Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Planning a Book

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

IMG_4118_copyI’ve always been somewhat allergic to the word outline. I don’t outline books unless editors ask me to.

But that doesn’t mean that I wander through a book with no direction at all. There are a couple of different things I do before and during a first draft to make the process a lot quicker: I come up with a big picture plan for the book (and write back cover copy for it), and make mini outlines for the following day so that I have an idea what I’m wanting to accomplish the next morning.

But to me, this isn’t outlining.

My teenage son and I were waiting in line at a salon for him to get his hair cut. He’s got this really shaggy hair and he really doesn’t like getting it cut because he wants it a very particular way. And he only wants Phil to cut his hair. We’ll wait for an hour to see Phil since it’s the type of place that doesn’t take appointments. Yes, I bring my manuscript with me. :)

When Phil found out I was a writer, he started playfully pretending to ask me to write a book based around his salon. The main character would be Philippe and it would involve various dramas that play out at the salon.

My son thought that zombies and a dystopian feel to the novel would be a good idea. They’ve been enthusiastically adding storylines and characters to this pretend project for the last few months. My son is reading Romeo and Juliet for school, so he’s also pulled in some characters from that play—Benvolio and Tybalt, for instance. He also thought it would be cool to include the wicked Montresor from The Cask of Amontillado.

Last Friday, while we were waiting at the salon, he said, “Mom! Can you write this story?” He was half-serious.

“Under an assumed name,” I told him. “I don’t think my readers are looking for me to write a cross between Dawn of the Dead and Romeo and Juliet with Poe thrown in for good measure!”

“How would we do it?” he asked me. “If we wanted to?”

“It’s easy,” I said. I took out my always-handy notebook and wrote cast of characters, setting, internal conflict, external conflict, climax, resolution.

He quickly named the characters and a two or three word explanation of who they were. The protagonist and antagonist got a little more explanation. He came up with a love triangle, an internal conflict when the protagonist had a choice on whether to save his mom or his girlfriend from zombies, and some other details. Phil called out some ideas, too.

“How do you want it to end?” I asked him. He devised a standoff at a mall, and I told him that had been done before. :) He created another ending that was original and pretty thrilling. “Hey,” I said, “you have to leave room for a sequel, too.” So he modified the ending again.

“How do you want it to start?” I asked. He listed a peaceful day at the salon. “Might work,” I said, “but for your readers, they might want to start off with zombies trying to break into the salon and the stylists building a barricade.”

It took about ten minutes to come up with this plan, but of course, they’d been talking about this pretend book for months. “Mom,” my son said, “I think I almost could write this book.”

“Of course you could!”

“But I thought you said you didn’t outline.”

“This isn’t an outline.” I’m sure I must have recoiled at the word. “This is brainstorming. And making a list. And a chart. This stuff can all be changed, too—you’re not locked into it.”

And somehow, when undertaking something as massive as writing a book, it’s kind of cool to see it reduced to a sheet of paper.

What sort of planning do you do before starting a new project?