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

Painting By Numbers? – Exploring the Advantages of Plotting and “Pantsing”

There’s an oft-described dichotomy between writers between “plotters” – those who assiduously and diligently plan their stories, sometimes with great precision, and “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants in seeing how the flow comes, and writing whatever comes to them in the glory of the moment. Dan Hook summarised these approaches well in his recent video, which inspired me to examine perhaps a little more closely how I’d define myself as a writer.

In the period of consideration that precipitated this post, I realised it was a journey.

But first, it’s important to examine both approaches. I think both embody a very different school of thought for writing, especially prose.

Plotters – sometimes referred to as planners or architects – aim to have the main beats of their stories down in some form before commencing the start of writing. And indeed there’s a variety of degrees to which this can be done – some writers choose to plan every moment of their stories, forming a skeleton of a plot onto which they hang the meat of the prose. Some simply sketch out a vague idea of what they want to happen in each chapter, or act, or part, and then let that act as a guide to their writing.

There’s a host of techniques – Save the Cat is a commonly referred to method in scriptwriting and increasingly, prose; indeed it’s a book I’m to read very soon – but the essence, I’ve inferred, from plotting a story, or using an outline to map out where that story needs to go, is that it can make it easy to check if the story has the elements of story – an inciting incident, conflict, the character journey, to name a few – and they’re in the correct narrative places relative to the work.

“Pantsers” – somewhat less crudely termed discovery writers – usually open with a blank page and start typing whatever the flow brings them. It’s a complete dichotomy to the planned, almost technical approach of planning: you go where the story takes you, and you discover that story – world, characters and plot – with your characters. Discovery writing can be extremely pure and cathartic as the words simply flow.

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However I think it’s reductive to simply put these approaches at odds to each other –  in very broad strokes, planning is technical; pantsing is artistic. These things do not seem to gel together at all! But crucially, despite some perceptions, there is no need for a writer to occupy one camp or the other.

These terms, despite a casual glance suggesting otherwise, are not mutually exclusive. I think Dan makes an excellent point in his video that an effective strategy is to harness the advantages of both approaches where the situation warrants. For example, in his upcoming novel Displaced, the first in a series, the idea came from a university assignment and grew organically from then, and on completing the first, rough, draft, came the plan to support that.

This is a good approach. Being a discovery writer doesn’t always mean going in blind. You can easily approach a work with a vague idea, flesh it out and then work a plan around it as it develops. In my own journey, I can definitely see the discovery writer I once was. In my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel The Last of the Steamers, I had no plan. I didn’t even break it up into chapters. I simply had an idea – perhaps a few extremely vague notes – and went with it. The resultant novel will likely never see the light of day for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post.

I think a blended approach is best. Here’s the start of the outline I used for the first act of my WIP post-apoc novel The Thaw:

(Be warned, some spoilers for this follow, if that’s important to you!)

This outline took a long time to devise. I didn’t use any specific schema besides the classic “three-act structure) for this; I even worked that down to a fairly granular level, breaking each act into three parts, of three subsequent chapters. indeed, I found this was just the right amount of depth to allow me to take a blended approach.

With this outline I strove to get the key, must-happen events of the story (the “bones”) codified. Then I simply wrote. My personal view is that having this level of detail in terms of key plot events allows for writing of the actual chapters to harness the power of discovery writing. Having that vague plot already there allows for the writing itself to take twists and turns, as long as it accomplishes those things.

This plan also strove to include a technique I admire from the Expanse books by James S. A. Corey, and indeed from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – give each chapter a specific point-of-view. Visualising this on my plan through the use of coloured tags helped me distribute the “story” accordingly, and helped to make sure the point-of-view doesn’t linger in the hands of one character excessively.

This plan, however, doesn’t accurately represent the work as it’s gone through edits by me, and that’s fine. It worked well for the initial draft which it was designed for – the project’s evolution outside of that is fairly incidental to this document. It represents my overarching ideas for the story and I feel that working to this plan resulted in an excellent piece, which continues to evolve and tinker but the blueprint of this plan sits at the very heart of the 104,000 word draft.

Is this plan perfect, though? Absolutely not – I feel I could structure this far more efficiently now, and indeed on future novel projects I will iterate and improve this basic template.

But returning to perhaps the main point – this plan embodies roughly about the amount of detail I feel comfortable in having in my plans. Sure, there’s no reference to story beats or story components, but they’re in there in less obvious terms. The story does still contain all those elements – inciting incidents, character journeys, internal struggles, barriers to success – but I’d admit that this plan is v1.0 for me and I’ll always be happy to adapt, tweak and learn.

That said, this has led me to reflect on the initial first draft of The Thaw quite fondly as I found that blended approach seemed to work quite well. I’d admit to being a technical writer – my prose reflects, I feel, my approach: it’s precise, methodical but doesn’t lack that whisper of artistic flair. I don’t get preoccupied in writing flowery, gushing prose that could be argued as easily resultant from discovery writing; and if I did, it largely gets edited out!

I feel an over-planned story whose outline is totally inflexible becomes simply a painting-by-numbers exercise that simply isn’t fun to write. And if writing isn’t fun, why do we do it? Fiction that’s enjoyable to read needs to be enjoyable to write, and as a writer I consider myself less and artist but more a craftsman, taking that blended approach of precision and planning with a good dose of creating art.

By creating a loose structure onto which to hang your writing you give yourself guidelines that can be loose and flexible enough to allow for the natural journey and organic twists that can’t be foreseen and planned in advance to emerge during the actual writing. A plan should be a roadmap, not a straightjacket.

But wait, there’s more!

It might be easy to assume that for this entire post I’m referring to fiction writing. However, I think these tips and insights work for both fiction and non-fiction work, though fiction being the lens through which I’m making these observations. With non-fiction many of the same rules apply – plan out the arguments or points you want to make, structure out the research or key points to reference and the actual writing, as long as it hits those beats or makes those points can flow pretty much freeform.

To conclude, I think putting oneself in one camp or the other is facile and overly reductive, but finding a balance of both approaches, and knowing when each works best, and how one can complement the other, really reaches the sweet sauce between writing for the sheer fun of it and coming up with a rewarding, cohesive and engaging piece – whatever you’re writing!