Sunday, September 13, 2015

This Writing Malarky: How I Work

Since (and including) my 2009 debut—THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK—I’ve written eight novels and a scattering of short stories (short stories neither herd nor swarm, they only scatter). By the end of the year, it will be nine novels. My current project currently stands at 130,000 words. I’m two chapters into the third act, which means the total length may well touch 200,000, giving it a George R. R. Martinesque girth (I refer to his books not to his waistline). It’s my longest novel to date, and also the first I’ve ever written without already having a contract. Nerve wracking. If I submit it and receive a rejection letter, that’s a lot of time wasted. Such is the precarious life of a writer.

A great deal depends on this WiP (Work in Progress). Not just my livelihood, but also how I’m perceived by readers and publishers. If it fails, then I’ll remain Mark Hodder the steampunk guy (one trick pony, gets tiresome). If it succeeds, I’ll become Mark Hodder the author (does interesting stuff, must read). At least, that’s how I see it. So, as you might imagine, I regard this as my most important novel since JACK, and have been writing it with a heightened sense of “it has to be exactly right”—the right story written at the right time, in the right voice, featuring the right characters doing amazing things that people will want to read about right now.

A side-effect of this increased focus is that I’ve become very aware of my working methods and have fine-tuned them during the course of this WiP. Back when I wrote JACK, I was definitely an evening writer. I used to hit my stride about 7pm and race through to 2am, racking up around 1,800 words per day. That changed two years ago when my twins were born and evenings were given over to feeding, bathing, playing and, latterly, to being a human bouncy castle and rickety old climbing frame.

Now, I’m a morning writer. I wake up, throw on clothes, take the kids to nursery—which, fortunately, is just three minutes walk away—then return home, grab a coffee, and (this is the vital bit) start work. I know that if I read what I wrote the day before and maybe manage a new sentence or two while I get the caffeine into my system, the working day will be okay.

So, having engaged with the WiP, I can safely shower (it’s where the ideas come!) and have breakfast before getting back to it. I can then work straight through to nursery pickup time. Since this change of routine, my average daily word count has increased to 2,000. On a really good day, I can double that.

I prefer to work in silence if I can get it. However, I live in Spain, where silence is the rarest of commodities. When there’s noise, I’ll stick in my earplugs. Occasionally, I’ll play music, though it tends to distract me. Weirdly, I’m far less distracted by having a movie or TV show playing in the corner of my screen, and most days, there’s something there from around 3pm onwards.

I work on a 27” Retina iMac. When I bought it, I maxed out all the specs. Expensive, but its a powerful machine and never gives me any trouble. I’m fully sold on the Apple infrastructure. I like that when I’m away from my desk, I can write on my iPhone or iPad and what I’ve done is there on my iMac as soon as I return to it. Stable and reliable with plenty of backup options. No fear that my novel will be accidentally deleted.

The iMac sits on a “standing desk” from Ikea. Motorised. When I feel like standing, I hit a button and the desk rises. When I want to sit, another button lowers it. I reckon I spend at least half the day on my feet. Healthier. Also, I tend to pace around and wave my arms when I’m thinking a scene through. I burn calories.

The software I use has changed with the WiP. All my previous novels were written using Scrivener but I started to get annoyed with it. It felt rather bloated, filled with features I didn’t need or use, and its lack of an iOS app was frustrating. Also, just from an aesthetic point of view, I’m a minimalist. I really like the clean design values of OS X and iOS, and as Apple has perfected it over the years, Scrivener has increasingly fallen behind to the point where it has started to look just plain ugly.

Enter Ulysses. Ulysses is elegant, straightforward, keeps all its options out of the way until you need them, does all the things I required from Scrivener, and is an absolute joy to work with. Furthermore, there’s an iOS version and the syncing between that and the OS X version is faultless.

So with Ulysses at the centre of my writing universe, this is how my novels currently take shape:

The process begins with a basic idea, usually in the form of a question that, more often than not, will occur to me either in the shower or in the borderland between awake and asleep. For example, what if a man travelled back in time and accidentally altered history so that his own future no longer existed?

From this, other questions arise. How would he go about trying to correct the problem? What would prevent him from achieving the solution? How would he be effected? Would it become apparent to anyone else that the course of history was different?

From this exploration, characters, scenes and a nascent plot emerge. This is when I open a project entitled IDEAS in Ulysses and add to it a new “sheet” (it’s what documents/files/pages are called in the app). There, I jot down my musings, adding them to the other undeveloped material in IDEAS, where they’ll be visited from time to time, and maybe expanded.

Let’s say this time traveller notion won’t lie still. It wants to be a novel and I’m feeling motivated enough to make it my principle WiP. Okay, let’s develop it further. I’ll now start to to-and-fro between Ulysses and an app called ExpoBoard.

ExpoBoard is basically a whiteboard or pinboard. I’ll open a new project on it and I’ll give it this background:

That’s your basic all-purpose screenwriting structure, onto which I’ll pin virtual post-it notes as I develop the plot.

My actual WiP currently looks like this (purposely low-res so you can’t zoom in and read the notes. No spoilers here!):

So while the skeleton of the plot is forming on ExpoBoard, over on Ulysses, bare bone scenes are starting to take shape. Nearly always, I’ll write the first chapter before everything is properly thought out, and nearly always that chapter will end up entirely rewritten. The initial stages of writing are just for familiarisation, for getting to know the characters and the world they inhabit.

The screenplay structure is an excellent aid but, pretty soon in the process, the plot usually takes on a life of its own, by which point I tend to forget the underlying structure is there. I have no problem with straying from it, just as long as the action and pacing remain logical and dramatic.

I don’t need to have every stage of the plot and every scene of the novel worked out before I begin the serious business of writing. I plan up to a certain point, then let loose and fly by the seat of my pants. Just so long as I know the basics of the conflict and have character arcs in place, I’m ready to go.

My character arcs start off simple: “Burton feels he doesn’t belong. He becomes aware that something is wrong with his environment. He investigates and discovers a massive threat. He tries to save his environment, hoping that, by doing so, he will be accepted. He is repeatedly defeated until he discovers that his only effective weapon is the unique viewpoint he has by being an outsider.” A weakness turns into a strength.

The combination of the plot notes and the character arcs nearly always gives an indication of the theme. I’ll usually jot it down as a very basic statement, such as: “Actions, consequences, and obligations.”

In Ulysses, I’ll open a new sheet for every key moment in the plot: 

Opening scene
Inciting incident
Theme stated/set up
Break to Act II

B Story
Wins and losses

Villains close in
All is lost
Dark night of the soul
Break into 3

Final scene

I’ll then insert into this the structure of the character arcs:

Inciting incident
Call to action
Defining moment
Awakening/Turning point

Death experience/Turning point

Transformational experience

As you can see, some points naturally align.

Now it’s time to grow flesh on the bones. I can’t over-emphasise how important it is for me to actually sit down and write. Everything I’ve just described can be called planning but it also comes perilously close to qualifying as procrastination. The moment the vaguest suggestion of a workable plot emerges from the process, that’s when it’s time for me to quit the mapping and start the journey.

Ulysses comes into its own now. Full screen, with the list of sheets on the far left hand side (there’s an option to close the list but I like to see the structure there), and no need to think about formatting or any other nonsense … just write write write.

In every project, I keep a sheet entitled “DISCARDED MATERIAL.” There are occasions when that sheet has a higher word count than the rest of the project in its entirety. I throw a lot of stuff aside. A lot. However, the false starts, misjudged diversions, blind alleys and “everything I wrote yesterday is crap” occurrences become less frequent as I get to grips with the story, and often these “mistakes” turn out to be useful later on. A discarded scene from chapter one might be the answer to an issue that crops up twenty chapters later. That’s why I never delete.  

Each day, over morning coffee, I go over what I wrote the day before and, inevitably, tweak it a little. I’ll then write new material. If my chapter length averages 4000 words, then it’ll take two days per chapter, and I’ll achieve three chapters a week. In reality, taking into account distractions, temporising, off-days, on-days, beer days, and days where one short scene requires a thousand effing rewrites because I just can’t get the effing effer right, I’d say it’s more realistic to claim two chapters a week. Anyway, however long it takes, once I have four or five new chapters written, I tend to go back and revise them before continuing on. This has advantages and disadvantages. I write chronologically (some authors write the end or the middle of their novels first, but they be like crazy motherfunker types), so this revision process allows me to maintain a good sense of pacing and of logical development. It also means that, by the time I’ve completed the novel, most chapters are already in their final draft state. Conversely, when I eagerly dispatch my manuscript to my editor, the last few chapters have received less fine-tuning than the rest. Having said that, the publishing process is so bloody long that, by the time the novel is ready for the printer, those chapters have had all the attention they need.

So, months later, after many plot adjustments, character tweaks, and shouts of “Hell, yeah!” from the shower when unanticipated plot twists hit me from out of the blue, I get the damned bastard life-ruining pile of crap finished (because, by now, having missed yet another glorious Spanish summer, that’s how I feel about my precious novel). Here’s where Ulysses scores again. The only formatting you need do in the app comes in the form of simple to remember markup tags. I want my chapter headings styled just right? I stick a hashtag in front of them. I want a certain paragraph italicised? I put an asterisk at its start and another at its end. Easy peasy and so forth. So with these little indicators present where necessary, I have Ulysses export the whole project into a Word document.

I hate Microsoft Word. I hate it with a passion. Have you ever tried using it to write a 120,000 word novel? It’s like walking through quick drying cement. The publishing industry, however, likes everything submitted in .doc format. The publishing industry also sports a comb-over, smokes a pipe, wears argyle sweaters and leather slippers, and has a dog called Sport. Anyway, thank you, Ulysses, for allowing me to avoid Word up until now, and thank you, too, for transforming my plain text into a beautifully formatted manuscript that I can send off without having to do anything more to it.

And that’s it. Job done. At least until the doc comes back with editorial notes highlighting changes that need to be made, and they have to be done in Word and … ugh.

There you have it. That’s how I work at the moment. It’s a system developed over the course of eight novels and seven years. It started on a Windows PC but quickly transferred to Mac. I must have tried every writing and note-taking app out there. Some are really good. Index Card is a great planning app for iOS, for example, (and it would make sense to do the planning on my iPad … but I don’t). Others are too minimal or too bloated. Scrivener is brilliant but feels rusty. Ulysses is perfect.

Different systems for different writers. What’s yours?


  1. Fascinating, and very similar to the way I work - although I tend to paint with broader brush strokes than you at the planning stage. One Amazon reviewer said that my Blackwood & Harrington novels are not as sophisticated as your Burton & Swinburne novels. I agree, and I suspect that this is the reason. Also like you, I tend to rewrite and polish as I'm moving through the story, so by the time I'm finished, the whole thing is pretty much ready. I can't stand the idea of multiple drafts of a completed MS; the thought that something needs changing is such a distraction and annoyance (like an eyelash in the eye) that I can't move forward until I've fixed whatever it is that needs fixing. (I read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut did that on a page-by-page basis: he had to be sure that each page was ready for publication before he proceeded to the next.)

  2. Hello Mark, just recently stumbled across your work. Love your writing style and your method. I'm an aspiring screenwriter myself and by strange coincidence live just up the road from you (Globally Speaking). I'm looking for a co-writer/editor to get involved in some sci-fi scripts I've written to raise them to a higher level and I was wondering if you would be interested in taking a butcher's. It can be a paid or unpaid gig depending on your involvement. I've written over twenty features and had a script optioned in Hollywood.

  3. Mr. Hidden, I just reached page 207 in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, wherein you make a horrible joke regarding a hollowed out scarab beetle referred to as a " Folks' Wagon". Have a care sir, lest you go too far!