January 20, 2023
Some people write a whole novel that way but I have found that I need a structure and a plan if I’m to grow a middle and end out of my beginning. When the ideas are still tumbling out, when I’ve written my first 4000 words I tend to stop writing all together and look a what I’ve got.
For some reason I find it difficult to do the next step at home. I go off to a favourite cafe or pub which has comfortable chairs, friendly staff and is busy enough and noisy enough for me to have to concentrate really hard to get anything done. I usually then have a coffee and something chocolatey to get me through to the next stage – planning.
One way or another I have done a lot of exams and used to be quite good at planning timed essay answers. I’d look at the clock on the wall which was always one of the old fashioned round types with hands – nothing digital or complicated – and plan my essay in terms of the time available; perhaps I needed to make five points by the time it was quarter past the hour so that’s what I would do. I think this is perhaps why my novel planning takes the same form. It seems very natural for me to work out where I need to be in the story by reference to the quarters on a clock. (Don’t blame me – blame the rigours of the British education system. I have obviously been traumatized for life.)
I usual develop an overview of the plot by asking lots of questions. Why are my characters where they are? What are they trying to do and why? What is going to stop them? When I have the basics I try to work out how that plot will pan out in terms of chapters. I also start thinking about the what the world is like and begin to do some relevant research.
I mark up the clockface into quarters and then divide each quarter into chapters. I struggle to get my broad idea to work in a forty chapter narrative. It usual takes several attempts and of course the story changes as I go along. I may do four or five clock face diagrams before I come up with one that works. I can also use my diagram to work out which chapters are going to be written from which perspective and make sure that there are enough high points in the story and enough suspense so that the pace doesn’t flag. Sometimes I will use different colours to mark different bits of the narrative in the one shown here for ‘The Story of Stone’ the bits in red are the parts of the story written from Stone’s perspective.
I find this a good way of getting something quite complicated into a form I can visualize in its entirety.
Of course the beginning and end are always next to each other on my diagram and I find that helps me to think about the arc of the story – to see what has been resolved and to check that the story is in some ways complete. In both ‘Warriors of Alavna’ and ‘Warriors of Camlann’ the beginning and ends are almost the same and Dan and Ursula end where they began.
When I have finished the diagram I barely look at it again and feel quite free to change the plot as I go. Its main value lies in forcing me to think about the mechanics of the story. Once I have a clear enough idea of what the plot drivers are I am happy to just make things up! ( More often than not I write what I plan but I like feeling that I don’t have to.)
Sometimes I set myself a word target – it used to be 3000 words but when it gets difficult I drop it down to 1500 – sometimes I write more, but after a certain point it turns into total gibberish.
I don’t generally edit as I go along – I change clunky sentences and maybe spend time searching for the right word. Occasionally I have to stop and think a bit more about the world, but most of the time I work fairly steadily until the first draft is done.
Sometimes I print out each day’s work and read and correct it before starting the next day’s work. Sometimes something happens in real life and I have to stop writing for a while, but I definitely find it easier to work if I can write every day.
When it is going well the story seems to write itself and it is a pleasure to sit down at my desk. When it is going badly everyone suffers and I stomp around, eat even more chocolate and whinge and whine at anyone who will listen
I used to read each chapter aloud to my family, but these days I sometimes read it to myself. Reading aloud is a very good way of finding spelling and punctuation mistakes and also of discovering sentences that really don’t work: it’s a very useful technique.
Usually I get one of my children or my husband to read my first draft and get their comments or recently I have been working with my crit group.
I take all criticism very seriously – I don’t take it well, but I take it seriously.
I read the whole thing through myself, preferably at one sitting as if it were someone else’s novel and correct for spelling and punctuation mistakes as I go along (there are usually quite a lot of both.) I write myself rude notes in the margins of the bits I don’t like usually things like ‘rubbish’, ‘boring’ and ‘rewrite so this makes sense.’ I have a separate piece of paper on which I note the page numbers of things that need checking, continuity issues and any things I spot that I think needs further thought. So, for example, I might write – ‘check x’s hair colour’ and ‘where did they leave the knife?’ as well as things like ‘Why did y think x was dead?’ or’ how does the magic work on page 203?’
This is another part of the novel making process that I sometimes do in a café or a pub as it takes focus and concentration (and a lot of coffee.)
If I think I need to change the order of events or make any change which will affect the structure of the book, I will draw another circular diagram and mark in what actually happens in each of the chapters so that I can see what the impact of any changes will be.
I also tend to check time lines and distances at this stage. It is never a good idea to have a journey take three days at the beginning of the book and only two by the end unless you have a very good reason to account for the difference.
I have to do all those thinking/ planning kind of things by hand – drawing odd little diagrams and colouring them in to help me visualize the story in different ways. Some people manage to plan on the computer, but for me there are certain types of thinking I can only do with a pen in my hand.