On Writing: The Contents File

Every so often I will take a look at the work of writers who want to get their feet on the first rungs of the ladder leading to publication. But first let me make a distinction here. These are not wannabe writers since they are actually writing. They are not those who say, ‘I always wanted to write a book about so-and-so,’ to which the reply must always be, ‘Then why aren’t you writing it?’

Sometimes those who contact me are those in love with being a writer more than writing itself, though that is no barrier, just so long as they actually do write. Sometimes they are those trying to learn the secret handshakes and arcane rituals that will lead to publication. There aren’t any – you have to be stubborn, persistent, prepared to learn and take a lot of knocks, and in the end you have to write something a publisher thinks will make money.

I will look at a sample of the work these people produce if I am not right in the middle of something, if I happen to feel so inclined, if they are not rude and pushy and if I get some sense that they’re actually looking for advice, rather than praise. Sometimes I get that last one wrong, tear someone’s work apart, and know by the affronted response that they have learned nothing.

So what am I waffling about here? Having recently taken a look at someone’s work (Hi Khaled) and tried to ape the Peter Lavery scary pencil with a red pen, I thought it might be a good idea to start doing some posts here on what I see as the nuts-and-bolts of writing. As and when something occurs to me on that subject I’ll do a post here under the label ‘Writing’ to slowly build up what I hope will be a useful resource.

Today I’ll ramble on about a contents file:

A book is a large chunk of text. Now I know I’m stating the obvious but how, unless you have an eidetic memory, do you keep track of it all? Here’s my method. Generally my books are about twenty chapters long, each chapter broken into sections that can be just one or as many as six pages long. Each of these sections is written from the point of view of just one character. Let me digress for a moment:

To my mind a common mistake I see is the switching of POVs sometimes from one paragraph to the next. This is confusing for the reader. It can also cause the reader to fail to engage with the characters.

Continuing… I keep track of a book by first bookmarking each of my chapters as I write them. After I’ve written a couple, I then open another file with the pages (usually about two) switched to two-column mode. In the case of Gridlinked, for example, this file is called ‘gridcontents’. In this I list the chapter number followed by a very short description of each section in that chapter. If required I’ll add timings. This is useful for keeping track but it’s also handy because I am writing down what happens in each section. If I can’t sum up ‘what happens’ this probably means I’m waffling and the section might be better cut, or the useful elements of it distributed elsewhere. Here’s a sample from ‘orbuscontents’:

Chapter 7.
U-space Missiles
Vrell hunts mutations.
Prador kamikazi
Orbus to hunt Vrell
Golgoloth to Oberon
Jain starts to wake

There’s something further to add here. As many of you know, I don’t particularly do a lot of planning before writing a book, so I don’t produce a summary or synopsis beforehand. However, after I’ve handed the book in and as it heads towards publication, my publisher wants to get people interested and give them some idea of what it’s all about. At this point, with the book finished, the contents sheet comes in useful for writing the synopses. I copy the contents sheet, get rid of column mode, then work through turning each short description into a paragraph or so. Next I take that and begin melding it; losing some of the straight-line chronology to focus on the story, on what it is all about. This usually results in about six pages of single-spaced text. After that I’ll make a couple of abstracts – one at about half the length and one summing it all up on a page.

The art of précis is well worth learning.

Here endeth today’s lesson.

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