I’m breaking this up into parts because…I’m me, and brevity and I are not friends, and there’s a lot of info to cover.
I’m going to briefly describe ways to approach writing a novel for NaNoWriMo. I use a lot of links rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.
In my previous post I talked about resistance, and now that you are primed to fight the evil lurking within, let’s talk about how and where to start this project.
Writing for NaNoWriMo is different from other types of writing projects. It is fast-paced, and intense for a reason. You need to dedicate yourself to focused, creative writing time in order to get those 50 thousand words in 30 days. No editing!
That is the reason I participate. To quiet the inner editor that doesn’t allow me to get words on the page without constant correction. It is sheer creativity pushed to it’s max.
As I’ve learned over the years, my process requires a bit of prewriting. And likely, no matter what your process is, you do to. Or not – you be you.
A Word About Voice and Process
Don’t expect to figure out your literary voice right off the bat. It takes tens of thousands of words and a hefty dose of self-reflection to recognize and hone that skill, but you will get there.
Process refers to two things. One is an individual’s rituals and predilections, the other is the steps of writing. There are as many ways to approach writing as there are writers. For our purposes, I will be referring to the steps of writing, not Maya Angelou’s habit of renting hotel rooms, sprawling out on the bed, and day drinking – which I am totally down with.
To learn about the writer’s process, read your favorite authors, see if they have written books or blogged about their writing process. Research until you have a clear idea of how you might incorporate them into your personal writing practice. Again, it takes time to suss out and likely you’ll fuss about it for years. Pick somewhere to start and go from there.
A good primer on process comes from the two books I’ve already recommended, my go-tos on the matter, Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s Write Away. Each author comes at writing from a completely different perspective, one a pantser, one a plotter.
Here’s an older post on process with links to a few videos.
Beginnings Are Hard
I’m guessing you want to write a novel because you have an idea, or a character, or a message, or a moral…some inspiration that has pushed you to want to tell a story. Those things are merely the sparks, not fully fleshed out ideas, not the things that will carry you through writing an entire novel.
I’ve done NaNoWriMo for 8 years now, and I can confidently say that having a plan is much more helpful than a hindrance to creativity. Sure, some naysayers will decry the lack of spontaneity, claim plotting or prewriting in any form inhibits the muse, or corrals your creativity. That’s hogwash!
Writing is the discovery of story, the journey you are on, not the map you follow. You can stay on course or veer off the route any time, and any place. Because that’s the big secret to writing…DECIDING.
Decide – Does my main character like cheese? Will he fire his long-term employee over something trivial? Will she drive her car off a cliff? Should the children die? Which character’s point-of-view is more effective? Why should the damsel in distress wait to be saved? Decisions, decisions, decisions.
It’s all decision, and you get to make them. And unlike real life – you can take it all back and start over if you don’t like where you’re going or how it ended. Nothing is written in stone until you’re dead.
Begin The Beguine
That was my mother’s favorite song. I had no idea what a “Beguine” was until a few years ago. It’s a dance…shall we?
Our partners in prewriting are, CHARACTER, PREMISE, GENRE, STORY, and SETTING. You can start with any of them, but if you have no preference, choose premise. Go ahead, pick a partner and hit the floor.
I almost always start with a character. The character will have a problem or a need. There will be complications and conflicts thrown at that character while they try to fix the problem or satisfy their need. If there is no conflict, there is no plot. No plot, no story.
Once I have a general idea of who I’m dealing with, I write short stories as biographical background to figure out why the character behaves the way they do. What happened to them as children that causes them to react, act, and see the world as they do? Was there an event or conditioning in their young life that change or shaped them? I need to understand my characters motivation.
Then I make a timeline of their life. When I write the story I will add the plot points, other characters, and events. It’s a big visual help to me to see where everyone is and when they are in relationship to each other. I tend to write stories that span lifetimes. Ya’ll remember that time I lost my timeline? Oh, the despair.
You can use psychological profiles, personality tests, questionnaires, or worksheets to build and develop your characters. They can be a simple as age, height, weight, or as detailed as an FBI serial killer profile.
And, I repeat, ad nauseam “There is not just one way to do this thing!” Pick something and go with it. If it isn’t enough, add another method.
Character development links:
9 Tips for Convincing Arcs
Character and Characterization in Novels
Writer Digest’s Character Development Worksheet
Ultimate Character Questionnaire
Premise and Controlling Idea
The difference between premise and controlling idea is, premise asks the question “What happens when…?” and the controlling idea is a statement the writer makes to convey her opinion of the premise – the moral of the story. All story decision should be made to support your controlling idea…if you know it. Sometimes you don’t figure that out until you get your story’s first draft out of your head.
I am willing to argue that premise, (in film it’s called a logline,) and the subsequent controlling idea, are the most important aspect to writing and revising a successful story. Without a premise to guide you, how are you making the decision of where to go and what to do? Working that out before you write can act as the grease to your creative wheels. Might not be totally necessary, but it sure makes the journey a lot smoother.
The premise: What happens when… a man with no outdoor skills wants to rescue his soul mate who is trapped on a mountain?
Controlling Idea: A man can overcome any obstacle when motivated by love.
I have a story that started with this supposition: What happens when… a preschool teacher at a religious school is publicly outed as a best-selling erotica author? From that Premise, I wrote the entire story.
When I finally get around to revising it, I’ll need a controlling idea to pull the plot, subplot, characters, and arcs together to support my message. The moral or conclusion I want my readers to infer, that’s the controlling idea.
My first approximation of it is “When a disruption in education comes, not from a teacher’s moral choices, but from those passing judgment according to their values, society must fight for the rights of the individual.” It’s awful, but you can see where I’m going with this, my point-of-view is obvious. A bit closer… “A teacher’s private life should not be judged by “other’s” values.” Oh well, it stinks too, but I’m getting there.
Recapping: For the purpose of getting through your first NaNo project, a premise is good enough because you might not have the controlling idea nailed down until you’ve finished telling your story. If you only complete one step in prewriting, make it Premise.
A few links to help you understand Premise and Controlling Idea
They Are Not The Same Thing
Understanding Premise and the One-Sentence Story Concept
Finding a Successful Story Premise: 6 Sources
This link promotes developing your controlling idea to use while you write. I agree, it’s more helpful to have it than not, but don’t get stuck on that when you are just beginning to develop your writing process or project.
A few more thoughts…
Story by Robert McKee has been mentioned a few times in various links. If you haven’t read it, or heard of it, he’s kind of The Godfather of screenwriting. It is one of those book you constantly refer back to and reread. I don’t know many writers who don’t have a copy.
NaNoWriMo members on the boards are the most generous and helpful group of people I’ve ever come across. I have never failed to find answers to my question on the forums.
Please use NaNoWriMo threads to, get to know the community, and find interesting ideas and resources. I was poking around there today and found this amazing list by Samma Jaye, on the thread…The Writer’s Quick List which was under the heading Helpful Resource and Sites. It’s so comprehensive I haven’t finished reading it yet.
In the next post I’ll cover the other three steps in prewriting, GENRE, STORY, and SETTING. and I’ll tackle plotting as a separate subject after that.