Thursday, January 29, 2009

The plotting treadmill

I'm working on the fifth book in a series, and I think I'm slowly gaining an understanding of how to actually plot and write a novel.

Each book has a tortuous gestation period, which consists of me machine-gunning ideas at endless sheets of paper, then gathering up the smoking ruins and attacking them with a mental machete. My plot outlines get printed, scrawled on, stuffed back into the computer, printed and reprinted until (and I believe this is the key), I've memorised every nuance in the three to four page outline.

It makes sense, doesn't it? How can you insert foreshadowing for chapter seven events in chapter three, if this foreshadowing conflicts with events in chapters 19, 27 and 30? You can't be scanning and re-scanning pages of text to test the ramifications of every new idea.

I reckon it's 4-6 weeks before the general shape of the plot sinks in. This means not only the 4 pages of short scene titles, but the 10+ pages of lengthier descriptions too. Actors who regularly memorise parts for entire plays will be scoffing at this, but don't forget the plot of a novel is an ever-changing thing. The bits I remember most clearly were probably written out three weeks ago. Characters go missing and new ones take their place. A previously friendly sidekick is now a mortal enemy.

Once I have a finished outline I print it off and read it fresh, as though I'd never seen it before. Is it clear? Consistent? Does everything make sense? No, usually not. I may see the first mention of 'the robot', and so I scrawl an answer to the question "Which robot?" in the margin. If there are minor details I underline them, and later on I'll move those to the broader scene descriptions rather than the focused lines of summary.

After entering these changes I'll print off the summary again, and repeat the process until I'm happy.

Eventually this four page document will contain a clear and precise outline of the novel, with motivations and decisions explained rationally. That's the document I send my editor for comment, and the real work begins when she emails me back.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)

1 comment:

Ken Prevo said...

Interesting. Ever long to be back at the ol' family business? Seems a 40 or 50 hour work week would be a vacation.

I've decided -- after review of your blog -- never to write a novel. Maybe a short story; but, only if it is one guy on a desert isle -- a small desert isle.