Today I’m getting into the writing prep side of things, so buckle up, because I have lots of opinions and advice!
Step One: Give Scrivener a Try
From time to time I see people around social media asking, “Should I try Scrivener?” and it’s hard for me not to write a 5k word manifesto on why they should. So here’s a very much pared-down list of why you should give it a shot:
- It makes organizing everything having to do with a project easy. You can dump all your research, notes, outlines, beat sheets, character sheets, warm-up exercises, and even reference pictures into one project file. Then, when you’re in revision stages, you can have a folder of cuts, of early drafts of scenes, everything you don’t want to trash forever, in the project file. This means no more saving thirty different versions of the same novel as slightly more desperate .docx names (You know the ones, they usually read something like WillIEverBeDoneRevisingThis29.docx.)
- When writing, you can easily organize scenes into chapters. You can even name scenes to keep track of them, and if you realize you need to add a scene earlier on, it takes about three seconds to make a new scene where you need it. This is helpful in keeping your forward momentum in November.
- It has this fancy little feature: which is extremely helpful come November (and year round)! You can set your manuscript target and your target for the day, or use the session target to track word-count during sprints*.
- When you’re ready to send a novel off to critique partners and beta readers, it’s easy to save a copy in any format your CPs/betas want–even ebook formats like .epub and .mobi. I personally do major read-throughs of my novels on my Kindle, and Scrivener formats books perfectly for that. It’ll also do all the standard MS formatting agents and editors want automatically when you compile to a .docx or .pdf!
If you’ve decided you want to give Scrivener a shot, first head over to their website to watch some tutorials. Scrivener is confusing at first, and I never could get into it until I watched some videos that further explore its features.
They offer a 30-non-consecutive-day trial, and if you win NaNo, the licence is only $20, $40 regularly.
To be clear, Scrivener is not paying me to say any of this, I just really love the software.
Step Two: Wranglin’ Those Ideas
It’s time to get into it, what everyone always wants to talk about:
Plotting vs. Pantsing
But first, some definitions:
Plotting is what it sounds like, taking the time to make outlines and beat sheets before beginning a first draft. Plotters meticulously map out where their story will go from start to finish, making sure to hit all the right highs and lows.
Pantsing is writing by the seat of your pants, or just winging it. Pantsers sit down with a blank slate and take off into adventure, letting the characters do the driving.
And guess what? I’m here to tell you that, as with nearly every binary humans have created, this distinction is largely useless and misleading. Plotting and pantsing exist on a sliding scale, so really we’re all plantsers.
Even the most meticulous plotter will throw notes to the wind if the characters push the story in a new direction (And remember, you need to let this happen. Once your characters start fighting back against even you, their writer, you know they’re truly alive and have agency.)
Even the most airy and carefree of pantsers has some idea of where to start when they sit down to write. They’ll have a character, a setting, a vague premise. Even when I “pants” books (and I have, I’ve done it both ways, either with all the note-cards and outlines or with nothing at all written down beforehand) I still have the vague sketch of an outline in my head.
For some people, writing it down kills the magic. For others, setting off without a beat sheet and outline means getting lost in the weeds about 3k words in.
The important thing is you find what works for you. Unfortunately, this means a lot of trial and error. Follow your gut instincts, and don’t be afraid to shake things up somewhere along the way. I personally recommend at least having a quick beat sheet with some important moments for the plot sketched out, but if either you’re a natural at plot structure, or you’re willing to do some heavy lifting in revision stages, you don’t have to do that.
How I Plot
Because “find your own style” is useless advice if you’re floundering, I’ll break down my plotting philosophy. Each novel you write will be different, so the approach you take might vary, too. Some days it feels like I have to relearn everything about writing as soon as I start typing that first sentence in a new draft. But two things are constant for me:
1. I have to know how it ends before I can start.
I see writing as something like driving to a new location on a foggy night. I don’t have to see past my headlights to keep moving. As long as I know the next turn, and where my destination is, I can keep driving through the dark fog and find my way.
When I set out on a new writing journey, what I have in my head is the zoomed-out Google Maps view, a rough idea of the turns and length of the project, with the end highlighted under a friendly red pin. I don’t have to know what the scenery will look like or what bends and curves the road will make to get started.
Sometimes I write all those turns and directions out on note cards and put them up on The Board, other times they sit nestled in the back of my head, evolving in real-time as I write. But as long as I know where and how the story ends, I can keep heading in the right direction, even if I make a few wrong turns along the way.
This isn’t how everyone writes, and sometimes the ending changes as I go. Sometimes the ending stays the same, but the characters take an unexpected path to get there.
If you’re new to storycraft, knowing the right beats will help you stay on track. There are tons of great blogs and books out there on different kinds of beat sheets (and ones for specific genres like mysteries or romance) so dive in!
2. I have to know the central conflict.
Make sure your characters are driving the narrative with their choices, and make sure the central conflict of the novel is clear. If you’re having trouble pinning it down, just ask yourself: “What does my main character want most in life?” and once you have the answer, do your best to take it from them and make it impossible for them to get it without changing and growing as a person.
Conflict is the heart of story, because it forces the character to act, to change, to strive for something. When you’re plotting, try to at least pin that down. The rest will follow.
Strategies for winning in November, and what to do when you hit a wall and can’t seem to move forward.