NaNoWriMo 2016: Did the Chicken Come Before the Egg?

Books are complicated beasts. A good book needs a stellar plot and intriguing characters. It needs to be able to capture the imagination of the reader–and the writer–and lead them down the rabbit hole. NaNoWriMo isn't about writing a good book.

It's about writing a book, period. Some books written during NaNoWriMo are good. Some are great. Most are steaming piles of horse dung. That's all right. Really, it is. For those of you who have never written a book before, now is the time to write a book. It doesn't have to be good. It just has to be.

You can make the book good later, I promise.

The hardest part of writing a novel, especially for someone who hasn't done it before, is figuring out exactly where to begin. It's a chicken vs egg situation. Do you create the plot first? How about the characters? Then there's that tone issue, and then there's the theme issue… oh dear, what's the conflict? What do you want from your book?!

Which one do you pick first?

I'm going to open this year's discussion on the two big ones: plotting and character development. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no right answer. There is no wrong answer.

The only answer that matters is the one that gets you thinking about the book, planning the book, and ultimately writing the book. What works for me may not work for you. What works for Diana Pharaoh Francis may not work for you. What works for Grace Draven may not work for you. What works for Ilona Andrews may not work for you. (What? Can't a woman shout out some of her favorite authors and people?)

My blog has a lot of resources for people to dive into. I'm going to be expanding and building on every subject discussed. I'll also be updating some of my methods to how I've changed my general work process. (And I will explain why I've evolved my method of writing as I have, too.) For now, I'm going to offer you a foundation to read from if you want to get a head start on thinking about things.

Chicken #1: Characters

There are a lot of different types of readers (and writers) in the world, and a common desire is for a ‘character drive' story. Figuring out the hell what a character driven story is… well, that's only half the battle. I'm going to simplify this point. A character driven story is when every single event or plot in the story is the consequence of a character's decisions, actions, feelings, and general motivations.

(In the case of Man vs Environment, the character driven element comes from how the character responds to the environmental event.) There are always going to be things outside of the character's control–there should be.

The character driven part comes into play when the character is the one actively working towards a goal, actively making a difference in how the plot progresses, and actively being the one in the driver's seat of the story.

The story is all about what the character does.

Writing a character driven story is surprisingly difficult to master, as it requires a full understanding of all of your characters, even the ones that don't show up on the page. The antagonist's actions should affect the entire plot, too. It's complicated.

So, to simplify things a little, here are a list of some the blog posts I can think of that might help you create, develop, and give life to your characters. Some aren't going to be directly NaNo related, but I hope they help.

  1. Conceptualizing a Novel: Journaling, Plots, and Characterization
  2. Building Quick Character Concepts: Conceptualizing a Novel, Part Two
  3. NaNoWriMo 2014: Creating Interesting Characters
  4. Character versus Plot Driven Stories
  5. Character Development: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art
  6. Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Creating a Character
  7. Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Using Character Arcs to Drive Plot Lines

Chicken #2: Plotting & Conflict

If you are the type of individual who needs a plot and/or conflict before you can think about the types of characters needed for the story, that's great! Lots of people build their conflict and plots first–and often develop their characters alongside the story they'll live in.

There are hundreds of ways you can approach the plot and conflict of a book. My preferred method is to figure out some critical event I want to happen.

For example, let's say I want to tell an action adventure story. I'll use Rider of the Sun Horse as an example. I wanted to write a great endurance race. So, I asked myself one question:

What would stop the rider from completing the race?

I built a great deal of the novel from that one question. To answer the question, I had to answer other questions. Why would this person want to compete in the race? I figured out a motivation. Once I did that, I asked what would drive that character to have that motivation? I built the character and the plot together in this case.

But I always begin with a question, and it usually starts with what or why.

There are some very basic plot mechanisms you should probably be aware of, so I'll quickly go over them (the way I handle my plots.)

This is extremely basic and barely scratches at the surface.

  1. Inciting Incident: Open with something that connects, directly, with the climax and resolution of the book. In a romance, it might be the character being introduced to their future lover–or an event that brings them together in some other fashion, even if the future lover doesn't show up for a few chapters. In a fantasy, it might be something like a hobbit picking up a very old ring with fancy words etched around it. In a mystery, the inciting event is usually a theft, a murder, or a problem being solved. It's okay if your book takes a chapter or two to get to the actual incident, so long as the opening sequence moves them in the right direction.
  2. Rise of action: There is a problem and someone needs to solve it. After the inciting incident, the book should start having forward motion to the solution of the problem.
  3. Well, shit: Houston, we have a problem! Problems (read: conflict) drive things forward as much as the characters do. Characters need to face problems, rise above them, and keep going forward.
  4. Double oh shit!: Your characters have busted their ass to get to the moment of truth… and here we are. The moment of truth is the climatic oh, shit! moment. It's the win or the lose moment. Do or die moment. Everything in the book accumulates to this point.
  5. Coming Down from the High: Normal people call this the resolution phase, where all the loose ends of the story are wrapped up and the story ends.

Books are complicated beasts, and you might end up with a novel with three or four Double Oh Shit! moments. That happens. It's okay if that happens, just so long as the book keeps moving forward. It's okay if you don't have a straight, linear plot. Very few people have cozy little lives where nothing goes wrong… and that's part of the fun of reading.

Don't be afraid to screw things up for your character.

Here is a list of blog posts that might help you with all this. Yes, some are repeats from above.

  1. Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Using Character Arcs to Drive Plot Lines
  2. The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Creating Conflict when Plotting
  3. Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Building a Variable Plot Outline
  4. Coping with Plot Holes
  5. Writing a Functional Outline

The Egg: Your Story

At this stage in the game, start thinking about who you want in your book and what you want to happen. Take notes. Don't be afraid to write down even the really crazy ideas that have no way of working. Right now, they may not fit… but later, they might.

Don't write anything off right now. The world is yours to explore. Go with your gut instinct. Do you have a character that interests you? Start there. Got this great idea for a scene? Start there. No matter where you choose to start… just do it.

Just get started. That's how books are born.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps point you in the right direction so you can write a book of your own!

On a slightly different subject, I'd like to ask for your help. Writing is my day job. I do these posts because I enjoy it, not because I get anything out of it. If you found this post useful, could you take a few moments of your time to hit kindle scout and nominate one of my books? Nominations are open until October 23, 2016. Thanks!


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NaNoWriMo 2016: Preparing for Hell on Earth. (Don’t worry. It’s just your novel bursting out of your chest.) – On Writing says September 25, 2016

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