Thoughts on writing: planning long-format projects like novels

So I have begun another novel project – what I like to term a “long-form writing endeavour” (primarily because it sounds fancy :P). This time around, I don’t want to fall into many of the traps that plagued my first attempt. I’ve been reading extensively on the art of story structure, pacing, character development and on the general craft of writing. Two authors whose books have been indispensable: Steven King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft) and Larry Brooks (Story Engineering: Mastering the six core competencies of successful writing).

I actually began reading these books during the final few months of the previous writing project, and I’m hoping that the lessons I’ve gleaned from those books will help guide me on this next writerly journey.

I thought I’d share a few things I’ve picked up along the way, especially at this phase of the project.

Right now, I’m in the earliest stages of planning this thing. This is a rather delicate time for the project. Right now, it’s little more than an idea, so it needs nurturing to convert that wisp of thought into something more tangible. The problem with writing – especially with mammoth projects like novels – is that there isn’t anything to hold you up; there’s no structure like a formula into which you can plug in some variables, hit “Enter” and bam! an answer is churned out. No. With writing, the writer needs to first design that structure before even beginning the piece.

What’s interesting with both King and Brooks is that they each have a unique take on how the writer should work; they each represent the two major groups of writers: the plotters and the pantsers. Plotters (Brooks) meticulously plan out the story, developing a coherent structure and definitive points, understanding almost all the variables of the story before a single word of the manuscript is actually written. In contrast, the pantsers (King) write “by the seat of their pants” (hence the name), writing as the words take them. Being the diplomatic person that I am, I think each has its merits. But I like order, I like structure, I like working from a framework. Before all this, before I learned about this distinction, I began my first few novel attempts without any structure. And now I think it’s time I did this in a method that will ensure my wisp of an idea can walk a more tangible path to its realisation as words in a manuscript.

So I’m going with Larry Brooks’ methods as outlined in Story Engineering. It’s not meant to mechanise the art of writing, but rather to enhance it, and to ensure that I keep to this thing. By having a structured plan, I know what’s going on in the overall arc of the story, I know which characters are doing what, and there’s no need to invent arbitrary things that often are done out of need to detract from the task at hand (as with my previous project).

At this stage, I’m working on a beat sheet. This is the basis for an outline. All my scenes are bulleted in a document in Scrivener, and from here I can have a birds-eye view of the whole story arc. I see my plot points and pinch points, and know exactly what my main character is doing. Plot points are the major events, the checkpoints along the hero’s journey; pinch points are the subtle reminders of the antagonistic force impeding his quest.

This project is exciting for me for a few reasons. Firstly: it’s the first long-form project I’ve embarked upon since my previous work, which had me occupied since 2009 (with many false-starts and rewrites before I even got to that first draft). So it’s a nice, fresh start. The idea is exciting, too, and is vastly different from what I’ve done before. It’s new and refreshing and gives me some much-needed vitality to kickstart such a long-haul voyage. Secondly: I’m writing it in first-person present tense. I’ll probably write another post about this technique soon; it’s something that’s quite compelling, and which I admired in The Hunger Games. This means I’ll be exploring narrative writing from a vantage I haven’t done before… and then there is, of course, the fact that I’ll be doing this from a structure that will truly guide me along the way.

I plan on writing a few posts chronicling my journey, delving into a few techniques of the “long-format writing endeavour.” For now, though, I leave you with this gem I like to think I coined a few years back:

“The journey of 50 000 words begins with the prologue…”

(Which I later found out to be incorrect; it’s more like, “the rewriting hell-mission of 50 000 words begins without plan…)


Russian Roulette (Review)

What makes someone a hero? What drives them to become a killer?

These are the core questions at the heart of the much-anticipated sequel to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Russian Roulette takes a look at the series’ main antagonist, Yassen Gregorovich: his life leading up to the fateful moment when he joins SCORPIA to become a contract killer, and explores just how inextricably linked both Yassen and Alex’s lives are.

Friends, family and readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz, so this review is probably a bit biased. But after reading this prequel, Horowitz’s skill at crafting such a complex story with multilayered themes cements his position as one of my all-time favorite writers. And returning to the shadowy world of Alex Rider took me back many years as a reader, to when I first discovered the series.

I did not expect this book to be so emotionally charged. We grew to hate Yassen in the earlier Alex Rider books; what he supposedly did was despicable and rooted him as our teenage hero’s nemesis. But in Russian Roulette, we explore the portrait of a child desperate to survive in a post-Communist Russia ravaged by conspiracies revolving around ruthless foreign investments and deadly technologies.

First-person narrative is a powerful device to get right into a character’s mind, and Horowitz uses this well in the main portion of the story, through the format of a memoir. Indeed, presenting Yassen’s story as a memoir makes for a rather romantic attitude to the whole assassin tale. We move with Yassen as he grows up, alone, into a harsh world and develops a hatred for the man who destroyed his entire existence, his entire childhood: Vladimir Sharkovsky.

Horowitz probes the very psychology of how a killer is made by tracing Yassem’s story from the quiet village of (fictional) Estrov, to the hustling streets of Moscow; from the timeless beauty of Venice and the sinister Widow’s Palace to the sweltering jungles of Peru, skyscrapers in New York City and, of course, the island of Malagosto, where Yassen’s transformation begins.

Fans of the series will recognize allusions to events in the future, especially the fateful moment with Yassen and Hunter (trying to avoid spoilers here!) that Horowitz wrote as a prologue to Alex’s fourth mission, Eagle Strike.

It is difficult to justify a hero as someone who kills for a living. But in Russian Roulette, Horowitz writes Yassen as a character that we truly feel for, and root for to the very end. It is true that one should never be quick to judge character based on mere assumption. In Russian Roulette, we see how an innocent boy, a child who had dreams and aspirations, is so easily transformed into a cold-blooded killer thorough the subtle events that subsequently influence decisions leading him down a path to the fearsome SCORPIA.

For any fan of Anthony Horowitz, and of his Alex Rider series, this book is a must-read. The epilogue alone makes it worth the read, deftly tying this book to the first of the Alex Rider stories: Stormbreaker. 5/5 Stars.