Fast-drafting a book is one of my favorite ways to write. Watching a book come together so quickly is incredibly fun and writing immersively like that keeps me focused. However, I’m also an editor for Entangled Publishing, and knowing that revisions are coming next and the difference having done thorough groundwork makes in the quality of a draft makes me wish I liked plotting a little more.
Plotting isn’t really something I enjoy. I do it because I want a great book at the end of all this work, but it usually feels dry and inspiration-less to me. Plus, the choices I make when I’m putting words on the page (where the exits are in a room, for example) often end up changing where I thought the next scene or sequence would go. So the plot I put all that work into ends up veering off-course anyway.
Story groundwork makes all the difference here. Wandering plots and characters can mean you have to cut tens of thousands of words and try to figure out how to work a spine back into your story after the fact. Not fun. But if you’ve done good groundwork and can apply it as you go, you should be just fine. Story groundwork is much more fun for me than plotting. It’s the ingredients for plotting. It’s what can enable you to write 50,000 words in one month and have it be a solid, quality draft when you’re done.
So if you’re going to do NaNoWriMo, here are 3 elements of story groundwork that I love to use for fast-drafting a great manuscript. Of course, there are exceptions to all of this and I’m a fan of breaking the rules. These are just general principles that will help you stay on track as you fast-draft. And they’re useful for drafting in general, too—a strong story core is always good.
Finding Your Story Spine:
Your character’s goal, stakes, and conflict are the story spine. What they lead to is your target through the whole draft. That ending, the payoff, the moment your reader wishes there was more. The goal, stakes, and conflict will keep you hurtling toward it. And if you make them deep enough before you start, they’ll plot your book for you. So first, make sure your characters have a specific, active goal prompted a deep motivation. A strong goal is specific. Survival, revenge, justice, etc—that’s not specific enough. It’s too abstract. Catching a killer, finding a missing friend, asking your crush out– those are specific goals. So this book is about a person who… does what? If your character’s goal isn’t the main, active part of the pitch, you may have problems. A strong goal is active. From page 1, your character needs to be taking steps to reach that goal. If there is a scene where your character is not taking steps toward the goal, cut it. A strong goal is deeply important to the character. It can only be as important to us as it is to the character. They need to want it, need it, chase it.
Next, a specific, active goal prompted by a deep motivation needs to face off with a strong, compelling conflict. What stands in the way of the character achieving the goal? Your conflict can prompt the goal, or the goal can prompt the conflict, but regardless, great story spines have the two fighting each other. Aim for depth, specificity, and urgency with both of them.
Finally, give deep personal stakes. Deep stakes are almost always better than bigger stakes. Make it personal or we won’t care. Small stakes can be very, very deep. Whether a girl gets into college can be higher stakes than saving the world, if we’re showing how deeply it matters to this girl. Tyra in Friday Night Lights is desperate to go to college, because to her, her other option is becoming like her mother and sister, with an endless future of dead-end jobs and being abandoned by men who don’t care about her. She’s desperate for a better future.
Those are deep stakes. So come back to the deep motivation for the character’s goal. What is it? Then make sure the conflict the character is facing puts those personal stakes at risk. If the character fails in their goal, what do they lose? The answer is the stakes. Make them specific, personal, and of great worth to the character. That will be where your depth comes from.
Your story spine—a character with a specific goal facing a compelling conflict with deep personal stakes—will make most of your plotting choices for you as you go. Character, of course, is at the core of all of these things. What kind of character would have that goal? How would this person tackle the conflict? What is so important to this person that they’d give up freedom, health, allies, love, or life to have it?
Taking aim: Once I know my story spine thoroughly and have explored it in several different directions, I start figuring out what I want the actual sequences of events to look like. The ingredients are there, and now they need assembled. An incredibly strong inciting incident can make them fall in line for you. Story beginnings are almost always the day something changes, right? We start on the day that’s different. But instead of viewing an inciting incident like knocking over the first in a chain of dominoes, I think of an inciting incident like a trigger, and I’m firing the gun. If you don’t know what you’re aiming at, you’re firing blindly. Take careful, intentional aim with that inciting incident. Make the scenes that follow drive headlong toward your target. And this requires knowing your target before you start. So be sure to do the work on that story spine.
Staying the course:
When you’re fast-drafting, your book might come together quickly, but it can also go off-course quickly. Every scene needs to be aimed toward that target, following that story spine. If it’s not, cut it. Here’s my way of making sure before I ever write the scene that it’s on target:
I write out the key points of the chapter. To keep myself from wandering, before I start writing the scene, I mark down the opening and closing moments, the conflict for the scene, how it affects the stakes and the goal, and the heart of the scene—whatever piece(s) of theme or character I want to resonate with readers.
I usually do this on my markerboard so I can scribble all over it, be off my computer for a bit, and make myself think out of the box. A markerboard doesn’t require me to go left to right, top to bottom. And then once I’ve got this figured out for the scene, that’s when I start writing it. It takes a lot of the hesitation and “now what?” out of the act of putting words on the page. And I’ve almost never had to cut a scene I did this kind of planning for—the only times I’ve had to have been when I need to change an element in the story spine.
Doing careful story groundwork like this should cut down on the amount of writing in circles or meandering sequences that you might end up with when fast-drafting. And it should mean revisions are layering, shifting, boosting, and trimming, instead of starting over.