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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.

Get passionate

You thought this post was going to be about writing sex scenes didn’t you? 😉 Sorry, but I’m talking about passion in the larger sense as defined by the Mac dictionary: strong and barely controllable emotion.

What are you passionate about? Global warming? U.S. involvement in the Middle East? Sea turtles? Education? Adoption? Animals? School arts programs? Immigration?

Pick your passion—no matter what side of the fence you’re on—and find a way to write about it. I don’t mean a position paper or a letter to your editor, though you could. I mean imbue your character with that passion and build a story around it. Or structure a book or series around a group that fights for or against your cause. In researching opposing viewpoints, you might even see the subject in a new light, and it should be easy to make the sparks fly between your characters if they’re on opposite sides of an issue.

Laura Griffin’s Tracers series features a forensics lab that’s dedicated to processing all crime scene evidence and helping law enforcement catch violent criminals. She came up with the idea after she found out that much forensic evidence is never processed or entered into a crime database. She took her frustration and created a fictional group with the passion to make it happen.

The late Michael Crichton made a fortune writing books about what could go wrong with the research he read about in scientific journals. Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Prey hit a chord with readers because he took a stand on a topic and built a story around it.

Robin Cook did the same thing for medical topics. Just try to eat a fast-food hamburger after reading Toxin. I dare you.

If emotion is the key to memorable characters and keeper-shelf books, then by writing about a topic that gets you emotional, you might just find that all-important element easier to write. And an interesting topic makes the research more fun.

So, figure out what shocks, angers, or delights you, and build a story around it. You might even teach your readers something, and get them passionate too. Good luck!

This post was simulcast at the Romance Magicians blog for the Southern Magic RWA chapter:

Book ends

The other day, I was talking to a friend about why I prefer romance (though I read in many genres). As always, the HEA came up. I won't get into that too much here because I've covered it in previous posts. The important thing to know about me as a reader is that if I'm going to invest my emotional energy in the characters, I want a payoff.

My friend said something like, “But I don't want to know how it'll end. I want to be surprised.”

I had no response, because the thing is that I do too. I never read the last chapter or the last page before I start a book. My favorite books are the ones that smack me upside the head with a surprise at the end. I don't even read the back cover blurb because I don't want any part of the story to be spoiled for me. (My apologies to the marketing department.)

Yet, I still want my happy ending. The thrill for me is in the struggle to get there. In how the characters overcome the obstacles in their way.

I said as much to my friend, but it didn't feel like enough. We moved on to other topics and ate our sandwiches.

But it nagged at me. And then I realized something. Romance is not the only genre that demands a certain type of ending. In other genres, their may be no romantic happy ending, but there's generally some kind of triumph.

I mean, really, how pissed would you be if you read a mystery and the PI or detective didn't solve the case? Even if he doesn't catch the killer in that book, he figures out who it is, or he finds the victim. And if he didn't, you'd probably never read that author's books again.

What about a thriller, like something by Vince Flynn or David Baldacci? The larger terrorist threat may remain when you close the book, but the day has been saved…at least until next time. Otherwise, what's the point in telling the story?

Think of movies. Would you want to watch Independence Day if the aliens won? What if Wesley didn't get the girl in Princess Bride? What if Matt Damon didn't outwit and evade the CIA in The Bourne Identity? Seriously, would you want your money back?

Even memoirs usually have an uplifting purpose. How the author overcame an addiction, recovered from a painful divorce, or learned to let go of childhood trauma, for example. Often, with some kind of win, positive outcome, or hope for the future.

I'm not saying my friend is wrong. How could she be? These are all just opinions. Hers and mine.

And yes, some people love the unexpected so much that they want the unhappy, dystopian, or ambiguous ending. I'm cool with that as long as I don't have to read it.

But popular fiction is popular precisely because it delivers what we expect. Authors who can do it in a unique or surprising way may find more than moderate success. But at the end of the day, they're adhering to the basic expectations of the genre in which they're writing.

As a reader, I demand it. What about you?

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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A kick in the pants

If you've been keeping up with my posts the last few weeks or months, you're probably starting to think I'm schizophrenic. One minute I'm lauding the wonder of structure and pre-planning, and the next I'm lamenting the missing magic when I write within a structure.

Basically, you've been watching me try to find myself. I cannot regret having any knowledge of structure, and I will admit the lure of it is great for a logic-minded person like me. However, I've come to the conclusion that I may have to fly by the seat of my pants in order to find my best story. I can work the structure back into it later, or keep it in mind as I go.

I hate admitting that, but it's better than struggling to force a method that doesn't work for me right now. (I'm always hopeful for the future.)

Just over a year ago, when I started writing seriously, the time spent writing was pure joy. Yeah, I struggled and backtracked and cut, but overall the process was (mostly) fun. The story just came to me as I went, like brainstorming on the go. All three of my completed works (one which is never mentioned in public) were written that way.

My left brain rebelled and demanded that there had a to a better, more efficient way to do it. And there is. But (apologies to one of my favorite gurus, Larry Brooks) it's not my way. Not now. When I tried it, I couldn't get more than 4-5000 words before I lost the spark, lost the desire.

Today, I read an article that helped me come to terms with my “pantsing” ways. It was written by Jo Beverly, and it walks us through her “process” of writing from scratch. She calls it “Flying into the Mist”. I highly recommend it to all writers who won't or can't pre-plan, and to the people who love them. 😉

Writing by the seat of your pants doesn't mean you can't incorporate GMC, characterization, and good story structure. They'll still be on your mind, but the story will unfold as you go, and you may have to go back and strengthen it in the edit/revision process. Or after you write each scene.

The whole argument about the right way to write reminds me of the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate. I've been on both sides of that one too. There's no right or wrong answer. There's only what's right or wrong for you, right now.

Be true to yourself, embrace your own method, and, as always, write on.

UPDATE 2/25/11: In case you haven't been following along, After an incredibly successful trial run for NaNoWriMo, I'm back to outlining to give myself guideposts, but flying through the mist in between. What I've found is that I have to give myself time to play with the (really basic) outline to make sure the story is solid before I start writing from it. This has worked really well for me now, and I might just be sticking to it. 🙂

The missing ingredient

Most of my story ideas come from a tiny spark: a single scene, a premise that interests me, or an intriguing character. That spark is the all-important beginning to a story, but it's not nearly enough to build an 80,000-word book.

It's no secret to my long-time blog readers that I struggle with plotting. By this, I don't mean structure, I mean the meat that hangs on those structural bones. For example, in Counting on You, the H/H meet under false pretenses. When he later ends up as her boss, it sets up all sorts of problems.

The opening scene at a fundraiser was the spark that got me going, and suggested several scenes to follow. Great! But then what? I muddled my way through, and luckily found a few turning points, battled a saggy middle, and wrapped it all up. That is, after I scrapped a bunch of material and started over from 1/3 of the way through.

Hmm, I did that with Slow Burn, too. Do you see a pattern?

I have some writing strengths. For example, CPs and judges usually like my dialogue. And I do okay with the opening scenes, but figuring out what happens next is not my strong point. I know that my new understanding of structure will help me write the story, once I figure out what all those major milestones should be. But even having the milestones laid down isn't enough.

I've been working on a new MS for the last few weeks, and like a good girl, I sketched out my turning points ahead of time. But then I started writing the story and didn't like how it felt. I started over with a new angle, and still didn't like it. So, even having a plot and hanging it on a nice structure isn't everything.

There's some missing element, some extra ingredient that makes it all work. Like the salt in a cookie recipe.

Maybe that's the art of it.

If I figure out what it is, I'll be sure to let you know. Any suggestions?

Down to the studs

I once got to work on a charity building project where we took the man's house down to the studs and built it back up again. (Ha! I know which kind of studs you were thinking of!) Well, today I did that with a movie, but without the build up, or the drywall dust.

See, last week I promised that I'd try a movie analysis à la Larry Brooks' post on The idea is to boil each scene down to its generic mission. Then you should end up with a story structure that could apply to any movie/book in the genre.

The whole concept is foreign to me, and I must say that it was harder than it sounded.

With the movie I picked–a romantic suspense that was available for instant viewing on Netflix–I had difficulty picking out the Midpoint shift and Pinch Point 2. Maybe the timing was off, or I'm just not as good at this as I'd like to think. Either way, below is my attempt at creating a generic romantic suspense template based on the movie I watched. I'll provide the title at the bottom. If I've done my job correctly, you won't have a clue.

Scene. Mission (Movie length: 105 minutes)

  1. Establish heroine's occupation and ordinary world
  2. Reveal heroine's loneliness and her dreams
  3. Foreshadow villain (1), introduce backstory
  4. Introduce villain (2) and heroine's stakes
  5. Establish heroine's new goal and motivation
  6. Fish out of water scenes and introduce conflict through villains (1,2)
  7. Heroine creates her own obstacles through naïveté
  8. Introduction of hero, he saves her life
  9. Reveal full identity of villain (1)
  10. Introduce hero's goal
  11. Plot Point 1: Heroine makes deal with hero that forces them to go forward together (~ 30 minutes)
  12. Show hero's disdain for heroine's lack of preparedness for what they face, reinforce fish out of water
  13. Villains are back
  14. Hero saves heroine again, running, obstacles, escape, find safe shelter
  15. Establish initial attraction between H/H, heroine reveals her goal and hero explains villains' ultimate goal, foreshadow possible betrayal by hero
  16. Hero saves her again
  17. Pinch Point: Reminder that villains (1,2) are looking for them (~ 50 minutes)
  18. H/H bonding while safe, reveal hero's backstory, nature, and goal to heroine
  19. H/H leave shelter and make an ally
  20. Villain (1) finds H/H and ally helps them escape
  21. Reminder that villain (2) is still out there, and reveal that he's found them
  22. Midpoint Shift: Hero decides to betray heroine, she starts thinking about taking action to gain stronger position against villains (~ 70 minutes)
  23. Show increased attraction between H/H
  24. Sex, show hero's betrayal (unknown to heroine)
  25. Pinch Point: Villains are back (~ 75 minutes)
  26. Begin pursuit of additional goal (prize) to help gain power against villains, reveal that villain (2) is with them but they don't know it
  27. Show viewer that villain (1) is following
  28. Introduce obstacles in pursuit of prize
  29. Plot Point 2: Heroine reveals change in mindset/thinking (~ 80 minutes)
  30. H/H find the prize (false victory)
  31. Villain (2) takes the prize away, and reveals hero's plan to betray heroine
  32. H/H recapture prize and run from villains (1,2)
  33. H/H separated, and hero ends up with the prize, heroine believes he's betrayed her, but he promises to meet up with her
  34. Black Moment: Heroine arrives at meet point and hero doesn't show
  35. Show heroine's disappointment and vulnerability, but resolve to face villain (2) alone
  36. Original goal achieved, but villain (1) interrupts and demands prize, threatens heroine, holds hero captive
  37. Climax: Series of scenes with H/H in fight with villain (1), while villain (2) flees; hero must choose between heroine and his goal
  38. Hero chooses heroine, but takes too long to arrive
  39. Heroine finds strength to save herself
  40. H/H share personal moment, and hero leaves to pursue his goal
  41. Resolution: Show heroine back in her everyday world, but now different because of experience
  42. Hero comes back for her and implied HEA ensues

I hope I've done the movie justice. I think Plot Points 1 & 2 were in the right place, but the middle of the story is a bit out of whack. Either that or I misinterpreted it horribly. Feel free to let me know if you agree. The movie was–drumroll, please–Romancing the Stone.

It was worse than I remembered, but very much in the tradition of its era, and still entertaining. I wanted to review Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but I'll have to wait since it's not available for instant play, and I don't know if my husband wants to watch it again anytime soon.

So, what do you think? Was it generic enough? Would it be a helpful structure on which to hang your own story?