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From Project Management to Writing and Back Again: Planning Your Story

I’m one of those people for whom my chosen professions have been largely instinctive for me.

For example, project management is something I literally fell into while working for a mortgage company out in Southern California. I was hired as a Business Analyst and as the months went by, realized I was doing way more than just analyzing. Slowly I started to think, huh, this seems like it should have a name, all this stuff I’m doing. Lo and behold, investigating the tasks I was doing revealed that I was performing the function of a project manager (PM), and all without a lick of training for it.

It intrigued me, and I wound up with a Masters Degree in Project Management…without ever cracking open a textbook. I can’t really explain how or why I know what to do. Who knows, maybe I was a PM in a past life or something. All I know is that, aside from some of the buzz words (that clique-like language every group of people creates to try and make what they do sound more important than it is – I wrote a blog post on this once), I’ve always been able to just do project management without giving it a second thought.

For me, it’s pretty much the same with all aspects of writing. From things as basic as spelling, to structuring a sentence properly (when required), to knowing when and how to ‘break the rules’ for the sake of what or how you’re writing…all the way to coming up with plots and characters and worlds, it’s never something I had to study.

All the way through elementary, junior high and high school, I aced every spelling and grammar and English test. I read voraciously as a child, spending every moment of every day that I could with my nose buried in a book. I whiled my youth away with everything from “The Chronicles of Narnia” to all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. From the novelizations of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Knight Rider” and “Star Trek,” to the books written by Judy Blume.

And that was just for fun. I was also, as most of us are, exposed to the ‘classics’ like Shakespeare and George Orwell’s “1984.” “War and Peace” and “The Red Badge of Courage.” Tons of poetry, too. I’ll never forget my one high school English teacher who thought poetry was the epitome of everything awesome in the world. How she rolled and simultaneously softened the ‘s’ sounds in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s name.

For all the years I have spent writing – from my childhood days where it was taking pencil to spiral notebook paper all the way to the ridiculous amounts of fan fiction I’ve typed out on the computer and put out there on the internet for the world to see – the one thing I never ever did, and actually scoffed at, was ‘plan’ the story. Well, that pretty much ended as soon as I turned my eye to the world of writing professionally, and nobody’s more shocked about how I do things now than I am!

When I first had the idea for “TAKERS,” I wrote it up as a one-page treatment and showed it to my now-publisher. She’s also my editor, and she showed it to my second editor. They both thought it had a lot of promise. I therefore thought about it some more, and within the space of a few hours, had completed bullet-point outlines for the first three books in what I now believe is going to become a full-blown series.

That was the first time I’d ever actually written an outline…or plotted anything out in any way whatsoever…for something I was intending to write. Normally, I just start out with an idea, or maybe have an ending in mind that I want to get to. Many times, I will literally sit down in front of the computer and start typing, having no idea what I’m even working on, where it’s coming from or where it’s going. Next thing you know, I’ve got a forty-thousand word story on my hands.

But when it came to inventing a whole new universe – which is what I did with “TAKERS” – I found that in order to get it straight in my head, I had to do those bullet-point outlines. And then I tackled my first movie screenplay, and as only I can do, took ‘planning’ to a whole new level of crazy.

“The Healer” started out to be a novel. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I’d gotten halfway through it already when the muses (damn them) decided that it wasn’t supposed to be a novel at all, but rather, a movie. And so I was suddenly faced with having to write a feature-length screenplay, when up to that point I’d never written anything but TV show spec scripts. (My Boston Legal spec scripts seriously kicked ass, if I do say so myself!)

And because “The Healer” is complex in how it moves back and forth between past and present, between one lead character’s world and the other’s, it was just something I realized I couldn’t go charging into with blind faith that I’d have all my ducks in a row.

So I started out with a bullet point outline, but quickly saw that it wasn’t going to be nearly enough. I guess I must be a more visual person (funny, for a person who uses words to paint pictures), because I suddenly could see in my mind’s eye, the story of “The Healer” in diagram form. That’s when the project manager side of me kicked in.

Microsoft Visio, for those unfamiliar with it, is a piece of software you can use to create everything from flowcharts to maps. Floor plans to network diagrams, and everything in between. As both a business analyst and project manager, I’ve generally used Visio just for flowcharts myself. But I found in visualizing the scenes for “The Healer,” it was coming to me in the standard and familiar form of rectangles starting at either top corner of the page and working their way down to a point so that the diagram wound up looking like a huge letter V.

The structure of “The Healer” is very different. It’s definitely non-linear, and it starts in both the long-ago past and the right-now present, for two different characters. Slowly the events of the past and the events of the present converge – as do the characters – to a single climactic moment, and then suddenly the V shape flips upside-down, and further events occur after that big moment that lead us through strange happenings to an eventual conclusion.

Which means that my diagram wound up looking like a bumpy hourglass.

That was the very first time I had ever so completely, so thoroughly, plotted out anything I was intending to write. I did the same thing with my second screenplay, “Fractured,” because I have discovered that I apparently have a style all my own when it comes to movies I’m writing, and that this style demands a diagram so I can keep the flipping from past scenes to present scenes in their proper order.

Now, “Fractured” wasn’t so complicated that it turned into an hourglass shape like the first screenplay’s diagram, but it was definitely a big V, with a few little straggling shapes hovering around the outskirts of the culmination of the main character’s past and present converging.

And it worked like magic for me. So much so that when I started hunkering down to plot out “TAKERS II,” while I already had the bullet-point outline I’d originally created when I developed the concept for the series, I realized I’d gotten so used to working with my Visio diagrams for the two screenplays I’d completed since finishing “TAKERS,” that I actually needed one for this second book.

“Holy cow, I’ve created a monster within my own mind,” I lamented.

And while the new Visio diagram for “TAKERS II” looks like a red Trix rabbit and a blue Trix rabbit were fruitful and multiplied all over the page, the fact is that I’m now so dependent on having this thing, that I can’t fathom writing my second book without it there to help guide my thoughts, and remind me of all the things I need to make sure I address that are leftover questions from the first book.

To my sheer horror, I’ve become the thing I used to think was silly: a writer who plans what she’s going to write in advance. All I can say is O.M.G.

I know that over the years, as I’ve watched, listened to and read about authors of both novels and screenplays talk about how they work, I’ve internalized a lot of their methods as simple givens. For example, some writers use standard outlines like I remember learning how to do in elementary school. Other writers hand-draw things out on napkins or pieces of paper.

And many, many writers use the index card method, where each index card represents a scene, perhaps…or maybe a thought or idea…or a chapter. There are many different ways to use index cards, and it usually culminates in the index cards being lined up on a wall linearly to help guide the writer through their story.

What I’m doing now, really, with my Visio diagrams, is nothing more than an electronic version of using index cards. Each rectangle in my diagram represents something I might put on an index card if I were doing things that way. Only thing is, the way my diagrams look, I’d wind up using two complete walls of a room and I don’t think anyone makes a corkboard quite that big.

Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of paper or hard copies of stuff. Which is why I am perfectly content to have my books published as eBooks and have no real desire to see paperback or hard-cover copies of them mass-produced. Besides, with all these big bookstores going out of business, I really and truly believe electronic books are the wave of the future and am happy to ride that wave.

All that aside, I want to apologize for my thought crimes of the past, in which I mentally tongue-clucked at the painstaking ways authors plotted, planned and diagrammed their books and screenplays out. I don’t know why I never needed to before – maybe because I was generally writing in other peoples’ previously-created universes rather than making up ones of my own – but I now completely understand why authors have done this for ages.

I am now quite married to the sometimes very detailed Visio diagrams that I feel compelled to create for whatever original story I’m about to write. And I am proud to say that I think this may mean I’ve started down the road of becoming a professional writer at last.

Yeah, I’m Weird…But I’m a Writer, so That’s Normal!

Yesterday was…interesting. There’s a lot of upheaval where I live right now as my roomies finish the unpacking from something like 3 months ago, in preparation for a friend coming to visit…all the way from Belgium!

It’s interesting how this affected my writing yesterday. I’ve been plotting, planning and diagramming like crazy for about a week in a full-steam-ahead onslaught to starting “TAKERS II” (omg I need a better title), and finally yesterday I was ready to actually put words to page (fingers to keyboard) to start actually writing the thing.

And I thought, with all the noise going on out there, all the conversation I could hear from my roomies (some in the form of hollering across our rather large house) in spite of the fact that I’m in my own office with my door closed, how the heck am I going to be able to actually get inside this character of mine and write like I’m him? It’s no easy feat even on the best of days, I tell you.

But the most interesting thing happened. In spite of – nay, because of – the controlled chaos going on in the rest of the house, I actually completed not only the book’s first chapter, but its first two chapters!

Go figure.

I should thank my roomies for offering me this insight into how I work. Apparently when I feel like, “Holy crap, quick, I gotta write before they need my muscles to help move something else,” I write quickly and well. I was chatting with a friend on Twitter yesterday about that very thing. She said she also seems to write better when there’s all kinds of ‘stuff’ going on around her. She asked if it was weird.

Apparently not.

I need to do a poll, because I would love to know of all of you out there who are writers yourselves – whether you’re published or not is irrelevant to me, because if you tap something out on a keyboard or use a pen and a notebook, you’re a writer in my book – how do you write best?

I suspect the answers would be as individual as the people responding. I’ve read where some authors claim they need to stick to a very rigid schedule or they won’t write at all. Others can write under any circumstance and still others, like my Twitter friend, thrive on noise and chaos.

I do find that I write better when I have my ‘writing music’ blasting, whether through my ear buds or just from my iPhone sitting on the desk next to me. And my music tastes take the cake for defining the word ‘eclectic.’ I’ve got everything from Andrea Bocelli to ABBA to Ke$ha. Lady Gaga to Josh Groban to Eminem. I’ve got TV soundtracks (Hawaii Five-0), movie soundtracks (Feed, Mamma Mia!), Diddy, Elvis Presley and Hoobastank. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jessie J, Katy Perry and Colbie Caillat. Oh, and we mustn’t forget about Evanescence, Train, Pink, Nickelback, Dr. Hook, Led Zeppelin and Marilyn Manson. I mean, we’re talking serious variety.

What can I say? I’m not a genre girl. I like a song because I like a song, not because it’s ‘blues’ or ‘rock’ or ‘heavy metal’ or ‘pop.’

How many other writers listen to music while they write, I wonder. I’m going to go look for a poll widget…

And yet I find that I can also write in complete and total silence. I get up really early in the morning, usually before five a.m., and on weekends that is the best, because it guarantees me at least four hours of having the world to myself. Lots of times I’ll just sit in the peace of my office and get all sorts of stuff written. Other times, I can’t type the word ‘the’ to save my life.

I’m not sure what it is that ebbs and flows within me that allows me to write or says, “Nope, not today.” But in spite of all these people who say you must force yourself to write every day whether you feel like it or not, I find that if I force myself when I’m not inspired, the result is for shit. As in, it sucks. Badly, sometimes.

But when I’m inspired, it’s 94 words-per-minute, no-holds-barred, holy crap, she can write a novel in a week type of thing.

I just take my inspiration as it comes, and continue to marvel when I perform some new feat I didn’t think I’d be able to – like writing the first two chapters of a new novel with things as heavy as beds and boxes of books being dragged all over the place just outside my door. And calls of “We need Ox, Incorporated to help!”

(When I was younger, I was known as “The Ox” by my friends because for a female I had a ridiculously strong back – and was just strong all the way around. For example, I moved a love seat where both sides of it were recliners…we’re talking full-blown metal workings, everything…all by myself when my friend threw her back out and couldn’t help. That mother was heavy.)

So thanks, Roomies! Another thing to add to my list of “Yeah, I’m Weird…But I’m a Writer, so That’s Normal!”

Don’t forget, if you want to have a look at the first 3-1/2 chapters of my first published novel, “TAKERS,” you can click on the book cover over in my right sidebar here, or on the link in the Links section (also on the right sidebar). It’s currently only available on Amazon.com in Kindle format. My publisher’s battling through the flu to try and get it out on Smashwords so you’ll be able to download it to other types of readers and in PDF if you want.

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    The book series "Takers," the screenplays contained on the "Screenplays" page and the screenplays discussed and contained on this website are copyright Chris Davis. Novels are published by Plotfish Press, and screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.
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