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Plotting for NaNoWriMo & Winners

Do you jump right in?

I’ve always thought of myself as a pantser, despite the fact that my left brain generally rules all other areas of my life. So I was surprised to find potential scene lists for my first two manuscripts while flipping through old notebooks the other day.

Apparently I did more planning in the early days than I remember.

I’ve made several attempts at becoming a planner/outliner, and my best-written book to date was borne of a rough outline and the 30 days of literary abandon known as NaNoWriMo. Yet I still resist moving into the outlining camp.

It’s probably a patience thing. I’m always eager to jump right in when a story is pulling at me. But then several months later I’m floundering, usually after hitting the midpoint and realizing the conflict isn’t strong enough, or that I’ve written myself into a corner.

Which brings me back to the need for a better outline. And I’m starting to think I may have been doing it wrong. Or rather, that I wasn’t patient enough to do it right.

Or do you plot your course first?

With NaNo again looming, I recently picked up K.M. Weiland’s book Outline Your Novel. And instead of answering the exercises with “I kind of have an idea of what should happen there, but I'm not ready to commit”, I forced myself to brainstorm actual answers.

And guess what? Some of the ideas I came up with are awesome (if I do say so myself). Even something as simple as coming up with a premise sentence brought an epiphany on how to raise the stakes.

I’m even more excited to write the book than I was before. And with a decent outline to follow, I won’t get stuck wondering what comes next when I finish a scene.

I don’t see myself writing 80-page outlines any time soon, and the pantser in me still gets the freedom to change the storyline if a better idea comes along, but if this goes well, I may just be a convert. Again.

Winners

Thanks to everyone who participated in my blog’s birthday celebration! Here are the winners (chosen by random.org):

– Signed copy of Scrivener For Dummies: Dave

– Free Scrivener online class enrollment for 2013: Beth K.

Congratulations!

Photo credits:
Cliff jumping: By Rafi B. from Somewhere in Texas 🙂 (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Charting a course: By U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Eboni C. Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Word processing

I’m starting a new manuscript. I love the feeling of having a new story rolling around in my brain. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And after two years of working at this, I’m starting to learn how my creative half works.

It starts with the spark, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. For example, the spark in Slow Burn was the idea that a guy on a mission finds a woman floating in the water and his reaction when he realizes she’s alive is: “damn”.

But how to go from there to a 300-page book? Good question. I used to just write. It was an exciting and stressful process wherein I wrote about 10-20,000 words and then realized I didn’t know where to go next.

On a few occasions, I backed up and started over and the end result is much better, especially after several rounds of revisions. In a couple of instances, I stopped altogether. I have two 100-page manuscripts out there whose characters I still think about and hope to someday find a story for.

If you’re one of the diehards who’s been around since the early days of me yapping in bits and bytes, you know that I’ve begun a slow progression towards plotting. Actually, that makes it sound like a smooth transition, but it happened in fits and starts with plenty of backtracking. And a one-eighty or two. Be honest, you were all just rolling your eyes as I went back and forth trying to find the magic process that would make writing easy. Hah! As if.

I'm envisioning my journey like a football game where I gained and lost a lot of yardage, but eventually made a first down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a plotter—and although I’m migrating toward that end of the scale, I’ll probably never be a detailed outliner like Suzanne Brockmann (she of the 80-pagers)—but I’m definitely not writing into the mist in quite the same way that I used to.

In fact, that post about writing into the mist was written shortly after my first attempt to outline Blind Fury. It turns out that I just hadn't found the right story. I gave up too soon. I didn't play enough.

After I tackled outlining a second time, I met with success. Blind Fury is currently in the CP comment stage after a first-pass round of edits, and is my first book to surpass 70K. I still changed the outline as I went. And in between the major turning points I was still writing in the fog, sure only of my approximate destination. That’s the pantser part of me getting to play.

And yet, I rarely got lost in the fog precisely because I knew where I needed to be and could correct my course—or decide to take a detour—as needed. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’m so glad to have figured it out. I think knowing your own process is as important as understanding the craft of writing.

Because suddenly, I can estimate how much time I need to write a book. And while that doesn’t matter now, since nobody’s asking, I hope it will someday. I know that I need 4-6 weeks of brainstorming, teeth gnashing, and general fretting that I’m a two-trick pony, before I’m ready to start (though an advance check might induce me to get creative in a hurry ;-)).

During that pre-writing phase, I write random scenes and backstory ideas. I try to come up with a log line and a short pitch, and the GMC for each major character. I get a feel for which story ideas I do and don’t like. I play with the outline. I tweak it. Once I have it down, my brain ruminates while I do other things and bubbles up suggestions while I’m driving or reading a book.

Then I play some more with scenes that I think will fit the outline. Just the ones that pique my interest. And then at the end of that, I have a pretty good starting outline that will probably change—but not enough to make it unrecognizable—along with some scenes which may or may not make it into the final story in some form.

And then I start writing in earnest. With Blind Fury, I wrote almost 80,000 words in two months. That accounts for more than half of the total words I wrote in 2010. And I think it’s some of my best work ever (but I could just be delusional—ask my CPs).

Today I filled in the basic story structure for MS1_2011 (uh, working title) and I’m getting excited. Based on what I came up with, I started playing with character backstory scenes and I’m having fun again. Maybe in another week or so, I’ll be ready to hit the keys in earnest.

I can’t wait.

NaNo particles

As of November 10th, I have written 16,748 words for NaNoWriMo. After a frenzied couple of days of being behind, I’m back on track. Here are a few of the tricks that are helping me move forward and keep my internal editor napping soundly.

An outline. I’ve mentioned this before, but I spent about six weeks playing around with the story and characters before I finally had a decent vision of my major plot points and some of the necessary scenes in between. This has been an absolute lifesaver when I finish a scene and think, “Now what?” I check the outline and get back on track.

A change log. This isn’t for tracking revisions I’ve done, this is for tracking revisions I need to make. For small items that I want to come back to, I’ll either annotate the section (using Scrivener’s annotation feature), or mark it with a ZZZ (for which I have a saved search in, yes, Scrivener), and find it later when I’m in edit mode.

That’s what the change log isn’t. It is a document where I make notes of things that I need to fix in earlier scenes so that they match what I’m writing now. For example, halfway through the book, I decide that a reporter needs to be at the funeral in part one of the book for my current scene in part two to make sense. In the past, I would have gone back and fixed all the relevant scenes before moving forward.

Now, I note it in the change log and keep writing. Two big advantages here. One, I don’t lose my momentum with the current scene. Two, if I change my mind again later, I have just saved myself a lot of unnecessary time.

A tea timer. I’m trying to write in one hour chunks without interruption. Then at the end of each hour, I can take a (quick!) break to read email, play on Twitter, or read a blog. Or, you know, eat, work out, talk to my kids. This way I get a reward for my hard work, but don’t get sucked into the Internet vortex for hours on end. For this, I like the Tea Timer widget on the Mac because it travels with my laptop.

Understanding family and friends. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to find them, but I’m lucky enough to have my own set. The Engineer may not understand my love of writing and my addiction to books, but he respects it, and puts up with dirty bathrooms and dog hair on the floor. Or he cleans it himself! 😉 See, there’s that practical romance thing again…

So, those are my not-so-secret weapons to pounding out the words during NaNoWriMo, or any other month of the year. What are yours?

Chalk outline

In spite of my handy, dandy outline, I’m already revising part one of my current MS. Such a revision is exactly what I was hoping to avoid by having an outline, but in this case it had more to do with tweaking my hero, than with changing major story events. In light of this, you might be wondering if I’d consider the outline a failure.

Absolutely not.

In fact, I’m surprised to find that it’s making my life easier, and actually helping with the creative process. When scene ideas come to me, I wedge them into the outline to see how they fit and affect the scenes around them, making other changes as necessary.

Even more importantly, when I’m stuck and not sure what to write, I go back to the outline—stored conveniently in a Scrivener document within my project—and figure out what needs to come next. It provides direction. I can still get there any way I want.

The outline isn’t written in stone. In fact, it get tweaked (usually in minor ways) frequently, but for the most part, my major turning points have stayed the same. It’s the arches in between the pillars that change. The highway between cities that sometimes requires a detour.

I like to think of my outline as a WIP just like my MS: fixed, but easily modified. It’s definitely not a tool that I’m ready to draw a chalk outline around.

Working with a map

...

Were you a fan of outlines in school? I know I wasn’t. Unfortunately, they’re a necessity in a writer’s life. If you don’t outline the book beforehand, you still have to do it later on some level in order to create a book blurb, pitch, synopsis, and query letter. If you’re a plotter or a plotser, you’re doing some level of outlining before you write.

Somewhere between my past method of zero planning, and Suzanne Brockmann’s 80-page summaries, I’ve come up with the basic plot structure for my next book. And this time, so far, it seems to be working.

When I’m stuck, I go back and check the outline, figure out what I'm aiming for, and get back on track. Sometimes, I change my route, but still head in the same general direction toward my next plot point.

Sticking to my old cross-country travel analogy, I used to get in the car and drive, knowing I’d end up on the opposite coast, picking the route as I went, with maybe a vague idea of the cities I wanted to visit on the way. Now, I’m planning out the overnight stops and the final destination, while still leaving room for side trips and detours. Maybe someday I’ll be like Ms. Brockmann who uses GPS to plan her routes.

For the first time, I’m finding freedom in the structure. It unblocks those blank-page moments, but I’m free to change the outline as new ideas come to me. Yes, it was a lot more work up front. I couldn’t sit down and start writing the story like I used to without some planning.

In order to keep from feeling cheated out of the fun of writing “into the mist”, I still let myself create scenes as they came to me. I worked on openings, scene ideas for several different story lines, and character sketches/interviews. I created and scrapped multiple versions of the story structure and subsequent outline. This is sure to be an evolving product and process.

Best of all, with my outline entered faithfully into Scrivener, I was able to figure out how a subplot with a secondary character might fit into the story and create a key conflict. I’ve struggled with that in the past, and I believe it’s one of the reasons I could never get to 80K. To get a bigger book, I need more integrated subplots to create a richer story with potential for future books. Those who can fit in the subplots without an outline are either far more talented writers than me, or don’t mind copious amounts of revision.

Is this my new process going forward? Time will tell, but I’m excited by the possibilities.

Putting it all on the line

I've been stuck in revision mode for the past week or so, kind of stymied by how to go at my plot changes. I was brainstorming–my husband was nice enough to point out a gaping plot hole on the way back from the boys' swim meet at Auburn on Sunday–and trying to talk to my characters, but mostly feeling overwhelmed.

The main reason was that I needed a big picture view of the scenes so that I could decide which ones needed cut or modified, and where new scenes would fill in the holes.

Scrivener has a nice outliner, but I can't print it out in a format that I wanted, so today I sat down with 11×17 paper and colored markers and went to work on a timeline-style outline. It was amazing. Just the act of writing down each scene with a bullet list of key events sparked ideas for changes and plot issues that I hadn't yet resolved.

And sometimes, I just need to work on paper, especially when brainstorming or trying to see the whole picture.

The strong marker scent may have had something to do with it too. I asked my tweeps if “nontoxic” only applies to eating, but no one wanted to go there. 😉

I got through 12 of 16 chapters, and came up with several pages of notes too. The best part is that I'm excited about rewriting the story that only this morning had me dreading the keyboard.

Here's a small portion of the color-coded timeline I created. Blue for the hero's POV and pink for the heroine's. (The same colors I use in Scrivener.) Green and orange for a couple other characters who get a scene or two of their own. The ball-point pen is for my notes on changes.



Now that I look back at it, I wonder why I didn't do this sooner. I think each book is a learning experience because we don't just learn how to write better. We learn how to be better writers, more effective writers, and writers who understand the methods that work for us.

In the end, that may be even more important than mastering the craft of writing.
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