The big board of truth


I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.


A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:


I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.




How I imagine my Muse

At the moment I am trying to get down to a new novel and it’s not happening. I am stuck before I’ve begun. The words are not coming.

In previous novels I’ve toyed with ideas, worked out the feel of a novel, found a place to aim for – and then waited until the opening scene in mind. Then I wrote it, and the scene after, and the scene after that, until I had a story. Very linear, very much finding my way as I went (although not without forward planning: notes were kept as I went along, thoughts thunked, futures sketched).

Now that strategy’s not working. I’m trying to write two new novels and I’m just not able to get down to either. This is possibly down to the lack of strong liquor or hard drugs necessary to unblock my imagination-gland. More likely it’s that – thought I have the feel and know strong story-elements in both – I don’t have enough of a big picture. My worlds aren’t vivid enough. Something within the story lacks coherence.

My answer? To go back to my spreadsheets. Every novel has its accompanying batch of spreadsheets. From character ideas, random notes and finally a scene-by-scene breakdown, spreadsheets is where it’s at. I’ve already got a very broad ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three’ sheet. My next task is to do a more detailed chapter-by-chapter run through that will almost certainly be ignored when the writing actually begins in earnest.

I’ve always resisted the division into the world into ‘planners’ and ‘free-wheelers’ (I refuse to use the word ‘pantsers’ as it’s so ugly). It’s never that clear cut. No-one – surely – writes a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of a whole novel. And no-one can produce a (good) novel without looking forwards and making a note or two for a future scene. Some characters might just come straight from the subconscious fully-formed, but at least a modicum of work is needed before pen strikes paper.

Like most people I lie somewhere within the spectrum: a linear writer who makes notes and addresses issues sporadically as he progresses. So why am I planning more now? Well it’s partly because I don’t know where to begin. I have three – rather samey – starting-points in mind, representing each character/group. This obviously won’t make a good story.

Writing is work. My muse is washed-up, alcoholic on a park bench in a piss-wet hippy-skirt with earrings twisted painfully in her dreads. Maybe the gods of inspiration will drop a fiver in her hat and she’ll return, nourished, clean and ready to swing for the fences. But at the moment I’m on my own.

Different challenges require different responses. I have problems, but if I want to call myself a writer I have to work through them, because work is a strategy. Sometimes the best answer is to sit and think, to scribble, to cross out, to keep on pushing until something happens and the rose finally unfurls.

So it’s back to the spreadsheets with me.

False flag


It’s surprisingly hard to find an image for ‘false flag’ that isn’t horribly conspiracy-theoryist. Please accept this as a non-endorsatory compromise

The Muse doesn’t deliver whole stories. She delivers fragments: pieces, threads, ingredients. These fragments are usually a result of living an active, out-looking life, open to new worlds and new ways of thinking. Stories come from rotating these ideas, rolling them into stranger forms and melding them in concert with other concepts. And one idea can lead to others, a thought-trail that snowballs into coherent narrative.

I didn’t even realise it myself, but recently I’ve been playing with the concept of a ‘false flag’ operation. I think it was something that rolled into my head via American politics (and isn’t that a novelworthy car-crash in itself right now) and has lingered in the back of my mind for months. I’m currently spinning the geneses of three novels in my brain but no idea which to develop: I’ve gone a far as to make initial notes for all. Into which do I add this false flag? All of them? The idea could work in any context (for the record: Victorian fens, contemporary Brittany and near-future ‘urban’).

This is where the subconscious comes into its own. I have so many idea-fragments turning in my mind that sheer momentum is creating links where I wasn’t aware of any. Not enough ideas for three novels, perhaps, but maybe one. The trick is to keep adding to the bank, keep pouring stock into the mixer until the soup begins to thicken, the lumps simultaneously agglomerate and become smooth, and you can separate out the bits not needed and put them in the fridge for future culinary experimentation.

At the moment I can’t see what kind of meal I’m trying to make. But the bases are there. And I took another leap forwards the other night, in bed, when the false flag gained a political context and a couple of twists arrived semi-fully-formed in my mind. Of course I found I’d forgotten the details when I woke the next morning but the taste remained, and remains.

The downside is that, if I use the false flag in one novel (the Breton one, if you’re curious) I can’t use it in the others.

Or can I?

To the subconsciousmobile!

World-building 101


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.


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.


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.