Preparations and Complications

Second of a Series
Dana Lemaster

“If Plan A fails, remember there are 25 more letters.”

Chris Guillebeau

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As a warm up for this post, I googled “Steps to planning a book”. The search results didn’t bear much resemblance to my own journey planning A Death In Hartsend. I’d describe my process as equal parts inspiration and stubbornness, both of which can be hard to put on a checklist.  

Although I’d written two novel drafts in the past, I chose different methods to plan my new book. I’d switched to screenwriting in the interim, and now felt more comfortable using those methods as the initial basis for structuring my narrative. It wouldn’t be possible to rely on screenwriting methods completely, because novels and screenplays are designed for different purposes. 

Novels Vs. Screenplays

A novel is an all-inclusive look at a fictional world and its characters. The author shows readers everything they need to properly experience that story. There are many ways to do this, such as description and internal monologue.

By contrast, a screenplay reveals the bare essentials as a blueprint to make a film. There’s a system of formatting used, and screenplays tend to be highly structured. The emphasis in screenwriting is on action-it’s why films are called movies. Good dialogue is recommended, but it’s a real plus if characters move while they talk. Description and internal monologue don’t typically work well here, since both tend to reduce action.

Methods for planning vary by writer. Some are plotters who never work without an outline. Others are pantsers, which means they don’t use outlines. The two forms use completely different methods to measure production. People writing novels usually talk about their word counts. Screenwriters talk about pages-and ideally those pages have more blank space than words. 

There is one element of planning that I’ve found to be common to both-the logline. This is where I began.

Starting Point-The Logline

A logline answers the question, “What’s your story about?” It’s short (typically, one sentence), hints at the story’s main conflict, and contains a “hook” to pique the interest of the reader/audience.

Here’s an example of a logline for a well-known film, The Godfather

“The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty in postwar New York City transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant youngest son.”

The logline for A Death In Hartsend is:

“Outraged by the murder of her best friend, a Kentucky teenager challenges her backwater hometown for justice and finds herself being stalked by the murderer.”

Adding A Tag

Taglines are similar to loglines, except they tend to be used for promotion. Usually, a tagline captures a mood in the story. It’s not uncommon for taglines to become slogans.

The tagline for The Godfather:

“An offer you can’t refuse”

My tagline for A Death In Hartsend :

“Some girls don’t know their place”

Finding The Beats

Next, I began figuring out the major story points, or beats. My current approach to writing a book involves a standardized template (beat sheet) for setting up the first draft. I’ll work toward those major story points much the way a hiker uses mileposts or landmarks to stay on the trail. 

Even so, I’ll discover new facets of my characters while writing. I make notes of these and adjust as needed in revisions. My process doesn’t fall neatly into the plotter or pantser category. It’s got aspects of both.

Visiting Toronto 

At that point, I took a break to go on vacation with my husband. We went to the fabulous city of Toronto for a few days at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). Besides being incredible fun, this trip also gave me material for posts on my film blog, Thinking Cinema

I planned to begin work on my novel once we got home.

A Complication

A couple of days after we got back, I did a Pilates class at my gym and started walking home. I reached a crosswalk as the traffic light was about to change. Ever the optimist with crosswalks, I sprinted off the curb. My toe caught a dip in the asphalt, and I went sprawling onto the street. 

For a moment, I didn’t grasp what had happened. Then I realized people were yelling at me that the light would change at any second. So I pulled myself up and moved to safety.

Feeling more embarrassed than hurt, I walked the rest of the way home and collapsed onto our couch. After a bit, I went to the freezer to fix an ice pack.

As time wore on, it became obvious ice wouldn’t do the trick. My ribs and right shoulder began to throb. By the next morning, I had been diagnosed with a separated shoulder and two broken ribs. My doctor put me into physical therapy for the shoulder. He said the ribs would have to heal on their own, probably in six weeks.

Plan A

The touch bar on my laptop, set up to be worked with your right hand, posed a problem. I could only deal with that for limited periods before my shoulder and ribs protested. Since I’m left handed, I did a lot of the initial work manually (both planning the book and Thinking Cinema posts). I entered Thinking Cinema posts to my laptop in short stretches, with frequent breaks.

After completing the beat sheet for A Death In Hartsend, I read everything I could find on novels and plotting. I looked through online glossaries for character names and researched the period in which the story takes place. I hoped to begin the first draft after New Year’s.

A big boost came when my physical therapist released me. Great as that felt, it couldn’t match my joy the first time I sneezed and it didn’t hurt.

The First Draft

In January, I began writing my draft. Nearly all my planning had been from the standpoint of craft. I completely underestimated my unprocessed feelings.. 

Those feelings came out defiantly, particularly when I wrote the scenes describing the murder and funeral. I had to take occasional breaks to recharge. Other times, I wrote in a fever dream-determined, angry, and terrified all at once.

My right hand and shoulder started to hurt. I ignored them. The draft was nearly finished, after all. By the time I finished, in March 2018, the pain couldn’t be ignored any longer.

Another Complication 

My doctor confirmed a new injury to the shoulder, one that might require surgery. But first, he recommended physical therapy for an intensive shoulder rehab program. He said it would take six months.

I agreed to the rehab and set up the appointments. Of course, I also started looking at the notes on my first draft and planning the second. Health is important, but so are dreams.

Plan B

Since my ability to write would be limited, I decided to work on a marketing plan. One of the first things I learned is traditional publishers generally consider any story with a fourteen year old protagonist to be Young Adult. I didn’t think this appropriate for A Death In Hartsend, and said so repeatedly. Publishers also told me the story should take place in the present, not 1970. They said the story should be told in a different narrative voice than I’d planned to use. In other words, they told me to write a different book.

Publishing is a business, so I tried to take their advice. I looked at Young Adult best sellers and tried to think about how I could reframe my story. It just felt wrong. The characters had spoken to me so plainly before. Now, they seemed like fuzzy outlines, and I couldn’t find a way to fill in the blanks.

My biggest fear was this: what if I played it their way, and the book flopped? There’s always the risk of failure with a new project. Still, it seemed to me failure would be a lot harder to bear if it came after compromising one’s principles.

With those thoughts in mind, I made the decision to self-publish. When I made that decision, I had no idea life as we all knew it was getting ready to be upended.

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