Sunday, 28 October 2012

Planning your novel

Chris McKenna is the author of three novels - the first being 'Paradigms'  I have yet to read his other two novels, but I was lucky to read 'Paradigms' even before it was published. I found it to be an astonishingly original novel, and was instantly engrossed.

 A review of Paradigms:  
Chris McKenna's new book is a unique blend of post-apocalyptic fantasy, merged with Buddhist themes easily recognizable to readers of Buddhist thought. His characters reflect the fantastic realm in which they live, contributing to their development along the paths they choose. Anyone will find pieces of themselves in McKenna's book, in their own struggles to resolve contingent circumstances with personal ethics.

McKenna does not leave off with examining how the characters experience their paradigm shifts of perspective, but places this is a rich fantasy world of magical possibilities. How one uses, and abuses, power is shown to come directly from the mind, but it is a tale that can simply be enjoyed for its entertainment value.

The same reviewer has this to say about his second novel, titled 'Bardo.'

This is McKenna's second book with Buddhist themes, this one more directly based on the mythological elements of Tibetan cosmology. Rather than using that environment as is, the author uses the rich traditions of Vajrayana and brings them into a cultural context any contemporary reader, particularly Westerners, will find appealing.

No background with Tibetan ideas about realms of existence are needed, as McKenna richly describes them with a light and effortless style as his main character, Nikki, navigates them on behalf of the reader. Other characters not only complement Nikki's own personality, but bring both humor and poignancy to the story arc. Though not having any particular resonance with the main character, a teen girl, I nonetheless did find utter sympathy with her difficult social situations, and celebrated in her overcoming of obstacles throughout the book.

Appropriate for tweens on up through adulthood, this is not just for kids and McKenna has a nice touch with his messages without having to get heavy handed. A fun read that nonetheless sticks with you and brightens your day long after finishing.


I've been thinking a lot about planning recently, as I'm going to be doing it as part of my on-line writing course. It's one of those things that seems to divide writers along with “show don't tell” and the use of semicolons.

The real argument seems to be that the non-planners say that the story is driven by their characters. They put them in a place and the story naturally unfolds. The other side seems to say that this is fine for a simple story, but that for a story to have real depth its got to been seen as a whole picture first.

I think I tend towards the last group. I've experimented with both forms of writing and while I find the first is good, and even more enjoyable for adventure stories, there have been too many times where I've been led to a dead end or even worse, an unsatisfactory ending in a story. There have also been loads of Indy books that I have read where the author is obviously doing this and you can spend several meaningless chapters waiting for something story wise to really happen. Although that might just be poor editing as well.

On the other side I think there is a danger of over planning. I think when you hold characters too tightly and try to force them in a certain direction they can become wooden. If you are too focused on the final destination and not going with what feels natural for the characters, the reader can tell. There is nothing worse in a story than when the nice kid who's never done anything bad in his life suddenly decides for no reason to steal something or break in somewhere. It's cringe worthy and I want to, and sometimes do, throw the book across the room shouting “why!” This is really bad for me as I now use a Kindle.

So I think the argument is not really a matter of right or wrong, but much more a matter of degrees. When I've spoken to people who say they “don't plan” their stories. It seems what they mean is that they don't formally plan their stories. Likewise I've never met a writer who makes a time-line for each paragraph of their book. That's why I go for the middle ground.

When I plan I usually make mind maps for the main characters as a way of finding out who they are. Likewise there will be another mind map for the story itself. Every couple of chapters I'll also tend to do a mind map for the next section of the story in which I'll include a few more details.

The thing is, these are just way points for me. They are vague mountains in the distance and don't go in to very specific detail. It's something that I could do in my head, but for me putting in on paper helps. I think that non-planning writers do the same thing. They just don't need to put it on paper.

Also, as I write, the mind maps change. In fact most of my diagrams grow more during the story than at the start. For me it's a way of keeping track of characters and ideas along with giving me time to examine smaller facets of the story in detail. That said, there have been plenty of chapters where the map just got lost – or burned. Things came up as I was writing and so the story changed. In my first book Paradigms there was one chapter which I started writing that ended up adding another five unplanned chapters to the book. It was a long and productive diversion that really added to the story, but the final destination still stayed the same.

So what I'm really saying here is that there is no right or wrong. There is just what is right or wrong for you. Use short stories. Play around. Experiment. Find what you are comfortable with and what works for you, then go for it.

Where to find more information about this author
and where to find his books.

ShambhalaSun Magazine says of 'Paradigms'

 “The post-apocalyptic world that McKenna creates is fascinating and offers an opportunity

to challenge our current social and cultural expectations on gender, power, and happiness”
2012 EPIC awards Finalist.

Available now on Amazon in paperback and ebook:


1 comment:

  1. A very clear analysis of how planning works! I'm a non-planner myself - except that, as Chris points out, there is always some planning involved. Mine is mostly in my head, but my thinking is always some distance ahead of my writing.