Tonight is the second session of our current iteration of Writing A Novel. Last week, the students met for the first time. They introduced themselves, and their novels, and they met their wonderful tutors. Biscuits were eaten. Muses were motivated.
Now the work begins. To kick them off, this week they’ll be looking at ideas, and what comes after them. Should you plan your novel? And how detailed should a plan be? And then how rigidly should you stick to it?
So, inspired by that — and because next month happens to be the month when over 300,000 people worldwide (including all of us here at Academy HQ) attempt to write a novel in thirty short days — here are a couple of exercises to get you thinking about your story and how to shape it.
Stephen King famously wrote in his excellent and highly-recommended On Writing that a strong enough central situation made plotting unnecessary (he actually wrote ‘Forget plot’ but we’re not quite sure how we feel about that. Sorry, Steve). He said that ‘the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question’. Like these ones:
What if a plane full of school boys crash-landed on a desert island?
What if the pigs plotted to take over the farm?
What if you lost your memory every time you fell asleep?
If you’ve already got a novel on the go, or an idea for one, see if you can shrink it down to that single question. It’s much harder than it sounds — and it might make you think differently about what the most important element of your plot is.
And if you haven’t got any Shiny New Ideas just waiting to be written, it’s worth keeping an ear out for any What Ifs your brain throws at you as you go about your day. King, by the way, swears by the power of a good stroll for dislodging those million dollar story ideas…
Not every novel idea can be boiled down to a What if? But how about a single sentence? That’s what followers of the Snowflake Method recommend.
Try and summarise the plot of the novel you’re writing, or want to write, in a sentence no longer than twenty words. Something like:
An orphaned boy’s life is changed forever when, on his eleventh birthday, he discovers he is a wizard
That wasn’t too hard, right?
But now turn that into a paragraph. And after that, into three paragraphs. Keep going, keep expanding, until you have a full page of synopsis. Doing this helps you really focus in on the key elements of the story you’re trying to tell, and the motivations of the characters within it.
Happy planning! Meanwhile, the faction lines are being drawn here in the office in the run-up to NaNoWriMo. We have one plotter in the office, one unabashed pantser, and one not-so-sure… Let’s see how that pans out…