November is coming and writers around the world are preparing for the challenge of writing a 50k word novel for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already posted my top tips for success, but one thing I didn’t touch on was planning out your novel. Plotting is a tricky topic, because every writer has their own system for doing it (or winging it, if you’re a pantser). By no means am saying these tips are the only way to do things. Instead, this more of a “this has worked for me” post. As writers we all have to find and hone our own process, but often there is value in reviewing what has worked for others.
So we have a few weeks until November starts. You want to give it a shot this year. You’ve made time in your schedule, you want to write, and you have a few ideas. How do you organize them.
Start with the Basics
The first thing to establish is your goal. Not the 50k words, but what kind of outcome are you hoping for? Are you writing for yourself or to share with a limited audience? Or are you writing because you want to sell a novel and start a second career as an author? As an independent author myself, I write commercially, for a broad audience.
Establish the genre you’re writing in. If you’re eventually looking to sell your writing it really helps to know your market. Read extensively in it. Learn the market trends. Learn what readers of the genre tend to look for. Of course this isn’t something you can just to in the last week of October. It more of a constant commitment. That said, if you haven’t done this before, go with the genre you read and enjoy most frequently.
In my experience you need two fundamental ingredients to a story… (i) a character, and (ii) a problem. It’s very easy to get bogged down in world building, character development sheets, themes, trying to fill in the steps of the Hero’s Journey, etc., but just about all stories are really about a character confronting a problem and changing in some regard through that confrontation.
A spy with two gunshot wounds in his back (character) is pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea and no memory of who he is (problem).
A young orphan (character) is summoned to attend a mysterious school that teaches magic and has a connection to the death of his parents (problem).
A banker (character) is convicted of a crime he did not commit and must survive in a prison without hope (problem).
This is where you get to go crazy with character development, world building, etc. For some people, this can be the most enjoyable part of writing. If so, embrace it and nerd out.
Your main character should have a goal that relates to the problem in some way. The reason the goal is critical is that once you establish it, you can brainstorm roadblocks, or obstacles that will keep your character from reaching their goal. In developing these, remember that the most dramatic ones occur when the character is forced to make a decision or take an action with consequences. Once you have a list, you can try to figure out how they interrelate. How can one lead into the next?
Something to remember here is that often a character may have a superficial goal… what they want in the beginning. But that may not be what the character actually needs. Sometimes what they need is in direct opposition to what they initially want. In brainstorming about wants, think about what your character needs and what you’d actually like to see that character attain by the end of the story.
One trick to help organize these ideas is to write out your blurb. Imagine your story is complete. What’s on the back cover? Writing out a rough blurb before you write the story can often make writing one later, once you’re ready to publish, a lot less complicated.
The skeleton really helps to give the story a framework. It doesn’t have to be very detailed (but it can be). You just start with the initial character and their problem and outline each roadblock until you get to a final conflict that will ultimately determine whether the character achieves their goal.
Some people use beat sheets to accomplish this. These are detailed outlining tools that specify what should be happening in each story and about when it should happen and how many words you have to describe it. Some writers swear by these. Others avoid them altogether.
What I find helps during NaNoWriMo is a document that’s maybe a page or two long that maps out the rough turning points in the story and how they are related. To me this is the plot skeleton.
As you are pounding out words, you keep this available as a quick reference. Whenever you get stuck, it can serves as a roadmap of something to write toward. And if you’re really in trouble, your free to leave off in the spot you’re at and start at the next big turning point. Remember, there’s no rule that you need to write in a chronological or linear fashion. You can always come back and fill in holes later. This will help you to get those words out at a manageable pace instead of getting stuck wondering about the details of how to get from point C to point D.
Play With the Story
This is one aspect of planning out a story that’s really important for me. You start by trying it on for size. Sometimes this can even be the first thing you do. Write out a scene or two, with how you think the story will play out. Sometimes they’re awesome and you want to keep going and that’s how you know you’ve got something. Other times, you get that first page or two set up and you quickly realize that while the concept seemed exciting, it doesn’t really have wheels yet.
Just an opinion here, but this is I think why a lot of writers have files that are full of beginnings, but so rarely are they completed. It’s because what they’ve labelled as a beginning isn’t actually a beginning at all. It’s the author’s first landing in the primordial ooze of a fictional world of their own creation. It’s world building, it’s characters revealing themselves, it’s discovery of problems. That’s why you often end up with massive info dumps in first drafts… the author is figuring the world out.
Playing with the world ahead of your core creative effort (NaNoWriMo in this case) helps you brainstorm while you’re in direct contact with the characters. And this will give you lots of ideas that you can draw on when you need to focus on creative output.
In coming up with a plot one of the best things you can do is tempt fate. Ask what’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? And then play it out. How will your character deal with this in a way that’s true to their traits? How will they grow from it?
No plan survives first contact with the enemy. So if it falls apart half way through, don’t fret. Having made the plan the first time means you can figure out another one from where you’re at.