Deeper into the dangerous world of planning

After posting my planning sheet last week I’ve had a request to put up a link so others can use it. My immediate reaction is to say ‘but it’s only five columns on a spreadsheet.’ And as it’s so ridiculously simple I won’t bother to link it here (besides, I’m too lazy to work out how to share it publicly), but I will explain a little further about it and the way I’m working at the moment.

A little background: we’re talking here about the 9th draft of Night Shift, my main project of the last two years. Last December I went to London to meet with an agent who’d read my 7th draft and liked it enough to ask for revisions. In an effort to impress her with my hard work and dedication I went away and rushed through a rewrite which – I thought – considerably improved on the depth and motivations of my characters, as well as fixing the many plot-holes that had somehow dodged my consciousness over the previous year.

So I did that, got feedback from my beta readers and resubmitted. And it wasn’t what the agent had wanted. For a while I was crushed and resolved to take a little break from NS, and then come back to it and really get to grips with the criticisms. And that’s what I’m working on now.

The main problems remained characterisation and back-story, as well as repetitious scenes and the odd bit of illogic. Rather than just going through and rewriting as I came to problems I decided the best thing was to go back to first principles and concentrate on building a convincing history to the story (what brought these characters to this place, both physically and mentally: and what brought the world to this state). And so the planning began.

I went through my most recent draft (with agent’s comments) and work out just what happened when, where and to whom through every scene of the novel. This was a slow and painful process. I created a spreadsheet with the following columns: Chapter; Time/Day; What Happens; Why?; Implications; Notes.

Having done this but finding it too unwieldy to really work with – and certainly impossible to print out and use manageably – I then stripped the plan down even further. This created the document I showed last week. The headings on that were: Chapter; Time; What Happens?; Notable Alterations [from the previous draft – I was already thinking of things that had to be changed]; Consequences; Notes.

Having charted the novel I then took the plan out for a drink (coffee – didn’t want to take advantage of the poor thing) and went through it bit by bit and scribbled all over it, marking on scenes I should move or delete or build upon in ways suggested by both the agent and my own re-evaluation of the story.

What I’d not really done at any time since the first germination of an idea was to really look at the way I’d put the story together. Nor had I given enough thought to – well, not quite to character; I had thought about that. But I had to totally understand my protagonist and give him a properly grounded history and background. To understand what really brought this group of people to the most isolated place on the planet; what in their histories made that an acceptable career move?

So my new plan is the tool that I’m using to rewrite the story. My scribbles are there to remind me of ideas and to work through chains of consequence. And above all to help me focus on the ‘why is s/he doing this?’ question. It’s often said that every conversation, every interaction, needs a subtext – but quite often the characters themselves don’t know what that is. This is my attempt to really get to grips with this.

It’s a lot of work and I’m feeling the pressure of getting it done in a reasonable timescale. I don’t have a deadline, but the last thing I want to do is let the agent forget about me – worse, that she can’t trust me to make changes in a timely manner. So I’m stressed and anxious. Still, this time-consuming way of working is, I think, one I need to go through. Because everyone can forgive a little lateness if it results in a quality product.

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The long and winding road

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”
Jack London

Well today I have absolutely nothing to say. I’m ensnared with new work hours and wedding planning and so my writing accomplishments are presently few and far between. I am spending a lot of money, though.

But a writer never really stops working. Everything is work for someone who thinks for a living. Every scrap of conversation overheard, every odd accent, unusual phrasing; every odd bit of architecture, everything the makes you think in a different way- that’s work for a writer. And that’s just the beginning, just the shallow, the obvious.

It’s a strange fact that most of a writer’s work is done away from the computer/typewriter/notebook. The most important time is that spent allowing the subconscious to roll things around. Time spent staring off into the distance thinking of nothing. That’s where the real work is done, where the imagination comes out to play. Sure, we need to get our thoughts down on paper eventually, and that can be damn hard. But that’s craft. That’s not art. The art comes when I take a break from the slog and go do the washing up.

I do most of my actual thinking either on the bus or just before I drift off to sleep. Most of my writing comes from the tales I tell myself – the bedtime stories and the resulting nightmares. That’s my inspiration and that, in turn, comes from living and constantly learning about the world, the universe around me. From simply being a human being; that’s all I need.

That and the loan of other people’s minds via their books. That helps too.

*          *          *

Hope this image comes out okay. It’s the first page of the Night Shift plan I’m currently working from. I’ve been talking recently about editing and how I’m trying to learn new ways of working: well – if you’re interested – here’s how I’m going about it.

I’ve broken the entire novel down into scenes, drawing up a chart of what happens, to whom and the long-term significance of events. There’s also a column for changes I want to make. As you can see, that’s just the start. The real value (to me) in this exercise is the ability to scribble all over it with thoughts, ideas and random doodles.

‘Quit yo’ jibber-jabber, fool.’

When I began to write – many, many moons ago – I was uncomfortable about conversations. Not dialogue per se (although I should have been) but how to move the plot on when people are just talking about the metaphorical weather. It’s a tricky balance. Every single word matters in a novel, but characters need space to be real people with real motivations.

I think there was a sense of fear in me. I didn’t want to put in my stories the type of inconsequential nonsense that most of us wile away our lives with. I wanted people to get on with the action and all conversations, therefore, had to be tension-filled, dynamic and relevant to the plot.

Now I’m on my eighth complete rewrite of Night Shift and I find that the key change I’m making is to slow things down. I’m trying to add depth and so I’m teasing out the chatter, trying to build subtleties into people and to make them more rounded. It’s difficult. There needs to be tension and subtext in every scene: how can idle talk carry any real information?

Everything matters. The clothes a person wears, their mannerisms, their choice of words – all are to some extent political decisions. When two people meet the first thing they do is try to establish their relative statuses. This is natural. Add in secrets and fears and the uncertainty that the other person might be lying to them – well, that’s almost a plot already.

Of course it helps that I already have a plot. All I have to do now is remember that key mantra: what does this person want to get out of this conversation? Even if it’s only to make a new friend, or to get through without embarrassing him/herself, that’s an aim.

It also gets a lot easier when you really know who your characters are. The realisation has been forced upon me that I didn’t know my cast as well as I should: by focusing on motivation I find my fear of idle chatter has been somewhat diminished. Now my protagonist has to face people who are afraid of him because of his (incorrectly) perceived status, and each of them will portray that fear in a different way. One particular character will respond by aggressively reinforcing his superiority. Others will be circumspect, standoffish. The trick is to establish this through words and body language – subtly, so that the motives are never said but make sense when more of the plot is revealed.

It’s difficult. It’s even more difficult to try and do this in a scene I’ve already rewritten seven times and is so fixed in my mind that any alteration is an effort – but that’s my own fault and there’s no use bitching about it now. But finally I feel I’ve overcome my fear of chit-chat. Every word in your novel has to have meaning, yes – but sometimes this meaning is better hidden than overt.