Lessons from NaNoWriMo + Novel Plotting Spreadsheet (Downloadable)

downloadWhew! Did you make it past the goal line? If you didn’t, did you write more than you did in October? What things did you learn from the experience? This is my third year participating and my third year winning, finishing two days early!

This year was different for me as it’s the first one I’ve done since I’ve started taking my writing seriously and the first one since I participated in FastDrafting with Candace Havens (in which you have to write twice as much in half the time). My first NaNo in 2009 was an historical mystery and is accreting dust balls under my bed (it really is, I looked the other day when I swept my room). But, it did teach me that I could complete a novel-length project. I was so scared to participate, thinking there was no way I could write that much in that amount of time. In 2010 I still didn’t know what I was doing, and with a premise and a vague sense of what was going to happen, I wrote what became MUST LOVE BREECHES. Took me almost two years to learn even more about my craft and what things needed fixing with that manuscript, but I finally got it in shape and have hopes for it finding a home next year.

In May, I took an even scarier plunge and participated in Fast Draft and wrote 56K in 14 days (STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY). BUT, this time I’d spent a month plotting out my story and getting to know my characters’ GMCs. That experience taught me several things which I realized at the time, but several things came to light only when I participated in NaNoWriMo this past month.

I’m a Plotser

What’s a plotser? A cross between a pantser and a plotter, with maybe a wee bit more emphasis on the pre-plotting. With Hurricane Sandy and other circumstances, my new agent (signed only on Oct 4) and I weren’t able to coordinate on what direction to take for a sequel to MUST LOVE BREECHES. So for most of October, I wasn’t even sure if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. Then at the end of the month, I decided to take up a premise that had nothing to do with BREECHES so I wouldn’t waste my time writing a sequel she didn’t want. However, that meant I’d not spent time plotting at all. I had what I thought was a fun premise and a sense of who the H/h were and so started one day late on November 2. I caught up with everyone over the weekend and was doing swimmingly until about Day 5, then my word count dribbled downward and things ground to a halt. I had no idea where I was going with this and I didn’t like feeling that way. This wasn’t the normal ‘what I’m writing is drivel’ feeling, I really felt like all my characters were just spinning their wheels waiting for something to happen. Like the plot. Ugh. A local writer friend sagely advised me to take a break for a week, two weeks, to figure out the plot and then do a FastDraft blitz at the end. So I did! I ended up creating a spreadsheet to help myself stay focused on what I needed to discover, and I’m going to share it with you at the end of this post.

Confidence

Her advice was great, because I knew from my experience with FastDraft how much I could write in a day if I really pushed. So I took four days off and just brainstormed (and created the spreadsheet) and I didn’t feel panicked that I was getting behind.  I knew I could write 3500-4000 words in a day if I had to and so I took as many days as I needed. I kept an eye on the NaNo ticker of how much I’d need to write in a day to finish and when it got a  little past 2K and I felt good about my plot and characters, I dived back in.

My goal

The reason I didn’t wait until 3500? Before I started, I’d decided to see if I could do NaNo without interrupting my normal life of seeing friends and watching the few TV shows I follow, etc. I didn’t want it to be all consuming. And it worked. Thanksgiving wasn’t harried at all as far as my writing went. I took off Thursday and had enough words banked where I could write below 1667 for Friday and Saturday (and just snatched an hour during the day to do it), and on Sunday I did my word goal in the morning before I had breakfast with my brother and sister-in-law and hit the road to head home.

The spreadsheet

Since I didn’t have the leisurely month to pre-plot and sit in front of my physical storyboard with sticky notes brainstorming scenes, I was searching for something to help me kick start this premise into a story. The storyboard/sticky note was too detailed of a process and I needed something more high level than that, but not as high level as the one sheet beat sheet created by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat. So this spreadsheet I created during that 4-day hiatus of plot brainstorming.

storyengineeringworksheet

The genesis of the spreadsheet is from Jami Gold. I took her spreadsheet, which is a beat sheet for your plot all on one page, but I added to it as I worked through what I needed to discover and there were also other plotting devices I wanted on there. So after a lot of fiddling, I came up with a Story Engineering Worksheet. It takes a page for each Act/Part (four total) and is based heavily on Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, with spaces for you to scribble in the H/h’s default third dimension of character and what the new third dimension will be at the end (their character arc). I’m also heavily influenced by Alexandra Sokoloff‘s Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II and so I created spaces for you to write in the thematic words/image system you want to use for each act. The guts of it, however, comes from Jami Gold and her beat sheet, which pulls from Elizabeth Davis’ Save the Cat Beat Sheet. Thanks you two!

If you haven’t read any of these books, you need to! And some of the things on this worksheet will not make as much sense without having read them. If you have, then this worksheet will help pull all that knowledge into one spot and remind you what you need for each phase of the story.

Hope you like it! Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have!

So what incidental goals did you have for NaNo? What things did you learn about yourself and your writing process?

 

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Star Wars parody of Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janice Joplin

Writing and the Writing Life:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this, a parody of Gotye’s music video, “Somebody That I Used To Know” (h/t Stubby the Rocket):

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to a Sendak/Avengers Mashup

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Take a Chance on Me” ABBA

Writing and the Writing Life:

Jane Austen:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this:

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to Making Sure You Have the Right Batman

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Lakme” from The Hunger soundtrack

Writing and the Writing Life:

Ada Lovelace:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this. Make sure you book the right Batman (h/t Stubby the Rocket):

Weekend Grab Bag – From Writing Tips to a Queen Riding Darth

Song playing right now on my playlist: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” R.E.M.

Writing and the Writing Life:

Romance Writers

Ada Lovelace:

Jane Austen:

Browncoats:

In Geekdom:

  • And I’ll leave you with this, Queen’s Freddie Mercury riding the Darth (h/t Stubby the Rocket):

Pantsers – Done with your first draft and not sure what to do with the god-awful mess?

imageYou’ve finally finished your first draft and you’re ecstatic. You should be! Many aspiring writers never get that far!

Go out and celebrate!

As many writers will tell you, take a break. Long enough to forget the little details. Week, two weeks. A month.

Then do a reread (without editing!)

Did you flip out at how much work you have to do? Are you staring at it, wanting to shove it under your bed and just forget about it permanently because it would be just too much work to fix?

You are not alone. Pantsers have this trouble more than plotters, but as Stephen King said ‘all first drafts are piles of %&^%^’ (or something like that).

Knowing that, though, and then wondering how the heck you’re going to tackle it is daunting. How you need to approach it is like a trauma surgeon in ER– tackle the crucial, bleeding parts and amputate/bandage as needed. No use polishing prose on stuff that will need to be cut. So how to analyze? Focus gobbling up any and all craft books on plotting and do the work that plotters actually do before they start to write. Basically, you’ve created a novel length outline/synopsis and now you need to create a structure. (Plotters, you can keep snickering. We know we’ve created more work for ourselves)

There are many things to do, but I will focus on one craft book today to illustrate. The book most people recommend is Blake Snyder‘s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, but I would like to focus on a successful fiction writer who applies the screenwriting tips to novels, Alexandra Sokoloff. She takes a lot of Snyder’s tips, but expands on them. One of her screenwriting tips is the use of 8 sequences, spread through the 3 Act structure. In the picture above, you’ll see my storyboard with colored stickies for each scene that I created after reading her book. The board itself is not only divided up into the 3 Act structure (with Act 2 divided in half) but also divided by sequences. Each sequence should have a climax too.

She has written two e-books on story structure: Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) and Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II. I hate reading craft books on my Kindle, it’s just so cumbersome to me, but it’s the only version she currently has. I did ask her about print versions, and she’s hoping to have those available maybe by the end of the year. Anyway, if you’re a romance writer, you might want to skip the first book and just get Writing Love, as it’s the same as the first one, but expanded to include elements for love stories.

What I loved about the books, besides breaking up the traditional three-act structure into eight parts, is that she goes into more detail than Snyder on what elements need to be in place in each act. There’s also fun homework, like watching movies and seeing how, on cue, the sequence climax falls exactly where it should almost to the minute. In a 2-hour movie, the first sequence climax will be at the 15 minute mark, and then the Act One climax will be at 30 minutes, etc.

image

So, I made stickies on my board (blue for hero’s POV and pink for heroine’s) and then wrote down what happened and stuck them up on my new board (which I can now re-use for new WIPs). I then went over all of her elements to see if I was missing anything. Boy, was I! It really helped me pull it into shape big-picture wise, but it also helped me add subtle layers of subtext. Pictured here is a closeup of some stickies where I wrote the elements in all caps on the appropriate sticky.

I can’t say enough about how helpful this book was. There’s more to it than just this. She also delves into theme, and insuring you have a consistent thematic image system and how to engage readers with visual storytelling.

Her blog has all of it on there for free, if you’re short on cash, but I found it handier (Kindle still easier to absorb this stuff than clicking through web page links) to get the e-books.

How about you? Are you a pantser and do these things that plotters do when facing revisions? What’s your favorite craft book? Have you used Sokoloff’s tips?

Want your theme? Your subconscious will eventually grab you by your short and curlies

To her surprise,  Bella finds the foot she'd misplaced two years ago. I’m knee-deep in my fourth draft when lo and behold, out pops my theme. It was freaking amazing how it felt, too, so I scribbled it down and realized that I already had so many elements in place it was a wonder I hadn’t gotten whiplash from it hitting me in the face before.

Are you a pantser like me still struggling with finding your theme during revision? I’ll share what I did that made it so glaringly obvious.

Lots of craft books on theme always say not to force it, that it will just come to you, and after a year and three drafts when it hadn’t, I had started reading that advice and saying, “Yeah, right. Pfft.” Finally, I settled for something like “love conquers time,” but it just didn’t ring my bells.

Meanwhile, I’ve been entering some RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) Chapter contests (three to date) and one of them required a synopsis. Gasp! I knew I had to do one of these dreaded things eventually so I sat down and read up on best practices, did some brainstorming exercises to help boil the plot down to its essentials and hammered one out, sat on it, researched some more, revised it, brainstormed, posted it for review, etc.

It was during one of those moments when I was looking at the macro structure of my story that I realized my theme. And then I made bullet points of every single way that theme was a part of my story already, and I was bowled over. I swear, it was like I’d planned it the whole time! The craft books were right!

One of the craft books I’m working with right now is Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff and among other tips, she’d advised making a list of thematic words that will convey what the story is about so that you can start assembling a visual library in your mind as well as vocabulary you want to incorporate. So I did that and went back to my revisions and it really helped tighten my first chapter. Who knows if anyone will really get that I chose the visuals and setting specifically as subtext for my theme, but it’s now there and it feels great. It will also help me make final decisions on some backstory and as well as see that certain paragraphs aren’t really necessary – they’re now just clutter. I’m also keeping the theme and my word list handy as I work through my fourth draft to see if there are ways for me to strengthen my scenes and prose.

It’s also helped me to strengthen my logline/pitch, and when I get closer to the query stage, I’ll be sure to have it in there.

One thing I want to make certain I don’t do, is hit the reader over the head with it though. I feel it should be something that’s just lying there under the surface, helping to buoy them along as they read.

How about you? Plotters, is this another instance where you’re shaking your head at us poor pantsers? Pantsers, have you also struggled with your theme and how did it come to you? How do you ensure you haven’t been too obvious with it? Readers, do you like trying to find the theme?