Planning a novel – I do it my way!

Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.

The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.

Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.

My first novel was a planning disaster, with failedpyper1 (1) attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.

When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people,  twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.

This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. planning-a-novel-index-cardsIf you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.

I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’

The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.

So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.

When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.

Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.

If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.



Do you plan your novel in detail, or not at all?

‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)creataive-brain1

If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’

Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.

Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.

I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, plan_novelconfusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.

The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.

So, are you a planner or a pantser?

In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!


When is the author not really the author?

Two things are on my mind about this question: both of them were prompted by recent encounters with writers.

The first example comes from an author explaining his/her writing process. This writer finishes the first draft and gives it to three ‘readers’ for comment. Their suggestions are incorporated into the next draft, which then goes to the ‘editor’ for further suggestions, and here again some at least of these are used to produce the third draft.


In this particular case, the text has now been developed by five people, but still it is considered to have been ‘authored’ by the original writer, who said –  in jest? –  that the names of all those who had contributed should perhaps be on the cover alongside the author’s name.

It may have been a throwaway remark, but it provoked my question about when the author’s apparent work is more, or less, than the author’s actual work.

In this particular case, the author is very well known and sells huge numbers of books all around the world. The first readers the author uses are people responsible for selling the author’s books in various countries. It is in their interests, therefore, for the book to be as attractive as possible, to increase the sales and their profits. They would not expect payment or acknowledgement for their work, as they are actually employed to maximise sales, and might even benefit financially from doing so.

The editor’s role is slightly different, one assumes, and concerned with the intrinsic quality of the book rather than only its commercial appeal. Prompted by the editor, more rewrites are undertaken by the author, and after some further discussion and polishing the text is sent for the final stages of editing and proof-reading. When it is printed and sold the author might/will acknowledge the role and assistance of all these people, but the reader will still believe that the author with their name on the cover actually wrote the book. In fact, it was most likely the author’s name, not the title, cover or subject matter, that made the reader buy the book. It has almost become a conspiracy of silence, to preserve the image of the author’s sole responsibility for the book’s final form.

The other nudge to my thinking about this issue was a recent journalistic fracas surrounding an article about a well-known British ‘celebrity’. This person had written a  new book and as part of the promotion was interviewed by a journalist. When the piece was complete, the celebrity and her agent leaned on the publishing editor of the magazine to change the article, to make it more favourable to the image they wanted to project and include more positive reference to the book. The journalist was outraged that this was agreed and her article was changed in this way, without her consent – so outraged that she insisted that her name be removed.

OK, these are different ‘genres’ of writing with different protocols. A key difference is that in the first case the author requests and welcomes amendments to her work, and in the second case the amendments were neither sought not agreed. But clearly the line between apparent and actual authorship is being blurred, and in each case the reader is probably unaware of what has happened behind the scenes.

Does it matter? Is the reader being duped?

Why do we find bad people so interesting?

I’ve been trying to write but my shoulder’s getting in the way. The only way to type without pain is to support my wrist and use only the fingers on my right hand, doing more with my left to reach most of the keys. It’s messy and needs so much correction that it hardly seems worth the effort, but at least I can do a few hundred words before I get fed up and rest. Yes, I know I could use voice to text software but the sceptic in me reckons that by the time I’d learned to do that effectively my shoulder will have healed. Or maybe I just want a break to enjoy someone else’s

To pass the time when I would have been writing, and to give my head something to work on, I’ve picked up on the US version of ‘House of Cards. I watched the first series years ago in Canada and loved the ‘noirness’ of it, the claustrophobic interiors, the credits, Spacey and his cronies, and most of all its relentless amorality. Human weakness in all its guises filled every scene. I relished the storylines, some of which seemed preposterous until the current US President took office, and how they interconnect in a seething rats nest of corruption and self-serving ambition. The Archers meet Macbeth, like that.

How better for a story teller to pass her time than plunging back into that dark world where the ghastly Underwood is now President, saying and doing things that Trump might emulate if he had a brain and no access to Twitter. The complete absence of scruple and conscience – so far at least – makes for a riveting story, far more interesting than it would be if the central character were more principled.

Why do we find bad people so interesting? Is it because they do things that we might sometimes be tempted to do and struggle to put behind us? An complete absence of self-doubt makes a person dangerous, but they must save a lot of energy by not agonising over things like the rest of us do. Part of me is waiting, yearning even, for  bad deeds to catch up with the evil protagonists in ‘House of Cards’, just to see how they will react ‘in extremis’. The magic of Spacey’s performance is that we are tempted to collude with him and the occasional flashes of honesty delivered direct to camera. Very few of his more worthy opponents are as mesmerising.

‘House of Cards’ is so extreme in its depiction of unrelenting ruthlessness that it could easily tip into caricature and pantomime. It’s a mark of its quality that this doesn’t happen. In my story I’m trying to avoid depicting a ‘baddy’ who is all bad. He – or she, no plot spoiling – needs to be sufficiently authentic and complex that the reader can  empathise with the dilemma he/she faces and the choices he/she makes. Characters have to be capable of surprising us. When I get the chance, I’ll be back to making those surprises happen. In the meantime I’ll keep watching, just to see if Underwood ends up in jail where he belongs.


The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

Plot hints: the ‘Goldilocks’ balance

The opening chapters of any novel are crucial. You have to give readers some information to locate the story and the people, and enough to intrigue them and make them want to read on. There has to be some sense of foreboding, or puzzle, or a hint that things may not be as they appear to be.


That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually a difficult balance to find: a classic ‘Goldilocks’ question, not too little, not too much. If the reader is given absolutely no clue, however subtle, about what might be coming, the story can quickly turn into ‘one shock after another’ with motiveless action and surprise for its own sake. I don’t like that as a reader: it feels manipulative and lazy, and I don’t want to do that as a writer. Too much hinting or heralding doesn’t work either: that feels patronising, as if the reader has to be hit over the head with something to notice it. The ‘Goldilocks’ solution is to offer just the merest mention in passing, so easily missed that the reader finds herself leafing back later, to check whether they actually read it at all, or just imagined it.

The opening chapters of this new book – emerging painfully through the exercise of my slowly mending shoulder ligaments – is a stop and start affair as I struggle to find the right balance. One word, just one word, can make such a difference. As ever, adverbs are to be avoided wherever possible, so the reader is only offered what is done, not how it’s done. The character isn’t thinking about the ‘how’ – why should they, in the privacy of their own space? – so the reader should be allowed only what is seen or heard, unadorned by any authorial intervention.

The other challenge in the opening chapters of this particular story is to present several thousand words from the POV of an adolescent. The reader is to be offered only what the young person sees, hears and experiences. I’m having to remember the mannerisms and reactions of young people I’ve worked with as a teacher over many years, the swings of mood, the partially-informed judgements, the speech patterns. I have a relative of roughly the same age too, but she’s such a different person from the character I’m working with that using her as the example might not be helpful. Much of the ensuing plot hinges around the reactions of this character, and the ways in which new circumstances can provoke change, as well as the rapid changes that always surround early adolescence and puberty.

With all this buzzing in my head, there’s serious frustration in only being able to type for a few minutes at a time. I’m told by everyone that I must be patient, that ligaments and tendons take a long time to heal. I know that, but it’s still galling. I probably need to ration myself: no email, no blogging, until and unless the necessary daily book words targets is reached. Discipline, Ruth. Discipline!


How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?