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!


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 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?

Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.


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.

What about the ‘unreliable narrator’?

Two recent bestsellers have two things in common: the first is the use of the word ‘girl’ in the title, and the second is a story told by at least one ‘unreliable narrator’. I read ‘Gone Girl’ because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and felt at the end that I needed to cleanse myself from its unredeemed nastiness. Both ‘unreliable narrators’ were equally horrid and it was of little interest to me therefore which of them was the real villain. After that experience I was determined to resist the hype around ‘Girl on the Train’ and haven’t read it, or seen the film. girl-on-the-trainI read the reviews however and understand that the narrator – transposed from London to the USA for the film – is a drunkard and a liar whose testimony must therefore be suspect. I’m not sure I would warm to the character any more than I did to the ghastly creatures in the previous ‘Girl’ book.

Then I remembered another unreliable narrator, where the device was employed to such effect that I was pulled further into the story than I would have been otherwise. This was in ‘Empire of the Sun’, by J.G. Ballard, a story told from the point of view of a young boy – Ballard himself – caught up in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1941, and its aftermath. Jim, the unreliable narrator, brings to the story his own childish innocence, naivety, optimism and compassion. He is unaware of his own slow decline into starvation and illness, and the reader has to glean this information not from the boy himself but from the reactions of the adults he encounters. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, in both the book and the film, and had a powerful impact on me. empire-of-the-sun

Ever since then I’ve toyed with the possibilities of using the POV of an unreliable but sympathetic story-teller. To begin with in my writing it was hard enough just to get the story told in a way that would keep the reader engaged, using the most straightforward narrative techniques – past tense, third person. I recall suggesting to my editor very early on that I might try something more ambitious and being gently warned off. Now with five ‘traditionally-told’ novels under my belt, this could be the time to stretch my skills. I’ve already given myself more time, delaying the next publication until the summer of 2018. Now I have to use that time to think about the choices I have and how best to tell a compelling story with a narrator who is likeable, even loveable, but whose view of events is limited by personality, maturity, or the complexity of the circumstances they face. It’s a challenge. I’m thinking hard about it.