Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Preparing for NaNoWriMo has meant planning the novel that I’m going to write, or at least start writing, in that month. So yesterday I sat and planned my novel, currently titled City of Blood and Steam. As other people will also be planning novels right now I thought I’d share my process, in case it’s useful.

My planning process has three basic steps.

Step 1: fundamentals

I start with the fundamentals – what and who is the story about, and what plotlines does that give me? City of Blood and Steam is about a pair of priestly detectives investigating a murder in a steampunk city where people believe that machines have souls. So plotlines will stem from these characters and the case they are investigating.

The character plotlines are the most important ones – they’ll make sure that the characters have interesting issues and dilemmas to face, and that there’s a sense of progress in their characters. So arcs include their relationship moving from one of resentment to one of trust, the older character’s battle with the effects of age on her body, the younger character’s search for a sense of purpose, and their relationship with the church authorities.

The investigative plotlines are more numerous. I have a central backbone to the case, through which are threaded subplots in which they investigate each reason the victim might have ended up dead, each major strand of suspicion and mystery. I have no idea if this is how mystery writers normally work, I’ve never written a full length detective story before, but this approach has worked for me with other stories.

The investigative plotlines also include a conflict with a lawyer who’s getting in the way of the investigation because of the vested interests it upsets. So there’s an antagonist in play as well as a murderer to find.

Step 2: breaking down the plots

Step one normally leaves me with about eight different plotlines for a novel. For a short story it’s only one or two. For this mystery I’ve got fifteen, which means lots of work on step two – breaking down each plotline.

I map out each plotline separately without thinking about how they relate to each other. For this I use Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because it’s got a nice rising and falling rhythm to it and it’s what I’m used to. Click the link to that previous post if you want to know more on how it works.

In terms of pure practicalities, I do this on an Excel spreadsheet. So by the end of step two I have a grid containing a column for each plotline and a row for each of the seven beats in Wells’s structure. And each cell in that grid has a one or two sentence explanation of what happens at that point in the plot.

Now comes the tricky part…

Step 3: putting it all in order

Finally I work out how the steps in the plot strands relate to each other, spacing them out into roughly thirty chapters.

I usually do this by printing out my spreadsheet, cutting out the cells and then manoeuvring them on the dining room table. Yesterday I didn’t have that option so I used two windows in Excel, copying and pasting from the existing plot point sheet into a new chapter breakdown one.

I start by spreading out the most important arcs – in this case the character development and the main plotline of solving the mystery. I want those spread fairly evenly through the book, with the most important ones starting right at the start and finishing in the final chapter. Looking at them together sometimes highlights things that should happen in the same chapter – for example a major setback in the investigation might make a natural trigger for a crisis of confidence in a character’s personal plotline. I’m looking for story beats that fit naturally together, while keeping each plotline in order.

Having done this with the main plotlines I then do the same with the others, again looking for connections to fit them together. Does one strand of investigation take the characters to the docks, and another need them to spot someone there? Then let’s put those two together. Are they going to get told to drop the case in classic cop show fashion? Then lets do that after they’ve gone poking around in someone important’s business, kicking up a political shitstorm. And that would be a great point for a confrontation with the meddling lawyer.

I usually have to make a few tweaks at the end, removing empty chapters and splitting up over-crowded ones, but fundamentally that’s it – at the end I have a plan of thirtyish chapters with a satisfying beginning and end and several things happening in each chapter, which I’ll turn into a chapter plan as I get to each one.

Thoughts, questions?

That’s my approach to planning a novel or other fiction writing project. I expect I’ll do more posts like this as NaNoWriMo takes me at an accelerated pace through the writing process. If you’ve got any questions or thoughts then leave a comment.

How do you plan a story? Got any recommendations for other guidance? Share your ideas below.

We all have days when a good idea takes us where good planning wouldn’t. Sometimes the results are genius – I doubt that the Pixies asked themselves ‘what’s the best song we could sing about a surrealist film?’ when they wrote Debaser.


Sometimes the results are less productive – this is where I come in.

I have a lot of short stories I’m trying to sell to magazines and websites. They get rejected a lot, and I usually then send them straight back out, after some quick edits based on any feedback I’ve received. It’s how I keep things moving on the short story front.

Recently I’ve been thinking that it’s time to refine my approach. By the time a story’s been rejected by half a dozen magazines I’ve had months to distance myself from it, and to learn more about writing. If I did more thorough edits on some of these stories then I might turn them from rough gems into sparkling diamonds- starting by taking out such cliché metaphors. It will cut into writing time, but I’ll sell more stories if I’ve got a few good ones than if I’ve got a big pile of mediocrity.

I still think it’s a good plan. But there’s a catch coming.

Yesterday I settled down to do some thorough editing on one of these stories, a fantasy piece called ‘Respect for the Dead’. It’s inspired by, though not about, the way we treat the death of politicians. I like to think that there’s something good in there. It’s had a couple of nice rejections but not made the cut anywhere. So I spent half the afternoon working on that bad boy, carefully picking over dialogue and descriptions, trimming the start to bring the conflict in faster, trying to punch it up. I was very pleased with the results. I got onto Duotrope to decide where to submit it.

All the markets I was interested in were either temporarily closed, unsuitable for this story, or already had something of mine to consider. After all that effort, I couldn’t send the story where I wanted to. Probably won’t be able to for weeks.

Sure, this isn’t wasted effort. It was good practice, and ‘Respect for the Dead’ will eventually see the light of day. But if I’d been more careful in picking my story to edit I could have sent it out straight away, made better use of my effort.

A couple of red traffic lights against a blue sky

So today’s lesson is this – sometimes writing is like crossing the road, you need to stop, look and think before you act. There are no trucks on this motorway, but there are a lot of self-inflicted accidents.

Ever wasted your effort in this way? Come on, I’ve told my mildly embarrassing story, now’s the chance to get some catharsis and tell yours too.


Picture by Horia Varlan via Flickr creative commons.

So, after a little bit of time doing freelance writing, and an even littler amount of success from it, I feel that I’ve learned some valuable lessons for the other, more fun side of my writing life, and for anyone else who’s out there writing. These are, in no particular order…

Do more research

I’ve had to do research on all sorts of things. Not always in depth, but it’s always interesting to do, and even a few minutes’ research beforehand can making the writing flow much better and much more convincingly. Even things I think I can blag my way through are worth researching. I should bear this in mind for fiction.

Careful with the posture

Oh dear lord, the pain. I work at a laptop. This has been straining my shoulders and neck for weeks. That in turn creates headaches. Varying my posture, and never working slumped on the couch, really helps. So does the separate monitor I borrowed off a friend today. As soon as I can afford it, I’m buying one of those special posture friendly writing desks.

Goals are good, panicking about them isn’t

I’ve been setting myself lots of measurable, realistic goals – stuff like ‘write two chapters a week’ or ‘write one of those every Wednesday’. It’s good at keeping me focused and motivated. But inevitably, the first set of goals didn’t quite match what I could achieve. I’ve been running myself ragged trying to meet them, then beating myself up when I couldn’t. They’re still goals I should get to meeting sometime soon, just not yet, so I’m keeping them as aspirations. I just have to remind myself, when I start to stress out on a Friday afternoon, that as long as they’re pushing me to achieve more, I don’t always have to meet every goal.

Be more disciplined

Last night I sat up until midnight talking about gaming. Today I am dog tired and struggling to focus – hence this hasty post before I completely crash. I need to use my willpower to stick to things I promise myself, like getting to bed at a sensible time.

Now I’m going to follow some of my other advice, by having an evening off and chilling out. Have a good weekend folks.

My favourite teacher in sixth-form, the waistcoat-wearing, philosophy-spouting, local councillor Mr Anthony, had a slogan on his maths room wall:

‘If you have to swallow two toads, eat the big one first.’

photo by erikpaterson via flickr creative commons

photo by erikpaterson via flickr creative commons

It’s good advice, but easy to forget. When I’m trying to get started of a morning, I’ll often do a small, easy piece of work, to ease myself into the day. Then another, for the sense of satisfaction. And so on, picking off the easy fruit first.

The problem is, this means that the later tasks seem more daunting – everything’s harder than what I’ve done before. Whereas if, at the start of the day, I took a deep breath and did the big task, then everything would be easier from there on.

I’m trying to get back into that habit. It’s not easy, but it’ll make me more productive, and less bowed down under the weight of big tasks I’ve put off.

Anybody else got words of wisdom on this subject? How do you organise your work to be most productive? We’re all different, but I’m curious, what works for you? And who was your Mr Anthony?

Yesterday I finally had one of those experiences I knew I should be having as a writer, but have so far missed – realising that a character I’d created was completely redundant.

This is something I’ve heard mentioned in a few places. You put a character in because you like them, but actually they don’t add anything to the story. The role they fill duplicates things done by other characters. In this case they were the local detective in a murder investigation. I already had an out of town detective, who’s a stronger character, raises questions the reader will have about the setting, and shows one side of the story’s theme (living with military occupation). I have local characters who act as witnesses and suspects, answer the detective’s questions, and show the other side of my theme. Given what the other characters do for the story, the local detective, who I’d based on someone I know and admire, is redundant.

I spotted this because of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s advice in the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary’s said a few times that every character and setting in a short story usually adds at least 500 words to its length. Specifics aside, there’s an undeniable truth in this – writing about more characters and places makes for more words. And it you’re trying to fit within the word limit for a specific market that doesn’t leave space for excess characters. Once I counted important witnesses and locations, I looked down my story plan and knew I had too much.

So goodbye second detective. I’ll miss you. Heck, you’re an interesting character, I’ll probably just recycle you in a future story. But hard as it is to cut you out, I won’t weigh this story down with you.

I’m near the end of my first week writing full time, and I feel like I should sit back and reflect on how it’s gone. Self-awareness is one of the most important skills in achieving anything, and that starts with self-reflection.

Overall, the week’s been good. I’ve stuck with my full working days. I had to adjust some targets mid-week when a re-write proved more substantial than anticipated, but that’s part of learning to pace myself. I’ve managed to stay focused, hit my adjusted goals, and may even have time today for things that were dropped from the plan.

This week’s achievements include:
– blogging every day (sometimes here, sometimes for other sites)
– a big story re-write
– first draft of a new story
– reading three chapters of my novel for revisions
– my first tentative steps into networking via writing forums and other blogs

I’ve slept the best I have in weeks, and had the energy for the household chores, so there’s definitely some good side effects.

Downsides? Though I don’t feel like I miss the company yet, my behaviour says otherwise. I’m easily distracted by text conversations, facebook and checking my email. It’s not a problem yet, but I’ll need to keep an eye on that. I hit my first demotivated moment yesterday afternoon, struggling to re-engage with a story, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s another good sign that considering the alternative – back to office work – was enough to focus me.

So far so good. Now to get down to some writing.

And so it begins

Posted: May 6, 2013 in writing life

The last couple of weeks have been rather hectic, as I’ve finished at work, put my home working space in order, and taken an anniversary holiday with Mrs K. – four years married, and I can still barely believe she even said yes.

But the thing that’s taken most of my attention these past few weeks (except on the anniversary, of course) is preparing to start writing full time.

Wednesday was my last day at work. I was given a spectacular send-off, including a red quill-style pen that will take pride of place in my writing space. I’ve handed over all my projects, packed away my office clothes, and got myself a plan. Because I know from six years as an arts student that without a plan, without a firm structure to keep me focussed, I will drift into laziness, sporadic depression, and a complete lack of productivity.

For me, that structure is all-important. It’s not rigid, and I’ll adapt as I learn my limits. But without it, I might as well head straight back to the nine to five, because I’ll never make it at writing.

I might talk about this more another day, as I’ve found some really good resources for planning a writer’s life. And I will get back to discussing the Hunger Games soon – I haven’t just forgotten. But for now, I’m going to rest and prepare, because tomorrow’s my first day as a full time writer.