Tag Archives: Planning

Writing Into Submission

It’s Thursday, which means I should be telling you about a great place to submit your work. And I am, sort of.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo is a writing project whereby thousands of writers come together every November to challenge themselves. The basic rules are simple – you write a novel of 50,000 words, during the month of November. If you succeed, you “win” and if you fail, you hopefully had fun, learnt something, and written more than you would otherwise have done.

Around those basic rules, there is a huge container ship of optional extras for the enthusiastic WriMo. You can meet others through chatrooms, webforums, real-life meetups; you can change the challenge to suit yourself for example with a different world count or an alternative writing format … the possibilities are endless. Last year I wrote 7 short stories instead of one novel; my friend Victoria is this year re-writing  a previous novel, although she’s doing it the hard way – she’s writing it all over from scratch, using only notes and a plan from last year, and then hoping to combine the best bits of both drafts!

Equally endless is the range of writers involved. Some people take it immensely seriously, write a novel, edit it in the months afterwards and go on to either self-publish or join the traditional publishing model. Others never look at their novel again after 1st December. Some people plot and plan carefully throughout October, some are “pants-ers” and feel the story as they go, others use the dare forums to guide their novel, or follow the theory that says whenever you get stuck, you simply add ninjas.

NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun and a great way to kickstart your writing. 50,000 really isn’t as much as it sounds, but even if you set yourself a lower goal or miss your target, it’s a good thing to try. And you can get as involved as you wish – my first year I just had a few online friends doing nano and mostly flew solo, last year I was heavily involved in the Toronto nano scene. To be honest, I enjoyed it both ways.

If you’ve got any questions, or are wondering whether to give it a go, let me know. If you’re going for it, comment below and I’ll be poking you (supportively) for progress reports whenever I can. And if you’re interested in various ways to get a head start by planning your novel, be sure to stop by next week for a daily series on different ways to plan ahead for any writing project, including a crazy timed one.

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Planning: So what do you do?

When starting a writing project, there are lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is almost always going to be the characters.

I tend to write mainstream fiction, which means the vast majority of my characters are human beings, people you might meet in the street. Occasionally I might throw in a pet, or I might set the story in a place or time I’m less familiar with, but generally speaking, these kinds of stories don’t take as much world-building it would to write a sci-fi or fantasy piece. To me, that makes it easier, but in some ways it also adds a challenge. So many novels, plays, poems and scripts have been written about human beings, that it’s easy to slip into something that’s been done before or even that’s become hackneyed and stereotyped.

If I say “Priest”, you probably immediately assume male, Irish, Roman Catholic and possibly also quiet, gay… I could go on. If I say “Firefighter”, the ladies amongst you are already swooning. And if I say “Secretary”, you’ve almost certainly got a woman of a certain age wearing spectacles and a staid skirt and cardigan combo (or else a hot young thing distracting her middle-aged boss). Even more than names, we use job titles as a shorthand, and to some extent it’s useful and necessary. But when these characters become stereotypes, it feel to the reader as though we are cheating.

This is usually more of a problem with side characters than the main ones. We put a lot of time and effort into fleshing out main characters, showing them in different environments and with different moods and personality traits. But with the people they meet, we are often just looking for a cameo or a trigger to the next plot point. And this is where we need to guard against stereotypes, but without distracting readers in a long and complicated ramble about how this priest is in fact a born-again Muslim woman from Tehran, who saw the light, converted to Greek Orthodoxy, and likes nothing more than to sing “It’s Raining Men” from the pulpit on Sundays!

Like everything in life, characterisation is a balancing act – adding a single unusual quirk to our side characters can be enough to save them from being cardboard cut outs, and finding that quirk can be hard, but it can also be fun. It can also, mercifully, be saved for the editing process if something doesn’t jump out straight away, which allows the main story to flow, without getting bogged down in the fact that, for now, the secretary is wearing a twin set and glasses, with a pencil twisted efficiently into her bun.

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Planning 101

As promised, in previous posts (see https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/planning-by-the-seat/), I’m going to try to lay some groundwork here about the planning process for writers who choose to plan in advance. I am not advocating planning as the only method of writing, but when the project is big, or time-pressured, or simply when the writer has a good idea in advance of where the story is going, it can help to get that down on paper before the writing starts in earnest.

Today’s post is about Plot planning, there are other kinds of planning which I’ll deal with another time.

Some of these ideas are based on what is known as the Snowflake Method, which you can read about in more detail here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Stage 1: Elevator Pitch

When the novel(1) is finished, the writer may want to pitch it to a publisher, agent or editor. But even from the beginning, it’s a great idea to have a clue vision of the basic premise of the story. Ideally, we’re going for no more than 25 words and a single sentence.

EG “An old woman looks back at a love affair from her youth and the disaster which separated her from her lover forever.”(2)

Stage 2: Paragraph Pitch

This stage is in many ways just a part of Stage 1. The idea is to expand the single sentence pitch into a paragraph, but it’s still very much a pitch. It will still leave the reader guessing about a huge number of things. It shouldn’t be more than about 100 words and 4 or 5 sentences. It will start to identify the themes and focus points of the novel.

EG “Four boys facing challenges in their daily lives, learn the location of a body in the woods. Set out on foot to see it, but a rival group of older boys is heading the same way. On their journey, the heroes face experiences and dangers which test not only their friendship but their own strengths and personalities. The boys who find the body are not the ones who set out to look for it. This coming of age drama tells the story of childhood friendships and innocence on the verge of discovery.”

Stage 3: Paragraph Story

This is where the plotting really starts. Stages 1 and 2 did little more than identify the  themes and ideas. They were deliberately vague and enticing, but this is the time when that stops. From Stage 3 onwards, the plan is not for the eyes of anyone except the writer. It absolutely should contain spoilers and answers to the questions the first two stages raised. This paragraph should be around the same length as the previous one, but this time be clearly plot driven. The first sentence should deal with the opening scenes, the last sentence with the ending, and the middle of the paragraph three key events that happen in between.

**SPOILER ALERT: This example contains spoilers for a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard.**

EG: “A 19th century village, surrounded by woods populated by scary monsters that keep the inhabitants trapped in their otherwise idyllic lifestyle. A young couple falls in love, but a mentally handicapped boy who had hoped to marry the girl himself stabs the lover repeatedly in the chest. The girl’s only hope of saving her fiance is to travel through the woods to the nearby town to get medicine. Giving his blessing, her father admits to her that the monsters are not real, created by the elders of the village to protect its inhabitants from straying to the tempting but dangerous town. When she travels to the town, the girl realises that she and the villagers have in fact been living in a secret enclave in modern America, set up by the elders to escape the dangers and excesses of 21st century society.”

Stage 4: Expansion

From here, the process is simply one of expansion. Each sentence in that paragraph can be turned into a paragraph of its own. Each of these new paragraphs into a page, and so on. In some ways, this process could be repeated forever until the story was novel-length, but it is my view that to do so would be to create a much flatter story than is possible by writing more organically. Therefore once I have a collection of about 25 scenes, I tend to stop and write from scratch, using this plan as no more than a guideline. I might add in more scenes, or flesh some out more than others, depending on the flow of the writing and the scenes which lend themselves more to tension or action.

Taking the example above, this film incorporates a huge amount of set up; the first sentence alone takes up something like half the length of the film, with the second sentence creeping in and taking up most of the rest. The third and fourth are brushed over relatively quickly and then the final sentence is the denouement and ties together all the threads that have been spun out by elements either only hinted at or not mentioned in this summary.

Expansion is over when the writer says it is. They may do little more than chapter headings, or they may write a page or two of notes for each chapter. They may even not break the book into chapters until after it is written.


1: For convenience, I’m referring to the story / work as a novel. This could equally apply to a shorter story, a memoir or whatever piece of creative writing is being carried out. I’m not sure it works so well for non-fiction, but I imagine it is quite easily modified to do so.
2: Feel free to play the game of identifying the famous books or movies I’m using for my examples.


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Planning By The Seat Of Your Pants

We all know the saying, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail”. But in writing, there are as many views on this as there are writers – successful or otherwise. Some claim that an outline hampers the flow of the writing and is tantamount to trying to turn a novel into a mathematical equation; while others are equally adamant that navigating the plot, character development and themes of a novel without a plan is like trying to cross a continent without a map.

Well, there’s a lot more to writing a novel than just planning out a few chapters, and Lewis & Clark (or since I’m in Canada, Sir Alexander Mackenzie) will tell you it’s perfectly possible to cross a continent without a map, so I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

I’ve planned both my nano novels, but in both cases I found myself wandering off the plan at various points. And that’s when it gets interesting. Following the characters and events that arise in the story can provide some of the best material, but it can also take you down dead-ends and tiresome tangents. Personally, I believe in going with the flow – cutting out the chaff is for editing – and if it’s the way the characters want to behave, it’s probably a more reasonable storyline than the one you had planned anyway. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you have two choices: 1) Stop, go back to the turning and take a different path (then cut out the bit that went wrong later) or 2) follow the dead-end, then work your way back to the plot through a new and interesting connector.

For example, let’s say you’ve planned a simple love story. Girl meets Boy. Girl falls in love with Boy. Boy falls in Love with Girl. The End. That’s your plan. Then, somewhere in chapter 4, Girl meets Boy2. Boy2 wasn’t even in the plan, but here he is and now that you’ve started writing,he seems like exactly the sort of guy Girl would like. So, follow the path the characters choose. Girl and Boy2 fall in love. Then, if things work out, it’s fine, stick with it. If it turns out to be a dead-end, you can either cut everything since Chapter 4 and cut Boy2 out completely, or have Girl have a massive row with Boy2 and fall into Boy’s arms, bringing you neatly back onto your plan.

All of which is a tangent of my own, to say that having a plan doesn’t mean being a slave to it, but it does help to make sure the story is balanced (Spending 15 chapters on Girl and just having Boy wander in for the epilogue might upset your readers), has a plot at all (What if you just rambled about Girl and never mentioned Boy at all? Not much of a romance!), and helps to alleviate the dreaded writer’s block (Because you always know what’s coming next).

So having declared myself to be a fan of planning and then going with the flow, I’m going to run a series of posts on just that subject. They’ll be interspersed with other posts, but keep an eye out if you’re interested. Even if you’ve never planned before and prefer to be a pioneer, you might find something that works for you. Even Mackenzie followed a river!




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