Updates sporadically.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

So what's the plan?

The coffee is the most important part.
Now that I've spurred you all into action with my super-inspirational post about being a Doer -- let's back it up and get all cerebral again. It's time to talk about the planning.



Boooohisssboooo. Yes, I know. I get it. No one likes the pre-work. The only thing worse than pre-work is somebody talking to you about pre-work and telling you how important it is. Well, guess what? Pre-work and planning is important. It is important because, after the initial surge or energy around your bright and shiny new project you're going to find that the whole process starts to get dull. Your energy begins to dwindle, your enthusiasm ebbs, and the whole thing stops being a fun new game and turns into work. Eventually, you will struggle with your story. You'll get writer's block, you'll hit the wall, and you'll find yourself at a complete loss as to how to move forward --

--TA-DA! Luckily for you, you did the pre-work! You can just go back and reference where exactly it is that you're supposed to be going and, hopefully, with your eyes on the prize you can get there.

Beyond the obvious merits of planning when you're in the midst of the first draft, pre-work is also important because it can help with the "post-work" -- that is, all that writing and finagling and editing and re-planing you do after the first draft is down. When you're in the editing process and you hit a plot hole, or an inconsistency, or you're completely rewriting or adding in entirely new segments to the story *cough* then having some pre-work to reference back to is invaluable.

And here's an ugly truth you may not have realized -- pre-work isn't only for before the first draft. Oh no. First draft done? You've still got some pre-work to do.

"What??" Your indignant cry. "Well that's not even pre-work then! It's not 'pre' anything!" Oh poor, sweet reader. So innocent. So naive.* You're assuming that you had everything written in the first draft. I'm sorry -- you didn't. You're going to be adding in new segments, filling up gaping plot holes, retooling entire passages, perhaps changing your whole ending or beginning or middle. And how do you prepare for all of this? That's right. It's time to do some planning, or pre-work, to keep it all on track.

All of this pre-work and planning is probably the biggest "secret" of successful authors. To be concise and precise, a story needs forethought and effort. Personally, I had about 20,000 words worth** of work into my novel before I even started writing it. Words that will never make it into print, because they weren't meant to. Words that were written for the exclusive purpose of keeping my tangent-taking, prone to derailment, shiny-seeking brain on track. Do you need to do 20,000 words worth** of planning? God, I hope not. I hope I'm just a special case of hopelessly scattered clustermuck.***  Nobody should have to go through what I go through just to try to move a character from point A to point B.

Since I am an epic pre-worker/planner, though, I have a very thorough system, and I've decided to share some of my tips with you. I hope you find them as helpful as I have.

How to Plan Your Novel

  1. The elevator pitch. 
    This is where you commit to paper (or computer screen) the very barest bones of your story idea. Mine looked something like this: "A fantasy novel for young adults, takes place in a world where everybody transforms into an animal before age 21. Yanna, the main character, just turned 23 and is the oldest living human." Completely stripped down idea is what you're going for here. This is just to get your juices flowing.
  2. The plot synopsis.
    Again, keep it sparse. We're not looking for details yet, and any details put down at this stage may change. We're just looking for the general shape here:
    "Working Title: Growing Up Human
    "Plot: Yanna lives in a world where people are constantly changing into other things. Children’s aspirations are not to grow up and become firefighters, doctors, or astronauts but, rather, to become birds, dolphins, or cats."The transformation is unpredictable. It occurs before age 21. The younger you are when you change, the more successful your life is determined to be. Those who do not transform before adulthood (set at 15 – the breeding age) become servants to the human children who are awaiting metamorphosis. "Yanna is preparing to celebrate her 23rd birthday. She is the oldest living human, disparaged by the children and fellow servants, believed to be forsaken or tainted. She longs for the day she will transform, still dreams of what she will become, and despises her lingering humanity. But on her 23rd birthday, something changes in Yanna – she meets a young woman (Roran, 16 years old) who cherishes her humanity, and the unique perspective begins to take hold in Yanna, causing her to ask a question she’s never asked herself before – does she really want to change?
    "A traditional coming of age story with a fantastical twist. We follow along with Yanna's attempts to discover herself, her desires, and better understand where she fits in in her world, an at times dark place that also has moments of idyllic light and beauty."
  3. The character charts.
    Before I start doing too much planning, I like to learn more about my characters. It's important to me to understand who my characters are before I throw them into situations, because I want to be certain that they are fully formed and acting/reacting as they would and not as I would.
    This is the character chart I use for my primary characters:
    Name -- Role (e.g. protagonist, antagonist, supporting, etc.) 
    Full Name
    Nick Name(s)
    Gender
    Age
    Birthday/Year
    Marital Status/Sexual Preference
    Spouse
    Hair
    Eyes
    Height
    Weight/Body Structure/Physical Faults
    Physical/Mental Health
    Clothing
    Parents/Guardians 
    Siblings
    Friends/Allies
    Enemies
    Beliefs/Religion
    Career/Past Careers
    Dreams/Life Goals
    Speech Patterns/Frequently Used Phrases
    Hobbies
    Likes
    Loves
    Dislikes
    Loathes
    Fears
    Strengths
    Weakness
    Good Qualities
    Bad Habits
    Turn Ons
    Turn Offs
    Natural Talents
    Temperament
    Full Name
    Nick Name(s)
    Gender
    Age
    Birthday/Year
    Marital Status/Sexual Preference
    Spouse
    Hair
    Eyes
    Height
    Weight/Body Structure/Physical Faults
    Physical/Mental Health
    Clothing
    Parents/Guardians
    Siblings
    Friends/Allies
    Enemies
    Beliefs/Religion
    Career/Past Careers
    Dreams/Life Goals
    Speech Patterns/Frequently Used Phrases
    Hobbies
    Likes
    Loves
    Dislikes
    Loathes
    Fears
    Strengths
    Weakness
    Good Qualities
    Bad Habits
    Turn Ons
    Turn Offs
    Natural Talents
    Temperament
    Background
    Both Happiest and Saddest Moments:
    What is this character's major goal? 
    Why is this goal so important to this character?
    What is the one thing in the world your character would do anything to avoid? Why? What has she already done to avoid this? What do you see her doing in the future to avoid it?

    OMG, that's a really long list! Yes. I know. It should be because you need to know your characters intimately**** to know how they will behave in a variety of situations. There's little that's more frustrating as an author or a reader than when a character goes AWOL and totally out-of-character. 
  4. The opening chapter.
    "Didn't you just write a whole huge post about planning first and pre-work? Now you want me just to jump in and write?"
    Yeah, I do.
    Look, this is about how I operate and the process I've found to be the most effective. And getting the flavor of the writing is important to me early in the process. We already have a very bare idea of what the plot looks like. I don't believe in over-developing a story line before we know everything that is involved, such as the acting characters and also the narrating/authoring character. Your novel doesn't have to be first person to have a narrating/authoring character -- that voice is there no matter what. It may be you, it may be a character (name or unnamed) that you've placed between you and the reader. Let's not delve to deep into this literary theory and deconstruction muck, this isn't the place. The point is, how you novel speaks is an important factor in the way that the story will develop and be told.
    That is why I suggest getting an opening down on paper now. It doesn't have to be an opening that you use, and you can take several stabs at this. But now is a great time to figure out what the author voice sounds like, and what the flavor and tone of the novel will be.
  5. The worldscaping.
    The world is just as important as the characters, especially in genre fiction and extra-especially in fantasy and sci-fi. For you worldscaping, do a world chart not unlike your character chart. I recommend using the below:
    Basics
    Name of world/civilization
    Nickname of world/civilization
    Age of world/civilization
    History 

    Physical
    Geography
    Climate/geology/natural resources

    Natural Laws/Magic
    Physics
    Magic
    Noteworthy differences 

    Society
    Clothing
    Food
    Population
    Ethics/Values
    Customs
    Education
    Crime/Violence
    Social class
    Issues (hunger, poverty, drugs, obesity, etc.)
    Race
    Species 

    Sociopolitical
    System of government
    Reputation of civilization
    Relationships with others (civilizations, races, species)
    War or peace?
    Social classes
    Wealth gap
    Political parties
    Happy or political unrest?

    Religion
    Is there religion?
    Type (monotheistic, polytheistic, deistic, pantheistic, etc.)
    Multiple religions?
    Equality/Inequality
    Customs/Traditions
    Holidays

    Commerce
    Wealth  
    Goods/services
    Exports/imports
    Currency

    Technology
    Period/Advancement (are they behind us, ahead of us, comparable to a specific era?)
    Social/communication technology
    Weaponry
    Medical/medicinal
    Architectural
    Transportation
    Infrastructure

  6. The heavy lifting.
    "Haven't I been lifting heavy before now?" Sure you have -- but it was still more like the warm-up set. Now we do it for real. It's time for the heavy duty planning to start. We know the basic idea, we've got a concept of the plot, we know your characters, we know the tone, we know the world. So let's get down to it and plan the novel.
    An academic to the core, I use the same structure for novel planning that I use for essay writing. 
    I. Intro and "thesis". This is where you elevator pitch and plot synopsis goes.
    a. A major conflict of the novel for your character.
    i. The details of the conflict.
    II. First major event.
    a. What happens?
    i. The details of the event and the outcomes.
    III. Next major event.
    a. What happens?
    i. The details of the event and the outcomes. 
    all the way until we get to: 
    THE CLIMAX. And then proceed in the same format for the denouement.

    I recommend doing one of these for each of your MC's relationships, one for each subplot, and one for the overarching plot. Then weave them together in chronological order to create your outline. This is a great way to keep track of your plot and the minutiae. Do yourself a favor and don't slack on this part. Because here's a pro-tip for you: this planning document can be used to create your synopsis/summary for when you're querying agents later. You're gonna be so happy you have it that I expect you'll send me flowers. Or chocolates.

    Chocolates are preferable.




*So not actually saying this. 
**Haha, "Wordsworth".
***Not swearing is hard.

****Not like the sexy kind of intimately ... though, whatever works for you.


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