If you’re not participating in National Novel Writing Month, this post is very likely less relevant to you, but you might still want to read it because I hope the advice I give is useful for any writers. I’m also holding a challenge over on my Facebook page for participants to share a one-sentence summary of their novel – even if you’re not taking part, please feel free to go over there and “like” any of the summaries you particularly enjoyed!
NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow. For some timezones, it’s already started. As I type this, the UK has just seven hours to wait. (But I, for one, plan to sleep between now and starting my novel.)
For those of you who read those words and started panicking, don’t! Especially if the cause of your panic is that you don’t have a plot, because really, with NaNo, that’s not something you need to worry about.
In the past five years of writing novels, I’ve learned a lot, but one thing that stands out to me is how much I now rely on my characters. I’ve always said that my characters write the story, but these days they have a habit of walking into my head and completely hijacking my plans. I’ve actually been given feedback on numerous essays telling me to focus on “authorial intent” because “the characters are not real people” … and of course, the problem is that to me, they are.
Characters are at the centre of your novel, and whatever is causing your last-minute fears, they can help resolve it. Watch. For the record, all of these are problems I’ve seen from other WriMos on the forums and on Twitter.
“I have multiple ideas and don’t know which to choose.”
This is where you take your character for a walk. Choose the central character of each idea – that might be the narrator, but it might not. You might not have a narrator. Just find that one character without whom the whole story would fall apart.
If you don’t have any clearly defined characters for one of those ideas, then don’t write that idea, because it’ll be weak.
Now you have your character, so roleplay them. By this I mean worm your way into their head and act out a few dialogue scenes, either aloud or mentally (especially if you’re in a public place). You can do this through freewriting, too. Give yourself ten minutes and see how this character reacts to things.
Which protagonist do you like better / hate least? Which ‘voice’ do you understand better? Write that one, because understanding your main character will make the novel flow much more easily.
“I have an idea, but no plot.” (alternatively: “I have nothing”)
You need a character. Obviously, you might have some ideas about them. Maybe they’re a super kickass spy with a history of assassination attempts, who moonlights as a concert cellist and wields that spike with ferocity, or maybe they’re just vaguely outlined as a teenager with green hair. However much information you have, you probably don’t have a lot if you still have no idea where your plot is going.
So give yourself twenty minutes and a sheet of paper and write down everything you know about their backstory. Write about their failed relationships (murdered with a cello spike), successful relationships (blackmailed by the tuba player), lack of relationships (too much time playing the cello). Write about their greatest fears and their dreams.
The more you think about what happened to them BEFORE the novel begins, the more you’ll know what needs to happen to them now. They need to resolve some sort of conflict, and they need to fill some kind of lack. But unless you know what they’re lacking or where a conflict might form, you won’t be able to create that resolution.
Backstory is your friend. Half of it won’t find its way into the novel; the other half will form the basis of your plot.
“My main character is boring.”
Okay, hypothetical examples aside, there’s something you can do here: make them more interesting. I know, it’s not as easy as it sounds, and giving them a quirky hobby can make them cliched all too easily.
But remember: only you can write this novel. And only that character could fulfil that role. You can’t take them out and put someone else in, just as you couldn’t give the plot to someone else and expect the finished result to be exactly the same as yours. So why is that? What about their skillset, their history, their personality, is unique? Why are they the only person who can do that?
By drawing out their unique features, you can differentiate your character from others, but you can also quickly see if they are bland and interchangeable. And if that’s the case, create a new one. You don’t have to start from scratch, though sometimes it can be easier. Make sure your character is the only one who can do what they can do.
“My plot / character is unoriginal.”
Okay, firstly, originality is meaningless. What are you trying to achieve with this so-called “originality”?
But I hear your plea, and I say this: it’s a first draft. The first draft of one of my Death and Fairies novels was totally unoriginal. The ninth draft, on the other hand, was the beginning of something completely new, for me. I’ve written rip-off novels that later I used to write “original” novels.
Yes, it’s great to come up with an idea that’s shiny and new, but the truth is: it’s all been done before. The easiest way to make an old, tired plot nice and new is to give it a properly vivid main character, who will probably lead it in totally unexpected directions. (See point above.)
But if all else fails, it doesn’t matter if it seems unoriginal now, before you’ve written it. Remember I said you were the only person who could write this novel? Then write it. And at the end, it might not be as unoriginal as you think it is, because you wrote it, and you brought your own life experiences to the table.
If it is, you can rewrite it. Or write a different one. It’s not a waste of time. Every draft is practice, and therefore every draft is worthwhile.
Go forth and write!
I’ll be cheering you on from where I sit with a microphone and dictation software, trying not to lose my voice before 50,000 words…