Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Getting Read for NaNoWriMo

Didn't add an article to my blog last week because I was deep in edits. I wanted to give my Regency mystery: I Bid One American a final "going over" before sending it off to an editor. This is one of my favorite stories so I hope she likes it—at least she requested it.

So I got that submitted and I recently sent the first three chapters and synopsis of a contemporary mystery-romance to my agent and hopefully, she'll let me know what she thinks about that one soon.

The decks are now cleared…sort of. I've been noodling around with a much, much simpler Regency than I've ever written before with the idea that I could try to sell it to one of the remaining publishers of Traditional Regencies. This is a tough one because they make you stay between 50,000 to 70,000 words and my "natural" story length seems to be about 86-90,000 words. Big frownie face. However, this time, I'm deliberating trying not to kill off anyone in the story and removing at least one subplot I already thought of, in order to try to make a story that can be told in 50,000 words.

And interestingly enough, National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo occurs every November AND the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. A novel in one month. Which so fits into my plan to really, deliberately write a shorter novel to fit within the Traditional Regency parameters… And I've polished off my other things so this is perfect timing.

I just have to figure out the plot. You see, I'm not what you'd call a "pantster" which is someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I've tried it and it's generally not worked at all well for me. And I've "won" at NaNoWriMo (written 50,000 words in 30 days) twice now—but only because I had a very brief outline of what I wanted to write. Without that, I would have a heck of a time grinding out that many words.

Let me make it clear, however, that it's not like a real outline. It's more like this: I break the book down into chapters. I figure each chapter is going to have about 3 scenes that accomplish something for the purpose of driving the hero and heroine into their big black moment of despair.

So I start a file that has chapter headers—one for each chapter. Now 50,000 words is about 200 pages (standard manuscript) and a chapter is about 20 pages (or around 8 pages if you are e-publishing) give or take. So you need about ten chapters to start with.

After creating ten Chapter So-and-So headings, I then just put in my 3 plot points. For example:

Chapter One

  • Introduce Elizabeth—preparations for a party
  • Party—she meets Alexander
  • Alexander inadvertently finds out Elizabeth used to write poems and he lambasted her poems

That's usually all I write, although I may elaborate if the points don't give me enough clues about what I had in mind. For example:

  • Introduce Elizabeth—preparations for a party—she wants to get married but she's not sure she's desperate enough to marry the man next door, Alexander. The party is to welcome him home and Elizabeth's aunt has been working to arrange a marriage between the two.
  • Party—she meets Alexander and rather likes him—maybe the arranged marriage won't be so bad and she'll finally live down the humiliation of having published a book of poems. She believes that once she gets married, she'll assume the mantle of wife and once and for all, everyone will forget she ever wrote poetry. She wants to get beyond all of that. Desperately.
  • Alexander inadvertently finds out Elizabeth used to write poems and he lambasted her poetry because it was so trite and sickeningly sweet. He "does the math" and realizes she was actually only sixteen when the book was published, but while this is uncomfortable because he knows she will probably hate him if she finds out, he is not ashamed of what he did. Because bad poetry is bad poetry and she obviously had talent. He had hoped that his review would challenge her to reach her potential instead of writing pathetic odes to birds and flowers. She could do better and he wants her to do better. He believes all artists should either strive to do best they can do or stop messing around.

That's the long version. I generally don't write a long version—I generally just write sketchy points with about three or four words.

However, the long version brings me to another device which is badly misunderstood and unloved. You see, before you write the story (particularly if you want to write 50,000 words in 30 days) now is the time to write the synopsis. Oh, no! The dreaded synopsis! But wait! I exclaim (with improper punctuation). Writing a succinct synopsis does something that not even plot points or an outline will do for you.

Because you see a synopsis has information in it you need to write your story. A synopsis is really just a few pages filled out according to a nice little formula.

  1. S/he did this because of X.
  2. Her/His action resulted in Y.
  3. S/he felt Z way about the result so they decided to do V.
  4. [Loop back to item 2 and repeat until done with the story.]

If you follow that formula, you should have an escalating series of events/decision/character reactions that lead ultimately to the huge big black moment when everything is almost lost (but isn't—or in the case of some of my more angrily imagined stories—where every character dies horribly) but the characters finally win through and are drawn to the conclusion.

What this synopsis does for you that the outline doesn't is: show you your story holes. I can't tell you how many times I've finished a manuscript and been a little uneasy about it. I then (stupidly) write the synopsis (instead of writing it at the beginning) and I start getting into a predicament where the hero or heroine does V for no good reason whatsoever. Or the hero or heroine had a completely stupid reaction to whatever resulted from their actions. Or the story flow just did not make sense.

'Cause when you go through that formula for your major plot turning points, and include your character's reactions and his/her decisions and resulting actions, you start to see what hangs together and what does not.

I really think writing the synopsis ought to be done first. And interestingly enough, did you know that a lot of published authors write only the synopsis and first three chapters to submit to their editor? There is magic in that. The synopsis fixes the plot up front and the first three chapters are necessary to find out who your characters are and how they interact with one another. I don't care how many character sketches and interviews you do, until you start writing, you don't know your characters. And when you've written about 3 chapters, you'll find out who your characters are, and you'll discover many, many amazing things about them that will have a later impact on the story.

So even though you may have a plot outline and a synopsis, don't expect to actually follow them. They are the aura of your story. Or perhaps the bones. Either way, by the time you finish, your final manuscript will probably not even be close to what you outlined or put in your synopsis.

Does that make the outline and synopsis bad? No. They are just signposts and ideas. Things to keep you going in the right directions. The synopsis in particular keeps you on track with what your characters need to get them to the crisis and back out alive. (If you intend them to come out alive—I'm sorry, but I have a very black heart sometimes.)

Circling back, finally, to NaNoWriMo—writing that minimalist outline may be enough (hey, the chapter headings alone give you 20 words toward your total of 50,000, meaning you just need to write 49,980 more). Or if you're serious about writing a real book, the outline and the synopsis together may give you the signposts you need to write quickly without staring at a blank screen wondering what the heck you should do for the next scene.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.

I'm getting ready for NaNoWriMo and by George I'm going to make it to 50,000 words again this year and tell Alexander and Elizabeth's story whether they like it or not.

1 comment:

Sonja Foust said...

My outlines are amazingly similar to yours. Great minds think alike? ;) I like your synopsis formula and I'm writing it down. Thanks!