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

Week 79

I began the week with a fuller synopsis, but still no structure. Taking thematic binaries had helped produce the details of the story, but the sum of those parts amounted only to a development of theme, not a story. Theme is important, but it's only one strand of a story, as is character, plot, style, everything. "Story" on its own feels too reductive however, suggesting misplaced nostalgia for a storytelling era of days gone by. It's important of course, but it seems to me that the novel as a format, unlike say, film or screenplays, does its best to avoid and confound it.


Novels are deliberately baggy and easily distracted, but they need a sense of what ground they've covered and where they're heading to be remotely readable.

Hillary Mantel is a master of this - as is Henry James - an almost imperceptible shift in tension until you can't put the book down. And for every chapter on crop rotation in Anna Karenina (seriously Tolstoy, what?), you know he'll soon get back to Anna herself and the dastardly Vronsky. And maybe learn a bit about Russian agrarian policy while you're at it.

What makes it complicated is that stories don't come into the world intact and already fashioned, though many argue they do. Story can be structured a number of different ways, depending on how it's told, who's telling it, from what perspective and with what objective.

All that is hard to keep in your head at once. Every day it felt like I'd cracked it - that the story should start here, this is the twist, and this is how it should end.

Where did this story really begin? I had my ideas, but they caused problems, and sometimes exploring why a certain thing had to happen here made me realise the only thing governing it was my insistence. Gaps in the story existed because that's how they actually happened - and everyone knows real-life is often anathema to interest and meaning.

On top of that I was trying to twist two strands - present day and the past - like a plait, and getting very confused while I did it. How could one give way to the other? At times, I could tell, it frustrated the actual story, and I got bogged down writing scenes I knew weren't working and didn't fly - there was no narrative interest in them, that's why. The exercise looking at goal/consequences had shown me that.

When you've been working on something for so long, and have so many things you want to pack in, it's easy to not see the wood for the trees. Writers sometimes labour a point that is not obvious to anyone else: one told me how she'd been adamant that her story must begin at a certain point, but as soon as other students in her class read it, they all agreed the story really began in chapter 4.

Writing in first person adds another layer of complexity: how much do they know? Are they writing in retrospect, before they commit some deed that only becomes clear when you know the whole story (the eponymous, not to mention deceitful and calculating, hero in Sebastian Faulks' Engleby)? Or are they mid-way through, telling you the story so far then running with it as it meets them (Kathy H. in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Amir in The Kite Runner)? Or seemingly in the moment, like a spoken monologue that's being told as and when things happen (for example Sam Marsdyke in Ross Raisin's God's Own Country)?

All first person narratives are necessarily retrospective, but how far in the past are the events they are narrating, and how much about those events do they know? Their perspective is also necessarily limited, but how much do they deliberately leave out or add?

You can see how I might have got a bit lost.

So I listed the scenes, took out the gaps in time, and included all the things I suspected about my characters, but which hadn't yet made it into the story (their background). Then I listed them chronologically, not by narrative sequence, or when I thought they came in the story (that was getting me nowhere).

I looked at the list and considered, where does the story actually start? What prompts this person to start telling it?

There were four scenes I had in mind:

  • the chronological beginning, where the seeds for the story were sown;
  • the one I'd been using up until now, quite close to the end, in what would turn out to be the outcome of a crisis in the story;
  • one a little later, which had worked as a scene and really come alive, but I couldn't work out why;
  • one even nearer the end, which would make the first person that bit more desperate (the story could start with a bang and a mystery, but might sag in the middle as we catch up with everything they already know - she is not deliberately deceitful, unlike Faulks' Engleby).

I then took each of them, and plotted out what taking it as a starting point meant for the rest of the story. What was:

  1. the current situation
  2. the conceit that changed all that and set the story in motion
  3. the turning points that ratchet up the suspense
  4. the resulting crisis
  5. the climax
  6. ...and the resolution of it all.

It's amazing how changing the starting point has an impact on all those things. When I was done, I had effectively four different treatments of the same story. One stood out. All the elements of the story seemed to hang together, in perfect suspension. That's the one I'll be expanding on next week.

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

Weeks 78

SYN-OP-SIS. Synopsis. "General view" or "to see all at once". Greek, innit.77 78 There are loads of good blog posts about writing a novel synopsis: when to write it (before you've even started, or only when you're finished), how to write it (third person, present tense, keep it short) and why to write it (to bring your story to life and sell your book, mainly). This is not those posts. I do not give advice. I am in no position to write advice. This is the first time I've tried to write a novel, and all signs suggest I am doing it very badly.

So, don't expect any pointers here. I'm more interested in how a synopsis can help focus a story while you're writing it. And by "interested", I mean very keen that that's the case and I haven't just wasted a year and a half of my life.

How do you write a synopsis when you're not even sure what your story's about?

And how do you write a story when you haven't got a synopsis? "Just start writing". Sure - thanks. That's got to be up there with "cheer up - there's plenty more fish in the sea" and "have you tried drinking upside down?" for useless advice. I've tried just writing. And guess what? I've written. Words. Pages. Loads of them. But do any of them constitute a story? Does a story even = a novel?

Okay, let's not go there. Yet. This vagueness showed when someone asked me about my book, however. "What's it about?" I can answer that. "What happens?" Trickier.

A synopsis helps because it demands that you explain only WHAT happens, not WHY it happens, and refocuses you on the story at hand. It's an evolving document - in 79 weeks, I've written about five, and rejigged my story board as a consequence more than three times - that can sometimes raw your attention more than your actual manuscript (so much so that I've had to abandon my computer and write in longhand, to avoid the habitual drag and drop of chapter summaries).

At regular intervals I've thought my story was up to scratch, and even had a few eureka moments. Different phases brought a focus on different aspects of the novel, from character to perspective and all-out plot.

But there was always this nagging feeling that the story didn't hang together, and, I like to think it was this, rather than a last-minute attack of nerves and vertigo when I found myself 10,000 words from the end, that made me grind to a halt. I hadn't earned the ending I wanted to happen.

What ending had I earned? That would involve reading back what I've written, and I'm not strong enough for that (it's 08.52 in the morning - not late enough for the three strong whiskies I'd need to down before I could do that).

Having earlier worked out my central goal and the consequence if it's not reached, I devolved this pair into smaller units to work out a list of scenes. So if the story goal is that a character must get married*, then the events that need to happen are parties, visits to bars, dates, etc etc - you get the point. And if the consequence of not getting married is dying alone and afraid and unloved, then there need to be some credible intimations of that: the death of relatives, being snubbed, laughed at or jilted at the altar etc etc.

Binary opposites such as these helped me keep up the "suspense" - would she reach her goal? - and gave me lots of ideas for things that could happen. I wrote these longhand, and ended up with a synopsis of over 6,000 words, sprawling and varied, each chapter summary varying from a single line ("present day event here?") to paragraphs of description and dialogue.

* NB: Example only. The central goal of my story is NOT getting married. OR IS SHE.

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