Archive for the ‘plotting’ Category

NB: I’ll be reading an extract from the story I’m talking about in this blog post at The Midsummer Murder Mystery, this Sunday July 3rd at Cabaret Voltaire’s Speakeasy in Edinburgh. It begins at 8pm and is free entry. More information on the Facebook event page.


I spent the last three weeks behaving like a writer, more so than I ever have before.

After the kick up the bum that I needed from my tutor, I knuckled down and worked, worked, worked in the most functional way I’ve ever witnessed myself work.

At first, I had a character and a setting nestled at the back of my mind. Then I spent about four or five days researching around the subjects I thought were important to my germ of an idea, reading books and taking notes until ideas began to form. Slowly, I developed a list of five to ten scene ideas, pushing the story onwards.

I started to write, aiming for around 1000 words a day.

When I finished the first draft of each scene, I went back to the original scene summary idea and asked myself a few questions:

– How does this scene push the story forward?

– What does the reader discover through this scene?

– What questions are raised for the reader in this scene?

– Has this draft fulfilled the original aims from the summary?

Goodness, isn’t that functional?

As I continued writing, more scene ideas for further on in the piece emerged and I hurriedly wrote them down, until I had the bones of a  plot and a first draft which eventually reached the colossal heights of 14000 words. Goodness knows what that is: it’s not a short story and it’s certainly not a novella, but never mind.

Because I didn’t plan its structure meticulously before I started writing (and I’ve never written a piece of this length before), there are a few loose ends which need tying up, and one or two of the characters need to be given a firmer functionality in the plot as a whole to merit their inclusion in the story at all. But these issues are to be expected and I think (hope) those issues are nothing which can’t be solved by adding some new scenes here and there.

All in all, I’ve learnt a lot from this, and I’m really pleased with what I’ve done. It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written, and even if it doesn’t work out I know that I could do it again in the future.

I’m meeting with my supervisor tomorrow to discuss the piece. I really, really hope that I feel as positive after the meeting as I do now. Fingers crossed.

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I wanted to write a story about a young boy with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, but I soon realised that the story couldn’t be about the boy with synaesthesia, but it should be a story in which things happened to a boy who happened to have synaesthesia.

Now that I have drafted half of the story, I’m beset by worries. What role is this synaesthesia playing in the story? Is it adding anything to the story itself, or is it just getting in the way of the action? The rule is generally that if something isn’t pushing the story forwards and there for a reason, it shouldn’t be in the story, right? And in that way, would it be better for the story if I just cut out the synaesthesia completely?

But I loved that character, and the way he tasted words. Perhaps he belongs in a different story, one where the words are more important, but it’s a story I can’t think of right now.

I’m feeling a little bit of a rubbish writer today.

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I think I am the type of person who needs to do something thoroughly and properly, otherwise I risk giving up halfway through. It’s why I have dozens of notebooks with only the first five pages filled in, because I decided my handwriting wasn’t neat enough, and suddenly that notebook isn’t good enough to write in anymore (oh dear). It’s why I take great care when choosing a pen from a stationer, and why it’s very important that my desk is tidy, otherwise I won’t sit at it (just realised why I haven’t sat at my desk for about two months).

A couple of months ago I got a spark of an idea for a novel, and after writing everything down in a vague semblance of chapter plans and character profiles, I realised I had no idea where to start. I knew I needed to begin it properly, otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. So I got in touch with a writerly friend of mine and asked if he had any recommendations for books about structuring and planning a novel. The next time I saw him, he handed me a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. I was a little bit perplexed, and it sat on my desk (which, yes, was messy) for a long time, until I realised that I would have to return the book before I move to Edinburgh, and I was spurred into action.

The book is great. Field breaks down the process of writing a screenplay into manageable chunks. He quantifies everything (suggesting how many pages of character biography to write, etc), which works for me as perspective like that helps me understand and stops me getting demotivated.

You’re encouraged to describe your screenplay in one sentence (“A PERSON, in a PLACE, doing a THING”) before you begin writing or planning, and then you slowly build the foundations of your idea until your main character has a context and a history, and a mapped trajectory of character development through your screenplay. Unlike Stephen King in On Writing, Field suggests you must know your ending before you even plan your beginning. He repeats the important messages (“Action is character”) until you’re a little bored, but that’s the way those messages will stick in your head.

Yes, it is a book about writing a screenplay, and some of the guidance isn’t entirely relevant to a novel. Field presents the structure of a screenplay as completely formulaic, with Act One taking place from pages 1-30, Act 2 pages 31-90, and so on, but if you’re using this book as a basis from which to plot a novel, that formula could offer a valuable guide which may point you in the right direction, but which shouldn’t constrain you to a great extent.

It’s important to remember that film and novels are different mediums, so the rules will never be entirely applicable across the board, but I did really enjoy this book and I think it offers bottom-up ideas and foundations which can be applied to many forms of writing. I would recommend it.

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Planning and Plotting

I haven’t started writing TMA02 yet. I’ve procrastinated a lot, and definitely done a lot of thinking about it, which can’t hurt.

What I have been doing, however, is an experiment.

In my last TMA-related post, I explained how I was quite worried about knowing where to start, particularly with regard to the narrative structure, point of view and that kind of thing. Those problems aren’t solved, exactly, but I do have a starting point now.

I was trying to pack too much into my stories; they were like mini-novels, and that’s not how it should be. I have also never really planned a short story, preferring to sit down and see where the ideas take me.

On the advice of many people, I have been reading more short stories to familiarise myself with the genre.  A couple of months ago I read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is a short story collection. Raymond Carver is a highly celebrated short story writer, praised particularly for his stark and concise prose, in which he says so much with very few words.

I noticed that one of his stories had a structure which could be mapped onto a story idea I had for my TMA, and was of a similar length. So I made a table:

Section Word Count Function Raymond Carver’s Story My Story
A 350 Brief summary of why RC added this section – what it achieved in the overall structure and progress of the story. Very brief outline of what happens in Section A. Based on the ‘Function’ column, a brief outline of what could happen in my story in a similar amount of words.

In the end, the Raymond Carver story divided neatly up into seven sections, and the word count was similar to the 2,200 TMA requirement. Completing the table was relatively quick and easy, and by the end I had a full story plotted out. My story, I hasten to add, is completely different to the Carver story I looked at, but it is structurally matched in a way which will probably be imperceptible once it is written.

I can’t say whether this will be successful for my TMA or not, but I have enjoyed it as an exercise in deconstructing the short story. What does everyone else think?

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