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.

Strange Bedfellows: Good and Evil in Storytelling

Least spoiler-y image I could find.

Along with what seems like every person on my Twitter feed, I’ve been watching Daredevil the last two weekends.* I’m not done yet, so keep your spoilers to yourself, lest ye be fried by high orbit laser.

Without spoiling anything, one thing the show does better than most anything else I’ve seen is show the relationship between good and evil. Not just the struggle, though obviously that’s a part of it, but the uneasy closeness of those two sometimes. How they lie only a hair’s breadth apart under certain circumstances, and look remarkably alike.

I’m a fan of saying that I love a good bad guy, but what I really love is characters with conflict, good or bad.

The least spoiler-y image out there for this show.Characters need nuance. They need depth. Every bad guy needs the puppy he rescued from a flooding river, every good guy needs the person she beat out for the perfect job. No one is universally loved or hated, and showing that is part of how you make interesting characters. The ones that you hope for and feel for and worry about, whatever side they happen to be on.

Within every good guy should be the struggle to be the good guy. Because being good doesn’t mean being perfect.

Within every bad guy should be something that could have been better. Because they chose to be where they are, and what they are.

Showing both of those struggles—how close good and evil can come to each other—is a powerful story. And probably the reason why so many people are watching Daredevil right now.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got four episodes left.

*I’ve had to create so many temporary filters and blocks to avoid spoilers that my feed looks like a wasteland right now. Sorry, people, I love you all, but those who spoil it for me will be mulched and fed to the sandworms. Not even close to kidding.

This Isn’t My Real Face: Writing As Someone Else

HI.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve gone back to my journalling ways*, partially as a writing aid, mostly as a brain and mental health aid. Surprise: I’ve got some faulty wiring upstairs. Who’s shocked? Anyone?

Anyway, I thought I’d share the other, less well-adjusted side to my journalling: about half the time, I journal as someone else.

This isn’t as insane as it sounds. Well, it probably is, but since I’m a writer I can get away with that shit.

Most of the time*** I write as one of my characters, in an effort to get inside their weaselly little brains and make me understanding of them more complete. This works because:

1) People write shit in their journals that they’d never tell anyone.

2) While they’re not always honest, they do present the facts as they see them. Other opinions matter less.

3) Often I can work out motivations behind the scenes that they play out on the manuscript page with more realism.

I don’t always journal as the good guys, either. Most of the really interesting ones are written from the point of view of my villains. Not that you’d know it from the journal entry, because not even the most despicable tyrant refers to themselves as the villain in their diary.

Some of this is the deep background I mentioned before, the process that goes on behind the scenes of a written work. Some of it is to get a feel for voice, action, reaction, thoughts.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun. And, if the novel gets published, it’ll make for some fun extra material to release. Assuming my paper journals survive that long and my many many backups don’t go over to Skynet before then.

So give it a try. Write as your characters. See what they have to say.

You might be surprised.

*Albeit without the Sharpie’d pentagrams and song lyrics on the covers of my notebooks that I favoured in high school. These days I prefer to let my subversive thoughts pass under the radar behind the plain black covers of a Moleskine.**

**I just realized that the current Moleskine is sitting next to my new turntable, which means I’m one case of craft beer away from bursting into full, gloriously bearded hipsterdom.

***I’ll leave you to speculate on who I write as the rest of the time.

Leave Me Wanting More: How To Rack Up A Writing Streak

I’ve been stacking up good writing days like moves in a combo lately. And, much like the relentless practice that led to mastering the triple-left-quarter-circle-punch-punch-throw-forward-dash moves from the fighting games of my youth, there is a trick to this as well. No, it’s not sore thumbs.* Unless you type only on your smartphone.** In which case, well done you.

My trick? I stop before I think I should.

If I’m writing, and especially if I’m writing a good bit***, I always end my writing day before I get to the end of that part. I pick a point somewhere near my day’s target word count and just…stop. I’ve even been known to stop in the middle of a sentence, just so I know exactly where to pick up the next day.

I could go on. Get to the end of the scene or the fight or the chapter. Most of the time it would only be another couple hundred words. Maybe a thousand. But then, when I returned the following day, before I started writing, I would have to decide what comes next. And I can waste my whole writing day making that kind of decision.

Or I can pick up in the middle of something that I know goes like this, and by the time I’ve gotten to the end of that I have a good flow going and have a pretty good idea of what comes next without agonizing over it.

And, half the time, it ends up being better than what I would have come up with if I wasted half the morning trying to figure out where to start.

TOO SLOW.

Starting is hard. Continuing, on the other hand, while not always easy, is definitely less hard. And while I may rack up a few less pages per day, I have far fewer days where I stare at the screen and get nothing. On the whole, stopping early puts me ahead of the game. Not to mention gives me time to catch up on the outrage du jour on Twitter.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. At least for me. You might be able to crap out an entire manuscript over a long weekend, and not have it sound rambling or contrived or amateurish at all. In which case, I salute you, and wish you many happy long weekends.

But I always like to leave myself wanting more.

*I still have a scar on one of my thumbs from an old Playstation blister.

**Which can be done. Peter V. Brett wrote the first volume of his very good series on a Blackberry while he was commuting to and from work. I think of that whenever I complain about finding time to write.

***i.e., the bit where something horrible is happening to someone.

Priorities And Other Bullshit About Being An Adult

Getting the extra arms was expensive, but totally worth it.

I want to be awesome at everything.

I don’t know if it’s my classic Type A, overachiever personality or just my relentless interest in just about everything from robotics to art to yoga to cooking to combat sports, but I want to be good at stuff. All the stuff.

But, not being possessed of infinite time, energy, and resources, I have to choose.

Being human is like character development in an RPG. You start off with so many points and you can put those into whatever you want, but they are finite. You can’t do everything. And even when you figure out what you want, you might have to prioritize those as well. Is it better to put all your ranks in Perception, or to spread them out and be less good at seeing that the goddamn dungeon floor is trapped?

We all have to choose what we want to spend our time on. And, since practice is usually correlated to performance, by extension what we want to be good at. If you want to be a great dancer, you need to devote a lot of time to it. Likewise if you want to kill it at Halo, or be a world-class chef, or, say, a writer.

And the very act of choosing what to specialize in means that there are other things that you have to let go. Or at least let go of doing extremely well.

I devote the majority of my time to writing, because I want to be awesome at it. Therefore, lesser amounts of time get devoted to my artwork, my video game skills, my coding projects, and my robot army. And some things, like fencing, knitting, and digital painting, have been put aside for the moment. I might come back to them one day, but right now, they’re simply a lower priority than everything else.

This gives me enough time to work hard on my writing, have fun with yoga and running and art, and still have time for a modest social life. And, you know, being married. And I love all those things, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t the occasional wrench as I realize I have to let something else go to prioritize what I really want.

But there is good news. You probably have stuff that you want to do. And stuff that you have to do. And stuff that you’re just doing without really considering whether you want/have to or not. You can mine time from the things that you just do out of habit and repurpose it for stuff you actually want. Like taking your tv time and using it to learn French or Python. Or letting go of a volunteer position that has become a burdensome obligation and devoting the time you’re no longer spending in meetings to writing.

Ultimately, your time is yours. You have to choose how you want to spend it.

What have you given up to pursue something you wanted more?

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?