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.

 

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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.

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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?

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.

Point of view and ‘peripheral vision’

I had an eye test this week. ‘Excellent peripheral vision’, said the optician after I looked for the flashing lights at the edges of the screen, pressing the button whenever I saw one. Have you done that test? It’s like a game.So, that means that I can see what’s happening away from the centre of my vision. Maybe that extends to my writing too.

As I carried on ‘plotting’ over the past few days, I wondered whether I am too interested in the ‘peripherals’, that is what’s happening away from the main action of my story, at the expense of the principal storyline. That was the problem with the first novel I ever wrote. What about ‘point of view’? said my ‘professional critic. And it was a fair question. In every scene, what caught my eye was someone at the edge of the action, watching, listening, thinking, reacting. That felt right to me as the writer, but I was persuaded that the reader might find it confusing. So I try now to decide at the beginning of each chapter, whose shoulder am I sitting on in this scene? Sometimes the POV might switch from one paragraph to the next within a single chapter, but that would be rare and deliberate, not continual and accidental as it had been in the first draft of ‘A Good Liar’. I think maintaining that discipline has probably been helpful, but I still yearn for the ‘triangulation’ you can get when the same events are witnessed and commented on by a range of people.

As I prepare to start writing the first full draft of Book 5, I wonder whether I can experiment a little this time: have my previous four books given me permission to push against the constraints of style without losing my readers? Life is complex: the same events can be perceived quite differently by different participants.

We’ll see. As the starting point of writing gets closer I find myself itching to get going, now that the planning and research is almost done. And you know where my cursed peripheral vision is taking me now? Even before I’ve started on writing Book 5, I’m thinking about Book 6.

Stop it, Ruth. Focus. Focus.

 

 

 

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.

 

‘Writing a novel starter pack’ : what to include?

I love teaching, always have, and since 1982 I’ve been working with adults as learners rather than younger students. Having recently struggled myself to learn the basics of starting, finishing and publishing a novel, what I’d love to do now is ‘teach’ some of that to anyone who’s embarking on the same journey. It’s making me think: what would I put in my ‘writing a novel starter pack’?

I’m going back over all the courses I’ve been on in the past six years, to identify the most useful elements and processes and then knit those bits into a structure and time frame that would suit a beginner who might not want to embark on a long commitment, but wants to get a taste of what may be involved before they delve deeper.

From the very first Arvon course I went on in 2008 I learned how to expand the germ of an idea into the start of a story, capture a fragment of that story in a scene, write it as well as I could, read it to others, get feedback and see how that felt. We also learned about dialogue, and a bit about structure. We did the inevitable writing exercises, too, just to get us going and sharing. I could have done with more about structure and Point of View, and maybe fewer of the ‘exercises’ but it was still a wonderful week and I’m still drawing on it years later. Best bits? Dealing with dialogue, and writing a scene for reading out and critique.

At a Faber Academy course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ I picked up the usefulness of capturing the essence of your story, expanding it into a short synopsis and then have others ask questions and make suggestions. When the people grilling you about your story are as skilled and insightful as Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant, it’s both intimidating and exhilarating, and I learned not just about the elements of a good story but about myself too, and the confidence it takes to benefit from critique.

Some of the courses to do with publishing have been disappointing: my main memory of a Guardian event at Kings Place in London was of being lectured and feeling patronised by a prestigious agent who, as the New Zealanders say, was seriously up herself. If I had to deal with people like that to find a publisher, I said to myself, self-publishing may be the way to go. Another element of my ‘essentials’ package therefore would be something about the ‘costs and benefits’ of self-publishing, and some guidance about how to set about it if that’s your choice.

My own novels so far have used a strong sense of place, and in my head for this notional workshop is a Venn diagram of how ‘setting’, ‘characters’ and ‘events’ interconnect and overlap to create the basic structure of a story. Maybe I could use that simple idea as the start of an exercise to create an outline, share the ideas, refine them through discussion, build a character or a scene in greater detail and write, read and re-write to see how the editing process works. We could something on Point of View, dialogue, or the 3 act structure, or opening paragraphs, or just flag those up as areas to be worked on at the next stage. Then we could discuss the process of getting from manuscript into print or ebook and how to get people to buy it, if that’s what you want.

Sounds like a plan. Like most first drafts of a teaching plan, there’s probably too much in it, but much will depend on the size, composition and starting points of the group, and the length of time they will spend with you. That in turn is set against how much time and money people can spare for such an experience. I’m sure you could find workshops like this in London, or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow but in rural areas like Cumbria we can be frustrated by the time and money it takes to access the learning we want. Going to London by train from the west coast of Cumbria means travel to Carlisle or Lancaster and then a 3-4 hour train ride, too far to travel there and back in a day so the overnight costs are added to the cost of the workshop, taking it beyond reasonable outlay. Key criteria: accessible, practical, experiential, and with a tangible ‘product’ to take away and work on.

So, I shall keep working on my plan to offer a writing workshop in Cumbria with the basic ingredients I’ve found most useful, for a smallish group of people seriously interested in writing a novel, sometime over the next few months, just to see if I can do it and if it works. If I can and it does, I’ll learn how to make it better and do it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this would be interested, let me know.