The last time I tried this kind of public writing diary, I was working around a couple of restrictions. These included a day-job that limited my writing time, undiagnosed sleep apnea that was having an adverse affect on my mental and physical health, and the kind of split focus that comes from carrying a lot of projects and bad work habits.
This time around I’m in a very different place: I can devote a large chunk of my day to this project without getting interrupted; I’ve spent the last few years working on the physical and mental problems; and I’ve spent the last five years getting much, much better at planning and process. It’s also a good point to flag that there’s a considerable amount of privilege behind my process, especially given that I’m now doing a PhD that directly ties to my writing.
Which brings us to day two of the Hell Track sprint, where I set out to chase a minor milestone by the end of the day: having a rough sketch in place of all 15 scenes in the first sequence. I cleared a lot of action stuff off the decks yesterday, which means I’m not left with the plot-heavy talky scenes where character dynamics are established and fleshed out.
SOME NOTES ON PRE-DRAFT PLOTTING
A couple of people have noted that this project isn’t really starting at the beginning, what with me coming to it with something resembling a plan and a bunch of pre-writing. This is 100% true, as you can see the beginnings of this project back in July of 2017, when I wrote five titles down on a post-it after getting irritated at the 80s BMX movie, RAD. In that respect, the original plan for Hell Track looks like this:
For those wondering how I got to the first sequent plan I posted yesterday, the process went something like this.
First, I studied a whole heap of arena-of-death movies, since they’re the inspiration point. I rewatched The Running Man. I rewatched The Hunger Games. I spent more time watching the live-action Tekken movie than is truly sane, and I acquired a copy of the Death Race remake that came out a few years back.
Once I’d gathered a whole bunch of them together, I started looking for general story beats and common narrative threads. Somewhere along the line, I broke out my copy of Save The Cat and started drawing connections to the Monster In the House genre detailed therein, which gave me a starting point for characters and plotting, because there are essential components to that genre. A Monster in the House movie absolutely needs an evil monster that exists to punish people, an enclosed space in which people are trapped and separated from the outside world, and a essential sin that brings the monster into the house.
What’s interesting about the Arena Of Death sub-genre is that it flips the expectations – while horror movies will have the protagonist sin and bring them to the house to be punished, Arena of Death movies are usually driven when the monster (aka the evil culture surrounding the arena) and their representative (incredibly often, a ruthless executive) engages in the sin of overreaching in the name of ratings/popularity/etc and brings in someone they shouldn’t who proceeds to wreck havoc.
This immediately gave me a number of scenes that had to be filled, and so the characters followed. My protagonist needed to enter the book with the kinds of skills and knowledge that would allow them to wreck havoc on the Arena of Death, and my antagonist needed to be the power-behind-the-throne executive who was overreaching in the name of ambition.
Watching all those films also gave me the general pattern for the first act of an Arena of Death narrative, with the first half of the first act showing us how and why the protagonist gets brought into the arena (as well as showcasing the abilities and qualities that will eventually tear it down), while the second half of the first act is basically getting to know the lay of the land before they’re tossed into the Arena to fight at the beginning of Act Two.
Once I bad all that down, I ran my idea through a bunch of basic plotting processes: a Save the Cat beat sheet; the brainstorming questions in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius; Dan Harmon’s story circle. This gave me a bunch of outlines and synopsii that grew more elegant as I went, along with a handful of drafted scenes, and gave me enough information to winnow out the really bad ideas. Some of those include:
- A version where all the action took place with weapon-wielding riders getting about on BMX bikes instead of motorcycles. Sometimes you cling to the source of inspiration a little too strong.
- A version where Shenandoah, my evil executive, was actually one of the demonic beings who control the world’s corporations in my mystic-cyberpunk universe. She’s much more interesting as a mortal aspiring to upper management, whereupon she’ll become an immortal being as a reward, as this gives her a reason to take crazy risks and explains more about the world
- A version where I attempted to establish the protagonists support crew in the first sequence of the first act, setting up four protagonist-like POV characters who will engage in the arena. This was largely because I’d planned five books within this concept, and I figured I could switch the prime protag spot, but those characters all have very different roles now.
It was then that I put down two five-scene sequences to make up the first act, based upon the most recent synopsis, and looked for the gaps that needed to be filled in order to make the story feel like a story.
Which brought us to yesterday, and the point where this sprint kicked off.
MAJOR CHALLENGES IN TODAY’S WRITING
- Fitting more movement into my writing routine. One of the downsides of working from home in general, and yesterday’s approach to writing in particular, is the sheer lack of incidental movement in my routine. I did clock up 10,000 steps yesterday, but they all happened in a single hour and half after the day was done. Today, rather counter-intuitively given my goal, I wanted to break up the writing a little more to incorporate shorter walks/chores and get me away from the keyboard to get the blood flowing and try and break free of the afternoon slump.
- Incorporating a new POV character subplot. I started this book with four POV character who get arcs across the length of the work, but in writing the first sequence it quickly became apparent that I was going to leave a subplot dangling. I went for a walk early this morning and pondered ways to rectify that, which largely means checking in with a fifth character POV into the rest of the novel.
- Working skeletal and fleshing out. I’m writing fast-and-loose today, trying to lay down the frameworks for scenes that get fleshed out as I go. This isn’t my preference, which means my brain keeps sending me distracting thoughts like “oh, this is how we ramp up tension during those various courier-run beats,” and I have to ignore those thoughts and focus on finishing the skeleton before I start adding muscle.
Yesterday blew most of my expectations about how much could be done out of the water, so I was curious to see how today shaped up as I made a few alternations to my practice. I broke up the pomorodos focused on writing a little more, and squeezed in a walk around the block as I pondered sequence details mid-morning.
I didn’t quite get the first sequence fully drafted, as there’s a complex scene at the end of it that I skipped over so I could write the beginning of sequence two. Slightly less than yesterday, but there were also slightly fewer writing sprints due to the aforementioned plotting and taking some time out to manage some stuff associated with my PhD Confirmation (probably) scheduled for next week.
THINGS OF NOTE
- I wrote my first scene that I’m really, truly happy with today, heading into the beginning sequence 2. There is a very high probability this means I’m leaning harder on a specific genre beat that I should be, but that’s perfectly okay at this stage of a draft. On the other hand, it may be the result of putting antagonist and protagonist in the same place at the same time, which is always a high-value scene in narrative terms.
- I’m going to need to fact-check every riding scene, because even a little causal research over lunch reveals exactly how little what I’m writing matches up with the realities of riding a motorcycle.
- I’m not sold on the mid-morning walk as a useful thing for productivity, although I’m certainly less stiff at the end of the day. A pre- or post-lunch walk would be ideal for resetting my attention, but that’s not particularly feasible in Brisbane summer.
- Brisbane place names sound really weird in a cyberpunk setting: The Indooroopilly Enclave; The Milton Road Run; The Mount Coot-tha Arcology. I am not yet sold on any of them.
- My first task tomorrow isn’t going to be writing, but going through the existing scenes and making notes about what’s finished, what’s still in progress, and what additions/changes need to happen on redraft. There are currently seventeen scenes in various states of completion and detail, and it’s getting hard to keep the state of each clear in my head.
- My writing speed is relatively consistent on a sprint-by-spring basis, which means the basic guideline behind behind writing more is spending more time writing. I’m curious to see whether more detailed planning will speed this up, but that’s an experiment for a future project sprint.