A friend of mine has been working on his novel for years but has yet to complete it. “I just get bogged down,” he told me recently. “I don’t know where the story is going.”
Does this sound familiar?
Too many potential writers have partial manuscripts lying around, and I say potential because an unfinished manuscript is nothing more than a good idea—and unless you’re Nora Roberts or Tom Clancy, all a good idea is good for is collecting dust. It will never sell.
We all have good ideas. The question is how to turn that brilliant concept for the next bestselling novel into a complete manuscript?
Some writers manage to get their novels down by writing as they go, a process called pantsing (referring to writing by the seat of their pants). But this doesn’t work for everyone. If it did, there would be no such thing as writers’ block and no partial manuscripts cluttering our hard drives.
The other popular method of writing is called plotting or roadmapping—planning a story in detail from beginning to end before the actual process of writing begins. I’ve written novels using both methods, and each has positive and not so positive aspects. However, for writers who have hit a brick wall, plotting might be just the ticket to put you back on track.
KNOW YOUR DESTINATION
Writing is like driving a car. If you were to get behind the wheel without knowing where you want to go, you may very well wander aimlessly around town. You could end up on the same roads you drove down before. Without a destination in mind, you might never leave your driveway at all.
Most of us, however, know before we ever get in the car where we plan to go. We look up the address and get directions. We may print a map, or even check the traffic before we head out. Without proper planning, our journey would waste time and cause frustration.
Writing a novel is no different. Every story is a journey with a specific destination. Writers can avoid common obstacles such as writers’ block and meandering storylines by knowing their destination and planning the route before they start writing. I call this planning process ROAD MAPPING.
Road Mapping requires patience on the part of the writer. Like the traveler who wouldn’t just jump in his car and take off without knowing where he’s going, so the writer ought not to rush into writing before she’s good and ready. There are four simple steps to Road Mapping. They are: brainstorm, outline, summarize, and chapter breakdown.
When I get a good idea for a novel, I never rush over to the computer and start writing. I may jot down a sentence or two so that I will remember it later, but after that, I let the idea mull around in my brain for awhile. I spend as much time as I need to develop the characters and plot details, often writing my thoughts on sticky notes. I like sticky notes because I can move them around at will, organizing all those seemingly random ideas into a linear storyline across my bedroom wall. This is the time to work out the entire story from beginning to end. Knowing how the story will end is vital. Only once I am certain of my destination will I move on to step number two.
I earned my degree in English eons ago, and I often joke that my diploma has done nothing for me but line the bottom of my hope chest. However, I did glean one very useful skill from all those years of study. I know how to write an outline. In high school and college, I had to write outlines for countless essays. (You probably did, too.) Later, as a newspaper and magazine columnist, I wrote outlines for the articles I published. An outline is perhaps the easiest way to visualize an entire novel from start to finish on a single piece of paper. Just as with any 5 paragraph essay, I break the story down into 5 sections: the hook (how my story begins), 3 plot points (these are the three biggest moments of conflict in a story—much like you’d find in a movie screenplay), and the conclusion (how the story ends—the destination).
Once my outline is finished—what I refer to as a story’s skeleton—I am ready to flesh it out in my synopsis. This is where the actual writing process begins. I describe the characters and storyline using complete sentences and paragraphs and plenty of detail. It is almost like writing a short story version of my novel. This can take anywhere from three to twenty pages, and can be used later when submitting to agents and publishers.
The final step is to breakdown the entire novel into individual chapters or scenes. Each chapter is assigned a number and a title that reflects what occurs in that chapter. The titles are for quick reference while writing and revising the manuscript and are eventually deleted from my completed manuscripts. I include a brief (no more than a paragraph) description of the setting, events and conflict for each chapter.
LET THE WRITING BEGIN
Once these four steps are complete, I am ready to write my novel. I like to write at least 500 words per day, but I don’t always write scenes in order. By referring to the chapter summaries, I can choose any chapter I like and write that one. I save each chapter as a separate file using the chapter number and title as the file name. (ie. 01-Exile; 02-Found; ect.) Later, if I need to rearrange the chapter order, all I need to do is rename the files.
Getting to the end of a story is not as daunting a task as it may seem. All it takes is a little pre-planning. Know your destination. Take the time to plan your route. Then pull out that incomplete manuscript, blow off the dust, and GET IT DONE.