NaNoWriMo is on the horizon.
For those of you unfamiliar with this blitzkrieg-style month of frantic writing, the idea is to write a 50,000 word novel from start to finish between the first and last days of November. Sound batty? It is. Is it possible? Well, thousands of people manage it every year with only minor post-traumatic stress.
I did it for the first time last year and won (which is to say, I finished). Some of you were around and participated in my Emmie’s NaNoRebel Challenge, in which we worked on existing novels instead of starting new ones. Most of my books tend to be between 80,000-100,000 words, so that necessitates a bit more than the 50K requirement.
This year, I’d planned to resurrect a novel idea I had several years ago. It will probably still get written at some point, but with me hunkered down in the query trenches for Shrike, I found writing a dystopian a little too depressing when held up next to the Great Silence of the Inbox.
I have several other story ideas flouncing about my brain, so I thought that today I’d talk about how I decided to target one of them.
Writers usually have a laundry list of concepts (novels-to-be) either between synapses or on paper or hard drive somewhere, but singling one out for the intense effort of crafting a book from it can be difficult and cause IBS. How do you know which premise is compelling? How do avoid choosing dead genres? How do you get through this without disemboweling yourself with a bamboo letter opener?
This was my process.
I sifted through several. One was the post-apocalyptic dystopian exodus story, another a zombie apocalypse survivor story with a food service worker as the protagonist (yes, I thought it would be funny, and yes, I am a server), and another was a sort of demony story about a group of people that literally balance the cosmic scales by slaying demons.
The first was too bleak, the second too vague. The third caught my attention again after a long while. I wrote the first three chapters four years ago, and to my surprise, they work.
The main concept of the book I chose was that my protagonist lives in a very black and white world where her physical actions stop mayhem and keep the world from tilting into hell. And then something happens and mixes the sides of it together. I’m always a fan of black and white turning to shades of grey (and NOT like that book), so yeah. It hooked me. Plus, I know the main character has a strong voice, and strong voice is something that adds little sticky barbs to a decent hook and makes it great.
Who is the antagonist, and what does he or she want? In this case, there are several. There are the demons, who want the humans dead and who want to be able to walk in sunlight. And there are other human antagonists who both muddy the waters and have their own agendas. There are enough layers of conflict that can be further deepened and textured into a rich array of plotly bickering. The antagonist/antagonising forces form the spine of a novel. Without them, your protagonist is just flopping around.
If you can’t put a finger on the opposing forces in a novel, you’ve got a big problem, and maybe you need to go with another premise.
Pantser or plotter, it’s a whole lot easier to figure out what your book’s about before you write it. It also makes the writing more cohesive when you get there. I’ve begun to write loglines for my books before I write them, just to give me a starting point. Plus, then I have it later to expand into a query or synopsis or cover copy or whatever I might need it for.
A demon-fighter puts down her sword to search for a group of missing women believed to be the catalysts of a new demon race.
It’s not perfect, but it’s something to go on.
This’ll make pantsers hate me. Hey, I used to be one of you! My first two books were an exercise in a structural architecture built on toothpicks. I had a vague idea of three acts but little understanding of what makes a novel go, and I let my Great Dane of a muse yank me everywhere it wanted to sniff. Sometimes it led to interesting stuff, other times it ran around in circles until I realised I’d ended the book with NO denouement and no climax. Oops.
I don’t feel that plotting is as different from pantsing as either side would have it. Both let the story play out in your head, but by watching it unfold, you can see if it’s going somewhere useful or not. If it’s not, writers, you have the godlike abilities of making it. Of adding conflict and tension and complications and steering it where it needs to go. That was my biggest blind spot when I wrote my first two and a half novels. I just let it all go, and it didn’t work, and I thought I was stuck with it.
If you don’t know where you’re going, then you’re probably not going to get there. Very, very few writers can sit down and hammer out a first draft only seeing the paragraphs they’ve already written. At least not a first draft that should see the light of day.
If you ask yourself all those questions and still have a story in mind, you probably have the bones for a novel calcifying in front of you.
My process might not work for everyone, but sometimes even trying something outside your comfort zone is a good thing. I turned in my pantser card this spring after finding that plotting allowed me more freedom with a higher sense of security — because it liberated me from being dragged down a storyline that didn’t work out.
How do you figure out what you’re going to write? How do you choose between different ideas?
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