Once a year, I begin a month by writing like it's going out of style, pausing only to replace the double-double drip in my arm with espresso, while simultaneously cursing myself for a fool and remembering the definition of the words "imposter syndrome". Yes, it's less than a month until NaNoWriMo and despite all of my best intentions, for the sixth year running, I only have 12% of a plan*.
For those of you who haven't tortured yourself before, NaNoWriMo or 'National Novel Writing Month' is an international challenge to write 50k words over the course of November, averaging out to something like 1,667 words a day. (It's also, this year, the reason I'm spending October pumping out a blog queue, so that I don't accidentally start writing these articles in the third person.) It's an event which - despite all evidence in this paragraph - is one of the highlights of my year, and which brings a lot of writers together in a super pure way.
But what do you do if you're "pantsing" it? How do you write when you haven't got all the details together? Well, my friends - in true "pantsing" fashion, I come to you on Halloween with some advice! Have you tried... divination?
Storytime with the Rider-Waite
Now, bear with me. You might think that the whole point of divination is predicting the future, but in my eyes - and the eyes of at least one other person - it's storytelling. Our intrepid 0 Fool is off on a journey of self-discovery and magic, where they will hopefully see XXI The World. Some decks even have recurring characters or scenery and little in-built stories of their own!
Even less abstract than that, think about how you might do a tarot reading. Say you have a question about how the rest of your year will go. You draw six cards, and you lay them out in a pretty spread that's worthy of an instagram photo or two, and then you sit back and ask yourself "what does this mean?" Chances are, you're going to type up some kind of story that the cards are telling you. You are limiting yourself by doing this, and if you do that instead, then you will be able to achieve the other thing. A set-up, an adventure, and a prize at the end for our weary traveler. Divination as a means of predicting the future or asking for advice is essentially a three story act, done well.
Pay attention, as well, to the way that you draw the cards. Card 1 may be solved by Card 2 which will lead to Card 3. But look as well at the images. Perhaps the people on Card 1 are looking away from Card 2, which you could read like a graphic's novel as a dismissal of the solution. Or maybe the man on Card 3 is looking at Card 2 with a bag of gold, pleased as punch that he followed the advice and got what he wanted. From another angle, you might draw one card with day and one card with night, suggesting that the issue is a 24/7 one. Or you may draw cards where the figures are always in shadow, suggesting that you're not able to see some important part of your 'plot'.
Draw Three Cards for Writer's Block
Tarot isn't just a story in itself, or a divination tool; it's also a good exercise to break writer's block. Stumped on where your story should go next? Draw a card, and see if the imagery on it or the meaning behind the card gives you some kind of clue. Not sure what decision your character might make? Ask the cards for advice, and go with that (or if you ultimately decide that they absolutely, categorically would not do that, at least it's got you thinking again!). If you think of the cards as a creative engine and not just a way to tell the future, the world is your oyster.
You can also use tarot to create characters. In fact, I even went so far as to type up a set of rules for building characters this way, which works for pretty much any system, but you don't need to be as rigid as all that. Not sure what motivates your villain to commit their dastardly deeds? Shuffle through your deck until you find a Major Arcana card, and build something around the core concepts of the card. Not sure of your character's backstory? Find a Minor Arcana card, and build something around the suit that you get. You have pretty much endless opportunities to use the deck not just to inspire plot, but also backstory, personality, class (if you're roleplaying)... the works! The world is - okay, okay, enough with the clichés, sorry.
Tarot + Characters = World-Building
This next piece of advice probably wouldn't fit every genre of story, but kudos if you can work it into, like, your smutty dystopian western, or whatever you're planning to write. Instead of using tarot cards as archetypes or prompts, have you thought about using them as actual plot points of macguffins in your story?
This is an idea that will probably fit fantasy or real-life settings best, but you can work it in anywhere. It doesn't need to be just tarot, either; perhaps you want to build your own cartomancy or divination system just for your story! If you need the characters to be made aware of a prophecy in a modern fantasy, perhaps they get their cards read at a carnival. Want a character to use divination as a form of evocative magic in order to fight the big baddie? Awesome! Is being assigned a tarot card part of the coming of age in the dystopian world that you're writing in? Does the sign that you're, uh, assigned change your whole life going forward? Is this system wildly flawed? Oooh, drama. Maybe all you're using it for is a set of names for different factions in a multi-generational war? Still cool.
You can also use the imagery of the cards in a more abstract sense by using them as the inspiration for the story or chapters. Remember the Fool's journey we mentioned before? Perhaps your protagonist goes through something like that, and each chapter is based off of one of the Major Arcana. Or you may find that the titles of the cards alone make good titles, and that people don't need to look too closely to find symbolism in them. (Although let's be honest, symbolism in stories is a lot of fun.)
Please not The Tower...
In the end, the best laid plans don't always work out. You might not punch out 50,000 words in November. Your clever tarot analogies might not make the final cut. You may curse my name come December 1st, wondering why I put such frivolous ideas in your head... but did the cards get you writing? Did thinking about how to include them give you some clues, even if they have nothing at all to do with tarot? Well, then, my work here is done. Sometimes we need to think outside of the box to get things done, and sometimes we have to be a little bit merciless about what ends up on the cutting room floor. (Just... not until the end of the month. Keep those words!)
And to all of you reading this as you frantically plan for the chaos of next month... happy sprinting. See you on the other side.
* Actually, it's more like 48% of a plan this year. The perks of co-writing! Someone else has to help you do the work of naming characters and choosing where to set the story, and it's excellent.