Friday, October 30, 2009

The Giant NaNo Prepping Post: Or, How Maggie Writes a Novel

All right, I’ve already said that I’m doing NaNoWriMo -- attempting to write a 50,000 word novel entirely during the month of November, along with a few other thousand people (note: we are all writing different novels. It might be awkward otherwise). I mentioned in my last post that I would talk about my prepwork for said Secret Novel (which is already sold and has a release date) if goaded. And I’ve been goaded.

So here goes, the birth of a novel.


For me, ideas come from everywhere. There is no such thing as a good or bad idea, by the way. They’re like atoms. They just exist. It’s what you do with them that’s good or bad. For me, an idea becomes a novel when I can’t put it down. When it gets bigger instead of smaller in my head. So for this one, I got it while on a boat in the middle of a river, and then I came home and wrote a short story. Normally the short story puts most ideas to rest, but this one was still running around like a hyperactive toddler. I knew it was going to require a novel to shut it up.


Well, you can’t. Because it’s still secret. But I based SHIVER on one of my short stories, and it’s here. (warning, tis not beautiful).


Once upon a time, Maggie was an author who didn’t finish novels. It was a long time ago, and the novels were bad anyway*, but the point remains that none of them had endings, unless you consider scenes where the aliens come down and kill everyone to be excellent denouements (Only works if it’s War of the Worlds. Otherwise, not so hot).

*One novel, rewritten eleven times, was entitled THE WINDING RIVER and was about all of the unicorns in the world being hunted down so that their horns could be melted into things to make enchanters sexy. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically the gist.

Until Maggie realized that these terrible things didn’t happen if she actually had, you know, an ending. Once she didn’t allow herself to chase the fuzzy but dangerous plot bunnies until after she had an ending, the aliens went away.

So, for my NaNo novel, this is the most important thing. I needed to know the ending first. I do this with all my novels, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that I know how the conflict will be solved (though sometimes it does) -- it means I know what the ending looks like. I know where the final scene will be, though I don’t always know why. For instance, at the end of Ballad, I knew I wanted James to be making a terribly hard choice and I really, really wanted to burn someone alive.


Usually, the summary happens at the very beginning, when I first get the idea. The summary is a paragraph long and looks like the blurb on the back of the book. It’s what I use to convince my editors to buy the book, and also helps me clarify theme and plot. It also gets me excited. For my NaNo book, since I had the short story first, the summary came after the short story and the ending. And I’d share it, but it’s Top Secret until everything is announced. Sorry. More on this later.


This is where characters start coming in. Generally they get names first; in fact, sometimes they arrive with them. To me, the name is the first part of their personality, because I believe you either become your name or run as far away from it a you can. Anyway, once I have these characters named, I start to brainstorm on who they are, where they came from, and most importantly, what sort of people they were to get themselves into the problem that I’m writing about.

So this involves me thinking of their family background, what their hopes and fears are, what motivates them. How will they interact with the other main characters? I don’t want two characters who are very similar. I also don’t want characters that are too stable -- I can’t have lots of lovely angst if my characters aren’t changing in some way. Usually that means something just happened to them that’s forcing a change or something in their life is becoming untenable and they need to change, or the mere introduction of the other character is making them change. Characters that stay the same throughout the book? Boring.

Also, here’s the thing about characters: they drive the plot, not the other way around. There’s no point in me brainstorming on the plot anymore without knowing the characters first, because it’s plot without context. One way expressway to writer’s block.


Scenes are my building blocks. For every book, I have a core of ten or twelve scenes that make the book what it is, and a lot of these scenes appear during the initial brainstorming/ prep work. Remember that noodling over characters I’ve been doing before now? Well, a lot of times it will make one of these core scenes appear. For those of you that have read SHIVER, some of the core scenes are the bathtub scene, the candy shop scene, and the Bronco scene near the end. If you’ve read BALLAD, core scenes were the Dee/ James scene in D.C., the final bonfire scene, and the beer scene.

Basically, when I get the idea for a core scene, my brain explodes and I get very happy: I know ‘em when I see ‘em. And they always grow out of character rather than by plot. The goal when I’m doing early brainstorming/ pre-drafting is to tease out as many of these as I possibly can. Right now, for Secret Novel, I have four of them. And then I have four other scenes that need to happen to get to The End, but I’m not sure how they’ll go down. They’re negotiable, so I don’t think of them as core scenes.

The scenes that don’t appear during my character musing occur during my final planning stage, when I am assembling my playlist and determining my themes I want to explore. Once upon a time, I’d use the core scenes to write a two page synopsis, full of lies and damn lies between the core scenes, but for this book, I’m going to see if I’ve outgrown my synopsis stage and just do a very ugly document with the scenes listed and the ending, all topped off by my two main characters’ descriptions and backgrounds listed very briefly, as I would’ve for a synopsis. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I get more self-aware and efficient with my writing process as I move along this writerly life and learn my process better.

Ooh, ooh, I should mention that characters definitely dictate the scene building process. At one point, I was stuck in the brainstorming phase and I realized it was because my characters didn’t have motivation for moving further -- they only had the plot summary telling them to go places. I had to go back and figure out what would move them in that direction in their life and add it into their backstory. Then, bingo! Onward.

Basically, I think of the whole process like a road trip. I need to know the ending, because that’s my destination. If I don’t know where I’m going, how do I know when I get in the car if I’m going to end up someplace I actually want to be? And then the scenes are like little milestones that mean I’m going in the right direction; places I definitely want to visit. The rest? Is all up to wandering from milestone to milestone, taking the scenic route. I might go a wrong way, but I can always double back to the last milestone and strike out a different way until I find the right one.*

*this is actually the way I drive. It’s maybe a little terrifying for those who like more structure.


So to prep for my NaNo novel I have:

-had idea

-written short story based on idea

-come up with an ending for the novel

-written a summary

-found my main characters

-brainstormed some core scenes that I’m excited to write

-set up a musical playlist that conforms to the theme and mood I’m looking for

-brainstormed more core scenes

-gotten stuck and realized I needed SiblingProblems to make my plot work
written a document that has my scenes in sort of order, along with my ending. henceforth known as FAKE SYNOPSIS

And now I’m ready to go! Any questions? Comments? Derisive laughter?


Mariah said...

Thanks so much hopefully this will help me finish my novel this time!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

I love hearing your process. I'm the same way with the initial idea it always comes to me like a spark where I can clearly see in my head the begining or starting incident and the climax. But I'm totally the opposite on names. I can see my characters and I know a bit about them but I have no idea what they're called and I often go through several name changes until I land on the one that fits perfectly.

Myra said...

"If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I get more self-aware and efficient with my writing process as I move along this writerly life and learn my process better."

This puts hopeful little bunnies in my tummy (not plot ones ... ). Having just rewritten my second half ... twice ... it's nice to know that efficiency is in my future.

I mean, hopefully.

As always, you inspire! ;)

Karina@Motherhood and the Creative Life said...

Thank you for sharing your process! I have to say that I attempted novels before and always quit them and now that I've finally finished my first, I realize that a big part of it was because I knew the ending ahead of time and I kind of "dreamed" up really important scenes along the way even before I sat down to write it. Now, I'm attempting my second novel and I've found that I've done even more prep work than the last time, so hopefully that will help me.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Hee hee, Myra . . . yeah, it does get easier! or, different. ;) And yep, Karina, the ending makes a huge, huge difference for me.

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