Every year—sometimes twice or thrice a year—my family experiences an upheaval to our schedule as a few of the writers in the house participate in a National Novel Writing Month Event—whether the National Novel Writing Event in November, or the two Camp NaNoWriMo events in April and July. A good portion of you writers know what they are, how they work, and what I think of them. For those of you who don’t, you can click the websites for the first two, and look at my other NaNoWriMo posts for the second. NaNoWriMo events are some of the most exciting and helpful things for writers, aside from writer’s conferences and publishing deals, and NaNoers join up from all corners of this world to write (occasionally a writer will participate from Narnia or Arwiar, but internet signal is bad there, so it’s pretty infrequent).
Some writers come away with 50,000 words of nonsensical words, and others come away with a workable first draft (one friend of mine also uses NaNo events to edit, but I’m fairly certain that she has superpowers, so I wouldn’t recommend attempting this for the rest of us). Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we don’t; either way, it tends to be okay. Either we gain twenty thousand words of story, or we learn something.
For most of the five years leading up to this post, I’ve come away from a NaNoWriMo event with decent words. Never perfect words, but decent ones for my stage in writing and in drafting. In November of 2015, I came away with a fifty thousand useless words, mostly beginnings which I quickly marked as useless. Among those words (which I assure you has found a dusty, shadowy corner of my hard drive to hide in), I learned something.
You can’t SotP it all the way.*
While I doubt any of you planners have this problem, sometimes us seat-of-the-pants writers occasionally say, “Oh, we don’t plan; why would we need to know this before we start writing?”
From my experiences during NaNoWriMo last year, I learned that there are certain things that you absolutely must be clear on before you begin any sort of intensive writing.
The Camp NaNoWriMo website just went live for July, but before you begin writing your grand novel, there are certain things you need to work out.
Your characters. You don’t necessarily have to know everything about your characters before you begin— even hard planners don’t do that. Characters change and develop more deeply as the story progresses; you’ll never know a character fully until they’ve come to the end of their story (unless, that is, they’re a two-dimensional Mary Sue, which is to be avoided at all costs). Whatever method you use to develop your characters should be done before the month starts to avoid needless frustration on your part. You can either develop your characters before going in to draft one, or you can develop them in post. Doing it in the beginning is always easier.
One piece of vital information about your character is their character motivation. What is their want that drives them to do what they do? What thing do they need? The two things are rarely the same thing, but occasionally they’re directly in conflict. A character’s want/need drives all aspects of their action. You can know what their favorite type of ice cream is, but it will never help you as much as the simple knowledge of what their goal is.
Your setting. Your setting will influence all of your novel—your plot, your character, the way other people interact with your characters. Your setting includes everything from your political and cultural climate to your actual physical setting. Politics always play a part in world-changing events; be aware of what is going on in the background.
Before you start writing, know what sort of region your story is set in, to avoid accidentally switching around mid-way. Consider which setting is best for your story before you begin telling. It can always fixed in editing, but again, it’s easier to set out with the knowledge than to have to change things after you’ve finished. Avoid having to edit out guns because you decided partially through the story that your tale would better be served without pistols.
Your concept. Clarify your concept. Know what your story is about—if you write strongly from themes, consider what your themes may be (though most people who include themes in their story find out half-way through, it still may do you some good to think about it before you start). Think about the direction that you want your story to go in, even if you don’t plot it out entirely. Having a general idea of where you’re headed helps to keep you on track.
Your concept can include your original idea, what sort of story you want to tell (a war story, a coming of age story, a space story?), any major plot points or plot twists; it can be however in-depth you want it to be. Just be aware of what sort of story you want to tell before you start trying to tell it.
How in-depth you go depends on your personal preference. If you feel like you need to plot all the way to “The End”, by all means, do so! If you’re more comfortable with little planning, there’s no need to plan it all the way out. But always, always remember.
You can’t SotP it all the way through.
Are any of you planning to do Camp this July? What is your plan for the month? Planning or SotPing?
*For those who are unfamiliar with this particular writer term, SotP stands for the phrase “Seat of the Pants”, meaning that a writer goes into their writing with little to no planning or idea of where the story is going.