Someone asked me a couple of days ago whether I plan in detail or use the ‘travel-hopefully’ method. Now being asked questions like that makes me feel all unnaturally important, as if my words and methods might carry some weight and I was all set to write a lengthy post on how to set about writing a story. Fortunately some sense prevailed; the fact is that everyone seems to write in different ways and I think everyone probably has to find what fits the way their head works.
That said, ‘travel hopefully’ does describe the way I write quite well once I get going, but having said that, there does have to be some sort of framework in place before I start; everyone has to have something, right? Otherwise how do you know where to begin? I don’t think I know anyone who sits down in front of a keyboard knowing nothing more than that they are about to write a story…
So what do I need? I need:
- A world. It doesn’t have to be fleshed out an detailed, but it needs to be there in skeleton form. In particular, I think what matters are the general rules by which the world operates. The big things that will shape it need to be thought through. The Adamantine Palace may not have that much world-building actually in it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thought about. For a fantasy world, is there an analogous period in history? I will always start from something real and then add bits (magic, dragons, the fact that the moon is made of cheese, whatever). These bits need a little basic thinking through, too, about what the consequences are for the base society when you add the extras. I’ll do most of this as a go along, but I need to know how the rules that govern the way the world works have changed because of whatever I’ve added (or taken away). Same principle goes for Science Fiction and technology. If you’re going to set a story in the real world, then which part of the real world and which time in history?
- Some driver characters. A few main protagonists with what they are trying to do and why and very roughly what they’re like. These might be characters who will be in the foreground of the story (example: Prince Jehal: Intelligent, cynical, callous, wants to be top dog (because being the top dog is the only place that’s safe), deep down also wants to be… <spoiler deleted>) or they might be in the background (Saffran Kuy in The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice). They are the characters who are shaping events. What they are trying to do and why they are trying to do it will define the way the world changes during the course of the story.
- Some front-line characters. These might be the same as the above or they might be different, but these are the characters who are in the foreground of the story. I find they tend to acquire their own personalities and colour themselves in as the story goes on, so all I have here at the start are a few seed characteristics that make them stand out from those around them (Angry, guilty, can swing a sword. That sort of thing).
- An end. In some ways most important of all, I need to know how the end is going to feel. Someone has to either achieve something or fail to achieve something. It’s not so much the specifics of what that I have up front, it’s how it’s going to feel for the reader (bitter-sweet is always a favourite with crushing despair a close second, but there’s always the possibility of a happy success). There may well be several ends for several different story-lines.
And that’s it. After that it’s travel hopefully time. Which has worked extremely well on some occasions and less well on others. This year’s submissions will be The Order of the Scales and The Warlock’s Shadow, both already written in draft straight off the back of their prequels (on the grounds that all the preparation work had already been done) and both examples of FAILURE of the method, dammit! The Order of the Scales in particular has rolled a fumble (er, I mean has a lot wrong with it). I can see at least three re-writes being necessary before it’s good enough to be submitted. The first one started this week, along with the stress headaches.
This would also be the time when some sort of review of the year would appear, but I haven’t got time for that right now. Here’s one someone else made earlier.