Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

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Greetings from Camp!

Hello! I gotta say, I’m a little proud of myself lately! In addition to Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m staring down four other writing deadlines this month and- shock of all shocks- I might actually hit them all. This is unprecedented! (And might have something to do with [okay, everything to do with] having damaged my leg and being trapped on a couch with KT tape, compression socks, the works. Nothing slows down an overachiever like crutches. Guess I’ll have to overachieve somewhere else- hello, laptop!)

We’re over halfway through the month now and I’m pretty sure I’d have to lose an arm in a car accident in the next 24 hours to not be able to squeak across the finish line. So I might actually have the time to draw a decent comic for next week! But until then, enjoy another reblog, this time from National Novel Writing Month itself! (By the way, their blog archives are worth trawling if you’re ever low on motivation or ideas.)

This little number caught my eye because it’s doing the opposite of what I normally do on my blog: it’s taking lessons learned from writing and applying them to life in general! Please enjoy and I’ll see you again next week. Happy writing!

5 NaNo Lessons I’ve Applied to the Rest of My Life

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Every November since 2011, as soon as I post the “NaNoWriMo Participant” banner on my social media outlets, I hear two things from friends and family. One is, “You’re mad to tackle 50k words in a month.” The other is, “I wish I had the drive to do that sort of thing!”

I never said I’m not mad (I am a writer, after all). As for the drive… take the word of this former owner of the Pan-American record for Writing Procrastination: that can be taught. So much so that I applied what I learned in six seasons of November madness into other areas of my life that have nothing to do with fiction writing.

After all, most big deadlines can seem like the elusive 50k in November: an Everest of a situation. Whether you want to do it (e.g. get to dance at the Lindy Hop ball, finish a race for the first or tenth time) or you have to do it (e.g. a school essay, a job presentation), the first and irrational reaction, of course, is to panic and freeze, and then say “Nope, won’t do it. There are better people doing it already.”

That’s where the NaNo mind-frame comes in handy.

Want to read the rest? Head on over to NaNoWriMo’s blog via this lovely link!

Bunny Makes Friends

Sorry about flaking out last week.  But after not missing an update in over three years, and then I and every person in my family being sick in between (and during) two different family visits, I allowed myself to just miss the week.

Here is the comic brainstormed and drafted by my writing students from last month.  I thought it was sweet and worth sharing.

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In a to-the-last-moment race against time, everyone in our group squeaked across the finish line! *rattles pompoms madly*  I definitely showed the way with my will-she-won’t-she last couple of weeks.

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Boy, that illness really knocked me back a bit!  And a somewhat harrowing doctor’s visit for an unrelated injury didn’t help either.  So I didn’t make my stretch goal of 70k, but I got the minimum 50k and feel alright about giving it my all.  It was great to get back into writing regularly, especially since the summer was so off.  Seriously, when I don’t have deadlines, I’m pathetic.

Speaking of deadlines, I’ve a poem to finish and a pair of short stories to clean up.  Thanks for your patience, guys!  Until next week (for reals this time!), happy writing!

NaNo Update: Week 3

Boy oh boy, am I ever sick!  Fortunately, it’s only been messing with the writing for the last couple days.  I really hope to start getting back up to speed in the next day or two.  You know, right in time for Thanksgiving.  *sighs*  I had a pretty sizeable buffer, so I’m still good on words, but I’m a little worried about getting through the whole story by the end of the month.  Hopefully, I’ll be a little more upright tomorrow!

My writing students are doing really well.  Still plugging away, still loving every minute of it.  One whined and pleaded and begged me into helping her do some illustrations for hers.  I love Thanksgiving, but I’m sad we’ll be missing a week of writing with our kiddos!

For your writerly entertainment this week, please enjoy this beautiful infographic courtesy of The Expert Editor‘s Rachael Lui.  (I snagged it off the Writer’s Digest website!  Love that site!)

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NaNo Update: Week 2

Hello, friends!  Week two treated my class and I pretty well.  I’m on track for my stretch goal of 70k, and one of the students smashed her goal in a writing blitz that stunned us all.  A few of us are lagging a bit, but that’s okay. I have full faith that they’ll rally in the end.

Hopefully you are all meeting your own writing goals as well!

For your entertainment this week, enjoy this cool iconographic from Electric Lit about how long famous novels took to be written.  Some took days and some took years- and all are now reaching millions of readers!  Whatever your goals are, keep making magic.  You never know where it may lead.  Happy writing!

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Infecting the Next Generation

ywpNaNooooooo!  Once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us!  And once again, I have forced my exuberant presence on Fairbanks’ impressionable youth for some enforced creativity! *cracks whip*

I love working with kids on writing projects, and the Young Writers Program makes it so easy!  And the students are just naturals at it anyway.  Kids are wonderfully creative and, at least until puberty hits, are unashamed of their imperfect little darlings, plus these students are so eager to write.  From our initial brainstorming session to today, I’ve been working with this group for a little over two weeks now, and nobody’s even asked about erasing a single word.  Kids are great!

And I like to think that writing is great for them too.  There’s the basic curriculum aspects: critical reading, writing proficiency, i before e, etc.  You know, all the boring stuff.  But of equal importance is teaching children that art is accessible.  That their voices are important.  That they can achieve big goals if they are determined.

So!  Here I am, infecting the next generation with this terrible literary affliction of mine.  Between that and it being a NaNo month, I won’t have a whole lot of time for blog posts, but I’ll slip in a quick update on the class’ progress with each week’s reblog.  Plus, as part of the lesson on brainstorming and what a story is, the kids helped me come up with the comic for this month, so that’ll be fun to share in a few weeks.  (And don’t forget to check out last week’s comic, in case you missed it in all its late-posted glory!)

Until then, keep hitting those keyboards!  Or notebooks, or whatever.  Happy writing!