Sunday, October 23, 2011

Writing My Novel My Way: The Explorer

You will find me repeating a lot of what I said in an earlier post when I discussed how I go about planning a novel. That is because I'm an explorer. I don't usually go into a writing project with no plan at all. I do know where the story starts and what the ending is going to be. Sometimes I even plan backward from the ending. However, detailed plot outlines are a bit too restrictive for me and time consuming because I know some things will change as I write my story and get to know my characters more.

I fit into the Explorer or Discoverer mode. I use the words interchangably because like an Explorer, I do my research, I have a destination in mind, I have some idea of part of the terrain before I leave, but much of the journey, if not most of it, is still a mystery to me. But I'm also a Discoverer because I discover much of my story (especially subplots and side plots) as I write. I set my characters loose in the world I've created and follow them around seeing what they do. There are certain "destination points" I want them to get to eventually, but I discover with them how they get there.

Here are some typical (but not universal) ways that Explorers plan their novels.

Research, Research, Research

Depending on the nature of your novel, good solid research can help you develop ideas and provide some plot elements. Also, if you have the research at hand, when you get to writing the novel, you don't have to stop the writing process to go look up some fact or figure out if it is in fact, feasible that someone could be decapitated using a garrotte (I write murder mysteries. These are legitimate questions.)

Character Creation

If I am joining my characters on this journey of discovery letting them lead the way through the choices that they make, then I need to know them inside and out. I will spend hours making lists of things to know about them from the color of their hair to how they lost their faith in college and regained it in grad school. Some minor characters, I let emerge without much planning, but the main characters, they are as real as any of my family or friends by the time I finish developing their personalities.

World Building

Your story takes place somewhere. You need to be very familiar with that somewhere. Now, you might set the story in a town where you live  or have lived and stick with familiar scenes. In that case you probably don't have to do much physical world building. On the other hand, if you are writing a science fiction or fantasy story, or even just a cozy mystery that takes place in a mythical small town, then you need to get a clear image in your mind of what that world is like.

I've been writing novels and short stories about colonies on the moon for four years now. By this time I know each settlement, each ag dome, each mine, each town as if I have lived there. Sure I'm still discovering new places. This year we will be visiting a clear domed resort. However, I know that place very well.

Of course, your world is more than buildings and geography. You also have cultural and institutional world building to do. First, cultural. What is the culture like in your primary setting? This can include ethnicity, but think beyond ethnicity. A poor Mexican-American Family living in the Barrio is different from a poor Mexican-American family following the crops is different from a wealthy Mexican-American family headed by a lawyer. Culture varies. What culture is your character thrown into? How is it different from their own? How do they feel about that? The classic is a big city resident forced to move to a small town. Culture is a multifaceted thing taking into account economics, regionalism, ethnicity and geography.

Institutional world building is one of those things many people ignore. We don't only live in a physical place with a specific culture. We also work, live, worship, play within institutional settings as well. My main characters, for instance, are college professors. They work at Armstrong University on the moon. That is a specific type of institution. They teach. They do research. They attend committee meetings. There are particular characters they like, dislike or tolerate within that institution. Other institutions can include churches, the military, police, fire departments, clubs, hospitals or other health care facilities.

The Map

Before embarking on my adventure, I do have a map as an explorer, but it is a minimal map. It lays out a few of the basic stops I'm going to make along the way. I have the beginning and the end blocked out. Then I set my "destination points" things which MUST be included (at least from my point of view prior to writing) for the story to work. The details of  how the characters get to those points are not included. Here's the map I have for this year's novel (taken from my previous article)

  • Mike and Carolyn join Eric and Linda on a trip to Xanadu a domed resort on the surface of the moon to help them plan their wedding in the "Earthlight Chapel" at the resort. 
  • Jason Kellen, proprietor of the resort invites the pair over for dinner where he shows them his private collection of lunar exploration artifacts. He proposes giving them to the college and funding the building of a museum to house them. They include the golf ball Alan Shepherd hit during his trip to the moon. 
  • Carolyn brings in Moonbeam and the mobile crime lab to help with the a authentication,
  • Before the lab can arrive, the golf ball is stolen. Mike and Carolyn are  asked to investigate quietly. 
  • The day after the Eclipse, Jason is found dead in a crater without an EV suit by Linda and Eric. 
  • The investigation begins
  • They sort out the suspects:
    • His daughter bitter over the divorce
    • The construction engineer who found the golf ball and was paid handsomely for it. 
    • The "waiter" whose facial structure is a close match to that of a theif
    • The Casino owner who wanted to buy the museum collection
    • The ex-wife 
    • The gigilo she brought with her
    • The disgruntled employee fired recently.
    • The holiday director who is everywhere, but no one really knows.  
  • The investigation takes two tacks: Theft of the Golf Ball and Murder of the Host. 
  • They narrow down the suspects to the waiter for the golf ball theft, but then he is found dead with a faked golf ball in his apartment causing everyone to wonder why he didn't just put it in the glass case and no one would be the wiser. 
  • More investigation. Discover the golf ball was a fake from the beginning. Construction engineer is the culprit. He killed the waiter/thief, but was on his way back to Armstrong on the train when Jason was killed. 
  • Investigation proceeds. Physical clues point to the Casino owner. Turns out the Casino owner was a partner with Jason in a failed land investment scheme on Earth. Jason discovered the Casino owner sabotaged the deal and pocketed the money swindled from investors. He was going to turn him in during his stay.
  • Casino owner is murdered. 
  • More investigation and a key piece of physical evidence is found to point to.... (No, you will have to read the book to find out)
That's 50,000 words of story condensed into about 200 words of outline. This outline would not please most novel writing teachers. It is not detailed, etc. But it is just fine for me to find my way through the forests and have a few adventures as well along the way.

Plotter, Pantser or Explorer there is more to writing a novel than knowing your style. These are different methods used to craft an end product. Knowing more about what a quality end product looks like and how you can use your own style to create that product is the philosophy of My Novel My Way at . Check it out, the courses begin November 1.


  1. I have to agree with every step you take. That is how I do it, too. Research, for sure. Poor me had to travel to Switzerland, twice, to research the setting and culture. Well someone had to do it :)During the writing process, my characters must reach the key points I want to be in my story. I often find in the last 3rd of the ms that something much better takes place and I have to go back and change scenes in earlier chapters to allow for this. Or, I need to go back and add something to a costume or setting to permit the unexpected action to enrich the story. So, if someone in the future looked at my original plan, they might not realize it belonged to the finished book. Nevertheless all of my key points/places/characters are there but the crises and conflict will have been revved up.
    I've enjoyed your posts Terri. Thank you.

  2. The last two segments I teetered between thinking I was all pantser to a wee bit plotter. Now I know where I fall. I'm an explorer. I have a storyline in mind. I know where I want to end up, but first I have to meet my characters and spend a little time with them before we take our actual journey.

    This has been a great series. Thanks for sharing.

    Concilium, July 2012

  3. Thanks. it's been good for me in planning the lessons for the Novel Writing class I have coming up in a week. A WEEK???? I'd better get busy :-) Seriously, I'm putting up a bunch of stuff on the site this week.

    I have to say, I've been reading a book on novel writing and I wish I'd bought it in paper instead of downloading it on my nook because I keep wanting to throw it across the room. This woman is giving a totally unrealistic method of writing and treating it as the "one and only" way to create a novel. To make it worse, she hasn't even written a novel herself!!! And she teaches a class for Writer's Digest Schools on a Novel in 90 days. Charges 500+ for it.

    Needless to say, if I write a review of this book, it will not be pretty.

  4. Terri, thanks for the great post. When I did nano last year, I had a pretty clear picture of the society, the aliens, the planet, and some of the characters. I had the beginning (the main character and father arrive on planet), and the end (they stay) -- and some idea of inbetween. A bunch of stuff changed (MC's dad was dead at end of book, reason for no mother present at beginning changes, blah, blah), but it was hugely helpful to have a picture of the society and the planet.

    I'm doing more planning this year. We'll see how much of the novel matches the notes when I'm done {grin}.


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