World-building 101

wb2

There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.

Slave to the grind

Right. A weekend away has occurred. Now it’s time to recalibrate the brain for writing: to shake my senses back into the realms of the unreal and ineffable. In other words it’s time to work out what the hell I’m doing with this novel.

For those what don’t know, I got my feedback on Oneiromancer back from my betas a few weeks ago. It was the usual mix of great criticism: helpful, horrible, headscratching harumphery.  And, as usual, it leaves me temporarily lost for a plan. Or, rather, it leaves me with questions that I can easily answer but, in the answering, raises a whole phalanx of follow-on questions with no easy solution.

My problems are specifically those of the cut-and-paste variety. I’ve determined that I’ve got to move a batch of scenes, which I can do without too much difficulty. But every move not only leads to continuity errors – relatively easily solved – but also leave notes hanging that need resolving; chords missing a key tone and begging for resolution.

Scribble

A section of my scene-by-scene guide with notes detailing my rapid descent into madness

What’s exorcising me at the moment is the need to prolong a character’s life. It was widely agreed that I’d killed one particular character too soon; that she still had a purpose that I’d not fulfilled. I’m sure my betas are right. And so I’m acting on that…

Except that, because I always saw her dying here, I’m not sure what to do with her there. I don’t know what information she can provide because in my mind she’d served her function. Actually moving the crucial incident is straightforward; knowing what to do with her in the interim is a pain in the bum.

It’s one of those issues where the writer knows too much. I need to freeze my thoughts at the point at which the original story is set to change. I need to establish what the characters actually know in that moment, what their aims are and where they see themselves going. Essentially I need to forget two-thirds of the story I wrote and replan from there.

But how can that be done? I know too much; I can’t self-lobotomise – except via alcohol, which is a science too imprecise for my needs. I’ve planned the story out, and whilst I know alterations are necessary my mind isn’t the most flexible. The thoughts are burnt into my mind like great welts, throbbing and fresh and raw.

This is where writing is an effort. This is where I need to focus, to reappraise, to assess. To think.

I also have to keep in mind that I’m doing this because I want to write a good story. I want to write the best novel I possibly can. This is why I asked for people outside my mind to read it, to comment and to tell me what doesn’t work. To not act on their advice might be easier but it gets me nowhere. Ultimately the only person I’d disappoint would be myself.

So it’s back to the editorium with me. I have the masterscript all printed and ready. I have a scene-by-scene guide ready to be scribbled upon. The only thing missing is a brain that has answers, and those are in short supply.

Writing is not a glamorous pursuit. It isn’t the lone genius scribbling in his garret, churning out words of wonder with a bottle of absinthe and a few cats for company. It’s staring and scratching and swearing and always, always, working. Without any prospect of success – however defined – at the end.

It’s times like this that define you. To be a writer is to embrace the hard times, to own them and, ultimately, to enjoy them as much as you do the initial fire of creation. Only then will you be able to produce something the world will embrace.

Mileposts

I can just – just – see the downward slope ahead of me.

So you’ve got to that difficultest of sections: the one between between the introduction and the climax, traditionally known as ‘the story’. You’ve brought your characters into play and given them some life, and now you’ve got to manipulate them into wending whence you will. It’s not always easy: those pesky buggers will slither in any direction other than the one you need, are notoriously lazy and would rather sit and sulk in their rooms than go out and combat evil.

It’s not so bad if you get to this point having drawn up a clear plan, with every scene and stage already sketched out. But you’ll still find that your preconceptions sometimes sit like a yoke around your character’s neck and must be modified. Or the background you’ve painstakingly created has unexpected consequences and new opportunities suddenly open like a cartoon trapdoor beneath you.

For most of us, entering the start of the story proper is akin to emerging from a narrow defile and seeing a great vista open up before you; a wondrous, fertile plain with all manner of magnificent sights and opportunities. Now you have to steer a course between them without repetition, deviation or tearing up the tracks of logic that you’ve been steadily laying.

I don’t know about you, but I usually know roughly how long a books going to be before I start it. There’s a shape to the gilded story-ball that is your idea; you have a vague idea whether you’re dealing with something short or long, or abstract or precise, or multi-layered or linear. This instinctive knowledge tells you roughly where you are when you’re writing: have you reached the Inciting Incident (which traditionally brings the introduction to the end) yet? How about your mid-point crisis? Your quiet-before-the-storm?

This is, I should add, just one way of thinking about the novel, and it’s really not essential to know it all – especially in your first draft. But I’m finding it useful to have these vague mileposts in my mind’s map’s eye as I proceed with Oneiromancer. I’m up around the 50,000 mark, and though that number will change (I have a lot of cutting to do), the sense of where I am in the story is solid. I’m just approaching the central crisis, the crux that divides the novel in two. As it feels like the novel will be fall into the 100-120k zone, this is pretty much bang on target.

I should say that I’ve reached this point almost be accident: by pinning my various balls of yarn up through the introduction and rolling them out aimless into the future. I now find that these leads can be collected, pinned, then cast forwards again towards the end.

Now I’m still looking out at that magnificent vista, that endless plain – only this time I’ve found the geocache tucked away behind some convenient bushes. There’s a machete, binoculars and some field-rations. No map, not at this point – but it now feels like I’m going downhill again. Three fixed points: lots of twists and turns to get there, but I’ve now anchored three fixed points on my path. They will take me to the end.

The constant gardener

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.” George R Martin

The first page of the 'plan' of my work-in-progress. It's very much a working document, full of aide-memoires, things to (re)consider and the like. The greyed-out scenes have been deleted but are kept in  as a reminder of things I've yet to cover

My work-in-progress plan, page one. It’s very much a working document, full of aide-memoires, things to (re)consider and the like. The greyed-out scenes have been deleted but are kept in as a reminder of things I’ve yet to cover

It might be time to admit that I’m not all that good at this ‘planning’ thing.

I’m trying. I should have learned by now. I could have saved myself a lot of work if I’d started my novels knowing exactly where I’m going. And I’m trying to absorb my lessons: I’m keeping a spreadsheet, a working document where I outline what I’ve done and what ideas/corrections come to mind as I’m writing. But it’d be a lot easier to make progress if I had every scene planned out, an end-point and an out-point already set down with only the actual words to be written.

But that’s just not me. I admire people who can work like that, I really do. It must be great to have that level of organisation, but I just have to leap in. The beginning of the novel is set and I know in what direction I’m heading: I know what sort of story it’s going to be and I have a rough idea of the length I’m aiming at. But what happens, to whom, at any particular moment – that I’m not so up with. Yet.

I like to think that this isn’t so much a product of laziness but because that’s what I really enjoy doing as a writer. I plant a seed. I watch it grow, watch it entangle with the other shoots. I cut back the weeds, fertilize it, give it water. And I work backwards: I see an interesting frond and I think ‘well, if we plant something in this patch of empty ground it’ll grow to meet it’. Sometimes I might completely uproot a sapling if it threatens to pull the climbing-frame right out of the wall.

This is really quite a silly way of working. I could – I should – have got it all worked out, a picture of my perfect shrubbery on paper before I planted the very first seed. I should have worked out exactly what equipment I needed, got my trowel, watering-can and my bark-chippings all ready before I even set foot in the garden. But…

But I love doing it this way. I love seeing what tendrils link with others; I want to see where they go. I love to improvise, to allow the blow of inspiration as I realise how to pull these shoots together, what will bind them tight and what choke them.

And anyway, is there really any difference? All it means is that, instead of taking all that time initially to map out my path, I’m doing it in medias res; the thinking all works out the same. It’s just done at different stages of the process.

What it means is that I’m constantly going backwards and forwards, rewriting scenes to allow new futures to spill from them and noting future-possibles for inclusion, when I get to the next crossroads and have to choose my path. Let nothing be lost, no idea, no matter how half-baked, be unignored.

The bad thing? This process is inefficient. How many scenes will I write then completely discard? How many times will I tinker with the same shoot – trimming, re-potting, fertilising – to turn it into the thread I’ve finally decided I need?

But I don’t mind that. It’s the beauty of writing without pressure, without a deadline: I’m doing this solely for myself. I can play. This is my back yard, my demesne, and I can do whatever I want.

And I am making notes as I go along, so my first task when I finish this draft will be to take those notes, take my coffee and my manuscript, and work out which lines I’ve not taken, which need repotting and which should be allowed to bloom.

Maybe I shouldn’t be calling this Draft One. Maybe I should call it Draft Zero, because the things I’m doing are so fundamental. But it’s a lot easier for me to work on something already written than to build from scratch.

Cheap thrill

For all I’ve learnt about writing, for all that I’ve harped on about planning, character development and more planning, I can’t stop myself. There’s something about the absolute thrill of getting words on the page that I can’t resist. I have to get into it. I need to learn by doing, to traverse the maze intimately.

Having just undergone a painful series of revisions – two drafts together taking over a year – I should know better than to just dive in without a clear idea of who and what I’m dealing with and where I’m going. I have vague ideas, for sure; there is a shape of the story ready to be filled. But I know I should be fleshing all this out first, working out my pacing and devising climaxes, plotting the Hero’s Journey step by step.

And I’m doing something of this; I’ve decided to try and find my midpoint between planning and ‘pantsing’ (a horrible term that I presume means to fly by the seat of the pants). I’m writing fresh, letting the words take me, but at the same time I’m building up a spreadsheet, scene by scene, or what happens and of what consequences this brings. I’m noting the reason for every event and what my characters are doing ‘off-scene’. And I’m making random notes, ideas, thoughts and even planning scenes ahead as phase-space collapses and I get a vision of the future.

That’s the idea, at least. That’s the intention.

Still, there’s nothing like the sheer delight that comes from simply writing; from creating on the fly. You’re on a journey too. Every action and every scene must take place in its own world – and it’s down to you to make that world rich and convincing. Even just building an environment for your cast forces you to reach deeper into your creation, to understand it better and more completely.

The greatest joy, for me, comes from creating new characters from the air. My very first novel, The Ballad of Lady Grace, needed a policeman. I had my main character going into a cop-shop and he needed someone to tell his story to. Out of nothing arrived DS Cook, more of less fully formed. He became one of my favourite characters – a point-of-view character, no less – and he also brought with him his boss, DI Vaas.

In my new work (working title Oneiromancer, fact fans) I’ve just had this experience once again. I had a shape in my mind for a down-and-out caffeine-junkie with some important information to impart. I had an idea of some hyped-up wizard image – Gandalf on amphetamines – begging for coffee.

Before I got to him, however, I was writing a scene in a hostel. One of the POV characters is resident and I’m using him to show a little of the ‘ordinary world’ of the novel. I wanted a conversation to break up the mundanity and it occurred to me that Mr Twitchy could be a resident also. And, whilst trying on different shapes, the character suddenly changed sex and grew younger. Now she’s Ms Twitch and she makes me smile.

This is the joy of writing, for me. This is the thrill. You spend so much time blundering down blind alleys, feeling your way around a labyrinth of textures and emotions and mudslides. When you get a moment when the words grip you and they’re flying almost without effort – that’s when, as Pratchett said, writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.

It might all be rubbish, of course. None of this might make the final cut. But that’s what editing is for. For now it’s just time to enjoy the moment.

Back to school

There’s a ring on my finger and I am a very happy bunny. But now it’s back to school, back to battling the evil forces of paid employment for time to write. After a few weeks of altered priorities it’s a struggle to get the brain together. I’d not expected the post-project depression to hit me quite so hard. I should have known better.

I took last week off to be with the woman, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But now I’m back and I’m determined to get back with the flow. I don’t like having nothing to do. I crave the tiny bits of stress – not too much, just enough to focus and drive – that comes from a major undertaking such as planning a wedding, or indeed a novel. For years I’ve known that I should always have at least one creative outlet on the go at any one time. But it’s always hard to get back in the swim after a break, and that’s where I am right now.

So, here’s a recap. Night Shift. Ninth draft. Major reworking – which means I have to think as well as do.

What I’m trying to achieve is to shift the story from an adventure into a psychological thriller. Yes, I know that the novel will get classified as science-fiction whatever the actual ‘feel’ of the book will be, but still. Having squashed some plot-holes in the last run-through (8a; my draft-numbering system is somewhat erratic) I’m now focussing on small things such as character, motivation and background. It’s not easy. I’m not an expert at any particular genre and this is new territory for me.

So how do I go about it? In recent posts I’ve included pictures of my planning sheets and that really symbolises my writing process at the moment. I’m going back to the very beginning. I’m really thinking. How and why did this person get here? How would they react in any particular situation?

One of my major characters is an African engineer called Max. I know her pretty well. I’ve got a good idea of her background and her personality, but a few days ago I realised I still don’t know enough. Because I’m writing in the first-person I never really looked beyond my protagonist for action. But even – especially – when looking through the eyes of a single person it’s vital to know how those around him will behave. How will Max feel when asked this or that question? What will my supporting cast be doing, how will they be feeling when a crisis hits?

I have to know. I have to know what’s happening off-camera for all the characters in the novel. In an emergency, who will panic? Who will be pragmatic? Who will start the rumours and who will listen to them? All the characters I’ve created are specialists, experts: I have no fools. And only fools listen blindly to their leaders. The rest will act depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

Even if this has little bearing on my story I still need to know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. For a plot isn’t one thing happening after another, it’s things happening as a direct consequence of what went before. A stray word said in jest can resonate through a novel; a single action made with the best intentions can come back to haunt you. This is dramatic irony. This is the stuff that stories are made of.

So I’m rewriting not so much the story (this time) but the people. Not changing them per se, more trying to give them room to breathe. And always thinking about what’s going on off-camera, because real people don’t stand around waiting for the protagonist to interact with them.

And, of course, I’m still shuffling scenes around and fixing the remaining logic-gaps within my world. In summary: there’s still a lot of work to do. But the novel will be a lot more convincing if I can get it right this time.

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.