Seed To Flower: Bringing Ideas Along

2012-06-08 13.30.17In the last two weeks I have taken a novel from the barest seed of an idea to full outline. That probably seems fast to some of you, and slow to others. For me, it’s on the fast side. Especially since this was a cold idea, one that I just selected from the brain queue at random and said yes, you, you’ll do and not one that I’ve been rolling around in my subconscious for a few years. Every writer has a few of those.

I needed a new story. The just finished manuscript is out with betas and awaiting feedback, and there’s not point in starting the sequel yet. But writers write, and I didn’t have anything immediately on deck.

So I made something.

I picked the first idea that came to me, and started in. I wanted to test some new planning methods, and so far they’ve worked.

The first came from Delilah S. Dawson, aka Lila Bowen, who wrote Servants of the Storm and Wake of Vultures respectively, both of which are awesome. She wrote a post on using music playlists for inspiration. You all know I love music, but while I often create playlists, they’re usually done after, not before.

But I had a go. I used Spotify, gathered 32 songs that sounded about right*. It took me about a day. Then I listened to it on repeat in my big ol’ over-the-ear headphones while I knocked out fast notes on the other stuff: main character, setting, inciting incident, etc. After two days, that gave me the bare bones of what was, by this point, starting to turn into something interesting.

But it lacked structure, and I know I need structure, so I trawled through my document files until I found this: a novel outliner template by Caroline Norrington for Scrivener that I downloaded back in the long ago and never tried. No time like the present.

If you’re already had a look at that template, be warned: it’s a monster. There’s shit in there that I don’t even know what to do with. But, importantly, it had big-ass lists of questions that needed to be asked and answered before this story moves on. I can’t always think of those questions on my own. And, thanks to this, I didn’t have to.

I filled in as much of this template as I wanted, which took about a week. And now I have a scene-by-scene outline, ready to go.

Will it go anywhere? Only time will tell. And, to be honestly, it’ll tell pretty quickly; I’m planning to start writing this soon. But I have never gotten from nothing to a solid outline this quickly.

Now I’m off to make a batch of brownies.

**flies away in a puff of coffee grounds**

*About write. Eh? Eh?

How To Prep A Novel, Part Two: Stepping Stones and Questions

STS-126 - An extravehicular activity (EVA) too...

I knew Zarka was trouble. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right. You’ve got some pieces—protagonist, antagonist, conflict, unicorn cavalry—and an Idea, and now you need an outline. You need a plan.

Three caveats before we begin:
1. Much like the Pirate Code, outlines should be treated as more of a guideline. Deviate as necessary for the story. Re-outline halfway through if you have to.
2. Try different methods. No one method will work for everybody, or even on person all the time. This is one method, but I use others.
3. Don’t get so caught up in the outline that you never get around to writing the damn thing.

Got that? Everyone holding on to their unmentionable bits? Then let’s carry on.

Step Four: You Are Here.

If you did the prep work, you’ve got some idea of where your story starts. You might have an idea of where it ends.* And you’ve probably got some ideas for things that happen in between. Start there. Write down all the things that you know happen. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fucking clue how one leads to another. This is a work in progress.
Some people use index cards for this, others notebooks. I shift between one of those hardcover composition books, the index card function on Scrivener, and real life index cards. Sometimes all three. Whatever’s at hand and whatever I feel like working with. For the sake of this example, I’ll assume index cards.
Got your things written down? Good. Now, lay them out somewhere and start figuring out the connections. Ask questions. For example, if your beginning card is ’space debris is stolen from Jane’s lab in Connecticut’ and the end card is ‘Jane flies her ship into a star to kill Zarka the Destroyer before she conquers Earth’, there are some pretty obvious questions. How did Jane get into space? Did she steal that ship? Or was the ISS aware of Zarka’s plan and needed a plucky scientist to figure out a solution? Where did Zarka come from? Did she steal the space debris? Why? Or was her consciousness trapped in the debris and once she escaped did she build herself a new body from the materials in Jane’s lab?
Ask your questions and start filling in the spaces between the events that you first created. You can try to cross over the main plot and the sub-plot—really, you should, sooner or later—but I’d worry less about that right now than just making a path from A to B. You’ll probably find that the plot lines cross themselves over as you write, because that’s the way the human brain works.

Step Five: The Devil In The Details

Right now you’ve probably got a chaotic mess of scenes and characters, all jumbled together in a writerly orgy. It’s okay. Consider this the zero draft outline.
Take all those bits that you have, the questions and the answers and the cool stuff you want to happen, and start laying it out. This is where I like Scrivener; I can colour-code the cards according to plot or subplot or viewpoint character or whatever organizational system I’m using so I can see the differences. But you could also use different colour index cards, or highlighters on different lines.
As you’re laying it out, looking for the gaps. Is there enough time between the big events? Is the mystery solved too quickly? Or does that subplot about the waiter and the egg timer drag out too long? Spending too much time with one character, too little with another? The antagonist doesn’t appear until two-thirds the way through? Shuffle things around until you like what you see. Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect this time around. You’ll change things as you write, and in subsequent rewrites. That’s writing, like a virus that genetically reshuffles so it can’t be pinned down with a single cure. The point of this outline is to get an idea of where you’re going and how to get there. That’s all.
A gentle reminder: don’t fall in love with anything in this outline. It should all be open to change if the story demands it. You need the flexibility or you’re going to choke off any creativity. An outline is not a straight-jacket.

Step Six: The Big Questions

While you’re building that path discussed above, laying out your index cards like stepping stones, start thinking about the big ideas that will form the backbone of the story and how they fit into the events you’re planning.
For example, a couple of a years ago, I wrote a story that, aside from all the abductions and murders and threats, was ultimately about one character’s redemption. He started off the story just south of neutral—not evil by any stretch, but certainly self-centred, afraid, and weak. The point of the story was to put him in situations that would force him to choose between what was easy and what was right. All the other stuff allowed him to get there.
Think about big picture ideas like that. The term ‘theme’ gets bandied about a lot, but that brings back too many memories of high school lit class for some people. Try not to have a flashback. Just consider this: Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker’s fall and ultimate redemption. The war and the rebellion and all the other stuff is important, but that one thread runs through it all. Find the thread that runs through yours and yank it until you find the other end.
The biggest question you need to answer is the ever-present why should we give a fuck? How can you force the reader to care? Because you’re going to need them to.

Coming next: Part Three, which includes finalizing the map before writing.

*I always like to have an idea of this, otherwise I end up lost. See here for more details.

Does This Draft Taste Fresh To You?

Pint of American beer

Crisp, with a lingering taste of adverbs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the ongoing quest to Win at Writing, I keep trying new methods. My brain is an experimental space. Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a new draft form, inspired by this post by Joe Hill. I bookmarked it and then threw it into the giant junk drawer that is Evernote a while back, but found it again when I was looking for some ideas about rewriting. For those of you who can’t be arsed to click through, the link discusses a method of drafting used by Hill during his writing. The part that I’ve been using lately is mentioned here:

“With my third draft, everything is rewritten from scratch. No cutting-and-pasting, no editing on-screen. Every single chapter, paragraph, and sentence must prove its worth or die.”

God help me, I do love the idea of a word death-match.

I found this interesting, though. I’ve always edited the existing document. Or maybe a copy if I wasn’t feeling entirely certain about my changes. The snapshot feature on Scrivener is great for that. Never occurred to me to do it any other way. Isn’t it weird how that works?

Anyway, lately I’ve been splitting the screen into two documents, keeping the original on the bottom, and writing again as I edit. It’s slower, I can tell you that. But I think I’ve been turning out cleaner final drafts. No clutter that gets to stay in out of sheer laziness on my part. I have to want a line in a story bad enough to type it from scratch. You really consider how much you want to say something when you’re doing that.

Also, it makes my hands tired.

This is all good stuff, though. It makes me much less tolerant of my own bullshit. And, man, can I bullshit.

I’ll try this way for a while, see how it works out for me. But, if you haven’t clicked through yet, you should check out that article. There’s some interesting tips on drafts in there. Some of it might work for you. I’m all about the experiments. Stay tuned for more, or drop me a note in the comments about what you do. I might try it myself.

And, hey, Hill’s got a great line about writing: “I just want story. Story and a little music.”

Ain’t that the truth.