Hell Track Project Diary: Day Four

Day Four of the Hell Track sprint is in the bag, and it’s been another day where working on the project doesn’t necessarily mean charging ahead with word-count. Today and tomorrow, in particular, will be slowed down the shift in focus towards the second sequence (which brings a fresh series of narrative questions to explore) and the need to set aside a few hours to work on my upcoming PHD presentation.

USING PLANNING TECHNIQUES AS A PANTSER

Back on Day One I shared the outline I’d put together for the book’s first sequence, which largely consisted of half-scribbled notes and scene titles dumped into a scrivener corkboard. I also noted that I’m a planner by necessity and a pantser by preference, which is my early outlines are relatively sparse and I have scenes with labels like “MAGGOT DOES SOMETHING SPECIAL,” acknowledging the story beat I need to hit at that moment to get the rhythms right and trusting the details will sort themselves out by the time I hit that scene and know more about the character and the world.

The problem with these outlines is that they stop being useful incredibly quickly as scenes are written and decisions are made, because new beats suggest themselves and new world-building details need to get fleshed out. The way I tend to counter this is re-outlining as I go along, doing periodic checks where I revise the front of notecards to accurate reflect what’s happening (or what will happen after I apply rewrite notes), so I can actually see the evolving story in a glance.

This morning I went through sequence one, rebuilding the outline and double-checking the drafted scenes so I could get a more accurate view of what still needed to be drafted and what was ready for redrafting to begin. As you can see, this includes a lot more detail (and may qualify as spoilers). You can open the original outline in a second tab, if you’d like to compare the two.

Doing things this way is kinda like having my cake and eating it too – I don’t have to keep holding every aspect of my book in my head at the same time, like I would if I were pantsing it completely, but the outline revision also helps me lock down new scenes in future sequences and shore up scene ideas that aren’t pulling their weight yet.

For instance, one of the key changes in this the evolution of “MAGGOT DOES SOMETHING SPECIAL” into “TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER,” both of which serves an important purpose – just went Maggot seems like she’s down and out, courtesy of things going spectacularly wrong, she snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.

This is a key trait for a character who is being thrown into an arena-of-death as the ultimate disruption to business as usual, but this version represents a change in how that happens. Originally I flagged this scene as space to showcase that Maggot is a motorcycle bad-ass, but this should be well-established by the time it arrives (assuming I do my job right as a writer). Instead, I get to do something different: touch upon the past that Maggot doesn’t talk about, and provide a solution that is less reliant on what Maggot can do and more reliant on who she is. It also introduces uncertainty into her relationship with Ogre, who is largely there to serve as her foil for much of the coming book.

A good plotter could probably pick these kind of details early in the process, but it’s not the way my brain works. I can’t visualise a scene before I write it, which means I plot analytically. Put something down, consider the choices, look for the gaps that need filling now there’s context to every decision and trust my gut when I see a scene that isn’t pulling its weight yet. The solution to the scene I’m talking about here didn’t come up until I’d locked down a seemingly unrelated world-building detail while drafting the Caxton Street Blues scene.

At the same time that I’m doing this, I start fleshing out my rough notes for Sequence Two As you can see, this is still in scrappy, rough-as-hell notes with scenes appearing as I jot down quick narrative beats I know I’ll need to hit.


It seems a really obvious thing, but the realisation that you could rewrite outlines (and keep rewriting) helped solve a lot of the resistance I had in embracing planning as a writer.

MAJOR CHALLENGES WITH TODAY’S WRITING

  1. Getting two unfinished scenes done from the first sequence. I’ve allocated seven and a half word days to getting the first two sequences down, and part of that is clearing the first sequence off the decks completely by the time this week is over. This means finishing two of the five scenes still marked TO-DO on the plan, and finishing the rest tomorrow.
  2. Refining some of the existing scenes and fleshing them out. This largely means taking scenes that are a couple of hundred words and rough, then adapting them so that they hold their weight better and foreground stuff that’s been written in later scenes. Act One tends to be heavy with these.
  3. Breaking into Sequence Two. As Sequence One reaches its final stages it’s time to start doing the quick-and-dirty drafting of Sequence Two that will allow for a similar process to occur.

PROGRESS NOTES

The day broke down a like this:

While yesterday was a comparatively slow day thanks to factors outside the project, today was going to slow down a lot courtesy of the sheer amount of refinement that I was fitting into the process. Even the new scenes that need to be written in sequence one are slow, as they’re effectively the most lode-bearing scenes with regards to the overall plot.

THINGS OF NOTE 

  1. I’ve been struggling with the name Jinsen for one of the characters ever since I first put it down, particularly since they’ll now be sharing scenes with another character with a J-name in Juniper. I’m now in the process of swapping in Tanaki as an alternative after seeing it as a brand-name on a bumper sticker yesterday. It’s working better, primarily because it reminds me of Hodgeson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder.
  2. Caxton Street is the first Brisbane place name that’s settled into the book naturally.
  3. Today’s character who has grown significantly more interesting and fun to write than my notes suggested: Isobel Stark, information broker and well-spoken crime lord with a penchant for tea.
  4. It’s fairly obvious, based on today’s spreadsheet, when I flashed forward to work on Sequence Two and when I was mired down in filling the gaps in older scenes.
  5. I really, really need to go through the first sequence and excise the jagged spars and fragments left behind as scenes changed course. While the word count here reads 18,000 and change, I predict it may be as low as 16,500 once I do that.
  6. Two questions that should always be asked of a scene: what is the worst thing that could happen to the protagonist in this scene? and is there somewhere more interesting it could be taking place?
  7. Neat little side effect of today: Amos, the named character who appeared in the second scene of Sequence One intended as a throw-away, now solves a potential problem for me in sequence two if a I make a simple tweak in a later scene.

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