There’s no doubt that National Novel Writing Month is a challenge. Even professional authors are hard-pushed to get 50,000 finished words out in thirty days.
The problem is sustaining it – and, also the fact that words are, in truth, merely flawed vehicles for expressing much bigger things. Not only do they have to be the right words, but they have to convey the right meaning, content and intent. There is a difference between quick-blat writing and quality text. And while the Nano organisers suggest that the NaNo novel will be more of the ‘quick blat’ variety, I figure the onus is on writers to be the best they can. Any time.
How’s it done? The secret’s in the planning – and in balancing that with the ‘seat of the pants’ free flow that gives a freshness to any writing. I mentioned last time about the need to build a character arc and story narrative together – starting with the logline.
Remember – in that 50,000 words, you’re going to have to convey (a) complete character arcs for your main characters, and (b) the story narrative around which those arcs are hung. The narrative itself has to have proper story structure which, trite though it may seem, actually does involve a beginning, middle and end – the ‘three act’ structure that seems to be hard-wired into us.
What then? How do you actually work those together? Well, more planning! All it takes is a single sheet of paper and a pencil. Yes, those things. And it’s important.
The thing is, most of us get inspired by ideas that relate to narrative – a scene, perhaps or a scenario. A setting. The narrative seems to come first, and then it’s a struggle to get the character arc wrestled into it. Or the scenario simply doesn’t suit the character arc. I think this is where a lot of people either get stuck – or end up producing a novel that doesn’t meet the criteria needed to get it read.
So I figure it’s best to try it the other way around. Set your scenario aside for the minute and do this:
1. Divide your paper into six squares – a table three columns wide and two rows high. No, don’t use a spreadsheet. Paper, please.
2. Head up the left column “Beginning”, the middle – well, you see what I mean.
3. Label the first row “Character arc” and the second “Plot”.
4. Now take your logline and write it in a single line spanning the width of the three columns. It’s important that the logline is correctly structures, “[Character] must [take an action] in order to [develop as a character] and so [achieve an end point].
5. That is the first broad structure of the story. It might even be all that is necessary for the character, just at this stage.
6. Now it’s possible to make notes about the actual plot, linked directly to what the character’s arc is doing. This is the point where you can draw on your scenario or scene ideas. Do any of them fit? Jot a note in the column where they’ll best go. Check it again. The story has to be structured to build to an exciting peak – with ripples along the way.
Does this work for you? Or a suitable variation? In this technique, the paper’s important. We are so accustomed to working with computers that they frame our thoughts, from the size of the screens through to the limitations of software. Pen and paper breaks that – subtly, but irresistibly.
Once you have the broad sketch plan, THEN you can go to the computer for the details.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013