NaNo Prep: A Shameless Excess of Plotting by Amy Bai | Author Guest Post

October 23, 2015 Guest Post 2

Ah, it’s that time of year again: when frost coats your windshield in the morning, the trees all get naked, kiddies get dressed up and demand candy from their neighbors… and writers everywhere go batshiz crazy trying to get in 1,666.7 words per day come hell, high water, or the Blue Screen of Death.

On November 1st we’re all chipper and ready to go: Twitter is crowded with motivational quotes and READY-SETs. A few weeks later those who’ve met their goals are justifiably crowing– and the rest of us are, well, still determined, and cancelling dinner-dates catch up. By the end of the month there will be an amazing number of sick days taken, sleepless nights endured, meals skipped, wine bottles emptied, social engagements forgotten, keyboards broken, and (no doubt) carpal tunnel cases reported. I once made it to 42K in week three. I also drove to the grocery store in my fluffy pajamas and a pair of mortifyingly gross slippers. Thank god for friends who stop you at the automatic doors, or I would probably have wandered the aisles filling my cart with nothing but pistachios and Riesling and tried to pay with my driver’s license.

I admit it: I’ve never made it to 50K in a month–or, at least, not during November. I am determined to pull it off this time, and not just because I’ve got deadlines to meet. (Though I cannot deny, those are pretty motivating.) My evil plan to make this happen is to bury myself in such an elaborate map of my novel that I have no plausible excuse for a lack of forward momentum. It’s worked for me before. So for this year’s attempt, I’ve beefed up my usual level of crazy. There are plenty of great plotting methods out there, from the Snowflake to the Beat Sheet to the Tent Poles, and I’ve tried quite a few of them, with varying degrees of success (and failure). After all this experimenting I’ve come up with my own, which you can see below. Fair warning: it’s weird and numbers-oriented, kind of like me. If you don’t like numbers, or Excel, or weirdness, feel free to run away screaming and have yourself a mai tai now. J

Step 1: I write a back jacket blurb. This is basically a three paragraph hooky-bit that outlines your story in the most general way possible. I do this only because it helps me pin down the main conflict right away–not because I have any hope that I’ll be using it later on.

Step 2: I write an event sheet— a list of events that have to happen in the story. I do this in Excel. Each event gets no more than a few sentences of description. I list the projected number of scenes, the character each event will have for its focus, the point of view character(s) and each character participating. I also give each event a title, based on the Save The Cat beats of a film script. I find that as I write these out, they build pretty naturally on each other, and soon I have what looks like a fairly coherent plot: a thing which never fails to pleasantly surprise me.

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Step 3: I assign each event two numbers: one for its relation to the story’s plot arc, and one for its relation to the story’s emotional arc. The plot arc gets numbers from 1-15, with 1 being basically two people having a relaxed convo over a cuppa, and 15 being crazy-intense-oh-hey-this-might-be-the-climax. The emotional arc gets numbers from -10 to 10, with -10 being the lowest point, the dark night of the soul, as it were, and 10 being ultimate triumph, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Both the negatives and the positives are intense in different ways; the closer we get to 0, the less intense the scene is.

Have you run away yet? No? Oh good!

Because Step 4 is making line graphs of your events. This is, admittedly, a pretty subjective process –your assignment of numbers before you write a scene and after you write it may be completely different; your idea of a scene’s intensity may wind up being really different from what your readers think of it. But for me, charting the events helps me see the general shape of my story: it gives me a sort of a visual check that can suggest places where things will be too slow, or too piled-up.

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I compare my charts to the classic story mountain diagram –not necessarily because I think all stories should look like this (I don’t), but because I find it’s a nice barometer for whether my story is “plotty” enough. I know that as a writer I tend to focus more on character development than on action, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. This helps me see where I might be doing that.

Lastly, I plug all of this into Scrivener with notes and maps and research and wordcount targets, and whee, it’s off to the races.

So… there you have it. This may be the kind of thing that only works for a handful of people, I don’t know– but for me, it’s detailed enough to keep my very disorganized mind on track, and it focuses on the things that I find important in a story. It reminds me, when I get lost (which happens much more often than I’d like), what I thought was important in my story.

Good luck, fellow NaNo-ers! May the odds, or at least the wordcounts, be ever in your favor.


Amy Bai is the author of SWORD, a YA fantasy novel and the first of a series: she lives in Maine with her husband and two crazy-fluffy dogs. You can find her muttering about writing and books and other things on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Are any of you participating in NaNo next month? Need a cheerleader? How are you preparing?

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