Friday, May 9, 2014

Planning A Novel by Rebecca LuElla Miller

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis and two novellas in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Writing instructors often divide novelists into two camps — those who outline and those who write "by the seat of their pants." The latter say they use an organic method of writing. The characters "tell them" who they are and what they must do.

I've long brushed aside such phrasing because it's apparent that the characters aren't alive and the thoughts "coming from them" are actually the author's own thoughts. Why, then, pretend that the story is coming from outside the author?

Well, maybe pretend is the point. After all, we are talking about fiction.

Certainly pretend is necessary in conceiving a novel, no matter what method the author uses to find his way. The seat-of-the-pants writers apparently write in a meandering manner, learning about their characters and discovering their story as they go, though they may complete scenes they will later discard.

Outliners, on the other hand, aim to accomplish the same thing by a simple outline. Some writers claim they cannot outline because they would become a slave to their plan. I can't answer for them, certainly, but I don't think the outline method has to be significantly different from the meandering scene-by-scene writing — just shorter.

When I sat down to write my first novel, I carefully outlined, as I always had with my non-fiction projects. The problem was, as I began telling the story, I added new scenes and unplanned characters. To compensate, I kept changing my outline to fit the new direction my story was taking.

In subsequent novels, I've created a thumbnail sketch of the story but only outlined in detail a scene or two at a time. This approach alleviates any pressure I might feel to slavishly follow the outline and eliminates the necessity to frequently redo the plan. According to novelist and writing instructor James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) — borrowing from E. L. Doctorow — this outline-as-you-go method is the Headlights System. You shine the light of your detailed outline ahead to the next major plot point, then write those scenes, allowing yourself to make any necessary changes as the story demands.

In my first book, despite all my deviation from my outline, I realized I didn't know my main character very well. He was an arrogant sinner who needed to change. But how did he get to be that way? What were his strengths that would win people over despite his weaknesses?

As I understood my character better, my writing became less generic and more specific, and I revised and revised again. But all that work! If only I'd conceived a well-rounded character before I wrote that early draft. As a beginner, however, not having studied how to write fiction, I didn't know any better.

All this brings to mind some of the writing instruction I heard in a seminar and even taught my own students: writing is 75% pre-writing with the other 25% divided between writing and revising.

Beyond a doubt, I work better putting a large portion of my effort into my pre-writing. Nothing discourages me more than not knowing who my character is or what will happen next. So I outline. After I understand the basics about my protagonist, I sit down and ask myself, what are the logical things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the unusual things that might happen? I make a list. I ask, what are the most likely things that might happen? These things I cross off my lists.

Next I decide what else to throw away and what to keep based on which things move the story forward. For example, I may envision a fun scene in which my male protagonist stops at a burger joint and exchanges flirtatious banter with the girl taking orders. However, if the scene doesn't contribute to solving the over all story question or in some other way contribute to the story I'm telling, it doesn't belong. I'll have to cross it off my list. After I settle on the basic plot points I'd like to include — the keepers — I can put them in order and then choose one at a time to expand.

I'm shortcutting the procedure, but I think you can see how much quicker it is to make lists than it is to write whole scenes which may or may not work. As I see it, working with brief phrases that represent the scenes I've imagined gives me more time to write and revise the story — the one I now know going in, I want to tell.

Author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson (Writing Fiction For Dummies) created a third, alternative planning method he calls the Snowflake Method, which gives more structure than the meandering seat-of-the-pants intuitive approach but less than the outlining process. According to this third way, a writer starts small, with her premise stated in a sentence, then expands from a sentence to a paragraph, to a page, to several character sketches, to a four-page synopsis, and so on.

In all these ways of envisioning a story, the author is imagining. She's creating characters and a story problem, friends and obstacles, places and inner struggles, a background and a resolution. In most instances, I dare say, the first conception of these elements is not the last, no matter what method an author is using.

The important point is for a writer to become aware of which process works best for her. Happily, the principles in this book are not dependent upon the type of planner you are. They apply to writers of all stripes, from outliner to pantser and all styles in between.

What process works best for you? Share in the comments.


This post is an excerpt from Power Elements Of Story Structure, available on Amazon as an ebook. We're giving away an ebook copy to one winner. Enter of the Rafflecopter form below.

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21 comments:

  1. I have recently started planning. When I was in 4th grade, my teacher told us to plan and I did it...but I hated it. When I wrote after getting out of 4th grade (which wasn't very often), I didn't planned anymore. Recently, I have begun to plan again, and its a lot more fun! I get to know and love my characters, see what they look like, and develop my story! The problem is...after I plan, I hit a writer's block and can't start actually writing the story. Do you have any ideas for how to get over this?

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    1. Alea, I referred a couple times in this article/chapter to "story problem." If you have a story problem, have your main character create a plan to solve it. However, make sure that the plan as she envisions it, doesn't work, forcing her to adjust or even scrap that plan for a new one.

      So let's say the story problem is, the royal heirs have been abducted. The hero's job is therefore to find them and return them safely. He needs to make a plan. How will he go about finding them? how will he rescue them once he knows where they are? If you keep your main character moving towards his goal, you should find the writing a lot easier.

      Hope that helps.

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    2. Thank you so much, Ms. Miller!

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  2. I think that planning is good to point, but when I plan to much, it becomes boring and the imagination goes out of it. Generally I write an A4 sized plan and then get on with it. It's mostly the research that I do, that's kind of how I do most of my planning. Is there something that I could be improving about my planning method??

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  3. I'm half seat-of-the-pants, half planner. I do plan, but it is usually just a very rough plotline. I print it out, and during the course of writing the book, I scribble on it, add new points, new characters, new scenes, and cross out old points. The whole book (mainly the end) almost always comes out completely different and the plotline always ends up looking like the victim of an angry two year old who got his hands on a pen. But I like it like that, and it has always worked well for me!

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    1. LOL Liz! Hmm... I am like that too, but I do my drafts on the computer. What I take out I put it in red, or delete it, what I add in the original draft turns white, what I add in the rewrite is blue, and on from there. It's very effective, and you get to see where you were to where you got to!

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    2. Yeah, Peter was doing one of B and W and it was around four pages long.

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    3. Well ... I sorta had it in a fancier, larger font so it technically wasn't THAT long.

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  4. I'm not sure what works for me. I once had a kind of outline (the main points I wanted to include in my story), but I didn't exactly stick to it, although it was sometimes handy to use it when I didn't know how to continue. But I also wrote stories (actually most of my stories are like this) without really planning scenes or something (although I think about a goal and conflicts and things like that, of course). So I guess I'm something in between.

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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  5. I'm a plotter. I've tried to pants, but it never worked. If you pants, I would highly recommend you have your three major plot points planned out and have an ending in sight. All the events should lead to that ending. Which, is why I outline.

    I outline character arcs, plots, scenes, and well, almost everything. I adore writing and this just makes it easier to focus on the writing instead of dreading, "What am I to do next?!"

    I've only realized how important structure is for a story in the last few months.

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  6. I don't exactly know which I am.
    This is the first time I've actually gotten anywhere with a novel. I wrote very, very, basic outlines for Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then for awhile I was writing chapter outlines - more like lists, really - as I was writing the novel. Obviously chapters farther ahead in the story. I almost never stay true, but it helps me to have something from which to deviate.

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  7. I used to just write whatever scene or two my imagination had made up ahead. I didn't know much farther than that. Now I have a chapter-by-chapter outline. I'm sure it's going to change, but it's better than nothing. :)

    http://teensliveforjesus.blogspot.ru

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  8. Great post! I'm an outliner, and I use something similar to the method you described. I really like the idea of making lists, and crossing off the most likely scenarios. Totally need to try that. Thanks for passing that along!

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    1. Thanks, Lily. That "cross off the most likely" was a huge realization for me, too. It's so easy to go with the first or second thing that comes to our minds, but that's when we make characters or include plot points that everyone else makes or includes. The way to stand out is to push ourselves to go beyond the ordinary and imagine. Hope to see some of your work in print someday!

      Becky

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    1. Thanks, Keturah. I appreciate the encouragement.

      Becky

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  10. Hey, everybody, got my first article published/posted!! http://bozemanmagazine.com/news/1/posts/2014/05/04/246_n-a-37

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  11. I totally write by the seat of my pants. I never try to come up with the whole story at once, I just pose interesting situations and see where they take me, how the characters develop. Sometimes things change based on research or a better plot opportunity but mostly it's just "he would do this in this situation" or "wouldn't it be interesting if"...

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  12. I write by the seat of my pants, for sure. It gets me in a lot of trouble though because I always write the whole story and then I get to the ending, and I have absolutely no idea how to tie all the loose ends together, so I end up going back and changing details so the story can end in a satisfying way.

    www.alicekouzmenkowriting.blogspot.com

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  13. That's really cool that you edited for Bryan Davis. I know him personally. ^ ^ I'm plantster. I plan very basic parts of my story then write. :) Good post! Thank you!

    Stori Tori's Blog

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  14. I'm a pantser to the core. Generally, I know how I want a story to begin and end, and then I make the rest of it up along the way.
    Cool post!


    Alexa Skrywer
    alexaskrywer.blogspot.com

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