Pre-Writing: Crafting the Early Stages of a Novel
Pantser or plotter? It's a common question discussed in writing communities. Do I plot chapter by chapter, or do I let imagination do its thing and hope for the best? I tend to be more on the pantsing side myself--but there are some big picture aspects I need to get out of the way before I can actually fill up that first blank page on my computer. Here's how I do it.
Should I start with characters or Plot?
For me, it's the characters. Maybe it's because I write contemporary YA, but I tend to focus more on figuring out the psyche of my protagonist, rather than coming up with some premise and then plugging characters into the plot. Other genres such as mystery, fantasy, or sci-fi probably require a more extensive outline.
How do I come up with characters?
I find inspiration in the people around me. I write down names I like. I take bits and pieces of people's stories, personalities and hobbies. I study the way people move their eyebrows or style their hair. I use people I know as a baseline for characters and then fictionalize what I don't know. In other words, there's no shortage of material. You just have to keep your eyes open.
Some may worry that focusing too much on character leads to a loose, aimless plot--or worse, no plot at all. My solution for this is simple: force characters to make decisions. Let the protagonist drive the plot. More often than not, the protagonist should affect his surroundings--not the other way around. Of course some things will happen to your protagonist that are out of his control. This is what happens in real life, of course. When you must make something happen to your character, the question becomes, how will he react, and what does this reveal about his character?
How much should I know about my characters before I plop them on the page?
This is completely subjective, but I've learned through my own trial and error that I should have a strong sense of who my characters are before I write them, even if I don't know or understand them fully. Sounds kinda vague, doesn't it? That's because it is.
When I started my first book a few years ago, I hardly knew who my protagonist was. Instead, I knew only what I wanted to write about. I knew what the "theme" was, so to speak (I don't recommend starting your book with a "theme," but I'll write about that another time). I also didn't plot this book at all. Little teenaged me was convinced that plotting killed my creative process. However, when I was about 75,000 words into the book (which is about the same length as the first Harry Potter book), I admitted, "This isn't working." I'd been halfway through a scene in which my characters were traipsing through South Street in Philadelphia.
My spidey senses weren't as strong back then as they are now. I can feel that a book isn't working long before I hit the 75k mark. Anyway, I realized that the characters were off. I can't really explain it to non-writers, but I could just feel that the characters were wrong. My protagonist, Reese, wasn't supposed to be an oblivious, naive, and innocent sophomore who hadn't made any mistakes with guys--she was supposed to be an easily-influenced junior who knew too much and made more mistakes with guys than she could count. This new revision made far more sense for her backstory. Before, her present and past had been at odds.
Once I had fixed my protagonist, it wasn't long before I figured out that the supporting characters were all wrong too. For starters, I hated Reese's best friend. She constantly got on my nerves, so kicking her out of the cast was more of a relief than it was a disappointment. The main love interest was wrong too. It no longer made sense for him to be a goofy theater kid who tried too hard with the ladies. No. Reese needed someone she could idolize. Someone who seemed too good to be true.
With a whole new cast taking the stage, things finally started clicking into place. All I had to do now was write. Or so I thought. It just so happened that around the time I made these new changes, I stumbled upon a book called Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland. When I read it, I realized I didn't have to follow a strict outline that detailed every page of the book. Instead, I could rely on hitting the major plot points of the Three-Act Structure. This would allow me to go with the flow as I'd been doing, but still keep the plot from meandering. It was the best of both pantsing and plotting worlds.
Now, the chart above is a simplified version of the Three-Act Structure. There's much more that goes into it (which you can learn about here), but it works for me because it revolves around the emotional arc of the character. It's not just a checklist of stuff that needs to happen to the character.
Needless to say, this made plotting the second book a lot easier. Now that I understand story structure and how to hit all the right beats, I just have to make sure I know my characters a little better than I [thought] I did the first time. Here are some important questions to answer before starting your book, as it relates to the Three-Act Structure:
What does he want? Why? What does this say about his character?
It's best if you can answer this internally and externally.
What's stopping him from getting it?
What does he need? How does this differ from what he wants?
In the Third Act, the protagonist must make the painstaking choice between what he needs and what he wants (i.e., what he thinks he needs). The higher the stakes, the higher the tension and conflict.
What does he believe about himself that isn't true? How does this affect his decisions and desires?
Example: I'm dumb. I have terrible grades and will never make it to college so I may as well stop trying.
As long as I know these core things about the protagonist, the rest of him comes pretty easily. Remember that you can come back during revisions to add or take things away. Don't worry about getting everything right the first time. You don't know anyone that well after spending time with them two or three times, right? The more time you spend with your characters, the better you'll know them--just like real people.
How do you plan the length of your book?
I think of length in terms of words. When I tell my mom I'm at 40,000 words in my WIP (work in progress), it means nothing to her. Thinking in words will help divide your book in sections so you'll know exactly how many words you have to get from one plot point to the next. Here's what it looks like:
Word Goal: 100k words
First Plot Point (25%): 25,000
First Pinch Point (37%): 37,000
Midpoint (50%): 50,000
Second Pinch Point (62%): 62,000
Third Plot Point (75%) 75,000
Climax (92%): 92,000
All you have to do is plug your predicted word count into the formula. I didn't include the inciting incident or the key event since those vary, depending on the needs of the story.
How do I predict how many words the book will be?
First, follow the conventions of your genre. Try your best to stick to them if you'll be a debut author. Based on my research, Contemporary YA should hover between 60k-80k. My first WIP is 100k, so we'll see how that goes [cries inside] . . . .
Other than that, you may not know. You may have to just wing it at first. I find it helps to write the first quarter of the book. Then I get it as slim as I can through a round of editing. Multiply that by four, and I get a rough word count goal. It's not a perfect formula, but it's a good start.
Okay, so I have my characters and I have my outline . . . but where do I get ideas to fill in the rest?
Now that we've stirred a few ingredients together, it's time to bake. "Baking" is the term I use to generate ideas when I'm away from the book. What this doesn't look like is me staring at the computer, trying to think of stuff to put in the book. What this does look like is me going about my daily life, and an idea suddenly zaps me. Usually it's something tangible, like a swing set or a quilt. Then I attribute significance to it. Symbolism is one of my favorite literary techniques.
This usually manifests itself in the form of a list on my computer called "To Do/Remember." This way, if an idea comes along after I've started writing, I can remember to go back and put it in. Or, if there's an idea that I incorporated early on, I can remember to keep bringing it up. I also put unanswered questions on this list, usually relating to character motives. This will only make sense to me, but here are some items from my WIP's list:
- tattoo parlor
- gas stations
- mints jingling
- grandfather's grave
- how he got those scars
- road trip with boys from Memphis
- garage sale
- fridge box
- pulling out teeth
- churches with stained glass windows
- check engine light
- what are they listening to in the car?
This is all part of the baking process. It may seem random and chaotic, but I see it as my story taking shape. Characters, plot twists, and setting are percolating in my mind. To use another metaphor, I'm setting up the pegs of a rock wall and climbing to the top. I have no way of knowing if I'll use all the pegs, but at least they're there for me to hang on to. There's no one, single way to get to the top, after all.
Great. How do I know if my ideas have been baking for long enough?
I don't know. You'll have to answer this for yourself. Like I said earlier, the longer you've been writing, the stronger your spidey sense will become. Don't rush it. When you're ready to write, you'll know. You'll feel it.