Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Why timelines are vital for writing stories

I've been busy plotting book two of the Books of Caledan series in my spare time this past few weeks. 

It was easy to begin with; I already had lots of ideas recorded in bullet point lists for each main thread of the plot, which I transferred onto Scrivener's corkboard feature (each thread being one corkboard).

I compiled the three main threads (each made of a group of closely linked character viewpoints) and then... promptly hit that brick wall we call writers' block.

I scratched my head whenever I returned to the project for a few days until it hit me. I'd been putting it off, but really it was time.

It was time for a timeline!

This is exactly the same process I went through with book one; with exactly the same results. The hardest thing was making the first pen stroke on the page. After that, it flowed beautifully! (Frankly, I should have started a timeline sooner... Oh, hindsight!)

First, I drafted it roughly on paper. I found that, over the ten viewpoints I listed, I could group a large bulk of the ideas together in time as characters met, separated, or as certain plot events had to meet at the same time.

That made things much easier. I now knew which characters were chronologically behind/in front at any given point. I could marry up those events that had to tie in together and work backwards to link up the beginning of book two's timeline with the end of The Tainted Crown (book one)'s timeline and forwards to meet book three.

Importantly, the timeline was pinned down on paper; it's much harder to visualise mentally!

Today I typed it up in Excel, which allowed me to play around with rearranging things as needed. There's no dragging or dropping on a piece of paper; alas! But that was, for me, a useful "first draft" if you like. Get anything down, and then it can be revised. (That reminds me of an Anne Lamott quote regarding crappy first drafts! It's the second one from the top.)

The main advantage of a timeline for is that it allows the threads of the story to be plaited together and connecting the ideas brings them to life. Suddenly, by looking at the bigger picture, the sequencing problems I'd been having vanished.

I can see the next steps. As it is, I just found the convenient point to stop book two and start book three that had totally escaped me 24 hours ago!

If I'd tried to carry on without a timeline, I would have failed. I genuinely don't know of any more valuable tool when it comes to sequencing and arranging your stories than a timeline.

I hope this pursuades you to try a timeline approach if you haven't before.

Ciao for now,


Monday, 7 April 2014

Why reading a book you dislike can be useful for your writing

I've read in many a place that to be a good writer you also have to be an avid reader.

Luckily, I'm a complete bookworm (if I could have been Hermione Granger I would have!). Only time restricts how much I can read these days.

Lately, I've picked up two new fiction works, one by an author I've previously read (and enjoyed), one by an unfamiliar author. Both have put me way outside my comfort zone. I won't disclose which authors or books I'm reading (it's unfair and irrelevant), only use them to illustrate the point I'm making.

In any case, I realised that not enjoying reading a book is as good for my own writing as enjoying a book.

The first book was written in first person/present tense. Given that most books I read are written in third person/past tense, this was incredibly distracting. Nevertheless, it's a historical fiction set in a time I'm particularly interested in, so I persevered.

This became less of a distraction when compared with what I felt was a lack of compelling story telling and instead, simply a recount of slightly embellished historical detail. Now I'm faced with the choice of not finishing the story - frustrating to any reader - or forcing myself through the second half in the hope it improves.

The second book is gripping - I can't put it down - but also darker. It goes beyond the typical realm of fantasy battles that I usually encounter and continues into grim and gruesome murders to an unnerving depth. The plot in this one is thankfully very more-ish, but I do sometimes shiver as I read the darkness within.

So why are these experiences valuable?

By reading lots - and enjoying and disliking what you read - you can learn to recognise and understand what/how you enjoy writing and use this knowledge to make your own writing more efficient and better.

For example, I now won't use first person, present tense any time soon; to me it feels unnatural and distracts from the story. If, as a reader I feel that way, I'm sure others would too.

Additionally, I'll carefully consider what detail I add to my characters/settings - too little makes for an uncompelling read. Characters and settings must feel believable, 3-dimensional and real.

I also know my own tolerance for gory details; a.k.a. what I can handle writing and reading before I get nightmares! I think that's important to understand. 

Knowing my preferences will save me the time of re-writing to change tense and person, rewriting to axe or add detail retrospectively and also the worry of how much "gore" to add in my work - I'll push my boundaries but stop short of Game of Throne's Red Wedding for now, for example.

I hope that's a useful thought to share; it's certainly offered me a new perspective and way of linking reading and writing.

Ciao for now!