planning

Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

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purple and blue columbine flower

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Before you get incensed, this comment is directed mostly at myself. It sums up a lot of my plot-related problems.

You know how sometimes you’re working on a book – maybe in your head still, and not even on paper – and you know there’s something magical there but the plot as a whole just won’t hang together? What do you do about it? How do you make this ‘not-quite-magical-but-could-be, I-just-know-it-could-be’ thing and make that leap?

For me, the answer is either (a) have the right idea, or (b) stop trying to make things so complicated. Basically, (b) translates into common English as ‘Keep it simple, Stupid.’

Quite often I’m sitting there trying to figure out Something Exciting That Can Happen Next when what I really need to do is ask myself ‘What makes this idea magical and how can I push that as far along the storyline as it can go?’

This is where (a) and (b) start to meld. Sometimes the right idea just won’t come. And it’s there: somewhere, there really is an amazing answer to your plot dilemna that’s as close to being The Right Answer as anything ever is in fiction… Quite often The Right Answer just refuses to present itself to me for months, if not years. This is why some ideas languish for years and years in my imagination, periodically resurfacing but then sinking again, before I start shaping them into anything that could be a book.

Usually, the main reason The Right Answer doesn’t stroll over and wave at me is because I’m looking in the wrong direction: I’m trying to make things complicated then fretting over how to make them believeable. Often The Right Answer is so simple you smack yourself in the face once you find it. But part of the reason it is The Right Answer is that it seems obvious (once you’ve captured it): it seems inevitable. Anything that seems both obvious and inevitable is probably right. Especially if we’re talking about your ending: the climax of your story.

So if you’re going in circles wondering how A can believeably lead to B and how on earth that could logically connect to C, maybe the problem is that you’re creating a long chain of unbelieveableness because you’re working on the wrong idea to begin with. The right idea is generally surprisingly simple.

Even if you’re writing a complicated mystery or thriller, often you’ll find that each element is simple within itself. The more complicated it gets, the harder it is to deliver it to the reader in a form anyone will enjoy. If it’s too complicated, not only will it be really hard to reveal it in a step-by-step way so that the reader eventually goes ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that all along?’ rather than ‘Urgh. So obvious!’ or ‘How could anyone possibly guess that?’ but the reader may have such a headache by that point that there’ll be little emotional satisfaction. Simplicity offers a more effective route to emotional satisfaction in about 90% of cases. And while some stories are fun just for the pure intellectual puzzle, a book that doesn’t also make me feel something falls short as fiction in my books (horrible pun thoroughly intended).

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it has to be basic or boring. What makes a simple idea clever is the ways you find of revealing the idea (i.e. the truth of the story) to the reader without telling them outright. That’s not always simple at all. But it will probably consist of a chain of individually simple steps. The minute any one step gets convoluted, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

Just keep asking yourself ‘What is the truth of the story?’ – or, in other words, ‘What is this book really about?’ Then ask yourself ‘If the book is really about X, what would be the strongest expression of X I can offer the reader?’ That will give you the big ideas. For the little ones, just ask yourself ‘What is the truth about what’s happen here? What am I trying to get at with this element?’

So, in The Bone Dragon the early drafts had Phee and Lynne turning up intermittantly and not doing very much. I wasn’t worried about this because they worked as characters: each had a strong, individual voice and was believeable and interesting… But only while they were on the page. In between, I forgot about them. Eventually, I asked myself if readers would want to read about them on that basis. And the answer was ‘No’. So I started to ask myself why they were there. Not just ‘What are they doing in each scene to make the scene work because people are needed?’ but ‘What is the purpose of each of these people in the book? What does Phee DO in this story? What does her part in it SAY?’

I didn’t have an answer. So I thought about the book as a whole and what the main themes are. And then I thought about my main character and how her life reveals those themes. And all of a sudden it was obvious what Lynne and Phee, individually and together, COULD add to the book as whole. All of a sudden it was obvious what the book offered each of them as a reason for being. Ultimately, the answers were fairly simple – as was how to deliver new scenes to reveal those answers to the reader. But more about that once the book is published. I don’t want to go giving things away.

At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between leaving things foggy and vague and too simple, and making sure you don’t make them unnecessarily complicated. In other words, be focused, but keep it simple, and chances are no one will accuse you of being stupid at all.

Autumn leaves

From idea to plan: creating an effective climax

The Bone Dragon is my debut novel, but it’s far from being the first novel I wrote. First, I wrote a whole series of ‘practice’ novels. Then I wrote several novels I hoped to publish. Then I wrote the novel that no one seemed interested in but me (and my wonderful Aunty Pat, whose encouragement helped to save the day)… and now it’s getting published.

At the moment, I’m working on MANY books, but two particularly. The first (HoW) is one of the books I hoped to publish: I’m completely re-writing it now that I finally understand what is wrong with it. The other (MoB) is a new book. A very, very new book. Usually I live with book ideas for years before I do more than write the first chapter or so. But back in April, when I’d just signed with RCW and Faber, my amazing agent, Claire Wilson, got me thinking about what might be a good second book in terms of building a brand for myself as a writer. I write across a wide range of genres and that’s fine – when you’ve got a readership that is willing to travel across genres with you. But, to begin with, it’s good to show what you can do in a genre those first readers know they like.

So I sat down and rifled through the cluttered drawer of ideas that’s off somewhere in the far reaches of the leftside of my brain. And MoB clawed it way out of the mess and sat itself down on top and said ‘Me!’ I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, but, at the same time, I felt that this was the book that Claire would want to represent after The Bone Dragon and that readers would be most tempted to move on to. I waffle about it all in my Next Big Thing meme post.

So, decision made, I started to chip away at the idea: started to ask it questions about what happens in teh story. About who the people are and what they are like. About why real people would want to read the book. About how the story worked and what tugged on my heartstrings about it.

MoB isn’t a sequel to The Bone Dragon, but there’s a natural progression between the two so I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the books should be similar while ensuring that they weren’t too similar.

Usually my books develop from one or more mini-ideas about scenes that represent emotional highpoints. The first set of vague idea starts to turn into a book when I know what the key three emotional moments are going to be – from my perspective, though not always the readers. I found I already had the emotional drama needed for the climax and the emotional charge for the hook. But it took months and months and months to progress beyond that. The sticking point, as it so often is, was the climax. I thought I knew what it was. But I wasn’t quite right. I knew what propelled the story into the climax, but I hadn’t yet come up with a good enough Part II: The True Climax. That’s been the case for a lot of my books.

Quite often I have an idea for the climax but when I write it out (sometimes just in my head) it falls a bit flat. There’s plenty of action but not enough emotion, or vice versa. It’s just not quite satisfying. Most of all, these climaxes turn out to be a little too obvious: they’re inevitable to the point where there’s no real surprise. And I’m not talking about twists that come out of nowhere: those are generally a bad thing anyway. What I’m talking about is that little extra thing – that one final step – that takes the climax beyond the thing that is obvious and inevitable to the deeper truth. For me, a really great climax always has an element of revelation, as if the author is saying ‘Here! Here’s the real heart of the story.’ And the moment you read it you go, ‘Of course! Of course that’s it really. Why didn’t I think that little step further?’ So it’s not a twist, it’s just pushing the idea to the end of the line: past the bit where the reader has already thought up to.

The tricky thing about these types of climax is that it’s all about having the right idea. And there’s no formula or technique that’ll deliver it to you. After all, if the idea doesn’t surprise you when you first hit upon it, you’ll probably find it won’t surprise the reader either. Or not quite enough to be truly satisfying. For that reason, these ideas often require some major lateral thinking – not necessarily thinking outside the box, because you don’t want to end up with a twist that’s just a ‘twist for the sake of it’.

Take The Bone Dragon. I think the climax does all of these things, but it also does a whole bunch of things that pretty much every writing book tells you to absolutely never, ever do. There’s one incredibly important rule about writing a good climax that it ignores entirely. A rule most writers – even those that aren’t particularly bound by rules – would think it’s a no-brainer to follow. But breaking that rule is exactly what The Bone Dragon needed because it cuts to the heart of the story: the way the climax is delivered *is* the story.

MoB takes a different tack: a much more straightforward one in structural terms – and in terms of the big rules about creating effective climaxes. But because I wasn’t using structure to push the book to a unique climax, it was much harder to figure out what the climax should be. 

Although technique won’t give you the answers to the thorny questions about what ideas should lie behind your climax, there are things you can do to help coax the right idea out into the light and these things are all about good technique. First and foremost, ask yourself what the book is about… and keep asking. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much about themes. Think about your Controlling Idea (to use Robert McKee’s terminology). Think about the ‘Character does Action to achieve Goal with Result’ equation. What are your characters after? What do their attempts to achieve this goal actually result in? Then think beyond that: what does your version of the equation say?

I don’t believe in ‘message’ books but that’s not to say that I don’t think books can’t have a message. It just shouldn’t be didactic. Generally my message is ‘Look at this complex human problem and how it’s turned out in this case. Is the conclusion right and fair or wrong? How do you feel about it and is that feeling comfortable?’

So ask yourself ‘What does my book say about people and the world?’ That is what should drive your climax. Chipping away at my bag of ideas for MoB with that question firmly at the front of my mind finally showed me where I was going wrong. In my attempts to put in lots of action, I was thinking down obvious paths. ‘Let’s have a bit of this. Oooo and a pinch of that. And then they can do this and it’ll be REALLY dramatic.’ Only generally it isn’t, because that sort of thinking generally results in plodding action, even if it’s plodding involving gun battles and car chases. Above all, when you start focusong on what actions should go in and not what the truth behind the story is, you stop thinking about what the relevation is: what are you going to show readers at the climax that they haven’t realised is the truth behind the story all along? And I don’t mean truth as in a fact. I mean truth as in ‘this is how people work sometimes, and this is how the world works’.

It was only when I figured out what I was trying to say with MoB that I realised how the climax had to work. I have a good feeling about it, even though I’m a little nervous about whether or not it’ll work on paper. Sometimes things that seem great in my head don’t, but this feels like it’s one that will. It just feels right: for me, it’s a truly satisfying end that couldn’t push the truth behind the story any further.

Once I had the climax worked out, the rest of the book fell into place, as is so often the case. But more about that in my next post.

For now, the floor is open. So… How do you go about figuring out how your climax will work? When do you do it: at the idea-stage or the panning-stage or the writing-stage?

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!

acer leaves in a pond

Procrastination or process?

So I’m working on a new book. Quite a lot of this work looks like staring at the screen. Or searching for theme music. Or reading articles about writing/books. Or fiddling with my headers on various social media sites. Or making tea. And more tea. And even more tea.

I’m not entirely convinced that (all) of this is procrastination.

I think a lot of it might actually be my brain putting up one of those awful hour-glass ‘processing, please wait’ symbols that just make you want to scream until it’s time to Walk Away From The Computer before you end up hitting it (my keyboard periodically takes some serious punishment).

Anyway, the point is that at least some of this is just part of my writing process: it’s my way of letting my brain work out problems and things I just don’t know yet about the book… But some of it is just mucking about and not knuckling down.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell the difference. Right now, this minute, do I need to be hard on myself because I’m not writing… or should I be nicer to myself when my brain is just processing a little slowly?

One of my professional goals is to figure out how to make my brain beep when the hour-glass disappears and I’ve solved whatever problem has made me stuck.

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday searching for the right theme music is that having the perfect song/piece for a book helps me not to procrastinate. After a few days of playing the song constantly as I work, I start to associate it with the book to the point where putting it on helps me slide into the right mindset, putting me in the world of the book, placing me in the right emotional frame to connect with the characters and the narrative style. It’s a useful shortcut. The key is to find something that is so perfect that you don’t think about the music – it needs to become part of the ‘feel’ of the book.

So, for my brand new YA psychological thriller I need something haunting but menacing at the same time. Ideally, something quite stripped back. I’m currently discussing the playlist options over on Facebook, but comments here with suggestions are very, very welcome too!

I’m slowly coming round to the conclusion that, leaving aside the issue of often not settling down to work quickly enough in the morning, I mostly stop writing and start pootling about aimlessly letting my brain process when I don’t know quite what I want to say next… Which is probably fair enough, but often I don’t return to the book quickly enough once I’ve figured out my next step. So that’s something I need to work on.

Something that helps a lot with that is making plans. I’m much less likely to be stuck when I know all the steps in the plot from the first to last page. I still get stuck on exactly how to angle scenes, but at least I know roughly what has to happen in each… and that gives a lot of structure to my thought process and makes it easier to come up with the right option – or at least a good option to try out on the page – so I’m not stuck for as long. True, sometimes I have to try and try again to get the angle right even when I think I’m unstuck, but if I also have to figure out what the reader needs to learn from the scene, where the conflict/tension is, and what changes in the scene it’s a pretty tall order.

So my plan for the evening is to write up the plan for MoB (the title abbreviation for the new book). It’s in fairly developed form in my head… So developed I can’t quite keep the pieces in order any more. I need to get it down on paper in note-form so I can spot the gaps and start filling those in. Then I need to put myself in front of the computer and write until I get stuck… and then I need to keep going back to the book just in case I’m not stuck but procrastinating. And I need to keep doing that until the book is finished.

I’m aiming for the end of the year for a first draft.

How about you? Are you processing or procrastinating when you’re not writing? How do you tell the difference? How do you try to shift the balance away from procrastination?