Tag Archives: plot

Where to, Guv’ner?

Every once in a while, one sits at one’s desk and one wonders where one’s characters are wandering off to next.

Try saying that after a couple of whiskies.

Having made a New Year’s resolution to finish my book, it occurred to me on Monday that I was one week into said New Year and had not so much as glanced at it.  Then I realised in a cold sweat that, after fifty-one more weeks of similar progress, I’ll have failed my challenge.  Thus, I set to work, addressing the snag I knew was going to catch me one day.  For the sake of simplicity and larks, we shall call this problem, “Where to, Guv’ner?”

I think the journey aspect of any adventure is the hardest part to write.  If you’re anything like me, you can write a beginning, you have some vague but flexible ideas about the end game and you know a couple of pivotal points along the way.  It’s making the in-between bits a) connect these events together, b) lead to new plot points and characters and c) interesting.

Alas, I knew the time had come: I was going to have to get to grips with the landscape – the actual physical journey my characters are making.  Time to forge a map.  However, I was so stumped as to what I wanted this world to look like that I began to seriously doubt a paper map was going to be the way forward.

To this end, I started using a free app I shall recommend to you now.  It is called Idea Sketch.  It’s nothing groundbreaking: a large canvas and some bubbles of various colours, shapes and text sizes into which one may enter a title and description.  If you’re feeling truly sprightly and innovative, you might perhaps attempt to connect these bubbles together with arrows – as if they are related.

Granted, this practice is a bit fiddly.  Not only did I find myself unable to delete said arrows; I found myself inadvertently creating extra arrows in my attempts to do so.  Perhaps the arrows element would better serve a person building a regular mind map, where the precise connections between concepts aren’t likely to randomly move about.  However, for me, trying to squeeze in extra place names in a sort of linear geographical affair, it went a bit pear-shaped.

I decided to resolve this issue by simply not joining the bubbles, keeping them separate but close enough together to remember my routes.  This worked out far better.  I suggest you learn from my mistakes, and do this right from the off, rather than assume you are cleverer than me and can harness the arrows’ awesome power.  I make this suggestion out of love: when I tried to abort the arrows fiasco, I discovered that deleting one bubble deletes every other bubble joined to it, as if they are sharing organs or have made some kind of suicide pact.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like trouble.  Why not just use Word or PowerPoint?  Well, to use Word or PowerPoint, I’d have to have to be sat at a laptop, which sort of stunts the creativity in the ideas stage.  On the iPad I can lounge about, looking at my map thoughtfully over several hours, whilst handily continuing with my life at the same time.  Multitasking.

Another advantage is that the iPad makes for more efficient zooming.  Plus the larger canvas means you don’t have to wrestle with page sizes to keep all your bubbles together.

Also, Word and PowerPoint’s shape functions, whilst eventually able to get the job done, do tend to fall down at key moments for no readily apparent reason.  Considering the money and research behind them, I do find any set diagram – though good in principle – simply can’t cope if I delete a box or try to move things about a bit.  It’s as if it was placed in charge of a psychotically needy relative as a child and now breaks down screaming, “What do you want from me?!” if you ask to borrow its pencil sharpener.

Also, when things go wrong on the iPad, I either blame myself for having butter fingers or forgive Idea Sketch its sins, because it’s just a little tiny baby free app and, coochy-coochy-coo, aren’t you cute with your limited capabilities and inexperienced developers?

By contrast, Word and Powerpoint… upset me.  Quite frankly, the idea of a mainstream word processor, on its umpteenth version, having a panic attack when I try to place a text box a few pixels to the right, fills my tantrum meter so fast you’d think I was a toddler, in an itchy sweater with too-long sleeves, dropping an ice cream cone in one hand and holding a complicated big kid toy I can’t work in the other.  With a tummy ache.

What was I talking about?  Oh, yes, my map app.  (Sorry.  Didn’t mean to rhyme quite that hard.)

Idea Sketch has its flaws, but, provided you avoid the arrows and make good use of the undo button, it can be quite a helpful tool for plotting your characters’ journeys.  Good if you don’t want to spend hours refining a drawn map, or buying new computers because Microsoft Office’s I’m-sure-very-attractive-if-it-found-the-right-person traits have rendered you a serial hardware defenestrator.

In my case, it was actually very helpful.  I’m much further along in my characters’ journey and am getting a feel for my setting.  Now I just have to keep writing and work out what comes next.

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Let’s Look At The Map Before We End Up In Mexico

Sorry, guys!  I’m horrendously late with this update, but last week became somewhat consumed by my need to unearth old Japanese work – and, more dauntingly, my dormant Japanese language skills – so I can start a prospective tutoring job.  Exciting, but tough!  The human brain is amazing at times, though.  It’s all coming back so fast just looking at my notes and textbooks.  It’ll take work, but it’s all about getting back to a place where I can pluck vocabulary out of the air rather than out of… anywhere else.

Anyway, yes, the book!  I sat down for the first time in ages to begin writing without interruption last week.  I began Chapter Five.  I persisted with Chapter Five.  I finished half of Chapter Five in only a couple of days.  And then I realised I had no idea what I was doing.

I now have it on good authority from a fellow writer that around Chapter Five is the place where a crisis typically sets in.  It’s because you are approaching the middle of the book, that uncomfortable sandwich filling between your good start and your suspenseful and thoroughly worth-it ending, where you have to work out what the heck your characters are going to see and do for the next ten chapters to get to the grand finale.

Obviously, there’s very little point in just blathering on without any direction, so this has led to a period of writing downtime as I focus on getting my story straight.  I have come up with several ways to get the creative ideas flowing and have been putting them into action this past week.

  1. I have taken out my ten-sided dice and created a system for randomly creating characters via dice roll.  This has worked spectacularly well, finally getting me to move away from my comfort zone and really start thinking about how to fit them into my work.  Also unsettling is that two of the characters I had already conjured up beforehand actually came out through the dice rolls.  They even had the same first initials.  Creepy.
  2. To get my characters off the page I used my (severely limited) artistic skills to draw them all out alongside one another, police line-up style.  The scale went a bit wrong – the 4’10” character appears to come to the 6’5” character’s knees – but I’m still pretty proud of it.  It’s helped me to widen the scope of my story, and actually resulted in a major epiphany for the plot.
  3. I took out a piece of pink card, cut it into little rectangles and then began writing all the plot points and potential plot points I could for the story.  Then I put them in chronological order and worked out where the gaps were in my plot.  Now I can consider how to fill those gaps, and rearrange the events in the story for the best pacing.

Here's one I made earlier. Behold the plot cards!

These techniques have been extremely helpful for my writing process and I recommend them to anyone.  I think the worst place to be in the entire world when you need to force your creativity is in front of an LCD screen, staring at an open Microsoft Word document.  I have more worthy nemeses to make than that smug little flashing cursor.