I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty sure I spend more time planning my writing, than actually writing. Well, for novels, anyway.
After all, fiction writing is more than just a witty idea and some time spend sweating over a keyboard. You need:
- believable characters, including your protagonist and some form of antagonist, sidekicks, minions, foils, secondary characters, victims, witnesses, bystanders, etc.
- an interesting plot that will tease your readers just enough to keep them turning the page, which could include any dangers and intrigues and twists and red herrings
- some way for the protagonist to grow/learn from the unravelling of the plot, and some way for the reader to relate to this character growth
- a universe to place the whole mess (this includes physical settings, as well as things like laws of physics or magic)
Those all take time to develop. And the longer the piece, the more involved everything gets, the more background work you have to do.
And some of that background work might never make it into the text. For Deirdre and Evan’s story, I know exactly what the one antagonist is. I know where it fits into the hierarchy of spirits, why it does the things it does, exactly what it looks like. Everything. But for most of that information, there’s no way that Deirdre could learn it. Well, no way that isn’t a cheesy cop-out, anyway. So most of that background information is never, ever going to appear in the text. But because I know it, I can make sure that the character stays true to its structure. So I still do all that intensive background work, because there is value to the overall story.
So how are you going to plan out all this stuff? Obviously, you’re starting with some grain of an idea (type of world, a protagonist, an antagonist, a mystery, an emotion you want to explore, a nifty opening line.) But where do you go from there?
There are some articles floating around the Internet on how brainstorming is not the most productive idea. They’re actually what got me thinking about this writing this entry. But the research done pertains exclusively to group brainstorming sessions, which actually lead to more linear thinking. (Source.) So brainstorm away, just do it by yourself.
Brainstorming is basically what I do. I plan out my novel-length projects in journals (keeps everything together, and it’s harder to lose pages.) Each page or so tends to briefly cover a new topic. I’ll write a question at the top of the page, and start writing down whatever comes to mind. Here’s what I was working on last night:
Like I said, the antagonist is kind of fuzzy at this point. And I’ve realized that, especially for this particular piece, I need to plot out the novel around his actions. The two protagonists are following his trail for most of the plot, so it just makes sense. Anyway, I have a sense of who the antagonist is fundamentally, but I have no idea what he looks like, what he does (or did) for a living, what his family and friends are like (if he still has any,) or what his name is.
So the first thing I did when I sat down to write last night was scrawl “WHO IS THE BAD GUY?” across the top of the page. I’ve been wrestling with this question for weeks. And then what I do can best be described as meditation. I meditate on the question, letting it rattle around in my head for a while. I’ll stare at the page, or at the popcorn ceiling, or at the wall, or at the cat, and I’ll write down whatever comes to mind. I’ll follow each thought until it reaches its conclusion, writing notes or further questions that I’ll either answer or return to later. And then I’ll go back, write down the next thought, and repeat.
I think these journals are about the closest way to map out my scattered thoughts.
Anyway, sometimes all this brainstorming brings me to the point where I can work on a scene. But sometimes I still get stuck.
The easy thing to do is read. Sometimes I just read novels to get my creative juices flowing and give me a taste for language. Other times, I’ll peruse my collection of reference texts, looking for an article, or even a single line, that stirs up some ideas.
My other technique might seem a little oddball, but it works.
I bust out my Tarot cards.
Mm-hmm, those colourful cards popular with fortune tellers. They really should be more popular with writers, I think. Each card features at least one character, and some kind of mini-story. Full spreads can tell entire stories. They’re also perfect for people who need visual cues, as each card is typically heavily detailed. And one other thing that I enjoy about the Tarot is that each card has a main theme, but then there are details. I can pick and choose from the details, depending on what fits the mood of the piece or character. Usually, the detail I need stands out as I’m reading the interpretations and studying the card. For example, in one of my decks, the Queen of Pentacles features a peacock. The card came up in a very early personal reading, and I latched onto the peacock. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I’ve developed a mild obsession with peacocks since then.
I have three decks, though I haven’t worked with one at all. There’s just something off about it (any of you who have worked with Tarot decks before might know what I’m talking about.) So there are only two that I use. One is a bright deck. The cards are full of colour (especially gold) and there’s just something warm about the whole deck. Even the more grim cards, like Death and The Tower. This deck tends to work very well for protagonists and other benevolent characters.
The other deck is a vampire deck. It features mostly shades of grey and very little colour. What’s neat about this particular deck is while it does lead to the more traditional interpretations of the cards, there is also a darker side to each card. If you’re familiar with Tarot reading terms, the entire deck is basically a standard deck reversed. This deck is perfect for exploring antagonists.
I tend to draw single cards to represent characters. Deirdre, for example, is the Queen of Cups, both physically and emotionally. The Queen came up early in Deirdre’s development, and there was something in how she was staring off into the distance, a mysterious melancholy to her. Evan is the Knight of Swords in the emotional sense (as the Knight is fully armoured.) He’s young and energetic and ready to charge into battle to protect the weak.
That’s the Queen on the left, and the Knight on the right.
I’ve also done full spreads. My favourite is the Celtic Cross spread. It’s time consuming, but it gives me a good look a the character as he stands in the present, what his past influences are, and where he’s heading if things continue in the same vein. I did one last night for my mysterious antagonist character. First, I drew a card to represent the character himself, and the lucky card was the Two of Swords, an blindfolded man fighting unseen/imaginary foes. Which works quite well to describe the antagonist at the beginning of the story.
I then threw a full Celtic Cross spread, even though I was tired. I analyzed each card and its interpretations, pulling out the important bits. And no, I’m not going to detail the full spread. I’m still…digesting the information, as it were.
And the poor guy still doesn’t have a name.
Oh, and if you’re curious, there is a book called Tarot for Writers. I’ve flipped through it, but none of the exercises have worked for my needs so far.