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I&E follow-along: Outlining

This week I’ve been off work, so despite the distractions of a convention I’ve managed to get most of HtTS Lesson 8’s exercises done. I still have a few gaps in my character planning, but I have the core of their story motivation so that will do for now. The rest required little or no work, since I’d already done the wordbuilding during my earlier brainstorming phase.

So, next up is the outline! I’ve decided I want to try outlining this book in detail, just to find out if I can make the method work for me—I have plenty of time this summer for experimenting. The idea is that if I can do it this way, I can storm through the first draft this autumn in a couple of months and end up with something that doesn’t need to be rewritten from scratch before I dare show it to my agent! Read more

I&E follow-along: Stage 4

With my initial brainstorming period complete, I can finally start planning the books—hurrah!

Stage 4: Creating the framework

A lot of writers go straight from idea-generation into outlining their novel scene-by-scene, but I’ve discovered that this doesn’t really work for me. There’s a big difference conceptually between the narrative—the stuff you actually show the reader on the page—and the plot, i.e. the objective sequence of what happens in the world of the story. I like to know what my plot is before I decide which parts of it I want to show the reader (and through whose eyes). Read more

New fantasy series: follow-along

I recently went back to the forums of Holly Lisle’s online Novel Writing School, where I was somewhat abashed to discover I’m somewhat of a poster girl for the courses (well, I did get a three-book deal out of the manuscript I put through How to Revise Your Novel!). When I mentioned I was using the How to Think Sideways writing course materials to help me with the new series I was planning, one of the moderators thought that students would find it interesting to hear what I was doing. However I don’t just use Holly’s materials, and I thought it might be confusing to students on the course if I talked about my own methods on the official forum. So, if you’re here via a link from the HtTS forums (and even if you’re not), welcome! Read more

NaNoWriMo 2012

Way back in 2006 I was struggling to finish a novel—any novel—so I decided to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to push me past the opening chapters, which is where I always used to stall. It worked so well that I did it again in 2007, and those two drafts formed the basis for my first two novels, The Alchemist of Souls and The Merchant of Dreams. They had to be practically rewritten from scratch, but writing them had proved to me that I could indeed finish a novel-length manuscript in a short period of time.

Fast forward to 2012, and I’m trying to finish the first draft of The Prince of Lies, the final book in my Elizabethan trilogy. This is the first all-new book I’ve written since 2007, and I’m still finding the drafting process difficult. My first draft prose is better than it was six years ago (thankfully), but wrangling a novel-length plot doesn’t get any easier! And since the book is pencilled in to be published in November next year, I need to get my skates on!

I’m therefore doing what you might call an “unofficial” NaNoWriMo, in that I’m not starting a project from scratch (one of the “rules” insisted on by NaNo-purists), but I do hope to finish it by the November 30th deadline and it will take me approximately 50,000 words to do that. We have a large NaNoWriMo group here in Cambridge, and joining in with them always gives me a buzz (I’ve used NaNoWriMo in the intervening years to get me through revisions and editing).

Anyway, I probably won’t be online much for the next month (apart from weekly blog posts and occasional @MalCatlyn tweets, which I can schedule ahead of time), so I’ll see you all on the flip side!

PoL first draft, Days 55-56

After Saturday morning’s analysis of my writing patterns, I realised that part of my poor progress was down to an unease with the way the second section of this draft was going. Firstly I should say that the book is turning out more episodic than the previous two, probably because it covers a much longer timespan. Hence I’m trying to structure each section as a semi-independent arc, almost like a bunch of novellas (but not quite as self-contained). The third section is where things really kick off with a vengeance and the stakes are raised ever higher, so I’d found myself rushing the second section in order to get on with it. My Muse, however, had other ideas, so I decided to bring forward my planning day (usually scheduled for a Monday) and rethink the end of that arc.

I realised I needed about three more chapters’ worth of material in order to give this arc room to breathe, so I just inserted some blank documents into Scrivener to give it some shape. Then I realised it needed more action, particularly on Mal’s side of things, so I brainstormed a new scene and sat down to write it. At first it was just a bit of fun and spectacle (a joust at Whitehall Palace for a royal special occasion) but then my Muse started throwing in ideas of how this fitted into the plot. I wrote a thousand near-effortless words on Sunday and woke up this morning excited about finishing the scene…

So now I need to stop again—briefly—and assess the impact of events and how they dovetail with the rest of the plot. As I’ve said before, it’s an inefficient way to write, and I wish I could plot everything in advance and just write it down, but that’s not how my brain works. Tant pis! I’ll take what I can get, frankly, and be grateful!

Total word count: 41,325

Daily average*: 879

* now up to  9 non-writing days


PoL first draft, Days 3-12

Over the last week and a half I’ve been making very erratic progress on The Prince of Lies, sometimes clocking nicely over my 1667-words-a-day target but just as often falling well short (including not writing at all). It’s tempting to blame it on a mild stomach upset that left me feeling drained, but maybe it’s just the fact that I’m still finding my way into the story. Although I’ve planned scenes and chapters in advance, when I came to write them the rhythm felt off to me and I ended up stopping to reorganise the scenes.

I keep reminding myself that this is only a first draft and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, but on the other hand the main beats of the story need to be solid, particularly at the beginning, otherwise the whole structure will fall down. Iffy prose is one thing – it’s easy to fix in edits – but iffy storytelling requires major structural rewrites that I just don’t have time for. On the plus side, the in-situ rethinks have made for some exciting plot twists. There’s so much going on in these first few chapters that I’ll be surprised if anyone complains that this book is too slow!

I still need to pick up the pace output-wise, as I’m averaging not much more than 1000 words a day, but I guess i just need to factor more on-the-ground planning time into my schedule on top of the writing. In fact I’m starting to think that in future, I should plan as little as possible in advance and focus on starting the draft. It’s still one big learning curve right now…

Total word count: 13,605

Daily average: 1,046

PoL first draft, Days 1-2

August is upon us, and so I have no choice but to set my nose to the grindstone and start writing the first draft of The Prince of Lies. (OK so I actually started a couple of days ago – don’t tell anyone, all right?)

The thing is, I really hate writing first drafts. Really, really hate it. That vast expanse of empty wordage stretching before me, waiting to be filled? Turns my innards to water. Worse still, I didn’t complete my outline; I have a few scenes planned in detail at the beginning and some chapter ideas for the first half of the book, but then the second half is summed up in a couple of sentences. Well, maybe three. As per usual, I have no idea how I’m going to get from the midpoint of the book to the ending I have in mind.

That’s OK, though, because I’ve been here before, and now I know it’s just a case of sitting down and pushing through the fog until I find the story. I’m therefore adopting a “car headlights” approach to this draft, in that I’m only going to plan each scene in detail just before I write it, because that’s the only point at which I have a good chance of knowing what needs to happen next. I have a pocket-sized Moleskine and I’m starting a new scene outline on each righthand page – I just hope I have enough pages!

The reason I want to plan each scene before I write it is because I’m also trying out all three of Rachel Aaron’s productivity boosters at once. One leg of that tripod is to know what you’re going to write before you sit down to write it. The others are to have fun (as mentioned in my last post) and to keep a spreadsheet of writing sessions to find out when and where you’re most productive.

That brings me onto the fact that this month is also Camp NaNoWriMo, the summer version of the famous writing extravaganza, so I’m using that to try and jumpstart my mojo. After all, the first two books were originally written for NaNoWriMo, and they turned out OK in the end! Also, if I’m tracking my daily word count anyway, it’s not much more work to do a full productivity spreadsheet.

So far it seems to be working – I exceeded my 1667-word target both days! Let’s see if I can keep that up for a whole month…

Total word count: 3,538 (2 days)

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!

I’m in a Henry V mood at the moment, what with the excellent Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V) running on BBC2, and of course I’m about to launch into my own trilogy finale.

As I blogged back in February, this is the first time in five years I’ve written a completely new book, so I’m trying to condense everything I’ve learned so far into a coherent process. In an effort to improve my outlining and productivity, I’m taking a few leaves out of Rachel Aaron’s book, specifically her blog article How I Plot a Novel in 5 Steps, but adapted to suit my own foibles. For the past nine months I’ve been gestating the story, noodling around Rachel’s Steps 0-2 in an effort to develop my ideas of how the story might play out. During this stage I’ve tried on a few different scenarios for size, and because this is a long drawn-out process, it’s best done in small chunks in-between more urgent stuff like writing and promoting previous books.

However with The Merchant of Dreams handed in, there’s nothing for it now but to knuckle down in earnest to writing The Prince of Lies.

In the absence of a version of Scrivener for the iPad (still in development), I’m using a combination of Scrivener, Notebooks, and StorySkeleton for my final planning. Character profiles and general plot notes go into Scrivener and get synced to Notebooks, then as I get ideas for specific scenes I’m putting them into StorySkeleton, which will eventually get imported into the Draft folder of my Scrivener project (fingers crossed!). I’m doing it this way because to me, the plot and the narrative are two very different beasts. Some plot events will never appear on the page, so I don’t want to create index cards for them, but others will require several scenes depending on how I structure the narrative.

So far it seems to be going well – I aim to push through Step 3 (Filling in the Holes) over the next week or so, then start writing the first draft by the end of the month. If I’m still a bit stuck on plot by then, I may well start writing at the beginning and plot as I go along. It’s still one big experiment…

Starting The Prince of Lies

It’s been almost three weeks since I finished The Merchant of Dreams and sent it in to my editor, and my Muse is getting restless. I had allowed the whole of February to take a break from these books, but I see my friends tweeting about their word counts and scene-vanquishing and I feel left out. So, I reckon it’s time to step back into the fray and start planning the third and final installment in this trilogy.

I’m a bit nervous, because it’s been five years since I started writing a book completely from scratch. I know that I rewrote the first two so extensively that they might as well have been from scratch, but at least I had a vague foundation to go on, a few thousand words here and there that could be salvaged. This time all I have is a two-page synopsis that I wrote last October and a few accompanying notes.

I’ve learnt so much about how to plan and structure a novel in those five years, and yet now I feel like I have a full toolbox and no idea where to start. Do I draw a mindmap? Brainstorm some scenes on index cards? Follow the Snowflake Method? Maybe I should use this “free” time to try out different techniques? Part of me would really like to create a solid, reasonably detailed outline this time so that I can just sit down and hammer out the first draft, but I still don’t know if that’s a method that will work for me.

I guess I just need to jump, and hope I learn to fly on the way down…

Power outlining!

I spent Sunday working on the outline of The Merchant of Dreams but also playing with some of Scrivener’s more advanced features, particularly regarding outlining.

For one thing, I wanted to sync the synopses with Index Card for iPad, but only for the scenes I still need to write. For that I needed a Collection, and fortunately I think I can use a saved search rather than a manually compiled collection (which is a pain in the backside if you are continually adding new scenes). The easiest way was to set the Status field for new scenes to “To Do” and search for that, which meant checking all scenes’ status manually to ensure they had sensible values. Quickest way to do that is in Outliner mode, and it was then that I discovered the Total Words and Total Target columns – and that the totals are also calculated per folder, so I can see chapter and act totals as well! (Why, yes, I am a little OCD, now you come to mention it…)

Below is a screenshot of what the Outliner looks with my current setup. I’ve blurred the titles of the scenes to avoid spoilers, but you can see how Scrivener helps you keep track of wordcount very easily.

Scrivener Outliner (click to enlarge)
Scrivener Outliner (click to enlarge)

The upside of this is that I don’t need to maintain a separate spreadsheet any more. The one thing the Outliner currently lacks is a display of total word count for the entire draft, so I eventually created a top-level folder and moved all my act folders into it – a bit of a fudge but it has the desired effect.

I like the visual representation of progress, as it gives a quick indication of where I’m going to need to do most work on the next pass – as you can see, some of the scenes are currently well below word count, as is the nature of my early drafts. Since the progress bar goes green once you’ve reached your target and doesn’t change when you go over it, I imagine this feature is less useful to writers who are inclined to write long and then cut!

With Scrivener now under control, I’ve been able to outline a good bit more of Acts Two and Three. Now all I need to work out is how I get from “OK, now we know who and what we’re up against” to “OMG, the plan went pear-shaped!” 🙂