October is starting, which means NaNoWriMo is only one month away!
Obviously November isn’t the only month one can write a novel in, and October doesn’t have to be for planning. But historically, NaNoWriMo works for me in a way little less does. First off, because I can just put all my other interests on hold for a while and dive in. When I eat, breathe, and dream my story, when it comes time to sit down, I’m ready to let the words fly out of my fingers. It just doesn’t work the same when I write at a slower pace.
And second, I’m lucky to have an incredibly supportive NaNo group that helps me reach those word count targets. I’m kind of competitive. The first time I did it, I won on the 15th, just because I was racing so hard to win.
In order to write a book that fast, I have to do some thinking ahead of time. Writing 1667 words per day is easy. Having enough ideas to write 1667 words a day is hard. So October is for prep, and I’m working now on preparing my NaNo project, which will be book 3 of my Imperial Mars series. I’m really invested in these characters and ready to see them through to the end of their story.
So, what does one have to prepare to write a novel? Usually we think “outline,” but there’s so much more to it than that. Also, I’m absolutely garbage at writing outlines. Instead, here are a few questions I try to answer when I’m planning to write a novel.
What feelings do I want this book to evoke? There will be feelings from the setting of course. Feelings when we find out our main character’s backstory. And hopefully, sometime near the end, there will be a Big Feelings Moment when our character realizes what they need to learn/ kisses the person they always wanted to kiss/ pays the ultimate price. What feelings do I want unleashed at that moment? That’s the key to asking what the interior plot will be, and what kind of external plot we need to drive those kinds of changes.
Where will this book take place? Will it be in one small location, like a mystery in a single mansion or a tiny island? Or will the characters dash around the galaxy? At what point in the story should the setting change? A change in setting can be a good time to reset the plot a little, dive back into plot-related stuff as the main character tries to run from their feelings. Or it can just be a fun time to find out some cool worldbuilding details. I recently read Escaping Exodus, by Nicky Drayden, and the setting there is like a whole other character. Actually, scratch that, the setting is a whole other character. Anyway entire chapters are borne out of simply “here’s a new part of the Beast we didn’t know about yet” and I think that’s beautiful.
How does your world work? Worldbuilding is the intermediate step between vibes and a finished story. It’s where you work out the nitty gritty of how your world works. If you have it finished before you start plotting, it’s a rich source of ideas for where the plot might go. For instance, once I knew my Venus colony was in a blimp, I knew I wanted to have the final showdown with the villain on top of the blimp. If you know where wastewater goes, you might plan an intense scene in the wastewater treatment plant–or, conversely, you might decide that information will never make it into the book.
The other reason it’s important to do this before drafting is because otherwise you reach 30,000 words in and suddenly decide you cannot continue unless you first learn . . . all of physics. This will not do. Do as much as possible of your google deep dives in advance! Currently, I’m studying revolutions and how they work. This is not a thing I can do while also writing 1667 words a day.
Who are your characters? What are they like? What are their major formative experiences? What will they have to learn in this book?
Long before you even need to know what the external plot will be, it’s good to know the internal plot. How will your characters grow in this book? If you know that, you can decide what challenges you need to throw at them to get them there. Conversely, if you already have an idea for an external plot, you can work out what kind of internal plot pairs well with it.
Save the Cat is helpful here. That outlining method focuses on internal plot and the gap between who your character is and what they need to become.
First person or third? Present or past? Close or omniscient? Is your narrator matter-of-fact or poetic? How many points of view do you want, and which characters get that status?
What I call sketch writing is the tool for this step. I like to write a few scenes, things I want in the novel or things that might never make it in, in different voices till I feel like I have the hang of how the narrator would talk. Lucy, for instance, is quite formal and uses longer words and sentences. Robin is abrupt and cusses a lot. It takes a little practice to sustain the voice without accidentally dropping into my own voice, which tends toward the understated and tongue-in-cheek. I remember one time typing “I didn’t exactly care for that” and having to delete and put “fuck that” because let’s get real. Robin would say the latter.
Okay, now we can work on the plot. What happens in this book? What are the main character’s main practical challenges? If there’s an antagonist, what is their timeline? We won’t write exactly what they’re up to, but we have to know what it is.
Everything that’s gone before can help with this. If there’s a setting you want to explore, a worldbuilding detail you want to use, or a feeling you want to evoke, that can help you direct the plot. Even after you have your basic arc–N. wants to do X, but is stopped by Y and is forced to choose Z–knowing about the previous areas I’ve mentioned can help you add subplots, setting changes, and complications. What if we’re plugging along fine, ready to solve the problem, but it turns out the aliens have no cultural concept of a cease-fire? What if, just at the most crucial moment, it turns out the ship is out of fuel because we established early on they can only get it [difficult way]?
How could you sum up your entire story in a sentence? In a paragraph? In a query letter? I’ve said before I write the query first. If you have clearly in your head which plot is the main plot and can summarize it briefly, it gives your story a lot more focus than if you write the entire book and then try to pull a simple plot summary out of it. Your book will, of course, have a much more complicated plot than appears in the pitch, but knowing the pitch will help you center all the branches of the plot around that main idea.
So, that’s what I’m up to during this month of October. I’m hoping it eventually births some kind of eldritch horror of an outline, at least. As of now this book has no plot but “queers overthrow the government and then kiss” but hopefully by Nov. 1 I’ll have some kind of skeletal armature to hang my 50,000 words on.