How the Sausage Is Made

Extreme Outlining with the Mawdsleys

Extreme Outlining with the Mawdsleys

The day is here! NaNoWriMo starts in about 10 hours for us, and our outlines are ready. Here’s our last post explaining just how it is we put it all together, complete with pictures and screencaps.

First up–J.

Here was my first idea.  I just tried to work out the rough three-act structure of the story.
Outlining 1Sometime after I wrote that, I decided to switch “boyfriend” to “girlfriend,” because it represented a bigger, more dramatic change for our heroine, Thyra.

Then I came up with the idea of adding Leila as a second POV character.  Rather than having a random “deflector shipmate,” why not use someone from a previous story?  I started using the Seven Point System to fill out the story a bit.  I also made myself go through and name the characters, so I wouldn’t have to do that when actually writing the story.

So from the “Act I” section above, we get this:
Outlining 2At the same time, I started doing character profiles, which meant deciding what the characters wanted and who was trying to stop them.  And, as I was doing this, I realized that I didn’t have an actual antagonist in the story, yet.  So I decided to add Vivi (Leila’s intel supervisor) as a POV character.  At this point, I didn’t really want to work out every single plot point for Vivi, since I already had them for my other two POV characters.  I’ve mentioned before on this blog how I do character arcs for minor characters; what I did for Vivi was just work out how she fit the four archetypes: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr.  Here’s her first chapter, where she’s an Orphan:
Outlining 3Finally, I filled in the details of each chapter.  At each plot development, I asked myself, “Okay, how is that going to happen, exactly?”  Notice, for example, that in Chapter 3, Thyra is supposed to meet Elias Vanjasson.  So how would that happen?  Thyra (at least at this point in the book) and Elias are both very passive people.  So I decided Thyra would meet a woman on the boat headed south who would turn out to be Elias’s cousin.  So Lieutenant Skathi Ithunsdatter was born, just to effect the introductions later on.

So that’s how I worked through each chapter.  When I had specific ideas for dialog, I wrote those down.  I worked out dates and times, as well.  And, based on the rough latitude of our imaginary cities, I figured out what the weather would be at that time of the year.

Here’s what I now have for Chapter 1:
Outlining 4So that’s how I do it.  Good luck with your writing this November!  S and I will be checking in from time to time, just to let you know how it’s going.

J

~

Now for S

The novel I’m starting tonight at Midnight is the first I outlined specifically following the character relationships and beats from in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story. After I figured out the general shape of the story (Oleg investigates the murder of his boss and mentor), I decided that Oleg as well as Camila, the head of a foreign intelligence service who is both helping and hindering Oleg’s investigation, would be the POV characters. Then I set to work creating the cast and what relationships these people would have with Oleg and Camila, as well as answering important thematic questions for the story and POV characters. (This last part is something I’m not sure we’ve ever discussed from My Story…. Really folks, just go get yourself a copy. Read it. Love it. Live it.)

And then with J’s help, I wrote out all 44 beats for both Oleg and Camila as though they were each the protagonist of the novel. (Seeing as how it’s the Oleg Omdahl series, Oleg is the protagonist, but when planning, literally making the Antagonist the heroine of her own story is a pretty good idea.)

My table of character relationships.

My table of character relationships.

Eventually I typed up all the beats, but I really like being able to literally see my entire story at the same time, so J and I wrote it all on rolls of paper at taped it to the wall.

Oleg's thematic questions and relationships.

Oleg’s thematic questions and relationships.

Camila's sheet.

Camila’s sheet.

After all of that, I did the same chapter breakdown and word counts as J explained above. And that’s how I planned the novel I’m going to start writing in a few hours.

Happy noveling, everyone! We’ll be around as NaNo permits.

~S

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Use It or Lose It

Changing Your Outline as You Go

Hopefully by now you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to write for NaNoWriMo, and if you’ve been following along with this series, you’ve now got a pretty long and complex outline. By now, though, you might be feeling a bit nervous about the whole business. I mean, what happens if you suddenly change your mind about something?

Maybe in your outline you wrote that your heroine Mary runs off to the south of France with Bob, but you’re still not sure whether you really want Mary to end up with Bob or not. What happens if you get three weeks into November and you realize, much to your horror, that Mary and Bob are totally unsuited to each other? Or what happens if, three weeks in, you’ve grown to like Janet, Bob’s wife, so much that you really don’t want to see her hurt like that? Can you change the outline?

Yes. Of course you can. That’s one of the questions people always ask when they see the huge outlines S and I do for our stories: “What happens if you change your minds?” And the answer is, “Well…we change the outline, obviously.” I mean, duh.

But bear in mind that you have to follow through on every change. Changes have consequences, and you may find yourself having to stop and re-outline the story from that point on. If Mary and Bob don’t run off to France, then all that research you did on Nice and Saint-Tropez just went down the tubes. If Bob doesn’t leave Janet, then what happens between them? Do they end up reconciled and happy again? And what happens to Mary, your heroine? Does she find someone new? Or does she go to France on her own? (Hey, you get to use that research after all!)

My rule for using my outline is that I’m allowed to change it, but I can’t cheat. What’s the difference between changing and cheating? If I decide to keep Bob and Janet together, that’s changing the outline. That’s fine (as long as I remember to change everything from that point on to fit with the new direction of the story). But, on the other hand, let’s suppose that late one November night I look at my outline and find that it says:

(500 words): Mary and Bob enjoy a drive to Monaco. Description of the sea and coast. Interior monologue from Mary, torn between living in the moment and her regret for hurting her friend, Janet.

If I see that and think, “Oh, good grief. I just don’t feel like writing all that scenic description and angst right now. I’ll have Mary think about that in the NEXT chapter, which I’m doing tomorrow! Ha, ha!” Well, that’s cheating, and I try my best not to let myself do that.

One last tip: last Wednesday, when I posted the character prompts I was going to do in preparation for NaNo, did you notice that the last one wasn’t really a character prompt at all? Instead, it asks you to come up with a brief description or teaser for your story. This is fun because then you can go post the description on the NaNo site. It’s always interesting to know what other people are working on, and if you’re counting on other people to post a description of their novels, well, it’s only polite to post one yourself.

But doing a brief synopsis, or even just a tagline, for your novel can be useful, as well. It helps focus the mind on what’s most important in the story. Here’s the description I just came up with for In A Womanly Fashion (the first of two novels I’ll be writing):

After years of failed dates, Thyra has resigned herself to an arranged marriage, but there’s one final catch: she has to complete a sea voyage as an ordinary sailor to prove her worth to her demanding future mother-in-law. Once onboard, however, Thyra is caught up in the plots of Leila, a notorious thief who is planning one last, great heist in order to salvage a relationship that she stupidly scuppered. Leila may finally discover that no woman is an island; Thyra may find love in unexpected places. But first they’re going to have to escape the ambitious young spy who is chasing them. It’s Persuasion meets Treasure Island, only with a lot more sex.

As I sat down to write that, I kept thinking about all the plot twists, and I tried to come up with a way to work some of them in. But that made it too long. So I just whittled it down to what’s really important: the goals of the three main characters.

Next time: screenshots and practical examples of our outlining process from our real NaNo outlines!

J

Just Beat It

What we meant by Beat It back in my day.

What we meant by Beat It back in my day.

It’s less than a week before NaNoWriMo begins, and for anyone asking our opinion, we sure hope you have the major plot points of your novel planned and know who your characters are. But there’s so much in between the major points, and being who we are, we like to have those figured out as well. To know what comes in every part of the novel, one option is to use a beat sheet. There are many out there, some general, others for specific genres, but the one we use comes from our favorite writing book, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

So after we decided the big points from the Syd Field Paradigm (Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Pinch 1, Midpoint, Pinch 2, Plot Point 2, Showdown, and Resolution), we turn to My Story. Schechter breaks down each Act into Beats: Act 1 has 12 Beats, Act 2 has 14, and Act 3 has 4. Some of the Beats to hit in Act 1 (and there is some flexibility built in here) include meeting the Hero, the Deflector slowing the Hero down, and the Hero deciding to save the Stakes Character.  (Remember the characters and their relationships with the Hero?) Act 2 consists of 14 sets of Yes/No scenarios. Others refer to this process as Try/Fail cycles, but whatever the name, the plotting is the same. The Hero makes progress but then encounters setbacks. Act 3 continues the idea of Yes/No, but with the twist that the first Yes is followed by a No and then an even bigger No, and then finally the Yes that brings the story to its climax.

In a 50,000 word novel, Act 1 should be around 12,500 words, or the first 25% of the book. On Schechter’s beat sheet, Act 1 has 12 beats of varying length, the Inciting Incident being beat 5 and Plot Point 1 (as described in the Syd Field Paradigm) at the 12th and final beat of Act 1. So, what exactly is happening before Beat 5 and between that and Beat 12? Beats 1-4 are about character introductions: meeting the Hero, Villain, Stakes Characters (these are the folks who matter to the Hero and are the reasons why he bothers doing what he does), as well as the Deflector. Even though one Beat does not have to equal one chapter, I currently have 4 chapters planned to cover these beats in my upcoming novel, before I reach Chapter 5 and the Inciting Incident when my Hero, Oleg (a detective), is told that he must continue the investigation that will eventually lead to the murder that takes place at the end Act 1. Between the Inciting Incident and the murder, Oleg has to chat with his love interest about his personal flaws, receive motivation from allies, and also be threatened by the antagonist, along with some other beats.

What the heck this all looks like, well, you’ll literally need a picture for that. Stay turned this week for more!

~S

Promptness is Always Appreciated

I realized that in my post on characters, I didn’t mention character prompts.  We’ve talked about these before on the blog, so I thought I’d mention which ones I’m doing for NaNoWriMo this year.  I’m doing a few new ones this year, although some of them are still based on the ones from the Poets and Writers site.

Here’s what I’m doing:

1. Family
Have your character deliver a short monologue telling about his or her family.  Which family member is the character closest with?  Which family members does the character have difficulties with?

2. Pet Fiction
Write a scene where an animal or pet stops a character from feeling lonely, stressed, or on the brink of madness.

3. Express Lane Character Check
Write a scene in which your protagonist is stressed due to a death in the family, a financial crisis, or an unraveling relationship. Place your protagonist in a grocery store at the express lane for customers with fewer than 10 items. Have a lady, pushing a cart full of groceries, jump in line just before your protagonist. “Sorry, but I’m in a hurry,” she explains.

4. Character Speak
Write a scene in which your protagonist must convince a stranger to divulge a deep secret. The context is irrelevant. Use the conversation to show readers who, exactly, this protagonist is. At the end of the scene, have the stranger whisper the secret into the protagonist’s ear.

5. The Good in Evil
Even Pure Evil buys his favorite niece a pony for her birthday. Learn to love your villains as people, and they will reward you as characters. Write a scene where the most despicable character in your fiction does something deeply touching and loving. Then send them on their evil way.

6. Writing Desire
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This writing axiom extolled by Kurt Vonnegut underscores the importance of human desire. However, desire often stems from human frailty: the need to fill or compensate for something we lack—a mothers’ love, approval from society, the ability to forgive ourselves. Write about what your protagonist’s desires; this is where the story begins.

7. Character’s Fear
What is your character’s single greatest fear? How did your character acquire his or her fears?  How does that fear keep the character from accomplishing his or her goals?

8. Where Leaving Takes Us
Sometimes we are emotionally imprisoned by the ones we love. Overbearing parents, paranoid spouses, and needy children can make us—and our characters—feel trapped in an intolerable life. Write a scene where a character in your writing leaves a loved one behind and begins life anew. Use details to express relief, guilt, and anger.

9. Job Search
Write a brief job description for your character. What is his or her job? How did the character get it? How long has he or she held it? What does he or she like and dislike about it? What kind of language would a person with this job use? What kind of equipment? Where would the office be located? Who would be the boss? What would the job title be?

10. Synopsis
Come up with a “short synopsis” (300 words) and a brief description (100 words) of the novel.

I’m doing the first two tonight–400 words apiece for four of my main characters.  If you’re curious what these look like when I get done with them, here are two that I just wrote in response to the first prompt (bear in mind these are very rough, having just been written off the top of my head and having had no editing at all).

Leila
I don’t remember my mother properly at all.  I just have this vague sense of a pleasant, feminine presence in another room nearby.  For my dad, at least, I have a picture in my mind.  Or at least I think it’s him.  In my memory, he’s sitting in the dark, drinking quietly and—I think this is the important part—ignoring my mother completely.  I knew a Minertian sailor once, and before he asked me to—well, never mind that—he told me that Minertian men are prone to become melancholy and drink themselves to death.  When I heard that, my few, fragmentary memories of my father made a lot more sense.  I suppose it’s no surprise that I take after him.  They both died when I was 5 or 6 or so.  It was cholera, or so I was told later.  A sad end to a tragic romance; mom ran off with dad, just like in a storybook.  So even at a very early age, I knew where fairytales end; growing tired of each other and then crapping yourself to death in the same bed.  After that, the Joshis, our neighbors, took me in, which was the sort of thing you did for people in that neighborhood.  I shouldn’t give the impression that they were more generous than they were, though.  I was only with them a year before they sent me around the block to live with one of their cousins.  And then a different cousin, and so on.  I was never abused, as such, unless you count being ignored and allowed to run free on the streets as abuse.  But I was used to that from my parents, so I made the adjustment fairly well.  I remember having enough to eat, most of the time.  If I was too late coming home, the Joshis would send someone to check that I hadn’t been grabbed by the slavers who sometimes collected stray urchins.  And for that, I suppose I should be grateful.  I barely knew the Joshis, though.  I spent most of my time with other children, mostly older children, and that was where I got most of my education.  It wasn’t until later that I realized most of what I was learning was illegal.  And by the time I knew, I didn’t care.  I suppose that’s the sort of thing that my parents would have told me, if they had lived.  

Vivi
I was 10 when my mother made admiral.  I remember the day distinctly, because I was out in the jungle camping with the other Landatid cadets, and our Mistress of Archers made a special point of telling me at the evening roll call.  Our task that day had been catching and eating a green viper (we were supposed to do this without being bitten, but I guess that goes without saying).  We took too long because I tried to come up with some clever little trap made of vines.  And then, after we caught it, I made a mess of skinning it, so when Mistress Kajsa called roll, she told me that my mother would expect better of me.  “Oh, and by the way, she’s been promoted,” she added.  Just like that: “Oh, and by the way….”  I’ve heard a lot of that “by the way” in the nine years since.  From a new acquaintance: “By the way, your father’s not the Minister, is he?”  From my mother, in a letter: “By the way, your sister Karolina is getting her first command.”  From my father, in a different letter: “By the way, your mother mentioned you to Einar last time we saw him.”  That’s King Einar to you, by the way.  We’re Krigadamites; we wear our insouciance on our sleeves.  I don’t hear from my sisters very often, and I think I’m fine with that.  It’s not as if I hate them, mind you.  I just don’t like being reminded constantly of all the marvelous things they’re doing.  They’re all Befalas, like me and mom, and the trouble is that there’s virtually nothing I can ever do in my career that one of them hasn’t already done.  When I finished Vattentid, and my captain said she had heard they were looking for Befalas who wanted to join the intelligence service, I jumped at the chance like a terrier on a rat.  Intel is one thing none of them have ever done.  Mom was in the fleet (now she’s at Arken Castle, just a few doors down from Dad).  Karolina and Tessan are in the fleet, too.  Olivia is in the Queen’s Guard.  That’s not actually part of the intelligence service, but it’s close enough that I thought she would be impressed when I told her I’d volunteered.  She wasn’t.  She just cleared her throat and said, “Everyone I’ve met from intel is a drunk or a pervert, by the way.”  

So that’s what I’ve been up to today.

J

Who Are These People?

Characters and Outlining

Pictured: Feeler, Villain, Hero

Pictured, L to R: Feeler, Villain, Hero

When we prepare to write our NaNoWriMo novels, we make our usual big outlines, but we do more than just sketch out the plot. One of the things we try to do pretty early on is to make profiles for each of our major characters. We’ve talked about this before on this blog, and I’ve given some explanation of what these profiles look like, but just briefly, here’s the format:

Name: (full name, along with ranks, titles, or nicknames)
Age: (at the time of the story)
Born: (place and year of birth. Specific birthdate if it might be important in the story)
Family: (their names, years of birth and [if applicable] death)
Likes/Dislikes: (what they like and their hobbies, which other characters they get along with)
Physical Appearance: (height, hair and eye color, general build, any distinguishing characteristics)
Other Characteristics: (character traits, personality)
Other Facts: (usually a brief biography of the character)
Voice: (anything that makes this character sound different from others)

Once we’re done filling that out, we have a sense of the character’s personality and past history. We have some notion of what she might sound like.

Now we need to know our character’s goals. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So what does the character want? We saw Jennifer Brozek on a panel at Gen Con this year, and she suggested that a writer has to know four things about a character: 1) Who is the character? 2) What does he want? 3) Why does he want it, and 4) What is he willing to do to get it?

We often try to include the answers to these questions in the character profile. And their implications for the outline and the plot should be obvious. After all, once you know that your protagonist, Jane, wants to win the State Fair Hog Calling Contest because her mother died competing in that same brutal arena ten years ago, and once you know that she is willing to lie, cheat, and steal in order to win, you’re halfway to having a story.

Now that we know what the character wants, we start thinking about how this character relates to other characters. One of the best ways to work out the relationships between your characters comes from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story. We’ve mentioned this book before; it’s one of our favorites. It was originally intended for screenwriters, of course, but it’s very helpful for novel writers, too.

In My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, Jeffery Alan Schechter suggests identifying your characters by their relationship to the protagonist, arranged as four pairs of people:

Hero: (the protagonist; the main character who is trying to accomplish something)
Villain: (the character who is trying to stop the hero from doing this)
Protector: (the main character’s moral compass)
Deflector: (someone who tries to pull the hero off the path)
Believer: (someone who instantly believes in and supports the hero)
Doubter: (someone who takes some convincing to believe in the hero)
Thinker: (a supporter of the hero who always acts rationally)
Feeler: (a supporter of the hero who always flies by the seat of his or her pants)

You don’t necessarily have to have eight separate characters; the same person could be, for example, the hero’s Protector and also his Believer. And characters don’t have to occupy the same role for the entire story.

Once we have our character profiles filled out, we then go through and identify these relationships for all of our POV characters—not just the character who is the designated “hero” of the story. This is incredibly helpful for pointing out holes in your plot and characterization. For example, when we did our most recent revision of the Quartet, we discovered (much to our horror) that we didn’t actually have a Villain for the first book. Oh, sure, we had bad people doing bad things, and there was a definite Villain for the overarching four-book series. But in the first book, there was no character who was actively trying to stop the Heroine from accomplishing her goal. So we invented one, to whom we referred as “Prince Antagonist” until we came up with a name for him.

Another example: I’m filling in my outline for one of my NaNo novels right now, and when I went to identify these relationships for one of my POV characters, I realized that she didn’t have a Protector, or a Believer, or a Feeler. Now it’s true that this character is on her own through much of the book, and most of the people with whom she interacts are trying to thwart her in one way or another. But when I looked at the empty spots on that list of relationships, I thought, “That just can’t be right.” Even if she’s on her own, she still has to have someone in her past who believed in her, or some mentor whose advice she still remembers.

Then I realized who her mentor had to be—a character from a previous story—and suddenly everything made sense. I had a much better idea why this POV character turned out the way she did, I had an opportunity to give this old character a cameo in the new book, and for the first time, the choice that this POV character is going to make at the climax of the story (to let her antagonist escape) made complete sense to me.

Once you have those relationships figured out, you can go through your outline and make notes about this. If Susan is the Heroine, and Bob is her Doubter, you can look at your outline and ask yourself, “Is there any scene here where Bob is actually being dubious of Susan?” If not, then you can add a scene where he is. Or if there’s a preexisting scene where Susan declares her intent to do something, and Bob will be present, you can make a note that Bob refuses to believe that she can do it.

If Mary is Susan’s Protector, how does the reader know that? Have you shown it? Is there actually a scene where Mary acts as Susan’s moral compass, telling her what’s right and what’s wrong? If there isn’t a scene like that, then there really should be.

And that’s one of the things I’ve been doing these past two weeks with the outlines for my two November novels. It really helps. Figuring out who your characters are and how they relate to each other makes it much easier to fill out your outline. If you get done with all this and your outline still looks rather sad and scrawny, though, don’t worry. Our next post in this series will be about how to bulk up your outline, so that your plot feels complete and satisfying to the reader.

J

Let’s start at the very beginning. No, actually, don’t.

SoM Wonderwall

So, you enthusiastic future novelist, you! You have just come up with the greatest premise for a story since Helen launched a thousand ships, but there’s just one problem: how do you tell your awesome story awesomely? For the first time novelist, the urge to just sit down and start vomiting words on the page is strong. But after that first chapter, or even ten, it’s easy to lose your way and your momentum. So, not only do we not just sit down and start writing, we do not even start at the beginning.

At the most basic level, J and I use three act structure when planning our novels. It’s a structure as old as written narrative, boiling down to beginning, middle, and end. One of the most popular models, frequently used by screenwriters*, is called the Syd Field Paradigm, and consists of the following parts:
Act 1: Opening Image, Exposition, Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1
Act 2: Pinch 1, Midpoint, Pinch 2, Plot Point 2
Act 3: Showdown, Resolution, Tag

Occasionally J and I will combine or elide parts of this, but these are the first parts of the novel we figure out. However, the Opening Image is not where we begin planning; we begin with the Resolution/Tag.

We started working from the end after I watched the wonderful series of videos by author Dan Wells on his Seven-Point System. His story structure method is essentially a simplified version of Syd Field, the seven points being:
Hook
Plot Turn 1
Pinch 1
Midpoint
Pinch 2
Plot Turn 2
Resolution

But what he does that was new to us when we discovered it is that his first step is to decide his Resolution, and then he goes back to the beginning to determine his Hook. In a well-structured story (which is the goal I’m aiming for, anyway), there should be a symmetry between these two, the Resolution and Hook opposites, but two-sides of the same coin. How did you get from the Hook to the Resolution? Well, next plot out the Midpoint, when the transition from one to the other happens. Then go back to the beginning to figure out Plot Turn 1 to find the catalyst to get the story from the beginning to the middle, and then jump to Plot Turn 2, the catalyst to get the story from the middle to the end. Finally apply pressure to keep the plot moving by figuring out Pinch 1 and Pinch 2. Keeping with the mirror idea started in the Hook/Resolution pairing, the Pinches should thematically relate to one another. And they should also be saying something significant thematically about the story. (We were long confused on the exact nature of good Pinches before attending a plotting workshop with Diana Botsford. If you ever get the chance, we recommend attending.)

Now, do we always plot with this exact back and forth? Nah. We have dry erase boards where we fill in the blanks, and sometimes we’ll know exactly what our Plot Turn/Point 1 will be before we’ve figured out the Midpoint, and that’s fine. However, we never do anything serious until we know the Resolution. Until we know where we’re going, we don’t start the car. So, for instance, when I started outlining the novel I’m writing for this year’s NaNoWriMo, the first things I wanted to know are who committed the murderer and if my detective, Oleg, would catch her. Once I knew the murderess would get away with it, leaving poor Oleg pretty bummed, I knew I needed to start the novel with him experiencing one of his rare happy moments in life where things were actually going well.

And for us, this is where we start. We slowly fill in more and more of the outline, figure out what events need to happen between Pinch 1 and the Midpoint, for instance, which we will be getting into in more detail in future posts. Now, this all may sound incredibly dull to do, and it might seem it would make writing the novel boring, since we know exactly what’s going to happen. However, I’d like to take a second to dispel those myths. First off, outlining a novel is incredibly creative. I sit down to outline (actually, I’m often standing, but more about that later), and I’m creating a story. How is that not incredibly enjoyable? In fact, our outlines are so detailed, they’re almost like first drafts. So when I sit down to write (and I usually am sitting at this point), it’s somewhere between rough draft and first revision. Also, at this point, I don’t have to worry about the plot or who the characters are, because I know. Instead, I get to focus on the words and how I’m telling the story, not what story I’m going to tell. I’m an actress who has learned her lines, and now I can concentrate on my performance.

~S

  • Most of the structure techniques we employ come from screenwriting. In fact, the next two blogs are going to heavily revolve around the two screenwriting books we’re pretty sure we couldn’t live without.

You Have No Idea

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.   You're welcome.

Pictured: an awesome story, just waiting to be written.
You’re welcome.

This is October, which means it’s time to start planning our NaNoWriMo novels in earnest. If you’ve never done NaNoWriMo, then this is the year to start. It’s good fun and a chance for you to hang out with other writers. And if you stick with it, you’ll have at least a first draft of a novel when you’ve finished.

Possibly you’ve got a book you started, and you’re planning to work on it. Or maybe you’ve already got a story in mind that you’ve always wanted to write. If so, then that’s great, and you should totally do that for your novel. But what if you don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’re trying NaNo for the very first time, and you can’t think where to start? What if you have no idea for your book? Then this blog post is for you. This is the first in a series that we’re doing this month, talking about how we plan our novels, and hopefully you’ll find this useful.

Some people will tell you to just “Pants” your novel—to write it by the seat of your pants, in other words. There are those who maintain that the true spirit of NaNo requires that you start writing your book on November 1 with no idea at all of what you’re going to write. I would never say out loud that those people are wrong, but I’m sure thinking it as hard as I possibly can. Particularly if this is your first NaNo, you will almost certainly have more fun, and be much more likely to finish, if you try to plan a little first.

So how do you come up with an idea if you don’t already have one?

For some reason, there have been quite a number of people who, at various times in my life, have told me their ideas for a book. I’m not sure why they pick me to tell. Maybe I’ve just got one of those faces. Or maybe it’s like meeting a priest; when they find out I’m an English teacher, they feel compelled to confess their literary sins. But it goes back even before I started my current career. I once had a guy who sat next to me on a train coming home from college, and he spent most of the length of Pennsylvania telling me about the book he was going to write someday, if he ever had the time. (One would think that, for example, a long boring train ride would be the perfect time to start, but I guess that didn’t occur to him.)

Anyway, when people tell me about their “idea” for a story, I’ve noticed that most of the time what they really have is one of the major elements for a story: plot, setting, or character. (Another way of thinking about this is Orson Scott Card’s “MICE” Quotient: Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.) People will say, “I’ve got this idea for a steampunk world where everyone lives in submarines.” Or, “I want to write a dystopian novel about a conspiracy to impose gluten-free food on everyone.” Or, “I’ve always wondered what would happen if a medieval European knight fought a samurai.”

This is my advice if you’re having trouble coming up with something to write about: try to think of just one of those three (or four) elements. Don’t try to think up a whole story, fully formed, right from the very beginning. Don’t try to think of an opening scene and work out the plot step by step in your head. That can come later. For now, just try to come up with an interesting character, a fun setting, or some incident or event that you think would be cool in a story.

There are various ways to do this. If you want to start with a character, try the exercise from My Story Can Beat Up Your Story that we’ve mentioned before on this blog. Think of a character with an unlikely adjective or ironic attribute: a compulsively honest lawyer, for example. Or, in my story, a barely-competent, unmotivated secret agent.

Another way is to think of some inversion of or twist on an existing story. “It’s like Gladiator,” for example, “only the main character is a woman.” Now you’ve got a character, and (depending on exactly what you mean by “it’s like Gladiator”) maybe some plot, too. You can do the same thing with settings: “It’s like Middle Earth, only it’s in space, and the heroine’s culture is based on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.”

One formula that gets used a lot (some would say overused) in discussing movies is “X movie meets Y movie,” as in “It’s Gladiator meets When Harry Met Sally.” That already tells you something about plot, and maybe about setting and character, too.

Maybe this seems like cheating, but it’s not. Don’t get hung up on trying to make your story completely new and original. I mean, you don’t want to blatantly rip people off, but don’t sweat it if your story sounds a little like something you’ve read before. I guarantee you that no matter how radically different you try to make your plot, no matter how fresh and unusual you think your characters are, at least one of your beta readers will look at what you’ve written and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s just like [some book or movie that should have been obvious].”

So you’ve got a character, or some cool set-piece fight that you want to see, or a setting. Now what?

When someone corners me and tells me about the book he wants to write, invariably, the person will finish by saying, somewhat apologetically, “That’s all I’ve got.” Yes, that’s all he’s got, but it’s pretty easy to get some more.

Once you have one of those elements (plot/setting/character, or milieu/idea/character/event), you can start filling in the rest of them. Take my example of a knight fighting a samurai, for instance. That’s an Event, or part of a plot. Now ask yourself, who are these guys? What sort of a samurai is fighting a knight? What sort of a knight fights a samurai? Do you see the scene from both their points of view? From a third person’s POV? If there’s a third person in the scene, who is it? (That’s character.) What kind of world is this where people from opposite ends of the Eurasian continent managed to meet up? Is this some kind of alternate reality? Were they captured by aliens and forced into an arena? (That’s setting or Milieu.) How did they come to be fighting? Who will win? Will they kill each other? Will they become friends? If they were captured by aliens, are they going to team up to escape? (Now we’re filling in more of the plot.)

You can even write it out, if that helps you (and it probably would):

Setting: a steampunk world where people live in submarines
Character (what sort of person lives in a submarine?): ______________________
Plot (what kind of events happen on submarines?): ________________________

Once you’ve done this, and you’ve filled in those blanks, you’ve got at least the beginnings of a story. And frankly, I wouldn’t try to write a novel knowing any less than that. But we usually do a lot more than just identify our characters, settings, and plots. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking you through our planning and outlining process, as well as giving you updates in real time as we prepare to write our own novels. So keep checking in, and start planning your book now. Remember, the more time you spend planning in October, the less time you’ll spend pounding your head against your keyboard in frustration in November.

J