I’m going to copy and paste what I sent to my therapist on Wednesday because I feel like it’s solid gold. It really captured a big moment in my NaNoWriMo journey this year!
“I need to say that I am really, really proud of myself! Incredibly proud of myself.
Somewhere around 6 weeks ago, I got the seed of a story idea and decided I wanted to do NaNoWriMo. I started formulating a plan. I got out my best writing book, reread it, took the advice to heart, and started planning based on that. Then I read another writing book and continued planning.
At any point, I could have stopped. Planning isn’t required. None of this is required. All of this is for fun. But I set my own deadlines and I met them ahead of schedule.
Two days before NaNoWriMo, and there is no more planning I can do.
I’m done. I did it!! I actually did it!
Right now I’m having fun watching some of my favorite movies that give me some creative inspiration for my characters, dialogue, action, etc. And I’m going over my chapter synopses adding a few more things here and there.
But I don’t feel the need to add anything more because I know for sure I’m at the point where the rest of it will definitely come while I’m writing. I have the foundation, the framing, the electrical work, the plumbing, the windows, the roof, the flooring… the rest should come together fairly easy!
I did it. I set my own goals, made my own plans, and hit my own deadlines!”
What kind of planning do I do? All of this comes from Lisa Cron’s books “Story Genius” and “Wired for Story.” Some of this I won’t be able to flesh out too much because of potential copyright issues, and I would much rather you get Lisa’s books anyway! Trust me, you want the whole book, not just a quick blurb from me. The books are worth it!
I wrote out what I’ve done over the last 6 weeks, and it was 12 steps:
1. Seed of an idea. The seed of my current story idea came from something I noticed with a Facebook algorithm change. I won’t say too much, but basically I started wondering what would happen if that Facebook algorithm change translated to real life!
2. What if? Why? And so? Did you hear the end of that last bit there? “What if… that algorithm change translated to real life?” A lot of people struggle with coming up with story ideas. Lisa Cron’s advice is to start with a “What if?” From there, you start asking “Why?” Why would that happen? And then keep asking why until you can’t ask why anymore. Once you get to the end of why, start asking, “And so?” Here’s my favorite example:
What if… there was a secret door leading to a tunnel under your house?
Why… is the tunnel there? (backstory)
Why… do you want to go down there? (character development)
And so… you go down the steps and into the tunnel.
And so… you realize you forgot your flashlight and go back.
And so… you realize the door automatically shut and it’s locked.
And so… you go down the tunnel, but in the dark.
There we go! Now we’ve got something!
More whys! Why… is the tunnel unlit? Why… didn’t you have your flashlight in the first place? Why… did the door automatically shut and lock? Why… didn’t you bang on the door to see if someone would come help? More “And so!”
And so… you have to feel your way along.
Wait!!!! Are you barefoot? Ooo… why are you barefoot?! OMGs.
And so… you have to use your ears to listen! What’s that sound? Oh. It’s just a cat. Wait… why is there a cat in an unlit underground tunnel? Flesh that out a bit and you’re going to come up with something interesting!
And so… you feel your way along the walls, following the meows of the unseen cat… barefoot… down the unlit tunnel… What’s that smell?
You tell me! Take the story from here and run with it! Are you smelling sewage? Falafel? Chemical waste? It could be anything!! But why is it there?
Just don’t go too far before we answer the next question!
3. What does my character want? What misbelief is preventing them from getting it? I’m not going to lie, this is hard. It’s also crucial for giving life, spark, and energy to your story! This is the crux of Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius.” Read. It. Read it!! Lisa Cron writes in a very conversational style and she has a great sense of humor. I’ve had people tell me my blogs are like sitting down and chatting over a cup of coffee. I feel the same way about reading Lisa Cron’s books! Go get them now!
4. The inciting incident and 3 turning points. This is not the inciting incident that starts your story! This is the inciting incident that gives your character their misbelief! And 3 turning points that drill that misbelief deeper and deeper into their psyche. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Go read “Story Genius”! Have I said it enough? No? Go read Story Genius!!
5. Character Profiles. I do very in depth character profiles. However, I do character specific profiles! I don’t get into events or backstory. I don’t wonder about what their worst memory is or what their favorite food is. I do ask questions about appearance and mannerisms. I ask things like “What would most embarrass them?” because that can be very revealing about a character. Also, as writers, we need to make life difficult for our characters. Sometimes we will need to expose them to whatever will embarrass them the most. One of my very favorite parts of this profile is the extrovert/introvert; sensing/intuiting; thinking/feeling; judging/perceiving. Those are explained more in the actual character profile. Once you have figured out your character’s four letter Myers-Briggs personality type, you can go to 16 Personalities. There you can find pages and pages of information about what is typical for someone with that personality type! It is incredibly helpful for character development!
6. Backstory & Setting. This is where I get into backstory for both characters and for whatever nations, cultures, organizations, etc I’m working with. With settings, I work on things like having a loose idea of locations and general ideas of distances. I don’t get anything solid at all because distances are frequently influenced – if not entirely dictated – by the plot.
7. Very loose plot structure. This, for me, is a very brief outline. It’s the note card technique. I just write a quick line or two on a note card or small slip of paper. For example: (Character) goes (here) and is attacked by (creature). Then I can shuffle or move the pieces of paper – add something here or remove something there – to get my basic plot in order!
8. Plot Check 1. This is where I don’t know if I can show you verbatim, exactly what I do for my first plot check because it’s a series of questions from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius.” But basically I go through with each of my plot points and ask something like: (1) Why does my story need this? (2) Is it plausible? (3) Why is it happening in relation to my character’s inner struggle? “Story Genius” will really go in depth about each of those questions, plus how and why you need to be asking them of each plot point!
9. Scene Cards. This is also from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genius.” Read. The. Book! This is outlining on steroids and it is a thousand times worth all of the times you will swear in frustration at it! Lisa’s method here goes beyond the “What happens?” of outlining and gets into the consequences, the emotional meaning for your character, and then the inevitable outcome. Which shows you what will happen next in your plot! This keeps your plot pushing forward instead of just moving forward. Instead of “A happens. Then B happens.” This method makes it so “A causes B to happen.” Read the book!
10. Plot Check 2. Again, I can’t show you the details on this because I ripped a huge list of questions directly from Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story.” But what I do here is ask about 12 quality check questions to make sure each part of the plot genuinely belongs in the story. Does it have a purpose? Is it moving the story forward? Do we know why the characters are doing what they’re doing? The most important, most painful question? If I remove this scene, will anything after it change? If the answer is no, take it out. Your story doesn’t need it.
11. Condense into Chapter Synopses. This is where I go through and pull all of my notes from different places – my scene cards, my notebooks, my notes app, my plot checks – and put everything together in one place for each chapter. Sometimes multiple scenes become one chapter. Sometimes the emotional development from one scene belongs in the synopsis for another chapter. So this involves a lot of collecting, condensing, and shuffling. Once I get everything together, I print it out and read over it with a highlighter, red pen, and black pen. There are always more notes to make!
12. Inner Development & Fill Out. One of the biggest things writers miss is the inner development of their characters! What is going on in the character’s head? What is the character’s motivation? Where is the character’s emotional development? I know for me, I’m always thinking action, not my character’s inner world! Zuri did this, then she did that. Not, “Zuri was thinking this and decided to do that because she was thinking of…” Do you see how much more interesting the second one is? So the last step for me is to develop a checklist specific to my main character about her particular issues. Then I go over my in depth chapter synopses and look for where something might ping one of those issues. For Zuri that’s things like her abandonment issues or her identity issues. I also ask one big versus question: What does my character believe to be true vs what is actually true? Oh man, is that a good one!
Is this a lot of work? Yes! But for me it’s very enjoyable. This helps me find so much good stuff for my story! Did you hear that? Some people might say all of this planning takes the spontaneity and discovery out of writing. I personally feel like it’s the opposite! There is so much discovery for me throughout this whole process! I am constantly surprised by things I find! I keep a notes app on my phone because I am definitely still waking up in the middle of the night with zings of inspiration.
Do I plan every little bit? No way! I definitely have plenty of places in my story where I am flying along and writing by the thrill of inspiration. For me, my story is just anchored by the planning I do. Take the opening chapter of my work in progress as an example. The first seven paragraphs were very planned. Very, very planned. I labored over those paragraphs and each sentence for weeks. The rest of that chapter? Pantsed it! I knew what was going to happen, but I did not need to have that outlined and thoroughly planned out. Character gets chased by creature in the forest. And… go!
What about planning the ending? For me, I need to know the ending before I start. If I’m not satisfied with the ending of a story, I won’t start writing it. At least not yet. I might work on the story and massage it for a while or just set it on the back burner for a bit until I do get an ending I’m satisfied with. I know some writers like to discover the ending as they write, but I practically idolize mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. I might write fantasy, but I try to bring an element of that whodunnit style to my work. I like to leave breadcrumbs for my readers from the very beginning. In order to do that, I have to know the ending!
I’ve scheduled this post to go up on its own on Saturday morning. When it goes live, I should be deep into my second day of writing.
Six weeks of hard work and planning.
Now comes the payoff. If you’re also doing NaNoWriMo, good luck! I hope everything is going well for you. Happy writing!