Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Slightly Crazy: Map Your Course to Survive NaNoWriMo

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•14

I’ve heard NaNoWriMo referred to as the writers’ version of running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; a tequila hangover, a 30-day migraine, and an icy plunge into Lake Michigan in January, except you can’t escape from the water.

polar bear plunge
Then again some writers relish this annual mad dash.
It teaches you to show up. it teaches you how immersive and powerful writing can be.

It teaches you to write even when you want to roll over and hit the pillow for another hour.

It teaches you what you know and, alas, what you still don’t know about your story, your characters, and fiction structure.

As to that last point–here’s some information to lend a hand from my forthcoming book, White Heat: Zero to Novel in 90 Days.

compass old schoolMap Your Course
All the major things have been planned since the beginning, since the early 90s, the major deaths and the general direction of things. Obviously, the details and the minor things have been things that I’ve discovered along the way, part of the fun of writing the books is making these discoveries along the journey. But the general structure of the books has been in my head all along.

~ George R.R. Martin

Great stories that survive the ages don’t happen randomly or through some magical technique or lucky accident; they are designed. Centuries-old patterns and structures are at work beneath the happenings of the story, shoring up your characters’ lives. And these structures are easily understood and implemented.

Thus it’s time for a deep breath dear soon-to-be a serious writer. You’re going to take what you know about your story and create a map for going forward. Let me explain my bias for using this step: I have met and worked with thousands (and no, I didn’t mean to write hundreds) of writers over the past twenty-plus years and have observed that writers who map out their novels beforehand finish them more often and their stories are more cohesive, potent, and logical.

While I know this whole substratal, forget about plotting, writing-by-the-seat-of-road map 2your-pants approach is supposed to be genius; it’s also endlessly complicating and nerve-wracking. You’re forced to keep reinventing, adding on, and guessing about your direction. It leads to doubts and a lot of revisions. Pre-planning simply works.

You need to know your destination before you start writing, not discover it while you’re on the road. A map, no matter how tattered, lends confidence making the whole process easier and less intimidating. It prevents you from hitting dead ends and ending up with a patchwork quilt that happens to writers who keep cobbling ideas and subplots together, frequently changing their minds and the storyline direction. When you write towards a good ending you also write scenes and twists that lead to it.

Mapping or plotting out a story doesn’t mean that you can never veer off the highway—or your original plan—and take a scenic route. You can add another subplot or character or tweak the ending. You’re never stuck with every detail of your original concept if you figure out something better as you write along. In fact, if you’re wise you’ll continue brainstorming and finding new avenues throughout the process.

What I’m stressing here is that you start off your writing process using logic and you use logic throughout the time you bang out this story. You’re going to create a first act that sets up a story, a middle act that complicates and tests your protagonist, and an ending that answers to the story question. You think and plan with the three-act structure in mind. You know your protagonist inside and out. You nail down the central question so you can forge ahead.
Before you sit down to write a novel, here are essentials you’ll need.
1. A knowable protagonist who will fascinate readers.
2. A problem that needs solving or a goal that needs reaching.
3. An understanding of your protagonist’s inner and outer desires.
4. An interesting, workable locale.
5. A menace/threat hanging over the protagonist.
6. An antagonist
7. How it will all turn out.
You might have just read that list and felt your heart sink because you’re not clear about exactly where the story is heading. You know you have a great idea, but….So take another tack. Write your first three chapters and come back to this list.

After three chapters or so you’ll feel a closer kinship to your protagonist, you’ll feel more centered in the process.

tip: Research shows that typing and writing by hand use different brain processes Cursive helps thought processes. It stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, an effect that typing cannot duplicate. Creating maps, lists, calendars or timelines of story events is not only fun, but it stretches the imagination and forges new pathways into the story.

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