Guest post: Reverse Planning… or Turning Problems into Questions by Andi Buchanan

I’ve never been a planner. I start with good intentions, with complex spreadsheets or specialist software, with colour coding schemes and books on story structure. I go into the first draft with a clear picture of what I want to write… and three chapters in it all falls apart.

I’ve just finished the first draft of a space opera novel, which I’m calling Shattered Stars for now, until I can think of a better title. I pushed myself a bit further with the planning this time; I downloaded the free trial of Scapple and it helped a lot. I knew the names and main features of the alien races, and I knew the main event or topic of each section of the book and who the main players were. It helped a lot.

The novel is still a mess. I’ve come to terms with the fact I’m not a planner. I don’t plan in detail and nor do I write careful slow drafts; I wrote the first 50 000 words of this novel as part of NaNoWriMo in November and the rest in December. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to plan more effectively, but that’s not going to happen just because I will it to be so. I need to write that first draft to understand my characters, to figure out what happens and how it all fits together. And the process is inevitably going to be tangled.

So this time, rather than wishing I could plan better, I’ve started thinking about how I can most effectively use this first draft to ensure the best possible second draft. To accept that there are going to be major problems with the first draft, but not carry them through into subsequent drafts.

Here’s the situation now: my timelines are a disaster: I don’t know how old my protagonist is – and I haven’t worked out if her orphan granddaughter could even have been born or if she’s too young for it all to make sense. At least one of my alien races changes its name midway through, and although I have the physical features of each race mostly worked out, I have no idea how to distinguish between individuals – are they different sizes or different colours – and is that colour of their skin or their hair… or their scales or feathers? What are the possible variations? I only worked out who the main antagonist was about 3/4 of the way through, so I need to ensure their behaviour is consistent without giving everything away. There’s a section I think might reinforce stereotypes about a group of people in a way I definitely don’t want to perpetuate.

And that’s about two percent of it.

The problem with planning at the start was that I didn’t know enough to ask the questions I needed to. But now I have the baseline. And I’ve started making a list of questions like this:
How old is my protagonist?
What were the names and professions of her children?
What’s a timeline of the significant events that happened in the five years before the story opens?
What type of cuisine does my protagonist check out every time she arrives on a new space station?
How did my secondary character obtain his false identity?
What developmental stages would the grandchild have hit at this point?
Is Earth habitable yet? How many people live there and what are their motivations for doing so?

I collected about forty of these questions before beginning a read through, and they’ve increased a lot as I work my way through chapter by chapter. Some only need one word answers, others need thought and research. I’ve also created a corresponding spreadsheet for each sentient species that collects data like physical appearance, what they breathe, system(s) of government, how culturally homogeneous they are, and so on. And I’m finding I can answer these questions in a way I could never fill in character sheets from scratch. Then it felt like I was picking random details; now I both have the background to base this information on, and know that this information is relevant to the story I’m telling.

I’ve added something else as well. While I was finishing the first draft, I was struggling a bit with why to care about the novel – I think that always happens at some point in a first draft, but I was feeling it particularly strongly this time. In a whine to my critique group, I managed to not only rubber duck the main problem, but to work out a possible solution. There are lots of things about it I find interesting or fun to write. But compared to other longer works I’ve written, there’s little that I truly care about, or find particularly meaningful to me. It touched on them, because I don’t think you can write a creative work of this length without something of your interests or your values coming through.

So I’ve added two more questions:
What is unique, interesting, or unusual about this novel?
and
Why is this novel important to me?

And in doing so I’ve realised that I do care about this novel, but that in constructing plot twists and alien species, I hadn’t focused enough on those aspects. That’s fine, for a first draft, but now I’m keeping the answers to these questions on hand as I move towards the second draft.
Maybe this will bridge the planning/pantsing gap. I hope so. It’s working for me thus far. Maybe it won’t be the solution I’ve hoped though, and I think that’s ok too. I’ve learned that as my writing evolves, changes, improves but not in a steady upwards curve but with ups and downs along the way, so does my writing process. This is just part of that.

—-

Andi C. Buchanan is a writer, editor, and part-time space lobster based near Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Their work is published or forthcoming in Apex, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Andi also edits Capricious magazine, creates websites as part of DragonByte and likes cheese, dinosaurs, and good disability representation in SFF. Their website is at http://andicbuchanan.org/.

Links:
This Other World (novella): https://www.amazon.com/This-Other-World-C-Buchanan-ebook/dp/B01J1B0B3Y
Capricious: Gender Diverse Pronouns special issue: http://www.capricioussf.org/issue-9-gender-diverse-pronouns/

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