Like a Fine Roux, the Plot Thickens

In case you don’t fanatically read the (four) comments left on this blog, I will re-post the one that inspired this entry:

“You won? Just like that? Tell me more! Congrats. Do you write sci fi? Too many questions for such a celebrity, I know, I know. But could you give me advice on plotline techniques?”

Perhaps I should address these points in order to make sure I don’t miss anything.

1. Yes, I did win. No, not quite “just like that”. I became aware of NaNoWriMo in 2010 when various friends-of-friends were involved, and it sounded interesting. It should be noted here that nearly impossible challenges are my favorite kind, I find them almost irresistible, much like Marty McFly finds any dare in which he is called “chicken”. However, as I said before, I didn’t think of myself as a writer so the idea of participating floated through my brain and out, never to be thought of again.

Until the next year.

Cut to October of this year, in which I had both an idea and a nudge. The idea came in the shower, the nudge came from a very popular YA Fiction writer: in the form of a blog she wrote about NaNoWriMo and why it isn’t for her, and a couple of comments she made in response to my own. So on October 31st, I went on over to the NaNo website and signed up an hour before it began.  

2. There was definitely more to it than Idea, Register, Win. Signing up at the last minute meant that I hadn’t done any character sketches, research, or outlining on paper. I dove in that first day and wrote three thousand words, then discovered the second day that I had only saved half of them. I started over writing my story from the end, which worked much better for me as it turned out. I discovered that when I write forward I fall into a pattern of describing things minute-by-minute. This is very boring. Writing backward from major event to major event, then filling in more character-building scenes in between kept things humming along.

3. Thank you.

4. As I mentioned before, this novel was YA Fantasy. Since it was my first, I cannot really say that I write sci-fi. I did have an idea for a sci-fi novel that I was pretty excited about, but as I did research and thought about the plot it turned into Fantasy. I love sci-fi, I hope that writing some awesome and interesting sci-fi lies somewhere in my future, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. There is no such thing as too many questions. I love them, I ask them endlessly, life is richer for locating the answers. This is why two-year-olds are some of my favorite people. So curious, and never self-conscious about it.

6. I am not sure how useful my advice on plotting techniques will be, given that this is my first novel,  but I will tell you what I learned in writing it. I mentioned that I pretty much didn’t prepare to write this novel ahead of time at all, other than brainstorming sessions in the shower. That works for me, I have a good memory and just outlining things in my head leaves me flexibility. Sometimes if I commit an outline to paper I get married to it and everything becomes very dry and formulaic, following all the bullet points. One helpful thing about this particular novel is that the ending came to me first, I always knew where it was going. The overall plot developed from the ending, with three specific events dictated by the calendar. This was probably what got me over the finish line.

Three major events is a convenient number for plotting, in this case it corresponded with the beginning, middle, and end of an experience the main character was having. There are chapters before the first event and after the third, but the plot is divided by them into sections. Before the first event, the scene is being set, but only a little. The reader is given a basic idea of the main players and where they are, socially and mentally.

The first event acts as a catalyst, the characters are in new and unfamiliar territory, requiring them to make choices that show the reader more about who they are. For inert characters, it may spur them into action. Between the first and second events the world and characters become more three dimensional, in hopes that the reader will be immersed by the second event.

The second event is the game-changer, characters are thrown thoroughly off-balance and they will either find their way back to center or fall completely.The action between the second and third events develops which course each character is taking. When I say each, I mean your main characters. Focusing on each and every character could become unwieldy, and boring.

The third event is the beginning of the end. Realizations are made, big mistakes are made, secrets may be revealed. Characters may part ways for good (or they may think they are parting ways for good). Everything between the third event and the ending will seem momentous. Not much room for fluff, everything should be speeding up to slam the reader home at the climax.

The ending, the big reveal (if there is one), whatever you have been leading up to all this time. I am a fan of books that continue a bit after the ending, because in life the curtain doesn’t come down right after the big event. There is an aftermath, maybe a fallout, or a return to daily life (or not, both can be interesting). Ending at the climax feels gimmicky and unsatisfying, save it for romantic comedies.

So there it is, how I plotted and won my first NaNoWriMo. I started with the tasty melted butter of humor and character interaction, whisked in the hearty thickening flour of world-building, then went to town with the spice of conflict. One delicious novel (or roux, if you only follow the food-based portion of that analogy).

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