Tuesday saw the first event of the NaNoWriMo 2014 Calendar take place in Sydney, and in keeping with the idea I generally have about how the course of everyone’s NaNoWriMo should run, the first event was a planning session…
The planning sessions are not rigid guidelines intended to control how everyone’s organising their approach, but more as a general health-check to ensure nobody feels out of their depth – or at least, bringing them back to slightly shallower waters.
I have ideas on writing. On the craft, on organisation, and on what makes a good story. I think I know what I’m doing, though understand that beyond the blog, there’s nothing (yet) to demonstrate to others that I know what I’m doing – it’s all on faith. The way I approach these planning sessions is to treat them as workshops. Initially it’s a probing question – do you know what you’ll be writing this year?
It’s a hopefully non-threatening question. I save the in-your-face “justify why what you’re writing isn’t terrible” type things for the people I know better, since they’re already used to my general questions and NaNo requires a step-up. (in case one of you are reading this and wondering why that happened). How’s writing, what are you writing, and how do you feel about it? They’re the general ones I trot out on (at a minimum) a monthly basis for everyone in my writing group. The people new to me get the same on their first, and I don’t do it as an excuse to talk about what I’m writing, but because I genuinely care about them having a good time with their writing.
If people I know more are writing a specific genre, it’s hammer-them-with-cliches time, so they’re more inclined to tell what makes it different.
The most important any NaNoWriMo ML, writing group organiser, or other kind of mentor can do, is listen with intent. Hear what’s being said, and try to put your mind into their story. Let them tell it all before you jump in with ideas or questions, and again, hear it all. You’re not there waiting for your chance to talk about your things, but to help them with theirs.
There’s a few different approaches to planning on this blog, one of which is The Plan Plan, and there’s also the NaNoWriMo worksheet version of it. They were both written with the intent of being used as a way to organise planning, but it’s all my own ideas and may not work for everybody. Further to that, some of the structured aspects (as with the Elements method related association) are an attempt to create rules around something that was always an adhoc free association exercise, as demonstrated in some of the examples.
One commonality I see between story ideas is there’s a bunch of things that are objectively cool (and by this I mean they’re cool not by any outward observation, but because taken as a single element that isn’t built up by the rest of the story, it seems cool). Ideas tend to be like that, but no matter how cool an idea, there’s no guarantee of longevity. Even with the fact of it being somewhere between the length of a novella or novel (depending on your opinion), fifty-thousand words is still a piece of substance. You can’t sustain that with a few cool ideas, which means you need some kind of meat to what’s happening.
If you’re doing a milieu story, spanning one or many lives that inhabit a world, a unifying element is needed – the point of this world needs to be made. It may be comprised of a number of small stories, but without a coherent narrative running through them, the substance is missing.
If you’re about the characters, then it’s absolutely necessary to give them their teeth, or to take them away entirely. The trick with these moments, whether you’re empowering them or stripping them of their faculties, is to ensure that you’re making it a tumultuous ride. This means raising the stakes, flipping the balance of power, and escalating the urgency. A lie becomes a con, a robbery becomes a murder, a dance becomes an affair, and a naysayer becomes a nemesis.
One common approach in terms of narrative tension is that the climax of the story should be the most intense moment, and the second most intense should be the opening conflict. The opening conflict doesn’t necessarily refer to the first scene, but could be. It could also be the inciting incident, the altercation, something else. If the climax (whenever it occurs) isn’t the most intense, most brutal, most significant, most far-reaching point, then it’s not the climax.
Of course, you need to get there.
One of the likelihoods with this process is you will get stuck. You won’t know how you get from two friends having a minor disagreement, to their gunfight atop the Crystal Tower. That’s okay, because you have something that you can rely on. The characters, and the themes. The more you learn about the characters, the better. Their personality will open up avenues of in-between, and a good set of questions to have on hand is “why are they doing this?” and “if this doesn’t work, what would they do next?” and then of course “what if they’re wrong?”
Do let them be wrong, make mistakes and not merely fail. Let them fall short because of themselves, or succeed in ways that actually meets one goal yet creates a range of complications. Draw it out.
Also consider what you know about the character that they don’t know about themselves. Find their fears, and however founded, exploit them. Identify their goal and not only put obstacles in their way, but attempt to distract them. This is paramount in the planning stage. No matter how unsure you are, jot it down anyway. It mightn’t be useful now, but you have no way of knowing when an idea will be relevant to what you’re doing.