To plot or not to plot? There's really no question.

NaNoWriMo is one-third gone, and I'm just now starting to write -- unexpected domestic situations threw me off my stride, and the Catholic Reading Project took up most of my writing time. However, better to start late than not to start at all. I'll still try to get 50,000 words written on my novel within 30 days, although maybe not by the end of November.

waiting for the Muse; writing without plot
Right now I'm working on a rough outline of the plot. Even though I've been creating this story in my mind for more than thirty years, since I was not consciously constructing a novel, just a kind of ongoing adventure, I probably have the makings of a series of novels -- half a dozen, at least, spanning 40-50 years in the lives of my main characters -- so I really need to carve out the chunk that will make up just the first book. That means not just deciding how far the first story will go (that was pretty easy to decide), but how to shape it in such a way that it will have its own internal dynamic and novelistic shape. That shouldn't take too long, but today I've been studying up on how to plot a novel so that I can get the plot into rough form before starting to pound the keyboard to get started on the 50,000 first draft.

It's surprising how many aspiring writers think there is something inauthentic about planning the shape of a novel before you write it; apparently there are two camps, plotters and SOTP (seat of the pants) writers, a.k.a. "pantsers." Many years ago, when I first started trying to write short stories and novels, I was a "pantser," and I've learned that it is sheer madness to just "wait for the Muse" or to expect a story to tell itself. I've spent more than thirty years studying literature since then, and I know that while a story's structure may be invisible to the reader (and may even have emerged unconsciously from the writer's mind), every story that "works" has a discernible structure that paces the action in a satisfying way, and every major development needs to be psychologically necessary and satisfying. What Aristotle said of tragedies 2,300 years ago is still true of modern novels: the best ones need a beginning, a middle, and an end that are causally related, a unified, rather than episodic, plot: i.e., actions are realistically motivated, one thing causes another, all the details contribute to moving the plot forward and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. It is MUCH easier to produce such a tale if you put a little planning into it ahead of time.

Snoopy typing "not the end"; how not to end a novel
Why Snoopy never became a great novelist.
Too many hastily written novels lack many of these features. Even in a novel series, each individual novel needs to have a self-contained plot -- a conflict that gets resolved, a protagonist who overcomes a foe, achieves a goal, reaches some satisfying new stage of growth or development -- even though further novels will may be picking the protagonist up where the previous book left off. There are many amateurish series that fail to do this: the installments are not really self-contained stories, but mere episodes in a larger story and taken by themselves they leave the reader unsatisfied. They are, in fact, simply fragments of a lengthy serial novel, designed to keep readers buying successive fragments in hopes of eventually getting to a real resolution. (I rant about this a bit over on my Catholic Reader blog.) The effect of such works is to suggest that the writer is crass and sloppy, someone who just wants to string the reader along for as long as possible and keep the money flowing in.

For centuries -- nay, millennia -- writers understood that a good story to be well told needed a carefully devised structure. This was true of the great epic poets -- neither Homer nor Dante would have dreamt of just sitting down to write without an intricate and careful plan to guide him. Even today, movie scriptwriters know that a film script has to follow a particular kind of story arc in order to satisfy the unconscious needs of viewers; they can't simply intersperse dialogue and action scenes. Really successful novelists, those with contracts to produce a couple of new titles each year, could never fulfill their contractual obligations if they just sat down at their keyboards and waited for inspiration to strike -- they know they need a carefully structure outline, and they schedule their time so that a certain amount of progress gets made each day. Plot outlines are especially important, of course, for really prolific authors who use ghostwriters. The author creates the characters and the plot outline, and then trusts the ghost to follow the plan. (By the way, this is an honorable practice that goes back at least 900 years -- Chretien de Troyes, the twelfth-century equivalent of today's best-selling authors of blockbusters, used ghostwriters to complete at least two of his five Arthurian romances.)

So I've been checking out some of the free NaNoWriMo resources to help with plotting, as well as Kindle books on the subject available from Amazon, so that I can have a viable plot outline before I begin writing my NaNoWriMo novel. I'll let you know which ones I find helpful, and why.

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