Over the past few years, I felt like I was in writing boot camp. While I sprinted toward due dates for my two middle grade series projects, I hate to admit that I wondered … Do I truly like writing? But now, with hindsight, I see how much I learned by writing within firm parameters and under such tight deadlines. One important lesson I learned was how setting keeps you on track when drafting a novel.
When pressed to write for a deadline, I planned my books with notecards.
For each scene, I made a concrete decision about where each scene would take place and what, specifically, would happen in that location. I asked myself questions such as:
- What is the most interesting (or funny, or mysterious) event that might happen in this location?
- While that interesting event is happening, how might I add depth or dynamics that will move my character’s emotional arc forward?
These setting-based questions sound obvious to the theatre director in me. When I’m directing a show, I consider scenes in layers. First, we start with the dialogue. Let’s say it’s an argument. Then, we look at the setting, brainstorm the action (beyond the argument) and play the scene so the action provides interest, subtext and emotional opportunities for the actors.
Novels offer us the opportunity to slip inside a character’s mind.
It’s a heady power to glimpse another person’s thoughts. Maybe that’s why it’s so tempting to focus on how a character thinks and feels when drafting rather than on action. Rather than choosing a setting intentionally, we might:
- Set a scene in the next obvious place, without considering what location might offer more interesting action.
- Choose the most obvious action in a setting, such as cooking dinner in the kitchen, rather than playing with possibilities.
- Write a moony scene where our character wanders through a magical forest, noticing the glowing trees and intriguing bell-like bird song, without encountering any actual danger, surprise, or well, magic.
When I returned to my more usual writing process, one without a deadline or strict parameters, I found myself adrift. I asked myself, “Why do I feel lost? What’s different from the series books?”
I realized that the notecards hadn’t simply been a shortcut to construct a loose, working plot. They’d been an important tool to help me:
- identify the best possible setting for each scene
- brainstorm humor, action and complications
AND, possibly most importantly, the notecards helped me break the story into pieces.
When I draft a novel, it feels like diving into the ocean.
Anything is possible. I’m most personally engaged and excited when I don’t know what decisions my character will make along the way. Part of what compels me to write the book is the unknown. I want to journey alongside my character. The trouble is, when you’re in the middle of the ocean, you simply have to deal with the waves as they crash over you. Unless you wash up on an island, you can’t rise above your immediate situation to see the big-picture view.
If you don’t have the big-picture view, you:
- make split-second decisions rather than considering the possibilities
- can easily end up in an undertow and be pulled off course
- lose track of the destination and become discouraged
Which do we need: a clear plan for our settings or a plot?
In my opinion, we need a blend of both. Index cards that define setting and action provide needed structure to the drafting process. Unlike a more formal plot, they do not remove the writer’s ability to improvise as he or she writes. I think of the cards like the words tossed out during an improv show. “In the chemistry lab, with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!” By brainstorming the locations and actions ahead of time, I’m giving myself the bird’s eye view I can’t have when I’m tumbling in the waves.
Plus, I always give myself permission to change my mind. Most of the time, I’m grateful for the inventive idea that I’ve prepared for myself. If I have a better one in the moment, though, all the better! At least, I avoid writing a series of uninspired scenes where all my character does is think.
How does setting keep you on track when drafting a novel?
It’s nearly impossible to answer the question, “When will you finish your draft?” if you don’t know the scope of your novel. What I’ve learned (and relearned the hard way) is that when I don’t have a deadline or a concrete finish-by date, my draft might take years to complete. Index cards help me move through the draft by breaking the novel into manageable pieces. Rather than thinking about the whole book, I can think about how to create a self-contained scene, in a specific setting, and then move on to the next.
The power of this specificity is easy to overlook. The ability to complete a draft is nearly entirely a battle of mind over fingers. If you can track your progress, you reduce much of the resistance that shows up in the middle of the process. “I’m not making any progress!” You’ll see that either:
a. You’re not doing the work
b. You ARE making progress, and all you have to do is to make it to the end of this scene to check off another box.
That string of mini-successes leads to the ultimate success of having a draft. And once you have your draft, you have the raw material from which your novel can be revised and crafted.
Use settings to keep your novel on track.
- Start with a stack of notecards. Choose a setting and brainstorm the action that might happen in your first scene.
- Ask yourself: Where else might this happen? What action might add humor, suspense, interest, complication?
- Choose your setting and action, and then move forward in the story.
- When you get stuck, jump ahead and nail down a future scene.
- Then, go back and build a path to fill in the gap. How might your character move from here to there?
- Give yourself room to write down options that won’t ultimately work. Keep the process loose. Ask questions such as, “Where might this scene take place?” rather than “Where WILL this scene take place?”
- Once you’re done, lay out your story where you can see the full plan. Walk away, and give the ideas space. Then, return and ask yourself, “Is this the most interesting location for this scene? Is this the most interesting action?”
- Revise your plan.
- Give yourself a finite amount of time for the brainstorming process. Ideally, force yourself to complete the work in a week. Then, you can keep up your momentum, and also keep the plan loose enough that you’ll be willing to change your mind mid-draft, as needed.
- Set a reasonable pace for yourself. How many scenes can you draft in a week? Stack up your notecards, and then tackle that novel, scene by scene.
I’m going to get to work on my notecards for my WIP this week. If you try this strategy out, I’d love to hear how it works for you. Try it out and then come back and let us know. Or share with me on Facebook or Twitter. I always love to hear from you.