Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writing a Novel (Part 2): Line and Reel

Hop over to Part 1: Ducks to see what you missed!

So you know why you're writing, and you've read books in the genre and have a feel for what the style is like. You're ready to start! ...Not quite yet.

There's this whole thing about "plotters" versus "pantsers," and whether it's better to plot out your novel first or fly by the seat of your pants and edit it into shape later. Fact is, even pantsers (the ones who are published) do some work before they start. They get three chapters in, say, "crap," and go fill out a beat sheet. Everybody does it. So should you.

If you're writing a novel for the first time, your instinct is probably just to write. You don't know what you're doing and don't know how to prepare, but you're not a bad writer, so why not just go for it?

No matter how good you are, your first novel will suck when you finish. You'll have to edit it to death. A friend told me only one scene has survived from his original manuscript. If you really want to get published, your book is going to need the same amount of polishing.

If you want to make it easier on yourself, you'll do a bit of plotting before you start. You can go crazy or just fill out one page, but do something to prepare. You'll save yourself work in the long run.

There are three categories of pre-novel prep you can use: beat sheets, plot diagnostics, and character interviews.

A beat sheet (editor Tiffany Yates Martin calls it a "plot x-ray") is a breakdown of the scenes in your novel. It shows what's going to happen when and to whom. It can be visual: I draw a plot map with dotted lines and arrows, because I'm an artsy-fart. But it can simply be a bulleted list of the major events. 

If you do any prep, you need to do some sort of plot outline like this. It'll keep you from rabbit-trailing and remind you of ends you need to tie up. Most people who avoid beat sheets do so because they're afraid it will lock them into a certain way of doing things. But a beat sheet should not be inflexible; your plot will inevitably grow and change as you write it. This just keeps you on track.

Beat sheets can be a page long or 12 pages long. Usually they're on the shorter end; the point is to give you a path to follow, and your writing will flesh out the details as you go.

Plot diagnostics are my word for the various questionaires you can fill out about your plot. It's simple to make one yourself: write out a list of important questions like--

--what does the protagonist want?
--what's in the way of him/her getting it?
--how will he/she overcome those difficulties?
--what skills and resources does he/she need?
--who holds those resources/can teach those skills?
--what inner conflict is holding him/her back?*

Sometimes I simply list every character who has any significant part in the novel and figure out what they are seeking. Keep in mind that what a character desires usually changes with the plot arc (the discovery of who they are/what they really want).

Doing this will keep your characters and plot consistent with each other. You won't run into problems where you're trying to force someone to do something against their character. You won't run into limp parts of the plot where the character doesn't want anything and is just sitting there. People are always seeking something. That's what moves the plot along.

Lastly, character interviews or a character beat sheet will show you who you're dealing with on the page. I don't personally do these kinds of worksheets until after the book is written (for editing), but many people prefer them to plot diagrams. Plot and character are hopelessly intertwined, so improving one will better the other.

To create a character interview, write down questions you might ask your best friend. What's your worst pet peeve; biggest fear; or happiest memory? Ask silly questions too: what's your favorite color; physical tick; or favorite animal? The little things help flesh out a character.

If all you do is character interviews, do them at least for your protagonist, sidekick or mentor, and antagonist. If your antagonist is a mindless monster, you may think this is pointless; but it will make your antagonist a three-dimensional monster instead of the same old bump in the dark we've read about a hundred times.

Another good character resource I want to throw out there is the Vices and Virtues worksheet over at Write World. It will take you HOURS to get through, but is 100% worth it. You'll come away knowing the top 8 character traits for your protagonist, and you'll be happier for it.

Work through one or all of these pre-writing steps and you're now ready to start writing!

Read Part 3: how to keep your nose to the grindstone and finish once you've started.

Word count: 844.

* Most plots involve layered difficulties. Let's say Genevieve wants to be a dragon-rider, but she doesn't have a dragon or speak dragonese. She needs to go to dragon school to surmount those difficulties, but because she's a woman, they won't let her in. Do you see the layers? First Gen must overcome discrimination for being a woman; but this doesn't get her what she wants, it gets her the tools to get what she wants. Next she has to overcome her ignorance, and then she'll get what she wants and become a dragon-rider.
This is called three-act structure or W-structure, and it's extremely common. The first quarter (usually) of the book is taken up with surmounting the first difficulty; with that success under their belt, the character goes on to overcome the second, bigger difficulty.