeline and set of characters due to constantly changing.

This latest novel: stupidly I decided to write the whole contemporary story first. Mainly because I hadn’t yet done enough research on the historical period. Then when I got to the parts where my contemporary character needed to find out the truth about what happened in the past, I couldn’t write it, because I didn’t know myself what had happened, because I hadn’t written it! D’oh. Had to break off, do the research, write the historical and then finish off the contemporary.

So from now on, after the first few chapters, I am going to write the whole historical tale first. This definitely works best.

I write each chapter in a separate Word document. On my planning spreadsheet, I keep a word count per chapter and a rolling word count, so I can see whether the dramatic highs and lows are coming at the right point in the novel. Once all chapters are written I open a new document and copy all the chapters in, in the right order. That’s the ‘initial construction’ draft. I will then edit that, move scenes around if needed, fill in blanks, deal with my notes-to-self that I make in capital letters while first-drafting. Once that’s all done – that’s my proper first draft, and the first one I let anyone read.

There’s loads more work needed of course, as any novelist will tell you. My editor and beta readers will have opinions on what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully will provide ideas on how to improve it. I’d expect another couple of drafts before it goes to the copy-editor and then the proof-reader. But getting that first draft done and sent always feels like a great achievement. The novel may be far from finished but at least I’ve got something to work with now.

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