Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Novel as a Project

A novel is a project. Like developing software or building a house it is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. Of course sometimes it doesn’t seem temporary (it took Christopher Nolan ten years to write Inception and Ayn Rand 10 years to write Atlas Shrugged) but a novel has a beginning, a middle and an end- that day you kiss it goodbye and send it off into the world. Before I began writing novels I was an IT Project Manager so when I started writing novels it was only logical to apply some of the techniques I had used in project management to assure I was using my writing time most effectively. This may sound like I’m making novel writing a ‘science’ instead of an ‘art” but the novel is a mix of art and science. The creative left brain and the structured left brain working together to build the novel. There are tasks, during all three stage of the novel development process; planning, writing and promotion, that lend themselves to structured, organized processes. The following is a breakdown of some of the tools to use during the planning process.

Planning the Novel

It all starts with a plan. The more time you spend getting organized to write and planning what to do along the way, the less time you are going to waste when you are in the throws of writing and your mind is focused on your characters and your story. Characters can be greedy with you time when you are in the ‘zone” and the last thing you want to distract you is to spend time wondering, “what do I do next”.

1. Time Management Plan - I’m the kind of person that schedules everything. I make dinner menus weeks in advance and am usually packed for a trip three days before the flight takes off. Somewhere scribbled on my Day-planner is; “November 18- 4:00- 4:15- ‘be spontaneous’. But not everyone plans instinctively (or obsessively) so here some time management tricks.

• Block out a time to write - Tom Robbins says that every day at 9:00 he enters his home office and sits and waits for his muse. If she comes, great he is off and writing, if not he sits and waits, fingers hovering over the keyboard until noon. If she doesn’t show by noon he goes out to play. Sit at your computer and wait for the muse at the same time every day if you can for a set amount of time. Granted, not everybody can block out a specific time every day, but sometime every day, tune everything else out and open yourself to your muse.. If in that allotted time if she doesn’t show, take a break and try again later or another day, but be there and ready for her visit.

o During your writing time, eliminate distractions. Turn off your television and avoid checking e-mails or facebook. No excuses when waiting for your muse.

• Set goals, tasks and milestones -
o Remember the analogy of eating an elephant, how trying to conceptualize eating the whole thing is daunting, but if you break it down into bites it seems more palatable. Break your novel project down into bites.

• Start with a story concept, have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. Once you have a clear vision for your novel from beginning to end it is easier to break your vision down into plot points.

• Break your plot into scenes or chapters. I create a new page for each chapter (hard page break) then I label each chapter (such as Harry Meets Sally) and then write a one or two sentence scene description. I can come back and fill these in with actual narrative, dialogue, scene detail, etc later.

• Create a character profile for each character. Identify the character’s background, likes, dislikes, what they value most in life, what they fear, and desire. Also identify conflicts they will have with other characters.

• Create a time-line for your story. I use a flowchart to map out what happens over time. Each little box in the flowchart represents a scene and the following box the next scene, and on and on. You can also create a second flowchart for a subplot and draw lines connecting where the plot and the subplot connect. If you are like me you may need a third or forth parallel flow chart for sub-sub-sub-plots. Mines usually ends up looking like a Rube Goldberg creation.

• Now you are ready to fill in those chapters you mapped out with you character action following your plot and time-line. One bite at a time and that elephant is a lot easier to eat.

2. Resource Plan

Writing is a lonely job but you can’t do it alone. Sounds like a dichotomy right? The point is that it helps to have a network of people that you can reach out to when needed. When you are stuck on a scene, that word is on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t come up with it, or maybe you want to get some ideas for character names, it is good to have another writer to contact. Hunter Thompson is famous for calling up fellow writers in the middle of the night and asking “what’s another word for mendacity?” The key is to identify a ‘go to’ list of resources so that help is at your fingertips. Just remember, if someone is your resource you need to be there when they need help.

• Make a list of research you are going to need for your book. What books, videos, music do you need to purchase? What trips do you need to take? Who do you need to talk to? Build these into your time and financial plans.

• Reviewers – A good reviewer is worth his or her weight in gold. Identify your potential reviewers early. Joining a review group will give you some reviewer resources, but be careful try to choose a group with folks in your genre a science fiction reader may not give you effective insight into how to make your romance novel better.

• Editor/proofreader – Don’t rely on your publisher provided editor or proofreader to catch everything, the more ‘nits’ you can catch up front the more time you editor can focus on more substantive work on your novel.

3. Communication Plan

You can have the most wonderful novel ever written but if nobody knows about it they won’t be exactly jumping off the shelves of your local bookstore or clogging the internet with e-book orders. The best way to promote your book is to get people involved in your project early and often.

• Know your market whether it’s Romance, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Speculative Fiction or Steampunk, you have a certain group of potential readers. Your job is to figure out where these folks are, how to reach them and go after them.

• Know you medium check out local and national print and electronic newsletters, newspapers, local entertainment weeklys, etc.,

4. Quality Plan (Edit, Edit, Edit) - For every vision, there is an equal but opposite revision. Quality control in writing is all about editing. I generally go through about five edits.

Story Edit – Does the plot work? Is it too complex that readers get distracted? Is it so simple that readers lose interest? Does your theme convey clearly to the reader? Is the voice effective to tell the story and interesting? Is there enough conflict to keep the reader’s interest?

Time Edit – Impose a timeline on your flowchart, does the time flow day to day, week to week, are the time gaps realistic?

Character Edit – Are the characters consistent with their profiles in every situation or scene? Physical characteristics are consistent - does John have green eyes in one scene and blue later? Are emotional characteristics the same- same sense of humor, consistent fears and dreams in every scene?

Wordsmith Edit – Here is where you go word by word and ask yourself “is this the perfect word for this sentence, the perfect sentence for this paragraph and the perfect paragraph for this chapter. Like Mark Twain said, “the difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

Pre-Editor’s Edit – There is passion in the world like the passion to alter someone else's work. 
This is sometimes one of the most challenging aspects of writing, trying to look at your manuscript through an editor’s eyes and anticipate changes. Ask yourself “is this clear, could anyone understand it?” I remember a writer who had written “He entered the double-wide and tossed his keys on the counter.” Her editor had scribbled “double wide what?” on the page. I am convinced that above Dickens’s draft where it said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” his editor scribbled “make up your mind!”

5. Financial Plan

First and foremost get a professional accountant, set up a LLC and begin keeping track of your expenses, all of them, purchases of everything from research books, music, printer paper and internet fees, to gas in your car to go to that writers conference to that research trip to the south of France. It’s all deductible.

Now with your plans in place, you should be able to begin eating that elephant one bite at a time.