Another NaNoWriMo themed post, and again this topic has wider applications beyond November.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The same can be said about “How do you write a novel?”

One sentence at a time. Or one page at a time. However you divide up your novel, it should be in small enough chunks to be easily chewed. I tend to focus on the level of scenes. Fifteen minutes here, 250 words there, by the end of the day if I’ve put in enough writing time, I can get a scene.

The million dollar question is, of course, what is a scene? The answer: depends on who you ask. The various definitions of scene boil down to about the same thing. I prefer the Lester Dent pulp formula definition personally.

You start with a character in a setting (Karen in the diner, for example) and smack her with a problem (her last paycheck is $50 short). Then the character has to try to solve the problem, using her own wits or brawn. Ultimately, whatever she tries has to fail. At the end of the scene, the character is deeper in the problem with no way out.

Then you start a new scene… Character in a setting, with a new problem (or the same problem, but intensified), she tries something, and fails.

Keep repeating this pattern until the end of the book, when the character ultimately succeeds or loses. Think of this as the try/fail cycle. Hero tries, fails. Tries again, fails again. Et cetera.

The try should be intelligent and within the character’s abilities. Is the character a pugilist and got poor grades in math and science? He’s more likely to punch his way through the story, than try to build a rocket. Helps to allow your characters to have multiple skills—to be fully human—so they can try different things.

Failure doesn’t have to be epic. Karen goes to confront her boss, but he’s missing and no one knows where he went. She failed at confronting him. This is good, since this failure deepens the mystery. Where is he? Why did he skip town? How does Karen track him down? Now she has something to work towards.

And the fifty bucks isn’t necessarily the main problem of the story. Perhaps in Karen’s thrashing around, she finds her boss. And then to evade capture he jumps through a mysterious door. Karen follows, and finds herself in an alternate reality. Now she has other problems. How does she get back? How does she survive in the alternate reality? Let the story wander wherever it wants.

When you get stuck, go back to the basics. Do you have a character? Is the character in a setting, described with all five senses? Does the character have a problem to solve? What does she do? How does she fail? What happens next?

Write scenes. One after another.

And have fun making stuff up.

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