A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. An editor’s perspective.
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Basic Plotting (Part 1)
Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.
The fiction writers I know—we’re all daydreamers at heart. The obstacle confronting us is that, well—we’re all daydreamers at heart. But daydreams don’t magically turn into completed novels. If I had a dollar for every plot idea that wiggled into my head, I’d be driving a Tesla. And I do not drive a Tesla.
The truth is that daydreams—those misty thought-bubbles from which all novels spring—and the reality of churning out a book; e.g.; sitting down to write for months or years, require two completely different facets of a writer’s personality. Our Right Brain—the artsy-fartsy, huggin’ and feelin’ hemisphere—is content to sit on a comfy couch all day, dreaming about pirates or unicorns or maybe what happened that one night at summer camp. Our Left Brain—the logical, mathematical, factual part—pays the bills. For many of us who write (or sing or paint or philosophize), our Left Brain may be underutilized—highly suspicious of why we’ve chosen to write a novel and how this career choice is going to pay the rent—and must, at some point, take the cerebral baton from our Right Brain and run with it.
And trust me, that race will be a marathon.
Successfully passing the baton from Right to Left is, IMHO, where a majority of novels stumble and fail. A notion may sprout, may grow a leaf or two, but then the idea withers or stagnates, only to dissolve back into a hazy daydream. And while there’s nothing wrong with that—most novel ideas don’t go the distance—without an eventual, diligent merging of the Right Brain and Left Brain, no novel will ever leave the warm, fertile comfort of your mind. And that would be a shame.
Refer again to Rule #1: Finish the book.
Which of course means starting the book; endless days developing a coherent plot, then powering through a first draft; re-thinking and rewriting scenes, missing a few months of weekends with friends and lovers. Then diving back in, day after day, and always into the deep end, scrubbing every word, sentence and scene until you feel that you’ve “got it right.” No, it’s not an easy task. Oh, but when it’s complete, that’s a feeling unlike any other. I can promise you that.
I’m not certain if anyone can truly explain how an idea, a daydream, a concept, can ultimately transform into a cogent story line. Plot development is in the eye of the beholder. Writing is a solitary journey. Most of us begin with a kernel of an idea; maybe only a wisp of dialog, a half-baked scene that sparks a series of “what if” questions. What if Adolf Hitler had won World War II? Or, What if I found an old suitcase washed up on the beach that contained an enormous diamond, a severed human hand and a mysterious note?
Maybe: What would happen if a small, bespectacled orphan turned out to be a sorcerer with a mysterious past? Or even, What would happen if seven kingdoms vied for power in a medieval fantasy world where dragons once reigned and a frozen wall saved the people from the walking dead?
Just thoughts. Daydreams strung together and eventually made real by the diligence of a single writer, by the power of the written word. ‘Cuz that’s how all novels are born.
If you’re new to the idea of writing a novel, new to the concept of formulating a plot, I have a few ideas. If you’ve never written a novel (but you’re excited to try) sit down and attempt to write a short story—3 or 5 or 10 pages. Short story plots are relatively simple, or else consider writing a sliver of a complex issue, but simply told. (A.K.A.: A slice of life.) And if those few pages result in a definitive conclusion, give yourself a high-five, write ‘THE END’ and relax. Then (after the hangover subsides) start another story. Many budding fiction writers find themselves to be highly-efficient short story writers, first and foremost. (And short story collections do have a place in today’s market.)
As you write, however, you may discover new thoughts crowding into consciousness, vying for consideration. You might discover that a few short stories feel suspiciously like chapters in a book—and with a little extra cogitating, your collection can become a novel.
Or perhaps your idea begins with grandiose underpinnings. What if I traced the life of a small street urchin who battled an evil witch and ultimately became the queen of a magical fantasy realm… 800 pages hence. It all begins with a simple “what if?” scenario that takes hold and won’t let go.
If you discover yourself in such a predicament; that is, ready, willing but paradoxically uncertain, just begin writing. Certainly don’t ponder too far ahead at this point—and certainly don’t fret about finishing, or even worry about the uncertain vastness between now and then… simply start. The only way to succeed is to concentrate on one page at a time.
Refer again, should you desire, to Where To Start. Also see Focus on the Now.
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