My Year of Novellas

It has come! While others are banging out NaNoWriMo novels, I’m starting my own quest. I feel like I have a lot more worldbuilding to do but it’s time to actually put in the work of writing instead of talk about it. I’m in a hostel in Nicaragua with a good workspace, cheap and delicious groceries and food, and decent wifi.

I’ve reduced the number of countries I’m focusing on in my world to three and they have no names anymore; the Republic, the Confederacy, and the Theocracy. I plan on naming them soon, probably with the help of Vulgar. There are other countries that will come into play, but not feature any characters from those countries yet.

This week is outlining. My first story will focus on a Republican naval captain that heads upriver with his ship. Things go terribly wrong and he comes back totally changed. That’s all I’ve got so far. Using the Eva Deverell’s eight-stage plot formula, I’ll work with this to build an outline.

Good luck to NaNoWriMo participants or anyone else starting their own writing quests!

Biomes and Latitude in Worldbuilding

While browsing the r/worldbuilding subreddit on the fantastic new Reddit app Apollo, I found an informative table by user Shagomir on what kinds of biomes would be possible various latitudinal points in an Earth-like environment.

Here is the portion of the table as it applies to my own worldbuilding:

  • Subtropical Woodlands: Also known as savannah, these woodlands stretch from the coast to the the highlands around the 15th parallel north.
  • Tropical Woodlands: Occurring inland and in the highlands between the 5th and 10th parallels north.
  • Tropical Dry Forest: Occurring on the west coast of the 10th parallel north and the transitional zone of the 5th parallel north.
  • Tropical Wet Forest: I would interpret this as mangroves swamps on the west coast of the 5th parallel north.

Only a few more days until I begin writing! I have a character and some semblance of a arc story. After my map is complete, I’ll start outlining, which I’ll write about later.

The Story Circle and the One Page Novel

A combined crash course in plot formula

The times they are a-changin’. Besides being on a new beach every couple days (Hello from the Oaxacan coast!), some creative and professional changes have come up. I started a legal proofreading course early this month to learn to help court reporters improve transcripts. I’m only a few units and modules in, and I will save any larger thoughts on proofreading and the course for later. But I’m incredibly optimistic for the potential opportunities of (1) gaining a marketable skill, (2) starting a freelance business, (3) working remotely from anywhere in the world, and (4) freeing up some working hours to pursue other interests, especially writing.1

Mid-September Worldbuilding Update

In my first writing post, I laid out my first three “branches” on the path to NaNoWriMo2. They are (1) worldbuild, (2) write twelve short stories, and (3) participate in and win NaNoWriMo. These contain sub-tasks and all three have definite deadlines. For instance, I want to complete the bulk of worldbuilding by 1 November so I can focus on the second part of story writing. I don’t think I’ll have every detail in my world worked out but I’m okay with that.

I started with individual mind maps of each society I was working on. I created child nodes for different aspects of a society: culture, society and hierarchy, government, religion, education, economy, languages, location, population, technology, army, and clothing. Am I forgetting anything? I uploaded a mind map in my first worldbuilding post featuring MindNode but it was difficult to see.

So, how am I doing? Eh. I think for my first time, I’m in good shape. I have the look and feel of the world I want to create very clear in my mind; pre-industrial West African coastline, islands, forests, and plains with people, djinn, horses, guns, family politics, war, pirates, the dead, adventure, and magic. Something that could pass for a slightly off-balance reality but of course fictitious3. From June to August, I was stuck.

I’m still looking for the uglier qualities of some of my favorite societies and civilizations. Kaitlin Hillerich on Ink and Quills wrote about adding flaws into worldbuilding:

When I wrote my first fantasy story, I created a perfect world. There was no poverty, no slavery, no hungry children, women were equal to men, the streets were clean of filth, and for all I knew there weren’t any prisons. All of the kingdoms got along and no one had enemies. All of the kings and lords were fair and just except for the “evil” king and my “evil” villain who wanted to take over.

She also has a great list of types of flaws that writers can work into their stories or worlds. For my own world, I know slavery, class division, gender bias, religious strife, refugees, and cannibalism will all play a significant role in my world.4

I think I’ve realized how much fun the planning and preparation stage of creating a place. What does this society do for funerals? How did this community get here? What happens when they visit a different land’s borders during a war? It would be totally possible for me to get stuck in the worldbuilding stage. I still have about 45 days to leisurely work on the worldbuilding and I’m enjoying it immensely.

Looking Ahead

Before, I thought the best writing practice would be multiple short stories with a monthly deadline. Again, this part of mi camino de NaNoWriMo would last a year, just in time to jump into November 2018. Over the last few months on the road in Mexico however, I’ve realize that other things must take priority over free time writing on my iPad. Fact is, there are some days when it’s not going to be possible to write.

So why not cut it in half? By reducing the number of stories to six and expanding the word count from 10,000 to 20,000—25,000 words, this second part could include six (marketable?) novellas5 rather than twelve practice stories. This could be more difficult in practice, but I’m curious and excited to have more room to see my characters, settings, and stories grow.

So each month, I aim to finish a fantasy novella written over two two-week periods, sandwiched between weeks for planning and outlining and weeks for editing, revising, and publishing.6 This puts a Monday to Friday word count goal anywhere from 1,000—1,250 words. Sound complicated? Should I just maybe shut up and write? Maybe, but the analytical, data-loving side of my brain loves plans and schedules. Is there anyone else like this? Feel free to comment down below.

“Would You Like Some Help?”

Now that some of parameters have been reworked, it’s the time I had been dreading; start brainstorming story topics. Starting off, I had a few very large themes that preoccupied various societies; agriculture for one, authoritarianism for another, etc. This isn’t helpful. One place might be more agricultural and another might be more authoritarian but stories inside those places are what we’re after. So I went searching for some theory that wasn’t Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces at almost 500 pages.7

This lead to me to:

  1. Eva Deverell‘s fantastic website for writing inspiration and plot planning through a DuckDuckGo search on novellas
  2. Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Reading these two pieces together was a bit of a wake up call. Firstly, hey, that’s right! I need a story! I can’t just describe djinn and horses and dead ancestors all day. I need living, breathing characters to do things. Secondly, Deverell and Harmon are saying pretty much the same thing. This seems to be a legit plot formula. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Eva Deverell’s One Page Novel Plot Formula

I love what Eva Deverell says in her post How to Write A Novella:

Novellas are sometimes compared to films, and I think the comparison is an apt one. If we assume that 15,000 words takes approximately an hour to read, then a 30,000-word novella can be read in about as much time as it takes to watch a film. Hence, a novella usually covers a similar number of scenes and events. A novel is too large a structure to visualise all at once, but films and novellas are more manageable.

In Mauritania, we watched a lot of films. I don’t know storycraft, but I do know films. Deverell points out that the novella form doesn’t allow the writer to go off on tangents or worldbuild. So if novellas can be tricky to worldbuild, can you imagine trying that in a 10,000 short story? While I want to worldbuild in my novellas, I have six of them that I can work with.

The 8-Stage Plot Formula

Deverell teaches a course called The One Page Novel online. And these stages correspond roughly with the Hero’s Journey. And as we will see later, with Dan Harmon’s Story Circle as well.

What’s interesting about Deverell’s approach is she starts by working with the resolution stage first, goes back to status then places others out of linear order. [Emphasis mine]

  1. Resolution: The One Page Novel works by plotting out of order, so the first thing we do is decide who our character will be at the end of the story. To do this, we can simply select one or two “states”, such as: wealthy, fearless, loving, sociable, etc.
  2. Statis: The next step is to turn the character’s Resolution state into its opposite. This gives us their state at the start of the story, and allows us to create a strong character development arc. For example, a character who’s wealthy at the end of the novella would begin poor, a character who is fearless would start out scared, etc. The Stasis will show the character in their ordinary, everyday life, exhibiting these states.

The other thing I like is she is pretty clear about word counts and 1 scene = 1 plot point:

If we take 1,000 words as a rough estimate for a scene, then a novella or 25,000 words will require only 25 scenes or plot points.

It never occurred to me to think of writing with scenes, even though theatre and film rely on this so heavily. This gives me even more parameters to work in. After a few months, I can loosen these. But for now, these guidelines are a life-preserver, with which I can survive with my inevitable imposter syndrome in the vast ocean of writing blogs.

Anywhere in the low 20,000s for word count would be a win for me, but 25,000 would be great. The structure is better fleshed out when she shows how many scenes to include for each stage. In her post, she has anywhere from 18 to 35 scenes, but for my 25 scene novella, it could look something like:

  1. Stasis: 1 scene
  2. Trigger: 2 scenes
  3. Quest: 12 scenes (with at least two try/fail cycles)
  4. Bolt: 2 scenes
  5. Shift: 2 scenes
  6. Defeat: 2 scenes
  7. Power: 2 scenes
  8. Resolution: 2 scenes

Deverell has two other great pieces of advice:

  1. Plot formulas are tools, not rules; use them to experiment!
  2. Don’t underestimate the amount of time it will take to redraft, edit, polish, and publish a novella.

Dan Harmon’s Story Circle

Dan Harmon is a writer and producer for shows like Community and Rick and Marty. Dan Harmon has a lot to say about the story circle. And it’s amazing.

The Story Circle is also an 8-stage plot formula. And this whole circle is a cycle of descent and return:

Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

It’s beyond the scope of this post to do Harmon’s Story Circle justice. I read Deverell’s first and it was lean and succinct. I liked the way I could remember bits and apply them to my overall crazy writing structures. But Part IV, where Harmon describes The Juicy Details is meaty and awesome.

But before I go, I want to compare some of the language of these cycles. Deverell uses words like resolution and trigger. Harmon uses natural language, bare minimum English, and what I’m calling caveman English.

One Page Circle, Combined

Deverell Harmon Bare Cave
1 Stasis A character is in a zone of comfort, When you You
2 Trigger But they want something. Have a need, Need
3 Quest They enter an unfamiliar situation, You go somewhere, Go
4 Bolt Adapt to it, Search for it, Search
5 Shift Get what they wanted, Find it, Find
6 Defeat Pay a heavy price for it, Take it, Take
7 Power Then return to their familiar situation Then return Return
8 Resolution Having changed. And change things. Change

Plot Ideas

Among the Stones is mostly filled with aspirations. Sometimes I feel strange writing about things I haven’t done and completed. In some way, this can be inhibiting; I’m gaining some satisfaction of the thing without even doing the thing. But in other ways, I find it incredibly helpful for not only holding myself accountable because I have written something public but also giving me the space to brood over ideas and see them transform.

All that to say that I’m going to be very open about my processes when writing these novellas. After reading through both Deverell and Harmon’s pieces, I started jotting down some basic plot ideas. Just sentences right now, these are the first step in yet another plotting method, called The Snowflake Method. I thought of including this one into this post but this might be overkill. These are very rough, and I’m sure these will change over the next few weeks. I’d like to have a list always running of story ideas. Here are a few of them.

  1. A Janisi pirate or naval captain is shipwrecked next to a corrupt Belemusi warlords’ estate.
  2. A Galijasi woman discovers the cannibalistic people in the south.
  3. Dasasi nomads stumble onto a village ravaged by the dead.
  4. A reluctant Galijasi must travel a far distance, leaving behind his/her community he/she is bound to defend.

I’ll have more plot ideas and character development posts later. But I’m glad I was able to spend some time with Deverell and Harmon’s structures and I feel a lot more capable of setting out on the second part of my writing.

  1. Many legal proofreaders work part-time exclusively from iOS! 
  2. Branches was a poor word choice. Why didn’t I just say steps? 
  3. Let’s see how much of the Mande invasions, Fula jihads, and the Portuguese traders come into play. 
  4. I can’t wait to write cannibals. I’m utterly scared shitless of cannibals. 
  5. A novella is defined in this post by the Daring Novelist and by the Science Fiction Writers of America as a short novel containing 17,500—40,000 words. NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words in one month. For another reference, 50 pages is about 22,500 words. 
  6. I’ll self-publish the first couple and see how it goes. With the possibility of proofreading part-time, saving money by living in inexpensive places, and writing on the side, I’m not really interested in making money. I told you I wanted to write. 
  7. I do have every intention of reading this someday, along with the Writer’s Journey

Beginning Worldbuilding with MindNode

Last year, I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, an entertaining high fantasy novel featuring quasi-Islamic characters and settings. Reading it solidified my interest in the fantasy genre and made me especially appreciate authors who wrote diverse characters.

I have lived in West Africa for the majority of the last seven years. Throughout that time, I’ve kept a journal in notebooks and on my computer. But I’ve struggled with how to write about things pubwlicly in a way I would feel comfortable rereading years later.

Instead of documenting real life, with all of my own potential biases and projections, maybe it would be easier to create a fictional world inspired by the Upper Guinea region; a place that is marked by the coastal mangrove swamps and rivers in southern Sierra Leone, the highlands of the Fouta Djallon, the island cluster of Bijagós, and the people who live there.

Dense forests, undulating hills and valleys, rivers, swamps, well-trodden footpaths leading from home to farm, villages and towns with thatched huts, isolated hamlets, and palms.

With these images in mind, I started to create a part of my own fantasy world.1 In the previous post, I mentioned my goal of building a world to use for twelve short stories over the next year, in preparation for NaNoWriMo. But I am also interested in worldbuilding for its own sake. At first, I would scribble down notes when I thought of something; simple things like names or a model of government. When I moved my longer digital notes over to Ulysses2, I went crazy making groups and sheets to hold all my thoughts in.

And then I stalled. I’m not sure if it was my previous system with its linear style or my workload at school, but I stopped. Until I discovered the benefits of mind mapping.

“[A mind map] is visually looking at ideas and their connections and relationships with each other.” — David Sparks

I’ve used mind maps with my primary school students for writing preparation in the past, but I always considered them a step before outlines or more traditional note taking, not of value by themselves.

For macOS and iOS users, MindNode is my favorite mind mapping app and it has helped me with worldbuilding. It allows me to brainstorm abstractly and experiment with the places I’m creating. It is also easy to manipulate nodes and mind maps in the same project. MindNode allows for different export options like an image or an outline in Markdown. I transferred my scattered written and digital notes on my four culture groups and spent an hour or so adding and editing nodes. I will examine each culture more closely in subsequent articles, but here is what my mind map looks like now:

The Coast

I named the whole MindNode “The Coast”, because I haven’t come up with a suitable name for this area of my world, or the name of the world in general. The names I do know, however, are my cultures; Belemu, Galija, the Dasasi, and the Jani Republic.

Each culture’s node has characteristics and individual themes. The individual themes are ideas for short stories; something unique about that place that can be highlighted. Characteristics are still a work in progress. I have a few inspirations for the types of government listed for each culture, but the environment is uniquely Upper Guinea.

I listed religions with a “crypto-” prefix. I have not elaborated on how realistic or fictional to go so it is mostly a placeholder for the future. Religion and other characteristics will be highlighted in separate posts.

That’s about it for now. My next task is to continue working on these cultures, create geography, and start constructing some languages. Writing about worldbuilding and my writing goals have driven me to work on them more.

If there are any comments or questions, don’t hesitate to reach out! I’d love some feedback and if anyone else is doing the same.

  1. Some might have noticed that I have left out people. It is deliberate. There is far too much heterogeneity even in this particular part of West Africa to adequately describe people. I’m more comfortable putting landscapes into boxes, not people. I am also conscious of the added responsibility of writing people of color as a white male and this is something I want to understand better. 
  2. The undisputed champion of all writing apps for macOS and iOS. I will be writing more about the greatness of Ulysses in the Technology section. 

Building to NaNoWriMo, Slowly

Plan your work, work your plan.
André Beriau’s father

One of my dreams is to participate in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Throughout the whole month of November, thousands of everyday folks challenge themselves and their tight schedules to produce a first draft of their own novel. Participants “win” NaNoWriMo by reaching 50,000 words by November 30, 11:59 PM. There are meet ups, online forums, and special programs throughout the year to encourage would-be novelists. Over the years, hundreds of these novels have been published.

Since hearing about it, I’ve always been intrigued. But I’ve encountered two not-so-minor problems:

  • November at my school is a difficult month. There are parent/teacher conferences, Winter Carnival preparations, report cards, vacation planning, on top of lesson plans and teaching classes to restless students who are just as eager to go on vacation as I am. Committing the time during that month specifically could be challenging.
  • More critically, I’ve never actually written something creatively on my own outside of school before. When November came around, I had no plot or characters and my setting wasn’t fleshed out enough. Could I really start the whole month without anything prepared?

So I deferred my NaNoWriMo participation until a more suitable time. But a suitable time will never come. There will always be distractions and more excuses.

I’ve decided to disregard those excuses and not let them get in the way of achieving something I’m interested in. With my upcoming transition to being a nomad teacher on an unofficial sabbatical, I established a gradual plan to prepare for my goal of a novel. Instead of jumping headfirst into November, I could work on worldbuilding and short stories in preparation for NaNoWriMo next year.

Now I have three branches of my dream:

  • June 2017 → October 2017: Worldbuilding: Spend the next few months brainstorming; geography, history, culture, language, magic, etc. Even if most of these idiosyncrasies don’t make it into my writing, they can help flesh out character backgrounds and societal motivations.
  • November 2017 → October 2018: Short stories: Take each month to produce a short story based in my world. Since I expect to be traveling, I also devised a rough monthly schedule. During the year with this timeline, I will have the chance to practice writing creatively, budgeting my time, and meeting deadlines in preparation for NaNoWriMo. Hopefully I’ll have at least a few decent short stories as well.
    • Week 1: Plan using MindNode1
    • Week 2: Write 5,000 words
    • Week 3: Write another 5,000 words
    • Week 4: Edit, revise, and publish to this blog2
  • November 2018: NaNoWriMo: Now that I’ve spent time working through characters and their world, I’ll be better prepared to dive in to NaNoWriMo with one story arc3 and enough background material.

I’m posting this to hold myself accountable. Writing is something I’ve been interested in for many years but thought I lacked the creativity for fiction and the confidence for nonfiction. Among the Stones is the safe place to break through those obstacles.

  1. A wonderful mind mapping application for macOS and iOS. My next post will highlight how I use MindNode for worldbuilding as an alternative to traditional note taking. 
  2. I picked a month for each story because it gives me some flexibility. For instance, I might already have the next story’s idea during the first week’s planning period, so I can get a head start on writing. Or there might be days on the road when writing isn’t a possibility. 10,000 words per story seems ideal to me because it allows space to work through larger concepts about the characters’ cultures and world in the plot. During the writing weeks, 1,000 words per weekday, or 715 words per day seems manageable. During NaNoWriMo, the daily word count is 1,666 to hit 50,000 words in 30 days. 
  3. I’m thinking the Hero’s journey