First Novel – Thinking and Planning 4
Recently I blogged about starting a novel, and my intent to post weekly on the process (it’s been a few weeks since that first posting, so you can see how good I am at this). This week I wanted to discuss the biggest change in my process, why I think it’s important, and how others might benefit from my experience.
My big change? I plan.
It sounds so simple, and in truth it really is, but it has taken me many years to realize how much I needed structure and proper development of an idea. I had the notion that planning too much sucks the soul out of a work (novel or short story), and that I—as an artist, mind you—needed to give inspiration the chance to breathe, to take on a life of it’s own, during the creative process of writing. I knew my instincts would lead me in the right direction.
This line of thought somehow ignores the fact that planning is still a creative process. This is not a paint by numbers scheme; you are developing the entire story, but putting development in front of prose.
So what do I suggest doing?
First, find a method that works for you.
For me, I’ve outlined the structure of the story. I started with the basic idea, in paragraph form, listing out the key events that would drive the story forward. It’s not truly an outline (remember back in high school, when you learned how to outline? Yeah, me neither.), it’s more of a synopsis or description, but chronologically ordered.
From there, I grouped the ideas into three main sections, and created empty chapter headings (the section organization was there because it made sense for this book). As I filled in what was to happen, I adjusted the amount of chapters to fit. I really spent time thinking about the point of each chapter, and what I needed to achieve in each. Then I wrote a paragraph or more on each of these chapters—another synopsis.
As I went through this process, it really made me think about the book as a whole: beginning, middle, and end; pacing; characters; motivation, etc. It also allowed me to consider how I was getting to the end of the book—what was happening all along the way—what the ending should entail when we all arrived, and that what I had originally planned for the ending wasn’t strong enough.
Here’s the “not paint by numbers” point: a chapter is still a big space space to fill, and a few paragraphs of notes should be enough to keep you aimed properly while giving you a large leash to wander around. During the actual writing of the first few chapters I realized I still had a great deal to make up, details not only describing the surroundings but actually meaning something to the story (and I could return to later). But as I wrote, I always had the structure I had set down to guide me—am I on the right path, am I achieving what I need to in this chapter?
Along the way, I have altered my plan while writing, because I realized I had more to offer. I changed the ending point on a couple of chapters, and turned one chapter into three (while adding more action, drama, and promoting a couple of lesser characters to a slightly higher profile—which will be beneficial in later chapters). I felt free to do so because it still fit my plan, and enriched the story, while keeping the overall structure in place.
One final thing—when I feel like I’m stuck, or slowing down, I’ve found that I don’t have enough planning on what’s next. Maybe my chapter structure is too vague, or I’m realizing I need something more, but I’m not certain of what yet. Instead of trying to write through it all, I go back to planning. Right there, in the chapter I’m in, I’ll list out the next things to happen: sees this, feels that, does something else. Quick single sentences of upcoming events. After several of those, I’m good to go again—I have more structure to follow.
I’ve also tried doing this when I’m done writing for the day. Usually I stop, or slow down, because I’m running out of specifics, so I’ll put down some rough ideas on what should happen next—some quick bullet points or sentences—and the next time I return to the piece I have a lot more support to hit the ground running instead of stuttering along.
There have been several novels I’ve started over the years, and none of them made it past chapter three or four. I did not plan thoroughly, and the work went off the rails. I started a novel last summer or fall, and in a matter of an hour had written a few thousand words. I felt great, I had started on something that had been in my head for almost a year, it read well, but after going through it several times I realized the main character was already doing stuff she wouldn’t do. And the first chapter wasn’t even done. Fixable, certainly, but not without a strong plan.
Knowing what you are doing only enriches your process, keeps you on track, and gives you the needed pieces to continue forward.