While I was definitely kept busy last week with the Backbone Project, I was also hard at work on Theodora Goss’s YA Novel Challenge, which officially began last Wednesday on June 1. I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to start with the actual prose writing by Wednesday because I needed time to plan out the novel first. I am a die-hard outliner; the mere thought of beginning a novel without any idea as to where I’m going fills me with horror. Mind you, I understand that some writers find an outline too constraining, and we all have our own creative processes, but for me, I want to have a clear plan. Maybe it goes with my list-making compulsion, I don’t know.
I’ve been spending the last year learning more about structure as it relates to the novel. I’ve used the basic index card outlining method ever since my first novel, and it’s one of my very favorite parts of the process. I LOVE index cards! So much less pressure than the actual committing words to the page part. At Taos Toolbox last summer, I learned about the three-act structure in more detail (which left me slapping my forehead, I might add). I then devoured Kristen Lamb’s blog series on structure (there are eight parts to this series, although I was unable to find a page that listed all of them together, unfortunately) and was completely fascinated by thinking about story in this new way. And finally, I picked up Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which is a book about screenwriting that spends a lot of time on structure, and devoured it in three or four days at the end of May.
Now, I understand that a screenplay for a blockbuster Hollywood movie and a novel are not exactly the same in structure, but they can have a certain amount in common, depending on genre and related concerns. Plus, just as I have an inordinate fondness for index cards, I love organization of all types. I love being organized! It’s such a great feeling. So I decided to try applying some of the things I’ve learned during my outlining process.
My YA novel’s working title is The Academy of Forgetting. Isn’t that evocative? I’m in love with my idea. I first conceived of it back at the SCBWI Winter Conference in January 2010, so it’s been floating in my head for a while. I’d already completed some brainstorming, a basic premise write-up, and some thoughts about characters and various “reveal” moments. Oh, and research, especially about neurobiology (which, by the by, is a crazy and fascinating subject). So last week I printed everything out so I could have it in front of me, and then I got to work on my version of a beat sheet, adapted from the one described in the aforementioned Save the Cat! This beat sheet gives me an idea of the various components of the story that need to happen, and around when they need to happen.
Then I got to break out my beloved index cards and begin to arrange my three acts:
Obviously the proper work environment must include dog toys and weights….
This kept happening once I arranged the acts in their proper order. I’m not sure if she’s so in love with the story that she wants to sprawl all over it, or if she hates it and wants to hide it from view. Maybe she believes in a Zen-like teaching method….
Once I had the novel laid out like this, I began adding two things to each index card: +/- (or -/+) to denote the emotional change for the protagonist in the course of the scene depicted on that index card; and a >< to denote the conflict going on in the scene. So a finished card looks something like this:
I know that conflict description is a bit cryptic (actually, maybe the entire card is cryptic; I chose one that wouldn’t be too spoilerific), but the important thing is that I know what I’m talking about.
Finally, I typed up all of my cards, creating a four-page outline. To this document I added my adapted beat sheet that includes approximate page numbers of when things should maybe happen. And now I have a road map for the book, from which I can feel free to detour wildly if I don’t think it’s working.
What do you think about structure and writing a novel? How extensively do you outline, if at all? What about your process makes you deeply happy, the way index cards make me giddy?