Testing the Snowflake Method – The Results

A long, long time ago, I started trying out the Snowflake Method of planning a novel. The original post is here and considering that this was to be a very small side project, it’s somewhat escalated (see Monarch Necrotic). The rough draft of this novel isn’t completely finished yet, but has come far enough that I can make some assessments on how this method of plotting worked for me.

What didn’t work

Let’s start with the bad side of things. Despite all the meticulous planning (in fact, some issues are because of the planning), the novel is going to need a significant amount of restructuring. Due to the nature of the planning, the novel has ended up with a lot of extraneous scenes, many of which are going to end up being cut, with only small portions being shifted into other places. It’s going to take a lot of work to turn this into a streamlined, well paced story. 

Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for me originally trying out the Snowflake Method was to try and minimise the huge issues I generally have with rough drafts and reduce the extent to which I need to rewrite things. This has, unfortunately, not worked. However, like with anything, using this method is going to be something that requires practice. Now that I’m aware of what issues it creates, I can be more aware of how to avoid them during planning and how I ended up making these mistakes in the first place. I’ll be a lot more aware of not reducing each scene to a single concept, and condensing things a lot more efficiently in the future.

So why am I talking about using it again when it didn’t do what I wanted on this try? 

What did work

I had some issues with the method, or rather how I implemented it, but with hindsight I can see where I went wrong and how I could tackle a different project. Even without considering that though, I wouldn’t abandon this method because it came with some fantastic benefits. 

World building is normally something I normally do on the macro scale before starting, then do the small details on the fly as I go. Most of my world building generally occurs after the rough draft, when I know what I need to know and can add in the details later. While this works for me, it contributes to the extensive rewriting I need to do on the second pass. With this method, I knew which areas of world building would need to exist for this particular story, meaning that I could work on those details before starting and meaning that I didn’t need to tweak or twist anything later in the story that didn’t fit. I could fit story points around things that had already been worked into my world. It also meant that I could add more detail to these things on the first pass, creating a deeper and richer world.

The other great benefit I found was with characters. My usual approach to plotting involved just that. Plot and story. Characters were generally bare bones concepts that were allowed to develop as I wrote the original draft and, as with the world building, that tended to lead to a lot of rewriting. Character interactions all have to be altered and more often than not what made sense for a hollow placeholder character to do when I started made no sense for the fully fleshed out actually-having-a-personality version of the character that emerged at the end of the story to do. 

The meticulous levels to the character planning in the Snowflake Method meant that all of my characters had really strong voices and personalities before I ever started writing the stories. The characters can play a far more prominent role in shaping the story, rather than things having to be re-jigged later. It also made it very clear when a character was just there “because” or solely to hold up someone else. I could see these issues and ensure that each and every character there had real drives and motives. It allowed the very story to have more soul to it right from the start, rather than have it crowbarred in later with great effort and anguish. These benefits alone have made me very pleased I tried this out. 

Will I use it again?

While I’m going to try and refrain from starting any new novel projects until I’ve got some of the many I’m still working on in to something resembling finished, I’ll definitely be trying this again in the future. Now that I know where I’ve gone wrong on the plotting front, I think I know how I can eliminate some of the major issues I’ve had in the past. Considering the amount of rewriting I usually have to do anyway, I think the payoffs here have been well outweighed by the benefits. Though it is amusing that it gave me the opposite of my usual problem (having to flesh out an overly short draft vs a draft full of unnecessary bloat). Having relatively recently made my first attempt at truly pantsing a story (writing with zero prior plotting), I can definitely say that this style works better for me. 

Plus, and perhaps most importantly, doing it was just fun.

Organisational Tools: Trello

One of the things about me is that I find it difficult to have just one project on the go, and I have far more than one creative hobby. As such, it can be quite easy for things to get lost along the way to completion, to forget my progress on something, or just forget about a project entirely. I’ve tried several systems for keeping track of things in the past but none have really captured what I wanted or needed.

Enter Trello.

So, in my day job, last year I was assigned to a team that works using a management system called “scrum.” Now, ignoring my personal feelings on that, there was one particular aspect of it that I really liked. The Scrum Board. A board with all current works to be completed within a certain time period, laid out in columns including “to do,” “in progress,” etc. And I thought there was a far more fun application of this than WORK.

I did a quick search and found Trello, a website that allows you to make your own boards for your own projects. I did, and I love it. What are some of the features that make Trello work for me?

Columns are the first useful thing. This is to separate out what state everything is in. The above screenshot is from my personal board, which holds ALL my projects in it. I have “In Waiting,” for everything that I want to do, but isn’t currently on my radar. “To Do” is for things I want to start working on next. “Doing” speaks for itself and of course “Done” is the WOO HOO column. In particular, I like having the distinction between the “In Waiting” and “To Do” columns because it stops me feeling overwhelmed by too many projects, while giving me the reassurance that nothing is being forgotten about.

Example Trello column headers.

Projects or tasks are made into “cards” that can be moved about the board. These cards can be given as much or as little detail as you want. The ones on my personal board vary wildly between paragraphs and paragraphs of detail to just the title. You can add due dates, attachments, and custom fields of your own. I have a custom field for estimating the “size” of a task, so I have an idea of what I’m getting myself into while looking through my list to pick what to work on next.

Example Trello cards. Ignore that overdue blog post…

One of my favourite bits of Trello is that it lets you add brightly coloured labels, which speaks to the part of me that has many binders covered in brightly coloured sticky markers. This is very useful for me in particular as it allows me to keep all of my projects on one board while still being able to pick out what sort of thing I’m looking for at that point in time. These can all be customised, so the board tells you what you need it to tell you.

Example Trello labels.

And finally, another personal favourite. Be it a badly scrawled post-it, the back of my hand, a phone app, or that expensive notebook I’ve finally worked up the courage to use, I love making lists. Lists are awesome. Not only does Trello let you add checklists, it lets you add multiple to one card. For example, one my novel progress I like to have checklists with the big steps such as “rough draft,” “first draft,” etc but I also like smaller ones so that I can track progress on the actual part I’m working on. A sense of progression helps me keep working, otherwise it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by a project that doesn’t feel like it’s moving.

Example Trello card checklist.

So this is Trello and why I love it. It’s also very easy to keep up to date, which means… that’s right! The Project Status page is getting revamp! And by revamp, I mean a link to a public, trimmed down Trello board that will display all my project progress in an easier to handle fashion. Here’s a nice direct link to the CM Schofield Progress Board

Do you have your own methods for organising your projects? What do you find works for you?

Musings on Pitch Contests

With the completion of Through the Black looming ever closer, I’ve been thinking more and more of how and where I want to get my MS out there. Traditional querying will almost certainly be my number one method, but these days online pitch contests are also a hugely popular way to get your short pitch seen by agents and publishers.

The downsides of these are that you only have a very limited amount of characters to make yourself stand out. The upside is that there’s no quicker way to get huge swathes of publishing professionals all at once.

Of course, you might attract the attention of agent who aren’t the right fit for you or you might not attract any at all. The thing is, if you don’t put yourself out there then you’ll never know. The best that can happen is that you find someone requesting a query. The worst is that you’ll have honed a neat, concise pitch for your work.

I actually tried my hand at one very recently. The creative industries festival XpoNorth held one this month and, as they were accepting pitches for manuscripts that weren’t 100 % complete, I decided to have a go. Unfortunately I didn’t have any success with that but I didn’t have much time to prepare my pitches. What it does mean is that I now have a couple of them that I can work on and polish well for when more roll around, and hopefully be more prepared for. Mostly it was good practice for not obsessively staring at my phone or refreshing my internet browser.

There are a few lined up for after my deadline, so I’m hoping to have some nice polished pitches and a finished manuscript all ready to go by the time they roll around!

 

Paper

A Ramble About My Writing Classes

A few weeks ago, I started attending an evening writing class. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time now but I’ve always lived too far out to go to any. Luckily and seemingly completely by chance, the tiny little town I live in now has one set right in the community centre! Never having any formal lessons on the craft is always something I’ve been self-conscious about, even though at this point I think I’m self-taught enough to have a fair idea of what I’m doing. Really I’m here for the reassurance and quite simply the fun of it, with the hope to learn some great stuff along the way.

Writing is one of those vast, nebulous things that has no definitive answer. There’s always ideas or theories or tricks that you don’t know, that you won’t have thought of or stumbled across on your way through the journey of discovering your voice. For instance, I had never heard of the “save the cat” method even though it’s actually found its way into the latest draft of Through the Black (scary, subterranean bat people count as cute little kitties, right?).

It’s also a really good feeling to meet with people face-to-face who are interested in writing. I’ve talked before in my posts about the workshops in the past about how lonely writing can feel. Even with the hugely supportive online community, you can feel very disconnected from the world around you. There’s something homely and reassuring about meeting with like minded people every once in a while – especially after so long flying solo. This class, unlike the one off workshops I’ve been to before, means actually getting to know people a little too, which is great.

The class I’m in is very small—there’s five of us on a good day—so there’s lots of room for discussions and input and no one gets left on the edges, which is both nice and terrifying for an introvert like me who normally hides on the edges intentionally. To add to the scary factor, and something I’ve never done before, it’s a common exercise to do a short period of “free writing” and then to read it aloud. Let me tell you, that is not easy. That said, it’s probably a good thing to get experience and practice of for later down the line.

So to sum up, there’s lots of new things to learn, new experiences to be had and new friends to be made! All in all, a success if you ask me (even if the reading out loud drives me to chocolate). If you’ve ever been thinking about trying out a writing class, even if you think you don’t “need” it, I’d definitely recommend trying it out. I’m having a great time with mine!

Snowflake and Characters

As you know, I’ve been working on a side project partially for fun but mainly to see if using the Snowflake Method of plotting would be beneficial for me in the future for serious projects. Work has been continuing slowly on that but it hasn’t been prioritised over other work – though it seems to want to get itself promoted to a serious project. My plate feels rather full at the minute but we’ll maybe see in the future.

Capture

I was making fairly quick progress through all the steps – until I got to stage seven. This part involves very in-depth character profiles, going into every little detail about the characters, and I am finally making some good progress on it. Before I was getting really distracted and skipping ahead to the next phase (I know I shouldn’t but I just love planning scenes) and just generally struggling to get in the rhythm of filling in the incredibly detailed sheets the template came with.

It’s very strange for me to go into so much detail with characters before I start writing. Normally I have to get started and let the characters grow from the page, emerging with the story and influenced by the situations they get put in. I’ll have a rough idea but I won’t really start to know them until I write. I won’t know how they speak or interact or even what they’ll do until I actually get them doing things. It means that in the early chapters of a rough draft they can come off as very dry – because they are. By the middle they’ll have some personality and background and I go back and fix the start during edits.

Using the Snowflake Method means I’m going to know my characters really well before I even think about the first scene. By the time I’m finished stage 7, for each of them I’ll know their histories, their speech patterns, influences and ideals. There’s sheets that probe into areas I wouldn’t have thought of looking at ever and even my ‘main’ minor characters will have comprehensive histories. It really gives the feel that my first draft will have far more robust and interesting characters and that this would lead to far more character driven stories. Now that they already have personalities and histories, they can’t be moulded to the story – it must be moulded to them.

I’m really excited to see how this effects the end result – the way the characters appear on the page. Will they be more rounded, relatable and all around enjoyable as a result? Or will they lose that natural and organic feeling? Honestly, I don’t know yet but there’s only one way to find out!

Snowflake So Far

You may remember me mentioning that I was going to try out the Snowflake method to see if it’s something I want to use in the future when plotting stories. So far, I’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool. Already I’ve identified several major problem areas and managed to change them quickly, all before I’ve actually gotten to the point where I need to go back and alter other things. Let’s look at the list.

First, I found the character arcs really helpful. This is where a one paragraph synopsis is rewritten for each of the MCs. For one thing, I noticed that one of the MCs had basically no arc whatsoever. She was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without being manic, pixish or a love interest, which was kinda impressive when you think about it. Noticing this now allowed me to really look at her and her story and make sure that she had goals and pursuits and a purpose other than holding up the other characters. I rewrote her paragraph and turned her into a fully-fledged story all herself. And I didn’t have to alter 70k words of prose to do it – a nice change from my usual method.

Next in Stage 4, the plot expansion step, I was able to combat another old nemesis of mine – the “things are too easy” problem. I make a bad habit of this one and it’s led to me having to insert entire arcs into already fully written manuscripts, and of course alter all the rest of the novel appropriately. Here I could tweak just a few sentences to make things more interesting and less predictable and it only took me an hour or so as opposed to a couple of months.

Stage 5 is very good for weaving all the characters’ stories together and finding ways to add depth and intrigue to use characters to their full potential. It made it easier to keep track of subplots as well, as it allows for slight tangents away from the overarching stories to look closely at each character. Doing half pages for minor characters is something I’ve never done before – I’ve never put much thought into them before the actual writing and always let them develop with the story. It feels very different and I’m interested in seeing how this effects the story and how my secondary characters feel.

I’m currently on Stage 8 – the outline stage. This feels like more familiar ground as it’s extremely rare for me to write without at least a rough scene-by-scene. Naturally, I like the idea of this stage but I found working in a spreadsheet pretty clunky. I’ve modified it a little and instead jumped into Scrivener, using the corkboard feature. This allows me to very easily move scenes around and also put notes and ideas into each document as I go. I’m just too addicted to being able to put extra info absolutely everywhere, and being able to rearrange with just a drag and drop is so convenient.

cofNeedless to say, this new project has become way more of a thing than I ever intended so whoops on that one. What can I say, I need something to distract me while TE1 is with the betas! That said, playing with this story is going to slow down considerably as TE2 has sat long enough. It’s time to work out those huge structural changes that I’m trying to prevent in future projects.

Wish me luck.

Comedy and the Happy Ending

An incredibly late post about the comedy writing workshop I went to for the Aye Write festival about a month and a half ago. Overall it was great fun, though there was this one point that I disagreed with. During the workshop endings were discussed and the author running the workshop said that comedies can only have happy endings, and almost everyone in the workshop agreed with her. For her specific genre, which was romantic comedies, what I’ve seen from publishers and readers shows this to be true but there’s a lot of scope for an “unhappy” ending in a comic story. Within context, the correct unhappy ending can either be a.) very fitting to a story or b.) hilarious in its own right.

The next contains spoilers for an old TV series and an old film so, uh, the 1980’s called and spoiler alert?

For my first point, perhaps the most memorable and most powerful example I can think of is the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Set in the WW1 trenches, you can imagine the scope for happy endings. The series comes to a close with the main characters going “over the top” in a suicidal charge infamous for devastating loss of troops. While the episode makes liberal use of extremely dark humour (for example, as the troops wait to go over and Darling exclaims “Oh , we’ve survived it, the Great War, from 1914 to 1917!”), it ends an on especially bleak note. The entire atmosphere of the program seems to flip with three simple words from the overly optimistic, nothing-can-bring-me-down George. “I’m scared, sir.” That’s when it hits. All the characters are going to die. The jokes keep coming but they are the characters’ last words. It’s over. And finally, it ends with Blackadder’s famous “good luck everyone” and they go over the top. The series ends.

It is dark, and unfunny, and brings people to tears. It is also perfect.

The second point, where the unhappy end can actually be a joke by itself, has a few good examples – in fact my favourite film is one of them. Evil Dead II is a comedy horror film, your classic “terrible things happen to young adults in a cabin in the woods” story. Everyone’s favourite one-handed, chainsaw wielding, shotgun-toting white trash asshole Ash Williams spends the film freaking out and killing demons. Just as he finally succeeds, as he triumphs over the horrors and is given perhaps a chance to return to his normal and safe life, he is transported back to 13th century England (it makes a little more sense in the film, though admittedly not much) where there’s an army waiting, expecting him to lead them in a great war against the demons. The film ends with this army chanting that he’s their deliverer, and with Ash stood on a plinth screaming in despair.

Trust me, it’s much funnier than it sounds.  Ash doesn’t get what he wants, in the most ridiculous way possible, and fits with the “what other terrible things can we do to this guy” humour that the film employs liberally.

So while the advice that certain genres of comedy require a certain type of ending, I definitely don’t believe it’s true for all. Yeah, you probably don’t want your rom-com to end with a tragic double murder, but a war setting has much more flexibility. Blackadder nailed it. Irvine Welsh’s Filth could never be disregarded as a comedy but at the same time really couldn’t have ended well. Wars? Corrupt police? End of the world? A family reunion? All these things have the potential for both comedy or tragedy but the two aren’t mutually exclusive, if you ask me. Over running the world with nightmare horrors can actually be pretty funny, but isn’t necessarily going to end breezy. The possibilities for dark endings in funny stories are limitless, within reason.

Remember the magic words: Context and audience.

Anything can be funny if you’re smart about it. Then again, maybe I’m a little twisted.

Testing the Snowflake Method

While actually writing is vital to becoming an author, so is identifying one’s weak areas and working to improve them. I certainly know I’ve got a few but I think at present my biggest issue is with story. Not so much the larger, overarching story but all the little bits in-between that get us from A to B.

A while ago while I was procrastinating work things by looking up other work things, I stumbled across a few templates for writing using the Snowflake Method. This involves plotting your entire story starting from a single sentence and then slowly building up and up, expanding into increasingly longer synopses until you’ve got a story. It’s a technique I’ve wanted to try for a while because my own method of planning generally ends up a bit chaotic and my stories often feel very linear. I think this is because in general my mind works on a small scale when planning, moving from scene to scene and ending up with something that’s a bit too straight forward.

I’ve been tempted to try the Snowflake method as I think it might help me see the big events earlier and more easily see things that are too simple or boring. It’s a problem I’ve got in many of my manuscripts and leads to a LOT of work later when editing. While I’m still on schedule with The Fairy Godfather, I’ve made a lot of extra work for myself by having to entirely re-work huge sections of the novel. Plotting is clearly something that I need to work on.

I’ve decided that as a side project I’m going to try it out on a fun personal story I’ve had bouncing around in my head for a while. Not one that’s meant as a serious piece, more as just a workout to see if this method a) works for me and b) helps me with some of the issues that I know I have with plotting.

Also, as I have a love of templates and filling out boxes, I’m going to be using Caroline Norrington’s Scrivener Template. It’s got documents for all the steps of the snowflake method, scene planners, huge character templates – all the good stuff. As this is a basically a side side project, I most likely won’t be sticking to the schedule listed in the template even a little. It’ll be a while before I’m doing a first draft of a proper project as opposed to something just for fun for myself, so I won’t need results any time soon.

Hopefully by the end of it I’ll end up with another daft story for myself to enjoy and a bit more skill when it comes to creating compelling stories.

The Difference of Four Years

One of the problems with letting a draft sit on the shelf for four years is that a lot can change in that time. If you’re writing a novel set even partially in the real world, this can be an issue. A completely surreal twist of fate can mean that suddenly your fiction is a whole lot more relevant. Also a whole lot harder to write.

Work has started on the editing of The Fairy Godfather, the original draft of which I started working on in 2012 and the political climate has changed quite a bit since then. It’s changed so much in fact that there are huge parts of The Fairy Godfather that are exceptionally difficult right now.

This novel has a lot of neo-Nazis in it.

That isn’t to say that neo-Nazis are ever fun or easy to write about. It’s just that in 2012 they weren’t undergoing their renaissance. They’ve stopped being a quiet undercurrent of western society that likes to keep swept under the carpet and are instead holding office. It’s pretty awkward considering that 2012 me thought “hey, imagine if all these people who are different appeared and the Nazis made a resurgence!” and 2016 just came and fly-kicked me in the gut.

Especially hard is reading many people’s real life accounts of how they are going about interacting with friends and family who either hold such views or have voted in favour of people who do. As you can imagine, many of these accounts are harrowing and upsetting and the worst part of it all is that they are real. In one scene of The Fairy Godfather a character actually has to explain to another, an elf who prides himself on helping bring an end to the Second World War, that certain elven ideals are scarily close to those of Nazi Germany. It was a very difficult scene to write four years ago. Re-reading it today is painful.

This was certainly an unexpected danger of writing and editing this novel is probably going to be a lot more emotionally exhausting than I had originally planned for. I won’t let it hold me back though. All I can do now is keep going, take extra care dealing with difficult issues and do my best not to harm those being hurt by the current climate.

That, and try to enjoy the little things. Like writing about lots of Nazis getting beat by a gang of fairies.

NaNo Reflections

winner

Another NaNo down! And I won (just) for my fifth consecutive year. This was the closest I’ve cut it that I recall but I made it in the end. And, as I was doing a rewrite of the very project that got me into writing again after my long, university induced hiatus, there was a lot of cringing along the way. Really.

On the positive side, it let me see that I’ve improved a huge amount at writing over the past five years. I already mentioned just how many words I was cutting in my progress post and that trend continued. At least six full scenes got completely binned, as well as others getting merged and whole paragraphs of absolutely nothing being skipped as well. There was so much superfluous, unnecessary and boring guff in there. There’s also the prose itself which is, in my opinion, miles better than the original even in its NaNo-form. If I ever get to the stage where I can edit this it might even become readable!

Practice really is the key to anything. I’m so much happier with my writing now than I ever have been – and I know there’s still massive space for improvement. I still don’t consider myself “good” (but will I ever?) but I’ve come leaps and bounds. It makes me so glad that I’ve stuck with it, even through the low moments. It’s like with art – I would love to improve at it but I always get disheartened when I try. Things never work out the way I’d like. I stumble and struggle and eventually end up taking long, substantial breaks from it and every time I do I end up back at square one. It needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. Unfortunately time isn’t something I have in abundance.

The only difference with writing is that I’ve stuck with it even through the hard times. From scenes I just couldn’t write, things that sounded awful, bad plots all the way to crushing beta feedback and rejections. Time and practice has brought me to where I am today. And I’m happy with where that is, even though I hope to keep improving as I go. If you love something and want to get good at it, stick with it. No matter the setbacks. Keep at it. Some people say you need to write every day but I don’t think that’s true. Just keep it regular and don’t let your skills slide.

Now if only I had more time for art too!