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?

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!


The importance of ‘Chapter 1’

My temporary living space is looking pretty well organised now (check previous posts to see what this is all about). And my head is getting round the new situation too: instead of fretting about the necessary confinement I’m using the time to tackle something that’s been overshadowed by health issues for a a couple of weeks – starting the first draft of the new book.

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The outline is pretty well sorted, apart from the final denouement which I want to leave loose for now. So first thing this morning I split my screen, posted the outline of Chapter 1 on one side and pulled up a blank document on the other headed, ‘Burning Secret Chapter 1’. The title may change, but it’ll do for now.

Immediately at this point the writer faces a choice about ‘point of view’. Whose eyes am I looking through in this scene? Whose head am I inside, and what does this person see, hear, do and feel? What are the implications of this choice, and is it significant for the reader? It’s a chance to clarify who is at the centre of the story, or possibly to catch the reader off-guard. Do you remember the film ‘Psycho’? For the first several minutes of that Hitchcock masterpiece the viewer thinks they’re being told a story about Janet Leigh’s character having an affair. All the action is from her point of view, until in an iconic shocking twist her character is gone and we are jolted into another story. The decision about the first POV the reader encounters is one the writer needs to think carefully about.

For this book I’ve decided that POV should stay the same for the whole of the first chapter. The setting, both time and place, is quite complicated and one POV is probably enough for the reader to manage. Perhaps at the chapter’s end the hook to draw the reader forward could be the introduction of a new POV, as the story begins to unfold. Malice 51lsLKs+yCL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

I read an excellent Japanese crime story recently, – ‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino – at the end of which there was an interview with the author about the techniques he’d used. One of these was to give the reader an early memorable snippet of information about a key character that would be crucial in establishing whether the character was trustworthy or likeable. With that impression established, the reader would interpret the character’s behaviour through that lens. ‘First impressions count’ is the message, and those impressions are manipulated by the author.

So, the choice of character for the first POV, the information the reader is offered, the source of that information and what it signifies, are all Chapter One decisions. However well I’ve planned, much of this subtlety only presents itself when the actual first draft is being written. And that’s what I started on yesterday. I couldn’t write for long because of the sore shoulder, and I’m writing this post early so I can rest for a while before going back to Chapter One later in the morning. Pacing myself like this is useful as it makes me think more about what I’m doing and why, instead of just racing on.

For those of you who are new to this blog, I’m confined to the house having injured myself in a fall, and trying to use this as an opportunity for achievement, not just a source of frustration. It’s Day 2 of a ten day confinement: I hope the good intentions can be sustained. While the rest of country is starting the busiest holiday weekend of the year I shall be quiet in my small space and live inside my head. And if I need distractionthere’s a cricket test match to listen to on the radio. What more could I want?

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.



Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.