Month: November 2012

Foxglove stem against the sky

Planning and plotting

Before launching into a discussion of my favourite ways to plot and plan, a little word of caution… different things work for different people. The trick is to find what works for you, but it’s also good to know some other methods in case your usual ‘tried and tested’ approach snubs you on a particular project. So experiment. Try different things. After all, what works for you might change over time: it’s always worth learning a few new tricks, whatever stage you’re at, just in case.

Traditional approaches don’t work for me at all. Neither do most of the canonical texts about writing novels. What does work for me is script-writing theory. Almost all of it applies equally to writing a novel. I find that script-writing theory is much less vague than novel-writing theory. I’m often not at all sure how to put advice about novel writing into practice: most books by novelists and teachers are less than clear about how to apply the high-concept abstract theories they offer. Which is not to say that the theories don’t make sense or that they don’t have value, but few writers move on from explaining how they arrived at the theory to explore the nitty-gritty ‘now here’s how you break the theory down into basic building-block rules that you can adapt to whatever specific project you’re working on’.

Script-writing tomes tell you what to do – often in painstaking, endlessly repetitive detail (and that’s just the good books!). But it’s better to be crystal clear about the basics than not address them at all. And of course these sorts of books represent a hugely generalised set of bog standard rules… But that’s a great place to start. With any decent script-writing book you know exactly what the most basic format looks like in practice and how it works.

Robert McKee’s Story was a relevation for me. It’s a fantastic toolkit of technique and ways of thinking about structuring plot at the micro and macro levels. The material about ‘opening the gap’ is a far clearer explanation of how to respect the unspoken author-reader ‘contract’ while still delivering surprises, twists and turns – in dialogue as well as in the action – than any other I’ve seen. But this, like every other book of its type, is not a starting point for writing… It’s a starting point for thinking about how to apply technique to an individual writing project. It’s a set of options for figuring out how to make your plot work on a structural level.

So, how does it help me in practice?

Well, when I start a new book, the first thing I do is fill one side of A4 with notes, usually about each character’s role in the story. I then start writing scene summaries: these cover the key things that happen, the main info revealed and the key aspects of how the characters involved interact. Once I’ve written up the original set of A4 notes into a full series of rough scene summaries that outline the entirety of the plot, I spread out a clean sheet of paper and write a summary of the timeline as if the book were a script.

First, I summarise the hook in 8 words or less. Then I glare at what I’ve written. Is the hook interesting enough to make the reader want to read on? Does it happen early enough?

Next, I summarise the Act 1 turning point in 8 words or less. Again, I glare at the page. Does the turning point happen too early/late? Is it actually a turning point or just an action high-point?

Next, it’s time for the Act 2 turning point… but at this point I also summarise the Act 3 turning point (if separate from the climax), the climax and the resolution. Again with the glaring. Is the amount of time that elapses between the Act 2 turning point and the climax right? Is the resolution too long?

If I can’t pinpoint (in 8 words of less) each of these key plot-points and why they’re effective, then I don’t understand my plot. And if I don’t understand my plot, there’s no point in getting on with the actual writing because I’ll have to spend forever editing and rewriting when I could have thought longer and harder to start off with and then written a better first draft.

Now, some people just can’t work like that. They need to discover a book as they go along. I flounder when I try to do that. If I start writing before I know exactly what will happen – and why – in each scene, then I’m going to find the whole process ten times harder than it needs to be. I don’t like radically reshaping books after I’ve written the first draft, so it’s important for me to get the basic structure right from the beginning. With every book, I have a bit of retracing to do, but if it’s just a bit – one or two scenes, or one or two plot-lines – then I am fine. If it’s the whole structure of the book, I struggle to see other ways of telling the story: writing full draft tends to set things in stone for me. Well, not quite, but close enough.

Writing a book is hard enough if everything goes well. Knowing what is likely to be a problem – and doing what you can to avoid those things – is one of the keys to actually enjoy the process. And if writing is going to be your career, that’s pretty important.

For me, the key is planning and plotting using those key script-writing elements to test out whether the plot will hold up. The other thing I have to be able to do before I can write a decent draft is figure out how to summarise the book in one sentence (or two at the most). If I can’t do that, then I don’t understand what the heart of the story is and the book won’t work as a whole, however good individual bits are.

Books are big, complex things with lots of themes and important elements. But there should generally be one key thread running through the whole tapestry. The plot directs the path of this thread but the thread itself is not ‘what happens’. The thread is the thing at the heart of the book where the magic is most intense. If you think you have lots of threads, then you probably haven’t figured out what ties all of them together. Underneath all the little bits of magic there is one key thing. Wait until you find that and the book will come to life in a completely different way.

Or at least that’s how it works for me.

Does anyone else work in a similar way?

BTW, if anyone has any writing theory/technique book recommendations, I’d love to know!

Autumn leaves

NaNoWriMo?

Recently, one of my students asked about whether she should give NaNoWriMo a go. My answer: yes.

There was, however, a significant ‘but’. My take on NaNoWriMo is that anyone who is interested should give it a go but, in doing so, it’s best to focus on enjoying yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re producing something that will be publishable. Just produce as much as you can. Practice your craft.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I have written several full-length drafts in a month. It is doable. Whether it’s a good idea will depend on the writer and on the project in question. But for anyone at the start of a career, it’s a great idea for one key reason: it involves producing lots of material. 

I am always amazed when people ask me to explain what I’m talking about when I refer to the many, many ‘practice novels’ I wrote (and those I started but abandoned) from the age of 10 through my teens. I’ve wanted to write since before I can remember, but I always figured that if a pianist wouldn’t play a piece all the way through for the very first time at her big concert, then why should a person trying to become a novelist think that their first attempt at producing a book would result in anything publishable? It works out for some people… But not for most.

In any case, even if you do have the natural talent needed to pull it off, developing your skill and craft through practice and hard work is only going to improve what you can achieve through instinct. As I tell my students, don’t worry about whether you’re talented. There’s nothing you can do it about it. Focus on what you can change: your mastery of technique and craft.

When I teach writing, I try to show my students that the very best way to learn is to via an apprenticeship approach. 

  • Write.
  • Get feedback.
  • Use the feedback to write something better.
  • Get new feedback…

Practice doesn’t just apply to sports and music. It should apply to writing too. So even if what you produce during NaNoWriMo is rubbish, don’t think of it as wasted time. Think about it as practice.

Just don’t expect one novel to be enough practice. It may seem like an awful lot of work, but is it? If you were a musician, would the number of hours you put into the book have been enough to make you a professional?

Writing is so subjective that you can’t expect practice to make you perfect. But it will make you better.

I wrote over a 1 million words worth of practice projects before I tried to write my first novel for publication. Why?

  • Because I’m a obsessive workaholic, over-achiever. Maybe I’ve got talent, maybe not. Nothing I can do about it. But I can – and do – choose to be a hard worker. 
  • Because I figured writing a publishable novel would be hard enough without also having to learn the technical skills needed to write something of that length.

Just writing a coherent story that spans 300 pages is a huge task. Do you really want to have to master the basics of that while also trying to write amazing prose, create a compelling plot with a solid build to an intense climax, and also figure out how to develop your characters? Well, maybe you do and fair enough, but I certainly didn’t. I wanted to know how to write a functional narrative and decent, functional prose before I worried about creating anything good enough to be published.

Practice will be you a decent writer. Graft and talent will make you a good writer. All of that and a bit of luck will make you a published writer.

You can’t control luck, just as you can’t control talent. So work on what you can control: how hard you work.

Fall beech trees

Fieldtrip time! Visualising the world of the story

When I start a new book, I always try to go on a fieldtrip. I either visit the place where the book is set, if it’s a real place and if it isn’t too far afield… or I go somewhere that has the same look and feel. If you’re writing about the Yorkshire Moors and live in the UK, it’s a good idea to go there… But it doesn’t have to be the first thing you do. First, you might want to think where there is a bit of heathland and some bog near you. Where can you go to take some photos that will inspire you?

Sometimes ‘close enough’ is a good place to start because it doesn’t tie you to what you think is real. If you have actual photos of your setting, it can be really hard to move beyond those. Maybe you took took shots at the wrong angle or of the wrong bit of the Moors. Maybe you went in the wrong weather or didn’t have the right sort of light. If the photos are there, glaring at you, it’s hard to give yourself permission to write your version of the Moors (or wherever). Starting with something ‘close enough’ allows you to draw inspiration from your photos without feeling you’re cheating by using your imagination to create the place you want to write about.

But do go to the Moors (or the Fens or wherever your book is set) eventually if you possibly can. Maybe there’s something you got a bit wrong that you need to correct. Or maybe there’s not quite enough detail in your book. Use your fieldtrip to go and find some. With the world of the book firmly in mind, you’ll probably be able to take better photos for your needs and find the type of detail that fits in with what you want to show.

My latest novel, MoB, is set on the edge of a forest. I am fairly (though not entirely) sure I don’t want it to be set in a real place. I’m not even sure I’m going to be very specific about where in the UK my imaginary town/village on the edge of a forest is. The one thing I do know is that I don’t want to set the book firmly in the real villages in and around the local woods I’ll be using as my inspiration.

Autumn beeches

When taking fieldtrip photos, I try to take pretty pictures… but I also try to take some that will remind me what it was like to be there. For instance, it’s good to have a photo to remind myself that it may be a beech forest but there are other types of trees too, including some amazing old oaks.

Oak tree

Variety is also important. Don’t just find the prettiest place you can and take 100 shots. Try to represent as many facets of whatever locale you are in. If you are on the Yorkshire Moors, pick an area and try to represent that. I picked a 1/4 mile square area and still managed to capture several very different types of landscape. All of these pictures were taken within 1 hour, but they also vary hugely in terms of how warm/cold they look, what the terrain is like, what colour the turning leaves are and so forth.

Frost and autumn trees

Autumn trees

Trees against the light

Try to take a few quirky shots too. Things that get your imagination going.

Plane reflected in lake

Autumn leaves floating on lake

Above all, make sure you take photos that will remind you what you found most beautiful about the place. What made you fall in love with it and want to rush back to your computer to write?

Autumn trees reflected in lake

Bare tree and frost

Autumn tree against the light

Finally, think outside the box. Find the magic in your setting. How else will you be able to show it to the reader?

Reflection of autumn tree

'Fairy Glade'