Category Archives: Brainstorming

On different planning methods

So I was pointed to the Snowflake method of novel planning today. I’d heard of it before, but never really investigated. Today my curiosity was peaked, since someone mentioned that my planning method looked a little like Snowflake, so I went over and checked it out. Obviously every writer is different in terms of how they plan and what works for them, but Snowflake is definitely a nicely detailed checklist of things to do for people who don’t know where to start. (It’s also fairly time consuming, so it’s not for the super impatient, sad to say.) Certainly it’s interesting, but one sentence towards the end caught me eye:

I have heard many fiction writers complain about how hard the first draft is. Invariably, that’s because they have no clue what’s coming next.

This to me is a bit astounding. Not because I always have an idea of what’s coming next (I almost always don’t) but because to me that’s the fun part of writing. I love following my characters into the unknown and figuring out what’s going to happen as they do. It’s exciting, not knowing where this journey will take you. I write for the same reason I read: I want to know how the story ends and what happens to these people when they get home again. Planning a story too thoroughly ahead of time ruins that journey for me because I already know everything. There’s nothing to explore anymore, nothing to discover.

That’s not to say that I don’t plan. I do, sometimes quite extensively.* But my planning revolves more around worldbulding than plot or even really characterization. My characters often come to me fully formed, and those that don’t tend not to want to give up their secrets until we get to that point in their story. Lately I’ve been playing around with the idea of a scenelist, an idea borrowed from Rachel Aaron, who pointed out that the scenelist doesn’t have to be in order at the beginning of the process. She goes on to write out every single scene, but I stopped at the more important ones and put those in order. So, for instance, here’s the scenelist for┬áSkytouched, which is a story I hadn’t planned to write until July but sometimes life doesn’t work the way you want it to:

Current draft of the scenelist for Skytouched

There are, in fact, twelve chapters in Skytouched, but the last three don’t have any scenes yet and, anyway, my screen won’t hold them all at the same time. The novella is planned at around 50,000 words, and I have 19 scenes listed. That’s not nearly as many as I’ll have in the final draft, but these are the ones that I considered important when thinking up the story. Actually, this is fairly detailed, as scenelists go, because my main characters seem to enjoy talking to me. The scenelist for Amberspun Spiderwebs (my official Camp NaNoWriMo project) is much more typical:

Scenelist for Amberspun Spiderwebs

This is for a full length novel, not a novella, mind you. These characters are being quite reticent about their story, though presumably they’ll open up as I actually start writing.

Anyway my point is that nothing works for everyone. For some people, planning everything out to the most minute detail works best. For some, doing that is akin to committing creative suicide before even starting to write. But at the end of the day, there is no right way to write. Really the only way to figure out what works is to try out several different things and see what fits. Writing should be fun, and anything that makes it fun is the right way to do it.

In other news, Camp NaNoWriMo starts in a little over 24 hours. Expect regular progress reports throughout June.

All pictures are of the Liquid Story Binder program, for which I cannot claim credit.

 

*I plan more extensively for fanfiction than I do for original fic, but that’s a blog post for another day.

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Canon creation

Being an introverted type without a car, I spend a lot of my time on the internet. One of the things I do while wasting time online is read fanfiction. Lots of fanfiction. I discovered the internet via fanfiction, and that first love has never really left me. I spend a lot more time reading fanfiction than I do reading original fiction and, because my writer brain tends to turn on when I read something, I will often find an idea in a story and go, “I want to write something like that!” Usually this comes in the form of more fanfiction ideas than I know what to do with, some of which get started and some of which linger in my mind for a while before giving up and going away. (Very few of them ever get finished, though I’m still trying.) Lately, though, I’ve been trying to take those fanfic ideas and turn them into original stories, or add them into pre-existing ideas for original stories. Which is fine and an interesting challenge, but it brings up one of the key differences between fanfiction and original fic: fanfiction comes with pre-written history.

That probably sounds obvious and, really, it is. The whole point of fanfic is that you’re taking someone else’s creation and using it as a springboard for your own creativity. Fanfic lets you fill in holes or continue the story or shove two (or more) of your favorite characters into closets together until they give in and admit their undying devotion to each other. Fitting your vision into someone else’s world is a great exercise in creativity and flexibility and expanding someone else’s universe tends to be quite rewarding. (Or at least I think so. I am, after all, a fanfic author.) But all of those things that make fanfic fun go away when you take that idea and transfer it into your own universe. All the history you could draw on before goes away and you have to make all of it up from scratch. More importantly, you can’t assume that your reader knows that history. Fanfiction allows for shortcuts. You can namedrop characters without having to explain who they are or why they matter. Previous events can be alluded to without going into detail because you expect your reader to have the same background in the source material that you do. The moment you leave fanfiction you lose that shared background. Now the only person who knows the history is you and you have to convey that history to the reader without taking away from the story you’re actually telling. It also means that you have to, at some point, actually sit down and figure out what that history actually is. You have to establish your own canon.

This is currently quite relevant to me because my newest project was born from fanfic. It started as a what if question and was sternly guided out of the world created by J.K. Rowling and into one created by me. So far so good — the story wasn’t so hugely character-based that it couldn’t leave the magical world of Harry Potter. I started figuring out the basics — characters, setting, plot ark, etc — and even got a couple thousand words written. But the more I thought about it the more I realized how little I actually know. I know a decent amount about the future. I know the ark of the story and where the characters will end up (at least roughly; my stories work best when I don’t plot them too tightly beforehand). I know what the actions of the characters mean for the world they inhabit and how this story connects to the other stories set in this same world about 250 years later. What I don’t know is what happened before. The story starts in the middle of the final battle of a war. It picks up, in fact, just before a more traditional hero’s story would end: the final clash of good and evil where evil is defeated and good returns home victorious. The story is an exploration of what happens next. A tale of rebuilding, essentially, with wounds that are slow to heal and people whose childhoods were lost to conflict becoming adults in their own right. The problem is that I know very little about that more traditional hero’s story. I don’t know how my hero (who, spoiler, dies in the first sentence of this draft) became a hero, and I don’t know how he and my main character met. I don’t know much about my now defeated villain either. Back when this was fanfiction I had seven books of information to draw from for all of this, but now that resource no longer exists.

So I’m worlbuilding. I’m taking time off from getting to know my characters as they are now to get to know them as they were then. I’m figuring out how my hero came to be chosen and why my villain went down the path he did. I’m following my protagonist on her journey from wide eyed idealist to jaded warrior and making note of the major events in her life that influence her character as I met her. I’m visiting the centers of government before the war to see how that changed them and asking questions of my characters to establish their history before the opening scene of this book. I’m creating my own canon so that I can write a continuation for it. And it’s hard work, because plotting isn’t really my strong suit, but it’s hugely fun. My second favorite part of writing is worldbuilding, and this is nothing but that.

And before you ask, no, this is not the story I have planned for the June session of Camp Nanowrimo. I may still work on this in June, but my goal for that month is still to get a complete first draft of Amberspun Spiderwebs, which has its own unique set of problems that I will probably detail at length when the writing actually starts.

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Eureka! Or, that moment when everything just fits

A while ago, I had a brilliant idea for a series. It was going to be a trilogy about forbidden magic and doomed love and social upheaval, as well as banter and sexual tension both resolved and not and a whole plethora of demons. It had a beginning, a middle, an end, as well as separate arcs for each of the books, and all that was left for me to do was to write it. (Which is, as we all know, the hardest part of the whole thing.)

So I sat down and, as I do, I opened Liquid Story Binder, my writing software of choice, and started writing out notes and character and timelines and all that fun stuff. (Probably at some point I’ll write a post about how I plan stories, but for the purposes of this particular installment assume that planning happened and leave it at that.) I even wrote out snippets to test out characters and generally did all the things I usually do before getting down to actually writing. And in the midst of this I came up with three titles that I adored and which fit perfectly with the world and the main character. Only one problem: they didn’t fit with the story I was telling, they fit with the story before that one. Probably a reasonable person would have scrapped them and come up with new ones and left it at that, but I’m not always rational with regard to my writing (or, indeed, much else) and I liked the titles too much to let them go.

The obvious solution, then, would be to use them to write the story they actually described: the backstory/character arc of the main character before this main trilogy. But just two trilogies seems unbalanced, so I went and added on another trilogy after the main one. That’s three separate trilogies as part of one series, or nine books. This is, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, a lot of books. It’s a huge project, especially since I only had actual plots for about four of them. I have gone the “I don’t need to bother with this thing called plot” route before, either because I intend to make the plot up as I go along or because I find the characters fascinating enough to let them loose without anything resembling structure, but those experiments invariably end badly and often fairly quickly. I liked this series. I still do, actually. I didn’t want to sabotage it by throwing the cards into the air and seeing where they fell. (Also I have very little practice editing and don’t like it much and badly planned books always require more editing.)

Because I wanted to write it in order, and because I had very little idea of what the first trilogy would be (or, rather, I knew exactly what it would be, but straight coming of age stories are dull and I didn’t like the idea of one book spanning almost a decade. Some people can pull that off, but I am not one of them, at least not yet), the idea sat in the back of my head and LSB for a while as I worked on other things, or, actually, didn’t work on other things. Essentially I was waiting for things to click, for the part of my brain that writes for me to cough up actual ideas instead of vague what ifs.

The other day, that moment came. I was wasting time on the internet, as I tend to do, and once again went to see Rachel Aaron’s blog, which I discovered last year during NaNoWriMo and which may be the entire reason for me having this blog at all. Anyway, I was reading her new content and thinking about this series and suddenly things started falling into place. During an hour and a half I had more plot breakthroughs than I’d had in the past month. I took advantage of my walk home to talk it out to myself and fix the kinks and fill in the worldbuilding and by the time I walked through my front door I had plots for all nine books (okay, admittedly the last three are still a touch vague, but they’re a heck of a lot more substantial than they were before) and a main series arc that actually made sense as a progression of events. My LSB file for the series practically doubled in size and everything had a lot more depth than it had previously. It was really quite glorious.

In my opinion that breakthrough moment, when everything suddenly just clicks and you know exactly where the story is going to go is the most rewarding part of being a writer. Writing is like playing God, and the breakthrough moment is when you solve world hunger without flooding the planet and starting over. (Though I’ve done my fair share of flooding worlds as well. My idea of editing a terrible first draft is to just start over.) I find this moment much more rewarding than writing the actual end of a draft, which has always seemed incredibly anticlimactic to me. Granted I’ve never gone through the writing process far enough to actually get a properly polished final draft (remember how I said I’m not good at editing?) but finishing first drafts tends to be less exciting than I think it will be. Probably because I’ve already used up my excitement several days previously when that last plot snarl untangled itself and suddenly the way to the end was clear and so very obvious.

Naturally this plot breakthrough isn’t the last one I’m going to have about this story, and it’s very likely that I’ll come back and scrap the whole idea and go off in a completely different direction. It happens. But for the moment I have a plot arc that I love which comes in manageable chunks with enough vague portions for writing it to still be something of an adventure. Of course that means actually sitting down to write, which, as well all know, is much harder than deciding what to write. But that is a post for another day, so I shall leave you and go coax some words out of my terribly uncooperative brain.

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