Getting to know Claire

I want two seemingly opposing characteristics from my protagonist, Claire:

  • I want her to be a likeable everywoman, who people will be able to relate to
  • I want her to be exceptional

How to combine these two characteristics?

The Bestseller Code suggests that a lead character needs to have a talent. e.g. Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a master hacker. Rachel in The Girl on the Train is a keen observer.

So, what talent can my protagonist have? Ideally I’d like it to be a talent that doesn’t interfere with her “everywoman” qualities. She can’t be a perfect mother (who is?), or overly organised or in control. She’s got to struggle with the same things that normal people struggle with – work-life balance, being a good parent, fitting all the chores in…

In this circumstance her talent could be around her work. When we meet her she’ll be on maternity leave and unable to go back to the same job, as she has moved far away for her husband’s job.

I want her work to be something a bit quirky or interesting. I came up with the following:

  • Fashion designer
  • Fiction editor
  • Magazine editor
  • Journalist
  • Clothes buyer for retailer
  • Layout specialist for children’s books
  • Fabric selector for curtain retailer
  • Heir hunter
  • In charge of rehousing tenants at the Council
  • Social Services
  • Helping children in care

Of these, I think journalist, heir hunter, social services or helping children in care would be the most useful, as the skills she has gained in these roles could be used further in the plot.

It’s important she has a specific skill within these roles – one that makes her good at her job and the one people turn to for that skill, and also one that she can use when she comes up against the antagonist in the course of the novel:

In terms of specific skills, perhaps it could be:

  • locating missing people (journalist, heir hunter and potentially social services)
  • spotting when children are being abused (social services, helping children in care)
  • a confidant – encouraging people to confide in her (journalist, social services, helping children in care)

I think the most likely one I’ll use is the first skill (locating missing people) possibly via the third skill (getting people to confide in her). This leaves her employee options as a journalist (a very popular job in novels) or a worker in social services.

Targets for NanoWrimo

I previously mentioned that my overall target this year for NanoWrimo was 100,000 words, split into 100 1,000 words scenes.

There are 30 days in November so this works out at 3,334 words a day. But to allow for off days, ill days and too-busy-to-write days, I’ll target 4,000 words a day or 4 scenes of 1,000 words.

I’m going to be practical about the scenes. As long as I plan properly and have plotted out sensible, engaging scenes, then they will get written. But some might not justify a full 1,000 words and some might need a lot more. So it doesn’t matter if an individual scene isn’t 1,000 words. If it only needs 300 than that’s OK. I’lll just move onto the next scene.

It’s also OK to add extra scenes if and when I have good ideas as I go along. But it’s not ok to follow a whim and write an extensive subplot…as I’ve done that before and it’s easy to start writing two parallel books.

So focus is key. Those are the targets. 4,000 words a day. And broadly follow the plan.

Now to get back to writing a sensible plan and plot skeleton!


Setting – where do people want to read about?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Bestseller Code found the most popular setting for bestselling novels is a pretty ordinary one – towns or cities. It’s a shame in a way, as there’s something fascinating about people’s lives in a close-knit community like a small village. These environments allow characters’ lives to be woven together in multiple, connected relationships. I’ve also been tempted in the past to write a beach book set on a an actual beach – a murder in a holiday resort for example.

But I’ll put aside those ideas for later. Because this year NaNoWrimo is about maximising my chances of writing a popular novel. And so I’ll set my novel in a big city. Specifically London as this is the city I know most well, and therefore it will be easier to write about without too much research.

The novel is about mums, and most families don’t live in central London, so this will be set in the leafy suburbs.

Creating a Hero(ine)

A key ingredient of a bestselling novel is character. The people in the novel and the relationships between them bring the plot to life.

A character needs to have agency, to act and do, rather than think and be. These characters behave differently to the masses. There is something that makes them special. They are unlike us. From childhood we’re taught to be polite, say please and thank you and sometimes to just let things go. We’re taught to apologise if we might be wrong and to qualify our statements with “I think” and “I believe.” But this minimises what we have to say. A heroic character in a novel does none of these things – she doesn’t let things go and she doesn’t apologise. She is active rather than passive.

My lead character, Claire, will have the drive to change her situation. She will do everything she can to turn things round, and even when things aren’t going her way she will keep fighting. She’ll be angry when things are unfair and she’s do something about it. She will need things rather than wish for things. She will act rather than consider.

In The Bestseller Code, Archer & Jockers list some of the most commonly used verbs in bestsellers (the list below is specific to female characters – men have a slightly different list!):

needs, wants, misses, loves, tells, likes, sees, hears, smiles, reaches, pulls, pushes, starts, works, knows, arrives, spends, walks, prays, hugs, talks, reads, imagines, decides, believes,  screams, shoves, eats, nods, opens, closes, says, sleeps, types, watches, turns, runs, shoots, kisses, dies

And, for completeness, here are the verbs that don’t work (I’ll end up editing these ones out of my novel):

shouts, flings, whirls, thrusts, murmurs, protests, hesitates, halts, drops, accepts, dislikes, seems, supposes, recovers, grunts, clutches, peers, gulps, flushes, trembles, clings, jerks, shivers, breaks, fumbles

Planning with Scrivener

In a previous post I explained how I was going to approach NaNoWriMo 2016 by sticking to the three act structure and creating a pulse for my novel, by introducing cliff-hangers at the end of each scene.

Now I’m going to think about what the skeleton of the novel looks like in practice.

I used to plan novels using a combination of powerpoint, word and excel. Word provided my synopsis, powerpoint allowed me to draw out the plot chapter by chapter and shift boxes around, and excel helped me get into the detail of each chapter and keep a record of what had been included where. This wasn’t an ideal solution as it involved flicking through lots of documents.

Now I use scrivener, which provides all of that planning functionality for you and also provides a place for you to actually write the novel itself, easily move around the chapters and transform it into a manuscript ready for Kindle publication. You can trial Scrivener here and see what you think.

So, I’ll talk about the actual plot of the book at later, but for now I’ll talk about planning for NaNoWriMo. I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before now and I know whatever I do I’ll need to do a lot of editing. I also know it can be disheartening if I hold myself to too high a standard when I’m writing the first draft, as some of it’s likely to be a bit rubbish. The key is to get the words out and get to the end. You can edit later.

With that in mind, for me it’s best to over-produce, rather than underproduce. It’s easier to write 100,000 words and edit out 50,000 of them than to try and write 50,000 good words the first time. Sometimes you have to get all the rubbish writing out of your system to hit the gold.

NaNoWriMo has a target of 50,000 words in a month (which is certainly ambitious) but the average novel is at least 70,000- 80,000 words. For NaNoWriMo 2016, I’m going to write at least 100,000 words, in the hope that 70,000 of them will be good.

How will I split up these 100,000 words? Well, given my last post about the “pulse” of a bestseller novel, I’m going to split this up into very small pieces – 100 scenes of 1,000 words. I’ll edit these later and split them into chapters, but for planning purposes I’ll broadly divide them into the following:

Act 1: 25-33 scenes

Act 2: 33-50 scenes

Act 3: 25-33 scenes

I’ll put as much info on the outlines of these scenes into Scrivener, using the corkboard functionality and then take it from there.