My Writing Process (Or: How I Went from a Pantser to a Plotter to a Plantser)

Over the last few months, several people have come up to me, online of course because I only hang out with my toddlers, and asked me about my writing process. I’d explain a little bit here and there, but I’d never have the time (or energy) to really put the process in words. Again, I’m a mom of two toddlers. What really convinced me to write this post was someone in one of my (many) writing communities reached out to the group and asked if anyone had been a pantser and switched to a plotter, to which I raised my hand and screamed, “ME!” So, here is the story of my writing journey and my current process.

Let’s back up a bit first, though, and define some words because I know some of you are sitting there wondering what the heck I mean by “pantser,” and “plotter,” and “plantser.”

A “pantser” is someone who writes the story by the seat of their pants. They go in it knowing just about anything. They might have a character name, or maybe a vague idea of a theme, or maybe not even that. It’s like that parent who pushes their kid in the pool or lake with the belief that experience will force the kid to learn how to swim. (Don’t do this, though. My mom did this to me, and I’m still terrified of deep water.) But there’s the belief, like the child learning to swim, that, after it’s all done, there’s a finished novel ready to be polished.

A “plotter” is someone who needs to line up all their ducks before they start writing. You might come across something called a Story Bible, and this is a plotter’s dream. Someone who plots before writing will write down everything: plot synopsis complete with plot arcs and scenes, character synopses with interviews, world building notes including maps, fictional languages if applicable, and anything else that could be thought of beforehand. I’ve known some writers, and I won’t call anyone out here (me), who once wrote a Story Bible that was longer than the actual story. There’s nothing wrong with that; it can help the world come alive to the author and, by extension, the reader.

A “plantser,” which is a term that recently popped up in writing circles is someone who is in the middle of the road. They do a bit of planning and a bit of pantsing (mostly when they get tired of planning), and somehow it all comes out to a finished story. Plantsing is probably the vaguest approach of the three since there really is no set way to do it.

Whichever method you choose, though, the end result should be the same: a finished story from beginning to end. But this isn’t a post about the merits of each approach. Instead, I’ll show you how I went from being a determined plotter to throwing away all my writing notes to digging some out of the trash can.

True to my formal academic background, I approached writing by planning. I’d start with a concept or a character, and I’d learn everything there was ever to know about said concept or character. I’d develop my premise into a story then flesh out the details. Eventually, I came across the Snowflake Method, and when the creator released the Snowflake Pro software (for a paltry $10!), I snagged it, knowing it would completely revolutionize my writing. And it did. I started with the concept and developed a one-line sentence that summed up my entire story, also called an elevator pitch for all you trad authors. I expanded it to a paragraph, a page, and four pages, making it into a full synopsis. Sometimes, if I didn’t have a story idea in mind and had only a character come to me, I’d skip to the character planning side and filled out questionnaire after questionnaire about the characters to help them come to life for me. I’d write extensive (and I really do mean extensive) backgrounds for each character, even that minor character who gets mentioned on page 42, and not even by name. Yep, everyone was given a life and a story. After I had all that, I’d work on my setting. Since I used to write only literary fiction, set in contemporary times, I’d figure out which real city I wanted to base my fictional city on, print out the map, and go to work making it my own. (To this day, I love using mirror images of real cities, and I did that with my most recent cozy mystery series.) This fictional city was like its own character, so, naturally, it got its own background, complete with the town’s history and how it was established to all the skeletons the townspeople want to bury (but can’t because I like to expose them) to how life has changed over the (hundreds of) years. After all of that, I still wasn’t done. Now, I had to get down and dirty with my plot and craft all those scenes.craft all those scenes. Most often, there were between 150 and 200 scenes for each novel and between 20 and 40 scenes for each short story. (I typically used short scenes with less than 1,000 words each.) I knew where all my characters were at all times, and I’d track the main plot and all the subplots using a color scheme.

Except, by the time I finished planning everything, and I truly mean I planned nearly everything I could, I was left with something that already resembled a first draft in note form. I didn’t want to write the story in narrative form because there was little for me to learn. The times that I did just suck it up and write were usually short stories, and they either followed the outline to the letter–making it less than adventurous for me–or it’d veer so off course that entire chunks of the outline were useless. Characters tend to do what they want to do and not what you want them to do. Goodbye, synopsis and questionnaires! Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way.

Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way, and like anyone who sees the world in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms, I went to the polar opposite style and pantsed my way through a book. This was my NaNoWriMo project back in 2015. All I knew was that I wanted the story to be about gun violence in schools and the aftermath of it. And I dove in! I was tired of never really finishing anything of novel length, so I gave myself an ultimatum: Finish the story in November or else quit writing. Okay, I knew I couldn’t quit writing, so I had to finish the story. In my eight years of NaNoWriMo participation, it was my first year writing only on one project, and I wrote over 80,000 words. I didn’t finish it in one month, despite taking off two of the four weeks from work, but I did finish it the day before my youngest son was born in early January.  Let’s just say a train wreck looks better than that draft, but I still treasure it (even though I refuse to open the document) because it means I finished something. With pantsing, though, I found it difficult to keep my character’s names consistent (I think my main character changed names and ethnicities at least five times), and figuring out what was even happening was difficult. It was truly a Draft Zero because there’s no coherent story line, all the characters’ voices are muddled, and nothing is consistent. But it has “The End” written on it, and, for that project, that’s all that mattered to me. Okay, and I admit it was fun writing the first thing that came to mind without wondering where or how it fit in the grand scheme of the novel. It was strangely cathartic to be so wholly creative like that.

I finally had one completed novel under my belt, and I felt great. My creativity, despite just having a newborn and having a toddler to chase, was at an all-time high. I wanted to write more. Except I feared that Zero Draft. I knew that former novel had to be completely scrapped, and I was okay with that but I didn’t want everything I ever wrote to be scrapped. I had to come to a balance between plotting and pantsing because neither were viable approaches for me. Enter the plantsing approach! Now what I’ve learned is that everyone’s plantsing approach is a little different; after all, it’s on a spectrum. This is just my process, and if you find it leans too heavily toward the planning side–because it does–feel free to mix it up.

I start with an idea I want to explore. It could be a snippet of a scene, a full-fledged plot, a character, a feeling, or a theme. I get a blank piece of paper, usually a piece (or two) of legal-sized paper and write a complete mind dump of everything about the idea. Anything is relevant at this stage, and the more time I spend on this the more I can think to write. Still, I try to do this all in one sitting, though. After I’ve written everything, I just stare at the paper–in wonder or in horror–and I try to connect those ideas with lines to see what goes together. Okay, now I have a really messy piece of paper, but the idea is coming to life in my mind.

The next step is the first step of the Snowflake Method, and that’s boiling all that stuff down to one sentence. It contains the protagonist, the setting, and the core conflict. Ideally, it’s under fifteen words. Keep this sentence in mind; memorize it, even. This is the sentence you’ll recite to get people–agents, editors, future readers, other writers, your mom and dad–interested in your story. After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to

After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to one paragraph. This has more of the actual story in it, so it might be a good idea to consult your mind map for this. Again, this will likely change as you dive into your plot and characters, and that’s okay. Adjust as needed.

By now, I’m really wanting to get to know these characters because I don’t know how the story until I know the characters. (They’re fickle creatures, characters.) I have a quick reference guide to help me figure out these characters. I don’t write about everything, just the topics I think are relevant at this time.

  • Goal, motivation, and conflict (both inner and outer)
  • Strengths/weaknesses
  • Appearance
  • Important relationships
  • Education level (and how it affects the character)
  • Home environment (and how it affects the character)
  • Preferred travel method
  • Backstory as it directly relates to the story
  • Carried items (in a purse, bag, pocket, backpack, etc.)
  • Habits, mannerisms, quirks, catchphrase, etc.
  • How the character view themselves versus how other characters see character

 

Finally, I figure out the point of view of the story (I usually choose limited third person), the beginning, and the ending. I figure out the ending so I can have a basic roadmap to where I’m going to make sure I’m still heading in the right direction, and it’s kind of like a treasure map. It doesn’t matter how I get to the ending (what makes it a pantsing experience), but I just need to get there somehow (what makes it a planning experience).

And then I write! I start at the beginning and feel my way around from there. I rely on my paragraph that tells me the basic story to help guide me, but, otherwise, I’m on my own.

Because I have two young kids and very little time to actually devote to writing, I will sometimes go the extra step, which is planning out individual scenes. 

‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ E.L. Doctorow

By planning out only the scenes I need that day before I end my writing session the night before, I’ve turned on the headlights. Pantsing without doing this is like driving at night without any lights on. Sometimes a deer will jump out in front of you, and you will only narrowly miss smacking into it. (Or you might just fall into a ditch–or plot hole.) I never plan more than five scenes in advance since they’re bound to change beyond that anyway.

 

And there you have it! That’s my process of plantsing a story. Are you a planner, pantser, or plantser?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Idea: A Birth Story

The idea for this post came to me while I was in a Valerian root/chamomile tea-induced slumber, and I was half-awake. I wrote the entirety of it in my Idea & Inspiration notebook while snuggling and nursing my toddler, so this could either be totally brilliant or absolutely ridiculous. [Let’s just go with brilliant, though.]




It’s only when I sit and think about the process by which a story is born that I realize it’s not unlike a baby. And, yes, authors do consider their books to be their babies. Even if they have human babies of their own. This is that process.

[Please note that this is my process. Not every author follows these steps.]

Before you ever start writing or planning, you have an idea. It’s shiny and beautiful and perfect. Best of all, it’s untarnished by the imperfections that come from being born. It’s the honeymoon stage of a story’sand baby’slife, before you’re elbow-deep in dirty diapers and first drafts. But the seed of inspiration (and we’re going to breeze right on by these parallels) has taken root, and the idealike a fetuswill germinate and grow, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly.

And grow it does. The more you think about your idea, the more it takes shape. Now you can recognize features like theme, characters, backstory, conflict, setting, and plot, just as you’d see arms and legs and ears on a sonogram. If you’re really lucky, you’ll notice the small detailsyour scenesand you’ll delight over them, just like new parent delights over seeing their baby’s fingers and toes. You’re still pretty naïve at this point, even if you have other books or children. It’s simply the creative nature of things.

Your idea continues to grow and morph into a definitive statea drabble, short story, novel, or seriesand the creative energies explode. Suddenly, you’re realizing you have something viable. The idea starts to fill you, spreading to all the parts of your body and mind, stretching you in ways you didn’t know you could stretch. This continues for some timeit’s not always a concrete measure of time, unlike a pregnancyuntil you feel your idea kicking to get out on the page. At this point, you might find yourself writing down some details you think are particularly great, and the idea continues to grow.

That is, until one day you find yourself so consumed by this thing, which has, by now, turned into its own entity, that it can no longer stay inside of you. It’s bursting to come out, to come alive on the page. And one day, that pressure will build so much that you can’t not sit down and write it, just as you can’t help but go into labor. The thing with laborand writing a storyis that some people have short labors lasting only an hour or two and some people have long labors lasting a day or two, just as some writers birth their story in a month or two and some writers take a year or more. [Actually, the great Stephen King recommends you finish your first draft within three months.] It’s all a process, and every book, just like every child, is different.

And, here’s the sad part of the baby-book analogy, not all ideas are born into stories. Some aren’t viable, and some are abandoned. Some have happier trajectories and are adopted out to other writers who may, or may not, be able to come up with their own ideas.

Have you ever heard about someone who was convinced they were having a girl (or boy), and on delivery dayoops, not what they were expecting? They might have put in all this effort for a child who was one particular gender (hey, boys can have pink, and girls can have blue), but now they’re derailed and feel like they need to start all over. Some stories, just like babies, are misinterpreted in the beginning. You might think you have a short story on your hands, but when you get down into it find out that it’s really a novel. Or vice versa. Which, if you think about it, makes a great case for gender-neutral baby stuff and not getting too caught up in one way of thinking about writing.

All of a sudden, though, almost magicallyand by “magic,” I, of course, mean putting in a lot of work and tearsyour story is birthed in the form of a first draft where anything is possible. You’ll reread that first draft like you would stare in your newborn’s eyes. It sounds great at first, but then you start to notice little detailsthe stilted dialogue, flat characters, lack of conflictand it’s kind of like noticing how squashed your baby’s face is or how cone-shaped their head is. And it’s nothing like the perfect pictures of babies you see in the movies or in pictures, just like your draft isn’t like the published books you see on the bookshelf. But it’s your story, your baby, and you love it anyway. (Especially if you wait at least six weeks before reading your first draft.)

You take the next few drafts to nurture your story and, hopefully, refine it through its tantrumsin the form of characters not bending to your willand backtalkin the form of words just not coming out as intended and not-quite-right ideas. After some time, though, and it’s often far longer than the time it took to grow and birth it, your story will find its voice, find its essence, and be ready to strike out on its own in the vicious world of publication. And just like a parent dropping off their kid at daycare or school for the first time, you’ll want to cry, but you know it’s their time for them to get a little independence.

Maybe in that time you’ll find a few trusted readers, called beta readers, to run your story by them, kind of like a trial run and quite like a play date with toddlers. Your story might be wobbly, just as a toddler teeters before landing on their bum, only to get up and try it all over again, but with some gentle reassurance (and some ruthlessness), your story will become stronger and more ready than ever to explore the world.

One day, when you’re least expecting it, or maybe this time you’ve planned it, another idea will come in your mind, and you’ll nurture it, just like someone nurtures the idea of growing their family by having another child while experiencing baby fever. It seems as though authors and parents alike seem to forget just what it’s like to bring another something in the world and help it grow. (But that’s okay because it’s worth it to start all over again.)




And that’s it! Have your experiences writing and publishing been similar to this process? If you’re a parent, what parallels have you drawn between child-rearing and story writing?

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.

 

Camp NaNoWriMo prep [4 days left]

It’s a good thing I’m not a math teacher because, apparently, I can’t do basic math – like subtracting five from anything. [I think I might have forgotten March has thirty-one days in it, which is nearly every year.] In any case, you got a break to really dive into the beginning tasks. If you’re just joining us, check out the first post of this series here.

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Today, we’re going to take your elevator pitch and transform that into a paragraph you can use to write a more detailed plot outline, if you so choose. This paragraph will give you a road map to follow so you don’t get off-track.

Things you’ll want to include:

  • Main characters, including your protagonist and villains/antagonists – even if you write literary fiction like I do and don’t have a human antagonist.
  • Goals. Your characters want something. Ideally, your protagonist and antagonist will want the same things but go about it in different ways.
  • Conflict. This is the stuff of stories. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story.
  • Disasters. With conflict comes snafus and twists for your characters. How will they handle not getting their way? What unexpected things happen because things didn’t go according to plan?
  • Resolution. Every story comes to an end [eventually]. How does yours end?

Several years ago, a new software hit the internet. It was called Snowflake Pro, and, without really knowing why, I purchased it for pennies. [Not literally, but compared to what it costs today, it feels like that.] I use it for every project, from short stories to mystery series. Since then, Randy Ingermanson has written several articles [and books] about how to implement the concepts of his Snowflake Method without actually purchasing the software. One of the steps in his method is this one paragraph summary. Here is what he suggests, and you can find the full article here.

Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. Don’t confuse this paragraph with the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story.

Keep this paragraph handy. We’ll reference it later – and you might find you’ll change it after we tinker with the backbone of your story.

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Next, we’re going to choose who gets to tell your story and how that story will be told. In other words, the voice of your story and its point of view. Let’s start with voice first.

Choosing a narrator: By definition, your narrator narrates the story and is not a character in the story. There is a degree of separation between the narrator and the characters in the story in which he narrates. Here’s a great article about how to approach each of these three narrator types with examples from well-known books.

  • The omniscient narrator

The omniscient narrator knows everything and can share anyone’s thoughts at any time. He can, and often does, make value judgments about the characters in the story.

  • The limited narrator

The limited narrator can share the thoughts of a selected few characters, usually only one per scene. He seldom makes value judgments. He can take a long view, or focus on a single character.

  • The objective narrator

The objective narrator is like a photojournalist. He reports the story events, but he doesn’t judge and doesn’t read minds.

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If you want a more personalized story that really gets into a character’s (or characters’) mind, you might want to choose allowing a character, or multiple characters, to tell the story instead. We’ll explore different ways you can approach point of view to see who best to hold the proverbial camera. Here is another great article that dives deeper into each of these and includes examples from well-known books.

  • First person and close third person [also called deep point of view]: In both of these points of view, the reader gets an up close and personal view of this character’s life and mind. Readers are more immersed rather than using a narrator to tell the story.

In Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint, Nancy Kress writes, “‘close third person’ and ‘first person’ are indistinguishable from one another except for their pronouns. When you transpose first person to third person by changing the pronouns, close third is what you get.”

  • Multiple points of view: You may choose to have several characters tell the story, either using first person or using deep point of view for each. This allows you, as the writer, to rely on the perspectives of multiple people, and you may choose to do this for several reasons: create the effect of the unreliable narrator, or to tell different characters’ stories and show how they intertwine. Be careful you don’t choose too many characters to tell the story, though. The more characters you use, readers will be unable to form strong attachments to any one of them, and it will appear fragmented.

Some writing books say if you are writing in “third person” you can reveal information not known to the viewpoint character. This is true only if you are using a narrator. You cannot reveal information unknown to the viewpoint character. The character with the camera can only show what they see. The instant you reveal something the protagonist cannot know, you have taken the viewpoint away from him and given it to a narrator.

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Now that you have your narrator and point of view chosen, you can go back to your one paragraph summary. Evaluate it to see if it’s consistent with who is telling the story and who the story is about. Rework it to reflect with your new understanding of your story.

Tomorrow, we’ll go more in-depth with your world and your story, so stay tuned!

Countdown to Camp (five days)

If you don’t know, Camp NaNoWriMo is coming back in April. What’s this elusive camp, you ask? It’s a virtual camp for writers where we’re placed in different virtual cabins – either randomly or by choice – and we work on our writing goals. Camp activities are optional but encouraged.

What do you need before going to camp? Well, not much, really. [You don’t even need an idea, outline, or plan.] You can dive right in and write what comes to mind, which is great. If that’s how your brain works, anyway. Mine? Not so much. Over the next five days, I’ll share with you my process I take to gear up for any NaNoWriMo event – the Camps in April and July, and the main event in November.

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Before you do anything else, make sure you’re actually registered for the event. (It’s free, so why not!) Signing up is simple. Go to the homepage here and register for a new account. If you’re already a member of the main NaNo event, use that login for this one. Easy peasy!

In order to be placed in a cabin, you have to have a project. You can choose anything – even “Untitled” in an “Other” genre. They’re flexible and don’t mind if you have no idea what you’re doing. [Most years, I don’t.] To add a writing project, under “My Camp NaNo,” click “My Writing Projects” and follow the instructions. For a writing goal, you can anything from 3o words to 1 million words, a wide margin of choice to say the least. This is the biggest difference between the Camp events and the traditional NaNo event in November: you can choose your own word count. Traditional word counts are 50,000 words, but don’t feel the need to conform. [My goal this year is 40,000 because that’s all I need my story to be as a novella. Also, I’m bucking tradition by working on something that’s currently in progress.]

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I forgot to draw the little arrow this time, but click “My Writing Projects.”

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Next, you’ll want to decide if you want to join a cabin or not. Cabins are a great way to stay motivated and accountable throughout the month. I’ve been in cabins where people aren’t chatty and nobody checked in, but the overwhelming majority of experiences are fun. There are challenges and rewards systems and check-ins. Writing can be a lonely experience, so it’s great to have a personalized group to chat with. Cabins are small-ish, with only twelve spots in each. You can swap cabins midway if you’re not feeling the vibe of your assigned cabin. Of course, you can always write solo as well. To set your cabin settings, something you’ll need to do if you want to be in a cabin or not, sign in and click “Cabin Settings” under the “Cabin” tab.

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Yes, my username is anonymouskitten, and yes, I have unopened NaNo mail from over three years ago. 🙂 

Next, you’ll want to choose your cabin preference. There are several options. [Of course, just as I was taking a snapshot of the screen, I was added to a cabin and the options are no longer visible.] You can choose to be randomly selected in a  cabin – with or without meeting certain criteria such as the same genre or goal as you – or you can create your own private cabin if you know other writers you’d like to pair up with. [There is always the lone wolf option as well.]

If, after you chat with your cabin cohorts, you decide you want to bail, you can always opt out. Go back to your cabin settings page, and click where it says to opt out.

 

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I used Paint instead of freehanding it. [It still sucks, but it works.]

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Now that you have your foundation, you’re probably itching to swap that “Untitled” title to something else, right? But if you don’t have an idea floating in your mind, what do you do?

This might be a huge letdown, but…you find an idea.

Inspiration comes from anywhere, seriously.

  1. My number one suggestion is simple: go for a walk. [Don’t listen to me, though. Here’s a study from Stanford.] Even if it’s crappy weather outside, walk around indoors. [If you have mobility issues, try using your mobility device, whether a walker or wheelchair or something else, to get moving and change scenery.] 
  2. Read, read, read. Pick up a book and read. Find something you’d change – the outcome, a character, a situation, anything – and make it your own.
  3. Get philosophical and ask “What if…” Frequently, my books start out this way. “What if a poor boy inherits a fortune?” [Great Expectations] or “What if a neglected boy discovers he has magical powers and is famous? [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone] You can be as silly or serious with this as you’d like.
  4. Start a dream log. If your dreams are anything like mine, you’ll have some good material with which to work. Write down everything you remember upon waking up, even (especially) if it doesn’t make sense. Pick out a detail that sticks out to you and expand it to create a story.
  5. Go to the cemetery. Okay, this might be a little morbid for some people, but it works for me. When I go to a cemetery, which is quite often, I walk around headstones and jot down the names and ages of people. I come up with elaborate, fictional backstories for each of them. Sometimes they will turn into characters with their own stories.
  6. If you’re really on a tight deadline and can’t come with an idea, try a plot generator or the adoptables thread in the NaNoWriMo forums.
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Step 1: Click NaNoWriMo Forum

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Sign in, if you aren’t already, with your Camp NaNo username then go to the forum.

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Scroll down until you find the Adoption Society thread. Inside, you’ll see an index post as the first or second thread within. Click there since everything will be alphabetical. Go wild and explore.

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Okay, you’re finally inspired and you have an idea in mind. Great! Take out a piece of paper (or open a new document on your computer) and write everything that comes to mind when you think about your idea.

This can be anything, including a description of a character, a setting, a scene, a snippet of dialogue, a clue, a red herring, a murder weapon, a theme, anything. Anything goes. No filter, just write. Eventually, you will exhaust all your ideas about this project if you keep going long enough. And don’t worry if you only have one or two things written. There is no right or wrong way to do a mind dump. The goal is to get everything out of your head and onto paper (or screen), so you can decide what to do with it.

I tend to do my brainstorming on paper since it activates a different part of my brain than if I were to type the notes. My pages end up being very messy with scribbles and arrows drawn between ideas to show a connection. Somehow, I’m able to read it after I’m finished and can put it into some coherent order. The goal is to create something that works for you.

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You’ve done a lot of prep work already, but there’s one more thing to do before closing up shop today. It’s called your elevator pitch. [Check out this blog with a directory of information about this. I recommend starting with this post and moving down (or up) the list. This post by a different blogger has more concrete advice to get you started.]

Essentially, your elevator pitch boils down, in a sentence, just what exactly your story is about. [I think one of the most terrifying questions I’ve ever been asked is: “So, what’s your book about?” I get flustered and try to talk about all the nuances that I think make my story great, and I don’t actually get to the heart of it.]

This is your chance to find that golden nugget, that pearl, that Holy Grail of meaning within your story. Here are some questions to get you thinking: What is your story about? Why do you need to tell this particular story? Why does it compel you? What feelings do your story bring up within you? How do you want to convey those feelings to others? What actually happens in your story? What’s the conflict? [There’s always conflict.] Who tells your story and why? Who is the story about and why? [This isn’t always the same answer as the previous question. Take a look at The Great Gatsby. Nick Carroway narrated it, but it was really about Jay Gatz. There was a reason for this.] What themes do you want to explore? Who is your intended audience? What genre do you think your story fits best in?

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If you’d like to leave your elevator pitches in the comments, I’d love to take a look at them – if only to get excited about the story that will unfold this coming month. Also, you can choose to comment with your Camp goal to stay accountable.

Come back tomorrow for some more tips on how to prepare for Camp NaNoWriMo!