I'm a plotter, not a pantser
I'm frequently asked to what extent do I plan my novels, and how I plot them. That's what I'll be covering in this week's post, focusing on my fourth novel, The Second Captive.
So do I plot my novels in advance, or am I what's known as a 'pantser'? (The term refers to authors who write by the seat of their pants, never quite knowing what will come next). Well, I've tried being a pantser, of sorts. My first novel, His Kidnapper's Shoes, was written from a rough plan thrown together in Microsoft Excel, with a tab for each character and a line summarising what I intended to happen in each chapter. Not really 'pantsing' it, but hardly very organised either. My first draft ended up at 146,000 words. To get to the final novel, which is 82,000 words long, I had to chop out a lot of dead wood and characters, and editing was a far more painful process than it needed to be. Had I planned the novel better, I'd have avoided all that extra work. I resolved to mend my ways, and to plot more thoroughly in future! For me, it works well. I like having a solid plan for each novel before I start work, and I believe it helps avoid writer's block. There are no excuses for not writing when you already have a blueprint for what comes next!
The Snowflake Method explained
In common with many novelists, I use the Snowflake method to plot my books. Pioneered by Randy Ingermanson, it's a ten-step method of arriving at a coherent plot outline, complete with character sketches. Why is it called the Snowflake Method? Let's look at this way of drawing a snowflake. Take a triangle, add new triangles along each side, and it's not long before a snowflake emerges. The principle is the same for plotting a novel. Each step of the Snowflake method builds on the one before, and within ten steps, you end up with a fully-fledged outline for a novel.
The first few stages
Step 1 is to write a one-sentence summary of the novel. This is a useful exercise in itself, as it concentrates the mind on the essence of what you're trying to convey. For The Second Captive, Step 1 read like this: 'A young woman and her family suffer the effects of Stockholm Syndrome.'
Step 2 involves taking that initial sentence and expanding it into a full paragraph, detailing the story set-up, major events and the ending. Step 3 involves writing a paragraph for each of the characters. This is when I created Beth Sutton, the protagonist of The Second Captive, as well as Dominic Perdue, her antagonist and a dark, disturbed individual. It's always fun creating the bad guys!
In Step 4, you take each sentence from Step 2, and expand it into a full paragraph, thus ending up with a one-page summary of the novel. In four steps, we've gone from a sentence to a page. See how the snowflake is growing? Step 5 takes us back to the characters again, fleshing them out into a one-page summary for each of the major players and half a page for the rest. The result should tell the story from the point of view of each character.
Developing the snowflake
Steps 6 - 9 build on the previous ones. The one-page synopsis ends up as a multi-page one, complete with a paragraph for each scene. The characters are also rounded out as well, with the author preparing charts/notes about each one.
I like to go into plenty of detail when I do this. Not just the standard stuff, such as height and weight, but what their motivators are, how they will change by the end of the novel, their interactions with other characters, etc. Their mannerisms, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. I also draw a chart mapping their relationships. Anything and everything that will help me understand them better.
And Step 10? The most important one of all - write the novel, using the Snowflake outline already created!
Thing can, and do, change...
Once I have my outline, I create a manuscript file in Scrivener, the writing software I use (more about Scrivener later!) I set up a tab for each chapter, with a sub-tab for each scene, and transfer in the notes I've already made using the Snowflake Method. I usually base my novels on being around thirty chapters long - that can, of course, change, but it's a useful starting point. I also set word targets for my chapters, aiming for 3,500 words for each one.
The screen clip illustrates what I did for the prologue and first few chapters of The Second Captive. Should I choose to, I could colour-code each chapter according to which character was the narrator, or label it as draft, finished, etc. It's also easy to move chapters and text around in Scrivener.
Titles, timelines and mission statements
What else? Well, I write brief notes about what I want to achieve with each novel. The Second Captive is the first one I've written using scenes, so that formed my mission statement for the book. My previous novels are in whole chapters, so I was keen to play around with using scenes. It was fun! The Second Captive is also different structurally from my other books in that it has a prologue and epilogue, with the main narrative being split into two parts. Each novel teaches me something new. At the planning stage, I also make notes of possible titles (I find naming novels very hard!) Subplots get worked on, too, and I map out a schedule of events linked to a timeline. Getting my timeline right is something at which I'm very bad, so maybe that'll form my mission statement for my next novel!
A guide, not a ball and chain
Even with a comprehensive outline, I find I need to make changes as I write. The Snowflake Method is a guide, not a ball and chain. It provides a useful framework, but it's hard to see exactly how a plot will work until the writing process starts. Sometimes, an event makes sense at the outline stage, but when I write the relevant scene, it doesn't work so well. I certainly found that with The Second Captive, needing to make big changes to several chapters. Again, Scrivener is immensely useful here, allowing me to move chunks of text easily, more so than in Word, and I can duplicate documents to play around with new ideas.
A donkey cart and a Ferrari...
So that's the Snowflake method, and it's what I used to take The Second Captive from a one-line summary to a fully fledged novel, using Scrivener. I praise Scrivener a lot, but I think it's the best writing software on the market, because it's so versatile. I mentioned above that I wrote His Kidnapper's Shoes using Microsoft Word. Once was enough! I'd never go back to doing things that way. Word is to Scrivener what a donkey cart is to a Ferrari, in my opinion. I do use Word for some stages of the editing process, but as Scrivener evolves I foresee that becoming a thing of the past. I can structure my document files however I choose, making it very flexible.
Another great feature is that I can add my research notes, pictures, videos, etc, directly into the software, rather than having to flick back and forth to other programmes. In fact, I can split the screen in Scrivener, so I can have my notes in one part and my manuscript in another, making writing much easier. Another way of avoiding writer's block!
When I've finished the editing process, the software compiles my manuscript into Kindle format for me, or any other format I choose. Wonderful!
Any comments or questions?
I hope that this blog post has given you some insight into how a 'plotter' like me plans their novels! Other writers, what's your approach? Are you a planner, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Readers, any questions about the plotting process? Leave me a comment!
Today's blog post is a guest offering by Michael Nutt, who has very kindly reviewed Patricia Highsmith's novel 'The Two Faces of January' for me. The novel has been made into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac and Kirsten Dunst. Take it away, Michael!
A rather curious title...
Patricia Highsmith was the finest exponent of the psychological thriller. Her most famous works - 'Strangers on a Train' and the Tom Ripley cycle of novels - are some of the most enjoyable reads of my life. And now I must add the recently filmed 'The Two Faces of January', her ninth novel, first published in 1964, as one that I can thoroughly recommend.
The rather curious title refers to the connection between the month of January, in which the story unfolds, and the Roman god Janus, in whose honour the Romans named the month. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, as he looks both to the future and to the past. To the ancient Romans, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, and thereby associated with gates, doors, and passageways, as well as endings and time. You can find these themes appearing throughout the novel. The story begins with a passenger ship slipping through the Corinth Canal at night. On board are an American couple - Chester MacFarland and his young wife Colette - taking a vacation in Europe and arriving now in Greece. The opening descriptions are of a passage from one world to another, a transition between countries, but also an image that evokes birth, a new beginning. We soon learn that the man is a shyster on the run from the American authorities, trying to escape his past.
Locked in an unspoken pact of murder
They are observed by a slack young American, Rydal Keener, who is struck by Chester's resemblance to his recently deceased father (whose funeral he chose to miss), while Colette reminds Rydal a little of his cousin Agnes, his first, ill-fated love from some ten years ago.
Rydal is using an inheritance to fund a couple of years away in Europe writing poetry and avoiding a planned career in law back in the States. He amuses himself by playing games of chance, and starts to include the American couple, so uncannily reminiscent of those people from his past, in his latest scheme even if he is unsure quite what it might be yet.
Rydal is a particularly Janus-like character, looking both to the past and to the future. He carries the psychological scars of his relationship with his late father and his cousin Agnes, and this unfinished business in his past keeps drifting into the present and casting a fog over his future. Unwittingly, Chester and Colette drift onto his radar. By chapter three their worlds have collided - or dovetailed, it would be more accurate to say, as Chester and Colette find themselves locked in an unspoken pact with Rydal over an incidental murder.
A tale of two Ripleys
It is typical of Highsmith that these are deeply flawed characters, psychotic anti-heroes whose appearance of normality hides psychopathic personalities and murderous tendencies. As in her 'Talented Mr Ripley', she describes a world of European exoticism, as her characters tour the sun-drenched Mediterranean; the novel was published a year after its American author had permanently relocated to Europe. Highsmith keeps the reader guessing about the games these three con artists might be playing. It is a tale of two Ripleys, as Chester and Rydal manoeuvre warily around each other, with a devious woman thrown into the mix for good measure. Gradually, insidiously, Chester becomes increasingly dependent on Rydal as the trio go on the run to Crete, while taking in a spot of tourism along the way as they travel the island. And all the while Colette seems to be taking a seductive interest in Rydal... You know that things can only go badly for these people, and it is not long before the body count rises and events take on their own crooked logic.
Highsmith is always adept at pulling off a surprise, taking the story in an entirely different direction from where you thought it was heading. Like a card sharp flicking an ace from the palm of her hand, she throws in a key scene set in the deserted Temple of Knossos that causes the narrative to lurch into a crazy, unexpected turn, tying the two male characters to each other in a mutually destructive relationship. Rydal now plays a dangerous game with Chester, who finds himself unable to free himself from the deadly grasp the other has on him.
Dark but humorous stuff...
This is dark but humorous stuff. You suspend any feelings of disbelief and go along with these miscreants for the ride, which takes us across Europe. Rydal works out his latent hatred and resentment of his father on Chester, who has assumed the role of his substitute father. It is a poisonous relationship reminiscent of that between Guy and Bruno in Highsmith's 'Strangers on a Train', except here both parties are as cracked as each other. Who will come out on top? The drink-addled con artist or the hate-filled chancer? And what sort of game is Rydal playing by the time the players get to Paris? Each chapter leaves you eager for the next and every time I picked up the story again I was excited to be reacquainting myself with these rather nasty people. Highsmith conjures a strange yet satisfying ending that tidies up some unfinished business, completing a transition of sorts. I look forward to reading more of her novels someday soon.
Thank you, Michael!
Thanks to Michael for a very thorough and informative book review.
I'm delighted to welcome bestselling crime novelist Tony Forder to my blog this week! Thank you for letting me interview you, Tony. Let's get going with the questions!
I’d like to know more about your latest novel, the fourth in a crime series featuring DI Bliss and DC Chandler, called The Reach of Shadows. What can readers expect to encounter in its pages?
What readers will find is a Bliss under pressure physically, professionally and personally, with each of these looking to consume him. In fighting to solve a possible stalker-murder case whilst recovering from being mown down by a car, Bliss also has to ward off an IOPC investigation which focuses on the murder of his wife many years earlier. With help from a loyal team, Bliss resolves the murder in a way he might not have envisioned, and puts to the sword all of the questions asked about his involvement in his wife’s murder. Here's a taster:
Recovering from injuries sustained in a road collision, DI Bliss is taken directly from hospital to a fresh crime scene and ordered to investigate the vicious stabbing and murder of Jade Coleman.
When Bliss realises the victim had reported being stalked, and that two of his own team had been drafted in to take her statement, he is given the unenviable task of interviewing both of his detectives.
Increasingly it appears that the stalker may be her killer. However, several other people soon become part of the team’s suspect list. Bliss also finds himself being questioned about his own past and has to battle to defend himself whilst continuing to investigate the murder. Soon more questions arise. Why would anybody target Jade Coleman? Why are the team unable to identify the victim’s close female friend? And why did Jade recently leave her job without any explanation?
With his work cut out, and his team under pressure, can Bliss solve the case before more victims show up? Or will the shadows of his own past reach out and drag him under before he can succeed?
What about your second Mike Lynch crime thriller, Cold Winter Sun, published in November 2018?
Mike, who in the previous book started out as a character worn down by life and striving to avoid hitting the bottle again, became the man he had once been across the course of that novel. In his second outing, he and his friend and comrade in arms, Terry, fly out to New Mexico to find someone important in his ex-wife’s new life. Hunted and plagued by people who appear to be seeking the same individual, Mike and Terry use their military skills to extricate both themselves and their target from harm’s way. Here's another taster:
A missing man. A determined hunter. A deadly case.
When Mike Lynch is contacted by his ex-wife about the missing nephew of her new husband, he offers to help find the young man with the help of his friend Terry Cochran.
Arriving in LA to try and track down the young man, the pair are immediately torn away when the missing man’s car shows up, abandoned on the side of a deserted road in New Mexico.
When two fake police officers cross their path, Terry and Mike know there is more to the case than meets the eye, and soon they find themselves asking exactly who it is they are really looking for…
Tell us about yourself and what you get up to when you're not writing.
I read, though not as much as I would like. I’ve played guitar since I was ten or twelve, and still practice most days – though I no longer have my fleet of guitars and equipment. I love music and listen as often as I can. I enjoy many sports, and follow Chelsea and the England rugby union team. I am now 61, live with my long-suffering wife in Peterborough, and I write full time. I love well-made films and TV, especially oddball stuff like Boston Legal, Fargo, Breaking Bad, Killing Eve, etc.
What is your all-time favourite novel?
The Silence of the Lambs. Thomas Harris recognised in Red Dragon the impact a villain like Lecter might make, and then added a beautifully observed character in Clarice Starling. Add suspense and tension in just about every scene, plus razor-sharp prose and dialogue, and you have a piece of magic. I loved Red Dragon as well, but for me Lambs just takes the prize.
What are you working on at present?
I wish I knew. I’m close to finishing my final edits for the next DI Bliss, and also working on a brand new story and character – my first female lead – but only recently had an idea for another Bliss book which I cannot stop thinking about and had to start writing immediately. I always have plans for 2-3 books ahead, and I always change them. I need there to be 48 hours in a day or for someone to clone me.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you?
It entirely depends on the book at the time. My most recent release, The Reach of Shadows, began with two ideas: a possible stalker murder and an internal investigation against DI Bliss. It really was no more than that when I started, but it ended up being what I consider to be my best book so far. Conversely, with the book I am editing, slated to be the next Bliss, the entire story was pretty much in my head and significant incidents noted before I wrote a single word. It all came to me within about fifteen minutes, shortly after reading an article about a bizarre true-life murder in the US. I didn’t so much write about the murder itself, but instead used a similar incident here in the UK as the reason other murders take place.
Do you think the cover plays an important part of the buying process?
From what I’ve read, most people claim not to be influenced by covers. However, even with those who say it means nothing to them, I do believe they may be subliminally drawn to certain colours, fonts, and images. It may catch their eye without them even realising it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that readers can be drawn to a book by a cover.
I don’t, however, believe they buy a book because of the cover. But being drawn to it can be enough, because that may then lead them to read the blurb and go on to buy it.
What kind of research do you do?
I actually enjoy research, and the volume and kind entirely depends on what sort of book I am writing. For Degrees of Darkness I had to interview a taxidermist, for my current DI Bliss book it I needed advice from an embalmer; prior to that, I’ve used a solicitor, a paramedic, and a variety of police organisation units. The Met, NCA and RAF have been extremely useful. Then there’s good old Google and Google Maps. I almost got caught out by the maps, though. In If Fear Wins I have DI Bliss visit a police station in Essex. I wrote a whole scene, part of which described the exterior which I studied in street view online. A week or so afterwards I read a piece that said the station had been closed down and the whole lot moved elsewhere – you forget how out of date those maps and views can be.
How long do you spend on research before starting your book?
I try not to write about anything about which I have a complete lack of knowledge, so I’d say I write the book with a general awareness and minimal research behind me, fill in some specifics during the first draft, but mainly add my research material via the edits. In full flow at the keyboard I leave notations inside square brackets where something needs checking or adding.
What advice would you give to would-be novelists?
Persevere. If you have imagination then you can pluck an idea out of thin air and turn it into a story, which means you must write as often as possible. Learn as you go, but produce. Nothing need be wasted, as it can all be revisited later, after which you can polish your work. I’m not sure everybody gets the fact that, as with most creative things, you have to actually learn your craft. You do that by writing, and although some writers claim not to read, I do think you also learn by reading. Certainly you can learn about structure and pace from reading. Finally, grow a thick skin, because when you present your work you must be prepared to be criticised.
Thank you, Tony! Here's more information about Tony and his books:
Tony J Forder is the author of the critically acclaimed, international best-selling crime thriller series featuring detectives Jimmy Bliss and Penny Chandler. The first three books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, and If Fear Wins, are now joined by The Reach of Shadows, published in January 2019.
Tony’s dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, featuring ex-detective Frank Rogers, was also published by Bloodhound Books. This is a stand-alone novel. Another book that was written as a stand-alone was Scream Blue Murder. This was published in November 2017, and received praise from many, including fellow authors Mason Cross, Matt Hilton and Anita Waller. Before it had even been published, Tony had decided to write a sequel, and Cold Winter Sun was published in November 2018.
Tony lives with his wife in Peterborough, UK, and is now a full-time author. You can find out more from his website, https://www.tonyjforder.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/TonyJForder @TonyJForder
Amazon Author: https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B01N4BPT65
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/tony+j+forder?_requestid=248936
Bloodhound Books: http://www.bloodhoundbooks.com/tony-forder
How do you define a happy ending?
''I won't read a book with an unhappy ending,' a friend once told me.
'So how do you define a happy ending?' I asked.
'Well,' she replied, 'I guess it's a broader issue than everyone living happily ever after, like in a romance novel. For me, in order to have a happy ending, good has to triumph over evil.'
This got me thinking. Is it really necessary for every novel to serve up a morally nutritious dessert at the end of the fictional feast? Must good always emerge the victor? Real life, as we're all painfully aware, isn't like that. So why should we expect fiction to paint an unrealistic picture of the world we live in?
A place for unhappy endings
Genre is important here, of course. I'd bet that most romance readers prefer happy endings for their novels. After all, isn't that the point? Character A meets Character B, they're attracted, but obstacles abound along the path of true love. Eventually A and B conquer their issues, declare their love and live happily ever after. Death, unpleasant divorce statistics and marital disharmony would be unwelcome guests in the soft-edged and fluffy world of romantic fiction.
'I remember reading a romance book back when I was a teenager and it had the heroine dying at the end in childbirth and the hero being sad and never finding someone again. What the hell kinda ending is that!?' A comment made in response to me posing the question about happy endings in a Goodreads group. Hard not to see her point, really! In the same group, someone mentioned a romance in which the hero gets shot two chapters from the end, totally ruining the reading experience. For romance novels, a stereotypical 'happy ever after' ending is almost implicit.
Not always, of course. Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' is the obvious example of a doomed romance, but there are plenty more. Take 'The Fault in Our Stars', a novel by John Green. No happy endings here, not given the death of Augustus Waters from cancer. But then, with this novel, the reader is primed from the start to wonder whether a feel-good conclusion is in the stars. After all, the protagonists meet at a support group for cancer patients. And let's not forget many readers enjoy a good weepie. There's definitely a place for unhappy endings, even within the romance genre, provided they're done sensitively and don't come as a shock to the reader.
A world without hope, an unthinkable future
Let's stick with the issue of genre. If happy endings are the norm for romance novels. the opposite is often true for dystopian ones. Dystopian novels are, by their definition, about unhappiness, with the protagonist primed to fail in a world without hope. The point of such a novel is to portray a an unthinkable future, one that can serve as a warning.
In his dystopian epic 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', George Orwell allows us to glimpse the horrors of a totalitarian world. I've written in a previous blog post about how affected I was by reading the novel with the expectation that good would triumph and that Winston would eventually defeat Big Brother and the Party. I was a teenager at the time and the final chapter came as a huge shock to me, destroying my adolescent expectations for a different, less bleak, ending. I've sometimes wondered what kind of novel it would have been had Orwell delivered the ending my teenage self expected. Personally, I found the long, boring passages about Ingsoc a chore to read. What if they had been replaced by Winston and Julia fighting the good fight and overthrowing the Party? In the hands of a master like Orwell, the reader would still have been assured of a great read. Would it have been a better novel? Impossible to say, of course.
Life isn't all roses and honey
Reader requirements are important too, of course. In a world where there's hunger, poverty and cruelty, many people employ fiction as an escape mechanism. For a few short hours, they can forget the awfulness portrayed on the nightly news as they lose themselves in a happier world between the covers of a book.
Other readers may disagree. After all, real life isn't all roses and honey. Not everyone wants to read books that deliver a moral message, preferring to escape the pervading political correctness of our times with a book that doesn't attempt to sugar-coat life. Novels that reflect the myriad problems affecting our world can reach out to readers more authentically, because they enable them to identify more strongly with the plot-line.
An unhappy ending also avoids clichés. We're almost conditioned to expect a neat, happy wrap-up at the conclusion of a novel, so when the author delivers something quite different, it can come as a refreshing change.
Unexpected endings can jar the reader
Not always, though. Sometimes endings can jar the reader. I suspect this is often because they don't deliver what my friend requires - the triumph of good over bad. Perhaps that's why the end of Gillian Flynn's novel 'Gone Girl' (review here) has attracted so much criticism, with many readers hating it. Without wishing to give spoilers, Flynn doesn't provide a neat wrap-up in which the novel's resident psychopath meets a well-deserved comeuppance. Her finale is refreshing for that very reason, although I confess I also found it somewhat unsatisfying.
Let's look at another example. Take how Thomas Harris concludes 'Hannibal'. OK, so the final chapters of this book have been derided as being totally unrealistic - 'that would NEVER happen!' is a typical response - but like with 'Gone Girl', I suspect some of this is because the ending offends many people's sense of morality. Where is Lecter's punishment for his terrible crimes? What's more, not only does evil come out on top, the closing events portray the corruption of Clarice Starling, a former federal agent, someone supposed to defend right versus wrong. Lecter perverts whatever's decent in Clarice by leading her to share his cannibalistic depravity as well as making her his lover. End result - evil triumphs over good. Unacceptable to many people, I suspect; hence the criticism.
The fun that a good villain provides
For some readers, it's easy to set aside questions of good versus evil, of course. Many people adore a villain. There's something about the bad guys and girls of fiction that's oddly compelling. Take the popularity of Patricia Highsmith's series of Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is a psychopath who kills as and when it suits him, but he's also a charming and engaging individual. Polite, cultured, moving in a glamorous world of travel and luxury, he delights the reader with his total lack of a moral compass. When he fails to get his due desserts at the end of Highsmith's novels, we don't mind, because Ripley has entertained us so much along the way.
Perhaps that's why we also love Hannibal Lecter. He's a depraved cannibal, sure, but he's also intelligent, witty and cultured, a dichotomy that intrigues us and draws us in, as we endeavour to understand what drives such a man. We're revolted by the idea of him eating Krendler's brain, but also filled with admiration for his brilliant mind and ruthless cunning. Ah, the contradictions of human nature! Aren't they fascinating?
Do you prefer a happy ending?
Let's hear from you! What do you require in order to be satisfied with a novel's ending? If you're a romance reader, do you need A and B to live happily ever after, or are lots of tears and a death or two OK? If you're into dystopia, do you believe a happy ending runs contrary to what the genre should deliver?
Are there any novels that ended in a totally different way to what you'd expected, and if so, were you pleased or disgruntled? Do you read to escape real life, or are you somebody who prefers novels to deliver a social commentary in line with the world's issues? Leave a reply and let me know!