Monday Musings: Planning a New Project (How I Do It)

We are at the start of National Novel Writing Month-or NaNoWriMo to us, that gloriously weird month in which a lot of people set out to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days, from November 1 to November 30. (If you want to know more, here is the link: NaNoWriMo) I am going to be doing my Monday posts this month on writing topics. I will also try to give an update on how I am doing with my NaNo project.
It’s an interesting month, for many reasons. I generally try to write every week day, no matter what month it is, so the broad idea of sitting down and writing daily is not so much a different thing for me. The approach is, however. In order to get to the goal at the end of the month, you need to write a very specific number of words every day. (For me, that is 2000. It gives me a cushion so that I can take weekends off (mostly) and, of course, Thanksgiving is in there for those of us in the US.) And that means I have to do some planning. I am not a discovery writer. I can’t just sit down and start to write without some idea of what’s going on and where I’m going. I know I can’t. I have tried. It ends up a confusing, twisted mess. I am not quite a full-on outliner, either. I call myself a planner, and I thought I would give a bit of an idea on how I approach putting together a new project. Maybe you’ll see something in here that will help you. If not, that’s okay. Not everything works for everyone and we all have to find our own best way.

How I Plan a New Project:

First, there has to be an idea. I collect ideas all the time: images, websites, news articles, something I overheard, even bits from TV or other books that make me think: “Hmmm, but what if things went this other way?” I have a file in my Docs folder that has a lot of this stuff in it, as well as notes on my phone (which I really should add to that document!). So, that’s usually my first stop. I look at all of that, and often, something will jump out at me. Other times, I have an idea that springs into my head (story, genre, setting, whatever), and I just want to write that right now. I work on the idea mentally for a while- letting it plant itself and grow some shoots that I can train to climb into a full plot.

Second, I get out the pencil, pen, and paper. Usually a couple pens in different colors. Maybe a highlighter, too. I sit at the table and start sketching out the base plot of the idea. And listing titles. Weird thing about me is that I have trouble writing anything if I don’t have a title. Sometimes, the title changes by the end, but I need something to start from. This is about as close as I get to discovery writing. At this point, it is usually just the main plotline, characters, setting, and other basic details. There’s a lot of crossing out, marking up, drawing arrows and connections, just a lot of visual work. I tend to be more visual in just about everything, so seeing things on paper like that really helps to get the words started.

Third, I get out the workbook. I generally only use the workbook for longer stuff. Short stories are easier to hold together without the formal workbook. Longer stuff needs more organizing, at least for me. The workbook format is something I got from a children’s writing course I took many years ago. It helps me keep all the details in order. I used to keep it on paper in binders, but now I make a folder in my Documents for each story, and the workbook is one of the files in there. It has sections for basic accounting stuff (length, dates, words per day, and so on). There are sections for plot summary, characters, chapters, research notes, bits and pieces that may or may not be included, and more. Orgainization is a big thing for me. I need all those ducks in a row, neatly lined up and swimming in sync.

Fourth, I work on the plot summary. This is the whole idea of what is going to happen, to whom, how, why, and where. It includes sub-plots and side stories, as well as fleshing out the main plot in more detail. This is the basic plan for the story. This is what swims around in my head until the day I actually start writing. Along with this, I start planning individual chapters. I use a seven point plot structure to plan what chapters build to each plot point and write out a short description of each one. I also start detailing characters- who they are, what they look like, some background if that comes to me. A lot of this won’t make it to the story in detail, but it helps me to know how these characters will react and interact.

Once I have all this at least started, I can think about the story itself. It’s all kind of fluid and I don’t necessarily have every detail mapped out before I start to write. All of this pre-planning just sits in the back of my mind, working and turning and growing. I never know exactly how long this will take, but at this time of year, I hope for a month! Then, once I have churned it over unconsciously and start writing, I have a pretty good idea how the story will be told, and the words come pretty easily.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that nothing can or will change. It happens. A sort-of fuzzy plot point suddenly becomes clear as I am working, and it may mean a change in direction for something. Or I may find I haven’t really gotten a clear idea of how something is going to work, and I have to rethink and plan anew to get it right. But all the pre-work means that once I start writing, I can just keep going through most of it. It works for me, and keeps the part of me that needs structure and organization from panicking at the thought of writing 50 or 80 thousand words.

That’s how I do it. I’m sure you have a different approach. It’s all in what works for you, and makes this journey a satisfying, fun thing to do.

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