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.

onenote-2

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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Looking Back On NaNoWriMo

This time five years ago I was halfway through my inaugural attempt at NaNoWriMo, and halfway through writing my first ever novel-length writing project. It was the culmination of a few weeks of late-night planning of something great, and ultimately what I would say is the first big “event” that signposted my taking “this writing thing” as a serious endeavour.

I’ve attempted and completed NaNoWriMo three times; each successive time I learned something I didn’t know from the previous effort – to break my work into chapters, to have an outline prepared, and to be absolutely committed and have a rough roadmap of my story before November 1st. I really think that, as an event, it’s a great way to jumpstart one’s creativity, and to turn those eminently-latent thoughts of that novel you always wanted to write into something material. There’s also an awesome, supportive community that breaks down that barrier of writing being a solitary and exclusionary practise.

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year; I’ve always been a proponent of business being an actual help to the writing process, but my university studies are quite intensive at the moment as I’m still fully transitioning to full-time education after years away, so I can’t really pillage time from my schedule for NaNoWriMo this year; at any rate, I want to write my post-apocalyptic novel The Thaw and my outline is nowhere near ready for the actual drafting to begin. I want to really harness that frenetic, creative energy to get the project off to a good start.

I always see NaNoWriMo as an opportunity, too, to tweak and further optimise one’s workflow, as productivity is key. The one aspect of NaNoWriMo that I found the most motivating was updating my spreadsheet to see my progress claw toward the goal of 50,000 words, and in a way, I find having such a crazy deadline brings about the most unexpected, and enjoyable, bouts of creativity.

I’m working right now on some ideas and plans for next year; I want to also reflect on this year as a whole – looking back on my resolutions, I’ve not kept to them particularly well, so I want to reflect on why that is and how I can look to better my outlook in 2016, and this will include the questions as to what is ultimately going to happen to my three partially-completed manuscripts that I wrote in those three heady Novembers. Happy writing!

FutureLearn: Fiction Course participation

On the behest of my good friend Gary I’ve signed up for FutureLearn’s “Start Writing Fiction” course.

This is an online-based course that aims to help people get writing, with a focus on the central skill of creating characters. This seems a great idea; often in my work I feel my characterisation is my weakest skill. Usually I’m great with concepts but less successful creating characters to experience those concepts (usually I find my own characters to essentially be cardboard cut outs, to be pulped at my whim).

Even as an established writer, I feel it’s great to be able to take opportunities like this to get a better sense for my craft and hopefully learn some new skills so I can write better things in the future! If I can say at the end of this I’ve learned some new ideas for making my writing better and more enjoyable for readers, I’d say it’s a success!

The course is free and estimates to require around 3 hours a week commitment for 8 weeks. I’m of the opinion that anyone with a predilection and passion for writing should at least give it a go; there’s no monetary commitment needed and even the busiest of busy people should be able to find three hours a week to better spend learning something creative!

I’ll hopefully post a couple more posts as the course goes on to highlight my progress! But I’m seriously looking forward to this – it’s a new direction after all!

Discoveries about Editing

I’ve recently been throwing myself headlong into editing the second edition of Colonisation and in the course of this undertaking had a bit of a writer’s epiphany.

Before I go on, this is how Colonisation looks right now on my desk:

Colonisation editing

Editing my book by hand, with a red pen and a printed copy has been an extremely cathartic experience and it’s proving to be a great way to reconnect with my work at a very base level. I’m already identifying errors and passages for improvement; heck, I’m even making notations of the improvements to add as I go along! I’m also identifying stupid errors in grammar and spelling that I’m both a bit surprised and ashamed got through.

Reading my work and adding notes in this form has a totally different “feel” to the digital version I toiled over (maybe too  hastily) before. I can disconnect much easier and look at my work in a more critical light, mainly because of the drastic format change and the stark absence of “by Richard Holliday” anywhere on the printout. It’s just Colonisation the book, with space to add notes and scribblings for ideas, identifying plot holes and more

Another epic feeling is progress; with the digital copy, it just felt like and endless stream of words… that just ended. With my printout… I don’t know… I just feel I’m making more “progress” when I can turn a page and get scribbling on it afresh.

I really don’t know how I edited before, but for certain going forward, editing large projects without a stage involving a printed copy is not going to happen. It may cost me a bomb in paper, box files, red pens and toner cartridges but it’s already feeling like time well spent!

Though one thing I’m steering clear of: highlighting passages and simply noting “improve” or “redo”; Future Me cannot remember everything Current Me is thinking, so a few pointers are going in!

As Colonisation remains my first project, I’m as yet undecided as to whether to send it to professional editing. I’m of the opinion that as it’s a pretty narrow-scope book and not too ambitious I can tighten it up myself (after a few passes here) and release it as is, and move on. Rest assured, my next project, the grand space opera The World Eaters will be edited professionally as a project of it’s complex scope will require. Colonisation is more a learning experience than anything else; I’m proud of it as my first book but the best really is yet to come!

Got any editing tips or thoughts on my new workflow? Or are you interested in finding out more about Colonisation? By all means, leave me a comment; I love reading them! :-)