The Plan: From notes to novel in 5 easy steps – Novel Writing Prep Series Part 4
In Part 1 of the novel writing prep series, we talked about inspiration and how ideas for novels spring to life. Today, we’ll take a look at how to nurture that special idea into a workable format. A format that is fleshed out just enough to allow you to sit down and start writing a first draft. It’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different. What works for me may not work for you. But, just in case you’re curious, here’s a peek inside my brain and how it works:
1. The Idea – You are driving in your car, humming along with Katy Perry (what? I know I’m not the only one who busts out a little “California Gurls” chorus now and again!) and it hits you. The lightbulb that has been buried under a stack of eight million other ideas turns on. Your brain has been twirling it around for weeks – drawing connections, weighing the pros and cons of marrying this idea for the better part of a year (or however long it takes to write your novel), and doing its best to disuade you from taking on a project of this magnitude. There’s no denying it any longer. It’s time to take this baby for a test drive and see if it’s worthy of an 80,000-word manuscript.
2. Pile of Post-It Notes – I don’t have stock in 3M, but I probably should with the amount of post-it notes I consume while working on a writing project. Once the lightbulb is turned on the ideas start to come fast and furious. Here are the top three reasons that Post-It Notes are the perfect way to capture these ideas:
- They are easy to transport. I can hide them in my purse, pull them out at a PTA meeting and jot down ten thoughts in the time it takes to explain the nutritional merits (or lack thereof) of the tater tots on the school lunch menu.
- They are just small enough that you don’t get bogged down in the details. Post-It Notes are like the physical manifestation of Twitter. 120 characters is about all that will fit (unless your handwriting is miniscule). 120 characters is all that you need at this point. The notes are just seeds for a whole slew of ideas – evil psychologist who intentionally loses patient files, grandfather hides whiskey bottle and audio cassettes in the attic of his barn, pumpkin carving contest in Illinois, MC meets teaching assistant at a dance club. This is the time to jot down character ideas, locations, the first glimmer of key scenes, important plot points.
- They stick together. After my covert PTA meeting scribbling sessions, I can stick them all together and shove them in a folder. When it comes time to organize, I can sort, stick and resort until they make sense.
This frenzy of Post-It Notes sometimes lasts for a week. Sometimes it can last for months depending on how many other projects I have in process.
3. Mind Mapping – Notice at this point, I haven’t touched my computer at all. It took me a long time to realize that my best thinking happens when I have blank sheets of paper and a pen at the ready. Something about typing words on the screen makes me feel constricted when I’m planning a novel. I need wide open spaces and room to get messy in the planning stages. Even when I’m typing a scene, if I feel stuck, I close the computer, pull out a sheet of paper and start doddling notes. The process of throwing my thoughts onto a blank page and using arrows, line and circles to indicate flow and connections often helps me see a problem in a new way. Mind mapping is a great tools for this. I grab my clipboard and pad of graph paper and carry them with me everywhere. Why graph paper? I’ll admit that my right brain loves some wide open space, but my left brain gets agitated if I don’t have straight lines on which to write. Something about graph paper transcends both worlds for me.
If you need some advice on mind mapping there is a good series over at Teaching Village. I don’t let myself get bogged down in complex flowcharts with colors and lots of shapes. It’s easy to get side tracked if your mind maps have too many bells and whistles. Three hours later, you have something that looks pretty, but you’ve only scratched the surface of those good ideas.
Mind mapping is the time when all of those Post-It Notes comes together. Why is the psychologist losing patient files? How do the tapes hidden in the attic relate? What does the whiskey bottle have to do with anything? Does the teaching assistant have a family? What are they like and how do they influence his decisions about pumpkin carving and dance clubs? You’ll start to see trends – themes that you didn’t know were buried in your original idea which are beginning to surface. Then it’s time to move on to…
4. Building the Skeleton with a Yellow Note Pad: It doesn’t need to be yellow, but a notepad of any color is my best friend when I’m building my novel’s skeleton. This is when all of those interconnected ideas coalesce into a plan. My yellow notepads go everywhere with me during this stage.
They are filled with:
- Detailed character sketches (what color is the teaching assistant’s hair? how does the psychologist turn up his lip when he talks?)
- Timelines (when was the grandfather born? when does the grandfather meet the psychologist?)
- Plot points (what are crises #1, 2 and 3? at what point in the story do they occur?)
- Location descriptions (what does the barn look like? what does this imaginary – or not so imaginary – town that I’m building like?)
- Beginnings and Endings: How, when and where does the story begin – complete with 300 variations of an opening line; do I know yet how it’s all going to end? If so, I take notes about this scene. Otherwise, I leave it alone and hope that I’ll discover the ending along the way.
- Scene outlines: I never put together a full scene-by-scene outline because I frequently don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle, but I do create an outline with approximately the right number of scenes. Then when the bike race scene in which grandpa throws his whiskey bottle at the teaching assistant comse to me, I can add it to a logical place on the outline. This outline also helps weave in subplots down the line. A visual representation of the story is helpful for keeping track of what the psychologist was doing in the basement when we last left him five scenes ago.
Why don’t you type all of this detail on your computer, you ask? Some days, as I’m transcibing these pages of notes from my yellow notepad, I ask myself the same question. The reality is, I’m juggling several lives – aren’t we all? I’m a mother to two young boys, I’m a volunteer at their schools, I’m a journalist, I’m a novelist. The amount of time that I actually spend with my laptop is 1/100th the amount of time I spend thinking about my novel. Carrying around that yellow notepad allows me to take notes during the 99/100ths of my time when I’m not in front of the laptop.
5. 3 Ring-Binder: When I’m finally bursting with ideas, I put everything in a three-ring binder. The tabs are something like this:
- Character and Location Sketches
- Scenes and Character Arc
- Bibliography and Thank Yous
- Other Projects
Having this binder to tote around makes you realize that you’ve put meat on the bones of that novel skeleton. The binder goes everywhere with me while I’m drafting, and any new notes go straight into it. A new bit of research. A scrap of dialogue. An idea for a title.
One of the most important tabs is Other Projects. When I’m in the thick of a first draft, I am easily distracted by shiny new things. Inevitably ideas for new projects come streaming in just when I need to concentrate the most on the current project. I used to lie awake turning the new ideas over in my head and admiring their shiny qualities. Now I jot them down in the binder so that I won’t lose them, and then I get straight back to work on the work-in-progress.
6. Time to Write: I’m brimming with ideas. I’ve lived with the characters for so long, they are practically talking louder than the real life people around me. It’s time to start writing. I sit down at the computer and start with Page 1.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about Page 1 and how eerily similar it is to a first date.
What about you? What does your prep process look like? Do you have a favorite pen or notepad that you can’t live without? Or do you just skip note taking and get straight to telling the story?