The Amateur’s Path: Planning a Novel

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Disclaimer: These are not my hands. Mine are decidedly less hairy and my tool of choice requires an ink bottle because I’m a pretentious snob.
Disclaimer Two: This is not a how-to guide, I cannot take responsibility if you follow my path and end up in a heap on the floor filled with despair and regret.

I have been trying to write this novel for nigh on seven years now. If that doesn’t tell you I’m no expert, nothing will. I have had the same premise, the same characters all this time but the plot, the setting and everything else have changed so many times I have lost count. The trouble is, I keep getting 20,000 words in, deciding it’s rubbish and nothing’s happening, lose faith in myself altogether and leave my WIP to wilt and rot for a year or so before picking up the pen and starting at square one all over again.

It sucks.

It’s exhausting.

It’s got to stop. 

I’ve been trying for ages to find inspiration, tools to help me thicken my ideas from the basic premise that I’m excited about, to a full novel that I will still be excited about after the poorly written, typo-ridden first draft is complete. To find this inspiration, I’ve been trying to find blogs of novice writers who are in the same stage as me, to see how they get excited about their ideas, how their thinking process works and where they draw their inspiration. I don’t want to copy them or steal their ideas, I just want to see if they way they connect their thoughts will help me to connect mine. These blogs exist, but they’ve never written about the process they’re going through in an instructional or helpful way, so they’ve been difficult to follow.

Disheartened, I turned to some of my favourite authors – N.K. Jemisin, Jen Williams to name just a couple – and went right back to the very beginning in the vain hope they were blogging on that particular platform whilst writing their early, debut or unpublished work. Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, they weren’t.

See, there’s this rule in blogging: be an expert, be an authority in your field. So people don’t start really blogging how-tos or processes until they’ve got some kind of credential under their belt. Sure, they’ll occasionally go back and give advice based on what worked for them, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and the finished article will always ignore the moments of agony when something just didn’t work and they had to go back to the drawing board.

So I’m breaking that Bloggers’ Commandment and I’m writing the process as I go through it, writing my experience of what’s worked for me and what hasn’t, with the idea that there is someone out there who’s just like me; someone else must be looking to see what people have trialled in the hopes that what didn’t work for that writer might work for them.

What Hasn’t Worked For Me

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Dude, I’ve failed NaNoWriMo so many times that it’s embarrassing. And that’s okay. There’s a theory behind NaNo that you just power through. If you have to write the word “elephant” sixty times in a row to get your word count down while you’re kicking your brain into gear, do it. If something hasn’t quite worked, ignore it, just power through and keep going. Your NaNo piece isn’t meant to be a masterpiece, it’s meant to be a foundation of ideas on which you can edit and create your masterpiece. How inspiring.

Or not.

Listen, daddio, I have anxiety and low self-esteem. If I spend a month writing 50,000 words that, at the end of it, are barely legible, there ain’t no chance in hell I’m gonna have the courage to sit there and filter through my month’s worth of waffle and try and salvage a novel out of it. Nuh-uh, no way, ain’t happening. Fortunately for me, my self-esteem is so low that by the end of the first week in I get so disheartened by the drivel I’m writing that I give up. Might sound negative, but it’s better to waste a week than a whole month.

After that week has passed, I won’t pick up my pen for the whole of November because it feels to me that November is only for NaNo-ers and I’ll still feel like I’m writing against the clock. So I tell myself I’ll pick up again in December. Truth is, it’ll take me to at least February to admit to myself that just because I failed NaNo doesn’t mean my idea is shit. In fact, it isn’t, my idea is awesome. I’m still excited about it, I still want to read it! And if I want to read it, I’ll have to write it.

NaNo might work for you, and that is awesome. If you haven’t ever tried it, I encourage you to do so. If nothing else it’ll teach you that it is possible to write big blocks of text without going crazy, and that is a lesson worth learning if you’re planning on writing a novel.

This also goes for any form of pantsing, trying to hit a daily word count or set amount of writing time or just about anything that requires me to launch right in. I’m not a launcher, I’m a hesitater. I hesitate before I pick up the phone, I hesitate before I comment on someone’s status or post a Tweet, I hesitate before getting out of bed. So, somehow, I have to find a way to use that hesitation to my advantage.

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This is the image result I got for pantsing and thought it would make a nice break for the massive block of text I’ve apparently dedicated myself to writing today.

What I’m Trying Now

It’s important, at this stage, for me to recognise that what I’m trying now may turn out to also fail for me. The things I have written down in my notebook may have changed again completely in a year’s time, and there is a chance that I may never have a finished product. But if I don’t keep trying, I’ll never forgive myself. If it takes me my whole damn life to write this book then that’s what it will take. I may give up at everything all the time, and I may find myself back at square one with this project all the time, but this is something that I just can’t seem to allow myself to give up on. So I’m going to keep trying to find something that works for me. If it sounds like torture, it’s because it is. But it’s a torture that I crave and love and it’s a part of my life that, without, I just won’t feel like me.

You know what they say, if you’re not a pantser, you’re a planner. So, let’s give planning a go shall we?

Now, I’ve never planned anything in my life. From the stories and essays I had to write for my SATs where my “planning paper” was left discarded and lonely on the side, to my 10,000-word dissertation, I’ve never planned a single thing in my goshdarn life.  That’s probably how I managed to kid myself into thinking I was a pantser. Ha, foolish child.

So if I’ve never planned anything ever (except for a wedding; that’s different) – how do I plan a whole novel?

BeFunky Design

According to the Almighty Knowledge God, I need characters, a plot, and a setting. Gee, thanks, Google. What am I, six? That’s when I realise, I know what a plan is, I know how it looks on paper, but I don’t know how to connect my ideas together to build anything worth planning.

This is where I come across the gift that is the blog of Rachel Aaron/Bach and her handy 5 step guide of how she plans novels. It speaks to me. Like that dude who spoke to a tree that was on fire, I feel I have finally found the message I need to hear. So I make a start and finally christen the notebook I’ve been too afraid to taint with my unworthy thoughts.

She starts from the very beginning, the beginning I need to start from: why I want to write this book in the first place. And I write that down on my first page, so if I ever become disheartened, the first page of my notebook will always be there to remind my why I’m here in the first place.

I want a story set in a magical world where I can explore spirituality, politics and beliefs somewhere beyond the confinements of my own physical reality. I want adventure, escapism and fun that will challenge me to think and explore new ideas. I want to explore magic, religion and the myths and legends that inspired my imagination as a child. I want to explore the strength of women and pay homage to the heroines that adorned my TV as a child and made me feel like I could be a hero too.

Cheesy stuff, right? I read it and I giggle. But I don’t care, inspiration is supposed to be cheesy. It’s supposed to be unbridled excitement and joy and the purest form of desire if I ever want to finish this damn thing. So I’ll run with it.

At this point, my mind is already racing. I’m thinking back to when I watched Charmed, the Celtic elements I loved. I’m thinking back to Sabrina and how her world was limitless but still had limits. I’m thinking back to Faust and the idea of having a soul and how valuable that can be in the wrong hands, and my mind is bubbling. I’m on top, I am a champion of words and I can do this!

On to step 1.

Write What You Already Know

I know my characters, I know the premise and the legends I want to explore. I don’t quite know how they’re going to intertwine yet, but I’ll deal with that later. I know stuff. In fact, I know more stuff than I thought I did. And thanks to my step zero, I have more concrete ideas bubbling up. So I set to scribbling. My knowledge varies from full back stories of my characters (I’ve lived with these fuckers for 7 years, whether they’re on earth or the fictional planet Ratha I know their whole lives), to one or two words like “multiple gods?” or “some kind of magical battle”. It’s messy and it’s all over the place, and it’s handwritten, but it exists on paper. I will never have to start from the very beginning again.

The Basics

This is where Google’s advice comes in. Character, plot, and setting. The difference here, though, is it’s a bit more forgiving. I don’t need pages of plot or character sketches or maps of my kingdom, which is a bloody good job because I still don’t know anything.

I do the bare minimum she suggests. My characters I know and I’m almost tempted to skip past that but I don’t because it’s a part of the process and I need to woman the fuck up. So I write it down. With the plot, I do what she says: I write the very end, and the end of the book (this book is intended to be part of a series. I don’t know how many books will be in this series because, as I mentioned before, I’m fricking useless). I’m lucky at this stage because I’ve always had ideas of how I wanted things to end. There is a very real possibility that this will change later down the line, but who cares? If I can stick to the idea of planning, then hopefully I won’t have to wait until I’m 20k words in to mess things up again. I don’t know much about the plot, I’m weak on plots. It is my weakness, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. So I keep things basic and plan to find a way to figure things out later.

The setting is a slightly different kettle of fish. For the last seven years, my book has been set in an alternate present day Scotland. There has been one reason for this and one reason alone: I’m in love with Edinburgh. I went to Edinburgh seven years ago and felt magical and spiritual and wonderful. The issue is, I don’t know a fricking thing about Edinburgh. Or Scotland for that matter. My lack of understanding of the place has made me question every plot point I’ve created and has raised more questions than I could answer. So, in my in-between stages of having lost all faith in my work, I’ve been thinking about the books I love. Not the shows or the films, but the books. They’re all high fantasy, they’re all somewhere else, and they’ve always made me feel freer. So it’s not set in Scotland anymore; it’s set in a world called Ratha (Scotts Galic for “Neath” as in “Neath the land of the gods”) and a land called Duntal (“Dun” from the Scotts Gaelic word Dùn Èideann meaning Edinburgh and “tal” from the German word for valley). I know a few things about it, but not a lot, so I stick to Rachel’s advice of keeping it simple, stupid.

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Phew, that’s a lot of words and we’re not done yet. So here’s a picture of Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Salem the cat flying on a broom to keep you awake.

Filling In The Holes

Woah Woah Woah!

Stop right there, sister! Filling in the holes? This novel’s still one massive hole! I still don’t know anything yet! You’re getting way ahead of yourself here, dude. I’m not sure we’re gonna get on. Sure, I’ve got my characters and my setting and the beginning and the end and sure, I might have a few important scenes I conjured out of my ass based on images I’d want to see in the film adaptation, but we’re not ready to be filling in the plot and writing out random scenes and shit. Remember what I said earlier? Anxiety? Low self-esteem? I’m a hesitater not a launcher? What, is this some kind of game to you? This is my life! I’m living it! This is real!

I think I need more help.

Cue the ever insightful, ever great, Jen Wiliams a.k.a. Senny Dreadful. Now, this girl’s on my wavelength. Aside from writing one of my favourite ever trilogies and kick-ass female characters in the whole wide world, she gets it. She knows me. That other cat before? She didn’t know me, talking about filling in the holes like I know what I’m doing. Jen knows the real questions. She knows my strengths, my weakness, and she shares them too. She’s all about the characters and the images, and she’s got the right question to get the ideas flowing again:

For me the question is rarely ‘What is the story?’ but ‘Whose story am I telling?’

So, whose story am I telling?

It’s at this point I start thinking more deeply about my characters. It’s not enough that I know their life’s story or where they end up. I need to know what’s going on inside and I need to know what’s driving them forward. At some point, Rachel Aaron/Bach mentions how it’s not about finding a solution, it’s about discovering what it is that you don’t know. At the time I read this I thought she was being ridiculous: Well, if I knew what I don’t know then I wouldn’t be in this mess, Rachel! But, begrudgingly, I realise she was right. So I keep her blog post bookmarked, and I dig a little deeper and accept I need to know more before really moving onto her step three.

 

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An actual image of me digging to try and find out where the fuck I’m going with this blog post

 

Jen Williams mentions you need to have dedicated daydreaming time. The trouble is, I usually don’t have that and I discovered today that it’s because I try to keep myself constantly busy and occupied. In a quest for stimulation, I’ve let my imagination run dry and limp in the desert of…something. And it’s a habit that’s dragging not just me down, but a whole generation of creative thinkers. I like to be busy, I feel like if I’m not constantly learning or doing something, then I’m not really contributing to society. I keep my brain in such a high gear all the time, that I’ve exhausted myself by the time it comes to letting my creative juices flow.

This week, however, has been different. Unfortunately, this week I’ve been ill. The kind of ill that ended up with me in the hospital and being signed off work for a week. I’ve been bored stiff, but I’m slowly using that boredom to help stimulate my thoughts and my daydreaming.

Plus, I have a secret weapon. That secret weapon is a husband who writes down the things I say in my sleep. With nothing but getting better and my book on my mind, it seems that the other night I was talking about my book in my sleep. Because I woke up to a text from my husband with a motivation point that I’d been trying to figure out all day before, and apparently had a eureka moment in my sleep. And, being the ever resourceful sleeper that I am (I do it so much I need to make it useful), apparently, I specifically asked him to text me what I was saying and spelt out the characters names for him. How productive are you when you sleep, eh?

So this is where I am right now, tinkering somewhere between Steps 2 and 3, developing my knowledge base so I can continue planning. I’m thinking about my sleepy plot point and dissecting it and stretching it out, figuring out if it works, what doesn’t, and what it means for the wider story. It might not make it into the final cut, there might not be a final cut, but at least I’m enjoying the development process, which is an important part of doing anything you love.

So now it’s back to the notebook to sit alone with my thoughts and a pen and see where things go. Maybe after a nap.

Wish me luck!

Tune in for the next instalment of Abigail Has No Idea What She’s Doing the next time I can be bothered to write a blog post.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Amateur’s Path: Planning a Novel

    1. Thank you for commenting! 🙂 I know how difficult the Blank Screen Of Doom can be! Sometimes I just freewrite and write a few paragraphs filled with words that don’t even join a sentence properly to make the blank space seem a little less daunting 🙂 xx

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  1. Hi, this is a great read. I have a very similar story, although along with hesitancy and anxiety I would add laziness to my list. Whenever I try to write I read instead because its easier reading someone elses ideas than making up my own, (I once didn’t do my homework of analyse the first chapter of Frankenstein. When my teacher asked me why I told her I had read the book instead).

    I completed NaNoWrMo last November, I very recently stuck what I wrote on my Kindle and I got 2 pages in and was almost in tears, it was so terrible. I’ve also started Rachel Bach’s planning steps and stopped at stage 2 too because of that gaping hole between the beginning and the end.

    You have inspired me to give it another go this weekend tho and I might even force myself thru my 50,000 words to see if there is something worth salvaging.

    Good luck, I will follow your blog with interest.

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    1. Hi Dave, thanks for commenting (and for following)! Laziness is also part of my issue, but I try to be kind on myself 🙂

      My Issue is, when I can’t write, I can’t read either. I beat myself up when I read if I feel like I should be writing, and reading other people’s successes just tend to make me feel like a failure. I spend a bit of time browsing writing prompts, never with the intention of stealing the ideas or actually writing the prompts, but in the hopes that it’ll trigger some spark of an idea. Funnily enough, it never does!

      Well done for completing NaNo! That’s an incredible achievement! Even if you hate what you’ve written, it shows that you can have the perseverance to keep going and push through creative blocks. I hope you manage to find a way to use that to your advantage. If you ever want another pair of eyes to go through your piece to pull out the ideas and things worth salvaging, let me know 🙂

      Good luck to you, too! What genre are you writing?

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      1. My Nano was a mashup of Epic Fantasy and the spy/thriller genre. I’ve read it through this weekend and there are snippets of interesting stuff and one genuinely surprising twist I didn’t know going in.

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