So you’ve got your plot idea and characters, and you’ve gotten started, or you’ve got your nonfiction topic, and you’re really gung-ho to write. And on Day 4, you are well underway. That’s fantastic! Congratulations, and well done!
But have you started noticing a bit of a problem? Are you still just introducing your characters and setting the scene on the fourth day? Or are you still defining terms or introducing your topic, on a day when you’re supposed to have reached 6,668 words by the end of the writing day? It can’t be emphasized too much: if your goal is to start and finish something within the month of November, you only have thirty days. And as you start getting near the end of the first week, you can’t still be stuck on introductions.
FICTION: SCHEDULE MAJOR PLOT DEVELOPMENTS
That’s right. In order to avoid finding yourself with five days to go, having barely introduced the conflict and now having to wrap everything up in a huge, unsatisfying rush of hasty resolutions, you have to pace the story as much as possible. You have to have certain goals accomplished by the end of every week, to keep the story moving and to get everything into the story that you plan. This even applies to the “meandering” sorts of stories, where you are writing by the seat of your pants, throwing things randomly into the plot to see where they’ll go. There are certain plot structures that you should really try to fit in by a certain time, both to keep the story moving forward and to fit it all in.
You may devise other types of structure as you get more experienced with this whole exercise, but as I’ve done my own stories over the years, I devised the following schedule. These are general milestones to aim for, but it doesn’t matter if you hit them a day or two early or late, as long as you’re moving along.
This is the week where you introduce your main characters and have them interact with each other a bit. You will reveal the basic information about them, though not necessarily the whole story. Some of that information will come out as you simply describe the characters in paragraph form, but remember that you can also reveal bits and pieces about the characters and their descriptions while they’re doing other things. We’ll have a blog post later on about how to handle descriptions and make them interesting. But meanwhile, just remember that you don’t need to do a huge information dump for every character the first time she or he appears in the story.
You might also start dropping a few hints about a subplot or a conflict between characters. In one of my stories, the main character really hated another character (who didn’t realize it and had no idea why), but it wasn’t revealed outright for several days. But the reaction of the main character, on that first day when the two of them met at the school and he heard the other character’s name, let the reader know that there was something going on here. Already, the plot was thickening.
This is also the week when you introduce the main conflict, though that’s likely to happen nearer the end of the week, maybe late on Day 4 or sometime on Day 5. And once it’s revealed, the characters are already starting to make plans for how to deal with it, or are bracing themselves to try. This sets the stage for the real work, which starts in the second week.
Now is when the characters get fully embroiled in the problem. They may be full of optimism and they may have all sorts of plans. They can do some trial-and-error, perhaps. But as they work on the problem, they start sensing with some unease that perhaps the problem they’re dealing with is not quite as small as they thought it was, and it may be more complex in nature as well.
At the same time, the character conflicts are gradually starting to reveal themselves more clearly. They might become jarring because one character may still think the basic problem is fairly simple while another begins trying to convince the others that it’s actually more complicated. Or as in my story, the antagonism of one character for the other begins to become obvious enough that it is clearly obscuring the first character’s reasoning power. Maybe there’s an initial blowup between them, where the first character finally has to admit that he or she has not been thinking clearly about the problem they’re facing because of the distraction of his/her dislike for the other character.
This week is the early problem-solving phase, and it’s where the hints of future conflicts and the subplot start to show up.
This is a week of complications. The characters may increase their concentration on the main problem while other conflicts simmer for a bit, but very soon, there are glitches and obstacles. They might come close to succeeding in their quest to solve the problem, but then something goes really wrong. It might even be because of the character conflicts from the previous week that were set aside but which were never actually dealt with. These conflicts might become a fairly steady thorn in the group’s sides for a while.
The characters may even discover that the solution to the problem, which had seemed so clear at one point and which they almost thought they had reached, was completely wrong after all. Or they had the right solution, but used it in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Or a couple of characters might veer off into the thick of the subplot, jeopardizing the work of the others and risking the very solution of the problem itself. There could be other surprise plot twists as well, as you near the end of this week.
This is a kind of “one step forward, two steps back” sort of week. A lot of glitches here.
If you’re planning on a positive ending, early this week is when the first glimmer of a real solution to the main problem in the plot comes to light. The first three or four days of this week, you’ll be pushing the characters through the work that is finally going to achieve the solution.
At the same time, the personal conflicts of the characters are also rising, becoming unable to be avoided any longer. These might be dealt with as a precursor to the dramatic accomplishment of the final resolution of the problem. Or the personal conflicts might turn out to be the final thing that stands in the way of this resolution, so that once they are dealt with, the problem is actually solved or is solved very quickly thereafter. The subplot and personal conflict resolution and solution to the main problem might come together in a great crescendo and climax to the story—on the fourth day of this week, perhaps, or maybe, at most, on the fifth. You can be a bit late here, because you’ve actually got 30 days rather than 28.
But you can’t take those days for granted. Try to reach the big pinnacle of the story, where everything is resolved, with maybe three days to spare. During those three days, you write the aftermath. What did the characters’ world look like after they had solved everything? And what are their lives likely to be like now that it’s over? You don’t need to give a synopsis of each of their entire futures, but this is a nice place to tie things together and give some hints, at least.
And that’s it. By pacing yourself and writing just enough to get your characters to the major milestones each week, you will have written a whole story during November, and nothing will be rushed and crammed into a few pages because you just didn’t have any more time.
NONFICTION: THREE OR FOUR MAIN HIGHLIGHTS
You can do a similar sort of pacing even when you’re writing nonfiction. You don’t necessarily need to plan to reach a crescendo by Week 4 (though sometimes you can), but you can choose three or four main points you want to cover in your topic and give yourself a few days to write about each.
Narrow the topic (Redux)
As mentioned in an earlier post, you really have to narrow down your topic, because you simply don’t have time to write about everything that is known about, say, galaxies or cats. For a couple of days, you might summarize some general information about galaxies, but by the end of this period, you’ll need to choose three or four main points about galaxies that you want to talk about. So you might decide to talk about how they’re formed, how there is theorized to be a black hole at the center of every galaxy, and what shapes they tend to take and why.
For cats, you might take a couple of days to summarize some information about cats in general and then a bit of information about breeds. If you choose one breed by the end of the second day (say, the Norwegian Forest Cat), then you may decide to talk about their magnificent coats and tails, their love of the outdoors, and their extravagant loyalty to their human companions.
One subtopic per week or so
For each of these example topics, galaxies and cats, you’ve now got three subtopics. Since you used two days to narrow things down, you’ve got twenty-eight days left. That gives you nine days or so per subtopic, bringing you to twenty-nine total days. Then you can spend the final day wrapping things up, showing why these things matter, showing how these subtopics relate to each other, and showing how your information all comes together to create an enjoyable body of knowledge about the topic.
Of course, writing nine days’ worth of verbiage about one subtopic (that’s fifteen thousand words!) might seem like rather too much. If you think that’s going to be a problem, then write about four subtopics instead. That would give you seven days or eleven and a half thousand words per topic.
Finding your information
Eleven and a half thousand words still seems like a lot, I know, but as you use your search engine to try to add information, you might be surprised how much stuff you can actually find that’s interesting and that relates to the ideas you’ve got swirling in your head. This isn’t quite the same problem as trying to research the entire geopolitical, climatic, social, and historical situation to write a historical novel in thirty days (as I would have had to do with my Layard/Nineveh story). This is more just information seeking, so you can add more and more tidbits of info.
For example, as you write about the various shapes of galaxies, you might run across examples of how early science fiction writers pictured them. Or you might encounter legends about our own galaxy (there is a reason it’s called the Milky Way, after all). After the first few days of just providing information about your topic, you can veer off into different views of the topic. With galaxies, those views might involve myth and fiction. With Norwegian Forest Cats, you might branch off into a discussion of the fact that some people thing these cats are related to the Maine Coon breed. And why “Norwegian,” anyway?
The key to handling either the plot of a story or a really extended essay about your favorite subject is pacing. If you plan the milestones you want to reach and when you want to reach them, and if you can make yourself stick with that schedule as you write over the weeks, you will end up with a pretty impressive—and finished!—piece of work on November 30.