Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Advice for NaNoWriMo: Make a Plan

It's almost time for NaNoWriMo! The basic idea is to write a full draft of a novel, of 50,000 words or more, during the month of November.

Some people get grouchy about this phenomenon. The argument usually goes something like: These people have some nerve thinking it's worthwhile sitting down and pounding out a full-length, crappy first draft of a novel in a short amount of time. As if that will make them real writers!

Do I have to refute this? All right. Pounding out a full-length crappy first draft is in fact the only way to start on the journey to becoming a real writer. Can it replace reading widely, revising and editing your work, practicing craft? No. And nobody is claiming it does. Also, these NaNoWriMo-ers sitting alone in their kitchens at their computers, writing words? They are not hurting you. So shut up.


So, according to the NaNoWriMo guidelines, you're not supposed to start writing Chapter One before November 1, but it will help you a lot to have a rough plan sketched out before that. If you're starting from scratch and want some inspiration, you can check out the first five of these Nine Exercises.

If you already have a lot of ideas about your novel-to-be, that's great. You don't really have to do anything but sit down and type out words every day to participate in NaNoWriMo. But if you want some structure to help, check out just Exercise 4. Plug in your current characters and situations and use it to sketch out your plot.

Two other great planning resources come from those plot experts, screenwriters: the classic books Save the Cat and How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. Try using Save the Cat's Beat Sheet, or the planning section of 21 Days, to lay down some plot points. Remember these are provisional. Everything will change in the writing, and that's fine. But they will give you something to start with.

If these don't seem to help—maybe the idea of having an "A Story" and a "B Story" and a strong-willed hero and an incredibly evil villain and a plot laid out on forty index cards just doesn't resonate with you—then try this very basic exercise:

You have one main character. The story is going to take your character on a journey, from Point A to Point B. Set a timer for five minutes and brainstorm about what this journey could be. Include the concrete (she'll learn how to fly a plane) and also the emotional (she'll learn she's brave  enough and good enough to fly a plane and that will give her confidence dealing with her boss, her annoying neighbor, and her family).

That might sound simplistic. If you've been thinking about your novel for a while, it might seem maddeningly so. First of all, it may be you have six main characters, not one. And there's no way to reduce your story to anything as simpleminded as having one of them gain self-confidence by learning to fly a plane. That may be why the screenwriting exercises didn't work for you: you're not constructing some dumb blockbuster designed to appeal to the lowest common human denominator. Your novel-to-be is literary, nuanced, and complex: It's about the way people in societies help blind one another to dangerous truths and to their own evil, and it's also about Ancient Greece (which you've been researching so you have a lot to say about it), and the technology of self-driving cars (""), and the ethics of the ways humans relate to other species, and there's also a very complex thing that has to happen that involves interweaving flashbacks and premonitions with the present time, and you might also have a few other ideas but those are the ones that have to be in there.

Well, you may have to go ahead and write that novel, or part of it, before the advice above makes any sense to you. But if you find you've run aground somewhere in the middle of the month, come back here and look at it again.

Are you back?

Remember this saying from the 70s?

“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” 

You know that stuff you really want to put in your novel, but somehow you can't quite figure out how; you can't quite get it to work? Set it free. Take a deep breath, and let it go. Easier said than done, I know. But you have to try. If it belongs in your novel, it will come back. Without your even asking it to. But if it doesn't, you just have to wish it well out there in the ether. Maybe it belongs in someone else's book. Or in your next one. You can't know right now.

So let's start again. The backbone of a story is one character's journey from A to B. Choose one of your characters to be the main one. It doesn't matter which. There are no fatal mistakes to be made here. You can change your mind later. But you probably do have a good hunch about which one it should be.

Now, choose a Point A. Keep it simple, measurable, concrete. Make sure there are ways we can know, when you get to the end, that your character has actually advanced and has ended up at Point B. Don't spend more than five minutes brainstorming about all this.

Now go and write. In each chapter, each section, remind yourself: the character (the main character! don't get distracted) is moving along a path from A to B. Of course there will be false turns, setbacks, and zigzags. That's fine; it's good. And it may be that although she wants to end up at Point B, and you want her to, she will eventually wind up somewhere else, like Point C. That will be good too. When it starts to happen, you'll know it has to happen. (It may relate to the distinction between want vs. need discussed here under "Act I.")

It may also be that you find yourself going off into tangents and subplots and side paths, and that's actually also completely fine, as long as you have that A-to-B journey somewhere in the back of your mind. (See Moby-Dick, e.g.)

And as long as you keep writing.

Good luck.

If your character's path from A to B is strewn with dragons, and he's on crutches, and his candle has gone out, all the better. Antonio Rubino, from I tre talismani, 1914. Via 50watts.

No comments:

Post a Comment