As discussed in last week’s post, I spent a considerable amount of time figuring out my novel’s theme.
Once I’d finally nutted it out, I then started brainstorming potential fixes for act three. As previously mentioned, I had realised that my manuscript, at least act three, was a bit simple and I had fallen into the lazy habit of recounting my characters’ every action.
It is perfectly find to have a simple story. Your story does not need to have complexity within it, but given the meaty theme I had landed on I realised I needed to craft scenes that hit on multiple notes: no one scene could do only one thing.
I knew that act three needed to be majorly restructured and my go getter attitude was screaming at me to open the word document and to start making changes immediately; I wanted to leap off the cliff because the best way to solve anxiety is to do something.
But opening that word document and randomly making changes would not be helpful. If anything, it would only further break and confuse the act.
Instead, what I needed to do was create an outline for act three, a mud map that I could then follow during the revision of this section. It is far easier to get a grip on a three-page outline then a whole novel, or even a whole act. It is also easier to fix a plot hole in an outline than it is in a manuscript.
Before diving into the outline however, I knew I needed to spend some serious time brainstorming my plot points and developing the world, the latter of which is not my strong suit.
So, this is what I did.
First, feeling totally unmoored, I spent some time consulting various beloved blog posts and chapters of craft books and YouTube video that unpacked plot and world building.
Here is my favourite definition of plot: A character actively pursuing a goal and encountering difficulties.
Plot is made up of four things: a character, a goal, proactive pursuit, and difficulties.
When we think of world building, most of us think of Tolkenish novel where the author has gone into painstaking detail to create a visceral alternative world that includes history, political systems, economic systems, environmental factors, and languages.
These days, most traditional authors are contracted to release a novel a year and most indie authors (at least of the rapid release model) release multiple novella length publications a year.
When you publish at this speed, there is no time to do extensive world building. You cannot dedicate the time to construct an iceberg when readers will only see the tip. Instead, you build as much of the world as necessary to a) write the story and b) create the illusion of an iceberg.
Once I revisited these craft basics, I grabbed my sneaks, a water bottle and a tiny, un-precious notebook and I headed out for a two hour walk.
I’ve written before about the connection between walking and creativity and Cal Newport’s idea of Productive Meditation, but in short:
Walking = ideas.
Long walks = solution to creative problems.
Alone, without music, or a podcast, I went out with the intention of generating ideas for act three while also determining the story arcs for two main characters.
I brainstormed …
- basic character motivations (money, fame, sex, power, survival, justice, reward, recognition, happiness, revenge)
- character backstories
- potential obstacles
- plot points
- And answered questions like: what is at stake? What would make them do that? What do they want? What are they willing to do to get it? How does the character change? What inspires this change?
This activity is mentally draining as you are challenging yourself to think outside of your normal, lazy and predictable thought loops. After this activity was complete, I put my notebook away and let my mind process all of the ideas that boiled up from this long walk.
The next day I bought a tonne of colourful sticky notes and with the ideas generated from the day before still in my mind, I started exploring all of the possible directions the story could go in while exploring all the potential ‘what ifs’.
I wrote out particular plot point and then followed the thread to the end to see what would happen if …
- X died.
- Y died.
- X and Y had a bad marriage.
- X and Y had a good marriage.
- X is secretly in love with Z.
- X hates Z.
And so on.
Once I’d exhausted this process, I was able to step back and look at my sticky note filled wall and see which plot point were the most interesting and which best supported the novel’s theme.
Sticky notes support the exploratory process as the experience is tactical (movement helps creative ideation) and it allows you to see new connections between threads and story ideas.
Then, at last, I opened a word document and started writing the outline, at least for act three (remember: when you work out the ending, it means you can also work out what needs to happen in acts one and two) .
Because I wanted my revision to be as easy as possible, I decided to create a detailed outline where I broke the act into three sections and each section was broken into scenes and each scene was broken down into dot points.
Part one: Establish Rebecca’s goal and introduce first obstacle. Subplot: marital problems.
Scene one: Rebecca’s digital magazine is losing readers. She needs to do something to increase traffic to her site.
i. Rebecca and Carl are fighting while getting ready for work when Rebecca receives a notification from a junior assist: the latest report shows a huge drop in their website’s traffic.
ii. Emergency meeting is held where the team brainstorm potential solutions, but none are in alignment with Rebecca’s work ethic or her vision for the publication.
iii. Meeting ends and Rebecca calls Mary her mentor for advice. She recommends that Rebecca nominate her digital magazine for an award as a way to generate public interest.
iv. Rebecca hangs up and sees multiple voicemail messages from Carl. She doesn’t listen to them; she already has enough things to worry about.
You can see in the above example how there are two things going on within the scene: Rebecca is fighting to save her career and her marriage, and the goal, the award is introduced. [Note: this is NOT the story I am writing, it’s just an example].
Once I mapped out all of act three, I then began to work on my world building.
As previously mentioned, world building is NOT my greatest strength and to be honest, because world building can influence and shape the plot so much, it is best to figure this stuff out before you do your outline — but that’s not what I did and I’m not going to pretend!
So, once I completed the outline, I then pulled out another stack of post it notes, opened my web browser and started doing some intense research.
My novel is set in a future time where climate change has resulted in some pretty massive shifts to our world’s ecology.
In order to figure out what was plausible, I needed to figure out what was possible and that meant doing some research into what is happening now and what scientist are predicting for our future.
I researched governmental policy and all the sectors climate change affects: agriculture, industry, residential, transport, and electricity, as well as the roll-on effects of climate change: floods, fires, acidic oceans, loss of habitat, animal extinction etc.
I looked at future predications and potential solutions, and from all of this information I was able to map out a potential future for my protagonists.
This process is reasonably idiosyncratic, but again, think about how this approach could be useful for your novel regardless of the genre you are writing in.
During this research phrase, I filled my wall with sticky notes containing all the information I discovered, but I also wrote out random ideas for small exchanges between characters or potential plot points that could occur – both of which were inspired by the research.
I then went back to my outline and carefully embedded this information so that all my world building efforts could be scene in the plot.
And that’s it!
When we see how other writers get their writing done, it generates ideas for our own creative process.
That’s the intention of documenting this lengthy process here: to show, in detail, one writer’s approach to revision.
This process is not clean, linear, or efficient. It is spooling, swish-backing, and exploratory.
By investing this time in the outlining stage, presumably, less time will be spent during the final editing phase, or at least, that’s my hope.
It’s unusual for me to share my writing process while I’m smack bang in the middle of it, but I am hoping that sharing these details and opening up my creative journal will provide you with a road map, or at least an idea on how you could approach the outlining or revision of your own work.
Now, I’d love to hear from you, do you find it useful to see explicit examples of other writer’s processes? Do you have a similar approach to the one outlined above? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it!
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