Articles, Writing

Defrosting The Thaw: Planning Process

My post-apocalyptic thriller novel The Thaw has had some positive feedback on the third draft from beta-readers, which is really encouraging. Some of the most heartening feedback on this draft has been on the quality of the planning.

This surprises me as the planning for The Thaw took me a long time, and looking back on recent techniques I am currently learning about such as Save the Cat, Story Grid etc – excellent planning resources I want to definitely invest time in for future ebooks – I think it’s right at this stage of the project to look introspectively at how I planned the book and what I would do differently.

One of the key comments that inspired this was from beta-reader Bethany Votaw. She said that I “know plot”. This is a happy coincidence because looking back at the plan in my OneNote file for The Thaw, the plan is of a fairly prehistoric format that I would in retrospect not use again.

The plan took several goes to get right, and I think this is true for most novel plans. It’s great to get ideas down, throw them against the proverbial wall and see what sticks, which is something I did do. My earliest plan is dated April 2014 and takes the format of a series of paragraphs outlining the plot. That’s it. This is perhaps what the film world would call a treatment

This was a document that took approximately from April 2014 to July 2015 to create – this stage of planning is crucial and also very difficult as it requires that magical quality of conjuring something out of nothing. Looking back on this document for this blogpost I see a lot of cool ideas that didn’t quite make it into the draft as it came out and stands today. But crucially this outline captures the synthesis of the idea into something that resembles, cobbled together and vague as it may be, a story.

My second stab at the outline is dated January 2016, which marks the point at which I decided to motor ahead with the story, taking it from concept to something resembling an outline of a cohesive story, with plots, characters and settings. I decided with this outline to get down to basics, and bullet-point the events of each chapter.

It’s perhaps important to note the context of the time at which I was writing this outline: I was coming to the midpoint in my first year of studying Creative Writing at Kingston University and I felt I was able to really take the idea of The Thaw forward. (Interesting note: the working title for this book was After the Winter, alluding to the “nuclear winter” we are so accustomed to in post-apoc work) However, I didn’t have any great knowledge of advanced techniques of story structure – beat sheets, the story grid etc. Indeed, one would correctly argue that was why I elected to study Creative Writing at University, but the success of that in my particular case at the University I attended is a topic for another post.

Eventually it was time to outline. In creating the outline I would later write the book from, I used what seemed to be the archetypal planning methodology: the three act structure. But for what became a 105,000 word novel, I feel that I pulled this structure to its logical limits. I planned the book in three “acts” (the beginning, middle, and end), and each of these acts was formed of three groups – a beginning, middle and end – and each group was formed of three chapters – to form, yes, a beginning, middle, and end.

This worked moderately well, but I feel a lot of the issues (and hence this plan took a lot of time to come together) came from relying on having three acts but being less sure of what story beats or narrative points belonged in each. The middle was especially difficult to plan without each event feeling like a contrivance to getting to the final confrontation, and I still feel the middle part of the book suffers from some degree of inevitable “sag” that a lot of middles often do. That said, I did come to realise some narrative points that I am extremely proud of, especially when making the protagonist’s personal arc also emblematic of the world as a whole.

Looking back now, I wouldn’t plan a book this way again. While the three-act structure is venerable it is also prehistoric when relied upon solely, as it was by me for The Thaw. It is to my own credit that my beta readers so far have engaged with the plot and reflected this in their feedback but I can’t help but think it’s to some degree a fluke, as my use of the three-act structure in this instance certainly didn’t help in planning the story beats (indeed, if you gave me a list of the common story beats such as those used for Story Grid, I would be hard pressed to tell you where these beats existed in The Thaw. They’re there, but this is not something I wish to repeat).

For a couple of short stories I’m working on so far this year, I’ve started experimenting with a four-act structure (Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3) for layout, and I’ve also started using spreadsheets to structure these plans (with excellent results).  Using a structured layout in a spreadsheet, and also putting those story beats or elements in there really early allows you to have much more granular control on the act structure.

But my general approach on looking at some of these methodologies is that perhaps the best approach is not to treat them as hard-and-fast, set in stone commandments (my Plotting vs Pantsing post springs to mind) but rather guidelines to make planning easier and less of an exercise in frustration when staring at a blank page.

I suppose in retrospect I was quite cavalier with the plan to The Thaw, but it worked out for me in this particular instance, but going forward I hope to learn and improve on my planning both on the reflection I’ve had here and make the planning process for future books and stories a lot less emotionally draining and less lengthy and agonising!

Articles, Writing

Milwordy Thoughts

Recently I wrote about developing healthy writing habits to bring about a positive change in workflow while maintaining productivity. This has been going mostly well for me – I’ve been setting writing goals most weeks and achieving them, though I have been a bit uninspired of late while my novel is being read by beta-readers; I have lots of ideas, just a bit of a struggle getting the momentum going.

More recently than that, I have had the concept of Milwordy brought to my attention by members of the writing community I have been participating in.

Milwordy is a challenge, a lot like Nanowrimo, but considerably more intense: instead of 50,000 words in 30 days, the challenge is to put down a million words over the course of a calendar year.

My thoughts and reflections on my Healthy Writing Habits post that I referred to at the start of this post came to mind when I saw this.

Then alarm bells started ringing for me.

On first glance, I think Milwordy is a terrible idea – for me, as a writer. It may work for other writers. I may, as is seemingly often the case, be blowing smoke out of whatever orifice takes my fancy.

My gut reaction was “good lord, this is awful!” but these are simply my own opinions. Let’s get past the gut reaction and into the rationale of why I think Milwordy would be fairly disastrous for me and why I won’t be participating – but to those that do take up the mantle you have my eternal good wishes as you embark upon this.

As I said before, I set healthy, achievable writing goals these days, week-to-week. I don’t always acheve them, and that’s fine, I can carry them over. But I set goals I know I can do so as not to be utterly intimidated by the journey ahead.

Milwordy can be accomplished by writing just under 3,000 words a day, every day, for a year to achieve. That’s daunting and intimidating, it’s like facing some amazingly-high cliff face with just a pick and pushing yourself to climb it. It can be done, it’ll be an achievement, but is it worth the stress? Maybe, for the kudos of having done it, but perhaps not:

I’ve often cited Stephen King’s On Writing across this blog as I think it’s a great book on craft and it’s pretty inspirational to see the creative process of a writer not too dissimilar to myself, who is known not necessarily for literary merit but effectiveness with the clunking hammer of genre fiction. However, one piece of advice I quickly realised was more harmful than good was King’s insistence on writing 2,000 words before doing anything else that day. And he does this day in and day out.

The issue I have with this is that I fear that in the quest to hit that 2,000 words before being able to do anything, you end up writing anything. In effect, you end up committing such garbage to the page in the pursuit of having “done” your daily words as soon as you wake up that you’re merely deferring sorting out the mess you’re creating. If we take the “write 2,000 words first thing before you do anything” to its extreme, literal, meaning, you come up with a lot of garbage. Indeed, my main criticism with The Shining as a book was that it was largely absolute garbage.

Going back to the post on “healthy writing goals”, I set lower limits. Sometimes it’s 5,000 words a week, which is about a third of King’s “guaranteed” output, but they’re arguably better words that will require less thought-intensive work to iron into something polished and presentable. Sometimes my weekly goals are set around “activities”, not wordcounts as I can achieve, say, many goals around writing that aren’t necessarily writing words that are just as important – planning stories, mapping ideas, working on outlines. These tasks arguably make the bash-bash-bash of actually putting the words down – which I am not avoiding, by the way; I just feel like it’s a lot easier to throw narrative meat onto a skeleton you’ve put together in planning, and I reflected on planning versus “pantsing” before, too.

I’m now in my 30s and when it comes to my writing, I am trying to be consciously more productive but also in what may seem counter-intuitive, I am trying very much to reduce stress associated with writing. Writing is something I always want to enjoy and not suffer stress over, and overburdening oneself is a sure-fire way to inordinate amounts of stress. I have a bit of a background of anxiety and depression, which isn’t fun but it’s a fact about me, and getting stressed about writing does nothing good for those things. Writing should be a fun route of escapism from those issues!

In terms of reading, I no longer track my reading on GoodReads as part of a “reading challenge” as I felt I was very much feeling anxious about that and it turned reading into less an enjoyable pastime but some mad rush to just get through books as they’d count to my total, and I would be anxious if I was falling behind. I even picked “easy” reads I knew I’d get through because of that, and it actually made me extremely conservative in my reading.

Now I read pretty much what I wish and I am a lot less reserved about “taking a punt” on books; actually some of my favourite reads have been from that “took a punt” category. I also stopped publishing my reading updates on Twitter as I was getting self-conscious about those being in public view; now I use GoodReads purely as a personal log of my reading, I don’t get involved in the challenges or post updates to social media. The result? My anxiety about reading has greatly reduced and I read for fun a lot more, and I’m surprisingly more avid in my reading now I’m not making expectations of myself or announcing my progress to all and sundry.

I’ve also had three successes with Nanowrimo in the past and these are important things to me in terms of my writer’s journey. But I am now in a place at the age of 30 where I can’t commit to bashing out 1,700 words a day in November. I’m very honest about that. When I was writing The Thaw I deliberately let the draft take a few months to write (though that slipped quite a bit, but I feel the resultant draft was a lot better than it would’ve been had I thrown words out at breakneck speed).

Though I now disregard King’s On Writing advice about writing 2,000 words a day, one piece of advice that I think marries up really well with my goal to make better, healthier writing goals is that a draft should be completed, however long, within the duration of a season. This can be seen as about three months.

I do have aspirations to start a new novel project in 2021, which I will be planning for pretty extensively in the twilight months of 2020 and I am eager to really strive to get the first draft of that done in “a season”, or about 12 weeks. Without wanting to jinx anything, I could potentially do two first drafts of novels in 2021 if I give myself the requisite planning time – maybe 12 weeks to plan, 12 weeks to write.

But back to Milwordy: the pressure of Nanowrimo is something that is feasibly confinable to a messy November. 30 days of stressing over daily word counts and prose issues is uncomfortable but doable. I’m not sure I could prolong that for an entire year. Plus, too, I think that Milwordy requires a great deal more foresight than Nanowrimo, and who knows indeed what they’ll be doing in a year? Given how 2020 has unfolded across the globe, who could have possibly predicted us being where we are?! And I fear that this sort of unknown might seriously impact a writer’s confidence as there seems to be little room for error for “real life” to crop up unexpectedly, as these moments invariably do.

My writing routine is not to simply wait for the muse to strike, however; but I take a technical and pragmatic approach to my goals and my writing when I’m putting pen to paper. I can and do have bouts of extreme productivity but especially when starting a project, it sometimes takes a little coaxing, hence I can’t always drop everything to write, though I do when the imagination sparks, don’t you worry.

I admit, this post may seem like I am chickening out of Milwordy. Perhaps I am. I am happy to say that if that’s the case. This isn’t meant to be a bitter post about the concept as anything that gets writers writing should definitely be commended. But I’m always trying to re-evaluate my workflow when it comes to writing and get to a comfortable but productive zone that I’m happy with. Writing should always be fun, and the biggest motivation killer I’ve found is when it feels like work – you don’t want to do it, and you end up actively avoiding it.

That said I would be extremely interested to hear from anyone who is doing Milwordy and what they think about my criticisms and thoughts on the matter. They’re entirely personal and are reflective on my own state of mind when it comes to writing, and I do wish those aspiring to complete Milwordy all the best, and don’t think I won’t be supporting you on this epic journey!