I could probably do it if my boss gave me three months off – one month to do everything that one has to do to catch up when one finally goes on leave, one month to do as much research as possible, and one month to retreat with my laptop and internet connection to a reasonably sized desert island. Hang on – I don’t like desert; I like shady trees, cool breezes and fresh water. (I also like dessert, but that’s a topic for another blog.)
Why do people talk about a desert island when they mean a deserted island? Yes, deserted. No people, phone calls and other annoying distractions, apart from perhaps a very on-the-ball landlord who can take care of the generator. I’d definitely need one of those on my island since my laptop batteries don’t last as long as the manufacturer claims, and I do like a ceiling fan and a fridge of juices to keep me cool, not to mention a pot of tea for each of those thirty mornings when I would need to get up early and write at least two thousand words for that day. If the same landlord could provide fresh fruit and yoghurt, and be on hand to remove any intrusive snakes, that would be a bonus.
Karen S. Wiesner’s book First Draft in 30 Days suggests that the finished product of that month is a detailed, intensive outline that is so well worked out that it doubles as a first draft. Yes, this is possible, and while I can’t claim to have written my novel in a month, I can certainly say that I’ve outlined it. Four weeks ago, after uploading my previous novel Benicio’s Bequest to Amazon, I took a week’s leave to pick up the threads of a story I hadn’t looked at all year. It consisted of a one-page synopsis and a first chapter that I wrote for a competition back in January. A month ago I set about turning it into my next novel.
While I find Wiesner’s book helpful, I prefer her later book From First Draft to Finished Novel which is one of my favourite outlining tools, along with a fabulous book on screenwriting called Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. They are both in my essential book list under “Reading” in the menu above. Desert(ed) island books, I suppose I could call them...
I have always been a lover of movies, and find the principles of screenwriting to be the best basis for storytelling, especially stories that have a traditional three-act structure. Snyder’s book provides 15 plot points or “beats” which I have adopted as a checklist to make sure that I ratchet up the tension throughout the length of the novel. I then expand this list of beats by using Wiesner’s Storyplan Checklist. This is a marvellous tool that gives the writer a chance to explore how the outer conflicts of the plot impact on the inner conflicts of each character, motivating them to amend and evolve their original goals, providing the twists and turns that are vital to an intriguing plot.
I applied Snyder’s principles to my one-page synopsis, expanding it to about six pages, before turning to my four main characters. Since I was now back at work after my week’s leave, I spent my little free time thinking about my characters and each one’s place in the story. I made use of the Myers-Briggs personality typing to decide on each character’s core personality, and to make them essentially different from each other. Using the templates that Wiesner provides at the back of her second book, I drew up character sketches of between 3 and 4 pages for each character. This took about two weeks, on and off. Wiesner’s Storyplan Checklist then came into play as each of my characters’ goals and motivations evolved, and I tweaked my story once more, expanding it to twelve pages.
The next step was to break that story up into chapter-sized chunks in point form, with some kind of plot twist at the end of each section. This six-page chapter breakdown has now become the outline I will use every day from now until the final edit in about eight months to a year’s time. I will never print this out, because it changes constantly as I write and edit. It is my page reference, my guide to plot points and table of contents all rolled into one, and reads like a mini novel of twenty-six chapters.
Having reached this stage, I returned to the original first chapter I had written in January, and began re-writing it a few days ago. It is now a month since I uploaded my previous e-book to Amazon, and I can honestly say that in that month I have drafted the outline of a whole novel. Now all I have to do is write the thing!