The Planning Process: Pre-Nano Panic

Less than one week- a little over four days (98 hours to be exact), and the last minute panic is starting to set it. I started out this month with a plan held together by my best intentions, and in the typical style of life- everything went sideways. In spite of my best efforts, I am reaching crunch time with a mountain of prep work to do before nano begins in four days plus some change. This is the last minute scramble, the mad dash to get to the starting line before the race begins. The panic is rising, but I have a plan.

A few years ago I started to finally get organized with my prep work. Above my work space I have a shelf full of binders, each with it’s own little sticky note saying what story is contained within it. Each one holds my ‘story bible,’ so to speak. All of my prep work and notes are in it, organized into categories. And as I work, that binder is typically my constant companion. There is even one on that shelf for this blog right here- with all of my ideas for future posts and notes on ones that have already been cast out into the world.

Prepping for any new story is an exhilarating and also slightly daunting task. It’s like a relationship- when you have your first idea, it’s all fresh and exciting, you are constantly learning something new about it, it takes up all of your waking thoughts. And after a while, the honeymoon starts to end. You begin to learn where you will each fit in one another’s daily lives: this is the prepping stage. I have a pretty steady process I use when I’m getting ready to start on another big project.

Step One: The Research.

I love this part of the game, soaking up new information that will inevitably give me another inspired idea to chase down. I will peruse the internet and find books to take notes off of. The library and kindle unlimited become a writer’s best friend. Usually this is the stage that will help morph the ideas of my work, changing my original track subtly. I like to key into little details and let those take on the role of deciding factors. At this stage I am also starting to think about the bones of my story and reviewing my options re: world building and characters. Everything is still fluid and malleable.

Step Two: World Building.

I think it’s always important to know the ‘rules’ of the world you will be working in, I like to get as much detail as possible in this section, though only a small portion of it will actually make it into the finished piece. To see more on this process, take a look at my post: World Building Brick by Brick. You can also find a copy of my worksheet on my Resources page here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources

Step Three: Character Analysis:

This is perhaps one of my favorite parts of the planning stage: getting into the heads of my characters. The current project has more players than I usually work with, so that will make it a bit more complicated. I go through and make up an analysis for each one. I think it helps with the continuity of their actions throughout the story if you know what motivates them. A writing exercise that I like to take part in when I’m at this stage is delving into their backstory. I will pick a certain moment that might have been prominent in their personal background and write a scene about it. It’s good practice and helps you get to know your characters on a deeper level. Also, as I am in the process of writing a story, I will occasionally pick a scene and write it from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes it is fun to take a step back and look at the problem of your novel through fresh eyes. It can give you some new ideas that you hadn’t thought of before. To see more about my Analyses, check out this prior post: Character Analysis. As with the World Building Worksheet, you can find a copy of my character analysis sheet on my Resources page right here: Top Shelf: Writing Resources.

Step Four: Plotting/Outlining:

This is when you finally get to delve into the heart of the story. I prefer to work with a bulleted outline noting key scenes, and then I will fill in more detailed information about the scenes/transitions below it. This is either hand written or done on the computer, whichever seems to be working better for me at that particular time. I like to leave my outline somewhat open so that I can still follow the natural flow of the story as I am writing it- if a new idea sparks inside as I’m actually working through the scenes, I want the freedom to be able to follow that without having major issues with the remainder of my plot. My outline is pretty fluid, I will usually add and subtract from it as I am working.

Step Five: This is where the magic begins with the rough draft. It is an exciting and terrifying time. I am constantly having to remind myself that I am simply shoveling sand so that later I can build castles.

With only four days left to go, I am currently still on step one. Slightly overwhelmed with the amount of work I have ahead of me, but I know I can get it done. The madness will just be starting a little bit early this year. July 1, the start of Camp Nano is when the rough draft will finally be in progress. I can do this, I know it- that will be my mantra for the next month. Wish me luck, my friends.

The Allure of the Mythical Vampire

We all privately crave the darkness and the dangers that are lurking within. We want to feel our blood rushing through our veins as our heart pounds in our chests; we love to be scared, to feel slightly out of control. Fear, if done correctly, can be intoxicating, daring you to remember how alive you really are- and how quickly that can change.

Many of us stopped fearing the things that go bump in the night when we grew out of our dinosaur pajamas. Instead, those fears began to morph, to change to more practical terrors: burglars, natural disasters, the math teacher, taxes. And yet there is still a part of us that might ensure that the closet door is actually closed before going to sleep, because you never know when the boogeyman will decide to reanimate beside your hanging sweatshirts and wreak havoc on the living- for old time’s sake.

Vampires have inundated popular culture in recent years; books, movies, TV shows- we see them everywhere. However, when you look through history, this is not a solitary incident. The popularity of the fanged creatures ebbs and flows, standing out as a beacon, peppered periodically throughout the ages. They embody the fears of the time periods that created them, allowing us to analyze our very real fears through the lens of fiction. Lets take Dracula, as an example- the epitome of the vampire novel. Bram Stoker wrote this book in 1897. At the time, England had the largest ports in the world- which led to a general widespread fear of incoming diseases, foreigners and immigrants. Stoker brought to life the fears of his contemporaries by bringing a foreign monster onto European soil. He wasn’t the only one, this same rule seems to apply to every time period that has reawakened that love of the paranormal. For example in the 80’s- vampires were written as parasites, a disease to be spread from one unsuspecting human to another. This also happened to coincide with the AIDS epidemic, a fear which raced like wildfire through unsuspecting communities.

Fast forward a few decades- what about now? Surely I can’t honestly tell you that the inner workings of the brooding Stephan Salvator or his opposing badass brother, Damen (thank you, Vampire Diaries), could really be telling us something about the psyche of our current society? In fact, I thinks that’s exactly what I’m about to do. If you look through virtually any modern vampire story- The Vampire Diaries, True Blood (or the Sookie Stackhouse series if you prefer the books), The Vampire Chronicles, even Twilight- you will notice a very common thread tying them all together. They concern themselves with the battle of morality vs self acceptance. What is the line between man and monster? Every human being carries within themselves a darkness, as much as we would like to ignore our genetics, it is there. The question is how far do we allow ourselves to delve into this darkness? It is about balancing our desires. When we read about vampires, we are given a venue to explore our darkest desires from a safe vantage point. Whatever that darkness entails: a thirst for power, for vengeance, sexual gratification- it doesn’t matter.

We live in a world filled with fear and a strong sense of the social norm. Our world is unstable, filled with greed, corruption, war, constant fear of job loss, a tumultuous housing market- is it really any wonder that we gravitate towards fiction that circles around a being that is powerful enough to transcend our current problems? They embody the cold control that we do not have in our own lives.

They are all of the things that we wish we could be. They are powerful, but not in an obvious way. They are strong- without the bulging biceps that would give their strength away. They don’t need any gizmos or gadgets, they can be completely autonomous in their actions. They are the loners who are never lonely- thriving in a solitary existence where we flounder, hoping and praying to find someone to befriend. We want to be self-reliant and independent, but we are not.

The fears that encumber us mean nothing to them. Imagine- living in perpetual youth without the constant fear of equalizing death hanging over your head. What would you do, what would you try- if you knew that you had all of the time that the world had to offer you? We can imagine the context of our own mortality, as well as the things that are truly important to us- when we envision a life without the limitations of time. They survive and endure.

Vampires embody all that is desirable to us, they are the bad boys we mistakenly thought we could reform in high school. They provide us with a sense of danger, they are selfish without apology. There is a certain hazardous rush that comes with the concept of knowing that another carries full control over you- they could protect you with every fiber of their being, or destroy you in a single heartbeat. If they want something, they have no qualms about pursuing it, taking it, and enjoying every last moment of it.

There is also that interesting concept that pops up in many versions of these stories- it is the element of the discovery. It’s exciting to think that others are not, in fact, what you would expect them to be. Much as you are aware that you have aspects to your own being that those closest to you would be shocked to find out. We live our lives behind masks, always forgetting that we are not the only one.

Vampires exist as metaphors for our deepest desires, the ones that we hide from the rest of the world. When we read about them or watch them, we get to delve into that piece of us that rarely sees daylight. Our entertainment is a reflection of our lives. It embodies the pieces of ourselves that we are not comfortable openly discussing, so we mask them in the shades of our fiction, wrapping them up in make-believe until we feel we are at a safe enough distance.

 

Character Analysis

We all have a favorite character, the one that leaves us entranced and longing to reach out for more. Its the one we would love to meet, if only they were real, or perhaps we simply adore the thought of getting lost in their lives through the pages of their story. Whether it’s Hermoine Granger’s notorious wit, the brooding Heathcliff, the adventurous Frodo Baggins, or the simple ass-kicking Katniss Everdeen: there is an underlying current of authenticity that ties these characters together. They feel more like actual living, breathing human beings than mere characters on a page. They speak to us in a way that cookie-cutter fiction cannot. Their stories become our stories if only because we allow ourselves to believe in their magic, to believe that someone somewhere is just like them. Or perhaps it is simply because we can glimpse pieces of ourselves within them.

Even the most blindingly original plot can stall and die namelessly if the characters appear too one-dimensional. Bland characters will leave your story flat and easily forgotten. As readers we crave the human elements, a balance between flaws and redeeming traits. We crave the push and pull of conflict, watch the turmoil unfold before our very eyes. We want to see drama that doesn’t directly belong to us. We want to feel something real.

So how do you do it? How do you take a piece of paper and use only the written word to create a fully fleshed out human being? I would love to tell you that there is a secret formula to it; that all you have to do is add a dash of insecurity, a dollop of wit and a whole spoonful of bravery, bake on high for thirty minutes and viola: the perfect character will magically appear and dance across your blank page. But alas, the reality is far less glamorous than the fiction I can spin. What it really comes down to is taking the time to sit down and work hard. Read a few psychology articles if you have to, don’t forget to throw in your common sense and delve deeply. To create the perfect character you need nothing more than a lot of creativity and careful planning.

Personally, my character planning stage is one of the longest and most thought-out portions of my writing process. This is mainly because I am a firm believer that the characters are what truly make a story. As a reader, if I can’t form some type of feeling about the characters involved, I am drastically less likely to finish the book. I don’t even have to like them- but I have to feel something.

I tend to work off of a general worksheet that I’ve created over the years and continue to alter as needed. One of my favorite things to do to really get into a character’s head includes a fun little writing excersize that I encourage anyone to try. I will take a character and start writing about a pivotal moment in their backstory. This is a story that will, more likely than not, never make it into the final product- I write it for me alone. I will also occasionally take an existing scene and write it from another character’s perspective. I find it helpful to figure out their individual motivations throughout the story. My personal motto is to treat each character as though they feel the story is about them.

My character analyses are constantly evolving, I don’t stop adding to it just because I’ve started my writing. In fact, I tend to go back through and do a lot of updating during my editing process to clean it all up. It is at this point that you start to see how your characters fully develop during the story and can fine-tune their journey and reactions along the way.

Below is the general worksheet that I use. Feel free to take it and change it to fit your own process, or send me some suggestions- I am always open to new ideas. For your convenience, I have this worksheet in Word and PDF format, along with a few other tidbits, over on the resources page right here:

Top Shelf: Writing Resources

Without further ado, here it is:

Character Analysis Worksheet

General:

  • Name:
  • Nicknames:
    • Story behind nicknames (if any):
  • Main or minor character:
  • Character’s role:

Physical:

  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Race:
  • Eye color:
  • Hair color:
    • Hair style:
  • Complexion:
  • Build:
    • Height:
    • Weight:
  • Style of clothing:
  • Scars, tattoos or piercings:
  • Most striking or memorable physical feature:
  • Describe their speaking voice and likely vocabulary:

Personality:

  • Type of personality (ex: perky, broody, quiet):
  • Introverted or extroverted:
  • Characteristics/mannerisms:
  • Strengths:
  • Special skills/talents:
  • Weaknesses:
  • Critical flaw (and how it will impact the story):
  • Quirks:
  • Nervous traits:
  • Biases:
  • Passions/convictions:
  • Best friend:
  • Any enemies:
  • Favorites (ex: food, books):
  • Education Level:
  • Effects of their environment on them:

Inner Journey:

  • Back story:
  • Motivation (What does the character really want?):
  • What is the character most afraid of:
  • What is the character’s ‘mask’ that lets them hide from the world:
  • Character’s journey at the end of the story looking back- what they didn’t know:
  • Internal conflicts:
  • External conflicts:

Factors to Identify for Later Writing:

  • How will you set up the story to help your audience relate to the character when they are being introduced into the story?
  • Character flaws and how they are introduced:
  • Meetings with other characters or pivotal scenes from this character’s viewpoint:

Camp Nano Cabin Quest

The ideas have sizzled and slipped through your mind until you finally decided to reach out and grab one. You have committed by taking that step and creating your story on the Camp Nano website, and you still have the rest of the month to plan and prepare for the coming adventure. But something is missing- you haven’t dared search for that illusive ‘perfect cabin’ to lay your virtual head. The quest for a cabin can be an undertaking all on it’s own.

The people that you choose to embark on this daring adventure with can make the difference between crossing safely through the Misty Mountains or getting trapped in the Shire with nothing to do but repaint your door. There is really nothing worse than being forced to admit to yourself that half of your cabin is dead on arrival after five days of virtual silence. And forcing conversation online is just as awkward as real life- take my word on that. So, how do you find the right group when you don’t have Gandalf marking you each for mutual adventure?

Gandalf-Is-Searching-For-Someone-To-Adventure-With-In-Lord-Of-The-Rings

Truthfully, my methods seem to be hit or miss. Although I must say, I am not a huge fan of being randomly sorted. I had expected that it would be like Hogwarts- but in reality there was much less magic and a lot more voids of awkward silence with cabin mates who couldn’t be bothered to log back in once we hit the first of the month when we were set to embark. I have been a firm ‘custom cabin-er’ since they first started to allow them. The big problem though? Everyone is excited before the first day hits, they are full of a bright enthusiasm for their project. But once you get a few days in, the reality of the mountain you face starts to set in. People don’t want to give up their lives for an entire month. So they disappear into the ether- if they even show up at all.

Going through the message boards to find a new group is like combing through the classifieds looking for a blind date (that’s probably an outdated analogy- umm- tinder, is that what people use now? Swipe left…or is it right?) Most people are pretty specific- age limits, geographical boundaries, genres- I even came across one person who was making every prospective cabin mate fill out an application and copy an oath to participate as a binding cabin contract. Obviously, this is a person who had been burned by the MIA cabin-mates before. Now me, I don’t think I want to be that extreme- I understand the desire to find others as serious as you about their work. But Nano is also meant to be a fun experience. I don’t want to worry about ‘conversation quotas’ in my cabin chat room, or be biting my nails and in fear of a request to leave when I decide to take a weekend off from my writing. I want the balance. I want to enjoy this.

So, after combing tirelessly through the message boards and finding a few that only partially fit, I decided to try delving into other areas of my life first, on the search for the perfect cabin. I have a few writing groups I frequent, all Facebook-centered at this point. One of them was actually created by a group of us who met during Nano a year or so ago- it had been a good season. I posted in my groups and waited. I was surprised to hear that one of them had quite a few people who hadn’t heard of Nano before. I managed to get a couple who were interested. By no means do I have a full cabin, but it’s been fun sharing something that I deeply enjoy with these new people who just might catch the nano bug like I did.

So I would like to extend my invitation here- if anyone feels like joining a cabin for camp nano- leave me a message. All projects are welcome; we have novels, blog projects, possibly some editing work- our doors are open if you care to embark on a daring adventure with a group of humble writer/bloggers. What do you say? Do you feel like being brave this July?

Urban Fantasy

I’ve done it! After hours of internal debates over several days- I have finally decided what my Camp Nano project will be. In the spirit of my goals for this year- I am trying something new. That’s right, I am dropping my security blanket and venturing out onto new literary avenues. This nano, I will be delving into the world that is: Urban Fantasy. I’ve done straight fantasy, futuristic dystopian-style works, regular fiction: I’ve followed down many of the other branches, but the urban style was new to me. In fact, it is actually fairly new to the literary world in general; it did not become an acknowledged sub-genre until the late 80’s to early 90’s.

Urban fantasy is a very specific collection of works in which the piece itself is set primarily in the ‘real world’ with paranormal/fantasy elements. A few examples would be: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grimm, Supernatural, The Belador series, The Mortal Instruments- the list goes on and on. Now, it’s not a necessity that these stories take place in contemporary times; any futuristic or historical setting is also acceptable.

Personally, my biggest question about this genre: how is it different from Paranormal Romance (because to be honest, a lot of what I’ve read looks like it could fit in either category). As it turns out, about 90% of the elements of both genres are fairly intertwined; these are the fraternal twins of the written world. The key difference: if you remove the romantic element, do you still have a story? If your answer is no- you are well within the boundary of paranormal romance, but if you said yes- then you still stand a chance. A paranormal romance focuses on the relationship itself and how the outside forces effect it, whereas urban fantasy can survive even if that relationship is edited to become a platonic one.

It’s grown momentum rather quickly in the modern era, where we are so quick to welcome any escape from the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. After all, don’t we all secretly wish we could gain some kind of power, transform into our favorite animal and slink off on an adventure? Or perhaps find ourselves entrenched as a key party to a subtly fought war between vampires and werewolves (this is where the paranormal romance aspect starts to look good). I will have no shortage of inspiration as I begin my trek down this winding path. Perhaps this will be a niche I didn’t know I belonged in. There is only one way to find out.