No plot? Start thinking of what you want

Skimming through one of my favorite blogs — Smart Bitches, Trashy Books — I was reminded of an exercise I did in preparation for NaNoWriMo last year. Today is actually the first day we can sign up for the 2008 NaNo challenge, but the server has been “too busy” since I started trying to log on around 9 a.m. this morning. Guess I’ll just wait until tomorrow!

But the challenge from Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month and author of the how-to guide No Plot, No Problem!, is to sit down before beginning your story and come up with two lists: one includes all the elements you love in a novel; the other features, of course, all the elements you really dislike in a novel. The idea is to take your two lists and make sure you’re following these guidelines as you’re writing your own novel — we write what we like, right? I know I do.

So here are my lists, which are in no way conclusive:

What makes a great novel?
• Humor — characters who don’t take themselves too seriously
• Romantic/sexual tension
• Descriptive settings, possibly in exotic locales
• Dynamic conversation
• A variety of characters/personalities interacting
• First-person narration
• Unexpected discoveries — people, objects, places
• Workplace drama — i.e. the quirky cast of “The Office”
• Happy / chance for happy endings

What does NOT make a great novel?
• Lack of conversation
• Heavy emphasis on thoughts as opposed to action
• Unrealistic, stilted dialogue
• Family drama — focus on judgemental/disfunctional parents
• Over-the-top bosses / authority figures
• Emphasis on depression / depressive action
• Rushed / uncharted romances — where feelings develop too quickly, unrealistically
• Disproportionate ratio of scenic description and people description
• Written entirely in letter / e-mail / blog format
• Cliched reunions with longlost love / family member
• Too many “main” characters — hard to follow


As you can see, my list of “do not want” is a bit longer than “do want.” It’s good to know what we don’t like too, though. I found this exercise incredibly helpful last year — in fact, looking back, the novel I wrote last November closely mirrors many of these elements. My next novel followed many of my above “rules” to the letter (no pun intended!). If you’re doing NaNo this year, I strongly suggest creating your own lists — it’s a great way to organize your thinking and look at the way devices in our favorite novels appeal to us — and how to emulate them.