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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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 ‘special deals’ on books really work?

I’ve just put the ebook of ‘A Good Liar’ on GoodLiar_COVER.indda Kindle store special deal for a week, starting April 1st. I have mixed special deal -stock-photo-limited-time-offer-price-tagfeelings about doing so, but it’s just for a week, and we’ll see how it goes. If it encourages people to read the whole trilogy, as ebooks or paperbacks, it’ll be worth the angst about reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee.

My ambivalence about this stems from knowing how much time and effort any author puts into writing and publishing their work : setting a very low price seems to under-value all that. But, on the other hand, if you want people to read and enjoy your stuff, making the price temporarily very attractive is a way to achieve that. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you can make those choices yourself.

It was recording the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ that reminded me what a good story it is. The engineer who helped me – Tom Tyson, at the Music Farm in Egremont, Cumbria – is not a great fiction reader, but he was so hooked after the second recording session that he had to read the rest of the story for himself to see what happens.

Jessie Whelan is not an easy character to deal with: she’s self-centred, impulsive, and sometimes insensitive, but she’s had to battle all her adult life, and it shows. She’s also – despite years of abstinence – very interested in sex, which pulls her into a relationship that she could, and probably should, have avoided. Some scenes were really hard to read while I was doing the recording, not just because they portray sexual assault but because Jessie doesn’t really know whether to blame the perpetrator or herself. It’s not in her nature to feel like a victim, although the reader can see that’s what she was. How did Tom react while he was listening to it, I wonder? I didn’t ask him, but I will.

In the meantime, before the next trip to the studio to finish off the edits, I’ll put the ebook version on special offer for a week and see if I can introduce new readers to the trilogy. Maybe some of the millions of Lake District and Cumbria visitors will enjoy the story, and deepen their interest in this wonderful region. I hope so.

 

 

Preparing the audio book: what am I learning?

GoodLiar_COVER.inddPreparing to produce the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ is turning out to be an interesting experience. The first task, before any other planning or costings can be undertaken, has been to re-read and abridge the original text. Actually, even further back, the very first question was whether I wanted to abridge at all, and the answer is I would prefer not to. ‘Murdering your darlings’ they call it – killing off slices of the story that meant a great deal to you at the time. That process is usually part of editing the final draft, but abridging is even harder. The final text of my first book was truly a labour of love. Writing ‘A Good Liar’ took me nearly four years and involved some very steep learning, stumbles, frustration, almost chucking it on the fire and then dogged determination to see it through. Maybe there’s always a special attachment to the ‘firstborn’. Whatever the reason, abridging it is proving painful, but unavoidable. An unabridged version would run to too may CDs, twice the time and at least twice the cost. Every extra 1000 words of text means more studio time, more CDs to duplicate, more packaging – and each of those means more outlay for me and a higher price for the buyer. Just not practical. So abridging it is. Woe is me.

Rather than using the paperback for this process, I’ve chosen to work from the mobi file, highlighting on screen where the cuts are to be made. That way I can read off the screen rather than the page, and avoid the inevitable sound of turning pages, which the sensitive mike at the recording studio picked up when I made my demo disc.

big-booth-11I’m glad it’s me doing the abridging: the decision about what to leave out is dependent on thorough knowledge of the text and the significance of details. It’s made me realise how keen I was on the authenticity of the setting in this first book, both place and time. That’s why many local readers enjoy it so, but for an audio book there may be too much detail, and some of it has had to go. Some of the dialogue has been cut too: on the page it reflects the complexity of conversation, the interruptions and dialects, but that’s hard to relay in a narrated text with only one voice. It is possible to cut some of the text and still leave the story moving on, with enough detail to help the reader understand the where the characters are, and why they do what they do. I’ve found myself drawn in to their stories yet again, which has been reassuring. It’s a good tale, if I say it myself.

Apart from the necessity of abridging, I’m also clear now about the need to read it myself. I’ve seen some critical comments about audio books and poor narration by authors. I simply couldn’t afford the extra cost of a professional actor, and the demo disc sounded OK. Really! The abridging of ‘A Good Liar’ should be finished this week. Then I have to read it all through and check the timing. The goal is to get it down to 240 minutes, but I’m not confident yet that I’ll achieve that at the first attempt. When the required length is achieved, then it’s off to the studio. Hard work, but enjoyable on the whole, and I’d rather be busy than bored..

 

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.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

The author as tyrant: is writing stories a form of control?

With novel number 4 all but finished, I find my mind turning on what next. There was an interesting conversation the other day about a possible plot for book 5, and I heard myself saying, ‘Well, I could kill off so-and-so, and have so-and-so falsely accused, etc etc,’ as if my characters are just pawns in my chess game. Which of course they are.

During the very first painful writing experience I recall deciding that one of the main characters should fall seriously ill and might die. I liked this character and had thought a lot about him, his childhood, his anxieties and frustrations, his strengths and talents, and I was proposing to bump him off on a whim, because I wanted to, and more importantly because I could.

As a happily single and self-employed person I must have a need for control over my own life that is perhaps higher than the normal. Creating characters and writing stories about them may be an extension of that inclination to be in charge. Novelists will tell you that their characters have a life of their own, and in their day to day actions that’s true, but ultimately if their creator decides to bump them off, or incapacitate them, they are powerless to resist. The author rules, OK?

By the end of book 2 ‘Forgiven’ I’d decided that one of the characters had outlived her usefulness to the development of the overall story and would have to go. The only question was when and how. In the end I started book 3 with a death, which upset some readers, but ‘tough’. Death is part of life, as are serious illness, unwanted pregnancy, and addictions of various kinds. We need characters who are stable and comfortable and reasonably happy, but they don’t make good stories and usually end up being hapless victims or just a counterpoint to the more interesting complexities of far less likeable people. And I’m the one who gets to decide, who lives, who dies, when, how and to what effect. I need to think about what this says about me.