Planning A Series VI

Sometimes things work.

Sometimes they don’t.

Remember that single index card I wrote out? The one that was the great breakthrough? The one that would lead the way for the other hundreds of index cards I was going to write?

It didn’t happen.

That one index card was the only one I wrote.

My poor, sad, lonely index card.
My poor, sad, lonely index card.

A few days after I wrote it, I gave up on deluding myself. I sat down with my laptop, opened a blank document in Pages, and put numbered headings in bold down the left hand side of the page, one for each book in the series.

1. Whitu

2. Chorus

3. Lunacy

And so on

Then I broke out the bullet points. I said to myself, okay, each bullet point is one index card. And I started typing.

1. Whitu

  • When Nathan Walker’s wallet is stolen, he gives chase and meets a street thief named Nita.
  • And so on

And it’s working. I’m making progress. I have over a thousand words in bullet points. It’s nowhere near finished: at a rough estimate I’d say the finished list will be anywhere between ten and twenty thousand words. The more words, the better. It’s essentially a rough outline of every single book in my series, and it has to note every subplot and how they progress over however-many-books-they’re-in, where the foreshadowing is for certain events and how much is needed at different times, what my characters are going through and what they’re feeling from what they went through in the last book, and so on and so forth etc etc ad nauseam.

Some of these points literally consist of three words.

  • Nate meets Celia.

And some of them consist of entire (and very long) paragraphs filling in the backstory of a fairly minor character.

  • Blah blah blah backstory blah backstory blah character motivation blah backstory blah history blah backstory.

And that’s ok. Because it works for me.

So. My advice: find out what works for you. Try different methods. Give index cards a shot. Try handwriting notes. Try typing out bullet points. Try drawing diagrams of plot arcs and filling them in. And if one method doesn’t work for you, try something else. Even if it does work for you, try something else, and if the Something Else doesn’t work better, go back to the method that did work for you.

In the end, it’s all about finding what works for you. 

“But Rowling used a hand-drawn spreadsheet!”

If that works for you, fine. But remember: You’re not Rowling, and your book isn’t Order of the Phoenix.

“But Ted Dekker does it this way!”

Again: if it works for you, fine. But you’re not Ted. You’re you. You have to do it your way.

“But – !”

No. Stop.

I repeat: You are not another author. You are you. Your writing is yours and yours alone. Your plots, your characters, your books will be yours and yours alone.

Find what works for you.

Use it.

And then tell me, so I can give it a go and see if it works better than doing it my way.

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Lessons from the Codex Alera

At the recommendation of a friend, I decided to give Jim Butcher’s books a try this week. The library didn’t have the first Dresden Files book, but they did have the first three in the Codex Alera series, so I got those out.

I read the first book in eight hours straight.

I read the next one the next day, and the third one the day after that.

Then I went to the library, returned those three, got the fourth one out, and read that on day four.

Yeah, they’re good. The dialogue is flawless and the action is seamless. But it’s more than that: these books are teaching me things not just as a reader, but as a writer.

They’re teaching me that every character has motivation for their actions.

They’re teaching me that every character has a backstory, and some of those backstories will be more hopelessly complicated than you could ever imagine.

They’re teaching me that characters can change motivations. Characters can change plots. Characters can change characters. And vice versa. The board is never fully set; the pieces are always moving, and a pawn can stand up, grow some ambition, and in a few moves they can become a queen.

They’re teaching me that when you plan something properly, the payoff is huge. It’s not enough to just throw in a few half-hearted plot twists at the end of the book. It’s not enough to suddenly reveal at the end of book three that your main character isn’t who we thought he was. You need to plan it; you need to throw hints in for your readers. You need other characters to know what’s happening so that they can react according. Does the mother know her son’s identity? She’ll react one way. Does the best friend know? He’ll react in quite a different way. And you, the writer, need to know everything they know, otherwise you’ll write your characters thinking things they couldn’t possibly think, or acting in ways they wouldn’t act.

One step at a time. Applying these lessons is going to be huge. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to take more time and effort than I can probably spare. But I will do it, because if I don’t… well. My books won’t be worth reading. They might not even be worth writing.

And that would be tragic.

Planning A Series V

I have to be honest: I’ve been a bit (okay, more than just a bit) paralysed this last week. I finished this round of edits for Chorus, and then… nothing. Not nothing-nothing – I went to work, did some stuff around the house, caught up with friends, and so on – but I didn’t do any planning. None. For a whole week, or more than a week, I don’t know, I wasn’t keeping track.

I couldn’t face it. My mind was frozen somewhere between future manic workaholism – write the next book and the next book and next book and do it now – and current clamouring need to plan the series. I needed to plan it, I even had a plan for how to plan it… and I just couldn’t face it. I didn’t know where to start, I didn’t know how to start.

My stacks of index cards had been sitting on the table, staring at me accusingly from behind their plastic wrapping. I hadn’t even opened them.

So finally I said: stuff itI refuse to let this paralyse me any longer. What was I so afraid of? That I’d mess up writing a card? I have hundreds of the things. That I’d write a few dozen before finding that this method of planning doesn’t work for me? I can just move on to the next method. That I wouldn’t know what to write or how to write it? It’s just like any other writing: slow and torturous for the most part, with flashes of inspiration at the most inconvenient times possible.

Of course, life being what it is, my sudden determination to get on and plan this Thing was interrupted by the fact that I had to go to work. I ripped open the wrapping on one of the packs of index cards, grabbed a few, and tucked them into my bag with my notebook. Maybe I could get something done after I got there.

And I did! I found a park, checked the time, and still had ten minutes before I had to head inside. So I pulled out my notebook…

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Notebook, meet steering wheel. I’m sure you’ll be good friends.

… retrieved a pen and an index card…

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The index cards fit perfectly into the little pocket at the back of the notebook.
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My mortal enemy of the week: a blank index card.

… and, right then and there, wrote my first index card.

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Ta-da! Stage 2: Index Card Planning is officially under way.

I only wrote on half the card because I’m planning to cut them in half, on account of a) I don’t need all that space and b) I’d rather have 400 cards than 200. Twenty one books is an overwhelming thought sometimes, and it’s going to take a lot of cards to plan the series.

Fear conquered. That’s not to say that I’ll have my first hundred cards written within the hour, but it’s certainly progress.

Minas Morgul

One thing I love about Tolkien is his mastery of description. Take, for example, my favourite paragraph in the whole trilogy:

A long-tilted valley, a deep gulf of shadow, ran back far into the mountains. Upon the further side, some way within the valley’s arms, high on a rocky seat upon the black knees of the Ephel Duath, stood the walls and towers of Minas Morgul. All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light. Not the imprisoned moonlight welling through the marble walls of Minas Ithil long ago, Tower of the Moon, fair and radiant in the hollow of the hills. Paler indeed than the moon ailing in some slow eclipse was the light of it now, wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing.
— “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.

Okay, people mutter about Tolkien taking three pages to describe a field of flowers (which to my mind is gross exaggeration – if anyone can find me the relevant passage I’ll happily stand corrected,) but this single paragraph tells us a lot. It sets the atmosphere: dark, grim, spooky. It shows us where Sam and Frodo are in their journey: they’re moving from the woods of fair Ithilien to a more dangerous path. It tells us a little of the history of Gondor and the spread of Mordor’s evil: this tower didn’t always belong to the enemy.

In short, it balances setting, backstory, and plot with deceptive simplicity. It shows us the immediate setting, alludes to the backstory, and moves the plot forward – all in one short paragraph.

Besides which, the tone of it is exquisite. That last sentence gives me shivers every time I read it.