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!


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.

FMD pyre2_cut

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?

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

Do I need a specialist crime fiction editor?

Two things have prompted this question. The first was a response from a well-known crime writer I asked to read ‘Cruel Tide’ a few weeks ago. I was pleased that he said some positive things about it, but he ended his note with words to the effect that I needed a specialist editor. I thought about what that implied, but then put it out of my mind in the flurry of activity leading up to publication.

The second nudge to my thinking about this question has arrived today. This evening I do my first public outing of the new book,at the library in Ulverston, and I’ve thinking about what to say. Why did I turn to crime fiction after the character-driven trilogy that preceded it? What does crime fiction entail, and what have I learned from this experience? The remark about a specialist editor came back to mind and now I’m thinking harder about it.

The role and function of an editor is always tricky for someone like me who’s written a lot over the years and always alone. Many education writers do their work collaboratively, sharing ideas, reading each other’s stuff, getting feedback as they go. I never did. I wrote, read it over a few times, made some adjustments and that was it. Only with the final education book, about school progression for the Canadian market, did I write with others and then have an editor employed by the publishers. I didn’t expect the editor to change much, but she did and all of it for the better, not about the content but in terms of the clarity and economy of expression. I analysed the changes she suggested and learned a great deal about how to write more clearly.

The role of editor, it seems to me, is three-fold: first there is ‘content’ editing. For a novel, this is the story edit, that looks at structure and character and chronology, how the whole thing flows and fits together. Then there’s the way that meaning is communicated, the structure of a paragraph or a sentence. Finally there’s the proof read, checking spelling, punctuation, speech marks and so on. All three functions have been undertaken in my books so far by the same person, a friend who has worked in publishing for decades, but almost exclusively with non-fiction. As a reader and book group member she’s analysed my stories in their various iterations, suggested changes, and pointed out anomalies or others mistakes to be ironed out in the final drafts. She would not describe herself as an expert fiction editor and she has – as far as I know – no links with current fiction publishers.

I’m hesitating to go back to my crime writer colleague and asks him what a specialist editor could do that my current editor can’t. He’s a busy bloke, and I’ve probably imposed on his time enough already. I did follow up with a phone call to a specialist editor he knows, and during the conversation what became clear was not so much the editing function as the networking that lay behind it. The person I was speaking to was well-connected, to other crime writers, to agents and publishing houses. She lived at the other end of the country and was already very busy, so I took it no further, but I was left still wondering what this editor could do for me.

I was back yet again to the issue of genre and the specialised protocols that seem to apply to different genres, and even sub-genres. Obviously a crime writing specialist editor would be more familiar with these protocols than me. She/he would know the insider tricks of the trade that would distinguish my book, and make it more interesting to an agent who would probably also specialise in crime fiction. Editor and agent would have a shared language and recognise my attempts to join that club.

The idea of this shared understanding and its unwritten rules is not attractive for me. It plays to my innate and sometimes unhelpful aversion to following rules of any kind that I don’t understand or see the point of. I still ask myself, what do readers really want? Do they get a buzz from seeing how the crime fiction rules are followed in different contexts and with different protagonists. Do they smile in appreciation as they recognise the genre features that they expect as soon as something is described as ‘crime fiction’? Do they only ever look on the crime and mystery shelves of the library or the bookshop?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

‘Cruel Tide’ is not classic crime fiction, as far as I can judge. It doesn’t have the closed group of potential suspects, or a single dysfunctional detective with a drink problem, or even a genius problem solver. The story is propelled by the characters as much as by ‘events’. There is no final reveal that ties up loose ends and looks ahead to a certain future. The goodies do not necessarily triumph. What would a specialist editor have made of all this, I wonder? If the advice was to follow the rules of the genre more carefully, how would I react? It’s my story after all. If the editor told me that an agent or a potential publisher would expect me to do things differently, I’m not sure I would have warmed to that advice. I’m too old and too awkward, and I’ve chosen to self-publish with all its attendant risks rather than chase any commercial publishers’ approval. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But still, the notion of a specialist story editor lurks in my head. If I could learn from that interaction, it’s probably something I should do, for myself, but it would have to be someone I respect, and I’d offer no guarantees about my response. Maybe I’ll wait and see the reaction to my first crime novel and go from there. I need feedback, people: specific, considered, detailed feedback and suggestions about alternatives before I embark on the next book in what will probably be a series, although I’m not sure how many more books I want to write. It’s hard work!

Counting words

I’ve just finished the third draft of my new book ‘Cruel Tide’, and the last thing I needed to do before I sent it off to the Editor for the first stage of its journey to publication was to count the final word total. It’s a bit of a chore and half way through I wondered, why am I doing this?

There are probably several reasons for counting words, both as you go along and as a total. I’ve always believed, for example, that a full-length novel had to have a minimum number of words so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Below 80,000 or so wouldn’t be enough. Where that number came from I’m not sure: I must have heard it on one of the writing courses I’ve been on and it stuck. Many of the novels you see on the shelves are much longer than that, and are usually commented upon for their length.  I recall ‘A Suitable Boy’ when it first came out bring described admiringly in terms of its staggering length, and more recently ‘The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I read all of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, and loved it even though I skipped through some of the political background pretty fast, but didn’t get past the first few pages of ‘The Goldfinch’ before I ran out of sympathy for the main characters and gave up. At present I’m reading the first volume of a two-part biography of Charles Darwin, but at 540 pages it’s so big and heavy that it’s very difficult to read in bed, and the weight when travelling is enough to drive you back to Kindle.

When I wrote my first novel I was obsessed with making sure it had enough words. As a consequence I rambled on far too much and in the final painful edit, having been advised to cut, cut, and cut again, I excised nearly 40,000 words, including entire characters, sub-plots and yards of riveting description, and the book was better for it, although still not as tight as it needed to be, looking back. The second and third books of the trilogy all worked out about the same, around 90,000, and that seemed to me to be about right. Each chapter was between three and five thousand, and that felt about right too, to keep the story chugging along. Every chapter had to have a point and a contribution to make, and should leave the reader wanting to read on.

The fourth one, just completed, is a bit different as I’ve switched genre from ‘local family saga’ to ‘crime fiction’, and have tried to adopt the three-act structure that I learned from Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan at their splendid workshop a year or so ago. Hall started as a screen writer I think, and he was particularly clear about the necessity of the three acts, each with its own purpose and dynamic, and the parallel internal and external dramas. Maybe that’s why this one has turned out to be somewhat longer than the previous ones. The word count just completed came to nearly 114,000, which was a surprise. This time I’ve been editing quite severely as I went along, to avoid the intimidating sprawl that requires a post-facto hatchet and all the perils of continuity that may ensue.

This longer length is curiously satisfying. It makes me feel like a real grown-up writer, which is rather sad for a woman in her sixties who’s been writing in one form or another all her life. As I have read the ms closely over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reasonably happy about the development of the characters, they way they look and especially the way they speak, and the whorls and twists of the plot. It tells a readable tale without the pace slowing down too much in some places. And I have tried to avoid the research information that so irritates me in some of the books I read, where the writer seems bent on squeezing in far more detail than is necessary, however authentic it might be.

What really matters, of course, is not the number of words but the choice of them – their meaning and imagery and stimulus and sound and balance and poetry. I wish I were more of a poet.


Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.