I was asked to write about how I planned my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw, and seeing as I’m pretty much done with the first draft and am going to be putting it away for a while before I start editing, it’s a great opportunity to look back at the workflow I devised, see how it worked out, and perhaps reflect and think about how I can further improve this.
My general goal as a writer is to learn and adapt my workflow with each project I embark upon. Learning what works best, and exploring new ideas is a great way to show evolution of my skills. I remember quite vividly the first novel I attempted to write, and how I didn’t plan it, really, and I didn’t even chapterise it, which made editing it a nightmare and hence it’s mothballed. Not to say I’m, not proud of what I’ve done; but I’m still not in a place to do the heavy lifting to realise that project just yet. But stay tuned!
I was surprised to discover quite how invaluable Microsoft OneNote was for planning. OneNote has proved an effective and invaluable tool for laying out notes for my various projects. I use OneNote quite extensively at university for tracking lecture notes and essay plans and I like several aspects of it. First, it’s available everywhere – I can sync my notes, via OneDrive, to any device, whether that be my iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, ThinkPad or even anywhere via the web, which is invaluable as inspiration can strike in the oddest places, so I can get my phone, and quickly write down ideas or snippets of thoughts and know it’ll all be catalogued in one online notebook.
OneNote’s format also pretty much gets rid of formatting that I feel can be constraining. I can write anywhere on the page in OneNote, so I’m not limited to overly linear formats on the page – I can draw links to ideas wherever; this is most useful on my iPad – I use this with a keyboard but the touch/ink facilities there can be invaluable.
In terms of how I use OneNote specifically for The Thaw, let’s look at my folder tree. I have a single folder for The Thaw inside a writing notebook linked to my account, separate from my university and personal notebooks. I can create pages, and subpages. Nothing gets thrown away, either, hence a variety of versions of the plot outline.
The plot outline for The Thaw was always in my mind, but planning the outline was probably the hardest aspect of the book as I had a very cloudy overall feel for what I wanted, and the core signposts of the story, but the specifics were at times really hard to. It took a couple of tries to get something I found was workable, but my general philosophy was to not over-plan the chapters; this would make the actual writing feel both too constrained (like joining the dots) and I’d also know I’d get subconsciously anxious about deviating too much from “the plan”. So I decided on a structure I feel was a good compromise – I detailed general aims for the chapter in the heading, with four of five key plot events that should take place. I also put checkboxes on each of the chapter headings so I could see at a glance what was done; I also implemented a quite useful “point of view” tag for the characters each chapter was seen through, using different coloured fonts to easily differentiate, so I knew how long at a glance it had been since a point of view shift, et cetera.
This is a format I feel worked really well, so it’s a structure I feel very comfortable using in the future. My plot outline wasn’t massively detailed (indeed, I didn’t document a whole lot of the backstory, but this is something I want to do as I’m going to be hinting at a lot of it in future drafts) but it served a purpose as a series of signposts, not barriers, to keep me roughly in line with what I thought I should. But also it was a flexible outline style so that helped keep it malleable when waves of inspiration struck and threw everything into disarray, as these things do. It’s extremely easy to plan every item of minutiae into the outline and I tried to avoid that as it just sucks the fun out of writing – there’s no discovery to the writing process and it’s just too constrained.
My only real regret is that, as I was writing The Thaw, I didn’t necessarily become disciplined in keeping the outline in OneNote up-to-date with what was happening in the actual draft. Again, I’m glad the story gained a sense of organic growth, but I feel I have in some respects made life difficult for myself by not keeping the outline updated with as much discipline as I should have; for instance, the end chapter has been quite difficult to write as the outline is very scant.
Looking at my outline file now, I focused mainly on the plot of the book, with relatively scant details on characters and settings, mainly because they were assembled in my head and translating them to the notebook was difficult. That’s not to say I’m not going to nail down my character profiles and my backstory ideas – of which I’ve had many! – because I feel having that overview of characters, their desires, needs, wants and fears, and also a written and codified “bible” of the world my story takes place in is just the sort of detail that needs to be consistent to be added into a future draft, so my “month long vacation” from the book that I’m planning may be spent drawing maps, writing profiles and working out the intricacies of this post-apocalyptic world I’ve created – and that’s something I actually cant’ wait to do!
I definitely feel I should’ve taken more time to plan more of the story – I began the draft with the plan for the initial act and half of the second; I feel a bit more gestation time would’ve been useful but conversely, I was glad to begin and not be too bound by what I thought would work so that any ideas I came up with – especially for the middle portion of the book, which was easily the most difficult to plan – would disrupt that. However, I did feel that I’d been planning The Thaw for months, perhaps to procrastinate from actually putting the first words down, so I did eventually just decide to be bold and throw the words down, with the overall plan never far from my thoughts, if not my OneNote file!
Like OneNote, Dropbox was a key cornerstone of my workflow, and it worked largely behind the scenes as a key method for both ensuring my drafts were kept backed up online, and not slaved to one computer (and ferried around on an easily-lost USB key, or constantly “emailed to myself”). I’ve a dedicated writing folder in my Dropbox for all my work this year, and I have archival folders going back to 2010. With the baked in support for my iPhone and iPad there’s really no excuse for a writer to not use a solution like Dropbox to keep their work backed up.
I also elected to use Dropbox as my working folder, so when working on my draft in Scrivener, it would be updated pretty much automatically, which worked well for making sure changes were saved in a timely manner, and also cut out another step of remembering to copy the project into Dropbox. With the way Scrivener works on Windows (projects are comprised of folders populated with many smaller files that contain the text etc), it also made a lot more sense to just work on the project from Dropbox direct. Now, Scrivener’s an entirely different beast that I will talk about separately because I’d not really be able to write The Thaw without it; sure, I could’ve written in Word but Word, from previous experience, is not best suited to long-form narrative projects whereas Scrivener is tailor-made for this work.
I was quite lucky that I didn’t run into any conflicting issues with having the project open on more than one computer or device; Scrivener, the writing software I used (I will talk later in depth as to how useful Scrivener has been) has some built-in protections from that.
Overall though I’d definitely attribute OneNote and Dropbox as key tools in my writer’s toolbox, because writing a book like The Thaw really demands at least some consideration of the planning process that goes on for a long time before writing starts. I’m really confident in The Thaw so I wanted to do the idea and concept justice with planning, but at the same time striking a balance between letting the story have the right amount of space to evolve and take its own course, in a way, but while also having a general idea, written down, of key events that need to happen – so it’s about applying my learning process from previous projects to this one. I do feel that I maybe almost spent a bit too long thinking about it – outlining is possibly the hardest part of novel writing for me because it’s the literal application of ideas to a blank page, but I definitely feel I had a workable structure to my overall plan and I had the tools to help me shape that plan throughout the writing process!