A metaphor for preparing for writing your novel

Today as I was driving home from work (which, oddly enough, is one of the times when I get creative thoughts), I was thinking about the upcoming Jabber meeting for the Journey and the topic of how best to prepare your novel. My own 2010 NaNo novel planning has proceeded fairly well: I have a basic plot (an orphaned teenage girl with artistic talent travels through a painting into a world where paintings have magical power), a set of characters (the girl and her boyfriend (in our world); a king and queen in the other world who lost their own daughter (she was actually murdered); the queen’s brother, an artist who brings the girl to his world; and the son of the queen’s brother, who has (hidden) political aspirations) and a setting (the world where artists have power over whatever they can paint). What I didn’t have yet was that living feeling that novels get when they begin to write themselves in your head. Then, while I was sitting at a traffic light, it hit me.

Magic in this other world is controlled by artists who, out of self-preservation, haven’t codified how magic works. What if my heroine were someone who was more scientifically minded and who valued knowledge sharing. Could she make an impact on this very tradition-oriented culture? But she is a teenager–would a high school student know much about process and knowledge sharing? These are usually things one learns on the job or maybe in college… unless perhaps she had a high school teacher who was someone who entered the teaching profession with a corporate background…

And then I pictured our heroine in the other world trying to communicate with her mentor. Maybe she would paint her mentor sleeping and then create a safe, limited world in a thought bubble in the painting and paint herself and her teacher in there. Then she and her teacher would find their consciousness as pictured in that world and they could have a heart-to-heart talk. But the heroine wouldn’t know how to end the dream and return herself and her teacher…

And, just like that, it came to me: the major scenes in my story could be framed by paintings my heroine (or her enemies and allies) might make. They could provide visual imagery and a way to link the major scenes in the story to the way magic behaves.

Which brought me to the original topic: planning my novel. What I was doing felt very much like an intrepid explorer out in the wilderness trying to blaze a trail where none previously existed. In planning, I didn’t want a four-lane paved highway. I think that it is possible to overplan every detail and lose the spontaneity and “life” that spells the difference between a page-turner and a book that has lost its way. On the other hand, without some kind of path and map through the wilderness, I knew I would not be successful in writing the whole novel in November. It is a balancing act of discovery, of trailblazing: and, just like that, I knew I had found a helpful metaphor for novel planning and writing.

Planning a novel is like finding (or hacking out) a trail through the forest. Writing the novel is bringing all the characters and the readers through the forest (mostly relying on the paths and maps already found). The style each novelist uses in finding their path can vary greatly; and the success of each style itself can vary depending on the situation the characters are in. Sometimes you need a fine tool and subtle strategy (e.g., following one’s Muse or applying specific techniques for coming up with innovative plot twists). Other times a brute force approach (relying on brainstorming and logical reasoning) works best.

What do you find works best for you? How are you doing in your 2010 NaNo novel planning?

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