Maps and Railroads: How Much To Plan When Writing

Picturesque, but not for me.

I’m a planner. This has been well established. It’s how I write shit. I don’t plan, nothing gets done. Or, it gets done, but badly. Either way, not a win.

But a common question I get is: how much planning is too much?

Well, the answer depends on the writer. Some like the vaguest idea of where they have to go next; others like every turn planned out.

How do you figure out which way is yours? Simple: plan until you know what you have to do, but stop before it hampers your creativity.

I plan until I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write the following day. I turn up at the desk, open my documents, and, hey, here we are. Next thing I have to write is that scene with the lockpicks and the peanut butter and the bag of medical-grade cocaine. So I dump the characters in that situation and see what they come up with. I know, generally, where it has to go, but I’m not sure how to get there. That’s what the daily creativity is for. I need a map, but not a railroad. I’ll get there when I get there.

Your mileage may vary, of course. You might find that planning every twist and turn is perfect for you; all you need to do during writing time is show up and follow along. I’ve found that very busy people who find it hard to carve out actual in-front-of-the-computer time fall into this category. They can plan in their heads or a notebook or a smartphone, and then get it all out once they get time to do the writing.

Others might find that they like driving in the fog: they only need to see as far as the next turn. Any more than that and they think: what’s the point? I already know what happens, so why bother to write it?

So, how about you? What’s your method? How much do you plan out ahead of time, and how much is on the fly? And how well does that work for you?

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The Beginning of The End: Second-Stage Outlining

Novel building and rocket launching: both end in explosions.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter* may have noticed, interspersed with the power ballad lyrics and coffee adventures, that I was outlining again last week. Not a new project; just fine-tuning some of the details for the end of the current project.

You see, I have passed the halfway point on this novel, which means it’s time to start planning for the end.

I set a goal to have the manuscript done by July 1st. That gives me just a scooch over two months to type The End and mean it. Do-able, certainly. But not without a plan.

I knew, roughly, where I had to go when I started, but then I had to go back, look at all the threads I’d developed, and figure out where to tie them off. It’s time to start resolving things. But what, and in what order, and how…I had only the roughest idea when I started.

Time to plan it out now.

The result of that second-stage outline is that I now have a solid plan for the rest of the book and I can estimate how many more words it will take to get us there. I usually tack on an extra 10,000 words to that estimate, because sometimes things come up in the end that I get all excited about and it takes longer to get through them than I think. Divide that by the number of weeks I have left, and the number of days I usually write out of those weeks**, and I arrive at a daily word count that I need to hit to make that goal.

It’s about 2000 words a day. Which is well within my ability.

Having a plan of attack for the second stage of novel writing serves two purposes. One, there is far less wondering what the fuck do I write today when I get to the computer in the morning. The longer I spend thinking about that, the less I get done, and the further behind I get. Which, if I want to hit my deadline, is another source of worry.

And two, it gives me time to plan a kick-ass party for when I finish. I’m thinking BBQ. Because summer should be here by then. Maybe.

Does anyone else do this? Who out there does second-stage outlining? Or do you know how everything goes when you start? Or, hell, do you just wing it? TELL ME YOUR SECRETS.

*Your poor bastards.

**Usually five out of seven, for what it’s worth. I take Saturdays off and Sundays are for minor edits and planning out the rest of the week.

Stepping In It: Writing Outlines With OH SHIT Moments

OH SHIT PRESS THE BUTTON

Thanks to high school language classes, we’ve all been taught to outline the same way:

1. This Thing I’m doing

       A)First part of the thing

              i. Thing that supports first part of the thing

Or some variant thereof. Very organized, very logical, very hierarchical.

But what do you do when that doesn’t work?

You can:

A) Give up, because that’s helpful.

B) Force it to work somehow. Square pegs, anyone?

C) Try a new way. This is probably the best bet.

Here’s an alternative to the hierarchical outline structure: the tentpole outline.

Tentpole moments are your big story events, the stuff that stands out. Or up. They support the rest of the plot—the tent in this metaphor—giving it a shape.

I prefer to think of the tentpole moments as OH SHIT moments. They’re what make the characters react strongly in some way. For example:

Main Character: oh, hey, this is a nice house OH SHIT IT’S HAUNTED better fix that, cool, we did it OH SHIT THE GHOST IS INSIDE ME NOW I can handle this, it’s not so bad OH SHIT I’M GOING INSANE damn it need to get rid of the ghost once and for all OH SHIT I ACCIDENTALLY RIPPED OUT MY OWN SOUL ALONG WITH THE GHOST.

Actually, that’s not a bad story. Dibs.

Caveats to the tent pole outline:

1. Tent poles should be a big fucking deal, not something the characters can ignore or otherwise not doing anything about, unless ignoring it leads to something even worse until they eventually confront it. No straw men here.

2. Tent poles should be related. In The Tale of Ghosty McGhostface up there, every big moment—and the thing that fixes that big moment—leads directly to the next big moment. You can throw random shit in there, but nine times out of ten it will just feel fucking random, like those filler episodes in long running TV shows.

3. Don’t take too long between tent poles, or the whole thing falls down. Also, we get bored. If there’s a lot of space between your big moments, maybe re-examine your story. You might be world-building or character examining or just generally pissing around when you should be telling the story. Which is fine in a first draft; sometimes you’ve got to write it all out before you figure out what to cut. But check for long spaces between OH SHIT moments when you reach editing.

So, we’ve established that I used the hierarchical outline and the tent pole outline, among others. What kinds do you use? And do you ever change tactics mid-story?

Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Boring Things Are Boring: Getting Stuck And Getting Past It

FIRE THE PROBLEM CANNONS.

Raise your digital hand if you’ve done this:

You’re writing, and you hit the point you just don’t want to write. You don’t know why, but getting through this part is a fucking slog. It’s like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots and cement underpants.

You’re just not interested in writing this part. It’s necessary—you can’t just flip from the intro to the big EXPLOSION at the end*—but, damn it, you’re bored writing it. So you do other stuff—hello, Twitter—and complain and generally go slower and slower.

Well, here’s a thought:

Maybe you’re bored because it’s fucking boring.

It’s an unfortunate thing to say about your own writing, but think about it: if you’re bored writing it, how interesting is is going to be for a reader? I was writing a section recently that I had avoided for ages, because it bored me. Eventually, I just cut it altogether and you know what? No one noticed.

The middles of books are tricky. You’ve introduced most everyone, you’ve got the conflict going…but you’re not sure how you get from there to the end.

So the characters remain in a holding pattern, which is boring as shit.

You’re treading water, so better get out of there before the sharks turn up. Try cutting the part you don’t want to write. Does it make a difference? If not, great! Move on. If you still need it, maybe you’re being too nice. The middle of the story is a great time to fuck things up.

What would make the section less boring? A new villain? An old boyfriend? An explosion? A car accident? Basically, what shit do you not want to deal with in real life? Try that. That might be good. Tie it into the main plot somehow, load up your Problem Cannon, and let loose with both barrels. That gives the characters something to scramble around and fix—badly, usually, because that’s how authors roll—while you explain whatever it is was boring you in the first place.

But whatever you do, never settle for the boring scene, or chapter, or book. If it can’t keep your attention while you’re writing it, guaranteed it’s going to boot the writer out of your little world faster than a handsy drunk out of a strip club. It’s up to you, writer, to make it interesting enough that they stay. And that means you have to be interested, too.

*Even if it’s a FEELINGS EXPLOSION and not a regular one.

30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.

3 Ways Role Playing Makes You A Better Writer

Roll for damage to your free time.

1. Players, like characters, do whatever the hell they want. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, you might be familiar with these people:

-The one who wants to fight everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who wants to fuck everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who tries to murder other party members.

-The one who refuses to explore any area beyond a cursory look and complains anytime another character wants to check something out.

-The one who soliloquizes every movement, describing everything they do in excrutiating detail.

-The one who hesitates and takes forever to decide what to do every time.

-The one who jumps in without understanding the situation and almost gets everyone killed.

-The one who’s only here for the loot. If it comes from your corpse, they’re not complaining.

And a thousand other iterations of these and other player qualities. I’m not slagging players; I’ve done a lot of these myself. And I’ve run games with all of them, at once. Sometimes one person is all eight.

Understand the motivations, and you can get them to do what you want. Most of the time. This will be good practice for working out character motivations. Just like the players, characters in your story shouldn’t do something ‘just because’. They should want to fight something, fuck something, steal something, be rich, be powerful, be famous. You should know what you have to do in order to get them to walk down the suspicious path in the oddly-quiet forest.

2. Character Knowledge versus Player Knowledge will fuck you up. Picture this: you’ve stormed into the Temple of The Dread Spider God. The High Priest is in the middle of his chant that will summon the Endless Eight-Legged Horrors of Crawling On Your Face While You Sleep. If he finishes the ritual, shit will go down. What do you do?

If you’re 99.9% of role-players, you smite that bastard, and you smite him good and hard. Job well done.

Except…

Except when you kill him, his blood falls on the altar, thus completing the ritual and summoning the Eight-Legged Horrors anyway.

The player made the best choice they could, with the information they had available, and it still turned out badly. Keep this in mind for your writing, because characters should do this, too. They don’t know everything. And if they don’t know everything, there’s a reasonable chance that the choice they make to fix something will actually fuck it up.

Making it worse: every character’s superpower.

Differentiate between character knowledge and author knowledge. You know that pushing that button won’t turn off the alarm, it will summon the guards. But the character doesn’t, so they’d probably push it. Or a character doesn’t know that talking about their family will activate that other character’s anxiety because they don’t want anyone to find out about what their father did. Mess things up.

3. Roll with it. There is one guarantee in role-playing games: no matter how long you’ve been playing, no matter how many campaigns you’ve seen to the end, no matter how many mounts your fighter has had eaten out from under them by the goddamn Tarrasque, something you never thought could happen—something you never even conceived of—will happen.

And you’ll have to roll with it.*

The random nature of the dice roll is such that occasionally the unthinkable or the unimaginable happens, and it rockets the plot down a new road. It’s not quite that random in writing, but sometimes the tumblers click in your brain and you realize that the only way forward is to do something new. Maybe something that you don’t like. Maybe that character you really like has to die, or betray the protagonist. You can go back and change everything to get a new outcome, or you can roll with it and see what happens.

Role-playing makes you flexible. And, speaking as someone who loves critical fails almost as much as critical hits, it can make you realize that what you thought was the worst outcome is actually the best.

Do any of you role-play? Has it taught you anything about writing? Make a knowledge (gaming) check and tell me your best role-playing story.

*Roll with it? Like rolling dice? Get it? Get it?