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.

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: