Like many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about NaNo this year. Over the summer as I was revising a novel, I read up on Beat Sheets (Save the Cat and Story Engineering). I began reading some inspiring books by James Scott Bell in August. I’ve always been much closer to a pantser in approach, but the limitations of that approach have been evident as I’ve worked through some revisions, so I’ve been trying to find a new way to work this year. And, I think I’ve found it.
I won’t know how it turns out until January next year when I do my first read through of my NaNo novel, but I’m excited about the possibilities, so I thought I’d share some things I’m doing differently in no particular order.
1. Keeping a scene list. James Scott Bell recommends taking some time at the end of every writing session to take notes on scenes. This is one of the most time consuming parts of revising for me, and though I think there’s some benefit to rereading a novel to create this list, this year I’m going to create my scene list as I go. I haven’t decided on format yet, but at a minimum, my scene list (written on index cards) will include characters, objectives, setting, and obstacles.
I’m hoping this list will help me when I go back in to look at the structure of the book during revision. Time will tell.
2. Imagining alternatives. James Scott Bell suggests stopping every once in a while during drafting to think about the ten worst things that might happen to the character next. Then, you choose the worst things and make them happen.
Because I love my characters, I don’t like to see bad things happen to them, but my favorite writer, Kate DiCamillo, always makes her characters go through heartbreaking things, and her books are more satisfying because of it. So, this year, my goal is to let my characters suffer. Imagining the worst things that can happen to them at several points in the novel should help me increase their suffering.
Aaack, I’m having a hard time just thinking of this. Deep breaths. Okay, I will let my characters suffer. I will let my characters suffer. I will.
3. Music. Bell suggests listening to movie theme music that matches the purpose of your scenes. So I’ll waster, er, spend time this weekend downloading some movie tracks for drama (The Mission), hope, terror, despair, avenging, etc. And then I’ll have something to listen to when I’m writing the novel. I’m very influenced by music, and can’t listen to words while I’m writing, so this sound track ideal seems promising. I’ll let you know how it goes.
4. Jump start. Again, it’s Bell who recommends writing 350 words before you do anything each day. Getting 1/5 of my daily word count goal down in the morning while I drink my coffee seems like a useful tool for priming the pump each day. I’ll try to apply another trick that works for me, walking away in the middle of sentence, so that it’s easier to come back and sit down to work. And, of course, if I get twice that amount written in the morning (like I have this morning) then that’s even better.
5. Character letters. I often have detailed character descriptions before I begin work each NaNo, but though I’ve done some work, another idea I’m borrowing from the prolific Mr. Bell. He suggests stopping at points along the novel’s way and writing letters in the voice of your characters. Ask them what’s missing in their lives? As them what they really want? Ask them about their actions and motivations. I like that this practice also helps build the voice of characters, voice that will show up in first person narration and dialogue. Besides, it’s much more interesting than a fill-in-the-blank character sheet.
Bonus Task 6. I’m including this here not as a suggestion, but because I think I’ll be referring to it as we go through the month. This year, I’ve mapped out the major beats and listed some key scenes. Using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and James Scott Bell’s Super Structure, I’ve come up with a fifteen point outline of this years NaNo novel. It covers the big events and also has space for scene lists during the dreaded middle. If you don’t know what beats are, don’t worry, it’s really just a list of the major plot events that will take place in my book. It identifies the novel’s theme and then takes a look at how that theme will guide the character through the three acts of the story.
There’s still plenty of room for pantsing in here, but I’m hopping this big picture view of the book will help me make it through a very busy November. If you’re free this weekend and this sounds appealing, read Super Structure (details below) and outline as you read. If you’re reading this on Monday, don’t worry. Pants away. You can go back and apply these techniques to your novel during revision.
I hope you’re visualizing yourself working each day, picturing the words filling up your documents, and picturing yourself raising your hands in victory as you finish that 50,000 word.
Many of these ideas won’t work for you, but take what you need and leave the rest. Most of all, get ready to enjoy your words and the world you make in NaNo this November.
Source List: AN IMPORTANT REMINDER Now is not the time to read these books unless you want to choose one to read over the weekend (Super Structure would be great). But put these on a list for next year. These books will give the critical part of your brain a work out. All you need to do now is take some deep breaths, do some warm ups (character letters anyone), and get ready to write.
Bell, James Scott. Just Write. Writer’s Digest Books. 2016.
Bell, James Scott. Super Structure. Compendium Press. 2015.
Bell, James Scott. Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest Books. 2004.
Brooks, Larry. Story Fix. Writer’s Digest Books. 2015.
Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering. Writer’s Digest Books. 2011.
Snyder Blake. Save the Cat Strikes Back. Michael Wiese Productions. 2009.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat. Michael Wiese Productions. 2005.