Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 4: Spreadsheets? I Thought They Were For Accountants

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on plot development here. Today’s post continues on the topic of plot development and discusses how I use a spreadsheet to help map out the plot.

The last post in this series covered what I called ‘thickening the plot’ or using a process of slowly adding more detail to progress from your initial logline to a full outline for the plot of a novel. I also discussed why I believe having a plot outline is important and that it doesn’t constrict your creativity and rather provides a structure within which your creativity can shine. In my mind creativity is not the fanciful idea of a leaf floating on the breeze, blown any which way by the muse, creativity is more like a flooding river, you need to build structure around it to get it to flow in the right direction. The spreadsheet method, or plot grid as it is also known, is another tool I used in the writing of Alpha to help plan and construct the plot before beginning the first draft.

Firstly, to review what I covered last time the steps to move from logline of initial idea to full plot are:

  1. Take your one paragraph outline and expand it to about one page, including the key points about the story’s beginning, middle and end.
  2. Spend some time developing and documenting the back-story to your characters and world.
  3. Expand the one page outline to a five to ten page outline by adding more detail about each of the major scenes beginning to include subplots and important character moments.

By this stage you’ve got a decent outline for the skeleton of your story hitting what you consider all the major plot points. What you may find though, and this is something I certainly found when going through this process with Alpha, is that a big slab of text five to ten pages long makes it difficult to really analyse the flow of the plot, the ups and downs the characters experience and how the subplots fit together with the main plot. That’s where the spreadsheet comes in (see, not just for accountants after all).

I like structure. Perhaps it’s a virtue of being both an engineer as well as a writer, an odd combination I suppose although I do know some others and perhaps it’s more common in those writers who lean towards science fiction and fantasy, but I like laying the plan for a novel out in a way that allows me to work on the details of each scene while also allowing me to zoom out and examine the plot on a macro scale. I’ve found a spreadsheet to be the best way to get a clear picture of how the main plot and each of the subplots unfold across the chapters of the book.

A planning spreadsheet is simple to construct. I use Excel but it can just as easily be drawn up on a sheet of paper. The image below shows a snap shot of the plot grid for Alpha, I’ve hidden all the text to avoid any spoilers but it’s easy to see the structure. The columns represent plot points I want to track and the rows represent chapters.

  • The first column is simply the chapter number.
  • The second column is the POV character used for that chapter, this isn’t always necessary but in Alpha there are two viewpoint characters so I wanted to keep track of whose head we’ll be in.
  • The third column is where I track what’s happening in the main plot.
  • The remainder of the columns are the subplots, in the case of Alpha you can see that I’m tracking eight subplots.
  • In each cell of the spreadsheet I simply write the details of what occurs in that chapter related to the main plot and each of the subplots as I move across the columns.
The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

The spreadsheet used for Alpha...looking like a redacted court document.

Although I’ve hidden the text one thing you can still note is that the main plot has something occurring in every chapter (you’d hope so otherwise what’s the reason for having the chapter huh?) but the subplots aren’t necessarily addressed in each chapter. The power of using this method to plan is that you can instantly see how the subplots unfold next to the main plot and over the length of the book, you can ensure that each is balanced so that one subplot doesn’t overshadow all the others and that each subplot has action occurring throughout the whole novel. You want to try and avoid too many long sparse patches in which you don’t have action around one of your subplots or the opposite where one subplot suddenly takes over and becomes the all-consuming spotlight hogging diva.

What you’re seeing here is only a small segment of the plot grid but the beauty is you can zoom in and flesh out details of the chapter, or zoom out (or take a step back if you’re rocking old school pen and paper) and see which subplots have action and how often. I’ve never really been into the whole colour-coding your grid according to character or type of action or what you had for breakfast or whatever but it seems to help some people so if that’s your thing then go nuts and make it all pretty.

As you translate your long form plot outline into this spreadsheet format you’ll quickly see if you need to move some scenes around or merge or split scenes so that not only does the main plot move in rising and falling action but that the subplots are spaced out throughout the book in a way that keeps each plot thread alive until the very end.

It was discussions I’d had with other writers in a writer’s group that prompted me to try out this method of planning and I’ve used it ever since. After I’d started using it I discovered this is the same method J.K. Rowling used to plan the Harry Potter novels. I’m not suggesting that planning this way is going to make you a billionaire but I found this image online showing part of her plot grid for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and thought it might be useful as another example.

If it's good enough for Harry...

If it's good enough for Harry...

As you can see the structure of Rowling’s plot grid is very similar to mine but she also includes a column to track the timeline of her story. As you can imagine the structure of your spreadsheet is clearly flexible and dependent on what you feel you need to track in that particular novel.

So now that my plot outline has been transferred to my spreadsheet and I’ve moved things around, adjusted things, and am reasonably happy with the way the plot unfolds it’s time to take a deep breath because next comes the hard part, time get to writing that first draft…gulp. We'll talk about that next time.

Ain't No Such Thing As Writer's Block, Part 3: Got Plot?

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post on ideas here. Today’s post covers how I turn the initial idea into the first cut at a complete plot.

I’ve spoken before on my blog (in this post) about what I consider to be the single most important piece of writing advice and, to save you reading over that old post, it’s this:

'Having a plan doesn't block creativity, it gives it a framework in which to thrive.'

Many writers set out to write a novel without a plan content in the knowledge that their characters will mystically lead the way, and while there may be some people out there who can accomplish this, Stephen King springs to mind as he discusses this in his excellent book On Writing – although it’s important to recognise that someone like Stephen King has merely internalised the planning process after so much practise, the guy’s written like twelve libraries full of novels - for the vast majority of us though following our nose is not an effective way of moving forward from our initial idea. We just don’t have a good enough sense of smell yet.

I like to plan. I probably plan my novels in more detail than a lot of writers - I actually use two methods to plan out a book, effectively planning the novel twice, I’ll discuss that later – but I’m a firm believer that good novels with a tight, gripping plot and meaningful subplots are purposely planned and constructed. It’s much easier to get the plot (mostly) right prior to beginning the first draft than it is to try and beat plot into a plot-less jumble. An important point to understand is that having a plot mapped out before you begin to write your first draft does not constrict you, it gives you a structure within which to flex your creativity. When you already understand the way the plot will unfold that gives you the freedom to focus on the small details that bring each scene to life.

Having a plan laid out before you begin writing also allows you to discover any major plot holes and gives you a chance to fix them early and save yourself some major headaches when it comes to the process of rewriting.

The idea of having a plan ties directly into the name of this series of posts, ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block.’ It’s my belief that writer’s block occurs as a result of a writer having to think out too many details at once. When you need to try and think through the plot of the entire novel while simultaneously making the necessary choices about the finer details of each scene and remembering every detail of the complex interplay of relationships it’s no wonder you get jammed. A plan allows you to know what you’ll be writing about next, and you can grind your way forward, sometimes you know the scene you’re writing isn’t the best and will need further work during a rewrite but at least you keep moving, you always know what you need to write about next and so you avoid the fate of writer’s block.

So after digesting the reasons why I think having a planned out plot is important the question then becomes how exactly do I go from my initial idea to a plot for a novel? Well, it all begins with the logline I spoke about developing in the last post. Remember this logline is a single paragraph that outlines the core of the story, the characters and the central conflict they will face. The logline I came up with for Alpha was:

Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.

Now, as I mentioned previously when I plan out the plot for my novel I use two approaches, a slowly expanded written plot and a plot grid or spreadsheet. In this post I’ll cover the development of the written plot and we’ll discuss the plot grid in the next post.

The Slowly Expanding Plot, or How the Plot Thickens

I believe the easiest way to move from your initial logline to a full plot is to expand it with ever increasing detail, what I’ll cleverly call thickening the plot.

Step 1 – First take your one paragraph logline and expand the single paragraph to include the key points about:

·      How you will set up the story

·      Major plot points that occur along the way, and

·      The ending.

Basically you’re taking your logline and padding it out into the familiar beginning, middle and end.

The logline you created from your idea doubles as something of a marketing tool, the ten-second pitch, the thing you can tell people when they say, “Oh, so you’re writing a novel, what’s it about?” It gives the essence of the story but doesn’t reveal any major plot surprises. But now in this step you’re taking that logline and expanding it to include the plot points and ending you don’t want anyone to know yet. At this stage you’ve taken your one paragraph logline and expanded it out to maybe five or six paragraphs, each one hitting the main plot points of the story.

(The neat thing about developing your plot this way is, although it will likely change here and there and require a little adjustment, you’re currently writing the synopsis of your book, something that can become next to impossible when you try to condense your 100,000 word novel back the other way.)

Step 2 - Now that you’ve got the main plot points on a page in front of you this is the time when you can start tackling more detail about the world and the characters that inhabit your story. It may seem counter-intuitive to do this after you’ve already developed the key points of your plot but I actually find it more beneficial at this stage as you have a better understanding of the story you are going to tell. That said, although I’m presenting this as a step-by-step process, it’s actually somewhat iterative and you may circle back to change things in early stages as you gain a better understanding of the story you’re creating.

At this stage I will start to scribble down notes about each of the main characters and develop necessary back-story for the world-building that will take place in the novel. For Alpha I wrote a half page back-story for each of the ‘troubled teenagers’ I allude to in my logline. I also filled fifteen to twenty pages with world-building information, most notably I researched and wrote detailed information about the anatomy, psychology, language and communication of the alien race as well as a history of the events leading up to and following the arrival of the aliens on earth, ensuring I understood the technological, political and environmental consequences of the aliens arrival.

All in all this was several weeks work but it was time well spent developing a better understanding of the world, the characters and the increasingly complex relationships between the characters and the subplots that begin to emerge as a result of these relationships.

Step 3 – After the work done developing solid back-story the next step is expanding my one page synopsis of the novel out to a five to ten page plot outline. Once again, the plot thickens.

I start at the beginning of the story and work my way through chronologically, writing brief descriptions of what’s going to happen in each scene now including character names and important world-building information. This outline will probably not include every scene that will be in the final novel, and may include scenes that are ultimately cut, but it includes all the scenes I know of at the moment including all major plot points and starting to incorporate subplots based on my better understanding of character relationships and their relationship with the world around them.

You’ll find the time spent examining the characters in more detail begins to pay off here as you’ll start to have a better idea of their motivations and have them performing actions that fit with their character and intentions. A note about writing these scene descriptions, at this stage I refrain from including any character dialogue. I prefer to save dialogue for the first draft because by then you’ll have a better idea of each characters voice and won’t have fallen in love with any bits of dialogue you may have written in your outline but really just don’t fit with who the character has become.

This can be a challenging stage of planning as here you may find yourself wandering a little as you try and incorporate subplots and keep the ups and downs of the plot exciting. Don’t worry too much yet, just pad out the plot a little more, putting meat on the bones of the skeleton you already have. Dealing with the flow of the plot, keeping subplots moving along and keeping the level of action rising and falling is the reason I use the plot grid method of planning as well...and that's what we'll discuss next time.

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Ain't No Such Thing as Writer's Block, Part 2: Ideas ideas everywhere...

‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ is a series of blog posts following the complete process of writing my fourth novel, a Young Adult science-fiction story called ‘Alpha’. You can find the previous post here. Today’s post covers the very first step in writing a novel, the idea.

Nearly every author I know hates the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Authors who frequent conventions or host regular question and answer sessions have probably developed a long list of witty answers like, from the Idea-of-the-Month-Club (Neil Gaiman), Poughkeepsie (Harlan Ellis), or, Schenectady. They have them in a store on Route 147 (Joe Hill).

The reason for using these retorts is simple, it’s sometimes hard to externalise the exact process of idea generation. Sometimes you can identify your source of inspiration, and sometimes you can’t. Ultimately though people already know the answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas come from inside your head. More specifically, authors filter their experiences through their brain and ideas drop out, same as with anybody else. I suppose the difference between an author and someone else, if there is one, is a mindset maybe more receptive to ideas.

ideas2.jpg

Ideas come from everywhere and they’re mostly a result of blatant thievery (inspiration - if that’s what you want to call it). Maybe you’re reading an article about an obscure 14th century painting and you get an idea for a thriller about an art theft. Maybe you overhear someone having an argument over the phone and it sparks an idea for a deep piece about the slow destruction of a marriage. Maybe you see a documentary about astronauts and think it would be a whole lot cooler if aliens ate their faces.

Everywhere around you there will be books you read, movies you watch and music you hear that will plant the seeds of ideas. So what do you do? You steal those ideas and run. This doesn’t mean plagiarise, this means mixing and matching the ideas you acquire and making them your own. You’re not going to rewrite Moby Dick word for word, but you might decide that your main character is a gruff old sea captain inspired, in part, by Captain Ahab. This is what people mean when they repeat the quote, which may or may not have been said by Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

I knew I wanted to write a Young Adult sci-fi novel for my next book. The first novel I wrote was aimed at young adult readers and I really enjoy writing for that audience. As adults we have read enough books and seen enough movies and watched enough TV to know the familiar tropes, to have seen most things before, but with young readers this is often not the case. There’s something wonderful in creating worlds for young readers to explore knowing that your book may take them somewhere entirely new and may be one of those stories they always remember as an experience of firsts. I think this enjoyment of writing YA stems from my time as a teacher, and perhaps my own love of reading that really hit its stride when I was in that age group. I read everything from Goosebumps novels to Stephen King, from Roald Dahl to Ray Bradbury, from Lord of the Flies to Lord of the Rings. I know from my own reading the depth and breadth that Young Adults read. I wanted to write a science-fiction book for younger readers that still had adult elements.

One book series I loved as a teenager, as I’m sure is the case with a lot of Australian children of my generation, was John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. If you don’t know the premise of the Tomorrow series it’s about a group of teenagers who go camping and when they return they find an unknown enemy has invaded Australia and the group find themselves mounting a guerrilla resistance against the occupiers. I had a couple of ideas for my next book but the idea I couldn’t shake, the idea that demanded it be the focus was thinking about the Tomorrow series but with the teenagers resisting not the invasion of a foreign nation but an alien invasion.

The idea of fighting against alien invaders is certainly nothing new, but it’s how I pictured the story unfolding, a story focused more on the teenagers as characters rather than the alien enemy, a story that is more adventure than action, a story close on a small group amidst a broader fight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; a single idea is not enough to sustain a novel-length piece of work. An idea needs other ideas to back it up.

An Idea Molecule...maybe.

An Idea Molecule...maybe.

Once you’ve had the initial idea you need to give it some time and space. You need to let the idea sit in your head for a while as other ideas float in and out. You’ll soon find that some of these other ideas stick to the first idea like an idea molecule attracting stray atoms to join with it. This way you not only build up a broader idea more capable of being the starting point for a novel but you create your own unique take on things by joining ideas in new and interesting ways.

I had my core idea of teens resisting aliens but as I let that idea cook in my mind other ideas started to join it. I thought about the ongoing issue of how Australia is treating refugees and thought, how would we treat another species if it came to our planet seeking asylum? I thought about how much we could learn from a more advanced race and would they would teach this new knowledge to us? I had some ideas for characters float through my mind, a troubled girl with a powerful secret and a boy who misuses his knowledge of computers. I spent some time mulling over an alien race, creating a species that was as grounded in reality as it could be.

The ideas started to come together and I found the story start to emerge, fragmented, with a lot of maybes, but the skeleton was coalescing from the constant bombardment of idea molecules. I felt I was ready to start fleshing it out.

But now that I’ve got an idea that seems layered enough to begin planning a story how do I know whether it’s any good? Whether an idea is good enough is somewhat subjective. I personally don’t think sparkly vampires who come out in the daytime is a good idea but apparently millions of people disagree with me. So we won’t talk about whether an idea is subjectively good but we can test to see if it’s ready.

In order for your core idea to be ready to start writing a novel you probably need several things, keep in mind that these don’t need to be anywhere near fully fleshed out yet but I think it’s helpful to have some ideas around each:

  • Characters – Do you have an idea of your protagonist, your antagonist, and your supporting cast?
  • The World – Where is the story set? If it’s fantasy or science fiction what do you know about the world you need to create?
  • Central conflict – Do you know what is it that the protagonist is trying to achieve and how that desire is being stopped?
  • How does it end? – People may disagree with me on this one but I think, even now, you should have an idea of how it will end. Is your protagonist going to be successful? If so, how? If not, why not and what does that mean for the story?
  • Audience – Who are you writing for?
  • Tone or style – What sort of book are you writing? By this I don’t mean genre, I mean what is the feel of the book? Is it light-hearted or heavy? Is it tense? Is it adventurous?
  • Are you itching to write it? – This might be the most important point of all. Is this the idea you want to write about because you’re going to be spending an awfully long time with it to turn it from this raw idea to an 80,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.

So with my idea for Alpha it took maybe a year of the idea being just an idea in my head and a few notes on an alien race, some characters and a few things that might or might not happen before I felt it was fully formed enough to begin working on. This is what I had:

  • Characters - I had some characters, only two of the teenagers at this stage and I knew I would need to create more but I felt I had the two main characters ready.
  • The World – I knew the setting would be near future and that I had a basic understanding of the aliens but knew I would need to flesh this out some more.
  • Central Conflict - The conflict was to be between the aliens and the teenagers, but I knew the teenagers must be in a unique position to everyone else. My idea was they would begin a resistance because they learned a truth about the aliens the rest of the world didn’t know.
  • How does it end? – I have an idea of the ending but of course I’m not going to spoil that here!
  • Audience – As I’ve mentioned my audience is YA, specifically I’m aiming at the older end, 15 – 18 hopefully with crossover into adults.
  • Tone or style – I want the story to feel personal to the characters, to be a science fiction story that feels as if it could really happen right now, I want to invoke the fight to survive feeling of the Tomorrow series but doing so in a different way. I want it to be an adventure story about real kids in extraordinary circumstances.
  • Are you itching to write it? – You bet.

So, I’m ready to go right? Well, almost. Before I start a novel I like to solidify my idea, create a one paragraph synopsis of the story, something that will be the logline of the book. I highly recommend this as it becomes something to go back to again and again to ensure your story planning is in-line with the story you’re trying to write. This one paragraph also serves as the first step in how I plan the rest of the plot but we’ll save that for the next post.

For Alpha, after spending a few days tightening up the notes around my idea here is what I came up with, this is the book I’m going to be writing: 

Six years after aliens arrive on Earth as refugees from a long distant war, a group of troubled teenagers find themselves at Alpha Academy - a prestigious institute for human youth to learn from the aliens - but they soon discover Earth's visitors may not be as peaceful as they seem and must band together to prevent disaster for both races.

So there it is, from the seed of an idea to a logline ready to move forward. In the next post I’ll talk about how I go from this single paragraph to the first outline of the novel’s plot. Remember, to keep up with the 'Ain’t No Such Thing As Writer’s Block' series and follow the development of Alpha enter your email in the email subscription box (I promise it’s spam free). You can also follow me on Twitter.

Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block, Part 1: Introduction

Now that my son is four weeks old and my household is gradually forming something resembling a routine (a jam-packed, sleepless, often unpredictable routine) I’m managing to find time to re-establish a consistent writing pattern and revisit my recently neglected blog.

Over the last few months I’ve started working on my fourth novel – a Young Adult sci-fi story called ‘Alpha,’ a story that’s been percolating through my brain filter for the last year or so.

Back in July last year I posted that I would use this blog to keep an honest account of writing, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, not just a blog of writing tips but something that tries to go a little deeper into the emotional and business sides of writing. It’s in that spirit that I’ve decided to start writing a series of blog posts following the writing of ‘Alpha’ from the absolute beginning with the shaping of the core idea through planning, first drafting, the editing process, submission and then to wherever this story may ultimately end up, hopefully published in one form or another.

I’ve decided to call this series of posts ‘Ain’t No Such Thing as Writer’s Block’ because it echoes my own personal mantra about writing, perseverance. It’s one of the things I’d like people to take away from these posts. This series is about the day-to-day process that drives a novel forward from that first seed of an idea to the final product. Hopefully I’ll show that while there are certainly hurdles along the way, good writing days and bad, no matter how long it takes, if you keep grinding forward through the tough patches and you have a structure to your story and a routine to your writing, there really isn’t such a thing as writer’s block.

Along the way I’ll share some insights into my process, the techniques I’m using to plan the story and manage information, things I’m learning, things I’m struggling with. It’s probably inevitable that along the way I’ll share elements of the novel I’m writing but I won’t be sharing any large slabs of the book and the blog posts will certainly remain free of divulging any plot twists or important moments because ultimately I’m still writing this book with a view to publication and subsequent enjoyment by readers so I don’t want to spoil anything. In the end it would be excellent for someone who has followed this whole series of posts to pick up the book and read the final result knowing where it all came from.

Hopefully for readers you’ll find the journey and the writing process interesting, for writers you might learn a new technique or tool or be able to reflect on how your own work is progressing. Along the way I hope you’ll share your own thoughts in the comments.

The first post, up next week, will cover the germination of the idea for the book and how I source, combine and evaluate ideas as the basis of a novel.

Remember if you want to follow the whole series enter your email in the subscription box to the left and you can also follow me on Twitter. I’m looking forward to sharing my journey of crafting a new novel with you; it could be a long one.