Writing Workshop I: The Plan

It Starts With Tea…

I was recently asked by the Nan Boothby Library in Cochrane to give a workshop for young writers on how to write a novel. Before I agreed, I wanted to give some thought as to the kind of advice I could give, and I thought I would write a short series on this blog about some of the techniques I use, some of the wisdom I’ve gained, and which methods have worked for me. Disclaimer: there is no one right way to write a book – these posts will highlight just a few things that I have found useful, and you certainly don’t have to agree with them.

Now, for those of you who don’t know me, I must tell you that any new venture cannot commence without a strong cup of tea (and a few biscuits, if they haven’t already been scavenged). Once I have this, it’s time to get down to it, and start with the first task: THE PLAN.

You might have heard of the word ‘panster’. This term refers to those fearless souls who plunge into writing a book without a plan. I AM NOT THIS KIND OF SOUL. I need a plan like the captain of a ship needs a compass, or I will end up lost in the murky waters of the deep and endless ocean without any rum (because I drank it all), being eaten by sharks. I need to know my story from start to finish. It is not the author’s prerogative to be surprised by their own story. If they are surprised, it just means they didn’t know what they were doing before they were doing it, and if it just so happens to work out (which it rarely does), then I consider that nothing more than a happy accident, and won’t credit them with cleverness.

My plan is divided into three parts: Characters, Plot, Themes.

So which should you start with? Character, plot, or theme? It’s a chicken or egg scenario, truth be told. I lean toward devising the characters first (even though things do tend to develop concurrently) because my most recent stories are more character driven than plot driven. Keep in mind that creating well-rounded, interesting characters with flaws and desires is IMPERATIVE to having readers connect with them, and I will be dedicating the entirety of next week’s post to the topic of character development. For the sake of brevity, I will touch on only the basics here.

In my plan, I give my characters their appearance, their backstory, their likes and dislikes. I make them as real and well-rounded as I possibly can. What makes them laugh? Have they mastered the art of folding a fitted sheet? How do they spend a typical day? Do they tip well? What is their greatest fear? If you’re having trouble coming up with the answers to these questions, think of a real-life person, and consider how they would answer. Now, you won’t be including all this information in the book itself – there simply isn’t time and you’ll bore your reader if you list all this information off – but you have to know it, because you have to know your characters well in order to write them well. Otherwise you will end up with flat, boring characters that no one cares about. However, there is one question you must ALWAYS include. It is the most important question in your book.

What is your character’s GOAL? Why is this the most important question? Because once you know what they want, then you can figure out how you can make it difficult for them to achieve it. Which leads me to planning the plot…

Now you get to decide what happens to your character, and for me, this is where the plan becomes imperative. I do not want to spend five days writing ten thousand words, only to realize I’ve been writing against a brick wall and have written ten thousand words of meaningless dribble that didn’t get my characters anywhere. In a similar vein, it is important to make sure that what you show your reader MEANS SOMETHING. Every scene should propel the story FORWARD. You don’t have to spend ten pages describing in minute detail how your beloved character cleaned their house, did their laundry, or got dressed if it doesn’t lend anything significant to the plot, theme or character. Honestly, nothing drives me more crazy than having to read how John woke up, brushed his teeth, went to the window, looked out upon his front yard, ruminated over the benefits of building a white picket fence over a stone fence, made a cup of tea, drank said tea, washed the dishes, and then finally went to work, if I don’t come away with something useful. So when you plan your scenes, ask yourself WHAT DOES THIS SCENE ACCOMPLISH? WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT TO THE THEME OR THE CHARACTER? If you can’t answer this question, don’t waste your time. Or mine.

Now, because it is a part of The Plan, I do want to touch on theme. However, I will be returning to this topic in another post as well, so this will be brief. But first, what is theme? Theme is is the main idea or underlying meaning you will explore in your novel. When thinking of theme, you need to ask yourself: what message do I want my reader to come away with after they read my book? While it may not be as obvious as character or plot, theme is still important. It is the skeleton of your book, the hidden structure that lends your story substance, or, as I like to put it, the guiding star to which you set your course while navigating the twists and turns of writing. Keep in mind that while theme can shift and change in the process of writing your book, you don’t want to start without some idea as to what it is.

So that’s it! Step one complete! And once I have my plan: my characters, plot and theme, then the real work begins…

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