Thursday, 20 September 2007

Coffee Break: Maps or Divination?

Tea? Coffee? Single malt? Ah well, help yourself to whatever gets you in the mood. So, how do you call up the muse? My first attempt at fiction was aimed at Mills & Boon. I concluded, quite wrongly as it happens, that the hard work had been done for me. With a formula of boy plus girl divided by gow (glamorous other woman) I didn’t have to worry about little things like plot. The typescript came winging back with a nice letter from M&B telling me my male wasn’t ‘alpha’ enough (plus ca change). They also enclosed an M&B tea towel, which my husband said was a sign I should give up writing and stay in the kitchen. Reader, I divorced him.

Having realised that my tongue was far too firmly in my cheek to ever be a successful M&B author I turned to contemporary fiction. The early efforts all went the same way: the spark of an idea, 20,000 words of manic writing and, oh dear, now what? You may have different experiences but relying on something in the ether to do the plotting for me only produced box-files of false starts.

Fifteen months ago I decided to get serious; this time I picked up one of my scripts and set up two spreadsheets: one to take care of the characters, their dates of birth, main events in their lives etc, a step by step plot outline and a timetable of plot events, the other to crunch numbers and give me a simple progress report to keep me on track. Seven months later I’d finished a book and, in July, heard from an agent who is sufficiently interested to take a second look when I’ve made some changes.

One of the reasons mapping out my novel has worked for me is because it gives me confidence to move around the story, and to write the sections which are going well on that particular day. With a spreadsheet taking care of the chronology, it doesn't matter if I'm 'blocked' from one scene since I can pick up another. Ok, it’s anal, but it seems to have done the trick for me and I suppose that's the point; it's finding a way of working that enables you to move the story forwards. So what is it that helps you clock up the word count?

Next week I'd like to ask what you've got in your toolboxes. If you get the chance, have a rummage around before then to see what books, courses etc you might recommend which could help the rest of us. Thanks.


CTaylor said...

OOoh - I'm the first one to comment, excellent. As it's still Thursday night rather than Friday morning I'm on the diet coke rather than the coffee.

I 'sort of' planned my novel before I started. I knew the beginning and I knew the end. I also knew a couple of scenes in between but that was about it. What I did next was grab a piece of A4 paper and divide it into squares which represented the chapters in my book (I decided on 16 but my novel ended up being 31 chapters long). I then scribbled all the chapters I'd already planned in my head onto the page. But that left lots of gaps - so then I brainstormed and scribbled down potential chapter ideas into the gaps, but not all of them, some stayed blank.

I used my outline to get me started and, once I was writing, the blanks started to fill themselves and long chapters multiplied into shorter chapter. Whenever I got stuck I'd get out my notebook and write down the next eight scenes. By having them there in front of me I never had a "Oh God, what do I write next?" block. I had plenty of "This is a bit of a boring scene and I don't want to write it" moments but I was never blocked.

I'll probably use the same method with my next novel.

KeVin K. said...

I do not write in a linear fashion. I know roughly where my story is going and I usually have the main events blocked in. (Literally: boxes on graph paper with connecting lines.) In write-for-hire part of this is dome for me. For example: In writing Wolf Hunters , #22 in the MechWarrior: Dark Age series, my assignment was to put a major character on a path that would come to a head in #35, set a second set of events in motion no one should notice, get another major character in an apparent dead-end position to set up a surprise twist in the IP story arc, introduce a new organizational structure which would become part of tournament game play, and launch a few new groups which players could adopt and incorporate into their campaigns. HOW I did those things was up to me. (With To Ride the Chimera, #30 in the same series, I get to wrap up a major story line, and I was given a lot of freedom with how I did it -- big responsibility.)

After drawing boxes, the next step is a narrative outline or several -- more on that in a moment. Then I write the parts that I've worked out. I call my writing process percolation -- though I used to call it composting. I think a great deal about the story without writing a word (this usually results in mown flowerbeds, circuitous car journeys, and bits of dialog which have nothing to do with anything outside my head being blurted at random moments). When I sit to type I've got whatever scene I've been thinking about vividly before me and it's more like taking dictation than creating. Of course the scene I'm thinking about may not be the next scene in the story. Which is why God made graph paper -- I mark off what I've done and move on. (I should maybe learn how spread sheets work.)
If the novel has several subplots (and what novel doesn't?) I write each as a separate story. Remember the bit about several narrative outlines above? Several different stories move from outline through finished product before I weave them all together. Actually, the weaving together part involves most of what I think of when I think of writing writing. Figuring out what to toss out, building links and bridges where none occur naturally, things like that.
I've been told my method is horribly inefficient and I thoroughly agree. If I'm going to make my intended four-novels-a-year pace, I'm going to need to figure out a faster way to get the words out of my head and onto paper.

KeVin K. said...

Need to add that my orignial mystery novel is NOT proceding in this fashion. I posted about that on my live journal earlier today (still Thursday here).

Helen Shearer said...

This is my first coffee break and the topic could not be more apropos. I, like Kevin, don't write chrnologically. I tend to get ideas for vignettes and then try to piece them all together at the end. Bad idea! I started to piece things together at the 85,000 word mark, but I realised that I had contradicted myself with the details and had to make substantial revisions. In a few instances I had completely changed where things were going and found myself getting rid of really good chunks that no longer fit into the story. (That 'murder your darlings' concept is much harder than I thought.) I had also left dirty,great holes along the way so I had to fill them in and try and make it seamless. I had a hard time doing it on the computer so I printed the entire thing and cut it up. For six weeks my living room was an obstacle course of piles of paper, highlighter pens and post-it notes. By the time I finished the first draft I was ready for launching myself off a tall building. My next novel will be plotted to the hilt!

liz fenwick said...

Oh, its very early here so I need extra strong coffee please.......

Great topic Chris and thanks for sharing your road so far (btw keep editing :-)

I have now written three compelete novel plus three quaters of another one (but that is another story all together) and have the next one currently bubbling away in the subconcious. Like Chris I tried the Mills & Boon (for the N. Americans Harlequin) route and failed dismally and I didn't even get a tea towel! I couldn't contain myself to man, woman and other woman. i need a cast of I moved to women's commerical fiction.

I then wrote August Rock. Before fingers hit keyboard I mind mapped my ideas. So I knew where the story started and where it ended but the bits in the middle kinda floated about and that was perfect for getting the first draft out. What I didn't know being as naive as I am that I would still be rewriting the damn thing! Having said that I have learned so much from each rewrite.

For A Cornish House which i wrote at the beginning of the year I did the same thing and wrote that first draft very quickly to get the subconcious onto the page. Now I am rewriting......have I learnt anything? Yes, I need to do more plotting in advance.

So for the book that is being written in the subconcious now I will mind map and I will write a brief synopsis first. God, did i say that swear word? This time I want to see if I can avoid some of my weaknesses by doing more plotting ahead of time. In both the previous two not counting the M&B which I won't even look at again I fall down with plot predicability so I want to see if looking more closely at the plot before I write will help or maybe it will kill it. We'll find out in January!

JJ said...

This couldn't be more appropriate for me either. Thanks Chris.

I have dabbled and fannied about for months 'just trying to write' believing that just knowing what my story was would be enough. It's not. I have to plan and plot, at least I hope that's the case because if it ain't I'm in trouble.

I have horrible moments where I know what the story's is about but I don't know what comes next. I haven't written entirely chronologically. I do jump about depending on how I feel and that's a problem without having some kind of plan because then the scenes float about without a proper home.

I've started to compile a list of scenes as I think of them or as I do them in a list format: one sentence each. I think this is a kind of linear plot.

All my writing is done in scenes with page breaks between so that I will be able to lift individual bits up and move them when I realise they are in the wrong place.

At the moment I'm working on a piece of writing that tells me what I'm planning, what I want. If it's not clear to me I'm paralysed!

Frankly, it's all a total mystery to me. I've no idea what I'm doing, but i am still doing... so I guess that's okay.


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

My method for the first draft of the current WIP was to write three instalments per week and post them on my blog, as a serial. The responses of my commenters kept me going. I didn't have much of a clue where the story would go when I started it; I knew I wasn't starting at the beginning, but I didn't know where the beginning was. I only really started getting to grips with plotting as such in the third draft. I wouldn't recommend this method - but it did work for me better than any of the others I'd tried before, including detailed planning. I'm hoping to be a bit more organised with the next novel, on the basis that now I've actually written and edited a proper whole one I know more about what needs doing, but I'm not convinced I'll manage it. Really interesting to see other people's approaches; thanks for a good question, Chris.


This sounds very amateurish and unprofessional but my novel seems to write itself. I kept initially trying to get characters to do certain things or go certain places but the ruddy pains would not. I would wake up in the morning knowing exactly what was going to happen and once I got the first line down it went from there each day. There have been times when inspiration has flagged and I have seriously considered drowning the entire cast in a flood or shooting the lot of them but they keep me so entertained I have not the heart.

I think writing in blog form has helped as I have one very aggravating reader who sends me private emails asking pertinent points so I do have to research carefully about appropriate things for the time and place it is set. However I find this can also be a bit distracting. I got terribly immersed in World War 1 and its effects on Central Brittany at one stage and had to haul myself back from the brink of a political dialogue on Breton independence!

I have tried writing a novel before, several times, using a sensible layout technique but found I got fed up, I even attempted a Mills and Boon foolishly thinking that they were easy to write but soon found my heroine actually really hated the twat she was meant to fall in love with and much preferred going off to live alone and be an artist, which was very aggravating of her. I am not naturally a writer of lists; I think in pictures and so see the book running through my head as a film which may be why Chris’ method does not work as well for me.

Can I have a milky coffee and with sugar and chocolate sprinkles on the top please Chris, Its been one of those days already and it is only 8.25 here in France. Breton biscuit anyone?

Jen said...

Decaff for me - I'm excited enough already today. A Breton biccie would be scrummy though.

I'm not a terribly big planner... I have, and love, my characters (even the really horrible one) and I know where they are and where they'll end up. The bits in between, however, are written in much the same way as I try to figure out the plot of a soap or The Bill. I just make it all up as I go along. My characters respond on their own to the 'what ifs' I chuck at 'em and we all have a jolly good laugh.

The research and framework I want to squeeze the novel into will come into play before I edit/re-write. It's all ticking away in the back of my mind. Gawd knows how it'll turn out in the end though. Eek.

Flowerpot said...

I do a long synopsis so I know more or less where the story is going (though this changes as I write it) and very detailed character studies so I know them all well before I start. Once I have those I'm usually OK, but it takes months to get those two in order.

Lazy Perfectionista said...

For a long time I thought that if you plan it you're not a proper writer. I would write, get stuck, leave it for a while hoping I would come up with something, then wander off and end up forgetting about it. Then one day I didn't have enough time to write down the scene that had popped into my head, so just scribbled a 'he said, she said, they thought' synopsis. When I came to write it up, it was so easy, that I started doing this for all my scenes.

Recently, I've also started making a list of all the scenes I need to include and roughly when they will occur in the timeline. I use Scrivener, so you can move them around really easily, and see them all as little cards stuck on a virtual corkboard, which really helps to see if it's working or not. I'm doing lots of planning at the moment, since my epiphany that I can change whatever I want, and if my first idea doesn't fit with the story or characters, I can just come up with something else that does. Hopefully my thoroughness at this stage will mean that my word count will race upwards when I start proper writing again, not just plotting.

Anonymous said...

Aha! Synopsis. How long? I know the subject I write about is rather an aquired taste and I would hate to put the reader off before they have even started reading it. It isn't frightening. Just spooky. Paranormal, ghosts, personal experience spooky. I know where it's going, I have the plot and the characters thought through, research is ongoing, has been for a long time. But I keep coming back to thoughts about a synopsis. Should I have done this first? Does it need to be done now in order to be sent away? I quite happily sit at the keyboard, bashing away, but I am starting to worry slightly.

No coffee for me, thanks. Can't stand the stuff.

Crystal xx

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello everyone how interesting to see how you all work, all so different but all charging towards the same end. Marvelous!

I have now written six novels for women and almost four for children, so I do have a plan for tackling plot in place! But even then it doesn't always work out how I expect. I like to write a detailed plot, almost a novel in short hand, including plot twists, events, even how a character will feel in that scene. But there is a fine balance between planning your book and killing spontaneity and creativity with too much thinking. My first rule is to always have a conclusion in mind because that gives me a direction that I am always heading in with purpose - probably the ending will change along the way but that doesn't matter because I'll have direction while I am writing, something that helps me to avoid writing myself into a cul de sac. My second rule is to work on my characters before I begin to write the novel, I give them a biography and know them inside out, this way I tend to find they will lead me through the book rather than me having to drag them through it. Finally I am always be prepared to change my mind completely if I have a better idea for the book than than the one I started out with. The best part about the creative process for me is the unknown waiting around the corner in my imagination. That's where the magic is.

P.s - you people that don't write in a linear style - how do you do that?? I can't do that. Wish I could but I can't. I'm a-start-to finish-editor-it-later-girl, everytime.


Helen said...

Hi everyone. I am very similar to Cally's method. I divided up my son's A3 workbook and divided it into four squares. On each A3 page I would detail two chapters sub-divided into plot and emotions. I then planned it out for about 16 chapters. My first draft is actually more than 16 chapters but that initial plotting really helped me. I like to ahve a purpose, a direction and occasionally I did have an 'eek what next' moment when something happened that wasn't in the plan, but I just sketched the chapter out in my notebook and it was fine.

The other thing that helps me clock up the word count is that every day I posted on my blog how many words I'd written. I nicked this idea from Kate Harrison and it really worked. The thought of people reading that I hadn't written much that day was enough to get me typing - even if it was to write only 100 words (it often expanded). nI'm going to use this method with my editing too - hopefully that'll start soon.

All this talk of plotting though is making me itch to plan out my next book. I love the researching and thinking part of it all.

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.E. Sanderson said...

Great topic, ChrisH.

Like Rowan said, I think it's great how we're all working toward the same end, but taking different paths to get there. Which just proves what I've heard: There is no one right way to write a novel.

I'm working on my fifth novel. I thought I had the first two in the can, but after everything I've learned I saw I needed to edit the hell out of it. (The other two are in various stages of editing, as well.)

Anyway, my plan of attack for each novel has been a little bit different. I learn things and evolve. One thing I've learned is mapping doesn't really work for me. I tried it with book #2. I had the whole thing plotted out on paper, and I found I was more worried about sticking to the plot points than I was about writing the book. I'd get really rolling, and find out I'd left the map, so I'd have to go back and delete stuff. I threw the map away, and let my mind do what it wanted.

Having said that, though, I do have a general idea of where I'm headed when I start out. It's like driving in the country. I know where I'm going, I just haven't got the route planned out. I meander a bit, I see interesting sights, and when I get to the end, I have a great story. ;o)

Keep up the good work with your novels, everyone. And have a great day.

Cathy said...

So far I haven't been plotting the novel scene by scene, but I do know where the story is going, roughly how it will end and where the turning points will be. I think my novel is more character than plot driven, so to an extent I am letting the characters take me towards each of these points. But it is early days still, I may find this doesn't work well at all in the long run.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Gods! Half past six and my first break of the day. I'm on the penultimate chapter of my WIP and I've had to replot part of it. All the hooks must be cast, all the binds tied.

I generally write to a broad outline but allow myself to write flashes etc over the whole novel. These fit or not and it makes it a pleasure to reached chapter 63, say, and find I have 500 words already written for it.

I use the program Write It Now to keep track of everything.

Lane said...

Hi All and thanks for a thought- provoking post today Chris.

I'm working on my first novel so it's great to see how you all approach the task.

When I started, I knew how I wanted the book to end so I worked backwards. I have 22 pieces of A4 paper, one for each chapter. On each page I write roughly what I think should happen in that chapter. The main plot is written in black and the sub plot is in green. The characters are highlighted in different colours. Then, when I stick them all on the wall, I can see the pattern. I also have lots of scruffy notes and connecting lines. I also underline in red the key scenes so that I can see at a glance the 'timbre' and the peaks and troughs. It's quite visual and very 'unscientific' but so far it is working. I'm ashamed to say I've never been near a spread sheet but I must learn. I realise that I will have to go back and do much back-writing but I'm really looking forward to that as the main bones will be down. I also have a page for each character- with a detailed personal CV (although one is giving me the run around:))
Now, as the sun is over the yard arm, I think I shall forgo coffee in favour of wine:)) Have a great weekend everyone.

sheepish said...

Oh dear it's 7.45 here and I'm on my second glass of wine. I haven't done any plotting until recently when I started I just had a beginning and I didn't really know where it was going. Chapters would appear randomly ideas floating in the ether and I would just write whatever came to me. Now that I have written about one third of my wip I am beginning to plot what is needed to fill in the gaps. I have also been reading "How To" books to help me out. I do find that I am easily sidetracked and need to be more consistent in coming to the page.
It's very interesting to see how many different approaches there are and it encourages me to keep going.

Graeme K Talboys said...

It has very much depended on what I've been writing, and the inspiration behind it. My first novel (thankfully lost) was simply written on a day by day basis.

The next two were variations on a theme and had a basic thematic structure into which I wove chapters and sections.

Wealden Hill was prompted by a conversation overheard in a pub and plotted out as I walked home (seven miles down the Ouse valley) that night. I wrote down the structure over the next few days and then worked in the locations it was set. Mostly. Some of it came from a series of dreams that took me into a place I could not otherwise have gone.

The children's novel that grew out of WH was also loosely plotted and written on location.

My spy novels were the most tightly plotted as they needed to be. Like whodunnits, you need to seed information and reveal stuff in a controlled way. I also worked out the daily routines of the major characters, which left me with a major crisis I hadn't planned - in that one of the characters happened to be in the same place as a bomb that was merely intended to warn. It didn't affect the overall plot, but it put a whole new twist on the main character's motives. And it altered the following books.

My sci fi was also tightly plotted as that had half a dozen apparently separate story lines begin to converge (and in some cases collide). That required really tight chronological control.

In all those cases, the structure provided signposts only. All the detail and colour was left to the actual writing. Whenever I have tried to do all the outlines as well, I lose interest as I have already written the book in my head and can't enthuse enough to write it on paper as well.

My current effort (a four book cycle) isn't a conventional narrative. A kind of picaresque, the structure is provided by historical events and social history. As the series progresses the style will become more fragmented as well. In this case I more or less wait for the central character to pop in for tea and crumpets and tell me what happened next so I can write it down.

Having said that, I have done more research for this book than for anything else and thoroughly enjoying it. Which is just as well. Those agents and publishers who have seen it are fairly consistent in telling me it is not commercial enough for the current market. so I'm writing it for myself (and a few others).

Graeme K Talboys said...

I meant to say (as if I hadn't gone on for long enough) that much of my research has resulted in a huge collection of contemporary photographs which I have storyboarded in chronological order. I visualise scenes before I write them, and this adds extra layers of reality (I hope).

Caroline said...

Hi all.
I'll have a coffee and regret it later when I can't sleep!

I don't plot to start with. I just write and let characters unfold in the first draft. Then usually around about 20,000 words I start to plot. It is a difficult process, but it works for me. I can't do linear to start with and follow urges to build characters. I enjoy developing characters and do have detailed back stories for them all.

Very interesting to see how everyone else writes.

Sarah*G* said...

I have to say that for the most part I have just been "winging it" and making it up as I go as I know where I want to go as I started with the ending and I am just making sure I get there. I have anotepad that I am using that I am writing down characters names and distinguising features on but other than that I am just going for it. (At least I am when I actually get to do writing! I am having a bit of a moment just now with my writing. That is code for not doing any writing!!)

A. Writer said...


My method is similar to ChrisH's. I use a spreadsheet to build a timeline of events and then split it into chapters. I make a column for dates, chapter number, events in the chapter and which characters are in the chapter. Once the timeline is basically there I then start writing and it flows. The timeline changes as I write but that's the beauty of copy and paste!

KayJay said...

I can't pretend I have a regular method; as yet it's all trial and error. I've tried rigorous plotting, winging it and even spreadsheets (but people, can you really get passionate about spreadsheets?) and maybe 20 years down the road I'll have the perfect recipe. But for now, every new project births a new method. And that's fine by me.

And as for getting me in the mood? Coffee's great, wine even better - but best of all is a walk around the block. Apparently the calf muscles, when exercised, pump blood directly to the half of the brain that feeds novel writing. No kidding. My other half told me he read it in the newspaper, so it must be true.

Fiona said...

Lazy Perfectionista said it all for me as I too thought you couldn't be a real writer if you had to plan everything out. Three false starts (for some reason it's easy to do first three chapters without a plan), and I'm on my fourth attempt at a novel. I've reached 70,000 words and although I've lost my mojo for now, it has been a big help to do a brief synopsis and then a detailed story plan.
I've written between a few sentences and half a page on every chapter. I haven't stuck to everything, but for me, it would have been impossible to remember details without it. I got the idea from the Writers' Bureau. Yes, like many of us here, I started the course and didn't complete...or even get half way.
Did you know that you can always go back to it? If it's been longer than a certain time, you have to pay £50.00. I haven't done this as I'm doing a creative writing course with the OU in October and, because we're broke, I get a grant.
Kayjay. That is so true about walking. I used to be a dog walker and now I only do it in return for stuff - i.e. I walk my dentist's dogs and he's fixing my teeth :). I walk, think about my little book and then write.


Can I just say that I was quite awe struck when I saw so many used spread sheets and ploted out on grids but, as I carried on down teh commetns it was such a relief to see that I am not the only one who writes on the hoof as it were! I had awful images of writers Police throwing me out of here for being a fake!

Juliette M said...

A little late to the coffee morning, but oh well!

I tend to write in the same way now. I started out by writing 'whatever scene was the best and most interesting' - which led to carnage when I couldnt make it all fit together.

Now I do this:

1. have idea for story.
2. write vague character list.
3. write vague plan, then expand chapter by chapter.
4. rethink character list.
5. write novel, chapter by chapter.

It seems to work for me!

hesitant scribe said...

Hola! Lovely to back at coffee break albeit late, but tanned and laden with inspiration!

I found the research trip to Spain was just what I needed to get the words flowing again (although my notes are written in two languages, swinging from one to other on word, phrase, and sentence level. But then that was what I went for - to get a taste of Spain again and awaken my senses.

As for what comes next - I'm working on a new outline. It is a mixture of everything. But I'm excited by the project again. Thank God.

I think I probably work in rather chaotic manner, going between planning and writing, longhand and the pc, thinking and reading, and back again full circle. As for whether it works or not - shall know if I ever finish this monster of a project!

And a warm welcome to all the new people who have come along since I've been away!