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Postal Marine SeriesA Retrospective on Scintilla's First Draft

Just about every writer’s resources says to take time away from your writing project after the first draft. It’s like spending an intense amount of time with a loved one, then abstaining for a while to make sure you’re objective about the relationship. Or, whatever. How long is open to interpretation, but I figure four to six weeks for myself.

I’ll be diving back into the drafting game with Imbroglio, which is Scintilla’s predecessor. It’s not a prequel. Both novels are in the same setting (Imperium Series). And, the hero in Imbroglio has a minor role in Scintilla. I plan on publishing Imbroglio first, so it’s a race.

Instead, I’ll be doing a quick retrospective on what happened during my fifty days of drafting.

A quick rundown, before I get into the meat of it. In July, my wife approved a writing project. From August through October, I plotted the novel (TODO: Blog on process). I started with NaNoWriMo 2010 and finished November with 56 kwords. It took me a total of fifty days to write the draft. I say elsewhere, the average pace was about 1,776 w/day—patriotic.

I mixed MarshallPlan with SnowflakeMethod, with a word target of 95 kwords. Scintilla has four viewpoint characters, with the lessor three having roughly ten sections each. The hero gets 46, the draft has him with only 43, which trimmed about 4,500 words off the length.

What is a Retrospective

Not sure if you know what a Retrospective is, so pardon me if I insult your intelligence. In a nutshell, a Retrospective is a process where participant(s) looks back on a recent event to determine what could be done to improve the process going forward. It is used in many different contexts.

In the software development world, this is typically seen in groups that adhere to the Agile philosophy. Retrospectives are held at each critical juncture of a project.

Writing a novel is a project, not too dissimilar from software. I come from the software world, so I’ll apply that discipline here. A proper retrospective looks at what went right, what went wrong, and what can be done to improve things.

What Went Right

Keeping characters focused to keep them distinct. One piece of advice I picked up through the years was to make sure that each viewpoint character thinks he’s the main character. Do make this work, I plotted each plot line separately—starting with the least important character, then plotting the Villain, then the Confidant, finally the Hero. I did this partly because I know the least character best because of our time together in earlier drafting of Imbroglio.

I carried this distinction into the draft. That is, I wrote all of the least’s story first—then through the others in the same order as I plotted them. I’m going to have a hard time reconciling some of the story during the first revision. But, I was able to focus on each character’s needs and demands. Because I’m using Ruby to compile the project into the final story, I was able to keep each storyline in its own directory. They only merge together when the copy is stitched together as a PDF or Epub.

Using the Real World. I’ve lived in lots of different places. I did nothing to plan Kennet, the city where this entire novel is set. So, I picked a place I thought I knew enough about, then used Google Maps to help me navigate.

The first thing I realized was how little of that chosen city I really knew. It was obvious I resigned myself to very little of the actual city. This played very well with Mondennio Rowenzal’s own problems with Kennet; enough that it partly propels the plot.

Not caring about mistakes. I know there are some incongruities in the draft, mostly with how they integrate with one another, the “bad” about my odd method of writing. But, there were other mistakes. I just glossed over them, left a TODO statement, and continued.

Mixing formulae. Using both MarshallPlan and SnowflakeMethod, I was able to come up with a robust story line. Not much more I can say about that now.

Finishing the Draft. Imbroglio demoralized me because I ground out. The draft itself is no where near where it needed to be even to carry the story. The plot sucked, etc. The work sat in my head for nearly five years, and still refused to be told.

Scintilla sat there for months and flew off my fingers. But, finishing the draft is doing a lot to bolster my confidence. I am starting to think in terms of novels, not just one.

What Went Wrong

Focusing too much on the flaws. Yes, I did just say I did well be not caring about mistakes. A flaw is not a mistake. A mistake is when I forget the name of a bit character, or forget that the Imperium uses Beats to tell time instead of Cycles, used on Copa.

A flaw is a problem with the story. Something that makes it not work. When I focused on the problems, my momentum dropped. I’m a fixer, so if I pay too much attention to a problem I will turn in on myself while I fix it. I’ve had many “lost weekends” because a computer had a problem that I could not not fix.

The core story is about a spoiled brat who becomes a pawn in larger affairs. He is a teen, so he spends more time whining than I thought he should. But, I just let me go with it. I can fix things on the revision.

Plotting. Yep, I did four plot lines. Actually, I was supposed to do five, because of the Hero’s subplot. But, I could not run the subplot well enough. Maybe I don’t understand subplots well enough.

Looking back, I should have done seven. One for each of the co-stars, and four for the Hero himself. At each part, he has a goal. The disaster robs him of that goal, until he mopes and choses another. So, rather than try to plot all 46 sections, I should have plotted them in groups of 11 or 12. I think some of the plot flaws were because I tried to eat the entire elephant in one bite.

Using This Site. There is a private part of this web site that I used to help plot the novel. It has some pretty awesome capabilities, let’s just leave it at that. I can edit a character’s storyline and have it automatically appear in the master plot. That seems like a really powerful strength. But, there were some aspects of it that just did not work as well as I’d hoped. I need to figure out how to make it work better. Maybe if the site had som AJAX…

Too Much Tech. As with Imbroglio, I was able to geek out when I hit a rough patch—rather than push through. I like my tools, and don’t mind tweaking them. I did so throughout this draft. The good thing is I got pretty close to a smooth set of tools when I finish. All I have to do is resolve the issue above.

What to Change?

Divide the Hero’s Plot. First, I’ll plot the Hero in four parts. The subplot will interweave in the Hero’s plot. Or, maybe I’ll try to plot the Hero in five, and sprinkle the sub-plot in appropriately. I think I can manage that well enough.

Conclusion

It’s too early to tell where I really messed things up. I think the revision will say more. And, I may end up commenting on this entry to give more as I recognize them. As I said, I’m pretty close to the story right now, so I’m not objective enough yet.

© 2010 Ben Wilson. All Rights Reserved