Idea to Novel
These are a few notes to summarize what I covered in my class "Idea to Novel". I have included some useful links that might help you on your journey. Because this class is highly dependent upon where the students are in their writing journey, we may have covered more or less than what is listed here. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any questions you might have.
Plotters verses Pantsers- A plotter is someone who painstakingly outlines their entire novel, ensuring a balanced approach and equitable time devoted to different plot lines. A pantser (I think a plotter came up with that name) is someone who writes 'by the seat of their pants'-- someone who trusts the story to know what it is doing and allow it to write itself. John Grisham considers himself a plotter while Margaret Atwood and Stephen King are pantsers. Most people fall somewhere in between. I would label myself a pantser because I have an innate trust in the story itself and in my own subconscious to tell it. I will do some very basic outlining but I am not married to that outline if I find something that better serves the story. Being one or the other does not make you a better writer; you have to create in the way that is most organic for you.
Theme- What does your idea say? You know the story you want to tell, but what is the THEME? The story within a story? It's ok if you don't know this right away; sometimes you have to write the story to better understand what it is trying to say. Some common examples of theme include: Wizard of Oz-- There's no place like home, The Hobbit- everyday folk can be heroes, The Pearl-- greed can destroy everything. Often, a book is seen as having multiple themes. Another theme in The Wizard of Oz is overcoming your obstacles. When working through your novel, your theme will be like a compass that helps direct you. Your characters will often have their own themes that contribute to the story-- for instance, the Scarecrow-- who was always smart-- just needed to believe in himself, while the Lion needed to find his courage.
Outlining- Outline your story on a single sheet of paper. Write what the theme is (if you know), the point of view, and a simple plot line broken into beginning, middle, and end. Indicate the inciting incident (the event that makes everything happen), when the stakes are raised, the 'all is lost moment', the climax (the LAST exciting thing, not the MOST exciting thing), and the resolution. The resolution should resolve the conflict that began with the inciting incident. For example, Dorothy runs away from home to find a better life for herself but returns home when she realizes that home is the best place to be. As your story progresses, you can write out each character's story arc. These outlines will help you realize what belongs because it is important to the story and what should be cut.
The Sub Plot- The sub plot is a secondary story within the story. For instance, in The Wizard of Oz, we have the plot of Dorothy but also the Cowardly Lion who must reclaim his place as king of the forest (which he does in the book). You probably have multiple plot lines within your story, but they should all feed one end. They should all support the main idea. If you could cut out an entire plot line and not have it effect they main plot, then you should question its necessity or find a way to bind them together. The Lion would not have been with Dorothy at all if he was king of the forest. Bravery, courage, and heart are all things Dorothy needs to complete her journey. By reclaiming his crown, the Lion has shown that he has found his courage and that Dorothy is courageous enough on her own. His sub-plot supports hers.
Hooking the Reader- A reader needs to want to keep reading or they will lose interest. As a writer, it is our job to make them turn the page. The first paragraphs have to grab the reader. They don't have to be action but they have to be enticing. They make certain promises to the reader-- this will have romance, this will have political drama, this world has magic. Once they are sucked in, you have to keep them there. The way your chapter ends should want them to read more. We will discuss three kinds of ends-- the 'What happens next?", the "Oh you rat bastard/oh you glorious hero" and the "Soft close' which gives your reader time to digest something that has happened and put the book down for the night. Keeping up a breakneck speed is exhausting for both the writer and the reader.
Pacing- Pacing is the speed at which your novel flows. We want to keep things like descriptions from taking over pages, while we want budding romances to build tension and take their time. Americans have a different view of pacing than other places in the world. If you look at American cinema, for instance, the screen changes within three seconds. In Japan, the screen can linger. There are more pan shots. Movies can be excellent studies of story structure and character. I highly recommend the work of Hayao Miyazaki for anyone interested in a slower pace and how that can benefit the story. It seems effortless, but by the end of the movie, we realize that every second was important to the development of the story. Nothing was wasted.
Making Cuts- One of the hardest things about writing is taking parts out. But if a scene isn't doing the work of telling the story or deepening the character, then we know it has to go. In the Wizard of Oz, Auntie Em tells Ms. Gultch she has waited a long time to tell her what she thinks of her, but being a good Christian woman, she can't. You could cut the scene out because Dorothy doesn't even hear it-- but it is important. It tells us that Ms. Gultch has been mean for a long time, earning her villain status, that Auntie Em is upset at the turn of events and yet is unable to do anything about it. This puts the imperative on Dorothy-- who knows her aunt when we can not. It shows that her home is loving. We do not see a scene where the flying monkeys are getting dressed because it doesn't lend anything to the story. We don't need to know anything about the Wicked Witch of the West except that she is evil. Because Ms. Gultch IS the Wicked Witch-- we don't like her right from the beginning EVEN THOUGH Dorothy just dropped a house on her sister.
Still, cutting is hard. I always have a file called "cuts" next to my work and put the cuts there if I need them. For the entire novel of Lennamore, I went back to the cut file once. But it is far easier for me to put things in there if I know I can retrieve them later. For every scene I asked myself-- what is this doing? Is this scene pulling its weight? It is best if scenes do multiple things. I call this braiding. A scene shouldn't JUST move the plot-- it should say something about a character or do world building or create tension or provide comedy relief. It needs to do work, even when it looks like it isn't doing anything, in the end it needed to be there for the novel to work.
Writing When it's Hard to Write- Sometimes, life gets complicated and we can lose our own time because we are taking care of others.There are times when this can be addressed by saying no or asking others to help with your burdens. There are times when necessities are unavoidable and you have to put off writing. During these times, we can do a lot mentally to keep us moving forward. I often run plot or character arcs while I am driving-- talking to myself like a madwoman. On a walk, I might describe something in my head the way I would write it. If I am at a dentist appointment, I might chose to pay attention to the way things look and smell and feel so that I can retain that knowledge for later. A writer should always carry a notebook or have a running note on your device of choice incase interruption strikes.
But there is another way in which writing can be hard. Maybe you have all the time in the world available to you but you cannot seem to write. You are distracted by messages and music and housework. The blank page keeps staring at you. The solution? Write anyway. Push through. Just keep typing-- even if it's "I can't think of what to write". Block everything else out and write. If this still isn't working, go gather experiences and search for things your characters might do. Research can provide inspiration.
Useful Links- Here are some links to places I find useful.
Steven Pressfield's blog. Mr. Pressfield offers a lot of very good and very free advice. It is skewed towards those who have more free time to devote to their craft, but his are some of the only books on writing that I would recommend purchasing.
Scribophile- If you are looking for a writing community, this is a good place. Even the free version is good. You have access to articles, groups that focus on your area of expertise, and other writers.
Brandon Sanderson's class- A well known fiction writer, Mr. Sanderson puts many of his lectures online for people to listen to for free. This link is for the first lecture.
Spirited Away clip- Video discussing how a scene where nothing seems to happen tells so much in Hayao Miyazaki's film Spirited Away.