Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Characters, plot, and writing the first 754 words

Okay, as I was saying in the previous post, I have found a process for planning and plotting a novel that seems to be exactly what I and my quirky little brain need to keep things in focus, on track, and moving forward. And so far, it is working for me: it took me a week and a half or so to plot out the novel, and as of last night, I've written 754 words. Can I get a high-five? *slap!* Thanks!

I found what I didn't even realize I was looking for on the website of Simon Haynes, a science fiction writer in Australia. I started reading some of his articles on writing novels and getting them published. That's when lightning finally struck; specifically, while I was reading the one entitled, "How to plot your novel." In this article, Simon shared his personal method of figuring out both his characters and his plot using mind mapping. He showed an image of his mind map for his first novel, which he produced with Freemind, available by free download.

Looking at Simon's mind map, I experienced a sense of recognition. This was it! The very tool I needed!
It started with a round blob in the middle, which represents the novel as a whole, and then were branches for each character, with the ability to branch off them for all their characteristics, and ways to show connections and relationships between them. It's a method for doing character profiles that makes both visual and logical sense to me, because it's not just a list of traits - it's more a set of individual maps, one per character. You start with whatever you know about a character, and then add more and more branches as you learn more. Simon put his character branches on one side of the mind map and subdivided them into major and minor characters.

On the other side of the mind map, he made three branches for plot: "Beginning," "Middle," and "End." Then he filled these in, first in broad strokes, gradually adding more and more detail, until he basically had a listing of every scene he needed to get from start to finish in his story.

Now, I grant you that this process isn't earth-shattering in its novelty; it's just that the way my brain processes things has never been well-suited to any other method. This one clicked. I'm creating a visual structure as I work that is entirely flexible but also remains logically organized automatically even as changes are made. I can add new ideas as they come and the program just incorporates it into the structure, meaning there are no scribbled additions or a need to rewrite or reorganize the whole thing.

It short, the mind mapping method gives me a way to think about my plot visually, and it allows me to keep both the big picture in mind and the details straight. This, I've discovered, keeps me from feeling overwhelmed, and it is that feeling that has always derailed my previous efforts at novel-writing.

I began listing my characters on the left side and then made each new characteristic or observation a new child branch. Remember, I've tried starting this beast a few times before, so some of the characters I already knew rather well. If I were starting from scratch, this process might take me longer.

I'm not going to talk in detail about the plot and characters of the novel I'm working on - for me, the magic would be lost if I spent a lot of time sharing the specifics of an unfinished story with the world, and it would almost certainly remain unfinished. Therefore, I'm not comfortable displaying images of the actual mind map I'm using for my book. But I know that some readers would find it helpful to see what I'm talking about, so I created some mock-ups for you.

Here's the beginnings of the character side of a hypothetical novel's mind map. I emulated Simon Haynes and divided mine into one main branch for major characters and another for minor ones, something like you see below.

Then I just kept drilling deeper and deeper into each character, particularly into the ones I labeled "major." And in fact, a couple of the "minor" ones wound up being promoted as it became clear that they were needed more to tell my story.

As we all know, the best plots are the ones that are character-driven. This is another reason this exercise is so helpful - whole chunks of plot can be born from just exploring a facet of your character. For example, let's say that in thinking about our main character, Dr. Joe Protagonist, we come up with the idea that he's a little uninspired by the current circumstances of his life.

Okay, here's a doctor in private practice who's bored with his life. This suggests a huge range of possibilities. Maybe he's craving adventure and doesn't even realize it. What if someone new came into his life and offered him some? Joe's a doctor... maybe a new patient comes for an appointment and asks the doctor to help him with an unusual problem.

Now we have a sick patient asking Dr. Joe to go to Union Station with this key to retrieve something important to him from a locker there. Joe knows this is a ridiculous idea, because the guy is likely nuts or in some kind of trouble, but he's bored... so he considers it. And just like that, we have a potential plotline that grew directly out of exploring a character trait.

When I started to plot, I again emulated Haynes, making main branches for the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. I filled in just a skeletal framework at first - opening situation, an inciting event, reaction to that event, etc. - then started in with some shading, gradually adding more and more details. I made sure that I nailed down the circumstances of the climax and how I wanted the book to end. Then I changed the climax completely at least twice as I filled in more specifics about what will happen in the middle. It may sound like a pain in the butt, but the software made it easy and painless, which freed my mind to stress about decision-making instead of restructuring.

By the time I considered the plot "done," I had a number of actual scenes listed on the right side of the mind map, so I began writing the first one. You know, the one of which I have currently written 754 words. Pat me on the back, will you? I'll wait.

Now, did you notice that I put quotes around the word "done," above? That's because I know that as I write, I'll get a better feel for the characters, and then they are bound to start looking down the road and suggesting changes to the plot. And not only will I listen (I always listen to those characters voices in my head), I'll be able to make the changes I agree with and rework all the rest of the dependent plot elements to accommodate them, quickly and easily. The thinking and figuring it out may be time-consuming, but the physical act of changing the plotline will be a cinch.

Reading over this post, I'm struck by how confident and self-assured I sound. In actuality, I'm as burdened by self-doubt as anyone else - perhaps a little more so. In fact, after writing those first 754 words, I was convinced that they amounted to absolute crap and was obliged to ask a trusted friend and fellow writer to read them and tell me whether they were, in fact, excremental. She assured me that they weren't. I believed her at the time. Today, I'm less convinced. And this is pretty much the seesaw condition of my inner life. A part of me is terrified of success and is always trying to throw a wrench into the works so I will stop all this nonsense and go back to the safety of comfortable failure.

Which is why I really need the solid framework the mind map has given me. It's got the structural strength to hold together even when I'm leaning on it heavily during my less emotionally buoyant moments. It's a visual and logical plan for me to follow. I look at it and feel confidence in the process even when I'm less confident in the actual writing. And that's going to be a very important asset as my novel progresses.

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