How to plan your story–book review

rote, I always just started writing and then let the process go wherever it would. This is called ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, or just ‘pantsing’, and it has given me a few stories I really like (this Butler robot one, this silly programmers=God one, and many more… as well as a LOT that I didn’t ever finish) .

More recently I’ve been trying to shift towards planning stories before starting writing. Published results of these are s-Perfect and the upcoming Alien Invasive Species (see Stories page for the link, when it becomes available).

Planning takes a kind of effort that is of a different flavour to just writing. It’s enjoyable and revealing to just write by the seat of your pants and see where the hidden folds of your mind take you, but I’m finding it leads to several problems: i) the endings can fall flat, because you never have a better idea of how they’ll end till you get there and have to squirm your way to something interesting; ii) whatever themes your story carries are adopted somewhere along the way, so don’t pervade the whole story as deeply as they would if you designed the story, character and scenes all with the theme in mind; iii) you’re more likely to bump against writer’s block, since you get a good enough lump of story behind you that it becomes quite scary that the unknown continuation cannot live up to what you have.

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In pursuit of better planning, I’m reading a book called ‘Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing’. It is turning out to be a great book. (A few stats about the author: She can write a 92,000 word novel in three weeks (after doing the plan); her first novel took two years to write (sans plans); she makes her money by writing many books, so that readers who like one of them will spend more on her books, which requires a large catalogue; she’s written I-don’t-know-how-many books, but it looks to be over 30). Here’s the Amazon link, in case you’re interested. I thoroughly recommend it. Below is a brief and thoroughly incomplete summary of the main points.

First up, the core of your story, and of your plan, is not the story (or plot, or whatever you call that), it’s the character arc of your central character. What hooks a reader is travelling along with your main character as they expose their dreadful flaw and then strive to correct it. To lay that out algorithmically, every story should have:

  1. A character
  2. who wants something
  3. but something (or someone) stands in the way
  4. so they struggle
  5. and ends up either getting or failing to get what they want

The above is the core of your story, but when you come to actually planning the outline of your story, you have to think about these three things:

  • Character arc
  • Theme
  • Pacing

(Notice that till now, plot has not been mentioned. Plot is defined as the events that link together to carry the reader through the story. However, plot can change rather dramatically, and still not affect character arc (your character is still trying to achieve the same goals), pacing or theme, and your story will hardly be affected)

Now down to the details of how to plan your character arc, because this if the core of your story, so determining who your main character is, what drives them, and what holds them back is central. To create your character arc, lay out seven points as such:

  1. Main character: name
  2. External goal: Defined based on the ending and the flaw (5 & 6), and something concrete a character can chase through the story.
  3. Antagonist: A person (or thing) that strives for the same external goal as your main character (but is quite possibly a polar opposite of them).
  4. The plot: (this is more than just a point, but you’ll have to read the book for more details!)
  5. End: This is defined based upon whether the character resolves their flaw or not
  • Flaw: This should be something enormous, which defines how the character changes throughout the story
  • Ally: The person who gets your main character back on track (to resolve their flaw) after they give up, or get too obsessed just following their external goal.

In the book, it’s presented in a different order. You should develop the point in this order: 1, Flaw, 5, 2, 3, Ally, 4. Each point is defined based upon the previous point (or points). For example, you work out 5 (the end) based upon whether or not your character resolves their flaw, and you work out the external goal as something that complements the ending (5).

That’s all I’m going to say for now (partly because I haven’t finished the book!). But I’ll say again that this book is well worth a read if you want to learn how to plan a satisfying story. Here’s the amazon link again, and here’s the author’s homepage, though I haven’t read any of her novels yet.

Sans Forgetica

Here, read this poem. When you’ve finished, read the stuff I’ve written below and answer the question. This is going to be goooood!The font

Earlier today, when writing that previous blog post and searching for ‘fonts for writing memories’, I came across a font called Sans Forgetica. It was absolutely in no way related to what I was looking for, but interesting nevertheless. And so, in the interests of not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I read more.

Sans Forgetica is a font ‘designed using the principles of cognitive psychology to help you to better remember your study notes’. It was designed (by scientists, no less!) to be harder to read than most fonts because that extra difficulty forces your brain to work harder to extract the meaning in the words, and that extra effort means you better remember what you read.

RMIT university have released Sans Forgetica for free and are saying it’ll help students remember more of what they study before an exam period. They have done research to back this up (though it may not be published yet–I can see any published papers on it).

More importantly, though: I am in the middle of my own experiment. Inspired by this unforgettable font, I downloaded it and wrote the poem above in Sans Forgetica. If it really works, then tell me:

What is the third word on the fourth line of the poem?

 

Punctuation & fonts for speech & thoughts

Below are some rules I have adopted as my own standard for punctuating/formatting speech and thought. I had never had problems with this while writing shorter stories, but with this book (now around 100K words), I have too much variety of narrative style to handle organically.

  1. Direct speech = ” ”
    (Speech occurring at the time of the narrative)
    This is actually opposite to the standard British style of using ‘ ‘, and more in line with North American style, but I don’t like the use of ‘ being the same as apostrophes, especially as it result in nasty sentences like:
    >  ‘Those sweets are the kids’.’
    >  ‘It’s Al’s.’.
  2. Quotations = ‘ ‘
    (When a character says or remembers what another character said)
    Worth noting that if you use ‘ ‘ rather than ” ” for direct speech, then this rule is reversed.
  3. General thoughts = standard font
    (Thoughts/opinions ascribed to a character, but not presented as ‘direct thoughts’)
    By ‘general thoughts’, I am meaning things like:
    >  Tom thought she looked tired.
    >  She looked tired, Tom thought.
    But not:
    >  She looks tired, Tom thought.
  4. Direct thoughts = italic font
    (Basically, direct speech, but in a character’s head)
    This is where it gets tricky. By ‘direct thoughts’, I mean things like:
    She looks tired, Tom thought.
    In this case, the narrative aim is to have the thought appear directly as if thought by the character, rather than the narrator reporting it. I have toyed with: i) getting rid of these entirely in favour of always using ‘general thoughts’–but there are times when direct thought feels right; ii) using standard font instead, but then you really can’t use present tense–it just looks like a mistake.
    Here’s a little article about it.
  5. Memory sections/flashbacks = italic font
    (Whole sections of the story that appear as memories ascribed to one character)
    Here’s the reason I had to think about this whole thing more formulaically. I have one chapter where various things the character does evoke memories. The structure is like: A, B, A, B…, where A=a section at the time of the story and B=a memory section. However, each of these sections includes multiple paragraphs, so I couldn’t just say ‘He thought: ‘ or ‘He remembered a time when…”.
    I have found places that say that italics are not the way to present flashbacks, and I can’t say that I disagree. But for what I’m writing now, it seems the most appropriate. That said, I agree with this piece, which says use of flashbacks is something to be avoided when possible! So, the next thing I do: no flashbacks!

Novel lengths

In a cafe finding reasons not to be productive, and I think doing a blog post could be a really good one!

After a relatively long period of relatively high writing productivity, my mind flits back to the length of what I’m writing (in blog terms, it’s not so far back I was thinking of this). Now ‘the novel’ is up to 96,000 words and I estimate I’ve got about 30% left to write, so the final, unedited first draft will probably be about 130K words. As I have, at various points, thought it would be a 1000-word flash story, a 14K-word short story, a 40K novella, and 80K shortish novel and a 100K-word novel, I’m now wondering: i) Is 130K appropriate, and ii) How much editing do I need to do to get it within acceptable bounds?

Here’s a good blog that gives the reasons why knowing and hitting the appropriate length is important (and here’s another with a similar view). In short, firstly, it’s a throwback to when all books were published on paper and had to be wide enough that the information of the spine could be seen but not so wide as to take up too much space or cost too much money to produce. More importantly, though, people judge & choose the books they buy by how long they are.

Mine is somewhere between general, mystery and science fiction, so appropriate lengths are:

  • General Fiction – 75,000 – 100,000
  • Mystery – 75,000 – 90,000
  • Science Fiction– 90,000 – 120,000

So, 75-120K is the range, but ideal should be towards the lower end of that, and, really, anything over 100K must be well justified.

Drat! I’m going to have to do some hardcore editing for length!

It interested me to see the list of lengths of well-known novels in that first blog. Here are a few that stood out to me, plus a few more I added:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 561,304 words — I read this years ago and it took AGES!
  • Ulysses by James Joyce – 262,869 words (source) — This is sitting on my shelf at home, but I haven’t read it yet… because it looks too long!
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling – 257,045 words — The longest of the Potters… though it was a breeze to read.
  • The Dead Zone by Stephen King — 152,270 words — I just re-read this last month and it was so easy to read that it felt much shorter.
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – 95,356 words — I’ve always thought of this as a really short book, contrasted with Brave New World, for example, which felt really long to me, but is only 65K.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 85,141 words
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 76,944 words — The first two Potter novels, both around the 80K recommended length, and, interestingly, already showing the trend of getting longer with subsequent novels.
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – 64,531 words
  • Carrie by Stephen King — 60,718 words — Far shorter than is typical for King, but it was his first published one.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – 46,333 words — Gosh! So short for a sci-fi!
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell – 29,966 words — Such a surprise that this is so short. I used to recommend this to my English (as a foreign language) students because it’s easy to read but with a tremendous story.

Looking at lengths of famous books, the thing that strikes me is that some of the shorter books that I didn’t enjoy much (Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby) felt longer than longer ones I did (The Hobbit, The Dead Zone, Harry Potter). I guess it is important to write well!

I’m also surprised that my story has already gone beyond a standard first novel length. I never thought it would be a long book… there’s a lesson in brevity to be learnt here.

To conclude, I’m going to avoid concluding and leave myself a link to another page by the same blogger that provides a checklist of things to consider while editing your book.

Collecting robot stories

I love robot stories (as you might gather from some of the things I’ve had published). The other week I was in the local bookshop after a robot book and found a collection of classic A.I. short stories. Unfortunately for the publishers, it struck me it would be cheaper to take a picture of the contents page then look them up myself, so here we go (along with some others I’ve dug up in the process):

 

Drunk & divine

Here’s a small update on a story I got accepted last year: it’s just been officially published, and is available on Amazon here.

I’m kind of unsure what this means, as the story has been available on their website since it was accepted last year, but navigating their website is rather a confusing affair, but I’ve received an email with a link to the latest issue, and this is easy to follow (the email contained 9 different ways to navigate to the story, but gave the impression of trying to fish a fragment of eggshell out of the egg white).

In a related note, the version I sent had fun little paragraph numbers in square brackets to make it look more Biblical, but they don’t show on the published version. I guess they thought I left them there as a mistake. Please imagine you see them.

Finding a motivational daily word count

I read Stephen King’s On Writing a couple of Christmases ago, which included the recommendation to write daily (good advice), with a good starting quantity being 1000 words per day.

Last year I spent primarily doing short stories and flash, with that 1000 wpd idea constantly in mind. I found two things: i) I’m a slow writer; ii) setting goals you can’t achieve leads to minor failings, which lead to long periods of inactivity.

Towards the end of last year, I shifted to writing a long story (originally intended to be 1000 words–one day!–now at 70,000), and so keeping track of words per day became easier, as there’s less switching between ideas, writing and editing. After that, I managed two weeks of aiming for 1000 wpd, achieving it around 50 per cent of the time. Following that, my daily word count slipped and I subconsciously resigned myself to goallessness (oddly satisfying word to write).

Roll on this year, a resolution to get the book finished, and a revised daily word count goal to help see me through. Now it is at 500 words. A little calculation told me that this isn’t too bad: 80,000 words divided by 500 wpd means a full novel could be written in a little under half a year (160 days).

I have 1-1.5 hours in the mornings for writing, and an indeterminate and fluctuating amount in the evenings, and that is about enough for me to always achieve the wpd goal, and frequently go above and beyond. Here’s my recent wpd graph (because I obsess over this):

Total vs. Date

Green’s what I did, red’s predicted total words assuming 500 wpd. The long, flat period covers the time when I gave up on 1000 words per day, and also when I excused myself to mess around with some short stories instead.

So, in short, unachievable goals lead to demoralisation and sub-par performance; achievable goals lead to eagerness and above-par performance. Who woulda thunk it?