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Posts Tagged planning a novel
Last week I was back at The Guardian, teaching my course on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next couple of weeks.
You’ll write a lot of material that is not intended for publication
One student who had taken a creative writing MA was bemused when her tutor set her the task of writing a scene from a different character’s point of view. This wasn’t intended to appear in the book; it was intended to encourage her to explore ramifications she hadn’t thought of. She said she found it a surprising idea, to create something that was never intended for publication.
We all have material we write that never reaches an audience. Sometimes this might be book ideas that don’t work out, or apprenticeship novels that are best filed in the ‘forget it’ drawer.
But those aside, a lot of our written output won’t end up between covers. I hadn’t thought about this until my student talked about this exercise, then I realised the amount of wordage we might write in order to get to the text.
In my own case this might be:
- musings on the meaning of the central idea, to hone the themes and discover the story, maybe with an Undercover Soundtrack
- ditto about characters, individual plot problems
- outlines and refinements thereof, or scrawlings of events on cards
- beat sheets for afterwards to aid revision
- tryouts of story events from other points of view, like the exercise my student was set.
That looks like a colossal amount of wastage. If I look in the folder for Ever Rest, I have 68 exploratory documents, and some of them are 20-30 pages.
And then there’s the material that gets cut from the manuscript – even more pages written that the reader never sees. The novel that emerges is a super-concentrated distillate.
I hadn’t ever questioned this, but I realise that for some writers it seems odd. They often think that, except for a bit of polishing, every word they write is intended for the book.
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Next time: ‘My drafts are too brief’
So let’s continue the discussion. How much extra material do you write? Have you ever added it up?
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I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?
Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.
How much do you plan?
Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)
Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)
When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.
Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)
What to enlarge
So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.
Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.
Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start. Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.
A writer of two minds
Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.
The wonders of revision
Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.
There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?
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I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.
Planning v pantsing
Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?
Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.
But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.
Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.
The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.
Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.
And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).
It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.
Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.
So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.
And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.
My tips for using an outline creatively
- Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
- If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
- Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.
But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.
There’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.
Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!
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Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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It’s ultra-streamlined to suit all writing approaches. If you like to create a detailed synopsis, my tips will get you going. If you want only the barest essentials, they’ll guide you while giving you room to explore and express. And if you’re still undecided or wonder if NaNoWriMo is even possible, hopefully they’ll persuade you to take the plunge.
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It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).
I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.
If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.
But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.
Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.
One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’ is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.
If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.
Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print.
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