Wednesday 21 October 2015

The Book Cycle with Alexander Yates

As part of The Winter Place blog tour, I am pleased to welcome author, Alexander Yates, onto the blog to tell us about his book cycle.
The idea that became my second book, The Winter Place, started out ages before I actually began the writing process. The novel is set in Finland, a country I first visited in the summer of 2001. Back then I had just finished up my first year at university, and I flew to Helsinki to spend the summer with my Finnish girlfriend (now my wife). Images from that wonderful trip stuck with me long after I returned home. And the next semester at University, I even sketched out a short story set in Finland. It was about an abandoned castle in the Finnish countryside, filled a flock of talking, bellicose magpies (we Americans, as you probably know, are smitten with castles). But nothing ever came of the story, and I moved on to other projects. It wasn’t until over a decade later, after years of returning to Finland and feeling more and more at home there, that the castle and those talking birds re-emerged as a chapter in The Winter Place.

Like all of my longer projects, this novel started out as an outline. For me this always begins with a kind of larval stage—a disorganized mess of post-it notes and white-board scrawling. This is where the characters, plot points, and ideas of a project first begin to take shape. Then, after a time arranging these ideas and getting a sense of the broader movements, I pull everything together into a detailed written outline. The outline for The Winter Place ran about 40 pages, dense with text.
(note: my original post-its from The Winter Place have long since been scrapped! This is the equivalent for the next book I’m working on)

My outlines always include a beat-by-beat, bullet-pointed summary of each chapter. Once the outline is complete I actually break it up, and make each “chapter” into its own document. I give these little skeleton chapters a provisional title, and arrange them all into a file on my computer, which gives me the wonderfully soothing feeling of having accomplished something (even though I have actually accomplished very little at that stage, and am still 1-3 years away from a finished book). In addition to the morale boost, these skeleton chapters also mean that I have a place where the real writing can start, and a roadmap for where to might go. 

I realize that this all sounds rather robotic and uninspired (it does to me, at least). So I need to be clear—despite spending a lot of time making my outlines as thorough and detailed as possible, I never let them boss me around. In fact, when it comes to the real act of writing, sentence-level discoveries always trump the outline. For example, if I come to a point in a chapter where EVENT A is supposed to happen, but EVENT A no longer feels 100% honest or right, then my response is always to discard the outline and fly by the seat of my pants. I never allow the work to be a slave to the plan. So rather than think of my outline as a detailed blueprint that must be followed, I see it as a really dense, ornate, lovingly constructed safety blanket.

Of course, giving myself (and my characters) permission to go off script like this results in a lot of extra revision. Often a change in course at Chapter 10 will force full re-writes of Chapters 2, 5 and 7. To keep everything straight in my head, and to make sure that I don’t permanently delete any language that I might find useful elsewhere, I save older versions of all of these chapters.
(a composite image of my versions folder from The Winter Place)

As you might guess from the image above, color is another way I keep things orderly in my head. I’m a very visual person, and I find that assigning a different color to each main character allows me to zoom out to get a sense of my manuscript as a whole. My first book, Moondogs, was composed of four different inter-woven threads that could each be read individually as their own self-contained novella. My second book alternates between the points of view of Tess and Axel, two siblings who have very different voices and different reactions to their own grief. Tess’s chapters are all colored in yellow, and Axel’s are in green. The little bits of red and purple that you can see in the image above are chapters from the point of view of their grandparents, and parents—threads that I discarded early on in the drafting process.

But more than just being an organizational strategy, this visual element can also affect the content of the novel itself. For my first book this meant working with a designer and artist to create key images to go with each of the four storylines. For The Winter Place, I shared an early version with a wonderfully talented friend, who made three beautiful illustrations to go with the three parts of the book. While these three illustrations did not make it into the final published version, they became central to my own visual imagination. I started off every writing day by looking at the images. In a very real way I’m not sure I fully saw my characters until I’d seen them through this artist’s eyes.
 (Illustrations of Axel, Tess, the Bear and the Keeper from The Winter Place, by artist Mary Clare Cole)
This brings me to the last and perhaps most important phase of the cycle—sharing your work. I consider myself tremendously lucky to have a few close friends who are talented writers, excellent readers, and not shy about telling me when I’m being an idiot. I don’t share a project until I think it’s very close to being done, but once I do the perspectives of this small group are always invaluable. It’s only after a book gets through this circle of readers that it goes on to my agent and my editor, who will also have edits and ideas of their own. Nine times out of ten, their suggestions will be spot on. Often, they will also result in a good deal more work for me. But that’s a small price to pay for making the novel as strong as it can possibly be.

Thanks to Alexander Yates for such a brilliant post. 
Published by Simon and Schuster in October 2015
When a mysterious stranger and his brown bear show up on the same day that Axel and Tess's father dies in an accident, Axel fears he might be going crazy, especially as only he can see them. However, the strange duo are quickly forgotten when Axel and Tess are shipped off to Finland to stay with grandparents that they've never met. But when they arrive in Finland, Axel is stunned when the stranger and his bear reappear. More incredibly, the stranger tells him that his parents are lost and need help. 

Desperate to see his father again, and actually meet his mother, Axel follows the man and his bear, disappearing deep into the frozen wilds of northern Finland. When Tess realises that her brother has vanished she's distraught. And so begins the frantic search across snow and ice into the dark forest. But as the hours creep by and with no sign of Axel, Tess begins to wonder if her brother has ventured onto a path that she cannot follow.

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