Nail Your NaNoWriMo #9: Take a Hike

I mean, literally, take a hike.  Or a walk. 

Do it alone… or do it with someone to whom you can talk through your story.

Story planning is hard.   Maybe not at first, but soon you’ll have more elements than you bargained for competing for airtime, and for a while it’ll sound like a small crowd screaming in your ear. 

Stepping into this story planning challenge is the key to emerging from it.

The challenge is the reason so many writers abandon story planning right here and rationalize that, hell, I’ll just write the dang thing and it’ll all work out as I go, it’ll come to me.

Doubtful.  And if it does, then the real challenge appears, albiet silently and without immediate consequence: you’ll have to rewrite the shifts-in-real-time story before it’ll work… if, in fact, implementing huge new ideas and direction-changes is what happens to you mid-draft. 

Like a shot of heroin, it’ll feel good at first… right before it kills you.

The goal of story planning is to avoid game-changing, mid-draft direction changes or shifts that forget their story-bound roots.  To optimize the best creative choices and direction beforehand, and to make sure they are in alignment with the underlying principles of storytelling that have driven the craft for as long as dramatic, character-centric stories have been appearing as books and movies.

So here’s the tip: embrace the confusion

Swim in it.  And… take pause to consider where you are, what remains unaddressed… and then fix it. 

I’ve found that talking through pauses in my progress — it’s not writer’s block because we’re not writing yet, but it’s similar, because writer’s block is actually a symptom of a story that isn’t working like you’d thought or hoped it would — and just plain allowing the natural cognitive processes of having thrown balls into the air to do their thing and begin to land in places that you hadn’t considered before.

You’ll be amazed at how many story problems and dead ends you can overcome simply by telling your story, in sequence, to someone who can keep quiet enough to allow you to encounter your own roadblock.

Come back to this tip as required.  Chances are you’ll need to hit the pause button more than once in your story planning process.

Here’s a major BONUS TIP, in the form of a visual. 

Many Storyfix readers say this is the most power thing they’ve ever encountered as they learned about storytelling, because it’s all in one spot, in the form of… get ready for it… a circus tent.

Go to this link, and then be patient, as this file takes a while to load:

This is the structure you are endeavoring to populate with your story ideas.  Just make sure you don’t leave half your tent empty, or don’t stuff too many elements into any one corner to an extent the whole thing topples to the side. (Special thanks to Rachel Savage for creating this wonderful tool.)

Let the Big Show begin.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

9 Responses to Nail Your NaNoWriMo #9: Take a Hike

  1. As I am a true pantser, who doesn’t plan at all after getting the idea (which I’m happy with when it includes all three elements you discussed in a previous post: character, context and theme), I have a way of disciplining myself that keeps the structure coherent.

    The structure is there in the abstract from the moment I decide the target length of the book. If I want 80,000 words, I will have 3,500 word chapters (approximately) and 23 of them.

    So while writing scenes, I start to wrap up the chapter as I approach 3,000 words. At chapter 5 or 6 comes the First Plot Point. I called that a twist that starts the middle. I shift gears. My first five chapters just introduced cool new things and had relatively few consequences, those were any immediate ones. Middle balance is half Fate and half Choice, Fate being what I the author think would be cool in the book. Choice being consequences of the characters’ choices. Around the middle of the middle comes a subtle turnover point where Consequences are more important. I don’t need to think of as many new things so much as see consequences of everything that came before.

    If I want a minor point, I pick it up in a minor event earlier in the book and make it important. I start sweeping up little plot threads. The last few chapters I’m finishing off, the twists come hard and heavy. I like a roller coaster in the last part of the book where the characters are up and down so fast they have no idea what’s going to happen next. It will all hang on the main character or main characters standing up to the situation, making good choices. I’ll let them fall if they goof up at that turning point.

    I know it and they have to rely on their own established character. This is where the coward may find an inch of guts he didn’t know he had. This is also where a small kindness an otherwise cold character gave early in the book may rise to help him when he needs it most. It’s the time of twists. Everything weaves together. Then at the end, following a good essay by Lawrence Block that I read back in 2000, I let them ride off into the sunset fast.

    I like happy endings, but that’s a technicality. I’ve had happy endings that were only “thank gods some of us survived the book.” It really depends on the book, its theme and its conflicts.

    So that’s my particular pantser approach. I have the structure in mind in the abstract and find out what happens at the turning points on the spot. It’s method, not anything earth shaking different in results.

    When I look back, I think that I learned the structure “by ear” a long time before I read Mr. Block’s essays. It’s there in every novel I’ve finished.

    Stumbling into it for the first time may well be why I finished the first novel I ever reached The End on. I think of the fragments and abandoned novels and that’s what they tripped on – the structure was flawed. When it was, I ran aground and couldn’t finish or didn’t like it any more.

    I think I’d have learned faster if I’d had these essays when I was that raw beginner.

  2. As for taking a hike – I’ve got mobility limits that are fairly severe and the consequences of busting them are weeks of bed rest and worse limits on my ability.

    However, I can and do take a walk mentally as soon as I pick up a brush. Sometimes I paint something unrelated to the book. Other times I get out Conte crayons and sketch one of the characters. The process of painting is different enough that I can let go of any story problems and come back to them refreshed. Sometimes the solution comes up fast because my unconscious was working on the problem while I was occupied consciously picking colors and making marks.

    Back when I had more mobility, I would get up and put music on, then dance. It can be anything as long as it gets your blood moving and your mind off the problem when it feels insurmountable.

  3. Great idea. I love walking and thinking. Here’s some tips. Take a notebook and pen. Factor in some places to stop during the walk; a bench or a cafe. If none are available in your area and the only option is sitting on the ground; wrap up warm because you cool down quickly when you stop walking and buy one of those foam sleeping mats, the thicker the better; then cut a square about 3/4 of a metre – it makes an ideal ground cushion as it is soft, incredibly light and keeps your rear comfy and dry. Now when the ideas come you can stop and note them down. Trust me you will not remember them when you get home.

    I find that walking in town, on the beach, in the wild or anywhere makes no difference to me, the fresh air, the blood flow and the aural and visual stimulation mean the ideas flood in. Even a walk to the library or to a favorite cafe is good, with a stop there to jot some notes, then a walk back home. Fantastic.

    If you enjoy walking and thinking get a small daypack and take a flask of hot stuff (I prefer tea) and your mat, two pens and a notebook and a waterproof just in case, and you are in writing heaven. If you have the shoulders make a day of it and take a packed lunch.

  4. Remember, folks, all this pre-planning, outlining, structuring, characterizationing, themeing and the like doesn’t have to be done in one sitting.

    Make sure you’re writing all this stuff down; electronically is a lot easier to update.

    From Larry’s last (?) post, start with character, structure, theme, or concept and write it down. Start fleshing out the rest in perhaps a separate section. Put everything down.

    Now take your hike and let things rattle around your creative mind. Go back and take another pass.

    Now, work on the next point or element. Ensure it matches with the one already “established.” If it doesn’t, the story won’t work. Maybe the previous element needs expansion or a cleaner statement. Do it.

    Keep taking those hikes and re-working what you have until everything aligns. Dig out the checklists from Larry’s Story Engineering and start making passes on them.

    True, the design part of your novel might take a while. So what? Every minute you spend on the front end saves you minutes, hours, days, weeks, etc., on the actual writing because you know where you’re going when you’re actually putting the words down on the paper/screen. You can then let your creative juices run full tilt.

    Writing is an interative process; some parts should be a lot more iterative than others. In lots of Larry’s previous posts, he’s said that his first draft was pretty much the one he sent off for publication. That’s because he’d already done most of the iterative work.

    Go write something great.

  5. Debbie Burke


    Rachel’s circus tent really spoke to me back when you first introduced it. I’ve used it ever since and am delighted to see it again. At the time, Rachel recd a lot of requests for a poster size laminated one that a dry erase marker could be used on. Did that ever come to pass? If so, I want to order it, plus a bunch for writer friends. Thank you again, Rachel, and to you, Larry, for sharing this great tool.


  6. Carmen

    Would it be possible to get the file e-mailed to me so I can reduce the file size before trying to print it? It keeps crashing my printer dialog once it finally loads. I’d gladly return the reduced-size file to you to distribute if this is successful.

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