Through a tweet or post somewhere, I stumbled on The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by agent and author, Evan Marshall: “By following this 16-step program, any writer can fulfill the dream of completing a novel that is ready to submit to agents and editors. No matter what type of novel the reader wants to write — western to romance to literary to fantasy — this program will work. It breaks down the novel-writing process into small, manageable tasks that even the most inexperienced writers can achieve. Readers will learn how to find a hook, create a conflict, develop a protagonist and set her into motion.” After reading that, I had to investigate further. Could it be true? What made me think I needed to get an MFA?
Well, the book gives only the rudimentary basics on how to create a compelling narrative, intelligent dialogue, believable characters, add a sense of place, lyrical moments, and insert backstory. You’re pretty much on your own when it comes to the bulk of writing (which is fortunate, I suppose, because we can’t ALL be published authors). What The Marshall Formula does is break a novel into a prescribed number of sections, or scenes, based on the length of your story. Each section has a character action or reaction based on a goal, the conflict, outcome, and then the new goal. The book has a blank form that you can copy for each section. As an example, a 100,000 word novel is a total of 80 sections, 20 for the beginning, 40 for the middle, and 20 for the end. So I’d have to make 80 copies… and plan 80 scenes before I actually started writing. There are also other considerations at certain story points, such as the worst failure, the point of hopelessness, and the saving act.
I suppose this plan is only as formulaic as you make it, but for me, it’s overly extensive. I’m more of an organic writer, perhaps, and I fear this would take the fun or discovery out of writing. It would likely give me a whopper headache, too.
On the other hand, nothing is fun when you’ve stalled out, either! Which makes the Marshall Plan at least worth considering.
I asked a number of writers if they outline. YA writer Heather McCorkle says she never used to be an outliner but then a retreat workshop changed her mind. Now she diligently outlines. In fact, she tweeted the other day “My outline is at least a third of the way finished & I’ll be writing soon!” She says “I write down what I want each chapter to be about then list bullet points of things I want to cover in it. It sounds like a lot but it’s pretty vague and leaves me a lot of room to expand, & it’s in pencil!”
Yes, pencil is a good idea. If you use the Marshall Plan, or any other, it’s not constructive to slavishly adhere to an outline, but it seems most writers make at least a loose outline. Writer Shannon Mayer (who humorously tweets “Sometimes I’m glad I became a writer. Other times I wish I’d simply become a ninja.” I empathize!) creates outlines that start with the bare bones of a few scenes and an ending. Then she goes back and fleshes it out. She doesn’t plot out anything extensive, but just enough to keep her writing and not stuck in “Block City.” Writer Will Carver says he plans the beginning and the end, and then makes up the middle. “Plotting seems like extra work. I don’t always write it in order. If I have an idea for a later chapter I’ll write that. Gets me going again.”
That is something I really enjoy as well—writing scenes just because they’re playing around in my head. To me, this is the joy of writing. Right now, I have a few ideas, a host of characters, and only a vague idea of how to get them from A to Z, and what’s going to happen in between. I don’t think it’s the characters that are holding me back; it’s the lack of design or structure for them to run around in. I intend to spend a few days working up a rudimentary outline that makes sense, plot-wise, and then I believe I will be able to move on to doing what I love best.