Preparation is Key

I’ve a feeling that this October blog challenge may just turn into a string of posts talking about NaNo or writing in general. This blog is not my first blog but it’s the first one to survive and be semi-consistently updated. I achieved that by giving it a focus which has pretty much just been video games with a few TV/Film reviews thrown in. I don’t exactly have a readership to alienate, and I guess if writing takes it’s rightful place as my main focus, then it’s no bad thing. Only time will tell for sure.

Anyway, today’s topic is going to be about prep work. Now personally I am terrible at prep work when it comes to anything. A few months ago I decorated my house and partway through the prep work I got impatient, I just wanted to dive in and start with the painting already. I have a similar flaw when it comes to writing. I want to dive in and start writing before I’ve finished the planning. I would not recommend this.

There are a lot of different techniques out there when it comes to planning your novel. What works for me, won’t work for other people. Some writers like to plan every last detail, others just have a general direction and write whatever comes to mind. There’s no right or wrong. However, in this post I’ll obviously just talk about what works for me.

Ask questions, ask a lot of questions
I do the bulk of my main planning with an open word document and a lot of typing. I’m essentially talking to myself but writing it down to read back later. It’s like free typing, in fact it’s probably in a similar style to these blog posts, very conversational, punctuation isn’t that great but the point hopefully gets across. All this typing starts with a question, at the beginning the broad “ok so what is this idea” and then later on more specific e.g. “why would they keep the time machine in the basement”. I then type, essentially talking through the problem, until I come up with the answer.

Much like with writing there are natural breaks in this process. I then type out a summary of everything I’ve worked out so it’s succinct and easy to reference. This usually generates more questions as I notice something I’ve missed. Organically throughout this process I will start to get snapshots of various scenes, which makes sense as I’m working out the plot elements. This will then form the basis of my outline.

A friend of mine swears by the technique called notecarding, and they are definitely not the only one. Notecarding is where you write a bullet point sentence, briefly describing each scene on a notecard. You can then rearrange your scenes as easily as you can shuffle a deck of cards. It’s also easy to count how many you have and possibly see where you could combine scenes or extend them as they don’t work well on their own. I use notecarding during the revision process but when I’m planning I just work with a bullet pointed list in word. I can cut and paste to move the scenes around, I can insert new scenes with the click of the enter button so I have the same advantages, I just have no need of the physical aid at this stage.

Right so my outline is a bullet pointed list. When this has worked best I have listed every scene in the story. Yes I have got deep into the writing process and added in more scenes, I have also changed or combined planned scenes but I need to start with a complete list. If I don’t start with a complete list, if I just have list with holes then I struggle. The reason I’ll have holes where “something happens” is because my head hurt when I tried to plan it, I didn’t know the answer, if I couldn’t do it when planning then I definitely can’t do it when writing. Last years NaNo I lied to myself and said it would be ok, that I would work it out when I got going, last years NaNo proves that really doesn’t work, not for me anyway.

That’s how I work out the plot and the outline of what happens in the story. However, what about the characters? How do I plan them? Well to be honest they develop alongside the plot, as what happens is because something happened to them or they took some action. The plot tells me about the characters and other details about them are discovered during more of that free typing.

I ask questions about the characters, the most predominant question begins with – “why?” – as motivation is extremely important to me. If it doesn’t make sense, if I don’t have a solid reason as to why the characters do something/don’t do something, then the plot is bad. My novel Perfidy which I’ve mentioned here before several times, is partway through yet another complete redraft as I didn’t adequately answer the question “Why?” before I started writing. I don’t want the characters to be idiots and make nonsensical decisions. They can make the wrong decision but they need to do so for reasons that make sense. If it doesn’t stack up then something is rotten.

Why? Why? Why? The most important question to ask during planning.

Details matter
They matter even more when writing a series, which I’m going to be starting this November. “It’s all in the detail” is more than a quote from Hustle, it’s another touchstone along with the question “Why” that really makes a difference. A plot can fall apart if the details aren’t right. My series is going be in the realm of Sci-Fi/Crime and even at the early stage of planning I’m starting a separate word document of the details.

The details that can wreck a plot range from rules of the world, e.g. the limits of the time portal, to birthdates. You’d think that birthdates would just be a find/replace if you get it wrong but I’m fitting my story into our history. I have real world events like the JFK assassination (I know, so overdone) and the moon landing, which events of the backstory have to fit between. My characters have to be the right age as one such consequence of getting it wrong.

Then there’s the added complication of a series. Think about a TV pilot that kick starts the series. As with a regular novel all the characters have to be introduced and the main plot needs to be resolved. However, it’s supposed to start a series so there are little seeds in there which are then revisited at a later date. Now I haven’t seen the backdoor pilot for NCIS: LA for some time. However, one of the little details they slipped in was a seemingly chance encounter with a young woman. Viewing the pilot on it’s own, it doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of it as a standalone. However, it is then expanded upon in a later episode as part of the series plot arc.

All these clues, little snippets of information, add up to start building the big picture. I doubt anyone writes every single book/episode of a series before they publish the first one. All those little details need to be tracked, I will need to make sure not to leave any dangling plot threads without one day resolving them. These details can’t change once they have been released to the world, they form the bedrock of everything that comes after it, so they need to be right in the first place (where planning comes in) and they need to stay consistent.

What doesn’t work for me
I took a writing course once called How To Think Sideways by Holly Lisle. It wasn’t a bad course though as an aside if I was going to recommend one, I’d recommend How To Revise Your Novel, also by Holly Lisle, as personally I’ve found that much more useful. Anyway, in this course there was a technique called the “dot and line” technique. Where the dot meant something happened and the line gave it a limit or something.

I signed up that course five years ago tomorrow, and I still don’t understand this technique. I asked a lot of questions on the forum about it, hoping that somebody would hit the magic combination of words and a lightbulb would go off. That never happened, it’s still a complete mystery. However, reading the forum a lot of people liked this technique and obviously it works for Holly Lisle or she wouldn’t have shared it in her course.

I also don’t like, nor do I have any use for, extensive research or world building. I don’t have the patience for it but some people enjoy this part of the process the most. Obviously I still do some world building as everybody has to, even if you set your story in the same world we inhabit in a place that really exists, there’s still some world building. However, this kind of world building is painless, it happens naturally and I certainly don’t think of it as world building. I doubt I could ever write a story where I would have to create a whole new culture, or a whole long history of the world, or a different language etc. it’s just too much.

I also don’t really find character creation worksheets useful though I know they are the first port of call on many a planners route. I do like to know what my characters look like and I often hold a pretend movie casting hour, where I’ll trawl IMDB and find actors that fit the blurry image I have in my mind. However, characters aren’t what they look like. I will describe their physical appearance of course but unless there is something about them that matters, then really it’s immaterial. Unless their looks tell me about them e.g. they walk with a limp from an old war injury, this affects their mobility and they are bitter, or if they are black in an Aryan world, or they are blind/deaf which affects how they interact with the world etc.

Back in 2007 before I attempted to pen my first novel all I had was a file of various planning notes. It wasn’t a good plan, as the story falling apart by the time I reached 20k proved. However, one of the planning things I’d done was draw a floorplan of various locations within the story. This is an aspect of planning I haven’t done since but it is something I will likely revisit when it comes to detail matching during revision. Have I described the door in the some place? If the vase was on the windowsill and now it’s on the table, did it move for a reason if not put it back? etc. Some would need this information before they start writing, I find it unnecessary.

I push what some people would consider prep work to the revision stage. This could be my impatience winning a battle but for the most part it works for me or at least I think it does. I don’t currently have a good example of the prep process working for me, as repeatedly writing and then running into massive issues on revision with Perfidy, would indicate otherwise.

However, all those redrafts did teach me quite a lot. It taught me the importance of asking “Why?” and to be honest nothing is more important than that. If something fails the logic test then it needs to be fixed, preferably before writing starts. Only time will tell whether I will get it reasonably right first time on my new project or not. I certainly hope so but then I would.

Remember ask why.