How to structure your project

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A book is a big. Really big. So big that it becomes intimidating and unwieldy. If all you have in front of you is a blank document and the challenge of writing 90,000 words it starts to feel insurmountable.

It works the other way around, too. If you've managed to finish writing the first draft of your book (nice one!) it then congeals into this huge lump of impenetrable text, almost impossible to visualise or hold in your head as a coherent entity. It becomes a morass of words. If you're intending to go back and further refine and edit the work, the sheer volume to wade through can be daunting. Just look at the size of that scrollbar.

For both these reasons it's worth breaking your story down into component pieces, so that you can regard it as a collection of smaller, more easily digestible morsels. The tricky thing is that this can be tough to do right at the start, before you start writing, because you won't necessarily have a strong idea of the plot beats yet. Unless I'm doing this decidedly wrong, most stories don't leap into your head fully formed and usually require some massaging and encouragement.

But you gotta start somewhere.

My serial A Day of Faces, which is now a complete short novel, began life as a very simple 'what if?' conceit consisting of eleven words:

What if everybody born in a 24 hour period looked identical?

This isn't a story, though. It's not even a plot. It's not a theme, either. It's an idea: nothing more, nothing less. Some writers can launch straight into a book with nothing more than that initial spark but I tend to prefer to do some planning and development before getting started; in the case of an online serial which you're publishing as you go I'd really encourage this, to reduce your overall stress levels and avoid backing yourself into any corners.

Assuming that you're going to be publishing while you write and that you're going to commit to that public story - by which I mean that you're not going to go back and sneakily edit prior chapters in order to cover up accidental plot holes or mistakes - having an up-front plan can save you a lot of hair-tearing down the line. If you already have some notion of what you're going to be writing each week, that session becomes something to look forward to, rather than fear.

Everybody has their own preferred level of detail when it comes to planning. I've heard of writers who put together three hundred page outlines before even starting on the first draft, while others prefer to chance it and see where the chips fall. I'm somewhere in-between. You probably are, too.

Figuring out A Day of Faces' structure was made considerably easier by its episodic, serialised nature. It immediately pulled me towards an almost television-style format (I called the chapters 'episodes' originally) and I found myself breaking the story down by 'arcs' - collections of chapters which were defined by common themes or major plot beats. In a TV show, these would be individual seasons: still very much part of the overall whole, but identifiable as a distinct part, with their own mini-finales.

It's not unusual for books to be split into sections or parts, of course, but when I've worked on outlines for stories which I considered to be 'books' in the traditional sense, I approached it quite differently. A multi-part book is still a strong, singular thing. A multi-arc serial, however, feels more demarcated, with each arc being its own thing and having its own flavour. A big part of this mental adjustment comes through the on-going publishing of chapters before you've finished the project - it forces you to park what you've already done and keep moving.

And, thus, I ended up with a 5-arc story, born out of that initial one-liner idea. Each arc had its own one-liner, indicating the broad direction of travel. At this stage I still wasn't concerned about specific plot beats or what would happen in each chapter; this was about figuring out the foundation of the story's structure. A to B to C to D. The early arcs were more defined than the later ones, as I wanted to leave myself open to the story evolving while still knowing the general direction of travel. Here's an example of one of my arc outlines:

Arc 1: Follow Kay as she gets mixed up with the Anomaly: a guy called Cal who doesn't fit any known pattern, and in fact can switch between any other pattern, and is being hunted by the authorities (who want his power). Break into Aviary, encounter dimension messaging machine. Cal gets dimension hop power. Holt attacks. Ends with Cal changing and jumping away with Kay and Marv.

This gives me a defined start and end, while remaining fairly loose in the middle. It gives me a direction and a destination but allows the journey itself to change depending on what I encounter on the way.

Figuring out how many chapters you want per arc is very useful at this point. I found that about ten chapters per arc was manageable: it didn't feel intimidating but left me enough time to explore character, theme and plot. It also felt like a number which would provide a satisfying experience for readers. Assuming I kept to my weekly schedule, each arc would take me therefore about ten weeks. With five arcs to complete, that was fifty weeks, or about twelve and a half months.

Over a year.

Around this point that panicky sensation can start to return as you comprehend the sheer amount of work ahead. But it's OK: that's why we're doing this as a serial. A traditional book, where you have to write the whole thing up front would be a ton of work before it even escaped your computer or notepad and got seen by anyone else. That's when you end up being distracted by new, shinier projects and other Life Stuff. Switching to serialised fiction introduces micro-goals, such that you're no longer trying to write a novel; instead, you're simply writing a new chapter in your episodic story, which you'll quickly push out to your readers, feel the satisfaction and move on. It helps in this case to think small and keep the project manageable in your head. The arrival of those readers and their responses are what will keep you going.

To be clear, your story can be as long or as short as it demands. If you can tell it in a single 'arc', that's great. Keep it focused! If it needs five arcs, then don't be afraid. But don't strain the story beyond its natural length - if you're struggling to think of a one-liner for an arc, it's a good indication that you're trying to force too many.

If you can figure out one-liner descriptions for your big, overall plot, breaking it down into three-to-five story arcs, you should end up with a good feeling about whether it's a tale worth telling. Make sure it's something that excites you, because if it doesn't it's not going to work on anybody else.

I wrote and published one chapter a week. It turned out that A Day of Faces ultimately demanded sixty chapters, but it never felt overwhelming because I only ever regarded it one chapter a time. When I got to the end of the story and looked back, I was surprised to discover I'd just written a novel, without even noticing. I was so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I didn't realise I'd reached the summit of the mountain, until I looked back and saw it all laid out below.

Do you tend to write short, precise stories or big, sprawling epics?

Next up: The details - word count, themes & plotting

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