Fixed deadline? Go flexible on the plot

Plot chunks

So my full plan for writing a book by Christmas is now in place. And guess what, it looks like a load of neatly arranged boxes!

I’ll try to explain how this will fit together, at the very least so I can refer to it at the end and reflect how the project went. If you can follow how it works from my description, brilliant, well played you! Leave me a comment to let me know what you think about it.

I explained in a previous post that I will write the book by linking a beginning and an end and then writing as much middle as I can in the time allows. The trick is to ensure that the story makes sense, regardless of the length of the book. The downside of this is working out how to plan the plot to cope with any amount of chapters in between a beginning and end.

A plan of the plan

So, here’s what’s going to happen. The bulk of the story will be split into five separate and specific time periods, called eras. These will operate independently of each other and I’ll be able to pick any number of these to finish the book. Ideally, a minimum of three eras would be enough to describe a good chain of events and deliver a book of a reasonable length.

The eras will be further split between three families of characters, although I could probably cut one of these if it looks like I will overrun. There will also be a main character whose story will intertwine with these families.

This format provides a 2-D grid of available stories – 3 families multiplied across five different eras. Each of these stories can be written independently of each other – there will be minimal interaction between them all. In fact, apart from at the beginning and the end, it is only really the main character that draws everyone together. If I run out of time halfway through a story, I can simply drop that section and finish the book without it.

I have a couple of other storylines which can be linked to the families in the same way as the main character. These are very much nice-to-haves and can also be cut if there’s a shortage of time.

So this leaves me with the following todo list:

  • Start section, kicking off all the main storylines.
  • Somewhere between 6 and 15 middle sections* which will incorporate the main character and other sub stories where possible.
  • An end section, wrapping up all the themes and completing the book.

Simple! This means I have defined an absolute minimum to achieve before publishing – with less than 6 middle sections, I haven’t got a book. How long these sections are still needs to be established, but the main worry now is how long it will take to write each of these to a high standard and whether the minimum can be completed before Christmas.

I drew up a picture to describe the above, but it ended up looking like the Dulux colour chart so I’ve decided not to share it now. I’ll put some work in and post the update hopefully early next week.

I’m really keen to hear your thoughts on my approach, especially if you’ve used something similar yourself.

* 6 middle sections is made up of 2 families x 3 eras; 15 middle sections is made up of 3 families x 5 eras.

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How long is a piece of writing?

How long should a book be? 

As long as it takes to tell the story, probably.

If one person writes a book of, say, 100 000 words, the completion date of the book is determined by how fast they write. If you want to get it quicker, you either have to cut down the number of words, or reduce the quality, ie churn out a manuscript with very little copy editing. In practice, neither of these options are favourable as writers rarely want to lose any of their story and no one wants to ready sloppy writing.

The only other option available is to take as long as it takes to write a book, making sure that all parts of the plot are included and that every word has been scrutinised to ensure the story is told to the writer’s high standards.

How does this affect me? 

Enormously!

I don’t have the luxury of an ever extending arbitrary deadline. My deadline is fixed. Absolutely. It is the fundamental reason behind the whole project.

I also don’t have the luxury of a team of writers and editors to help craft this book. I’m on my own – all output will be created by me alone.

The quality of the book is also a pretty major consideration for me. I reckon I could bang out a feature length first draft of ill thought out characters and nonsensical plot-lines in a month or so. Maybe less if I’m allowed spelling mistakes. I don’t want to do this though – I want something I can be proud of at the end of the project.

So what is left then? If all else is firmly fixed, the only thing I can change is the length of the book. Does this mean it’ll be a very short book at the end? It all depends on my production rate. If I write 100 words of absolute top quality prose every week then the length of the book will be 100 words x the number of weeks work. Hopefully I can write a bit quicker than that.

The other consideration is that I don’t want to write a book that suddenly ends because I ran out of time. I need a proper beginning, middle and end. This is forming part of my planning right now – I’m considering how to end the book before I’ve started. I’ll then look at how the story starts and then what can go in the middle.

The tricky bit

If the start can join directly to the end, then I have a book, albeit rather a short one. If I can “plug in” a block of middle between the start and end, I have a slightly longer book with more story line. If I have more time, I’ll work on another middle block of writing to add in, ensuring the start and end both remain logical to the extended story. I guess the easiest way to think about this is in chapters – write the first and last chapter so the story makes sense. Then add as many chapters in the middle that the plot and the time limit allow.

This is my very early thought around managing the scope of the book. If this has made any sense and you think it’s a good idea or if I can improve upon it, leave me a comment and we can discuss.