Returning to Exile

As NaNoWriMo came to an end, a large part of doubt shifted around inside my head, revealing what had been hidden underneath it: Exile.

Exile is a novel I have spent a huge amount of time planning. I have a scene-by-scene plan of everything that will happen, which character is where, whose point of view the scene will be told from, and how it feeds in to a larger story. It took me the best part of a year, just to do this, and I think I now know why.

For every scene I planned, I got more and more restricted. I was limiting where I could go and what I could do when I got around to actually writing the thing. I had thought that having it all planned out in such depths would lead to the simple task of just writing to ‘flesh out each section’. This worked really well for my PhD thesis. It is not the same for fiction. My ideas, creativity and spontaneity from a year ago should not be what I’m writing. Sure, they should be there, to remember, and to guide things. A general outline, or structure. But further than that? It is too much. In the first week I sat down to actually write Exile, I became very aware that something was not right. I was too limited. Too constrained. Writing wasn’t fun because I didn’t feel I had room to just let the story go where it went as I typed.

NaNoWriMo has helped with things. I purposefully went into it with very little amounts of planning. I knew roughly where I wanted to go with the story. The day before I started writing, I made a very, very draft outline of each chapter title, and a sentence of what the key development would be. I had a few notes for ideas of things to cover along the way. When I started writing, I had enough guidance to go with. My imagination on the day fuelled the rest. And it seemed to work. If I had really got stuck with what I was writing, with how it would all come together, I know that I would have just stopped and given up. But I have a complete first draft of The Magic of Christmas. It is sitting there on my computer, waiting to be read and edited. That will come over the Christmas holidays. It is my festive book to read for the year, and hopefully in a couple of weeks enough of what I wrote will have drifted out of my head so that I can still have the occasional surprise.

Knowing that this approach can work has made me enthusiastic to return to Exile. But first, I’m going back to my plan. I’m going to revise it, by digitally ripping it up. Less is more. I will keep the detailed character profiles I have. I will keep much of the plans for the rich, distant galaxy that I’ve been slowly adding to in my head and my notes for a few years now. But my Excel spreadsheet full of each scene’s details? It’s going. Its hold over my imagination is going. I can write what I want.

Oddly, however, I’m going to plan and detail the history and setting of my galaxy more than I had before. As I completed NaNoWriMo, I became aware of Aeon Timeline. I’ve tried the trial, and I think it could help so much in bringing a lot of the background of the novel to a place that I can keep track of, and wrangle as much as I need to without having to rewrite paper notes. I can setup my universe, modify it as I need to, and write my novel on top of it.

The doubt has shifted on to other, insignificant things for now.

Exile, here I come. Again.

(Image: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chris Phethean is a writer and blogger. He is working on a range of sci-fi, fantasy and adventure stories, and dreams of writing interactive narratives for video games. Find him on and Twitter.


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