Across the world right now thousands of people are typing, scribbling and dictating away, birthing their stories in a frenzied flurry of international penmanship.
I wish I was too.
I love National Novel Writing Month. I love writing in the autumn. For me autumn is the season of new beginnings. It's the time we should be making resolutions, when the light is golden and the trees are turning and the earth has brought forth its fruit. The nights are drawing in and a trace of frost lingers in the air. Now is the time to light the fire. Now is the time to write.
|Photography by James Jordan under a Creative Commons license|
Autumn. The writers' season.
Sadly, this year I'm not participating. For the last two or three years life has rudely got in the way of writing - manic full time jobs which use up every ounce of energy and creativity and leave little left over for writing. But somewhere, within that, I've managed a little.
I've got two nearly complete novels each drafted and redrafted a dozen times. They're like familiar friends, that I can dip into and move things along. I can keep my hand in. That's all good.
And I've explored ideas, usually in that odd, grey time between sleeping and waking where my brain likes to throw out creative solutions.
But I still have #NaNoWriMo envy.
That's what took me wandering across the internet in search of plotting advice. Okay, I can't participate. But maybe I can do a little. Get a plot down. Something. That was enough to get some ideas drifting about and that's what brought me here. To the single best summary of different ways to plot I've had the pleasure of coming across - kindly assembled by Chuck Wendig.
I've tried a lot of different methods - snowflakes and beatsheets and character profiles and post it notes and three act summaries. I've yet to find one that fits easily. Plotting, to me, is like flossing teeth. I know it's important, I just find it dull.
To me, writing is a bit like cooking. I like learning new cooking techniques and I love trying new food. My preferred way to learn is to come across something delicious and to say, "How did you do that?" I like to apply what I've discovered in different ways.
My favourite cookery book is The Flavour Thesaurus because it doesn't prescribe step by step recipes so much as advise which flavours go together. It provides a pathway to alchemy and empowers me to try new and different things, without having to copy someone else's recipe. My second favourite is Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course because it tells you how to cook.
One gives the bones, the other the map. The journey you take is up to you.
That's why I was so pleased to discover Chuck's article listing 25 different ways to plot, plan and prep your story. Brilliant. Because what it does is show that there is no silver bullet. There is no one size fits all "plot this way and it all makes sense". It liberates med from staring at facsimiles of JK Rowling's crazy plot spreadsheets and shows me that there are two dozen different pathways to travel. Best of all, it reminds me that some of the things I've discovered are legitimate ways to progress my story.
From Chuck's list, here's what has worked for me:
Beginning, Middle and End
I used to start stories only to find out they trailed off after 20,000 words because I hadn't a clue where they were going. I learned a bit from that. Now I try to have the absolute basics scrawled down in a notebook. It might just be three sentences but it roughly keeps me on track.
In the Document as you Go
This involves sketching out the chapter ahead as you go. This only works for me if I have the Beginning, Middle and End roughly worked out.
This means throwing down the dialogue and letting the characters talk it all out - then building the story around them. When I do this, the pages fly - I write really, really fast. It also helps me to get to know characters twice as fast as "interviewing" them or writing out character sheets - that feels so artificial to me. When I do this, I can get into the character's skin. It's like acting. It feels much more authentic. I then go back, add flesh, edit and polish - but the bulk of the story has just written itself.
And a couple which I can't believe I haven't tried because they seem so damn sensible and obvious. Number one of these:
The Reverse Outline
This means starting at the end and working your way back. I can't believe this hasn't been my starting point. This was the best piece of advice my Dad ever gave me (when talking about university dissertations) - start at the end and work your way back. I've heard other authors talk about writing the last chapter first. I've sometimes done this when I've got stuck in the middle, and I need to revise the end point to work out a pathway towards it. But doing it at the start? No. But now I will. This works for me.
The Test Drive
Doing this has never occurred to me but it seems like a BRILLIANT idea. So good, I suggest you pop over to Chuck's blog to read about it.
Thank you Chuck. I might not be NaNoWriMoing this year, but at least I am inspired.
A Thing I learned about Story Arcs from the BFG
Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo 2013
Plots, Portraits and Getting a Handle on your Characters
Three lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011