Montage

I’m breaking ground on the new outline. This one is a little more structurally complex, because I’m writing a heist novel! I’m super excited about it, hence the exclamation mark in the previous sentence. So of course, I immediately ran into a problem.

In most heist movies, we have an early montage where the characters are planning and prepping. It’s fun, shows off the world, and let’s time pass to the good stuff. I was wasting reams of digital paper trying to figure out how to translate this into prose. See, I thought it would be fun to have this central conversation and then cut away to some of the other little stuff. Like a montage, but not.

Here’s the thing, though, montages don’t work in prose. A book is already kind of like a montage as it picks and chooses what to show you, but it’s also slower than a montage because for every scene you have to get the reader into it and out of it again. The closest a montage can look in prose would be something like this:

  • The characters talk about the job.
  • Character A is soldering circuit boards.
  • Character B is throwing axes at a target.
  • The villain is locking the door on his vault.
  • Character C is trying on a silly costume with Character D and says “This’ll never work.”
  • Character A can’t get two wires together so she uses gum as a connector.
  • Etc.

That’s awful. No one would ever want to read that. It’s a list and takes you completely out of the story. Montages are visual tricks. More than that, they’re editing tricks, to show just enough information to allow the passage of time. In a book, you can just skip to the next scene.

Once I understood that, it didn’t fully solve the problem for me. I still have to have my characters plan and prep for the big score, but it needs to be interesting so the pace isn’t bogged down.

I know, who worries about pace in an outline. I do! Well, I try to. It’s one less thing to fix in post.

So that’s where I’m at. I think I’ve got a better handle of how to present the information. Now, it’s a matter of figuring out the sequence of events. Don’t worry, there will be definite skipping ahead. We don’t need to see how my one character uncovers a secret to exploit for leverage, we just need to know that he has it. But I can’t remove all that prep stuff because in a heist, that’s half the fun.

Oh and obligatory …

What I’m Reading: I finished The White Road and had a couple of false starts. Both The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo and To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks, I just couldn’t get into them. I wasn’t pulled in and interested by TNT and TBtDG did a poor job of setting place and scene. It was too lean to the point where I wasn’t engaged at all because I could barely visualize what was going on. Reading time is precious these days, so I can’t devote time and energy to something I don’t enjoy – Gasp! I know what agents must feel like! I did find something, though, Red Winter by Annette Marie about a girl who’ll become a god? An avatar of a god? I’m not sure, I’m only on page 45. I don’t love it. I’d say I’m mildly interested which could be a result of my desperation winning out so I’m settling, so we’ll see.

What I’m Watching: Star Trek: Picard. I initially wasn’t on board for this show. I thought there was no way they could do justice to a character who’ll live better in my nostalgia. Picard is my captain. So I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the first episode. Five episodes later and I realized Past Dan, Wary Dan, was right. This show isn’t about Picard at all. How could it be? Sir Patrick Stewart is 79 years old! You could honestly remove him from the show and things would happen exactly as they are in the same, gruelingly boring pace. The big reveal last episode, by the way, is something we’ve known since episode one … so yeah. There is no reason for Picard to even be in this series other than for member berries. He can’t be the only optimist left in the universe.

Phases of a Book

I’d say I’m just about done with the brainstorming phase of my new book. To give you some perspective, when I write a novel, it usually goes down something like this.

Brainstorming Phase: This is usually about a month. Sometimes longer. I’m always jotting random ideas down and doing the occasional research about something, but this phase is the hardcore focus of all my mental energy on something new. This is also where I do my more targeted researching.

Structure Phase: Once I’ve got a pretty good idea of the world and what I want to say, I make a one page document for pacing. This is really the narrative framework in which the entire thing hangs. I identify the plot points, the hook, changes in narrative phases, etc. It’s not super robust, but I need to know how the story unfolds and where I need to fill getting from A to B. This takes maybe a week or a week and a half. Often times, I go back and do some final fiddling with brainstorming and concurrent research as I build it out.

Outlining Phase: I then turn that one page document into a 16-20 page outline depending on the scope of the novel. I try and break it down into what I think will be the chapters with bullet points telling me what’s going to happen in each one. I also include notes to myself, lines of dialog I’ve already written, and all the must haves and put them where they need to go. It’ll take me maybe two to three weeks to get this whole thing together.

I try not to leave anything blank. I’ll be vague at times in a bullet like “hero gets in a fight and the villain gets away” and when I get there in the manuscript, I’ll have a better idea of what that fight will be, but I don’t like to have an entire protochapter look like:

  • They storm the base
  • big fight ensues
  • they’re about to catch the bad guy, but the tables are turned.

And that’s it. No further details. No reminder of what’s at stake or notes about development. I’ve found that I ALWAYS run into trouble when it’s that vague. Looking at you cough Partners in Crime cough. So I need to iron that out which is why it takes me extra time to get all of that in order.

Writing Phase: The meat and potatoes. It takes me anywhere from 4-5 months to write a first draft. I go through the ole outline and get my words in for the day. Rinse and Repeat. You know how this part works.

Waiting Phase: Another couple months where I distract myself with something else to let the dust settle and the ideas gel from the first draft.

Editing Phase: Another 4+ months of grueling fine tuning and rewriting to make that pile of words into something that someone would actually want to read.

So there you have it. I’m just about finished brainstorming so it’ll be soon onto the structure phase. I’ve written eight novels by now and this is the process I’ve developed for myself. I would like to do more works concurrently: edit one work while brainstorming another, etc. and I’ve done that to some extent, but seeing as I’m not a full time writer, I only have so much time to devote to a project so I’m going laser focused again. Onward to novel number nine!

What I’m Reading: (see, told you I’d bring these back …) Just finished Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red about a, I suppose its technically a cyborg, who calls itself Murderbot and loves serialized media. It was just the right length for the writing style. A strong voice but also sparse on the details which makes sense since its in first person or first bot or whatever … which I imagine would get old for an entire novel. That said, I’m definitely going to read a followup in the near future.

As that was so short, I started John Connolly’s The White Road. For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, I’ve really come around on Connolly. I didn’t care for his first novel, but that last two were pretty great. And you want to talk about voice? They tell you as writer that you should read wide and look for lessons about craft in other peoples’ work. Whether its a duck flying over a salt marsh or the description of a crime scene, imagery in Connolly’s books is just awesome. I don’t mean super cool, I mean awe-inspiring. I’m definitely taking notes.

What I’m Watching: The Imagineering Story on Disney +. Love or loathe Disney, this documentary series is still incredible. To see how they pulled off some engineering marvels is just fascinating. It also serves as a great lesson for anyone interested in customer service and really the value of a product. You can see where they’ve designed a complete user experience and where they were just phoning it in. Each episode is only an hour, but my wife and I keep pausing it to comment and marvel so it takes us twice as long to get through them.