May the fourth be with you.

Honestly, I didn’t plan on writing my April recap post on the fourth just to use this title. [But since I procrastinated this long, I couldn’t resist.]

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April’s Camp NaNoWriMo was a success. In the end, I changed my writing goal from 40,000 words to 20,000 words, but I’m proud of what I’d written over the course of thirty fourteen days. Had I stuck to my writing schedule diligently—meaning call out of my overnight shifts and write in lieu of sleeping—I could have reached my 40,000-word goal and finished the novella, but at what cost? In the end, when I discovered several plot holes that I could fly a plane through, I had to take a step back and realize that finishing the story in a month wasn’t worth it if I turned around and had to trash it. I decided it was more important getting it right the first time. Or at least as right as a first draft can be.

The biggest thing I noticed during the month was that constant longing to sit at my computer and type. I genuinely wanted to tell the story, solve the murder, and give my characters closure. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, I drag my feet through the first draft, and you’d think that I hate to write because I’d grumble the whole time. [Or I’d say screw it and write whatever came to mind, regardless if it made sense.] To come to the IHOP booth, since that’s where I wrote 90% of the words, excited and ready to dive in and further explore the world was both a relief and a joy.

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The takeaway I got from this Camp was that success is rarely linear. I have all these ideas and goals and action plans, but life doesn’t always accommodate them. Each day, I’m forced to decide between my goal and something else. Sometimes that something else is really important, like an appointment for my kids, and sometimes that something else is a mindless distraction, like binge-watching an entire season of a show on Netflix in two nights. Either way, it’s life, and I’m learning to not get hung up on what the journey looks like but on where it leads. In this case, it led to a half-finished manuscript that began to take shape. [Not to mention tons of morale points for accomplishing a goal.] I’m trying to bring that mindset of how I define—and constantly redefine—success into May and the rest of the year.

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Looking at May is a little daunting for me. Most of you know I’m also an editor, and May is completely booked with projects. [I’m starting to question my sanity and time management skills.] Even still, with multiple manuscripts needing to be read, critiqued, and returned, I’m working toward finishing this novella by the end of the month. Supposedly, as long as I’ve got fourteen days, I should be all right since I’m about midway through the story. If I finish early [yeah, right], the next project on the horizon was inspired by a Ray Bradbury quote:

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.

Maybe I’m trying to challenge him and debunk his theory, but I’d like to think I’m trying to work on improving my storytelling skills and find a kernel of talent hidden away. I’ve opened an account on Wattpad that I’ll link to the blog when I’ve published the first of fifty-two short stories so I can share those stories, however bad they may be at first.

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What was your favorite moment about April’s Camp? What are you looking forward to in May?

 

 

 

 

Writing and a 21-Day Meditation Experience

This post will be a heavier topic than usual, but I think that’s okay. Life is sometimes profound and deep, and we, as authors and readers, shouldn’t shy away from those ideas.

Of course, it’s April, which means it’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I’ve written a few posts on this already. What I haven’t done, however, was keep you all updated with my progress. There are a lot of reasons [excuses] for this: editing contracts, landlord inspection, and a weekend hiking trip are the big ones. Needless to say, my progress hasn’t been what I’d have hoped. In fact, my original goal was to write 40,000 words this month. [Totally unreasonable, by the way.] I bumped it down to 25,000 words, but, after this hiking trip, I decided that 20,000 words was a reasonable goal. Right now, I’m sitting with a paltry 5,496 words. I will essentially quadruple this in the next ten days.

In addition to Camp NaNo, I’m also participating in an annual 21-day meditation experience hosted by Oprah and Deepak Chopra. The topics change each year, and I’ve been participating in this for the past three years [at least]. Anyway, this year, the topic is all about finding hope in everyday life. Hope is something definitely lacking in my life, and it’s something I am trying to work on.

I’m a little behind on the days, and I just wrapped up days 6 and 7 tonight. I decided to do the meditation in a secluded IHOP booth at midnight. Instead of chanting the mantra, I free write during the meditation part. It allows me the space to really connect with the message. After that meditation, though, I was a weeping puddle. I was ugly-crying by the end of it, and I didn’t stop for several minutes. Let me tell you, in case you’ve never broke down at midnight in a restaurant, it was awkward, but I needed that vulnerability with myself.

Day 6’s message was: “I trust in my core self at every moment,” and it talked about how we build trust and belief in ourselves and how we translate that to others. If we have a negative view of the world, we can fix it by examining each belief one at a time, breaking them down to their core and mending them. It spoke of inner trust – and, I’ll be honest, I lack that – and about limiting beliefs. During the free write, all this trauma from when I was younger surfaced, and I felt like I was right there again. That fear, that intensity. I could feel every scar, some rawer than others. Honestly, it was a little overwhelming to experience in an IHOP in the middle of the night. I continued with the next day’s meditation, though.

Day 7’s message dovetailed nicely with the previous one, and it was: “I find a reason to hope in every situation.” It talked about the importance of gratitude as a foundation of hope, that the more gratitude we have the more hope we have. It reminded me to focus on the solution and not on the problem, and that every problem has a solution, which should bring me hope. Chopra went into what happens when we have constricted awareness – which was basically my daily experience of limits and fears and anxieties and a feeling of “lack.” Again, during the free write, all these memories resurfaced, and I just let them. I ended up writing a list of ways I can expand my awareness in my daily life, and I came up with nine practical, easy things. What’s pretty cool is that my word of the year I chose on December 31 last year was LIMITLESS. I didn’t know why I chose this word; it just popped in my head. During the meditation recording, Chopra said that word several times, and I just smiled. I learned how I can experience being limitless, if only I put in a little effort.

I bring all this up because one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, once said, “Writers remember everything…especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones, you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”

All these memories, the scars left behind, helped me develop Aggie, the main character in my cozy mystery series. In it, she and her husband have a lot to deal with. She’s an optimist; there’s no denying it, but throughout the series, she and her husband will experience setbacks that will test her optimism and will threaten to break her spirit. Whether it does or not is something you’ll have to read about, but I can write about her experiences battling hopelessness and feeling limited because I can fully feel my own experiences of feeling the same way. As a writer, it’s sometimes painful to dredge up those memories of trauma and hurt, but, in the end, it not only deepens my characters but it’s a cathartic experience in my own healing process. Hopefully, a reader will read my words and find their own healing as well.

As a reader, have you experienced a sense of healing after reading about a character’s journey? What messages have stuck with you?

As a writer, do you use your personal scars to deepen your characters and give them a purpose? Do you share some scars with your characters, allowing yourself to process your experiences through the lens of writing?

Weekly camp check-in

Here we are! It’s a week into Camp NaNoWriMo, [Has it really been a week already?!] so here’s my check-in. The first three days of Camp, I resisted the urge to dive into my story, and I spent quality time creating an outline. Or, at least, some notes I can use that’ll help keep everything organized. I’m writing a murder mystery, which means I need to know everything from suspects’ alibis and motives to those tiny clues that might end up being red herrings in the end. I needed a way to track all that stuff, so I created some charts to keep handy.

I also created a map for my city! I hand drew it, so I’ll be honest and say it’s nothing to write home about, but it’s functional for now. It also allows room to grow as the series gets longer, which, hopefully, it will. How I created my fictional town was I searched for a real city about the same size as my fictional town. I pulled it up on Google Maps, and I scoped it out – how many restaurants did it have, how many stores, how many houses versus apartments, schools, parks, bus stops? Anything I could think of to research about it, I did. I then manipulated the real city, and in this case I drew a mirror image of it. I filled in what I needed for the first book – the theater that it takes place in, the police department, my main character’s home, and the school at which she works. I didn’t need all of those things, but I wanted to get a baseline so I didn’t have to do these basic things later. [Plus, I had to know how long it’d take the cops to get to the theater, and to do that I needed to calculate the distance to extrapolate the time.] And they said being a writer was easy. [Actually, nobody says that.]

After I had those things, I started to write. [It was the next logical step.] Somewhere in there, I realized my suspects only had a one-word motive without any backstory. I stopped writing again, and I went back to develop that just a little more. I filled nearly five pages of my notebook with their backstories, even though most, if not all, of these characters are making an appearance in this story only. It kind of felt like overkill, honestly, but it’s been helping me a lot while I write.

So I basically saved my entire manuscript by managing to fill those plot holes. Great. I start writing again, and at this point in the story, the ever-inquisitive sleuth has deduced that something isn’t right with the theater actors and she needs to get backstage to investigate. In my original outline, I had her pretend to be a doctor and her convincing the security guard that an actor appeared to be having a heart attack. [Lame, I know. It was probably 3am, though.] As I was writing it, it just felt all wrong, so I stopped writing again to figure out a good reason why she needs to be the one the guard lets through the doors. [I ended up creating a character…and another suspect.] Saved it again! Now, I’m somewhere in between the sleuth gathering information and piecing together the puzzle, which is pretty exciting. [What mystery writer or reader doesn’t like a good puzzle?]

My goal for this story is to turn it into a novella of around 40,000 words. [I’d like to finish all 40,000 words this month, but I’d also like to be realistic.] I’m not sure the story will be stretched out to 40,000 words, though. It’s sounding like it’ll be a shorter story, possibly a novelette, but I’m also recognizing that this is a first draft. My first drafts tend to be shorter, and I add in the details – and subplots – in subsequent drafts when the skeleton of the story has already been written. [I’m really not sure why I write this way.]

So, for now, I have 4,242 words out of a reasonable goal of 25,000 words. I haven’t written today yet, so I’m hopeful I can catch up to par for the day. [I have a home inspection with the rental company on Wednesday and I also have to repair some damages my three-year-old created – as well as messes we’ve all created – so my free time is being eaten by housework, which, let’s be honest, is the worst.]

I did, however, literally double my word count [actually, I more-than-doubled it] in one coffee-infused night at IHOP this past week, so I know it’s possible to catch up.

Current word count: 4,242
Weekly total word count goal: 12,000 [par is 11,666]
Weekly focus goal: 7,800 [actual goal is 7,753, but I wanted to round up and not down]

 

Welcome Camp!

Welcome! Take a seat and get cozy. We’ll be here all month. By now, Camp NaNoWriMo has surely started in your time zone, and it’s off to the races. Well, word races…uh…sprints. Anyway, I wanted to take a minute to offer some inspiration and reassurance.

Whatever happens this month – whether you reach and surpass your word goal, you don’t write down a word, or you write something in between – know that you did well this month. You had the courage to try something new, and if all you did was sign up for the challenge, that took guts. You should be acknowledged for taking that leap.

Writing a book is hard work. Well, it’s work. Novels don’t just appear on the computer without mixing in equal amounts of tears, laughter, and perspiration. You signed up for this challenge because, I assume, you want to write a book. But the thing is – most people want to have written a book. It’s a slight word different, but it’s a huge distinction. Most people don’t want to have to go through to come up with an idea and follow it to “The End” then tear it apart only to stitch it back together. It’s a process, and if sometime during this month you decide that process isn’t for you, that’s okay. The big thing is that you tried. You chased after a dream. And somethings the thing about dreams is that they aren’t always how we imagined them. That’s okay. Keep dreaming, keep trying, keep doing.

Sometime in the middle of the month, you’ll look at your word processor (or notebook) and think you’re the worst writer ever to have written, and everything is shit. [Truly, I think it’s inevitable.] Don’t delete your words! When you find yourself in a mental rut like this – or a bout of writer’s block – take a minute away from the screen. Get up, move around, go for a walk, listen to music, do anything that gets you back in your happy place. Think about why you want to be a writer and why you want to write this particular story. Remind yourself of why you’re embarking on this wild journey called Camp NaNoWriMo.

There’s a great book [I’m somewhere in the middle of it as it’s one of those books I’ll take the entire year to read because I want to take my time] called Word by Word by Anne Lamott. It’s kind of a mashup of a writing tutorial and self-help book. I won’t go into the contents here, but I want to bring your attention to the title: Word by Word. That’s how this thing is done. Don’t look at your entire goal as an entity. Don’t even focus on your daily word count goal right now. Focus on that first word. When you’ve written down that word, move onto the next. Eventually, you’ll have a sentence, which will turn into a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, and, finally, a story. But it all starts with that first word, and, that, you can manage.

If you don’t know how your story will go, that’s okay too. Pantsers, plotters, or plantsers are all welcome. And if your story changes midway because your characters take the reins, enjoy the ride. First drafts are used to explore your story, your world, and your characters. Don’t be afraid of dead ends, and don’t be afraid of straying off course to try something else. This is your time to try new things.

Most of all, just have fun and enjoy the experience. If you don’t end up reaching your goal, there will always be another Camp with another goal. Chin up and continue onward.

For now, though, keep writing, keep exploring, and keep growing.

 

 

 

Planning for Camp [the penultimate day]

I just love that word – penultimate. In case you’re unfamiliar, it just means the second to last, which is today!

I am so, so excited, but there is still a lot of work to do on our stories before we can take off on April 1. Today, we’re going to focus on closing those plot holes and working out the kinks. At the end, I will also discuss mystery-specific tips and tricks to help organize all that important information you’ve gathered about your characters.

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So, what exactly are plot holes? Simply, they’re anything that doesn’t make sense in your story. For example,

  • In a fantasy novel, the rules of physics can be bent to fit the created world, but the rules need to stay consistent for that world. It all has to add up.
  • Someone who died in a previous scene, and did not come back to haunt the other characters, inexplicably is in a later scene.
  • The layout of a town is changed – shops aren’t where they were, it takes two hours to walk a mile down the road, cities that were previously established to be next to each other aren’t anymore. [Travel is actually a big plot hole that gets overlooked. A simple map could help with this.]
  • Your character’s appearance changes.
  • Your character once had an accent – and it disappears randomly.
  • Backstory changes.
  • Character motivation changes.

Anything that randomly changes without an explanation can be considered a plot hole. It’s far easier to spot those changes now with an outline than having to comb through a 300-400 page manuscript to find them. Of course, in your editing process, you’re going to want to spot and change any you find, but, hopefully, if you’re using your outline as a guide you won’t make too many during the writing process.

Here are a few resources to help guide you to identify and fix plot holes in your outline and finished manuscript.

Finally, taking a look at your outline as an overview, check out this short article to make sure you have all your elements before beginning to write. The last one in particular, remembering to see your outline notes as flexible, is one of the most important reminders.

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Congratulations! By now, you probably have quite a lot of notes to give you a better idea of what your story is about, which will help sustain you during Camp NaNoWriMo and beyond. You’ve done a lot of work these past five days, so now it’s time to rest and wait for midnight to begin writing!

Come back tomorrow for an inspirational post about how to keep up your motivation all month.

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If you’re still here, you’re probably a mystery writer. I’ll give you some genre-specific tips on how to organize all your pertinent information like clues, alibis, red herrings, and conclusions. Like the character information, I gathered these notes several years ago without recording the source, so if you recognize where these came from please let me know!

Red herrings: Leads frequently come from other suspects and the forensic [and other physical] evidence. For example, if an object is misplaced, missing, or out-of-place. The sleuth sorts through the suspect information to determine what’s the truth, a lie, or unreliable information.

Clues: These are fun because they point to the suspects and their motives. Remember to be subtle and vary your type of clue. Make your clue work for you by implicating several suspects when interpreted in different ways. Here are a few types of clues:

  • Verbal: Clues contradict alibi or points to a motive (i.e. an argument)
  • Physical: Object necessary to solve a murder (i.e. a toll receipt)
  • Insights from the sleuth

The important thing to remember about clues is to wrap up all loose ends by the end of the story (or investigation of the murder). If you don’t, you’ll create a plot hole. If a clue is actually a red herring, remember to show why it’s not critical to the case. For example: The toll receipt that shows a suspect driving the the same town as the victim just before the murder was considered a clue until the sleuth discovers the original time of death was incorrect (thus confirming the suspect’s alibi). You don’t want to leave doubt in the readers’ minds as to who the killer is – unless that is your intention.

To keep everything organized, consider creating a murder wall. It’s exactly as it sounds, and you can make it as simple or as complicated as you desire. Remember to include: victim(s), suspects, killer(s), and witnesses (if any).

Keep in mind that unless you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re going to want to include some forensics work in your story. It’s important that you’re accurate. For example, blow flies, which are commonly found on corpses only hatch under certain conditions. If you have blow flies without meeting those conditions, readers either may mistake it as a clue (body dump) or call you out on inconsistencies. Fortunately, there are several great resources online to help you sort out the science. (See here and here to get started.) I suggest that you open a new document (or turn to a new page in a notebook) and write out research topics to research all at the same time to minimize the chances of getting sucked into a research black hole.

Finally, here is a good guide to show how to write scenes for a mystery novel. It shows the breakdown of scenes and how to execute them.

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Do you have children (or students) who are curious about writing mysteries? Here are two guides you can give them so they can participate in Camp NaNoWriMo too. (See here and here for the guides.)

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Well, there you have it! Hopefully, you have a better idea of how to organize and integrate clues and red herrings in your story. Come back tomorrow for some motivation to help get you through the month ahead.

 

Prepping for Camp NaNoWriMo [2 days left]

There are only two more days before Camp NaNo. [Technically, only a day and a half.] Can you feel the tension? All that nervous excitement waiting to spill on the page? Good. We’re going to harness that energy and focus on developing your characters today.

I love sketching characters, and it’s probably my favorite thing of novel planning, which is why I leave it for the end so it doesn’t eclipse all the other stuff I need to address. At the end of this post, I’ll also include genre-specific tips for creating characters for mystery writers since that’s one of the primary genres I write.

Over the past few years, I’ve been collecting tips and tricks from different places – books, blogs, podcasts – and creating a sort of personal checklist. Unfortunately, I committed a cardinal sin and didn’t write down where I acquired all this lovely information. So, all this came from different sources. If you see something either you’ve written or you recognize, let me know and I’ll properly source it. Thanks!

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I start with a basic list of things to think about. I fill out one of these for each main character, including protagonists, antagonists, mentors, and power players). I’ll also fill out one for those minor characters who have a larger role and more impact in the story [or series].

  1. Goals, motivation, conflict – both inner and outer.
  2. Strengths and how to balance and layer them.
  3. Weaknesses and character flaws.
  4. Physical appearance tips here, here, and here.
  5. Important relationships and how they affect the character.
  6. Education.
  7. Home environment.
  8. Preferred method of travel [car, bus, walk, motorcycle, space hopping?].
  9. Backstory as it relates to the story/situation.
  10. Things in their backpack, car, pockets, purse, wallet, or anything else they carry with them.
  11. Habits, mannerisms, quirks, catch phrases.
  12. Mental health, outlook of life, emotions.
  13. Everything else, including telling the story from the each character’s POV. Remember, everybody is the main character of their own lives.

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After  I have a basic framework, I can dive deeper. Since I write mystery, I’m going into more specific details on how to create characters for various roles.

The sleuth: The story revolves around this person, so it’s safe to say we need to know everything there is to know about him or her.

  • Who is the sleuth, and why are they getting involved in THIS PARTICULAR case? Are they a suspect? Is their best friend the victim? Why do they personally get involved?
  • How does the sleuth become privy to important crime details, such as who suspects are? Unless your sleuth is also a private investigator or cop, they’re going to get their hands dirty. In cozies, there’s less emphasis on the forensics.
  • What are the sleuth’s special talents? What makes them a good sleuth?
  • How will the sleuth interview suspects to glean information about and solve the mystery?
  • How do other characters, especially law enforcement, react to the sleuth?
  • Who’s the sleuth’s sidekick? Who do they talk to about the case?
  • What does the sleuth do when they’re not out solving crime?

 

The suspects. Some suspects are genuinely nice people, but remember, there’s a murderer in their midst. It’s equally as important to learn about your suspects.

  • How many suspects will there be? The sweet spot for a full novel is five. To spice it up, kill one in the course of the story, but make sure it isn’t the actual guilty person.
  • How will the suspects be introduced to the reader? What will alert the sleuth [and reader] that the characters are suspects?
  • How will they be interviewed by the sleuth?
  • What are the suspects’ motivations? Make them varied.
  • What are the suspects’ alibis? Throw in a few that aren’t air tight, but show how, later, their alibis check out. Except the murderer’s of course.

The victim. I said the story revolves around the sleuth, but, really, without the victim the sleuth wouldn’t need to go sleuthing, especially in the case of the amateur sleuth in cozies. Let’s find out why the victim is the victim.

  • Is the victim alive in the beginning of the story, or is the body found right away?
  • Who is the victim? What’s their story as it relates to this story?
  • How does the victim know the sleuth? [In cozies, it’s never random.]
  • How does the victim know each of the suspects? What’s their relationship to each other? What’s the victim’s side of the conflict with each of them?
  • What’s the victim’s personality? [Even though they will die, I still do a full character sketch using the questions above.]
  • How does the victim die? Where did the murder take place? Why is this significant? [It always is.]

The sidekick. Robin to Batman. Dr. Watson to Sherlock. Sidekicks are the unsung heroes of the literary world, so let your sleuth’s sidekick sing by giving them a purpose. Here are a few purposes for them. Choose one or many.

  • Foils sleuth. [Make things unintentionally difficult.]
  • Calls sleuth out on their BS.
  • Gives sleuth clarity – in life, in the case.
  • Creates secondary tension in the story.
  • Forces sleuth to face themselves and their fears.
  • Helps sleuth see past themselves and at a larger world.
  • Provides a secondary POV and subplot material.
  • Gives the sleuths a backstory.
  • Keep the sleuth likeable and relateable, especially a recluse sleuth.
  • Be the sleuth’s saving grace and rescuer.

 

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Now, you have an accurate portrayal of all the major players in the story. You know how they relate with each other and the roles they’ll play in the story. If you need to, go back and tweak your plot synopsis and summaries from previous days. Often, characters act in unexpected ways. They seem to take over, and we should let them. They drive the story; it’s theirs after all. If, when writing the plot synopsis, we expect a character to act in a certain way, but after interviewing them it’s clear they would never act in this manner, instead of forcing something and it coming off as fake, allow the character to be authentic to themselves and rework the plot.

You just might surprise yourself.

 

 

Camp NaNo prep [3 days left]

Well, kind of. I’m writing this post-midnight since I had to work all day, and I’m just now able to get to this. So, really, it’s more like two days left, but who’s counting?

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Today, let’s focus on what happens in your story. This isn’t so much of an outline [I hear your rebellion, pantsers] so much as it’s a general guide. It’s difficult to truly pants a story.

[And if you’re wondering what pantsing is it’s simply writing by the seat of your pants and foregoing an outline.]

With events such as NaNoWriMo [and similar ones] where there’s a hard deadline, it makes it easier for you to jot down some basic notes about your story, your world, and your character. How much you jot down – whether it’s a small bulleted list or a full outline complete with character synopses – is up to you. I tend to gravitate toward something in the middle, making myself a “plantser,” a plotter and pantser. [I never did fit in one box, anyway.]

Because this topic is huge in scope and there are literally thousands of blogs and articles written about how to plan for different genres, I’ll only touch on my own genres and some of the bigger ones. I stay within the mystery/thriller and literary fiction genres, though I do write some young adult and children’s books from time to time. I’ll also briefly discuss world building in the scifi/fantasy genres.

All you need for this is a notebook and writing implement or a computer. I like doing all my planning on paper because it activates different parts of the brain that aren’t activated while typing, and paper gives me the freedom to doodle and mind map. Of course, choose the method that works best for you or try them both.

If you want to get fancy, you can choose to have:

  • Index cards – for characters, setting, scenes, plot points, anything else you think is important for you to write the story
  • Various colors of markers and highlighters – useful especially if you’re working with multiple POVs
  • Mapping software – to draw a map of your characters’ environment, which is useful for any genre and not just fantasy

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First, let’s give your characters somewhere to live. Setting is important to every story, not just science fiction and fantasy. Whether your story takes place at 221B Baker Street in London, on a faraway planet in a different galaxy, the street you grew up on, or a random city, it’s important to map out where everything is. Ideally, your setting will complement your story. It will enhance your characters and their conflict.

For now, describe your setting as an outsider would see it. Play tourist in your own world and note big things [like the Space Needle in Seattle] and the small things [the hole-in-the-wall pub that serves the best fish and chips that only the locals know about]. What kind of things are in your city or on your planet? Right now, this is a general look at it. You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like to be. Do you write

If you’re writing a historical fiction novel, this is the time when you need to show off your research skills. You’ll need to research different topics, such as: political/social/cultural context, manner of speech, clothing, geography [which may have changed over the course of time], etc. Number one rule? Fact check everything. Here are tips to get you started.

Do you write scifi or fantasy? Check out this great guide.

I typically write 5-8 pages of setting notes that include grocery stores, parks, schools, population size, basic statistics [average socioeconomic class, average ages of residents, and ethnicity breakdown], tourist attractions, shops, town history [origin of the town, who founded it, why is it called that], overall “vibe” of the town, local lore [like ghost stories], and newsworthy events [like murders either well-publicized or covered up by the powers that be].

Keep this setting description and we will dig deeper in setting after we develop the main characters. I recommend every writer read this excellent article on inspirational settings.

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It’s time to populate your world. Make a list of your characters – main characters, supporting/minor characters, antagonists, mentors, and what some people call “power players.” For this part, we’re focusing on a general list – names, ages, their roles, their goals, and their conflicts. What motivates your character to continue? What barriers are in their way? [These can be external, internal, and/or both.] How do they interact with the other characters?

  •  Your main characters are just that – they’re the people the story revolves. Without the main characters, the story wouldn’t be told.
  • Your supporting or minor characters help [or hinder] the main characters. Either way, they’re there to help keep the forward momentum and drive the story to the end.
  • Your antagonists are in competition with your protagonist [and sometimes the minor characters]. They want something, and the protagonist is in the way. The key to creating a believable antagonist is remembering that everyone is the hero of their own story. The reasons behind their actions will make the antagonist realistic and sympathetic.
  • Mentors are those characters that guide the protagonist through their journey. Traditionally, it’s an older person in a high role, but molds were made to be broken. Mentors could include: a teacher, a parent, a friend, a boss, or a wizard. The options are unlimited. Mentors traditionally help the protagonist, but they could also offer well-intentioned advice that causes conflict for the protagonist.
  • Power players are characters that have the power to change the course of the story. Is there a murderer running loose in the city, picking off people randomly? Does your mentor character hold a secret that, if divulged to the protagonist, will help defeat the antagonist?

It’s important to note that your characters aren’t meant to stay in one box. Antagonists can be power players, as can mentors. [If you really want to get twisted, an antagonist can be a mentor and a power player.] Play around with the roles your characters will play in the story. Develop their relationships with each other. How do they interact with one another? How do they affect each other? Characters, just like people, don’t live in a vacuum.

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Now you’ve got a world and people, so next you need them to do stuff to get the plot rolling. Dust off your work from yesterday – the one paragraph that gives you an overview of the what happens during the story. This is your framework to build upon.

Reread what you’ve written then see if your story fits one of these plot templates. Knowing the root of the story will help understand which plot details and subplots to choose. [Note: Your story might fit more than one template, and that’s okay.]

Rarely will a plot, by itself, sustain a novel-length story. That’s where subplots come into play. Take a moment and think about your other characters. What’s going on in their lives? How does it relate to the protagonist and the main storyline? Is there a love interest? Is there a family feud? Revenge? Jealousy? Murder? How will a minor character’s story converge with a main character’s story? What other character’s (or characters’) story will enhance the protagonist’s story?

I tried to structure a section about plot and how to layer different elements to create a deeper story while adding subplots to the mix, but it would turn into a book in itself. Instead, I’m going to direct you to these fantastic references. I recommend reading them in order since they build upon one another, but, of course, like anything, do what works for you.

  • This short article talks about what exactly are plot, plot layers, and subplots. It goes into how exactly to set up an easy-to-reference chart for you to use as you’re writing to make sure you’re weaving each element seamlessly.
  • This denser article, which has several other links with worksheets and checklists embedded, goes into more detail than I could ever imagine about how to work in subplots. I’ve read it four times already, and I pick up on something new each time. Definitely something to print and have handy. I highly recommend clicking through other links referenced in the article and printing off the checklists.
  • Finally, this article shows the methods in which to practically weave in your subplots. It talks about the different ways to write them on the page – whether to start each thread as a new chapter, parallel writing, or something else entirely. There are seven methods explored in this article, and it contains examples of each.

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Now that you have your plot, plot layers, and subplots, think of different scenes that are a part of each of these elements. Scenes, at their heart, do one of two things. [Sometimes, they can do both at the same time, which is wildly efficient.]

  1. Reveal characters – their motivations, goals, personality, etc.
  2. Move the story forward – getting characters to point A to Z.

By keeping these two categories in mind, it’ll help to ward off those information dumps that are common, especially in the beginning when it’s tempting to want to explain everything all at once – the setting and its history, the main character and their life story, the problem or conflict without actually doing anything to solve it. Ideally, this information can be revealed on an as-needed basis and intertwined within the story to where it’s almost imperceptible that you’re doling out information at all.

Take the time now to jot down a few scenes for each element – plot, plot layer, and subplot – to get you started.

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That was a lot of work, and if you’re still here with me, thank you. By now, you have a good idea of what your story is and the layers that make it up. You’ll also probably see where you can improve your story – gaping plot holes or topics to research. Jot these concerns down. We’ll address them soon.

Tomorrow [later today during the next post], we will dive into your characters and explore their role in the story. Keep the work you’ve done today handy. When you learn who your characters are, some of these plot and subplot details may change. Don’t be afraid to alter anything if it strengthens your story.