To celebrate the release of Abi’s new book, The Shadow Keeper, Abi’s written us a guest post talking about her favourite stages of writing a book!
It feels odd to be sitting down to write my Top 10 Stages of Writing A Book when every time I sit down to write a book I think: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING. I know every writer is different – and some manage to refrain from scattering their edits through their house like the aftermath of a tornado – but I wanted to show you how things pan out in my scrambled little brain… So, here you are for my Top 10 Stages Of Writing A Book.
Read a fairytale. Before I write any book I read a fairytale. I find them the most powerful (and magical) form of storytelling. The language is often simple but the themes are complex and they provide invaluable motifs to draw on. Before writing The Shadow Keeper I read Wild Swans by Hans Christian Anderson (I also read Jackie Morris’ beautiful version). In this story, a sister uses her bare hands to make shirts of nettles to free her brothers from a curse and in my book Gryff endures something similarly painful for the sake of the girl he swore to protect. And just recently, before writing my third book, I found myself reading Rumpelstiltskin by the Brothers Grimm. That led me to discover Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys – and a story in there, Goodwife of Kittlerumpit, uses the Rumpelstiltskin motif. I then borrowed the name, Kittlerumpit, for a goblin in my book and I have built a story around the impossible choices this creature offers up…
Think of a suitable ‘den’. As a child, I built a lot of dens: up trees, inside caves, under tables, behind curtains. There was something about creating a world where adults couldn’t follow or impose their rules that enthralled me and it’s why I decided to have my main character living wild, in a wagon in the woods. By taking away the security of front doors and sturdy walls, you open up possibilities, and threats, and I think almost every book I write will feature a child who doesn’t live inside an ordinary house. My next series will follows Inuit kids in igloos and I’ve got plans for a Mongolian Eagle Huntress living in a ger.
Go an on adventure. Once I’ve decided on a setting to house my ‘wild child’, I try to explore that world. Some of my adventures happen close to home – for The Dreamsnatcher, I knew I wanted to explore the beautiful Romany gypsy culture so I played the bones with a Romany in Hampshire and ran through the New Forest at midnight. But for The Shadow Keeper, I wanted fantastical caves so I went further afield: I abseiled 80metres into a cave in the Brazilian jungle, I hang-glided over Rio De Janeiro (to see what flying might feel like) and I foraged for food in the Norwegian fjords. In October last year, I lived with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia and over New Year I went to the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic to watch killer whales jump and the northern lights dance. I come home with notepads full of scribbles and sketches and though I could’ve found out from Wikipedia that Mongolian people chew on larch sap, my being out in the Altai mountains taught me exactly what larch sap tasted like: spicy cloves (like chewing on Christmas) if you’re interested.
Draw a map. I’m dyslexic and whilst I’ve discovered ways to work around my processing problems, I really struggle with breaking information down into concise points. The actual writing of my books comes fairly naturally to me but the planning is very scrambled. And so the first thing I do, once I’ve decided on my remote setting, is to draw my imagined world. I won’t have a plot in mind yet but when I fill this world with trees, rivers, caves, mountains and castles, I start imagining my characters journeying from one place to another and, very slowly, a plot starts to take shape. I began The Shadow Keeper with a coastline puckered by caves. I imagined Moll and her Tribe in one and then some smugglers, an immediate threat, in a cavern next door while further along the coast, another cave still housed the witch doctors and all their scheming.
Naming places. One of my favourite parts of writing is coming up with place names. I dig out old ordnance survey maps and mix beginnings of words with the ends of others and I use names of bothies I find half way up Scottish glens. In The Shadow Keeper, I ended up with The Nibbled Head, Devil’s Drop, Little Hollows and Inchgrundle. While in Book 3, my three favourite places names so far are: Whuppity Cairns, The Clattering Gorge and Fillie Crankie.
Visit museums. I like magical objects: small phials filled with mysterious liquids, silver thread, arrows, marbles, shaman daggers. I go to the V&A and the Natural History Museum when I’m ready to build my plot and I pour over glass cases full of dinosaur eggs and volcanic rock. I find things that my characters might want to steal, get rid of or trade – then I shape a quest around these objects.
Draw a plot chart. I realise this one sounds ridiculous and I don’t know whether it’s because of my appalling processing skills or the amount of plot twists I try to create, but by putting key events along the bottom of the chart then adding the various levels of tension as little columns upwards, I can check that my plot is moving forward, that tension is built and sustained, and that any twists are woven in believably.
Write chapter breakdowns. Hmmmm. I am now at Stage 8 and I still haven’t written a word of the actual story. I write quickly but as I said before, I spend A LONG TIME planning. This is the stage that I break each chapter down into bullet points so that I can clearly visualise what I’m about to write. Some bullet points are purely plot based but others say things like: ‘make this extra creepy’ or ‘add more emotional heart here’!
Write. AT LAST. I don’t know how I do this bit. I just sort of dive in and then thump down on the keys until something happens. Some days I write for seven hours on the go then realise I haven’t eaten since breakfast. Other days I stare at my screen and just a few words trickle out. But I’ve learnt to sit there anyway. I think the brain does a lot of ‘working out’ in the time you think it’s panicking.
Edit. I read the book through on my laptop when it’s done, changing things now and again to improve the plot or make the characters more believable. Then I print the whole thing and tackle it with a pen. I pull paragraphs out, drag chunks around and re-write a lot – and in the process I destroy my house – photo below… Then I take it all back to the computer and try again. And again. And again. And again. Until finally it feels right.
About The Shadow Keeper:
Moll Pecksniff and her friends are living as outlaws in a secret cave by the sea, desperate to stay hidden from the Shadowmasks. But further along the coast lies the Amulet of Truth, the only thing powerful enough to force the Shadowmasks back and contain their dark magic. So, together with Gryff, the wildcat that’s always by her side, and her best friends Alfie and Sid, Moll must sneak past smugglers, outwit mer creatures and crack secret codes to save the Old Magic. With more at stake than ever before and the dark magic rising fast, can Moll and her friends stop the Shadowmasks before it’s too late? Perfect for fans of J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michelle Paver and Eva Ibbotson.
Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. After being coaxed out of her tree house, she studied English at Bristol University and then worked as a teacher. THE DREAMSNATCHER was her debut novel for 8-12 years and is followed by THE SHADOW KEEPER this year. When she’s not writing, Abi volunteers for Beanstalk, teaches creative writing workshops in schools and travels the world looking for her next story. Her latest adventure involved living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia…