Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing Tip: On Research and Planning

I don't plan my novels.

Like, not at all.

Except that I sort of do.

Yesterday and the day before, I had two events in Asheville, and at both I was asked about my process. I usually turn it into a bit of a joke:
Audience Member: How do you plan your novels?
Me: I don't. I just write, and if stuff gets boring, I blow something up or kill off a character.
Which, honestly, is true. But it's also sort of not.

So here's the thing. I have enough of an outline for a synopsis -usually about a page or more. Which means I know the highlights--the main characters, the biggest plot points, a sort of mystery/solution. That is all very vague, and it's also very flexible.

Once I have that--remember, it's not really more than about a page--I start doing research. This is where Scrivener becomes so invaluable to me--it's such an easy way to stay organized and on top of the research. A lot of this part of the story is figuring out who the characters are before the start of the novel. Very little of this stuff ends up in the actual book.

I make character sheets and setting sheets for the story--all the key locations as well as the key characters. This stuff will often just start with the name of a character, and then, as I write, I fill in the details more and more. For example, for my new main character's mother, I knew I wanted her to have a terminal disease. So I started with just her name, and the note that she was sick. As the story progressed, I realized I needed more details for her disease, so I also now have a folder for her fictional disease, complete with symptoms, treatments, etc.

Same with setting. This new story will be set on a real place, so I had to get the size of the city right, as well as things like distance between it and another city. I started with a map of the country, with arrows pointing out the places I wanted to include in the story. Then the city. I broke it up to include different areas (i.e. rich neighborhood, poor neighborhood). I have a somewhat unique form of transportation, so I added a section there for it.

Again, all of this starts out pretty vague--often just a few little details that I want to include. This means that I still write the story as I go--I just add more details into the sheets as I think of them (and as they become necessary to the story).

In Scrivener, I also have a few additional sections that are invaluable to me:

I'll go back to Drafts later. For now, I want to talk about Ideas and Research. For Ideas, I add in any big things that I think of as they come. For plot, I currently have a scene in that document that I'd like to include by the end--a short conversation that I think is very telling of two characters. If you've read Shades of Earth, an example of this is the conversation Emma has about what home is--I had the idea for that conversation before I even started writing the book (which is why Emma is French, so she can use the words she mentions), and kept that short conversation in the Ideas folder until I got to a point where I could put it in the story. Not all the ideas I get can be used, and typically, this list of ideas is no more than a hand full of scenes. But because I write in order, if I have an idea for a scene that comes later in the book, I jot it down here so I don't forget it later.

You'll also notice I have a Save the Cat folder. I've found that the awesome writing book, Save the Cat, is more helpful to me when I revise (perhaps because I don't like outlines!). In that folder, I have a simplified form of Blake Snyder's chart of the stages of plot, and when I finish my draft, I'm going to compare it to the highlights of plot in that chart.

In Research, I have many more documents than what you see here--but I cut them out so as to avoid spoilers. This is where the notes I gather go. Often, I just cut-and-paste articles (with links so I can find them again for reference). I tend to look at research as a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure--I write about things that fascinate me, so I seek out the information that I find fascinating, and pick up tidbits to put in the book.

I also have my proposal in there--so I don't lose track of the original idea, which is very easy to do.

Going back to the Drafts folder: because I make it up as I go, I tend to have to rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And that's where drafts come in. That current folder--Draft: Jan2013--has almost 25,000 words in it.

I just started the book over. I realized the tech wasn't techy enough, and not enough a part of my characters lives. I'd not done the research on the mom's illness, so I didn't have those details right. And a pivotal turning point in that draft was...lame. It involved dog kid-napping. Like I said, lame. So I moved all of that into the draft folder and started over--but I'm writing now with a split screen. The original draft is on the bottom, the new draft is on the top. I can cut-and-paste from one draft to the next for the scenes that don't need altering. I re-read as I go, fixing things up.

Above is an actual screenshot of the novel I'm currently working on. You can see in the top left, that I've only re-written up to chapter 5. In the deleted drafts, I'd reached chapter 16. The top part of the split screen is a section from the new Chapter 1; the bottom half is a section of the old Chapter 1. I write in the top section, cutting and pasting in a few scenes from the bottom that still work. The numbering of the chapters is often different--for this rewrite, I'm holistically deleting the current chapters 5-7, and adding in an entirely different chapter 2.

It's a lot of work to write this way, but it's the best way for me to work. It's a lot of building something up, smashing it down, and building it up again. It's very cyclical; it's very time-consuming. I'm sure there are more efficient ways...but they don't work for me.

The reason I'm going into so much depth here is that I don't want to give anyone the impression that writing without an outline is easy, or that I just sit down and write, and it's perfect the way it is. I do just sit down and write...but then I delete and rewrite. Again and again.


Britt Kaufmann said...

I love Save the Cat -- except that it's so exacting. But I use it (to write plays) down to the 40 notecards. An audience attention-span is not something to be tested, so I do it to plan for time -- which isn't nearly as necessary in novel writing.

My big test: convincing sci-fi on stage while still being low budget.

Sorry I missed you in Asheville, I was away on a writing weekend reading scientific papers on singularity.

Daisy Carter said...

This is so wonderful to read because, even though I know it's bull-honky, in my head all successful writers either rigidly outline or write perfect first drafts.

So great to hear that someone else's process is extremely similar to mine. :)

BTW, LOVED Shades of Earth! Brava!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing :) I always like to see how other people write!

middle grade ninja said...

What a fantastic post! Very useful stuff here that I'll try to incorporate. Thanks for sharing.