Defrosting The Thaw – My Planning Process

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.

onenote-1In 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.

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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!

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The Thaw: Project Update

I was pretty pleased to recently finally break my 100,000 word target for the first draft of the post-apocalyptic novel, The Thaw, that I have been writing since last July. It was a big moment that I captured in a somewhat successful Facebook livestream. Considering my initial plan was 60,000 and then 70,000 words I’m impressed myself in what I have achieved! It’s not been plain sailing as perhaps I’d originally foresaw but projects like these are organic and gain a life of their own, almost; The Thaw certainly has!

Photo 20-05-2017, 10 37 00 pmI’m absolutely thrilled to have pulled this together – but my draft isn’t complete! First, the chapter I wrote during the livestream only barely touched upon a third of the planned narrative I wanted to cover, and I did discover that livestreaming writing does pile on the pressure, which isn’t ideal for a crucial part of the work but this is an experience I needed to learn from. But regardless of the perceived quality of what I wrote, I’m pretty confident that some of the ideas borne of that writing session hold weight and I want to include them into the final first draft. I plan to finally finish off the main bulk of the story (I plan a sort-of epilogue chapter to round off the book set some time after the climax) very soon.

And then I’m going to take some time off from the book before I even give the first draft a reading as a complete unit. I need some distance from the project, to cool off from it so that when I re-approach it late in the summer my mind is fresh and ready to appraise it and begin the editing phase. I’ve made a fair few notes during the first draft of things I want to change, improve, clarify (I didn’t want to go back while drafting; my ethos was to steam ahead only; I can fix stuff later) but an initial reading with a cleared mind will no doubt turn up other questions and points.

I’m really looking forward to editing it but I’m absolutely right, I feel, to take a break from the project and give it space to breathe. I do have some great plans for how I’m going to approach the editing but that plan remains somewhat in flux.

Again, I’m so proud of myself that I’ve managed to write The Thaw (especially given difficult personal circumstances) and I’m confident that the concepts at its heart are going to make a compelling story that I can’t wait to share more of. I’ve been pretty dogged in getting the first draft together; I can’t wait to tell you about my characters in a lot greater detail as the summer progresses!

10 Books to Read in 2017 to Improve My Writing

I’ve recently made a good crack at starting my 2017 Goodreads Challenge, upping my goal from 35 to 40 books. Obviously I intend to enjoy this immensely but it’s a good opportunity to approach some books that I feel would be beneficial in reading, not only because they’re great reads but because I feel they’d be a good influence on my own work, especially with my own novel that I am currently working on, The Thaw.

day_of_the_triffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I recall watching a recent television adaptation of this book a few years ago and I enjoyed that, so it makes sense to see the original book. While researching this post I was surprised to see how recent The Day of the Triffids is, originating in the 1950s; reading more ‘classics’ is certainly a goal and I feel the setting – a futuristic England beset by killer plants – is both unique enough a premise to still maintain some relevance today. I certainly am looking forward to seeing how a post-apocalyptic Britain envisaged in the 1950s is realised. Plus, by all accounts, it’s just a cracking read!

the_children_of_menChildren of Men by PD James

Another saw-the-film-ages-ago kind of deal; again, I thought the 2006 film was gripping and appropriately desolate and bleak; archetypal post-apocalyptic fare but the film was effective. The premise, too, of the human race being sterile is close to my own plot elements in The Thaw, where children and genetic engineering are brought together in a quite harrowing way, makes this book almost ‘required reading’ considering what I’m working on.

world_war_zWorld War Z by Max Brooks

Again, this seems almost too trite to be true, considering my own work is currently happily residing in the post-apocalyptic genre, but I figured it’s about time to give this book a go, even as I didn’t manage to watch the film version. This is especially true considering, I believe, it’s almost the go-to when ‘zombie fiction’ is thought of. I’d a while ago discounted the zombie subgenre as almost too derivative to be meaningful anymore but I’m re-approaching my stance and, from what I’ve read, World War Z is a worthy bastion of zombie post-apocalyptic fiction.

battle_royaleBattle Royale by Koushun Takami

The Hunger Games wasn’t a bad series, even if the protagonist was a bit too far along the ‘whiny angsty antihero’ path, but one thing that I feel would’ve done the series credit was more violence. This would truly and effectively show the horror that comes from forcing children into a fight to the death. I’ve been recommended Battle Royale a couple of times because it doesn’t shy away from those kinds of visceral depictions so I’m going to finally grab a copy and see what a ‘proper’ Hunger Games is like.


the_standThe Stand
by Stephen King

Getting into King’s work last year was really good, and I definitely want to read his post-apocalyptic epic The Stand; like with the others on this list, I want to see how these different authors portray their settings and how their characters interact with each other and the wider worlds. King’s thrillers have been pretty atmospheric, creepy and gripping so The Stand is an obvious choice to read. I’m a tiny bit intimidated by The Stand’s length but I’ll overcome that!

the_firemanThe Fireman by Joe Hill

Again, a lot like the other post-apoc books on my list, I want to read The Fireman because it’s a pretty well-regarded outing in the genre that’s been on the periphery of my radar for a while. My goal in reading these books is to sample a good flavour of the variety available in the post-apoc genre so I can better see how my own work fits in! Plus, it’s by Stephen King’s son so it’ll be interesting to compare and contrast with King’s work!

on_writingOn Writing by Stephen King

I’ve recently started building a “writer’s library” of books that have advice pertinent to my craft. Again, it’s easy to buy a load of “tip books” but not implement so I’m being picky in which advice books I get. On Writing is cited all the time as a great book in terms of the craft and certainly one I intend to read closely, largely because I’m enjoying discovering King’s work and he writes books that are not-too-dissimilar to my own interests.

a_game_of_thronesA Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

I’ve put off reading the Game of Thrones books mainly as the TV show is great, and I didn’t want my viewing of the TV show to cloud my interpretation of the books. However, now I feel quite confidently that enough time has passed that I can finally begin the books. I’ve read snippets and I’ve been pleased with how plain-speaking the books seem to be (this overuse of archaic, twee language that is a common pitfall in fantasy is why I couldn’t finish Assassin’s Apprentice). I’ve generally avoided fantasy, mainly as I feel a lot of fantasy is ultimately derivative of The Lord of the Rings which I controversially find unreadable. However, I feel A Game of Thrones would certainly be useful as a case study in excellent worldbuilding, so I look forward to visiting Westeros in literary form very soon!

19841984 by George Orwell

1984 is a book that sits firmly in the “classics you should’ve read ages ago” category for me, and reading it these days seems awfully relevant and topical. Again, I certainly am interested to see quite how Orwell portrays a dystopian society and I’m sure, as well as being highly enjoyable, it’ll be another strain of dystopian fiction for me to take some notes and inspiration from.

duneDune by Frank Herbert

Dune is another one of those “classic books I should’ve read by now” and I intend to finally get to it. Widely regarded as a science-fiction classic that I actually don’t know a great deal about (apart from how highly it’s regarded), I think the only plausible reason I’ve constantly kicked this one to the kerb is it’s length; however, I’m pretty confident that my reading speed has increased enough that it’s not going to consume too much of my time.

If you want to keep an eye on how I’m getting on with my reading then by all means check out my 2017 Goodreads Challenge page!

On Novel-writing: Finally breaking into The Thaw

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In researching this post, I realised by happy accident it was a year ago that I announced my two big projects that I was working on: The Thaw and Doors.

I’m pretty pleased to say, a year on, that both of these projects have progressed a lot, but today I want to focus on The Thaw, which is the novel I have been working busily on for the past six weeks, and for a considerable while long in the planning stages beforehand!

So, without further delay, I’d like to introduce you to…

The Thaw

a post-apocalyptic adventure by Richard Holliday

The Thaw is the story of Elian Sarkov, a young and naïve doctor who has lived and worked in a ‘frontier camp’ all his life, sheltered from the Wild that lurks outside and which has consumed the world after a nuclear apocalypse twenty-seven years before. When the unsavoury nature of the camp’s true purpose threatens Elian’s very life, he must decide if he can live on the outside while fighting to save not just his closest companion but perhaps the world from falling back into a nuclear winter.

Over the past month and a bit I’ve managed to put down about 18,000 words on the initial chapters of The Thaw. Previously I’d engaged in quite an intense period of pre-planning and outlining. While my outline is still incomplete I feel it’s advanced enough to guide me with the writing process for the first act especially.

I’m also taking on board what I’ve learned in my initial year of studying Creative Writing at Kingston University – emphasising on setting and giving my characters a journey, and giving them interesting, contrasting characteristics. I’ve also reflected quite a bit on my previous novel-writing experience with my science fiction story Colonisation/Mars Zero, which is on hold for now. I definitely feel that I’m in a good place to write The Thaw and I feel the concept – if I had to describe it using extant works, it’s a bit of Fallout, a bit of Children of Men and a bit of The Hunger Games – is solid enough to be the one I want to pursue as a potential ‘one for serious publication’.

I look forward to writing more about how I planned to write The Thaw, and maybe about some of the challenges I encountered so far and will do in the future, so keep an eye out, follow my blog on WordPress or subscribe to email updates!