From notepad to novel: The making of The Nutcracker

First posted 04 May 2014.

When writing my novel, The Nutcracker, I often looked to the creative processes of others for inspiration. With this in mind, I thought I would take you through some of my own processes. Maybe they will inspire you to break out that project you’ve had on your mind for the last few days/months/years.

Ideas and inspiration

The original idea for The Nutcracker came in 2007, or at least that’s my earliest recorded memory of it. At the time, the idea was simply:

A character who, when faced with the financial realities of trying to save people’s lives had chosen to take on a life of crime to balance the books.

This was in response to a really terrible superhero film, but I can’t recall which one.

The story’s locations were inspired by my first trip to the United Kingdom in 2008, and in particular, a suburb called Barons Court in the west of London. It was probably like every other area of London, but when I lived there, it seemed like the most unique place in the world. It was also during this time that I discovered the London Underground, the age-old rail network spanning the city, and areas such as John Adams Street, that would eventually become the location of the Circle of Thieves headquarters.

Barons Court railway station in London, UK.
John Adams Street in London, UK served as a great inspiration for where to house a secret headquarters.

Plots, characters, and caricatures

It took about six weeks, from mid-April to the end of May 2010, to map out the full plot. In this stage, I tried to stick to two rules, both of which proved to be invaluable in deciding the plot, and the character’s motivations.

The first rule was:

All wrongs must feel right at the time

This rule related to dealing with the somewhat questionable motives of many of my characters. I didn’t think it was believable that they were simply bad people, so instead I wanted to be sure that their actions reflected what they believed to be right.

The second rule was:

Nothing just happens

It was this rule that became the grounding for the plot. It made me question exactly the cause-and-effect that would have brought about each of these situations. If it didn’t pass this test, I knew something had to be changed.

The plotting took many forms ranging from bullet points to detailed graphs. In each case, I tried to build it from a three-act perspective, looking at where the plots of my characters would come together. You can see this early plotting below, taken from one of my many old notepads (spoiler alert).

This is a full breakdown of the plot, complete with a rough drawing of the London Underground logo.
This is a rough breakdown of the second act.
This outline shows another part of the second act.
This is what happened when things started to get really complicated in the plotting.

In later drafts, and as things became more complicated, I resorted to more extreme methods to finding the right order and plot line. This included PowerPoint slides, spreadsheets, paper cards, and finally, quite a few pieces of A3 paper.

I’m not sure if any of this is a traditional approach, but it felt like a logical method at the time.

Putting pen to paper

The idea for the first chapter came after a flight from Vancouver to Montreal. I had just moved my life there, but to begin with, I was staying on my friends’ couch. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep, and then it all started to come together in my mind. I turned on the light and began mapping out the chapter, numbering each plot point until it had reached its logical conclusion. I’ve placed some of the original pages below.

I started writing the first draft of The Nutcracker in the last week of May, and finished the act two climax on the evening of July 1st, Canada Day. It all seemed easy, and in some ways it was, but looking back at it after a few days, I realised it was anything but done, for all my intricate plotting, I found I really didn’t understand my characters enough to make the plot work. This meant the only solution was to either change the plot, or to rethink the characters. In the end I did both, repeatedly, until I felt like it reflected a coherent story.

It took around seven drafts to complete the manuscript, with the final draft completed in February of 2012. This is the version you see today, with a few light changes following a review period.

“Style,” he said.

This is a very dialogue heavy text, an intended style inspired by rule 10 of crime writer Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. It states ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’, with his most prominent point here being ‘I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue’.

I think it’s a really interesting perspective, and when I thought of how I read books, I found that I really would read every line of dialogue. So, this then became a rule I followed when writing The Nutcracker, if I could use dialogue to drive the story faster and easier, then that was exactly what I did. However, this hard-line approach also meant I chose not to reveal the character’s thoughts. It’s an uncommon method and a bit of a gamble, but it felt appropriate for the piece.

Form and signposting

For the first part of its life, The Nutcracker was divided in chapters, but not parts. It was only after re-reading it on the third draft that I realised there would be some value in making it into three parts. While their titles aren’t overly descriptive, they do serve to let the reader know they have entered a different part of the piece.

The chapter titles were also added later for clarity. These are mostly based on the style of b-grade, pulp book and TV show titles, and are meant to poke fun at the content while giving the reader an idea of what is to come in the chapter.

Closing notes

From initial conception, it took around seven years to bring The Nutcracker to completion, with around two of those years spent actually writing it. If you read it and enjoy it, that’s fantastic, but if you don’t, that’s okay too.

Maybe this will be the story that inspires you to write something better.

The Nutcracker was published on the 15th of April 2014 by Carnaby Street Press and is available for Amazon Kindle.

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