DYCP-Blog 6: Some thoughts on planning a novel…

A large part of my DYCP application was about me having the time to create a detailed plan for my first – *gulp!* – novel. I’d decided to approach this by working my way through the Writers HQ online course called Plotstormers, taking advantage of the generous sponsorship I’d been awarded which gave me a year’s access to their online courses. 

(See my first and second blogs in this series for my initial chat re:novel planning.) 

Lucky to have a lot of local scenic writing options if I get fed up with my desk/the garden!

On the WHQ website, it says that Plotstormers can be completed in six weeks! One quick glance through the content and I knew that would not be the case for me, but I was okay with that. I wanted to take my time going through the exercises – with space to reflect, research, and experiment between each section. I had around 2.5 days each week to spend on creative projects, and the novel plan was one of 3+ (see my other blogs for more info on the others). 

The course began by giving some brief background information on narratology – the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure and function of narrative – which was really fascinating for me as I wasn’t aware of how much study there was around the subject. After examining a few of the most popular story structure theories, the WHQ course then distilled the information into a few key takeaways. 

Classic encouraging screenshot from the WHQ Plotstormers course!

It was interesting (and beneficial for my planning process) to rethink the idea of conflict, disaster and adventure. These words came up a lot in the different narratology theories and it was helpful for WHQ to point out that not every story needed to have “the running-jumping-hiding kind” of action, or much action at all in fact. It got me thinking about what kind of adventure would be happening in the story I wanted to tell. I realised there would be several journeys and adventures throughout, on multiple levels/layers – some physical and external, some more emotional and internal. More recently, I was also struck by something Ella Paradis (founder of Black Explorer magazine) said on the ‘Adventures of Wild Women’ podcast (May 21) around her decision to use the word ‘explorer’ rather than ‘traveller’ and how she wanted Black Explorer to be more than a travel magazine: She created the platform to show more representation of black people, particularly women, indulging in “carefree exploration”. This resonated with me, as it’s definitely not something I ever saw represented in the media or popular culture when I was growing up. I also hope to show black and brown people enjoying carefree exploration within the story I tell. 

I also linked up with Ella on Zoom a couple of months ago, and have plans to work closely with Black Explorer in the future.

Plotstormers is structured so that, early on in the course, I came up with a “Ridiculously Reductive Four Point Plan” (4PP). This was a good confidence boost to realise that I did have a basic outline in mind, and it also made clear some of the parts that needed a lot more research and exploration before they made sense within the story I was trying to tell. It was also really helpful to get early-stage feedback on plot and story structure from more experienced novelists on the forums. After that, there were some exercises to help me explore what the actual point of my story is – which is the kind of question you can think you’re quite clear on until you actually try to write it down in one neat sentence! I also needed to think about where my character wanted to be at the end of the story, physically and emotionally. I used freewriting, and walking and talking (recording myself), to get to know the protagonist from her viewpoint and understand her wants and needs. 

The North Cliffs, Kernow

I needed to choose a name for my protagonist. I knew she had grown up in rural Cornwall and, although I wasn’t yet sure if one of her parents was Cornish or not (or maybe Corn-ish, like me), I wanted to give her a Cornish name. There are many beautiful Cornish names, and whenever I meet somebody with one (or with a west country accent) I get that warm feeling of familiarity in my belly. It felt important to me to know the meaning of the name of my protagonist (and maybe of all the characters in the book) and for it to fit with the character I’d started creating. After reading through several lists of Cornish names and their meanings, I settled on…

Morwenna

I like that it has the potential to be shortened in a few different ways, I like how it feels in my mouth and how it looks on a page, and most importantly – the meaning fits the character wonderfully. It means: ‘waves of the sea’. Or maybe it means ‘maid of the sea’ – it seems to be disputed online, but I intend to check with a trusted Cornish person next time I’m there! I prefer ‘waves of the sea’, but either way – it is fitting that Morwenna has a deep connection to the sea, and that the weather of the story will certainly have some waves. The name is cognate with the Welsh name Morwyn, meaning “maiden”, and is also used in Brittany where it means “white sea”. And when does the sea look white? When it’s all wavy and wild, that’s when.

On the little green bit of paper on the front of my desk, it says ‘BRAVE AND FORGIVING’ – a reminder from WHQ of the attitude needed for novel planning!

Soon, it was time to make the 4PP into a 7PP. There were some exercises, videos and info to read beforehand – including an example 7PP using the story of Frozen. Although I hadn’t actually seen it, I still found this really helpful! Throughout the whole course there were comparisons drawn with several other books/films that really helped me to understand the twists and turns that all stories take in different ways. And some of them I had actually read/seen, or I caught up with during the last 6 months (like, Handmaid’s Tale and Hunger Games) and although I’m not planning on writing a story that is anything like any of the examples used, it was still handy for the planning process.

Once I had finished a 7PP, as well as sharing on the WHQ forum I also shared it with the monthly BIPOC writers group I’m a part of – which came out of a writing retreat run by Alinah Azadeh last year. It was great (and a bit nerve-wracking) to have the opportunity to talk it through with black and brown writers that I admire. I got some helpful feedback, from Alinah in particular who has recently finished a draft of her first novel. She hit the nail on the head when she noted that it seemed like maybe I was trying to fit everything in – apparently common when someone is planning their first novel. I guess the idea of ever doing this more than once still seems a bit out of this world, so it can feel like I need to say everything I want to say with this one story. But that’s not the case, and the reminder was really valuable for returning to my plan and preparing to make it into a much more detailed 16 point plan aka ‘The Magical 16 Point Planner Of Your Dreams’ (as it’s called on the WHQ site!). Later on, I was also able to share a first draft of a possible scene (!!) from the story with the writers group, and it was good to get their feedback and encouragement. 

My trusty writing companion looking after some notes for me!

The journey towards a complete 16PP was a much more in-depth and time consuming one. The course guided me through each point, with some breaks to do exercises or read/watch/write around a particular area of the plan – such as how to sculpt the all important middle section. It was time to get deeper into characterisation too and about a third of the way into the 16PP, I decided (encouraged by a wise writer on the WHQ forums) to pause Plotstormers all together and instead to take a look at a different course called Making People. I needed to get to know my characters better – mainly Morwenna for now, though some others needed fleshing out too, as I realised the further I got into my plan. The characterisation exercises were really helpful, but also challenging. One in particular that was both of these things, was the invitation to write 5-10 memorable events, how the character reacted and the short & long term impacts. This was easiest for Morwenna, as she was the character I’d thought most about. But I also tried it with a few other main characters and it was really tough! Also really helpful for figuring out where to go next in my plan, and what role different characters could play in each section. Making People also highlighted the importance of ‘cause & effect’: a character does something because of who they are, which has an effect on the people around them, and also affects how they act from then onwards. I’m sure I’ll go back to the exercises in this course throughout the writing process, when I feel I need to get to know a character better in order to make them seem real because – as WHQ points out – “Nobody thinks they are a secondary character in someone else’s story.”

Screenshot of my review on Afrori website – You can read it here

A few months ago, I connected with the owners of Afrori Books (an online bookshop selling books by black authors) as they were looking for people to write book reviews. It dawned on me that reading a book with the knowledge I was going to write a review could be really helpful for my novel planning – as well as giving me an excuse to read more books by black authors! I’ve just done the one review so far, for These Ghost Are Family by Maisy Card – which I really enjoyed, and which explores some similar themes to Morwenna’s story. It’s also structured in an interesting way – nonlinear, jumping around between different locations in Jamaica and the United States and different time periods from the last thirty years, as well as some chapters set hundreds of years ago. Although I’ve been planning in a linear way so far – as the WHQ course advised to do that first and then it’s easier to jumble the timelines afterwards – I’ve been thinking that Morwenna’s story will end up jumping about a little bit too, and may incorporate different timelines in some way. 

I’ve been inspired by other books I’ve read this year too, particularly Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet and The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka. Also by talks and workshops I’ve attended over the past six months with authors such as Anita Sethi talking about her book I Belong Here (currently reading) who I also shared a stage with at Primadonna Festival in July – on a panel about Environmental Health where I was representing Black Girls Hike. I attended several other workshops and talks at Primadonna and was particularly inspired by a panel called ‘No Place Like Home’ with Melody Razak, Florence Ọlájídé, Neema Shah, Rosanna Amaka and Christy Lefteri. Also by a Writing Our Legacy online workshop with Olumide Popool called ‘Raising our voices’ where we discussed and did exercises around the voice of both the character, and our own writers’ voices. 

I’ve thought this a little from the beginning and am becoming more sure that although I am referring to Morwenna’s story as a ‘novel’ at the moment, I’m not entirely sure that’s exactly what it will be. It’s likely it will include poetry as well as prose, and maybe even some other elements that stray from the usual structure and packaging of a novel. We’ll see. 

For now, I am super pleased with myself that I have a 16 point novel plan!
There’s still work to be done on it – I still need to finish the last 20% of Plotstormers after all – and then it’ll be time to really start writing. I’m feeling nervous and excited, daunted and determined!

Here’s me feelin’ myself with my novel plan:

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