Friday, 4 April 2008

Friday Coffee Morning. Engineering Works.

Good morning chaps. Help yourself to something warm. I have Illy coffee, PG Tips or some rather nice Vanilla and Honey tea. Of course, if it's evening for you, feel free to pour something stronger.

We're already well into April. It's a full three months since I finished my first draft and to say the rewrite is going slowly is an understatement. The reason is not only lack of deadline but my gaping lack of structure.

A while ago, I wrote a blog post likening writing a novel to building a bridge. Here's an extract -

First you must dig deep down into the murky waters to stabilize the foundations. Unseen below the waterline, these structures have to be strong enough to carry the load. Then, piece by piece it's constructed. The simplicity of structure belies the intricacies and technical details that enable it to stand firm and carry the reader seamlessly from A to B, with views that make them want to turn back and see it again, not throw themselves off.

At the moment my bridge is unstable. I'm looking at the draft and know that no-one could get across safely. It needs underpinning. It needs more incline and slightly less decline. It also needs some serious engineering work. It seems like an impossible task but I suppose it's a case of laying one brick at a time, remembering that a bridge is built to take stress if it's going to carry its traffic safely.

Since then, I've been grappling with the pace and tinkering with the structure. I've experimented with using different points of view and tense. The main lack of engineering however is in the plot itself. At the moment the reader is in danger of diving off the bridge through sheer boredom. Plot, and more importantly sustaining tension, are my biggest weaknesses and with the next book, I fully intend to put far more work into planning and structuring before I launch in. This time I went by the rules 'You can't edit nothing' and 'the first draft is always crap'and to a certain extent I stand by those mottoes but I've definitely learnt that I need a modicum of structural engineering before embarking on a full length again.

So this is what I'd like to ask you all today-

How much planning do you do before you actually begin to type/write? Do you have pages of notes, character profiles, time-lines, mind maps, chapter synopsis or do you jump right in with a basic outline and work it out as you go along?

I'd also like to ask which novel 'engineering' skill do you find the most difficult? Plot? Tension? Believable characters? Dialogue?

And in the interests of statistics, here's a little poll to celebrate our strengths.
What is your forté? What do you think comes most naturally to you in this thing called Novel Writing?


Helen Shearer said...

Well it looks like I might be the first comment this week. There's a surprise. Usually I'm near the end. It's just past midnight here. I'll have a hot chocolate please.

I'm not a plotter but after the hellish time I had putting all of my bits and pieces together in the right order and filling in the gaps, I think I probably should plot my next novel. I tend to get an idea for a situation or think of a funny situation or quote and write a scene around it, then I knit all of the scenes together when I have written most of them. Before I start I have a good idea who my main characters are but I don't write umpteen pages of character notes. I feel like I know them but, like relationships with real people, I get to know them better as the story progresses. I like to keep the characters fresh. By the time I finish the first draft they are like old friends. By the time I finish the second draft they're like family - I love them but I'm glad to see the back of them:) In terms of plot, I have a rough idea of where I want things to go but they never end up there. I change plot as I go and often end up rewriting large chunks to accommodate the changes. I don't recommend this method! The next novel will hopefully be much smoother and easier. Have a great week everyone.

Helen said...

I love to plot. I could plot all the time. It's when it comes to writing it up that I struggle because the thing is already written in my head. I do however need to suss out my chracters a bit more but I'll do this after the first draft, once they've found their voice naturally.

Hope everyone is ok, I'm having a quiet blog break at the moment, then easter holidays start tomorrow.

Fiona said...

Good morning. I'm sitting up in bed having an Asda coffee so will happily exchange it for an Illy. Thank you!

Love the bridge analogy. Mine is very wobbly and I think there's a troll underneath.

I pressed the 'make the reader laugh' button. I can be funny. Well, I make myself laugh, but I think Ideal Reader would laugh at my writerly delusions.

Great post.

Fiona said...

Typical dyslexic, I didn't get the question, the first time I read it.

I have plotted my novel but only because I paid for a Writers Bureau course - which I didn't even get half way through - and they said to plot. I think they were right. I would have got totally lost if not.

liz fenwick said...

Illy, please Lane. Plot is my weakness and for the book in my head I will plot a bit more in advance this time. In the rwwrite at the moment I am upper the tension by twisting the plot now which I hope to avoid the next time but I dont know whether this will work of not.

I only write down the briefest details about my characters ahead of time and then just watch them develop on the page - see I am a panster at heart.

Maybe I just need to work with what I am.....treat the first draft as a character sketch and add the plot in after?????

Leigh said...

My first novel I wrote without any plan, or, indeed, any idea of the need for structure at all. I am still paying for it.

My second and third novels are both planned, a bit, and although this does not sit easy with me I see it as a necessary evil. I compromise by deciding on a general aim for each section/chapter/scene, and then just launch myself into it.

I think, unless you are completely brilliant (I am not), some idea of where you are going is, at least, a good time-saver!

Flowerpot said...

I usually plot a lot but this time I'm leaving it more to chance and while it's unnerving I like it. I do know the characters vedry well though and I know what's giong to happen - just not in detail. This gives me leeway for the unexepcted to take place!

Leatherdykeuk said...

I have a roughly sketched outline, a basic plot, a couple of characters and a whole load of random daily prompts.

Lucy Diamond said...

Love the bridge metaphor - brilliant. And a poll! Truly you are spoiling us. ;)
I am not a plotter per se, I start with characters and a rough outline in my head. I know where my story starts and where I want it to end - then the tricky bit is working out the actual journey. I have just mapped out the last part of my current novel-in-progress which feels a great relief - I definitely feel as if I'm on top of the machinations now - at last!

Kate said...

Well, guess what. I have just decided to abandon the book that was to be book 7, after writing 33,000 words. This is obviously not fabulous for deadline-meeting etc, but at the same time, it does feel like a relief!

It's never happened before and obviously it does knock my confidence a bit. I am now going back to the drawing board to look at some other ideas but it has to be said, the thought of plotting AGAIN after struggling to make the latest one work for three months, doesn't fill me with delight. So I am going to do some ideas rehab, i.e. getting a copy of Time Out and going to see new things: exhibitions, plays, etc, as far as my budget will allow...

I have found that as I've become more experienced, I've planned more - I definitely like to start out with more of a sense of what challenges/choices the central character faces etc. But I am wondering whether one can go TOO far along the planning lines and may try to be more freeform for the next one. Wish me luck, please!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you say "the first draft is always crap" because I worry too much! I devised a synopsis - a very brief synopsis I might add which I have next to me at all times and try to work alongside. The plot gets changed of course when I realise bits of synopsis aren't as accurate as they should be but it does help me tremendously as my memory is abominable! I know people who do have pages of notes, stuck almost everywhere but that would just confuse me. It is easy for the novelist to believe in their characters but I think the hard part is expecting the readers to. I spend far too long on descriptions and perhaps not enough time on tension. I guess I'll know for definite when someone reads it. Hopefully they won't die of boredom before they reach the end...!

CJ xx

Anonymous said...

Before (and during) my actual writing, I use a storyboarding technique. I think it's similar to what is used in the TV and film industry. You have a sequence of boxes containing a summary of each distinct part of the plot. Not too much detail. You can re-order and re-arrange these until you are happy with the plot. Then all you have to do is to "flesh out" the boxes with the actual writing. Storyboarding also has the advantage that you can spot natural breaks for chapters and other structure.

My methods (as you'll see in the new Scribecraft series I've started) are iterative rather than sequential. This means that the plot, the characters' development and all the other engineering, plus the writing itself are evolved side-by-side rather than in a prescriptive order.

Character development is my weakest area at the moment.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I like to know where I'm going - and with some of the stuff I've written, that's essential, but I find that too much preparatory work means I don't want to write the book as I've already done it in my head. My current w-i-p is seat-of-pants stuff. The 'plot' (such as it is) and all the notes fit on to three sheets of A4.

As for the poll. I'm clearly not much good at any of them otherwise I'd be paying a secretary to answer this for me ;-)

girl with the mask said...

Am I allowed to comment even though I am not one of the 'Who We Are"'s???

If I am then I will just say that as a first-time novelist, in general I do find that I just sit and write to see what happens. The last thing I do is re-read the whole thing (if I can) before bed and make a few notes of which gaps to fill in and how for work the next day. I do find that it keeps the pressure off, and it means that I am not constantly re-reading instead of writing!

Hope it's okay that I commented!

G.I.M x

Debs said...

Greate post, Lane. I'll have a PG Tips please.

For my first draft I start by writing a synopsis. I find that although my story and characters develop and go in different directions to what I had originally thought they would, it helps keep me vaguely focused as to where I'm going with it.

By the time I've finished the first draft I know my characters far better then rewrite and tighten the plot and tension as and where I think it needs it.

Right now my bridge is made of two lengths of rope with rather dodgy planks of wood balanced across it. Not very secure at all.

Debs said...

I can't even spell 'great' correctly. What hope is there for my editing skills?

Cal said...

I plot a bit, wing it a bit!

With novel 1 I knew the beginning and the ending and had a rough idea what would happen in between but, when I came to write the novel I'd have to pause every now and again and fill in the gaps.

With novel 2 I've done an outline (and some index cards with ideas for scenes) but have no idea what happens in the last third of the book. I'm hoping it will come to me as I write it!

I think the main things to know at the beginning of a novels are:

1) What the main character's goal (greatest desire) is

2) What the main character's greatest fear is

3) What the crisis point is

There's a bit part of me that wants to do a big, detailed plot plan before I start but I think it sucks some of the magic out of writing. I like to stumble across scenes I didn't know were in the book and enjoy writing them.

p.s. Kate. Noooooooo! That's my worst nightmare. But how incredibly brave of you. I think it's a sign you know what you're doing if you realise your novel isn't working and it's better to start again. I hope you enjoy the ideas gathering process and don't stress too much.

Kate.Kingsley said...

WoW! Nifty poll thingy!! I am v impressed!

Illy for me, please ~ I'm shattered this week.

I am a crappy plotter. And yet I think my characters are pretty strong. So, if character is destiny how come mine end all up a bit stuck??!!

With the current WIP I know who the characters are inside out, I know where they start off, and where they'll end up, but filling in the middle is the tricky bit for me. I'm getting there, though ~ but slowly..... Like Helen Shearer, I'm a bit patchworky ~ lots of bits of the story are written, I just need to stitch then together and fill in the blanks. My bridge is curently a bit rickety, and it has more than a few structural errors, but work is progressing, at least. There's lots of men in flourescent jackets standing around in my head, drinking tea in little stripey roadside huts. "Delays expected until at least May 2008". I need an internal foreman to boot them back to work....

Kate : I think it's brave to abandon book 7 ~ if it's really not working then I guess its better to walk away, instead of pouring more time and energy into a dying project. Best of luck with the next one, and enjoy "filling the well" (guess who just relocated her copy of The Artist's way?!)

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello everyone, back from holiday which was fab!!

I love your poll thingy - wish I could do clever techno stuff like that. Anyway I do a bit of both. And I think there are cases for either. In the past I haven't plotted and planned to much and have ended up writing myself into a cul-de-sac and I've also over planned and plotted so much that when it came to writing the book I felt like I'd alreayd done it. So now I plot loosely and let the rest comes as it will - the bits of imspiration that come as you write always tend to be the best bits I think. I do plan my characters very carefully though, I write them a biog and back story - I think this helps when it comes to committing them to paper. Nice to be back!

KeVin K. said...

I usually start out with a rough idea, which develops into a series of anchor points -- or perhaps mountain tops poking above the fog -- and then build bridges to get from point to point. All of this is organic, mostly happening at the subconscious level. I used to call it composting, but my wife suggested percolating was a better metaphor. Characters, bits of dialog, scenes or settings come to mind in random order during this phase. At some point I organize (ha!) these into a modified storyboard -- often using index cards I can shuffle and rearrange to lay out my plot. (Side note: I think Sue Grafton must use this method to write because her detective always uses it to organize the clues in a crime.)
When I sit down to write -- when I sit down to do the part that looks like writing to the outside world -- I seem to be moving very quickly. But what looks like a sprint is really the last burst of speed at the end of a marathon.

I checked "character," btw.

Cathy said...

Hmm. Plotting is my weakness and is the reason why my novel is currently stalled.

I know how it begins and how it ends, as well as the major turning points in the story, but I've been winging it rather than plotting by chapter or scene and that was probably a mistake.

So it's back to basics for me at the moment.

wordtryst said...

I usually write an outline so I get the basic structure down, and as I write the actual story I modify as I see fit.

I have one project, though, where I'm breaking all my rules. I'm not writing chronologically, and I have only the haziest notion of how all the bits will hang together. I do have lots of notes on themes, characters and setting that I'm hoping to incorporate as I write the scenes. Strange way to build a bridge, if you ask me. This one must be a suspension bridge: assemble the pieces then string them up with some solid cable.

[At least that's the way I imagine such bridges are built; I know zilch about engineering. Is there such a thing as intuitive engineering? Maybe not. Wouldn't want to drive across an intuitive bridge anyway... Ack! Now I'm scaring myself with this bridge analogy!]

Fun poll! Won't say where I voted, though...

NoviceNovelist said...

I'm really late - a whole day!! I didn't plot my first novel at all and I think that's part of the reason why the redraftiong is a bit hellish. I'm going to have a crack at a more structured method for novel no 2 so have started filling a noteobook with thoughts, stirrings etc. Fingers crossed. I will be intersted to compare the two processes once novel 2 is completed.

L-Plate Author said...

Hey the blogger monster got me again! I posted early Friday morning but it seems to have been gobbled up.

My first book I had three characters, a beginning and an end and off I went. My second book was planned, I want to say rigidly, but it wasn't. I feel now that I have to know where I am going, I have to know all the plot twists and I have to get them into the right order. Then I do character biogs and backgrounds etc and then I'm off. I do need to know where I want to end up but if a character starts to do something off plot I let them, it invariably helps.

I think I am with Kate on my WIP at the moment. I might have a rethink as I have another book plotted out, I'm not sure at the moment if in book three there is too much plot so it is too mplicated or if it will make a fantastic read. That's the main reason why I'm not back into writing it again. So it is good to plot, but not like me, plot two and now I can't make my mind up which one to go with!

Great post Lane and I loved the poll thingy! x

KayJay said...

When I started writing my first book I refused to plot because I thought plotting was for boring people. I had an aversion to it, mainly because the genre plays I had written up to that point had to be plotted in the extreme, formulaic, painting by numbers. I'd had enough of that; I set myself free.

I created a demon. A thing that leapt around the room and wouldn't behave and then would fall asleep and not wake up and then bite me on the arse and go its own merry way and do a poo in the corner of the room. It didn't know its name, it wouldn't come to call and I had no control over it whatsoever. So eventually, I tried plotting and got the damn thing housetrained.

You'd think I'd learn from this. Apparently not. Book 2 was only very loosely plotted. I am now almost finished my first draft and there is trouble. This one's not a demon, it's a stroppy teenager. It goes into sulks and stays out until yon hour and I really don't approve of the clothes it wears. So we're going to have a boot camp; I'm going to lay down the law and plot it into shape before it completely goes off the rails. It's not going to be pretty, but it's my baby so they tell me it'll be worth it...

Lane said...

Thanks for all your comments. I'm pleased to see I'm not the only one who has difficulty plotting. I think - as Kate pointed out- it's a case of finding the happy medium between over plotting and no plot at all. (and sorry you had to discard 33k words Kate!).

Girl in the Mask - It's fine to comment:-)

Well, the scientific poll has revealed that 50% of the Novel Racers who voted, say writing believable dialogue is the skill they are best at. None of us rate 'making the reader cry' our top talent:-) Interesting - though I'm not quite sure why:-)

Have a good writing week everyone:-)

hesitant scribe said...

late as per but here...

Excellent post ms lane (as always!)

Plot?! I cannot plot. That's my entire problem! ;)

Clare Sudbery said...

Sorry I'm late, have been away...

I planned too little with my first novel - just said "I want to write a book", dived in, and then realised I didn;t have a clue what I was writing about. With my second I planned too much, spending 18 months on over 100,000 words (really!) of lists, character outlines, plot outlines, scene-by-scene analyses, you name it I did it - everything except writign the damn thing. When I got round to actually writing it, I'd planned myself into a state of deep confusion.

This time round I'm starting with a structure and a simple plot. I know what the book is about, and its remit is suitably narrow. I know how it will start and what it's basic shape will be, and I can describe the book in two or three short sentences. But I only spent a day on the planning, and now I have dived straight in using the maxims mentioned above - you can't edit nothing, and 1st drafts are always rubbish. We'll see how it turns out...

My weaknesses? Character: I am, for some reason, reluctant to flesh out mny characters properly in advance of writing, and don't always really know who they're supposed to be. My other weakness: a tendency to over-complicate everything, confusing both myself and the reader and losing sight of what the book is about.

My strengths? Dialogue, humour, accessibility, readability, quirky uniqueness. Let's hope that's enough to get me somewhere in this uncertain world.