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How to plan a novel

Answer these 10 questions

My sequencing problem

As I’m dyslexic, I have trouble with sequencing. For a long time, I think, this translated as ‘I don’t know how to tell a story’ (that’s what I told myself anyway) or ‘you need to tell more of a story’ as feedback from agent / editors, or even ‘your work is fab / alternative / innovative because you don’t focus too much on the story’ from some readers (thanks if that was you). This is not really true. I love stories. And human beings are hard-wired for stories as several recent commentators have pointed out. I particularly like Lisa Cron’s work, as I’ve mentioned before. I can recognize a story when it punches me on the nose, or slides up to me on the sofa, as most people can. I am also, I suspect, hyperlexic. I discovered from reading Samatha Craft’s work on neurodivergence that it’s possible to be both dyslexic and hyperlexic and that answered a LOT of questions for me, but that’s another story.

What’s all this got to do with planning a novel? I’m glad you asked! Read on.

I had two moments of epiphany

My first epiphany came when reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: stories are about people (characters) overcoming problems, and readers want to read about how characters solve these problems because they have problems themselves, and they might find a clue to the answer in the pages of a story. This goes beyond the individual. It’s cultural and it goes back to the beginnings of humanity. I knew this, but I hadn’t quite admitted to myself how important it was. I hadn’t let it become a concrete paradigm if you like.

The second moment of epiphany was this: realising that it was SEQUENCING that I was struggling with, not stories. Stories are everywhere, waiting to be told. Everything and anyone has a story attached. (Try it – pick any object and tell its origin story.) I’ve struggled with sequencing my whole life. I didn’t get any help with my dyslexia at school or university and was only diagnosed officially in my 40s. I mention this not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but to point out that I don’t know what it’s like not to struggle with sequencing, which is why it was hard for me to identify the problem in the first place.

Make time for sequencing

So now I know that, as with reading, it’s not that I can’t do it. (I love reading.) It’s that I need to make time for it in my life. I need to make time for sequencing: practising it, working with it, editing it.

Having taught trainee novelists to write, I’d say that most beginners do not write sequentially from the beginning of the novel to the end, and they often change their minds about where the beginning is. In fact, learning to let go of the desire to write sequentially from the beginning of the novel to the end is a pretty important learning point. Trust the redrafting process and you’ll let yourself off the hook and allow yourself to create. Why not write the end first? Or the middle? Stop editing the beginning over and over again!

So most of the trainee novelists I’ve met need the opposite advice. I’m at the other end of the sequencing continuum. Everyone is in the same boat with a first draft. We all need to let ourselves off various hooks to get the thing done. But after that point, personally I needed to learn to make sequencing my friend, at the same time as coming to terms with all of my neurodivergences and their interlocking opportunities and inconveniences.

What did I do about it?

Because I’ve never been a non-dyslexic (a lexic) I don’t know this for certain, but I imagine lexics have a much easier time with sequencing and don’t experience it as quite such a stumbling block. (Or huge mountain range rather than stumbling block in my case at times in my life.) So what did I do? Well, two things. I did what I always did and I applied my teaching to my writing. I like doing both because the one inspires the other. I learn a lot when I teach. So I looked at how I was teaching novel writing and realised there were things I could learn about sequencing.

Secondly, I used small steps, which is why I’m sharing this on my blog because it’s an example of the small steps method in action. I came up with ten simple questions related to the scene I was redrafting from my novel.

The questions are about the scene itself, and also about how the scene fits into the whole sequence of scenes that make up the book. I’ve been using these ten questions to structure my latest book and it’s really, really helped – suddenly there’s clarity whereas before there was a certain amount of brain fog and a problematic short term memory!

What to do first

You do have to know the story you are trying to tell first and the places and people in it. Personally, I wouldn’t use the ten questions to come up with the story from scratch. I’d written a draft of the book I’m working on already, and I’d summarised the story for myself, long-hand. I used these notes to answer the ten questions and to ask myself more questions about anything that still needed answering. K.M. Weiland’s work helped me to summarise the story in the first place. (I used her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.)

The thing about K.M. Weiland’s advice is that it’s friendly. She writes herself friendly notes as her story planning progresses. She asks herself curious and enthusiastic questions, whereas I seemed to be creating complicated charts that I couldn’t understand and berating myself! It was her tone that helped me the most. I learnt that it’s ok to be friendly with myself when I’m planning a book rather than getting annoyed at myself for ‘not being very good’ at storytelling. Key learning point if you’re writing a novel: be kind to yourself.

The ten questions

So, in the spirit of learning, I thought I’d share the ten simple questions I’ve been using to plan my scenes with you. Click the link to download them: Ten questions

Want more?

I talk more about planning scenes in How to Write a Novel and Get It Published

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

 

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