Embracing chaos

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All this talk of defining your arcs, identifying themes and planning out a 10-chapter buffer might have you getting a bit twitchy, especially if you're a writer who prefers to wing it. And, incidentally, making it up as you go is totally legitimate. Whatever works. I've always fallen somewhere in the middle, between intricate planning and full-on detail.

Given that I've spent the previous two chapters exploring various techniques relating to planning, this time round it's time to unleash your inner anarchist and embrace a bit of chaos.

The standard way of writing a book is very controlled, regardless of how much you plan it out. You start writing, a long time passes and then at some point you have a first draft. The work is entirely private, known only to yourself, and you can then go back and edit at your leisure. Even writers who do no planning and simply write and see what happens will, at that stage, go back and tweak and improve and adjust. Consequently, the final draft of that book will have gone through the same process as a minutely-planned novel - the only difference being whether the planning and finessing occurs at the outset or at the end of the project.

Serialisation throws all this out the window, at least if you commit to the concept. When you're publishing chapters before you've even finished the entire text, you have to accept that the story will evolve and mutate in a very public space. What you think you're writing at the start may not be what you wind up with down the line, but you'll have had people reading it that whole time which means you have to commit, and evolve right under their noses.

Here's an example. Let's say in chapter 8 you kill off a lead character. If by the time you get to chapter 20 you realise you made a mistake, you can't just go back and re-write those chapters, editing the character back in, because people have already read the story. What's done is done and you have to keep moving forwards.

Of course, there's nothing technically stopping you from going back and editing old chapters - Wattpad entirely supports that feature. You can continually mutate your story with edits over time if you want, but remember that it's a fast way to confuse and lose your growing, loyal audience.

Exceptions to this concept might include minor fixes for typos, spelling errors, grammatical improvements. Those don't change the details of what's happened in the story, only the overall quality of the reading experience.

In writing A Day of Faces I only made two retro-fitted tweaks. One was a small, single sentence addition in an early chapter to better establish the lead character's full name (which becomes more important later in the book), and the other was a single line of dialogue to clarify something which otherwise could appear to be a plot hole. Both were very minor alterations and most readers will never notice, know or care - but they still felt a little dishonest.

What I definitely avoided doing was reneging on any promises or changing and specific plot or character beats. Once something happened in the story, it had happened. No going back.

Early on, this felt terrifying, especially when approaching a major plot twist. A character being killed off? That was a major point of no return. Over time the worry about 'getting it wrong' shifted into an appreciation for how this commitment to the story's inertia was helping its overall quality and momentum.

If I found the plot naturally deviating away from my original plan, as tends to happen, I had to just deal with it. This is quite a different experience to writing in a traditional manner, where you can constantly course-correct, edit and retrofit elements to get back to your core plot outline. I always had the chapter plan to refer to so that I didn't become irrevocably lost, but I let the book determine its own direction.

That tension, in having to own my storytelling decisions and live by them, I believe led to A Day of Faces being a much better and more interesting book. Many of its best ideas only emerged during the writing, once I'd had a chance to live in its world. If I'd been trying to slavishly stick to a source plot document written months previously, I'd probably have rejected a lot of those ideas before giving them a chance to breathe. Serialisation inherently encourages you to go off-piste, and makes it okay to never look back.

Forward is the only direction.

Practically, this meant that I would sometimes add or remove chapters from the plan as I went along. If I was enjoying a particular story element, I'd have no hesitation about adding an additional chapter in order to give it room to breathe. If a minor supporting character had turned out to be more interesting than expected, then I'd let them stick around even if they were only ever meant to be in one chapter. One of A Day of Faces' leads was only ever meant to have a single guest appearance but has turned into a favourite character for many readers. More drastically, the entire second half of A Day of Faces is fundamentally changed from the initial plans - but what it became is far more in keeping with the story's themes and the characters' motivations. Rather than the characters being shunted around to fit the whims of a pre-defined and locked plot, the plot instead evolved based on the characters' actions.

Allowing the story to be fluid and malleable is also why I only wrote one chapter per week. Having those days in-between gave my brain time to percolate ideas, allowing them to breathe and develop naturally. Silly ideas would often turn out to be highly rewarding after a bit of further thinking, while initially exciting ideas can fall flat once considered more deeply. If I'd been writing more regularly - say, daily - I don't think I'd have had the mental space to process what was going on. It's something I've experienced this month while attempting NaNoWriMo - the pace of the writing doesn't afford my brain the space required to stay properly creative. That's why I recommend building in 'downtime' even if you have a luxurious write/life balance which permits you to write everyday.

How much do you deviate from your initial plans when writing?

Next up: Getting in the zone

If this guide helps your writing, you can buy me a coffee here: http://ko-fi.com/simonkjones  

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