Writing a Fantasy Trilogy Part 2: Planning

Disclaimer: Ye gods, this is no how to guide. This is just an on-going collection of thoughts as I work my way through the process. They may or may not be useful or entertaining to people; it is more likely they may well end up providing a great deal of amusement to me when I look back over my posts and realise what a load of nonsense I was talking. So please do not think I am laying down rules here or instructions – I am just laying out some writerly jams. Or something.

(here is Part One, on ideas, if you want to track back)

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This is us, bravely preparing to plan our trilogy. Yes, we are as badass as She-Ra.

So here we are at part 2, after a lengthy break, ironically because I’ve spent the last couple of months finishing off my previous fantasy trilogy. I suspect it’s a thing that only becomes apparent when you’re in the midst of the publishing process, but writing professionally involves a lot of hopping around: there was a time there when I was promoting the second book, editing the third book, and writing the first draft of the new book. Exciting times! Anyway, the proof read of The Silver Tide is finally handed back and the story of the Copper Cat has come to a close (let’s just swiftly skip over all the crying I did) so I have a wee gap in which to talk about planning things.

This is a super brief outline of how I personally go about it. Take note, ignore or openly mock at your will: There are three stages to planning a fantasy trilogy that I can see. Expansion, whittling, and the abuse of stationery.

Expansion

So you have your idea. The seed that will become a trilogy of books is in your head now, and there’s a special aura to it, a certain feeling that this is the thing. You’re excited about the idea, and you get a slightly fluttery sensation when you think about it (not kidding). The idea may take different forms. A lot of people will have a hook, a thing that is almost handily like an elevator pitch – ‘sword and sorcery Escape from New York’ (I swear I am writing this one day) or ‘a girl fails her exams and flees into a radioactive desert full of mutants’ (already written that one). My ideas more often take the form of characters – ‘lovable female rogue with a tendency towards recklessness attempts to avoid responsibility for the end of the world’ or ‘teenage girl with latent magical powers and OCD discovers that her council flat is haunted by the ghost of a serial killer’. My first planning stage is writing down as many details as I can about that idea. All possible things that could come from it, even if I won’t use them or they don’t work, are written down into a fat notebook of some kind. I ask myself lots of questions.

What does this character look like? Where are they from?

How old are they? Do they have family? What is their relationship with them?

What do they care about? And then: What do they want?

What terrible thing has just happened to them? How do they react to this terrible thing?

From there, the story starts to spool outwards, and I follow the trail of things I find exciting. Which details pique my interest? What do I want to know more about? One or two notebooks will be filled up in this way, a great jumble of Lego bricks, and somewhere in there are all the pieces required for the awesome space-castle-dragon I’m thinking of building.

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You will need approximately 800 of these for this stage.

Whittling

This next bit is a little odd and will possibly sound a tad obsessive, but I’ve spoken to at least one other writer who also does it so I’m sure it’s fine. I have my fat notebooks full up with a zillion thoughts and ideas. I get a new notebook, and in that I write down everything I can remember from the first notebooks, without looking at them, if I can help it. All the really important stuff, all the significant stuff that has lodged in my subconscious, will come through, and what you end up with is a distilled version of the idea explosion. From there, I will work on them again, ask myself more questions, and these are the questions that start to become very important if this is going to cover more than one book.

There will be multiple setbacks. What are they?

My characters are changed by events. How are they changed?

What revelations will they have?

What sort of bad-ass cool things do I want to see in these books?

Now, that last question sounds somewhat daft coming on the back of everything else, but if I may drop an entirely wanky phrase in the middle of this: I am quite a visual person. My favourite ideas often come in the form of what I think of as ‘shots’: how cool would this look in the movie version? Early on with The Copper Promise I knew I wanted to have a scene where the heroes are riding griffins, whilst flying around an enormous dragon – the griffins are tiny in comparison, like fat bees buzzing around, um, a giant scary lizard. That image hung in my head while I was writing the book, along with many others (Wydrin and Frith in an opulent gaming house, a young girl with bare feet covered in blood) – ideas that knew it was their time to happen.

So I have a new notebook with the distilled ideas. I go and buy a new notebook, and I do it all again (I did say it was a little odd) – whittling the ideas down further. Everything becomes a little sharper, a little clearer. The characters become more defined, and crucially, the structure of the books start to emerge, like the wreck of a ship revealed as the tide goes out (but only, you know, more optimistic).

You might at this point say: Jennifer this is bollocks. You write everything down and eventually it becomes clear? Are you taking the piss? The difficulty is of course that so much of writing comes from instinct, floating up from the deep dark channels of your mind. Other writers will no doubt have an infinitely more systematic approach, but all I can tell you is: follow the things that give you that fluttery, excited feeling. Your trilogy is at the ends of those.

Next stage: notecards. Rainbow ones, if possible, because I have a stationery problem and will use any excuse to get pretty stationery. I have two sets of notecards: one set for characters, and one set for story. I write down all the vital things about each character (they each get their own notecard) and then everything I know about the story on a set of numbered notecards – these will be split themselves into three sets, one for each book. Inevitably, book one will need more notecards than books two and three, because I know more about how it all starts. This lot will then get pinned up onto my corkboard, usually with a variety of rainbow pins and pins that look like tiny turtles. Yes.

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A portion of my corkboard at about halfway through the process. I’ve smudged the notes so they are unreadable- my handwriting isn’t quite that bad, honest.

Sidenotes: Worldbuilding and The Rules

By this stage I will have lots of notes on worldbuilding. One of the most important questions I ask myself early on is: where is this character from? The place that they grew up, the experiences and relationships they had there, will inform the character in hugely significant ways. Wydrin Threefellows grew up mostly on Crosshaven; an archipelago of islands that’s a little like Mos Eisley, full of dodgy dealings and a wide variety of people. It’s not difficult to see how such an environment can produce a smart-arse mercenary with a morally dubious outlook. Similarly, Sebastian’s childhood in the largely religious and somewhat austere Ynnsmouth has led to a quiet, thoughtful man who is trapped by the need to do the ‘right’ thing. World-building notes at this stage are written down carefully on approximately a billion post-its, and carefully pinned around the notecards on the board. Over the course of planning and then writing the book, these post-its will normally end up three or four post-its deep – but they’re not really there for reference: they’re there so that the idea is fixed in my head.

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A selection of serious and important stationery currently being used to make The Ninth Rain happen

Now, the extra special pain in the arse about writing a fantasy book is the magic, of course. How you approach this will ultimately depend on the fantasy book you’re writing. Some fantasy books have barely any magic in them at all, while others will have a vast and complicated magic system. Or some will have simple magic, with strict rules, that is at the heart of how their entire world works. It’s not always possible, but it is a good idea, I think, to know what you’re going for before you start. Whatever you know about your magic, whatever the rules and restrictions might be – chuck them on to their own special notecard. Cover them in glitter, maybe. And get ready to change it as you go, because if there’s one thing that magic tends to be, its unpredictable.

Aaand when I’ve done all that, I take some fresh notecards and I write the story out again, and then I pin those over the top of the originals. It sounds ridiculous, but you’re starting to know what the story is now, deep in your heart. That golden thread you will follow from the start to the end is there, and you’ve just caught the beginning of it. Then you have to start writing the bloody things.

The next post will be all about the thrilling rollercoaster of horror that is The First Draft. Any questions or comments, do shout me in the comments!

The Space-Time-Book Continuum: Your Basic Writing Ingredients

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I’m in the midst of planning and writing a book at the moment, and it occurred to me it might be interesting to write a post on how I go about doing that exactly. Then I thought about how this has been progressing for the last fortnight or so (a brief summary): fill up a notebook with notes, break out Excel and make a spreadsheet, start a new notebook, write the first chapter, adjust the spreadsheet, make more notes, write a few more chapters, admit that I’m no longer paying attention to the spreadsheet, abandon it, buy a pin-board, re-arrange the structure of the book, re-write the first chapter, fill another notebook… and so on. This, if I’m being polite, exuberant approach to starting a book is both difficult to record sensibly and of little use to man or beasties, so I thought I’d take a more nebulous look at the things I personally need to be a writer.

 

BOOKS

Books, lots of ‘em. You can’t be a writer without reading, and more to the point, why would you want to? I will come out and say it: I don’t trust people who don’t read books – if nothing else, what on earth will I talk to them about? (By books I also mean comics, poetry, etc. Stories, we need our stories).

Books are as essential as breathing, and I don’t remember a time when I have been more than a couple of hours without one – and that is a scary, panicky time, when I’m not sure what to read next and my natural inability to make a decision comes into play.

Aside from feeding our souls and making us into the clever humans we are, good stories stretch our imaginations and give us new words to play with; they take us around the back of things and show us new angles. And crucially it boils up the urge to tell stories too. Let my story be with these stories; they nurtured it and fed it, after all.

There is a school of thought that reading bad books (whatever your definition of that may be) is also useful because they can show you what not to do, but goodness me, who has the time for books that leave a bad taste in your head? Not me – I would be forever conscious that every page turned of a bad book is a page of a wonderful book I’m missing. This is why the Kindle sample feature is so bloody useful. And while we’re here and talking about how important books are, you can take it as read that I said that libraries are really fucking important. Okay? Okay.

 

SPACE

I’m not, actually, someone who believes that you need a “room of one’s own” because this isn’t necessarily practical for everyone and assumes you’re not living squeezed into a Victorian terrace converted into flats with a cat, eighteen teddy bears and a sprawling collection of retro games consoles.

What I’m talking about really is “head space”, which is handy because you should be carrying that about with you everywhere. It’s a space to daydream in and build worlds in, and sometimes it does necessitate that you go and sit somewhere by yourself for a spell. I quite like to do this in cafes, often affecting a pensive, reflective expression if I’m feeling my art student roots, or just recently I have taken the more drastic measure of shutting myself in the bedroom for an hour, away from TV, phone, cat, Lego, X-Box and crucially, internet. Sometimes – and this is true – I pick a few books off the shelves and scatter them around the duvet, just so I can gaze on them and think “What would George Double R’d Martin do?” (kill some people) or just as a handy reminder of what it is I am trying to achieve here.

 

TIME

There’s no avoiding it. Books take a little while to write. Generally, they don’t happen overnight. In fact, if you draw back a little and look at the writer as a whole they always take years; years of accumulated experience – not just writing, but life – and years of getting the words out and beating them into shape. And it can take a while for the words to start behaving themselves, too.  It’s something I had no clue about when I cheerfully started writing my first book, Bad Apple Bone – I had no clue that actually, my first book might not be that good. That it might take a few more books (and a few more years) before I started writing stuff that I would happily let other people read. I’m not sure how I’d have felt about it if I’d known, because every book is your precious baby, particularly when you’re writing the buggers. I don’t think I would have stopped though, because I’d found a thing that made me happy and put my soul at ease, and that’s worth a few years of anyone’s life.

So, books, space, and time. The building blocks, from my point of view, of a writer. It pleases me because it feels rather SF, like it’s something Douglas Adams would approve of, or even the Doctor. Timey-wimey, spacey-wacey, booky-wooky… maybe not. But you get my point.

Post-its and Planning

So I completely forgot to update last week. I can’t even remember why now, but let’s just pretend it was due to a flurry of productivity on my part, and not just huge laziness, which is more likely but less heroic.

The Steel Walk is edging towards 100,000 words now and alarmingly enough, shows no particular signs of being near the end. At least I am well into the third act and having fun with the story; Eri is angrily traipsing through the swamps of the Green Jenny Council while evil things are afoot in all corners of Ferrum, and Saul has some difficult choices to make. I may even have some clue as to how the whole thing ends.

Writing The Steel Walk has been an education in the process of how to put a book together, although I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring out the best way of doing it. So far each book has been approached differently, and I have learnt different lessons.

Bad Apple Bone- Started writing it before I even knew it was a book, and consequently I only had a vague idea of the plot by around the 30,000 words mark. An exciting if agonising way to put a novel together, it did however all fall together with surprising neatness. I’m sure this was a fluke, and unlikely to ever be repeated.

Bird and Tower- When I started this one for NaNoWriMo, I was very clear on the beginning and the end, and had a vague structure for the middle (“Quint searches for other siblings, hijinks ensue”) but what with the fabulous by-the-seat-of-your-leg-hats* approach of NaNo, if I did any more planning than that I don’t remember it. A joy to write, quite honestly, even if I kept forgetting one of the characters existed.

A Boy of Blood and Clay- A lesson in how it is wise to have, you know, even the slightest clue of how the plot will develop and who your characters are. Not sure what I was thinking with this one (I still believe that when it’s finished, it might be the best thing I’ve written)

Ink for Thieves- This book was a return to a vague plot outline and detailed character notes, and thanks again to the backside-wallop of NaNo, largely quite fun to write. It had it’s moments of “I have shamed myself and my ancestors with this book” but the characters came to life for me and behaved in naughty ways, the plot headache of the Embers resolved itself and I got to the end of it. After A Boy of Blood and Clay, that was a big relief.

So, what have I learnt? Mostly, that no planning is bad, except when it works, and over planning is good, except where it doesn’t. Does that make sense? I had detailed character notes for Eri and Saul before I started The Steel Walk, but they still went merrily ahead and behaved in all sorts of unexpected ways anyway, and Alice, a character who barely existed at the planning stage, has come to impact on the plot in all sorts of drastic ways.

The next, as yet unnamed project, is a sort-of-science-fiction first person narrative with strong crime elements (and a girl called Zootsi) so I think I have no choice; planning will be done, notes will be made, and post-its will be wasted, until I can go into NaNoWriMo this year knowing that I just have to fill in the fun bits. I may restrain myself from drawing a map though.

*for an explanation of leg-hats, please go and listen to The Soldiers of Tangent, the fab new comedy podcast from those behemoths of audio genius, Danny “The Accent” Davies and Marty “Churlish” Perrett. http://thesoldiersoftangent.mevio.com/