A Complete Guide for Planning and Drafting your Book: A NaNoWriMo Checklist

A short and to the point list of all the things every writer should think of and plan before starting to type their manuscript. This comprehensive list is perfect for obsessive planners, although pantsers should review and have a high level idea of these elements as well.

The goal is to have a blueprint of our story so that we can sit every day to type knowing well what we are supposed to write, and therefore avoid any writer’s block.

Here it is all you need to plan for your book before you start typing your manuscript. This plan is divided in three sections (plus one bonus):

  • Ideation: Covers all the loose bits and pieces that make up your story (theme, characters, world, etc)
  • Plotting Arcs: The character and story arcs as well as all subplots.
  • Scenes: An overview of all main scenes in the story
  • Draft Zero: A quick overview on writing a schematic pre-draft.

The Story Plotting Checklist

These notes have been extracted from some great books on plotting. Mostly this list follows most of the directions in The Novel-Writing Training Plan (a great straight and to the point book on plotting) and also on ideas from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Save The Cat!, and a few other books.

Part 1 – Ideation

✅ Idea

This is the premise of your book, the core nugget. What is that one thing that you came up with that made you want to write this story. Write it down so you never forget it. It will be your shining light. This is the one thing that you can always turn to when you are lost in your draft and you need to find your path again.

✅ Theme

This can be defined at the beginning of the planning phase, at the end, or even not at all. It is the conceptual theme of your story.

✅ Hero

Your hero should be a contrast to your main idea, his personality and goals should be closely related to the theme of your story. Describe his physical, mental and moral dimensions. Two core elements of the hero integral to his character arc are:

  • Hero’s Flaw: an internal flaw be it a character limitation or moral flaw that is holding the hero back
  • Hero’s Desire: an external goal that the hero aspires to but that is tied to his flaw and can’t be obtained witout overcoming his flaw

✅ World

Just like the hero, your world should be a thematic match to your idea best. Cover all aspects besides time and place, including the infrastructure, diversity and technology.

✅ Characters

All supporting characters to your hero, including but not limited to: antihero, mentor, ally, etc.

✅ Symbolism

What are the elements of your story that can be used best for echoing your main theme. What are the topics, visual references, locations, terms, names, etc, that best align with and evoque what your story is about.

✅ Blurb

This is the elevator pitch or Amazon summary of your book. If you want to read a great description of how to craft the perfect blurb check out the book Save The Cat!.

Part 2 – Plotting Arcs

✅ Story Arc

The narrative arc of your story. Describes how the core idea evolves through the following stages: setup, initial incident, rising action, climax, success or failure, following action, resolution. Also traditionally described as: stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal or change, and resolution.

✅ Character Arc

Has been described most famously through the Hero’s Journey, but also Growth Arc, or Fall or Tragedy story patterns. Steps can be synthesised as hero’s start point, end point and events driving change.

✅ Plot

The plot is the sum of the narrative actions that cause the reactions in the Story and Character Arcs. Should define hero’s goal, what’s at stake, what success looks like for the hero, what are the hurdles in the way of that success that cause the sacrifices or small wins for the hero.

✅ Subplots

All the story subplots should be a mirror to the main story, a contrast to it, or add complications to the plot.

Part 3 – Scenes

✅ Voice or Point of View

Decide what voice your story will be told in. Mainly first or third person. Also, define what vocabulary, inflexion, level of language, etc that the narrator will use.

✅ Opening Scene

One of the most important scenes in a story. It should start with a strong image that echoes the whole story and should set the tone and style of the book and introduce the hero as well as his flaw and desire.

✅ Core Scenes

Every scene should cover time and place, help develop the hero, touch on their goals, rise or fall the action and up the conflict.

✅ Conflict Scene

The conflict can be internal (hero vs self, hero vs. fate) or external (hero vs. villain, hero vs. society, hero vs. nature, hero vs. technology).

✅ Ending Scene

Your ending must be inititiated by the hero, and they must be transformed in result, it should be linked to the beginning and should tie up all loose ends.

Part 4 – Pre-drafting

✅ Draft Zero

This Draft is not so much writing as it is planning. Don’t use the voice that you plan on using, but rather a direct, instructional voice in present tense. Don’t use descriptions and be minimal with the language. Cover all the scenes you planned earlier but aim for just 200 to 500 words per scene.

You are ready ✔

You should be able to cover all the elements above in 3-4 weeks. With all those pieces out of the way, thought out and written down you are ready to start your first draft. Now you can sit with confidence every day knowing what you are supposed to write. And if you are planning for NaNoWriMo, you can review your scenes and draft Zero and type those 2,000 words a day furiously.

Good luck!

Charlie Kaufman on Writing Stories and Taking Risks

If what you are doing does not have the possibility of failing then by definition you are not doing anything new.
—Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman

In an interview at Göteborg International Film Festival, back in 2011, Charlie Kaufman talked about his approach to story telling and how little he relies on plot to talk about reality and existence. I think you have to have seen a few of his movies to fully grasp what storytelling without story can look like.

I’m not really interested in stories. Stories are things that are kind of polished and seen from a distance and I wanna try to do stuff where it feels like it’s immersed, where I am immersed when i am working on it, and where the audience will experience that immersion and the chaos or confusion of actual existence; as opposed to a story with a beginning and a middle and an end and a kind of a distance, and a perspective, and a life lesson and all that stuff that doesn’t really seem to be part of the actual moment to moment life that I have.
—Charlie Kaufman

Bill Cunningham on Technique vs Storytelling

Genius amongst the geniuses, gentle amongst the gentlemen, Bill Cunningham passed away on June 25, 2016. I discovered him—like many others, I’m sure—too late in life via the documentary named after him. I was right away impressed by his work ethic. A Harvard dropout, Bill published candid street photography for over 40 years in his own section On The Street at The New York Times. Perched with his characteristic blue coat, Bill took photos daily, most of which never saw the light of day. His house was packed floor to ceiling with negatives, photos, and magazines.

Bill Cunningham on Technique vs Storytelling

Bill Cunningham was a photographer who didn’t obsess over his camera gear or his photographic technique. He took photos to uncover the fashion zeitgeist of the streets of New York. Lesley Vinson, former Art Director of Details magazine puts it best:

He taught me how to tell a story with pictures and that it didn’t always involve the best image. I’d say to him, “But isn’t this a better photo?” And he’d say, “Yes, child, but this photo tells the story better.” For him, it wasn’t about the aesthetics of photography. It was about storytelling.
—Lesley Vinson

Don’t let technique get in the way of your stories.

For more life lessons on Bill check out What Bill Cunningham taught me about life, love and photography or go watch the documentary.

The Dry Zone

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
—Stephen King

Starting something new it’s easy. You have been thinking about this project for quite some time, maybe even holding back until you were 100% sure. So you have this backlog of plans and ideas, even if they are half thought out, they are there in the back of your mind. They might be just early, early seeds of ideas, but it is all there.

The Dry Zone

So one day you start. And you have all this energy. And all those ideas that have been slowly cooking in the back of your mind take shape. And you produce and feel productive. And for a while it works out.

But then, routine settles. The fountain of ideas dries up. Then reality hits you, the well has dried up. This is what I call the Dry Zone. This one single thing is the biggest struggle—by far—of any creative mind. After a quick and exciting start you’ve lost your momentum and your energy is depleted. All you are facing the long road ahead. And you ask yourself, now what?

Beginnings are easy because they offer something our minds are always excited about: change. The Dry Zone, though, is the opposite of change. Is routine, stagnation, monotony. Change does happen, but it is excruciatingly slow.

Now what? Hard work.

Crossing the Dry Zone is the real challenge of any artist. The real challenge of any new project. Looking ahead at the Dry Zone, all the eye can see is work. Don’t abandon here. Do persevere in the face of monotony and know that the Dry Zone separates beginners from pros.

“I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true–hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.”
—Ray Bradbury

Writing Serial Books, Short Formats for a Distracted Audience

Good things, when short, are twice as good.
—Tom Stoppard

I have the theory that we read more than ever. Book reading is slightly on the down in the last decade, but we don’t know how online reading is doing. Like with TV, the audience might be moving to streaming, or in the case of books, to online sources (news sites, blogs, web fiction, etc). But we don’t know, because those who measure these numbers don’t know/want to look to new media.

So we might disagree on whether or not we read more or less, but what it’s clear is that reading habits are changing rapidly. Writers and publishers are now catching up on the trend to satisfy those that demand immediate gratification. Short attention span might be to blame. Or not, because the demand for short story formats is really not new.

Serial fiction writing trends

It happened before

In the early 1800 novels were serialized in paper journals. Dickens being the most known example. He is kinda considered the father of the serialized format in papers. Another example? Dumas’ The Three Musketeers serialized in a Parisian magazine, or in the US, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was released in 40 installments and published by an abolitionist periodical.

The 19th century had penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short-fiction magazines, that apparently were all the craze back then. The early 20th century saw the success of the pulps, short magazine-like publications of fiction. Interestingly enough, pulps covered mostly genre fiction and it is known today for its exploitation themes. It looks like sensationalism sells and has been doing it for over a century now. Until WWII pulps were the most popular avenue for short fiction.

Serialization was popular in the US as in Europe. The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published in 27 parts by Rolling Stone magazine. And more recently, the popularity of sites like Watpadd have pointed to a possible resurgence of the format.

New initiatives

And, as if to test the theory, James Patterson is new publishing a whole series of short books under a new (not really) format called Bookshots. Books that run around 30,000 words and that, without the marketing, are simply Novellas.

They’re fast reads that pack a lot of punch in a little package. It’s usually hard to find novellas in print. They’ve become the darling of the ebook world. BookShots, on the other hand, are being  published in print with wide, and I mean WIDE, distribution. They’re designed for readers on the go who want to be thrilled or romanced in one or two sittings.
—What the heck are BookShots

Serial Box is another example of this same short format for quick consumption, in this case inspired by tv show habits.

[Serial Box] aims to be “HBO for readers.” Serial Box releases “episodes” (not “books”) over a 10 to 16 week season. Each season is written by a team of writers. […] The process is directly modeled on writing for a TV series. “We begin with the equivalent of a showrunner and three or four supporting writers,” Barton explains. Together, they break down the plot, talk through the characters, and map out current and future seasons.
—Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers?

Serialized fiction is nothing new, and has always have great support. As a new writer short stories and novellas are very attractive. Plus it is quite common to hear writers recommend series of books as a way to keep readers engaged. It’ll be interesting to see how the independent publishing industry, much more welcoming of changes and experimentation, evolves the concept.

Sunday report: August week #2

Oh, man. This week was rough. My very carefully constructed plot fell apart. AND I had to keep on writing 500 words 1 at least on each of my morning and evening sprints.

My goal is to write daily each day of the working week during my commute, at least 500 words each way. Some of my writing sprints were a bit of a mess, but I got all my ideas there. I forced myself to follow my plan, but in a couple of occasions new ideas took over. Once draft #1 is out I will need to go back and rewrite the new ideas in.

The numbers

  • Monday: 1696 (762 + 934)
  • Tuesday: 1509 (780 + 729)
  • Wednesday: 1314 (567 + 747)
  • Thursday: 1250 (626 + 624)
  • Friday: 1175 (563 + 612)

Total: 6,944 words

Edna Ferber

  1. actually I set my goal to be 555 each sprint or 1110 a day. 

Kealan Patrick Burke on Succeeding at Self-Publishing

Kealan Patrick Burke reminds us that writing is just half of the job of a writer. The other half is selling.

“I was naïve and supposed that if the book was more widely available, the amount of promotion I would have to do would be minimal, that the exposure itself would sell it. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the lessons I had to learn the hard way (and it’s same no matter what the medium), is that no matter how good a book is, nobody will read it unless you teach yourself to be a savvy marketer. It’s a simple fact that many people continue to ignore, and then they blame Amazon, or competing writers, or the publishing climate, when quite often it comes down to the world not being aware that your book exists.”

Kealan Patrick Burke, Want to Succeed at Self-Publishing?

Kealan Patrick Burke

John Scalzi on Manboy Audiences and Women Protagonists

Just recently I read the news about Alters, a new comic book with a transgender superhero. It seems that media creators are starting to feel more and more comfortable with diverse characters. I think many authors have finally lost their fear to cast outcasts in their stories. It’s also a good idea to realize that (1) audiences are becoming more comfortable with minority roles 1 and (2) audiences are largely composed of minorities 2.

It is about time that we move past the default straight-white-male hero.

But this is just the latest chapter of man-boys whining about women in science fiction culture: Oh noes! Mad Max has womens in it! Yes, and Fury Road was stunning, arguably the best film of its franchise and of 2015, and was improbably but fittingly nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Oh noes! Star Wars has womens in it! Yes, and The Force Awakens was pretty damn good, the best Star Wars film since Empire, was the highest grossing film of 2015 and of all time in the domestic box office (not accounting for inflation. Accounting for inflation, it’s #11. #1 counting inflation? That super-manly epic, Gone With the Wind).

And now, Oh noes! Ghostbusters has womens in it!

A Short Review of Ghostbusters and A Longer Pummel of Manboys

John Scalzi

  1. wishful thinking? 
  2. statistic mine 

On Writing but not just being a Writer

Fortune cookie

David Toussaint talks about when he realized he was a writer:

I’ve answered the question a million times, and it still confuses me. Truth is, I never discovered I “wanted” to be a writer in the same way that I never discovered I wanted to have four limbs, brown eyes, or food to eat. To invoke that perennial gay expression, I was born that way.
David Toussaint, When Did You Realize You ‘Weren’t’ An Artist?

I’m an artist not a “writer”. I write as a form of self expression, but I don’t consider myself exactly a writer. Before writing fiction I wrote code, before I wrote code I painted, before I painted I took photos and before that, in a time now long forgotten, I made money as an illustrator. I constantly read about writers that “always knew they were writers” or how they “couldn’t be anything but a writer”. I very much understand that sentiment, but what I feel is a slight but noticeable variation.

I create because I have to, but I also find freedom in changing mediums. I do feel that I have to focus on a medium, but that’s slightly different than being loyal to it. Without focus there can be no progress, no growth of skills, and ultimately no mastery of the trade.

I’m a creator first. A writer second.

Being a writer is in my blood, like being gay or being white or having those brown eyes. There’s nothing I can do about my DNA, and I have no plans to suppress the urge.
—David Toussaint

Sunday report: August week #1

I have just started writing a short sci-fi story about robots. It is the first time I write a story without having a title first. We’ll have to call it… Robot Dialogs #1, since this might be one of the stories for a short story book on robots.

The numbers

Here is the word count for the week. This doesn’t account for the any of the blogging. This is just fiction writing.

  • Monday: 1283
  • Tuesday: 1586 (763 + 823)
  • Wednesday: 1470 (930 + 540)
  • Thursday: 1776 (983 + 793)
  • Friday: 1458 (835 + 623)

Total: 7,573 words

Fiction writing classification by word count

Wikipedia specifies the word lengths for each category of fiction writing as follows:

Short story under 7,500 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novel over 40,000 words

I already have what technically constitutes a short story. Of course, I barely wrote pass Act I, so I am probably looking at another 10-20K word.I’ve been saying that I was writing a short story for a while now but It looks like I’m on my way to writing a Novella. I might be able to cut it down when I take this first draft and rewrite it all. James Patterson Bookshots seem to be about 30K words so that could be a good number to aim for.

If I write 7k a week, it will take me 4 weeks to write this novella. Which is too long I think. On top of that I have to add editing, etc. Hopefully I speed up this week.

Speaking of, I am off to write my 500 words.

If you struggle to write, cut out the crap.

Cut the superfluous out of your life