Making your book feel real

When we’re writing a novel, it can feel like there’s nothing real or tangible about all the work we’re putting in.

No one can see or touch a book we’re still working on, and it doesn’t take up physical space in the world until it’s finally published. It isn’t physically built or crafted in the meantime.

It’s not like a song, a painting or a piece of woodwork; it’s not extroverted to the world. Often we don’t see any obvious change and progression. Sometimes that can be disheartening – or put us off the work completely.

We could work for months or years on a project with nothing but thoughts and a manuscript, both hidden away from the world. Maybe that’s why we can feel like “working on our novel” seems like non-work to other people. A non-entity.

We have nothing to show for all the time we spend working on a story – at least not until it’s a finished book. But why shouldn’t a novel take a physical form during the writing process? Why can’t we make it a real fixture, if that helps us in our work and motivation?

Try filling a wall or two with your novel-in-progress.

It’s often more powerful and effective when writing a book – especially for visual thinkers – to turn those ideas into a physical entity. To make that work seem real and tangible, taking up physical space in the world. It can give us some mental breathing room, too – to get all those ideas out of our heads.

Over the past few years I’ve been developing my own approach to writing books, and making them feel more real while I write them. It builds and changes with each book, but I’ve listed the essentials below.

Sequence your story on a wall or two. Nothing’s better than taking a day to step back from your novel, and work with paper and pins instead. I’ll start every book with a sequence of post-it notes, (beginning, middle and end,) and then expand out the points with more post-its. Creating a kind of timeline on the wall, to build and refer back to. (Google images of “project management wall” for ideas.)

Have images around that inspire you. I love films, graphic novels and concept art. They fire up my imagination, and I can’t escape their influence in my writing. If a certain image inspires me then I’ll cut it out or print it, and stick it to a wall to remind me of the ideas and characters I’m trying to create. It’s about building up a visual world in your head, around the core ideas for your book.

Write about your novel. Being inside your story constantly can get intense. It’s often helpful to step back once in a while, take a felt-tip pen, and remind yourself of what you actually want your book to achieve. Try pinning a blank strip of wallpaper horizontally on a wall, for a large plain writing surface, and just spill your ideas on it. What do you want your story to be for your readers? What do you want your character to grow into? What stage do you want your book to be at, month by month? What’s your deadline for the project? All this can make a book feel more real, more achievable… and taken more seriously.

Chart your story’s three acts. Think of a rollercoaster, or a seismograph. Peaks and troughs. Your story could take the same shape on a chart, so draw it out to visualise it. A peak of drama for the first act, then back down to relative calm; then a bigger peak for the second act, and the biggest peak for the third act’s dramatic finale. This can give you a better feel for what each act needs to achieve for your readers.

Sketch characters, objects and locations. Ideas come in different forms. It could be a landscape you envision in your story, or a family heirloom; maybe a weapon or a creature, or a certain outfit. Even down to a pet, an artwork or a certain textile pattern that you’d like to have around in a character’s home. You don’t have to be an artist to sketch it out, and doodles aren’t just for kids. If it’s good for the story, and creates a clearer mental image for your readers, sketch it out before you write about it.

Choreograph the action. This was a revelation for me. It can be hard to visualise complex action like a fight scene all in your head – a very visual and physical thing – and then try to translate it into words on a page. A fantastic way to bridge the gap is to do what they do in the movies: plan it out. Draw it. Choreograph where you need your ‘actors’ to be, what they need to do and when. Sketch the powerful visual descriptions, and chart the movement of the action across the location. The action sequences in all those films you love aren’t just freestyled by the actors on the day of the shoot – they’re planned and choreographed to the finest detail, weeks and months in advance.

Go back to the wall. Your first draft’s coming on well. Maybe you’re even halfway there. This is a great time to step back again from your written world and update your novel’s physical counterpart, laid out on the wall. If things need cutting or re-ordering, print them out and take scissors to them. Have all your notes and events on their own slips of paper, and sequence them afresh. See if you could lose any sections in the process, to move the story along. See which parts of your story need a little more attention and fleshing out – or what still needs to happen for point A to reach point B, C and D. They aren’t just handwritten notes any more – your novel’s typed up and very real. And it’s taking up a whole damn wall.

So – there you go. I hope these tips help you in writing your own novels, and I’d love to know any tips of your own in the comments below.

I really can’t stress enough how much “The Wall” helped me in writing my own novels, and continues to help me now. If you’re having troubles or doubts about your own book project, or if it just doesn’t feel real to you, then try it out. Take up a wall somewhere and go full Prison Break/serial killer on it. Set out every little detail about your book if it helps.

If your novel just doesn’t feel real and physical enough for you, then make it real. Make it physical. Turn your intangible ideas into a very visible project.

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