Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 1 – Planning

(This is a continuation of the ideas I started exploring in this post.)

It’s hard to say where I “got the idea” for my first novel, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant, available this July. It’s not so much an idea that I “got” as an idea I’ve always had.

I learned to read by eating through all one hundred plus volumes of Nancy Drew. I developed a real love for the traditional whodunnit from that girl detective, and I’ve kept it my whole life. Even as my interest drifted from mystery fiction to fantasy fiction, my love for private eyes, perpetrators, and puzzles never faded. It always made me sad there wasn’t much genre overlap, and I’ve known since forever that I wanted to write a fantasy mystery novel. It just seemed right.

The problem, of course, is that “fantasy mystery novel” isn’t a story idea, it’s a concept. At best! But it was a good concept, for one major reason…

1. Go simple.

A lot of the high profile fantasy fiction out there is very dense. We’ve gotten a reputation as a genre that creates doorstoppers instead of books, where you need maps, glossaries, and appendixes to make sense of the story. My labyrinth days were filled with reading books like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and other epics like it. Those big, hearty series where each volume was at least six hundred pages and the worlds felt as real as our own. It was natural that the ideas I came up with were as big and grand and epic and complicated as those.

Don’t try and write one of those.

There are so many moving parts to those epics that for we labyrinth-crawlers, they may as well be impossible. When you’re learning to walk again after all your leg muscles have atrophied, you don’t immediately go barreling full tilt down a hillside. You’re just going to get hurt.

Take your most modest idea that you think has promise, and start from there. Keep your scale tight. Focus on the things you know you’re good at writing and you know you’ll enjoy. For me, that’s snappy dialogue. What will get you to actually finish a book is to chart out a book you can actually finish.

2.Don’t be afraid to tear apart and recombine ideas.

I think a lot of writers like to hoard ideas and characters. We never know how many books we’ll write in your career and we get so attached to specific ideas and all their little specific pieces. But sometimes your best ideas or characters end up shackled to projects they could have found a better home with elsewhere. Sometimes two separate projects end up alone when they’re stronger together. I know how we store up stories in our hearts, planning how we’re going to tell them once we get out of the labyrinth. But there are a lot of ways that confidence can hurt us.

The Deathsniffer’s Assistant is a chimera of a book. I was determined to start something I would actually finish, and I sat down to plan this book, and I found it incredibly difficult. Tapping your spacebar key, trying to just spontaneously summon ideas out of your brain… it rarely works. Concepts, worlds, plots, and characters… they’re tricksy, spontaneous beasts that hit us at the strangest moments. I’d spent my years in the labyrinth shuttling those flashes of inspiration off to the five or six different overstuffed and dusty mind-bins that were my BOOK IDEAS. And those BOOK IDEAS had all grown way too large for my earnest attempt to dive in and get something done.

I didn’t have a lot of luck coming up with real solid concepts for Deathsniffer until I gave in, went to those boxes I’d stuffed full of brilliant ideas, and I raided them. One of those boxes gave up my foundation: a working relationship between a man and a woman where she was the professional and he was the assistant. Another box got all the cardboard stripped off as I stole the setting: a flight-of-fancy flavoured world littered with mundane daily realities. Yet another box got a magic system filched from it. Two entire characters got stolen from a project they were tied really closely to.

And that stuff was all hellishly difficult. Separating those parts from the whole I’d constructed for them in my head felt like evil mad science. It was like I was ripping apart my children and I was so sure they could never find the same life I’d imagined for them cobbled together in this new book idea.

But my gut was right. Every single thing worked, all the pieces came together perfectly, and imagining the elements I stole in the stories I stole them from feels wrong.

3. There is such a thing as overplanning.

And is there ever!

More than a few of my labyrinth escape attempts were thwarted by the planning stage. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of them were. And why? Because it’s so easy to overplan.

You think that you need to know where your character is from. That leads you to realize they need childhood friends. Those friends really need lives of their own so that they feel real. They should have birthdays. Wait, have you dealt with dates, yet? So you build a calendar system, but you realize that you need an event to base the calendar on, and before you know it you’re scribbling down the ancient history of the earliest civilizations.

This stuff is a trap, and worse, it’s a trap that’s really hard to avoid. That’s because it seems like it’s really important. You need to know this stuff. How can you write about your world if you don’t know about your world?  But the thing is, you don’t need it.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. This stuff isn’t useless information. Every little detail you add to your world, fictional or real, makes it a bigger, wider place. Even if you never talk about those things in the story itself, just the knowledge of them will give your characters and places and events a depth that the reader will see. There is a tiny bit of value in every single useless detail you know about your work.

But those wonderful little motes of reality are really not necessary right now.

There’s no benefit to handling all of that so early. And for we labyrinth-folk? There’s actually a big fat drawback. The thing about planning is that it’s not writing. You can plan until the cows come home, but until you’re putting down words, you haven’t made any progress. Planning can become stalling. Planning will become stalling, if you let it. We start finding it really easy to trick ourselves and give ourselves pats on the back we don’t deserve. “Oh, I did a whole hour of world-building today!” But did we write? No. Will we ever actually write words on this project?

We might not. I know I didn’t. Pages and pages of obsolete plans, because, ultimately, I was scared of starting.

And the fact is, all that work you’re doing probably won’t even matter in the long wrong. Why is that? Well…

4. Everything you plan now is going to change once you start writing.

This is the most liberating thing I wish I’d been told.

The biggest realization I had while writing The Deathsniffer’s Assistant was that words are alive. Stories breathe. Characters move. Your book is going to blossom underneath you in ways you can’t even imagine yet.

No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy. The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. You are going to be absolutely blown away once you get down into the trenches. Your original plans will grow and expand and fall apart and explode and reform themselves. Things you were completely certain about won’t end up happening. Plot points you brainstormed extensively will be written out entirely. Characters will develop traits and backstory elements you didn’t expect. Relationships you banked on will have no chemistry to speak of. You’ll hate something you wrote down in planning phase, cursing yourself and wondering what you were thinking.

And what will you do? You’ll change it and keep writing.

I think one thing writers still in the labyrinth need to hear a lot more than I did is how easy it actually is to change something. You’re not chained to anything that you write in planning. In fact, you’ll probably end up at least bending all of it. So remember that this stage isn’t nearly as daunting, or as important, as it seems. It’s good to get your ideas together, but that’s it. Your plans will be written in sad, not carved in granite.

5. Set a hard date to move to the next step.

So how to actually avoid getting caught up the planning phase? Hopefully, you’ve read enough here to remove some of the pressure associated with it, but it’s still not easy to get out of your own head, especially when you’re going to have to write when you finish. And if writing was easy, you wouldn’t be in the labyrinth.

Well, here’s some purely practical advice on the matter: set a date.

It doesn’t work for everyone, sure. But I found having little deadlines in mind and keeping to them is the biggest thing that helped me get through each step of the process. Planning is the most important of these to be strict with yourself on, because I consider it by far the easiest phase to get hopefully lost inside your own butt during.

Do you want two weeks of planning? A month of planning? Set a date. Don’t tell yourself that you’ll move to outlining or to writing when you’re satisifed with it, because you’ll never be satisfied with it. There will always be a few more details you can shade in.

For me, that date was November 1st. That’s right, my dirty little secret is out. The Deathsniffer’s Assistant started as a project for NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month in November where aspiring writers around the globe all try to bang out fifty-thousand words on a manuscript. There are a lot of problems with NaNoWriMo, but one thing it’s great at is forcing that schedule for you. When November 30th comes, and you haven’t finished your words, you fail. NaNo does not give extensions.

(Of course, it’s worth nothing that I got only two chapters, about eleven thousand words in first draft, into the novel that first November. And then I abandoned the manuscript for a year. But more on that later!)

BONUS: Put your head down and get through the boring parts.

This last lesson I learned is a gift to all of those people like me… who hate planning. Oh, I love stringing together the loose concepts, coming up with characters, individual scenes, dialogue, plot points… but when it comes to sitting down and actually writing out the the things I’ve come up with, tinkering with the nitty gritty of how something works, choreographing the order of events, or painfully extracting the details of worldbuilding from my head to the page – well. I would rather get my toenails pulled out.

But planning is incredibly important, even though you’re going to change most of it later. You need some idea of where you’re going, and you’re going to need a reference document you can go back to when you forget the proper title for a middle-aged priestess, or the name given to someone with this particular magical gift, or the name of the distant Monarch, and, crap, just what names did I give to the days of the week, again? If you don’t sit down and work that stuff out on paper, you’re going to regret it later when you don’t have it.

I know how you feel. It sounds boring and troublesome and you’d rather just not write at all. But trust me. Just get it done. Tunnel through it as soon as possible. It needs to be done, and doing it is terrible but then it will be done.

So, my plans were done. I’d written character sketches, a two thousand work setting bible, and my general concept for the plot. I’d gotten this far before a few times, but planning was a big one for me. I can honestly say that most of my stillborn projects from that time of my life died before the end of this phase. If you can get this far, you’re looking good.

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