Why plan your novel?

Introduction

I can think of no other creative endeavour where newcomers would be told to just start and see what happens. Want to learn how to build furniture – grab some wood, nails, glue and screws and see what happens! Want to start painting, grab some paint and canvas and have a go. Don’t worry if what you create something awful, you can always take it apart and remake it better.

Yet, a lot of aspiring writers are advised to just start writing and see where it takes you. I get that there’s a lot of value in just letting the words flow and listen to your characters. But.

A plan can be your friend

I started out writing by simply having an idea and then writing it through until it was finished. Then in 2011 I went on a course with Arvon that gave the basics of outlining and designing a plot. And it was a revelation – my books suddenly became a decent length, up from 50 to 60,000 words to a more respectable 90,000 plus. My writing improved, both in my opinion and in a commercial sense too – I got published.

You know what you like even if you don’t know why

If you write, you almost certainly read. Sometimes you’ll get a book that just works, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason why. Occasionally a book comes along that breaks a lot of the creative writing course rules yet still sells well and is read by millions. Unless you’re naturally gifted, unless you know why something works, it’s unlikely you’ll write a book like that. In music there are some musicians who don’t read music and study theory, yet manage to play sublimely. On the other hand there are many more who work within the theory to create beautiful music.

So what are the rules?

Well, there are many books that explain the rules of a good story. They are all at differing levels of formality and detail. I’ve read quite a few and distilled it down to this.

The opening 25% (or less) should cover who the hero or heroine is, what they want, why they can’t get it and most crucially, the reader should care about it. In my preferred genre, crime, this is usually quite simple. The protagonist is the detective, he wants to catch the killer, so you need a body or at least a crime. Usually the killer doesn’t want to be caught so there’s your tension right there. And most detective novels have something else going on – a marriage breakdown or threat to the family of the detective or some last chance in his career. Something that should make the reader care about more than catching the killer.

Once all this is established, you need a series of escalating disasters – wrong suspects, more bodies, problems with evidence, etc. all leading up to a big finish.

The final 10% or so should start with an event that makes you think the killer will never be caught or the detective will be in peril. Until the writer pulls a rabbit out of the hat and it’s all fine. Ideally this rabbit/hat combo should be something that was mentioned earlier on but it’s importance only becomes clear at the end.

Saggy middles

This is gives rise to every writer’s fear – a saggy middle. And no, I don’t mean the inevitable consequence of long hours at the keyboard and poor diet. I’ve just outlined the first 25% and last 10% of a book, which leaves the middle 60%. Without proper pacing – making sure the peril increases steadily – this can become saggy.

It’s not just crime

This basic outline works for any genre. Romance? First 25% to outline who the heroine is and her potential new man and why they can’t be together. Things get better and worse (mostly worse but we like a roller-coaster ride) for 60% of the book and then, just when they can never be together, something happens and it all ends happily ever after!

It’s a matter of scale

I was chatting with a very good author friend of mine who writes completely without planning. When I was talking to her, it occurred to me that she made it up for the whole thing, whereas I doing my making-things-up in 2,000 word chunks. I have a scene description – who’s in it and what changes for them. Then I have to make all the creative decisions. And my plans are not set in stone either. I’ve recently been doing a final edit before submission and just decided to swap two scenes over and completely rewrite a third one. If you read interviews with authors about how they work you’ll find there’s a whole range of approaches, from people writing detailed treatments through scene breakdowns to broad outlines and finally to people who just write.

To sum up

Don’t be afraid that a plan with stifle your creativity – for me its a different way to be creative. I can work out the bones of a story, see where things are leading, before I’ve committed tens of thousands of words to the page. It’s a much easier place to correct mistakes. And I find it just as satisfying to be creative in working out a plan as I do in writing a novel.

Also, I’m not trying to say that everyone should plan – far from it. I’m more saying that I’ve tried free-style writing and I’ve tried planning, and for me, planning gives me better books. What do you think? Are you a planner or not? Have you ever tried planning?

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Motorhead England

Anyone who knows me in real life will know that usually I wear jeans and a rock t-shirt. However I have some t-shirts that are my favourites – Motorhead shirts. To explain this, I’ll have to give a quick history lesson.

Motorhead was formed by and always was defined by one man – Lemmy. He was a larger than life figure (despite being quite short), he was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, then a member of Hawkwind. When that band kicked him out, he formed his own band on his own terms. At first they were a joke – too loud, too fast, too rough. “If Motorhead moves in next door your lawn will die” was an oft-quoted review. But Lemmy dug in. Through a chaos of bad management, poor contracts and line-up changes he continued to record albums and play concerts. He didn’t ever give up or compromise his principles. For over 40 years. Eventually Motorhead became a force to be reckoned with, not least because their fans were unswerving in their loyalty. In his own way both in interviews and behind the scenes, Lemmy proved himself to be one of the good guys.

I had tickets to take my sons to a Motorhead gig in early 2016 and they only missed out because Lemmy passed away just before the end of 2015. This shook me – the passing of a phase of my life that started in the mid-80s when my brother brought home a copy of Ace of Spades. For over 30 years of my life there was a Motorhead, a Lemmy.

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So, back to the T-shirts. The iconic logo combination of Motorhead curving over the top, the Snaggletooth (the name of the big skull with the tusks) in the middle and England across the bottom first emerged about 40 years ago. Joe Petagno (who did artwork for Led Zeppelin) created the original Snaggletooth which then changed with each successive album cover across the years. It has now become synonymous with Motorhead.

 

However, recently I was researching bike clubs for my next book and came across an interesting fact. The most extreme bike clubs or gangs are known as outlaws or 1%-ers. (The most notorious of these gangs are the Hells Angels.) The members are in it for life with total commitment and are often viewed as criminal organisations by the police. They are also very protective of the system of patches worn on the backs of their jackets. What’s significant here is the three piece patch. A top patch called the top rocker will identify the club, the logo will be in the centre and the bottom rocker will identify the chapter, effectively staking a claim to a territory by that gang. The format of the three piece patch is fiercely defended. If a new club starts up with a three piece patch, they’d better have the approval of the local outlaw gang or a war will start.

So I read all this, then looked down at my t-shirt. Motorhead took that precise format as their logo – band name at the top, territory at the bottom. And they didn’t get any criticism for it. I cannot think of any other band that has dared to try this. It’s a sign of the respect that Lemmy commanded even in the beginning. It’s also equally telling that I can wear a shirt that says “England” on it while living in Wales and get no grief for it at all — not even during Rugby World Cup season!

I wanted to write this post (and well done if you’ve read this far!) because I bought five new Motorhead t-shirts recently as I was running out of clothes to wear. I made a conscious decision as a sign of respect for Motorhead and recognising what it means to me. And since I’ve made that choice, I’ve got into so many conversations with strangers. Yesterday I took the children to a museum and the bloke serving coffee said “Did you see them live?” It took me a minute to twig and then we had a long chat about music, mostly the concerts we’d been to and what was coming up soon.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, I’ve had shop worker chat to me about whether my kids listen to the same music (they do and they’re also finding their own way too), I’ve heard “great band” by way of greeting when I pass someone in the street.

I think what’s happening is a tribal thing. Most people when they get to their late forties aren’t in a place where rock t-shirts are their day-to-day attire. The people who comment are usually in work clothes, but can see me as a member of their tribe and it warms their hearts.

I’m lucky that I have many friends in many walks of life. And whether we all like the same classic car, or our children all face the same problems, when we’re together we feel like we belong. We can relax.

Something similar happens when I go to a rock festival. Even though I’m surrounded by strangers, I get a strong feeling of coming home, of being with people-like-me. What’s great is that through my t-shirts that feeling is now leaking out into my every day life. From what I know of him, Lemmy would’ve been proud that his music is still bringing people together over eighteen months after his death. He certainly didn’t suffer fools, but he was definitely one of the good guys.

So, next time you see me, or someone else, in a Motorhead t-shirt, you’ll know why.

Thanks for the memories!

Today, in our rather untidy house, the camera case got knocked upside down. I know this because I found an 8GB memory card on the floor. Later I picked up a 4GB card. I know I put them down somewhere but can’t find them right now.

But it did get me thinking, and reminiscing. Less than twenty years ago, I bought a new computer. I remember it well because we were a bit short of money and were scouring the newspaper adverts for just what we wanted. In the end we found a 486 (the thing to have) with 16MB of memory and a huge, 500MB of hard disk! Now, I’ve just lost 12GB of memory, that is 12,000MB or, 24 times what I saved up for.

It doesn’t stop there – our car stereos take memory sticks with mp3s on them. We have two 4GB sticks, plus a couple of spares, and various assorted iPods and other mp3 players. Two of these memory sticks are actually so small I can’t see where the memory would be – they are little more than a USB plug. And we have a micro SD card that was bought for the SatNav and ended up in a phone!

I think, and it’s only an estimate, that there’s about 50GB of memory storage floating around in our home. That’s 50 thousand million bytes of data, or around 400 thousand million questions that are answered 1 or 0. Or 100 500MB hard disks.

The really freaky thing is that this is down the back of the sofa memory. This is what I’ve bought because it was on a special offer or was given with a camera. Attached to my computer is a 1.5TB disc and in my Tivo box is another 1TB. That is a mind-boggling amount of memory, that even dwarfs all the cards and sticks that are scattered around the house.

I also had another moment – it felt like I fell asleep in the late twentieth century and woke up now. I went out a bought a printer for under £100. I was expecting something quite basic, but this thing is a combined scanner, printer, fax and copier. It connects wirelessly so I don’t even need a USB connection. And it has a colour touch screen through which I can download apps onto my printer to print stuff out from the internet without using a computer. All for under £100. I do feel like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of technological proportions.

What’s freaked you out today? How much memory is lurking in your house and down the back of the sofa?

Movember

I’ve just updated my profile picture for this website and my twitter feed. In case anyone was wondering, I am looking particularly hirsute in these photos as I’ve agreed to take part in Movember. This is a charity event to raise awareness of and funds for male cancers. The principle is simple – to start November clean shaven and see what kind of moustache (or Mo) you can grow over the next thirty days. I had to take a before photo and as as I knew it was all coming off soon, I haven’t kept my beard as trimmed as usual.

If you want to support me in any way, I have a “mospace” page here: http://mobro.co/grahamhmiller – which will also be entertaining as you’ll see me without beard for the first time in years!
Portrait

How big is the world?

I’ve had lots of odd conversations with my wife about the way the world is and how it is going. In particular she’s been looking into whether we as a world can continue with a possession based culture or if some sort of responsibility based structure should be implemented instead. In the course of this I came across the concept of the Noble Savage. In the Pagan circles I move in this is especially prevalent. Basically it states that the simple hunter gatherer lived in harmony with the land and all the world’s troubles started with farming. The problem is though, it’s simply not true. I went to an interfaith talk about ecology and religion and the speaker had actually spent time with tribes around the world. It’s more accurate to say that hunter gatherer groups are generally quite small in a large environment so they don’t have to take care of it. As they don’t own land, they can – and do – deplete resources and simply move a few miles further on and continue the cycle. By the time they come back to where they started then nature has repaired the damage. I heard a theory, which I haven’t been able to substantiate, that the Aborignal people in Australia did this and basically over 10,000 years turned the Outback into the dust bowl it is today.

Today I had I thought. In a way, we in the Western world behave in a similar way. Instead of having a huge jungle around us and being unable to comprehend the extent of it, we live in a huge interconnected tribe. I don’t think we can comprehend the numbers involved. I believe that because they sound similar, people really don’t get, on a subconscious level, the difference between millions and billions. If you were given one pound every single minute it would take you just under two years to accumulate a million pounds. But it would take you around 1,900 years to go on to a billion pounds. And likewise, everyone can say “there are sixty five million people in the UK and six billion in the world.” But we can’t comprehend it. And I think that, like the Noble Savage, this leads us to damage the world. I know it’s completely the reverse in some ways, but we really don’t get the sheer size of our population. In China, there is one valley that is full of factories and refineries that produce more pollution than all of England. In the US there are over 700 cities. Seven hundred! I couldn’t name 10% of them! And I think this means that we don’t appreciate how our actions on an individual level affect the world on a global scale through the magic of statistics and multiplication.

Which I guess, brings us back round to responsibility and ownership. Please comment and let me know what you think!

It’s all different now

For a while now I’ve been noticing things that have changed in our society. Like, ever since we invented farming and settled down, those settlements have been built along trade and transport routes. Whether it’s a bridge or a river or a coastal harbour, natural transport nexus points become settlements. Except that in the last twenty or so years, people have wanted to move away from motorways and busy main roads. I think this is really significant because this has been the pattern for thousands of years.

It’s like the law banning the carrying of knives. As a culture in the West (I don’t know about anywhere else) we’ve probably had a knife about our person since mesolithic hunter-gatherers roamed the land with a handy flint in their pocket. And again, over the last few years, this habit that has lasted for thousands of years has changed.

Now, thanks to Wikipedia I can pinpoint when it all started to change. It was the 21st of February 1804. Precisely. The first ever railway journey. From that point onwards, there was a third way for travel. Before then, you had a choice of horse or foot to get about. Even with a decent stage-coach system it would still take two or three days to do London-Edinburgh for example. Once the Victorians got going with trains the journey was five or six hours. And I think this major change precipitated all the other changes.

I’m reading The Suspicions of Mr Wicher… and there’s a lot in there about the development of the police force and the concept of detection. Which was really only necessary because ordinary people could move around at a speed faster than a horse could go. This means that criminals could commute into a community, commit crime and then leave. No longer would you know the identity of everyone who you passed in the street. Which means you couldn’t police your own community.

As for what it all means, or where we  go next, I’m really quite undecided. I have a gut feeling that our current culture has maybe gone as far as it can, and we may be on the cusp of a collapse – like the end of the Roman Empire.

 

>Hoping for a more settled 2011

>Right so. The state of our family so far is that youngest DS has a nursery that he likes (at 2 1/2 he knows his own mind!) and goes there three times a week. Middle DS is going to his local primary and he can walk there with me which is lovely! But the eldest has so far failed with every attempt to get into school. Luckily he’s happy about this and we’re going to start prepping him for the Kent Test.

This does mean that I need to carefully manage my time to get my creative projects underway. I’m about to book an Arvon course – a residential get-away for a week with other writers. This does mean that I’d like to get several thousand words under my belt – if not tens of thousands. That way I’ll be able to use the course to do a major re-write and make the whole book hang together. But if I don’t get enough written, I should be able to make proper progress on getting it written.

Graham