New rules

I’m working to new rules. Instead of plugging away at my novel and getting frustrated by other projects that beckon, and then avoiding my novel and getting frustrated at the slow progress, I’ve decided to focus on quantity rather than quality. That nano message is taking a long time to sink in, but I reckon that if I focus on refining ideas and building them up, instead of working linearly with narrow focus, then by the time I’ve drafted out a few complete ideas I’ll have a lot more idea what I’m doing, more stamina for longer projects and a good base on which to build.

So I’ve currently got Gods V Heroes on the go and nearly at a complete draft, there’s my new nano novel coming up, there’s the romance, there’s a couple more fantasies in the pipeline and there’s always babies which is still simmering nicely and waiting for my attention. Not to mention a couple of non-fiction projects that are on the go. With that selection, there should be something I feel like working on at any opportunity.

Let’s see how many complete novel drafts I can create by the end of the year, shall we?

 

Training myself to plan

I’ve done a draft or two of Gods Versus Heroes now (it’s hard to count just how many, because I don’t get properly to the end before starting on the next one, so each one gets a little further through before I go back to the start).

I’ve done a rough nano draft, and I’ve done a more careful draft. Now I want to really pull it apart and weave the storylines together properly, rather than allowing them to come piecemeal. I’ve got seven main characters, each of whom has their own story arc. There’s the story arc of the guild. There’s the story arc of the world they travel to, and the story arc of our own world. I make that ten arcs to manage.

I was thinking just now of how hard it all is, and how I’m going to manage to go through this every single time. And then I remembered when I first went into sixth form at school. Suddenly, instead of having homework to be completed the next day or the day after, I would have up to a week to complete a piece of work, or I would have ongoing work to do, in order to keep up with class. I found it really hard to keep track, and to remember what had to be in when.

So I invented a new kind of calendar. I had several sheets of paper fastened together, and divided into seven sections. Each day I would tear off a section, to reveal the day for the following week. I used this for a few weeks, so that I could always see exactly one week ahead, and then I found I didn’t need it any more, because I’d started to think ahead.

That’s what I need to do now. Yes, I need to pull everything apart and really go at it laboriously, and it will take a lot of time and effort. But the more I work at it, and the more frequently I do it, the easier it will become, until I have the method sorted and I can put it all together much more easily.

I need to train myself into the proper way to plan. That’s all. It will come.

 

Rhyming with Rupert

When I was in what would now be called year 3, the first year of junior school, I was around seven years old. Our teacher loved Rupert Bear, and one activity we would enjoy was to read the Rupert the Bear annuals together as a class. The teacher would read the rhyming couplets, all but the last word, and we would have to guess the last word.

“The wood is risky, Rupert knows,/And so another way he …”

“…goes.”

“Just look what I have,” Rupert cries,/And Mr Bear turns in…”

“…surprise.”

I always used to enjoy these, and it was surprisingly easy to guess the right word. Usually it seemed that looking at the pictures and listening to the rhyme made it obvious what the word must be.

Then as my understanding grew, I realised that while the second word in the rhyme was obvious, it was only because of the choice made for the first line; that it was the writer’s skill in choosing both words together. This was well after the time I used the word “Caravans” in my own poetry, then desperately rhymed it with “Lumberans” – the name of an act in the circus! (“They lumber and lumber round the ring, and they’re as funny as anything”).

The type of plot I like best in a story is one where the outcome is tied in neatly with the rest of it. There’s a fantasy book that I read years ago, where a group went on a journey and had various adventures, and the lessons they learned helped them in their final task – in fact, that’s similar to what I’m doing in my novel, or at least what I’m trying to work out.

Sometimes it can happen naturally. In one of my Bones fanfiction stories, “The boy at the building site” (written eight years ago!), the opening scene has Bones fighting with an unknown assailant, who turns out to be her work and romantic partner, Booth, but I realised as I finished the scene that this would be how she faces off the bad guy at the end, because it just felt right.

Now I’m faced with trying to do this deliberately. To design my storyline so carefully that the end becomes a fulfilment of the rest of it. So that the pieces of the puzzle all come together and the journey becomes obvious. I’m really beginning to understand that the more effort that goes into the writing, the easier the end result flows. That is something is easy to read it’s because the writer has really taken care and thought things out.

Kind of like the more training and preparation you do, the easier the marathon will be.

 

 

The easy option never is

I’m not sure when I first worked out that the easy option is never easy. It might be when I realised that putting small children in front of the TV for too long led to bored kids who didn’t want to watch TV at all, and it was easier to be active and provide proper activities for them. It might even have been when at school I spent more time dodging teachers than I would have spent actually doing their homework.

When I play my game, and I decide that I’m going to rush through and not do things properly, that’s when things go wrong. Slowing down and taking the time to do it properly is always far more productive than rushing and having a disaster on my hands that then takes time to rescue.

When I was teaching, I realised that the very point at which I started thinking it would be better to skip something that was too hard for the students was the point where I needed to slow down and start the teaching.

I’m discovering this with my writing as well. Carefully thought out details will do much more than rushing through and making it up on the spot. It might take longer to plan, but overall the time will be spent more efficiently.

My nanowrimo novel is doing well. I’ve just passed the halfway mark, and I have a full day write-in planned for next weekend, which should get me a lot further through. The trouble is, I’d planned out milestones to hit, and by the halfway mark I’ve hit 11 of the 12, which leaves me wandering in the wilderness and wondering what happens next. Do I rush to the end? Do I make up more to come? Do I pad out what I’ve already got? I know that what I’ve got needs to be built up more, but do I do it at the writing stage or editing stage?

One thing I’d like to do is have the world much more real to me. I’ve noticed before that the more real something is to me, the better I write about it, and one of my weaknesses is skipping details and reality. Generally, I have a readable draft so far, which tells a story. The quality of the storytelling can come later. But I’m not sure whether I’m two thirds of the way through the narrative or one third, or what I’m going to put in from now on.

Serious thinking time is required. And that’s not the easy option – but it’s definitely the best.

 

A final first draft

I’ve had attempts at this novel before: the first time I had the setting, and attempted the characters. The second time I had the setting and characters and attempted the story. This time I’m more confident that I have all three.

Each time I’ve started afresh, so it’s still really a first draft, but I intend this to be the final first draft, so to speak. I have some rules: I have come to a compromise with nano rules, in that I need to write every day, with a target of one scene/around 1000 words minimum per day, and the focus is on writing not editing, but at the same time I’m not allowed to add words for the sake of them, when I know I’m just going to have to remove them again later.

There are various challenges going on at the moment – there’s camp nano about to start, and another run of 100k in 100 days, and I see today that Della Galton has her own challenge going on via facebook, with the aim of 10k words by a week’s time. Regardless of those challenges, I have my own challenge, and that’s to finish this darn thing and get to the next stage before it drives me completely mad.

So main characters and main story arcs are sorted. I have a strong idea of where each scene fits in the overall arc, what has to be achieved and what has to be lost in each. The next thing I have to decide is the relationship between my two main characters; the idea is to have their lives run parallel throughout most of the book, touching together occasionally, until they collide at the end. But in order to do this, I have to decide how they touch, to what extent, and who knows what. Then there’s all the extra characters who have to be there, and the extent of the part each of them plays, and minor issues such as how to weave background information and scene descriptions into the main narrative.

So far, I’ve found that a scene a day gives me a good focus for planning out as I swim in the morning, and then writing up in the evening. I just have to keep that up and ensure that I have not only a collection of words on the topic, but something that is vaguely readable and coherent.

Then begins the editing stage…

From world to characters to story

I’ve been working on my novel for a long time – in two different forms, it’s been the topic of two nanowrimo attempts, both completed, and I still wasn’t happy with the results. Yet the story refused to let me go.

So lately I’ve been writing about my story rather than trying to write the story itself. I’ve been trying to work out what I want to achieve with it, and how I’m going to do that.

You see, I started with a world. I had a situation that I wanted to explore, and a first idea, but not much more than that.

Then I figured out a couple of characters and situations to put in that world. I knew who they were, what they wanted and how they would get on in this world I’d created. But it still didn’t seem to work – I got bogged down, and couldn’t see the overall structure.

Going back to basics, back to thinking about the story, the message I want to get across, the situation I want to explore, I suddenly began to see my way through the maze, and feel the overall arc of the story, to the point where I’ve roughly sketched out the entire structure, including the ending, which had been hidden to me so far.

It’s not completely there, of course; I still need to get down into specific events and scenes, and then I need to get it all written down. But the point is that I know where I’m going with it now, so that I can consider the purpose of every scene I decide to add, and where it fits in that structure.

The next step is to start putting down ideas for individual scenes, and then I can transfer to Aeon Timeline and Scrivener, and start really putting the flesh on the bones. But it feels so good to finally see the whole picture.

 

P is for plot

There’s two kinds of plot bothering me at the moment – there’s my allotment plot and the plot for my novel.

The allotment plot is fairly straightforward to deal with; there’s a lot of hard physical labour involved, but not a massive amount of thinking. In fact, I find it a good chance to listen to my Zombies, Run! missions (an app on my phone which plays out a story between music tracks and is designed to encourage running) and just let my mind wander. On the other hand I’m building up my muscles with lots of heavy digging.

The novel plot is less straightforward. I have a basic scenario, a world situation if you like, and I’m trying to plot out a story to fit in that world. I think that short scenarios set in that world might help clarify my view of the plot and help it all come together, but it’s definitely something that involves a lot of thinking. On the other hand, maybe putting in some hard work on it as it is now in my head will help it come clearer, rather than trying to get the overall picture before I start.

In my allotment, I have a rough idea of how it will be laid out eventually, and pick at different areas to work at in order to get there, but I don’t have to do it all at once, and having an overall plan doesn’t mean I have to know exactly what plant will go where before I start. So maybe in the same way I can pick at bits of my story and gradually build up an overall picture that can be developed properly. Building up my writing muscles in the same way that I’m building up my digging muscles.

 

 

Draft zero

They say your nano draft is draft zero. I’m finding that to be accurate. 36k words in, I figured out where the plot should be going. At 40k my main character talked herself into a lot of trouble. In the swimming pool this morning, I/she finally figured out the solution.

Now I have a much better idea of what the main plotline needs to be: in some ways similar to my original plan, in other ways completely different.

This means that I have a clear path ahead of me: my first aim is to get to the 50k nano target. I’m at around 43k so far, with tonight’s contribution and an all-day write-in tomorrow ahead of me. By the end of that I should have done my 50k. In order to do that, I need to take a quick look at what I’ve written and figure out any major holes I can fill in to use the rest of my words wisely.

Then I’ll fill in the index card for each of my scrivener documents, figure out which ones to keep and which ones to discard and discover just how many words I’ve lost completely. I can fill in the blanks with cards, which will be expanded to full extracts, and the bits should go together to make a whole. I’ve got another all day write-in on Wednesday, and I should be able to spend a good deal of that on establishing the groundwork and moving forward.

By the end of that stage, I’ll have a first draft ready to edit, and can start worrying about quality rather than just quantity.

Will I always need to write a draft zero? Possibly not. Just as a painter has to learn to use his tools and to plan out his painting, but will grow more experienced with time and less reliant on the learning stage, so I expect that I’ll grow more experienced with structuring a plot, and will be able to dispense with some of the preparation. But it’s been an invaluable experience, just putting words together and seeing how it comes into a story. It’s like doing a jigsaw – how ever much time you spend staring at a photo, you’ll never know it as clearly as if you make it into a jigsaw and spend hours looking at small sections only.

 

A novel approach – hearing voices

So I’ve got three main characters in my novel. One is a little more low-key, but we follow the story arcs of the other two more closely. Eventually the three arcs meet. This leaves me with two very prominent characters to bring to life. I’ve done mind-maps about them, I’ve considered their characters, their backgrounds and the influence of their respective childhoods. What I was struggling to do was to hear the characters themselves.

I’ve written first drafts of passages introducing each of the characters. The first was in my normal sparse style. For the second I worked a little on the idea of psychic distance, and started with an overview of the scene and then zoomed in, to provide a description (something I’m really bad at remembering to do) and then looking more closely at the character and what she thought.

Then I decided to try a different approach. I wrote the same two passages again, but in the first person instead of third person. Suddenly I could hear their voices much more clearly, see how they reacted to things, what they thought about them and felt much more in touch with them.

I probably won’t write the whole novel in first person, although it is an option, with each chapter told by a different character. I do think that would limit me a little, but it’s an exercise I can try every now and again if I feel I’m losing the sound of their voices.

Meanwhile I need to look at the aeon timeline and my scrivener file ready for Friday’s nanowrimo start, making sure that the scrivener file contains the skeletal structure that it needs in order to get me at least a large part of the way through the novel – always remembering that while nanowrimo is about the challenge of 50,000 words, I’m in it not just for nano but with the full intention of finishing the full draft, completing as many editing stages as needed and getting to a complete, finished and polished manuscript.

What I do with it after that? We’ll have to see.

Different media, different approaches

I find it interesting to look at stories that have been presented in different media. The classic example has to be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the same author produced a radio version, TV version, movie version and book version of the same story. Each is slightly different. Which is the true story?

By studying the differences and similarities, you can get a much clearer idea of the essence of the story. In any adaptation/new version, you need to look at each scene/event. I reckon each falls into one of three categories:

  • Absolutely essential. Needs to appear in very close to the same way in each version.
  • Important. Carries part of the story but can be tackled in some other way if necessary.
  • Minor. Maybe it adds extra colour, or background, or reinforces what’s going on, but the story works just as well without.

It might well be a useful exercise, when working on a novel, to pull each scene apart in those terms. What does it add? Is it essential, important or minor? What’s the balance between these three categories? Is there too much minor content compared to the essential? Is it all essential, with very little spare? What is the role of each scene? If you were to translate it into a different medium, which elements are essential? What is the purpose of each scene, not just in what happens but how it carries the story forward?

For example, if you were to take the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which parts are important? What is the nugget of the story? The fact that LRRH was picking flowers on the way? The fact that the wolf had fur? The fact that the relative she was visiting was a grandmother? Or the fact that she was distracted from her task, allowed the enemy to confuse her for a while, and then finally saw through his deceit? Which parts can you safely discard or change? Which parts carry the story? How far can you go in changing/adapting before you lose sight of what you started with?

This musing was prompted by my visit to the cinema over the weekend to view Ender’s Game, the movie adaptation of one of my favourite novels.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, be warned that this entry from this point forward will contain spoilers. And if you haven’t read the book – go read it, and skip the movie. And if you’ve seen the movie but not the book – go read the book. As usual, it’s far better than the movie…

 

 

 

***spoilers for Ender’s Game from this point on***

 

I’ve read Ender’s Game several times. It goes down as one of my favourite books of all time. When I heard of the movie being released, I had reservations – it has a lot to live up to. So we headed out to take a look.

Just like the graphic novel, the movie story is greatly simplified. There’s a whole story arc from the book – Val and Peter’s schemings – that are missed out. Understandable in a way, and yet what does it add to the story? It puts it into a world context. It explains why Val is willing to encourage Ender back into training. It makes the story so much richer.

The training is far shorter and simplified. That’s sad but understandable. That comes into the middle category – the training itself is important, but the depth and detail aren’t so important.

And yet there’s a whole aspect that I would view as essential to the story, that they missed completely. The fact that by opening the gate without defeating the enemy first Ender is bending the rules completely is lost by telling the kids that’s how you win the game. In this way the whole impact of the story disappears. The way that Ender is isolated and forced to rely on his own abilities to keep himself safe, and is taught that there is never anyone else to save him, that it’s always just him. The fact that in the end he wins by doing something totally unexpected, that he believes is against the rules, done in a fit of anger against the unfairness of the way he’s being treated.

The imagery in the movie was impressive. Although the battle room should not have clear walls, and there should be more than one battle room, and the whole station is far too small, the essentials were there. The final battles in the command school were particularly well rendered, although Ender should be totally isolated, not standing with his friends.

Part of the point of the story is the ansible – the instantaneous communication. There was no need to travel closer in order to communicate. This ties into the way that the formics (and calling them that rather than the buggers was again understandable but incredibly irritating) communicated with Ender via his dreams and the mind game. The people on earth should be in fear of a third invasion, not realising that we are the third invasion, another point that was completely lost. And the fact that Mazer Rackham had been sent into deep space in order to remain alive to train the new commander was very unclear.

The ages of the movie characters were disappointing of course – originally Ender is six, and the training takes a few years, but in the movie he is a lot older to start with and the training takes place only in a very short time. That’s forgivable – just – but the fact that Ender is supposed to be small and innocent and vulnerable is lost when the boy is actually a lot taller than Bonzo!

So all in all I was incredibly disappointed by the movie, which seemed to miss most of the story and get wrong the parts it did include.

The lesson, however, of how to pull your story apart, figure out the exact purpose of each scene and how to put it into a different context is a valuable one.