Writing a novel is an intricate, complex machine of moving parts and pieces, tasks and goals. Of the entire complex machine, to my mind there are three tasks that stand out as extraordinarily important… the foundations, the tenets, of the entire process: Setting, Characters, and Plot.
These three tenets appear deceptively simple on paper.
A larger tenet looms yet higher, almost obscured from view because of its all-encompassing enormity, seldom in the limelight, often taken for granted, rarely recognized for just how vital it is. I call it Spark. (NOT the Allspark, fellow geeks… although… now that I’ve said it…)
Before we can delve into any one of Big Three, it is important to think about what sparks the movement within the machine in the first place. Think of the setting/characters/plot combo as the How of your novel… the (All)Spark is the Why.
In other words… where do the ideas come from?
After that lead-in and build-up, I’m afraid right now I have a somewhat disappointing answer to this question. During a lunchtime conversation the other day, a colleague asked me (innocently) how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. Turns out, I had an obnoxiously difficult time answering. The experience was rough for him, too, I’m sure. Emotionally harrowing for me, indeed. After a few rambling half-hearted expository vocal blerps from out of my brain-mouth connection, ultimately my coworker walked away from the conversation with… nothing resembling a true answer.
Since then, I’ve been wondering about my process, trying to pinpoint where they come from, those elusive little sparks that ignite ideas. Some are inspired from life experiences, sure. Some, less so (I’ve never been a post-apocalyptic pirate revolutionary, nor have I ever manipulated magnetic and kinetic forces via my hands, as two recent examples). As a fantasy/speculative fiction writer, I am firmly of the belief that you do not have to write what you know. You are not limited to the scope of your own personal experiences. There are some fantasy thought sprouts that can only be grown from the fertile soil of pure imagination, with a strong beam of sunlit possibility. (Oof. I’m not going to delete that metaphor.)
I spend most of my extra time exercising my imagination. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking fantastical and impossible concepts and turning them into relatable, probable occurrences within the scope of their universes. In order to do so, context is everything. (More on this in Part 2.)
The best I can come up with, to explain what happens in my head, is that once in awhile I see or hear something that clicks (connects, fires a neuron, sings a siren song… pick your preferred analogy). When it clicks, I am drawn to a weird little fuzzy place in my brain where I witness the idea materialize from the ether, and watch as it sort of crosses some sort of imagination bridge, growing more substantive along the way, and becomes a story.
More questions remain: How do I coax those ideas forward? How do I pick and choose which idea to coax forward? Why do some cross over into Novel Land, where others stay in the gray and abstract Land of the Unrealized?
And now there are too many weird analogies in this post.
But along those lines, I can’t be sure I even know how I recognize the ideas, when they’re little fledglings, forlorn half-formed storylings. I’ve spent So. Much. Time. trying to hash this out. With only a few paragraphs left in this post, you may yet be completely confused. I am, too. But as difficult as all of this has been to articulate, I’m hopeful the answers might emerge from this miniseries of blog posts, answers that could hopefully address how the Spark manifests itself in my process, within the context of the stories I’m writing right now. I’ll draw examples from those stories when relevant.
And so, this is an experiment of sorts, dear readers. A real-time study of one writer figuring out The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen, According to Herself. But what I’d love is to foster conversation (and further introspection) about what our own processes entail, what the Spark demands of each of us. So please, please, PLEASE sound off in the comments if you have anything to add!
Now, on to the Big Three: Setting, Characters, and Plot.
Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)
I’m ridiculously excited this year, after the learning experience (see: procrastination debacle) of National Novel Writing Month 2014, and here’s why.
First, a quick recap: National Novel Writing Month takes place November 1-30 every year, where writers of all publication status come together from across the globe and form a writing community of participants that are each focused on one crazy primary task: to write 50,000 words of a new novel by the end of the month. There are a number of preparation tools, webinars, forums and other support resources offered throughout the month, and participants can choose their own pace, and methods, and level of active participation with others in the community. The end goal, of course, remains the same: 50,000 words. I attempted NaNoWriMo last year, and failed quite miserably. This year will be different.
NaNo writers, according to the NaNo Powers That Be, tend to fall into one of two categories: Pantsers and Planners. But of course, as we are all wonderfully diverse human beings, there is a spectrum.
The laissez-faire-leaning Pantsers head into the month of November with relatively little (if any) thought to outlining, character development, or world-building. They start with a literal blank slate on November 1st. In some ways, I wish I could do it that way, because what freedom it must be, to be along for the ride as the journey starts (as opposed to steering the ship. Somehow, I’ve moved to a Ship/Voyage Analogy, which I feel better about. What kind of emotional baggage am I creating with “Gauntlet”?). I digress. The hardcore Planners, by contrast, bring to the table at least some tools they’ve constructed in the preceding months. Character profiles and/or outlines are common. World-building worksheets can be helpful. This year, I have all three.
Last year I was a Pantser. I had an idea that I loved and a world that I’d built, but hadn’t thought much about my characters or the story I wanted to tell within that world. Result? A really nice little outline and 7,000 words that were okay. Now that I’ve had a year to get to know (in a sense) who my characters are, I have a pretty good idea how they’ll react to each other when I throw them into the beautifully-strange-yet-impossibly-dangerous scenario that is my plot outline. I created a writing “soundtrack” (a playlist of songs I play to visualize certain scenes in the plot… I KNOW I’m not the only writer who does this). I spent the last few months giving the “elevator speech” version of my plot summary to friends, family, anyone who would listen, to gauge reactions. You can get a sense of what I’ve been telling people if you visit the project page for more information. In a lot of cases, the elevator speech (a minute or so of describing the plot) turned into an hour-long conversation about the particulars of the world I’d built, who the characters were, what they were to each other and what I was planning to do with them (see: to them). That interest made the writer in me jump around and pump her fist in the air. Where the story is concerned, I’m feeling pretty damn ready.
To succeed – or “win” – at National Novel Writing Month, the NaNo Powers That Be give you a decent amount of advice, support and guidelines for success (most of which are experientially proven). One of those guidelines is the infamous Word Count (you can find mine at the bottom of the Home Page of this website). This tool allows you to update your daily cumulative word count, and then adjusts the stats for you: for example, how many words per day you need to average for the rest of November to hit at least 50,000 by the end (generally, this is 1,667 words per day, and is adjusted depending on the word counts you post on preceding days). The stats page was a significant road block for me last year. I’d catch myself staring at the little line on the graph, willing it to move at a northeasterly upward slant, while the early dredges of my novel sat open but untouched in Microsoft Word. This year, however, I’ve decided to give it the attention it deserves: one visit per day, at the end of the day, when I plug in the new numbers.
The last essential fact to understand, when attempting NaNoWriMo, is that winning it is HARD. Just hard. Life happens, hugely and frequently. Work, kids, pets, etc. can get in the way of 1,667 words per day, much easier than you think. Last year, I had a 40-hours-per-week job and a new puppy who quickly snapped up the remaining evening and weekend hours. Committing to a NaNo win takes more dedication and discipline than I was prepared for, especially as a Pantser. This year, armed with my prep tools and with a 20-hours-per-week work commitment (the pup is still a massive time-suck, but she’s trying to be a lot better about it).
After today, Day One of NaNoWriMo 2015, I know for a fact that – for myself and with the prep legwork I’ve done – hitting the daily word count quota is entirely possible. As I was writing this afternoon, I’d gone 500 words over my daily quota (1,667 words) before I’d even noticed. I’m heartily reassured by these events. I feel good knowing I have a strong story outline and positive feedback in my corner. Where the ability is concerned, I’m feeling more than ready. And beyond the capability aspect, win or lose, 50,000 words or more, or less… I’m just plain excited to tell this story.
To everyone who is participating in this year’s National Novel Writing Month and would like to connect, you can find me at http://nanowrimo.org/participants/jenanderson. If you have not yet signed up (it’s not too late!) or would like to learn more about NaNoWriMo, visit nanowrimo.org.