Weeks 81-82

I've been thinking about pace this week. Of all the elements of story, it has to be the one I had least interest in, the chapter I was most likely to scan or speed-read in any books about novel writing. Surely pace is built-in to every sentence, a stylistic tic I have no control over? "81"

After the story started to come together last week, I've been continuing working on it in outline. That means lining up scenes in a spreadsheet, building them up, entwining them with others and creating rough chapters. The order changes too, as I shuffle events so that they build up to a crescendo or unravel.

This narrative momentum is hardest to plan, but the more I think about structure, the more pace becomes important. It requires a simultaneous look forwards and backwards - where the story's going and where it's been - and a focus on locking each scene into the story.

Too often a preoccupation with pace is equated with a novel being fast-paced. I've come to realise that it is not just the province of crime or thriller novels, but every novel, even those of my favourite authors. I've always admired the leisurely pace of Henry James' novels, and the way they almost always crack three quarters of the way through, and it's only then you realise how much was weighing them down.

In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King has an unsurprisingly sharp insight into the art of pacing:

"The leisurely luxury-liner experience of a long, absorbing novel like The Far Pavilions or A Suitable Boy has been on of the form’s chief attractions since the first examples—endless, multipart epistolary tales like Clarissa. I believe each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace, and that pace is not always double time. Nevertheless, you need to beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.”

That pacing, whether fast or slow, is core to the novel form comforts me. All this focus on plotting had me nervous. Something about it felt inauthentic, as if working out the perfect turning point of the a story, or the scene in which everything came together and formed a kind of resolution was somehow too commercial. Too easy.

Ker-bloom! #82 cover

In fact the exercise has helped firm up my story: some previously key scenes have lost significance, whereas new ones have come to mind and taken over. It feels like they are finally slotting into place; that, as well as being scenes of interest in and of themselves, they lead the story on to its conclusion, the one I've had in mind from the very beginning.

I stopped short of the end of my first draft, as I did not feel I had earned it. The nib of my pen scratched drily at the paper, filling lines with aimless sentences. There was no feeling of momentum. Scenes that diverted from the story carried as much weight as those that developed it. The ending approached, and the only way I could make the one I wanted was through some pretty lengthy exposition.

Now, after weeks of reworking the story, I've hammered out a narrative arc that I think works. Not only that, but the story has changed so much it is not worth finishing the final 10,000 words of the first draft.

I'm wary of eureka moments however, as I think I've had a enough of those in the past 80 weeks to know I might not be there yet. But this week I realised how a significant scene wasn't working, and how it must be altered drastically, so that everything else clicks into place.

The new outline has me excited - it brings a new dimension to my main character, a reason for the two narrative strands, a clear viewpoint, and space for other characters and subplots.

Now for the detail.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661

Week 80

I spent the whole weekend writing - looking at nothing but a spreadsheet on my computer. That's right, a spreadsheet.

Writing a novel wasn't meant to be like this. It was supposed to be quill pens and garrets and inspiration, not editing column width and formatting cells so they word wrap.

First draft of Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

I've seen Dickens' first drafts - bar scribbles and crossed out lines and a few insertions, they look like one single continuous ream of inspiration.

Surely stories should pour out of you; they develop over time, with characters that "take over" and act almost independently. There's the frock-coated bastard, adding one line after the next.

There's something about working out a plot in a spreadsheet that seems wrong. How can any of that even remotely be called creative? Shouldn't that stuff come naturally and suddenly? It all seems very structured and mathematical, regimented like a database or a computer system. Surely creativity is more organic?

But that's what I've been doing. After a few weeks of synopsising (a word), I was left with a rough written synopsis, a few worksheets listing scenes, a physical story board that allows me to visualise the story larger than a 13" screen allows. Now I had to firm up and flesh out the outline. I needed more than a line summarising a potential chapter - "at the hotel" or "meets Nickie" - I needed details.

So I added a new worksheet to my spreadsheet of scenes and an overview of a few short story structures. I listed the scenes I had from the exercise I'd done a few weeks ago, and added more according to the new structure I had in mind, taking care to think of their corollary: if this is what is supposed to happen, what happens if it doesn't?

Putting ideas next to each other in columns suddenly (finally) gave me an idea for something that's been bugging me a lot: how to deal with the present narrative, when a past narrative holds the story's significance. So far my present-day narrative had been a bit limp. I hadn't got a handle on perspective, or the reason my narrator was telling the story. I think I came up with something, and not only does it revitalise the present-day narrative, but it brings it line with what happened in the past, too.

Drawing these strands together led me to outline the first four chapters in a short space of time. And not just outline with a single sentence, or a note, but fully fleshed out chapters, detailing when they begin, where each character is, what they say, and how it closes. Suddenly, seeing everything in little boxes and lines alongside one another in an order that would make an obsessive-compulsive glow with pride brought a clarity I'd been lacking for along time.

I got so into it, I started lining up plot summaries of my favourite books, to see if they developed in a similar way. Admiring the opening scene of one - involving a character differently motivated and in a totally different setting, but in the sort of situation I needed - gave me a further idea.

quick Google search shows me I'm not the only one - other writers use spreadsheets to track word count, time (important for fast-paced crime novels, I expect), or how much is given over to a particular setting or character. (This seems odd - I have never thought to myself, too much of this book is set in New York. Each to their own, I guess.)

I also came across this spreadsheet, inspired by a book called Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It's pretty close to how I've been working out my structure and outline, lining up chapter numbers and plot points (or "milestones"), with a few fancy formulas to keep track of word and page counts.

Rather brilliantly, the writer who put this together has also made it available as an Excel template you can download here.

And then I found this, the single sheet JK Rowling used to plot out the Harry Potter books.

Spreadsheet with which the author JK Rowling planned the Harry Potter novels


I'd love to see the ink-blown scraps of paper that old fraud Dickens *really* wrote on.


Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661