One thing that aspiring writers often want to know about is planning.
Well, that and ‘which word processing app do you use?’ (I’ll give you the tip, you can write on a stone tablet and if it’s good, publishers will pay attention, but if it’s not, they won’t. It makes virtually no difference which you go with).
My planning process varies for each project, but here’s my basic outline of how I go about things, which might help provide some insight into the steps required – at least from my perspective.
First is obviously the idea.
I’m usually inspired by stories I read – both fiction and non-fiction – and things that stick with me. Why does that story affect me so much? What is it about that element, that section, that thing, whatever it may be, that gets to me and keeps me coming back to it.
For example, with my first novel Rohypnol, I couldn’t shake the confusion of trying to understand why someone would want to spike someone’s drink. For ONE, it was about past relationships, and how they’d changed who I am, how I trust – why do we let people have such a huge impact on us?
Other themes in other works stem from questions like who we are, and how our experiences define our actions, my struggle to deal with the idea that someone might bully my kids – and how I’d be powerless to stop it, the nature of revenge and the futility of retaliation, how our efforts to protect our kids from the ills of the world may be creating unconscious stigmas around the very things we should be looking to fix.
These are the questions that get me thinking, that spark ideas which will ideally fuel narratives that enable me to explore them, and understand them better for myself, and also for an audience.
How those ideas start is always different, but I’ll think them over and start to formulate ways I could explore them. Sometimes those ideas fall apart, or stagnate at a certain point. Other times they start to flow, enough for me to start writing. And that’s when I begin.
Once I’ve gone over and over an idea and come up with a narrative that feels like it might be something, I normally start writing, just to see, at this stage, just to poke it around a bit.
Is there a voice that comes through, a style? Is there an approach to this story that feels right, and that awakens something within me that I then feel compelled to get down?
Normally, by this stage, I have a fair idea of whether or not the story is going to work. Whether that’s as a short story, a novella, a novel, that’s harder for me to say, but there’s something there, a thread to follow, and I start to feel a compulsion to come back to it and keep going.
By about 15k words (but normally earlier), I’ve got a fair idea of a potential structure, and how it’ll play out. Then I usually go on to planning it out in a bit more detail.
Mapping the Story
Because literary fiction has no definitive structure or story scaffolding that can help keep things on track – unlike, say, thrillers or fanstasy novels – this part is largely flying on instinct.
What feels right for the story? What needs to happen here to lead to the next part? Are there any gaps that need to be filled, or elements which could be added to reinforce the main themes?
Here, I’ll write the chapter breakdown, with notes on what has to happen in each, which I put together by just thinking through the progression based on the structure I’ve at least somewhat settled on in my initial writings.
(My handwriting is also very difficult to read, even for me at times. So there’s that too)
That makes it easier for me to visualize the whole story – and most importantly, see gaps and places where things can be added (my stories are always shorter, if anything, so I generally need to add things in to fill them out and complete the broader picture).
I also have notes on a whiteboard near my desk, so that I can sit before the whole listing and take it all in.
Sometimes, I do this after I’ve completed the first draft, but I always do it at some stage to help me plan out the progression.
Cross-Checking the Elements
Here’s a step that I think will help all writers – once I have a plan that feels solid, I cross-check that against Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ model, which, theoretically, all stories are based upon.
Now, The Hero’s Journey is up for interpretation – check out ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler to get a more modern take on the Journey and its varying applications in modern storytelling. But basically, if you have a feel for the progression that audiences expect from stories – which you already instinctively do through your consumption of books and movies over time – then you can get an understanding of what will help make your story more compelling.
Does that mean you have to make changes to make it to fit into a formulaic structure? Absolutely not. I cross check my progression against the basic Hero’s Journey model to see if I have the key elements there, the things that will likely help keep audiences engaged.
You can, of course, follow the Journey to the letter – George Lucas did this when we wrote ‘Willow’. And that was okay, but it wasn’t a huge success, which underlines that The Hero’s Journey is not prescriptive. It’s really a base guide, of sorts, that will help ensure your story is as engaging as it can be.
You don’t have to adhere to it, you should definitely go with what feels right, but if there are any elements missing, it may give you something to think about, structurally or story-wise, which could help enhance the way it plays out.
Refining and Evolving
Once I have a full first draft down, I take it to the printers and print it out. Which is when the real work begins.
This is a hard part to swallow for some writers – once you’ve got your first draft together, and you’ve been thinking about it for months, you’ve been working on it for months, and you’re so excited that you have this thing you’ve finally done, this is where you actually need to work it. This, unfortunately, is not the time to show anyone.
Stephen King described the drafting process in his ‘On Writing’ book (which is great, even if you don’t like his books. I don’t like his books):
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”
My variation of this is that I write a first draft, and by the end of that draft I have an idea of the voice the story needs. I then seek out other books with similar voices, so that I can see how they’ve done it, then I read and re-read certain books and passages in the style I’m going for, hoping to adopt some of that flow in my work.
The risk is that you can start to sound too much like those you’re emulating, but the likelihood is, you won’t. You have your own writing style, as do the writers you’re getting inspiration from, so while you can get on a similar wavelength, you can’t totally re-create it. And you don’t want to, you just want to help smooth the edges of your prose and bring it into line with the voice and approach that best fits.
I generally have a few books I use for inspiration on each project, and I read them intermittently before I write each day. I find that if I read outside of the style I’m trying to write in, that can have a negative impact – at least till I’m at the point that I feel confident that the voice of my work is strong enough to stand on its own, and fuel the rest of its direction through the power of its own narrative.
So, as noted, I print out the first draft, then the work begins on really editing each section, with pen written notes all over the place – stuff I’m going to have to add in later.
Yes, I work with a pen. My first drafts are always written by hand. I find it helps my writing flow, it helps the thoughts spill from my brain in a more natural way.
This first re-write – effectively a second draft – is tough. As you can see from this page, I add in heaps of notes, I fill in new sections on the opposite page, I write new parts in my note book to add in. It generally takes a couple of months to go through the first draft (I work on my fiction writing around 3 hours each school day, when I’m free of my day job and kids), then it takes a couple of weeks to enter in all these freakin’ edits (I honestly hate myself for adding in so many notes every time – why do you do it? Why make more work for yourself?)
From there, I print it out again, and I get it bound at the local Officeworks. I find that having a physical copy of it in front of me gives me a clearer idea of what it will look like to readers, and helps me with my objectivity, separating myself from the work.
I then go through the whole process again.
Generally, once I’ve re-drafted and added in and done all I can after the second print/edit process, then I feel like I have it down, at least to the point where I can invite readers. But this is also a case-by-case proposition, and largely based on feel. Do I feel like I’ve got it right? Is there anything more I can add or enhance? If it sits uncomfortably, I know I have more to do, so I stick with it.
This process will also involve a bit of sitting in front of my whiteboard, and lying in bed till all hours staring at the roof, going over each part again and again.
Once it feels right, when I feel like I can’t think of how to improve it, that it’s covered off all I intended, that’s when I can send it out.
More to Come
So, that’s how I basically go about planning – and there’s obviously specific research and variations for each project, no two are ever the same.
Sometimes, the research takes ages, and often involves visits to the places in question to get a true feel for the space you’re trying to inhabit. So that’s not a small part either, despite my not delving into it in depth.
Also, another part that can be tough to swallow – I know that, at this stage, the project is nowhere near complete.
From here, readers will come back with notes. The good notes are annoying because they highlight generally obvious mistakes or discrepancies that you should have picked up. Ideally, they aren’t so significant that they dismantle your entire premise, but it can happen, which is why you need to be as harsh on yourself and your own ideas as possible, and conduct relevant research and inquiry, before you open yourself up to readers.
The bad notes are annoying because they don’t help. Not all comments and notes are created equal, but you shouldn’t outright dismiss anything, from anyone. All are worthy of a moment of consideration. You read them over, take them in, then match them against your vision for the project. If you feel like what you have aligns with what you’re trying to communicate, keep it as is. If they raise a relevant point, regardless of your personal feelings – and especially if more than one person highlights the same concern – then you may need to re-edit.
And even this is all before the real editing process has begun (if you’re lucky enough to get published), which is essentially a variation of the first noted drafting stages, but with professional input, ideally from an editor you like and trust.
And that also takes months and months of back and forth.
It’s hard, there’s a heap of work involved – which is why it’s a little heart-breaking to see discounted books, knowing the work the authors have put into them.
But it’s what I do, it’s what all authors do – you’re driven to write because you love it, because the story speaks to you and enables you to understand something about the world in more depth, and hopefully facilitate the same for your readers. It’s not about money or fame for the vast, vast majority of writers, it’s part of who you are. It’s what I would do regardless, what I can’t help but come back to (but don’t tell my publishers that or I’ll torpedo any marginal negotiating capacity I have).
So yes, it’s a lot of work, and a lot of potentially unforgiving, unpaid, and definitely unappreciated effort. But if you want to get it right, you’ll do it, and you’ll know when it feels like you’ve hit the right mark.