National Novel Writing Month is coming soon, and many prospective authors are preparing for a month of writing. Some will choose to write off the cuff without any preparation (often called pantsing) while others choose to plot their novels out in advance.
Both ways are correct. Pick the way that works best for your writing style. I’m a plotter. I find this helps me focus on what I need to write and accomplish in each scene rather than trying to figure everything out as I go. This won’t work for everyone, but if you like having a guideline when you’re writing, this may be of use to you. Those who enjoy writing with little preparation may find the concepts here useful, even if you’re not writing down the details.
Everyone has a different process, so this is how I start conceptualizing a novel.
preparing to plot
Before I work on the story, I have some physical preparations to do. I don’t use a computer to store my story information. I create journals (or story bibles, as some call them) for the purpose of tracking characters, plot information, and so on. So, I’m going to take a moment to go over the materials I need to start the planning/plotting work.
I use Levenger’s Circa system (often with Staples’ Arc covers) to store my novels. Here is a photograph of one of the journals I have. To avoid Dae Portals spoilers, I have photographed my newest journal, which will store notes on a project kicking around in my head but cannot currently pursue.
I like the layout of Levenger’s paper, as it allows me to take margin notes alongside the primary summaries. Once I have the journal set up, I can proceed with the real work–planning my story.
The picture quality sucks, but it’s a purple leather cover with silver-colored aluminum rings. Each one of these journals is pretty expensive, but they last a long time and the contents can be replaced as needed. (Once I’m done with a series, I will to shift the entire thing to plastic rings and cheap covers for long-term storage so I can use the nice journals for the next project…)
I use Pilot FriXion pens for planning out a series. Having the ability to erase the ink is extremely useful.
planning a novel
what is my story about?
Before I can begin writing a story, I need to know what the story is about. Sometimes, I start with a single line of description. Other times, I write pages of ideas out. No matter how little or much I write, I need to know the following bits of information:
- Who is the story about? (A good series often has one lynchpin character who carries most of the tale–even if there’s a great and large supporting cast.) Sometimes, there are 2+ main characters. (Martin’s Game of Thrones follows families more than characters, since everyone dies in that series anyway.)
- What genre is your story? Try to get specific. “Fantasy” is a pretty broad genre. You can figure out the tone of your story by knowing what subgenre it fits into. An example of subgenre is dark epic fantasy or paranormal romance.
- What is your characters’ motivations?
- Location, Location, Location.
These three things are critical for me, so I’ll dig into them one by one.
Knowing what type of story you plan to tell is really important. Feel free to slipstream genres–which is taking two different genres and mashing them together. What’s important is that you have a basic guideline for the tone and flavor of your story. Your choice of genre can make a huge difference on the background and current mentalities of your characters. After all, people are the product of their environment and upbringing.
I mentioned this under the genre heading, but people are the product of their environment and upbringing. Ask yourself why someone is like they are. Is it nature? Is it nurture? Knowing the environment they grew up in–and live in currently–can really help you solidify what your story is about.
Main characters and character motivations
Since these two are closely related, I’ll handle them together. I need to know who the story is about. If it’s a romance, it’s the main two characters plus those who want to interfere with their romance. Antagonists play as much of a role as protagonists.
For the good guys and the bad guys, I need to know why they are doing something. Sometimes, the reason can be as simple as, “I love this person.” Sometimes, it can be as complex as, “I want to rule the world and need to do this, this, and that to make it happen.”
When I’m building a world and story for the first time, I try to look at the main characters from different angles. Here’s a quick list of things I think about:
- Personality type. (I use tropes and stereotypes to build a character’s foundation.)
- Age/Sex/Gender/Sexual Preferences/Physical Traits. (Anything that will change a character’s personality, for better or for worse.)
- Interests/Motivations/Goals in life. (Why is this person doing what they’re doing? Answer is usually here.)
- Background. (I look at all of the above and try to think about what sort of life this person lived in order to become who they are now.)
Now that I have an idea of the foundation work, I begin trying to figure out my plot. I like character driven stories, so that means I will often build plot and characters side by side. Without characters, the plot is simply a sequence of events. I try to fashion my plots where they happen because of the actions of characters rather than by happy accident.
When I started outlining the Dawn of Dae, I began with a novel summary. It’s actually fairly similar to what’s on the product page now, although I did have to adjust it to account for changes I made to the story as I got around to actually plotting and writing it. It’s a general guideline, so it’s bound to change.
Some of the ideas I made up as I went–others I knew before I started the summary. The summary became the heart of the first book–and a guideline for the rest of the series. I knew I wanted to partner some science fiction elements with urban fantasy elements, which is why the story takes place in the future rather than an alternative now.
Once I had the short summary, I began to write a synopsis. A synopsis is a summary of all of the events of the book. Take the summary (or back of book blurb) above and expand it so that all of the major plot points are covered. That’s a synopsis. The synopsis for the Dawn of Dae is eight pages long.
Once I had the synopsis, I wrote a three page list of plot events, character motivations (or why these plot events happened), and consequences of the events. This helps me do a ‘sanity check’ of the plot line. If I can’t come up with a realistic explanation why a character would do something, the specific plot point (and possibly the triggering events) is adjusted so the plot makes sense. Once I’m done, I’m pretty much ready to begin writing.
Through the entire synopsis and plotting process, I am actively working on figuring out my characters, what makes them tick, and how they’ll develop and change over the story.
I will often figure out their backstory while drafting the story. This helps me build circumstances of their past to fit with the choices they make. I know a lot of people spend an extensive time planning a character’s history, but I don’t do this–it ruins my ability to be flexible with them–and build a background that fits who they were at the start of the story. Yes, sometimes I have to change/fix the story as a result.
remember, your outline is a guideline.
Something new plotters struggle with is the concept that their outline isn’t actually set in stone. If something isn’t working, change it. Make a notation of the change you made, look over the rest of your outline, and ripple the appropriate changes throughout the outline.
It’s okay to change your outline.
Sometimes, you’ll have to scrap much of your outline to account for the new changes, keeping key ideas and reworking them. That’s okay. It really is. Your outline is a tool to help you write the story, not an execution notice.
If your story strays from your outline, change your outline to match what your characters are doing. Learning to outline anticipating how characters react is a skill learned with experience. If you lack that experience, you’ll make mistakes, and that’s okay.
Learn from them, make the necessary changes, and keep writing.
Good luck with your novel!