Spy Thrilling

On July 19, 2021, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice about how to nail down what you want the plot of your story to be? I’ve been wanting to write a Spy Thriller for a really long time, (since about November 2019). I started the first draft for NaNoWriMo, but gave up and moved onto different projects (as evidence in this post). Recently, I had another idea for one, which would take place in the same world and country but involve a different main character and take place a few years before the one I started in 2019. However, I’m having a lot of issues deciding what I actually want to happen. I really like espionage, fun action scenes, secrets, dark pasts, many things that are staples of the genre. But every time I try to say “This is who my main character is, this is her main motivation…” It all feels wrong. I’ve tried making lists but I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Christie V Powell wrote back, You might try Brandon Sanderson’s method. He starts by writing down a couple of the goals for the plots and subplots that he wants (character A learns to trust, the villain is defeated, this element of the magic world is discovered…). Then he writes down what steps would be needed to reach each one (so, for “learns to trust,” he might list character A mistrusted someone but was wrong, A is taught a lesson by someone, A likes someone but is held back by her mistrust…). Then, as he writes, he looks at his lists and tries out what comes next. You might try that with your list (espionage can be what secret your character has to discover, the action scenes can be how to bring down the villain, etc.).

I actually don’t do lists right. I usually only get to item three or four, and then my brain latches on to one and decides that This Is The Way. Sometimes I can get a few more on the list by building off of the previous ideas instead of coming up with new ones–for example, if idea #3 is “Perrin meets two mages,” then idea #4 might be “Perrin meets two mages who help heal his friend” or “the two mages have ulterior motives.” I think I would get overwhelmed by possibilities too if I forced myself to keep listing all brand new things. Maybe you could try out building on old ideas instead of coming up with new ones?

When I’m coming up with a new story idea, I start by scribbling down some of the things that I’d like to include. Then I use those ideas to fill out a “beat sheet”, moving them around from spot to spot and filling in new things until it feels right. I wrote a blog post about the story structure/beat sheet I use, if you’re interested: http://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/06/story-structure-for-kids-and-other.html.

Terrific!

I’ve made no secret about having a hard time with plotting, even though plot interests me more than anything else. My plot handicap is why I lean so hard on fairytales and myths and, lately, history, which help me not only with my story shape but also with unexpected tidbits that suggest plot directions. Providentially, I’m right now figuring out the plot of my murder mystery that takes place in thirteenth century England and I can give you an example from recent reading:

Fact #1: The murdered woman, who is historical, had a powerful and influential son.

Fact #2: The son lived in a different city from hers.

Fact #3: Little was done to find her killer.

Fact #4: It was easy to escape from jail and hide out in dense forest.

Fact #5: The prime suspect did escape and fled.

Fact #6: Travel, unsurprisingly, was dangerous. (Think bands of evil Robin Hoods.)

I haven’t written anything yet, but my plot as I had imagined it before my most recent research was a bit too straightforward. Now, though I’ll have to find out more, I hope to make my two MCs travel through this scary countryside to reach the powerful and influential son. Without research, I wouldn’t have thought of this promising plot twist.

Out of curiosity, I googled “real-life spies” and found lots of entries. One of them was this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_American_spies, though it may not be the most useful. We can click on a few and noodle around the websites, jotting down discoveries that interest us. In the Wikipedia list, we can click on some spies and read about them. We can sample spies in different eras and see what changes.

In this stage, we can think of ourselves as tourists, lingering here, sampling this war or that crisis, this country or that one. It’s important not to worry. We’re picking flower buds of possibilities. If we’re relaxed about it, the flower buds will drift around. In the backs of our minds, some will make patterns, break apart, and reform. This sounds fanciful, but our creative selves need space where desperation is not allowed.

Later, when we arrange them in our story bouquet, we can figure out where they go. Some may reveal themselves as weeds. Some may bloom with surprising colors and vivid perfumes.

The process is likely to continue as we write. We’re stuck in Chapter Six until we remember a particular factoid we read about a spy in the Franco-Prussian War and a different one from the Cold War. (I’m assuming this will be a fantasy spy thriller since Kit Kat Kitty mentioned the “world” of her story. If we’re writing strictly historical fiction, we’ll have to be more rigorous, and we won’t be able to hop around in time much, but we’ll still need our relaxed tourist experience.)

As we do our time travel, we can speculate in a writerly way. What kind of person did this particular spy have to be to accomplish what she did? There may be several possibilities, which we can list. What might have stood in her way? What stood in the way of a different spy that we looked at that we can plug in? I’m thinking not only of personality but also of physicality. For example, did she have asthma before there were inhalers? Does she have any identifying features? For instance, I would have a hard time getting through a dragnet because of my height.

I love to look at online images, although, usually, after the first four or so, they tend to switch to other people. I don’t care much if I’m not writing real historical fiction. What kind of person would wear this expression? What might have happened to this one to cause those frown lines?

When we’re ready—we can even declare a set time period for our touring, say a month—we can write notes about what we’ve learned. Still in relaxed mode, we can speculate about how we can use it. Gradually, our story is likely to take shape.

I don’t mean it’s easy. This is the part I dislike most. But this is the best way I’ve found to get through it.

The great thing about historical research over spy novels and movies is that we don’t have to worry about infringing on anyone else’s creation. History happened. No one told President Truman, for instance, to make up his mind to drop the atomic bombs because the war’s historical moment was taking too long to conclude and the pacing was faltering.

We do, of course, have to be aware of copyright in nonfiction biographies and history books. The authors of these books shape their presentation of facts and people. If we discover something important to our story, we probably want to find more than one source for it. This is one reason I love Wikipedia, because it’s open source, and we can use whatever we like.

Here are three prompts:

  • In medieval England, the punishment for most crimes—really!—was execution. Your MC has been falsely accused of theft and convicted, but she’s escaped from prison in the tower of the local lord’s castle. She’s following a narrow track through the woods on the outskirts of town when a large person drops down from a tree onto the path ahead of her. Write what happens. If you like, keep going and write the story.
  • Your MC is an executive at a manufacturer of teakettles where the factory workers are trying to form a union and the owner is using aggressive tactics to stop them. Secretly, your MC sympathizes with the laborers and wants to help them even though the repercussions will be severe if he’s caught. Write the story.
  • In this world, a small percentage of the population has the power to time travel. An even smaller bunch has formed a cabal to return to the past, where (when?) they plan to install their leader as prime minister. His policies will be disastrous for everyone except the members of his cabal. Your MC has infiltrated the group and is determined to make them fail. The problem is that she also shapeshifts. The shifts are set off by time travel, and she never knows what form she’ll have taken when she arrives. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Process

On April 6, 2021, StoryBlossom wrote, The process for writing second and third drafts is so confusing. Most of what I’ve read says something like: wait some time, read it, and then wing it.

Do you have any suggestions for planning techniques and how to be consistent with planning so you get it done in a timely manner so you can get to the actual writing? What can I do during the first draft that will make writing future drafts easier without stifling my creativity by overplanning? In other words, can you expand upon, “Too much [writing] is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise?” I’m thinking this might mean writing every single scene idea whether it fits or not, but that would probably mean adding more during the revision process as I try to fit everything together cohesively.

That’s the problem I had when I started editing one of my WIPs. I didn’t plan my first draft at all. That didn’t even occur to me. I planned my second draft using the snowflake method, but the story ended a complete mish-mash mess. The plot was in my head and not executed properly. I tried again with my third draft, going up to 60ish pages, but then I got sick of the story because I’ve been working on it for six years. There was still so much to more to write to complete the plot.

I took a break from writing because I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I also think I was focusing too much on keeping up with my writing goal (which was ridiculously high) because I wanted to finish within three months. How long can it realistically take for a beginner to write a book? Finally, I ran my ideas through a randomizer and tried writing that one.

I tried writing non-chronologically, where I just randomly wrote scenes in no particular order, but that felt even messier and I gave up on that. I’ve moved on to yet another story, which I already had a half first draft written. I read the draft, which was based on the same universe from the first WIP I mentioned and had to scrap most of my ideas. I invented a whole new universe and started writing a new draft. But my perfectionism and need for speed is getting in the way. I don’t know why I have such trouble planning– I am a planner in most other respects. I don’t know why I want to write quickly– I hate rushing in all other respects.

Several of you responded:

Katie W.: What occurs to me is that you might want to write quickly because that seems like the sort of thing a “real writer” would do. Three months is almost ridiculously fast to write a book. If you really work at it, you can get a first draft in, but you won’t have time for editing. (And yes, I know NaNoWriMo people are probably laughing at this.) I did it once, 60,000 words in a semester, but I didn’t finish the actual story and I never wanted to look at the thing again in my entire life.

I think really the issue here is that you haven’t figured out your special kind of planning, and as a die-hard, there’s-no-point-in-even-trying-to-plan-this-because-it’ll-go-off-the-rails-anyway pantster, I can’t help you with that. Reading your comment, my thought was “Oh, yeah. Just start over with whatever idea you have now and see where it takes you. It’s supposed to be messy, so you can clean it up.” My advice would be to read every writing book you can get your hands on and see if something clicks.

Christie V Powell: I agree with Katie W., in that it sounds like you need to figure out your own process and what works best for you. I can tell you mine and give you resources. It works for me, and it’s fast–I can publish at least a book a year, start to finish, with my method. But you’ll want to adapt and eventually make your own.

I started to write down my whole process here, but I don’t want to take up a ton of space, and I’m probably repeating myself from other comments I’ve made. I copied it all down to my own blog post instead, so you can check that out if you’d like: https://atypicallyordinary.blogspot.com/2021/04/my-writing-process.html.

Melissa Mead: FWIW, it took me 14 years to finish my first book. So you don’t need to push yourself TOO hard.

FantasyFan101: My advice for you is just write. Zip. Nada. No more. Just kidding. Often, I find that when I write, I like to just let the ideas flow until my mind is like, whoa, slow down, change this, it’s way better that way. For instance, my current WIP has an MC who still isn’t quite as polished as I’d like, but looking back, her personality and even description fits better into the story. My friend and I also were able to add more details to the world and backstory as the story built up. Now we have not just words on paper, but the seeds of a world. My point is, most of the time your world and story aren’t going to be perfect right away. You’ll get ideas and inspiration the farther along you get. It can help to get to know your world better later in the story. You don’t want to infodump right at the beginning of the story. Things have to start worse before they get better. You have plenty of time. Just relax. Jot down a few ideas. Talk about it with a friend or family member. Have them read it. They might have some eye-opening insight that changes your whole perspective. Readers can have that kind of influence. I wish you luck, from one writer to another.

These are great and helpful. I particularly love Katie W.’s suggestion about reading lots of books on writing. I did that. Books like Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott, Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser, all of which I gobbled up when I was starting out, still stand proud on my shelves. (High school and up.) Every one of these authors is humble about writing and also recognizes that telling a story isn’t as straightforward as following a recipe—because there is no recipe (I wish there was!). Our subconscious always gets involved, creates detours, and wants us to go in unexpected directions. This, I think, is what StoryBlossom is contending with. Has anyone mentioned on this blog that writing is hard?

What helps me is the knowledge that I’ve finished stories a bunch of times, and because of that, I’m relatively, almost entirely confident, that I’ll do it again. I think Christie V Powell has that confidence too and for the same reason. If you follow the link to her blog and read about her method, you’ll see that she welcomes her subconscious in during the daydreaming phase. After that, her tried-and-true method guides her.

But her way won’t work for all of us and probably won’t work entirely or exactly for any of us. It’s like life; even identical twins have paths that diverge, a lot or a little. I looked at the snowflake method, which looks good, but I could follow it only after I finished a book. While I’m writing, I don’t know my characters well enough or see the course they’re going to follow. I find those out during the writing, by showing the details. How will Janey respond to a flat tire? How will Meredith answer a king who asks what she has in her purse? What does she have? Still, I do have an idea of the problem of the book and the ending—or I can’t write it. But some people can.

Knowing the end does keep my first draft from wandering, so that can be a strategy for some writers.

Perfectionism is useful only in the final revision, when plot, setting, and characters are settled. Then we go in and mop up, looking for awkward phrasing, word repetition, typos—like that. Still, we won’t achieve perfection, because, in my opinion, perfection is unattainable. A novel is a long document that has at least one thing wrong with it. As good as we can make it is good enough. Besides, people have different ideas about what we’ve written. A reader may find fault with something that we know is right. Once, a reader wrote to me in considerable distress over the ending of The Two Princesses of Bamarre. She said I had to create a new version that fixed it or write a sequel that fixed it. But the ending was what it should be as far as I was concerned. She said she was losing sleep over it, which was unfortunate for her. It was nice for me, though, that she felt so strongly about my book!

StoryBlossom quotes me about length, but I couldn’t find the spot on the blog, and I wanted to because I’d like to know the context. I’m pretty sure I meant that adding is hard if we get to the end of a story and feel that it isn’t long enough. I doubt I meant that we should pile on scenes. Probably, I was thinking about including enough detail to put the reader inside the action and in the heart and mind of my MC.

Decades ago, I invited some relatives for dinner. No one told me I had to; I wanted to. But then I entirely lost my cool in worry about what might go wrong, from burning the food to no one having anything to say to the toilet stopping up. A wise friend advised me to tape signs in cheerful felt markers in lots of places in our then apartment: For fun! The reminders worked. I sang while I cooked and straightened. I don’t think anything burned or any toilets backed up. For sure, people found things to talk about. I wasn’t drummed out of the family. All of that would have been true if I’d continued to fret, but how nice not to! For anyone who’s worried about their writing, I recommend placing exactly these signs anywhere you’re likely to look. Remember how I end each blog post.

I googled randomizer, and I wouldn’t use it to help me with my plot. That way lies chaos, in my opinion. But I would use it for a poem. In fact, I can’t wait to try it. Thank you, StoryBlossom!

Here are three prompts:

  • Google randomizer and use it to write a poem. Here are some suggestions for what you might put in: three images, like The golden horse weathervane was stationary against a backdrop of scudding clouds (feel free to use this one); a proverb; a fruit or vegetable; a fragment of a memory—and whatever else you like. See, as I’m going to, what the randomizer does with them, but don’t feel obliged to use whatever comes out. Fool with it until you’re satisfied.
  • Going against what I said above, use a randomizer to generate story ideas. Stick in a sentence from ten different fairy tales. See what happens and use what you can.
  • Marco and Juliette are working on a scene together for an acting class. Marco is a perfectionist and Juliette is not. Write the rehearsal. If you feel like it, expand it into a story. If you feel like it, make the story a romcom.

Have FUN!!! FUN!!! And save what you write.

Ideas Versus Written-Down Stories

On March 16, 2021, Brambles and Bees wrote, I’m having a bit of a crisis. I have been trying to write a book, but I always end up disliking the idea and then give up. Or I actually do like it, but I have a hard time with writing it. I think it might be a problem with me not planning out my writing carefully, but I have never really liked planning anything out. I also don’t like a lot of the characters I create because I always have this perfect image in my head, but I can never get the character to fit into that mold. So how do you actually write out your characters? And how do you create enjoyable plots and storylines?

Two of you answered.

Fantasywriter6: One thing I’ve learned is to save what you write. Sometimes I’ll scroll through my Google Docs and find an old story that I started but gave up on, and I’ll find a totally new perspective on it or find that the words flow a lot better. Also, don’t pressure yourself to write a Full Length Book…the idea’s pretty intimidating and makes me feel like I need to get it right the first time, but who does? Just write because you love to write! Also, have conversations with people you trust about your specific plot lines or characters and see if they can help you form words. My guess is that you have great ideas (we are our own worst critic) but have a hard time putting pen to paper and being satisfied with what comes out. Just, again, remember that nothing comes out perfect- and very few things come out great- the first time!

FantasyFan101: I have that problem too. I hated a lot of my characters, but Gail’s character questionnaire saved me. It’s a bunch of questions about your characters that you fill in. You can modify the questions depending on the world you create and a bunch of other things. It really helped me for my current WIP. I knew from previous stories that my characters were usually just creatures with a name and appearance. They had no special traits and way of speaking, or even standing. The questionnaire was a life saver. As for creating enjoyable plots and storylines, I did like you, just went where the story took me. But I’ve realized, I like to write Sneak Peeks. They help me get the gist of where I want to go, and how I want to do it. You can plan the beginning threads of future scenes, before weaving them into the actual masterpiece.

I’m with Fantasywriter6 that pressure isn’t helpful, is actually the enemy. And, FantasyFan101, I love the Sneak Peaks idea, which seems fun and freeing.

And I’m happy that you’re both into fantasy!

Dreaming up a story idea is exhilarating. Writing it down is humbling. Ideas and written-down stories are no more than distant cousins, so we can’t expect the first to morph easily into the second. When we’re in the castles-in-the-air stage, we see walls and towers made of glistening stone and pennants waving in a gentle breeze against a bright blue sky. We don’t think about rats and mice and itchy vermin, and winter drafts and plumbing. When we start writing, though, we have to contend with those things, which will make our setting real.

I’m not much of a planner either, though lately I’ve been writing a super-short outline before I start, and I have to know the end I’m aiming for. But the end may change if my story can no longer accommodate it, and I tend to forget about the outline.

Plot and character aren’t distant cousins, they are BFFs. They do everything together, go nowhere without the other. They talk and plan and grow and change in tandem.

If I’m even the tiniest bit uncertain while I’m writing a book, I toggle to my Ideas document to put down what may come next, and what may come next can be the tiniest thing, like what physical gesture a character can make during a conversation. For even that little thing I may make a list. I’m not a fast writer.

Let’s use that gesture question to see how plot and character work together. Imagine that our MC, high school sophomore Lisa, is paired with Sam, a classmate, to make a presentation on the use of animals in scientific experiments. They just have to research facts, but they discover that they’re on opposite sides of the issue. Sam says flatly, “You’re wrong, Lisa.” She replies, “You’re wrong, Sam.” We’re thinking about how she says her reply. If she accompanies her words with a shrug, their work probably continues, albeit frostily. If she thrusts her head to an inch from Sam’s and lets out a little spittle on the S, which wets his upper lip, things may escalate. Either one moves our plot along.

Both possibilities reveal character. Shrugging Lisa may have an easy temperament, or she may hate to argue, or she may have a crush on Sam. Spitting Lisa may anger easily, or she may feel so deeply about the subject that she wants to be sure she got her point across. She may or may not realize that spit was involved.

My character questionnaire is in my writing how-to book, Writing Magic. We can use it to help us decide how Lisa will react.

Planning isn’t necessary to make our plot evolve, but it is useful to have half an eye on where we want to go. Suppose for example that we want to start a little romance between these two. If that’s not the end of our story, at least it can be our next plot point.

If Sam backs away and rushes for a sink to wash off the saliva, we’ll know we have a steep hill to climb to get them to a kiss—and we can think about how to do it. If he laughs and says she reminds him of his sister (in a good way), we may worry that this is going to be too easy—and we can think about how to make trouble.

I tend to find my characters in their thoughts, feelings, action, and speech. And I tend to decide what those thought, etc., will be based on the direction I want my story to go in.

Here’s an early prompt: Take any character you’re working on with you today (or tomorrow if you’re about to go to sleep). Here’s how you might do it:

Later this afternoon, my friend Christa will come over with her dog Demi for a playdate with Reggie, as they’ve been doing a few times a week since both of them were just past puppyhood. Addie, my MC in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, would probably be afraid of lively Demi. She might even go into our house for safety. Her sister Meryl would be interested in only Demi and not in Christa or me. Meryl might imagine Demi to be a dragon in dog disguise. She’d also go into the house to persuade Addie to come back out. What would your characters do? If you had a friend over or visited a friend, how would they behave? What would they do, let loose in your house or town?

Our perfect characters have to have the equivalent of the castle mice and vermin—flaws—to be real, even to be lovable. We can ask ourselves—and make a list!—what makes this character perfect in our minds? We’re probably not going to be able to keep all these qualities, so what’s the perfection we care about most? In my backyard scene or in your activities for the day, how would this perfect characteristic express itself? Would your character intervene successfully in, say, an argument between Christa and me? Would she see the big glass fragment in our path and pick it up before one of the dogs stepped on it and got a deep cut? (This has happened. Every spring our backyard, which has been continuously inhabited for over two hundred years, sends up a harvest of glass. For a long time garbage disposal seems to have involved throwing things and leaving them where they landed.)

Let’s imagine it’s the glass because our heroic MC always has an eye out for danger. But in saving a dog, she fails to notice that Christa is weeping over something mean  that Gail just said, and she’s confused by the emotion. So she’s less than perfect about human interaction.

Or she can be so attuned to people’s feelings that a dog has lost a pint of blood before she notices.

Brambles and Bees is a tad hard on herself in her question. Many of us are when it comes to writing—or to any creative endeavor. We need to find havens in our writing method that don’t trigger self-criticism. This blog is one of those spots for me. Posts are short. Little is at stake, because if I don’t get an answer exactly right, the question is likely to resurface in a slightly altered way, and I’ll get another crack at it.

Poems are a haven too. Mine are often less than a page and almost never more than two. I expect to write more in the revising phase than in the creating stage, and I love to tinker.

We can give ourselves the refuge of writing short even in a long manuscript. My ideas document, which I create for each book, is that refuge. When I’m lost, I toggle over there to write about my confusion and to make lists or to revise a paragraph or even a sentence. Nothing is at stake there. No one will see the document. I can let loose with all my notions and not call any of them stupid. I even feel different when I’m doing this. My shoulders are looser, and my skull seems to crack open, allowing ideas of every sort to frolic.

Here are two prompts to go with the one above:

  • Your MC knows she needs to take everything less seriously. Her relationship with her best friend depends on it as does her own peace of mind in the face of teasing by her older brother and younger sister. How does she go about it? Write the story.
  • Your MC, a master at a particular game or sport (you decide which), is having a match against the sentient dragon who is holding her parents hostage. She knows that it will honor its promise to release them if it loses, and she knows three other things: It hates to lose so much that it is likely to burn her to a crisp if she wins; if it realizes she lost on purpose it is likely to burn her to a crisp; she hates to lose as much as the dragon does. Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

Order!

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping for a less challenging, all around easier 2022!

On December 6, 2020, ryne39720 wrote, Any thoughts on organizing stories? As I write, I find myself asking questions, making lists, adding comments, elaborations, and parenthetical remark upon parenthetical remark. I usually just switch fonts, add a space or two and write all this extra junk in with my WIP, but this makes it difficult if I want to find a specific piece of junk later. Many of my notes are scattered on different electronic devices and at least three notebooks. I’m also writing a lot of scenes out of order. On top of all that, I’ve got a bunch of post-it notes and drawings and maps. I need a new system! How do you stay organized while writing?

SluggishWriter wrote back, I try to keep my notes confined to a few places – I make notes on the document with my story, on one note-taking app, and one notebook. This helps keep it streamlined while still letting me make notes wherever I want. Sometimes I need to scribble down something quickly, so I’ll do it on a bit of paper and leave it inside the notebook. I also use post-its occasionally and I like to stick them inside the back cover of the notebook.

It can kind of be a mess sometimes, but having it all in one place usually makes things better! I also like having a note app that has a search function, so you can quickly title it something related to the book and find it again later.

As far as the actual notes inside the notebook go, I use a two-page spread and just jot things down wherever I want on the page, sometimes having to draw lines to separate different topics, or bubble a specific idea I want to remember. The chaos lets me be freer about writing down notes.

Both of you get many points for the kind of looseness that lets creativity rip!

Everyone works differently, and if your method works, don’t change anything. Here’s what I do:

Almost everything is on my laptop, and each book has a separate folder. I sometimes use a pad and actual pen for tiny things, like jotting down synonyms from my online thesaurus. Once in a blue moon, an idea arrives as I’m climbing into bed. These I write down by hand because opening my laptop with its blue light is a great way to stay awake for hours.

Just saying, I do not like writing with a pencil. When I’m writing by hand, I stick with a nylon-tip pen with blue or black ink, but online, I occasionally use the highlighter. Once or twice I’ve hand-drawn a map of my kingdom or a diagram of the inside of a building; these are simple and in no way art.

I write my books mostly chronologically. Often at the beginning, though, I need to go back to add bits that the reader needs to know, sometimes an entire scene or two. When I recognize that need, I put the scenes in. Or sometimes I don’t see the need until I’m revising my first or nth draft.

If a scene pops into my mind that I’m going to want later, which occurs rarely but does happen, I’ll write as much of it as comes to mind and some notes about the rest of it at the end of what I have in my story so far, after hitting return a few times or after a hard page. Same with my ending if ideas for that come along. (I almost always know my ending before I start to write but not how it will come about. If I have an idea for that, I don’t want it to slip away.)

But if I’ve added material at the end of my ongoing story that doesn’t come until later, I mark the end of the chronological part with xxx so I can find my place.

If I change direction significantly, I rename my story by increasing the version number at the end of the name of my document. For instance, the first version of my book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, was called Alhambra 1. The next version, obviously, was Alhambra 2. (Alhambra was the city where the Spanish monarchs wrote the expulsion decree.)

My notes on my story are in a document called ideas in the book’s folder, and they generally keep pace with where I am in my story. In there, I write lists, wonder about what should happen next, what this character or that will say, what the setting looks and sounds and smells like. Sometimes I copy in bits of online research I’ve done, like snippets from Wikipedia. If a sentence or a paragraph doesn’t please me and I start to tense up, I copy it into ideas and work on it there. And I complain in there: I’m sleepy, who will want to read this—the doubts that I entertain as little as possible.

I keep a chronology of my story as I write it in its own document, called chronology. If I’m on top of my game, I also keep a running synopsis of each chapter, called synopsis, but I’m rarely that organized.

I’m a compulsive reviser even when I’m writing my first draft—this is not a productive quality. Don’t be like me if you don’t have to be. Inevitably I delete bits. Anything deleted that’s longer than a phrase gets copied into my document called extras, in case I change my mind and need it again.

Because I don’t remember, I keep an alphabetical list of my character names, called names.

Absolutely essential is my document, times, of my daily start and many stops and restarts. I never look backward in this to see how often I made my daily goal and how often I didn’t. That way lies madness!

Depending on the book, I may have other documents. For Ceiling, for instance, I had a document called glossary that listed the unfamiliar terms I learned in my research that I was likely to forget (like cortes, the parliament of the time, which was in no way democratic). I must have been lost in a title wilderness for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre because I have several versions of a document called titles. Also in Lost Kingdom is a document called questions for RB (my editor).

So that’s my method. Here are three prompts:

  • Make a board game of your method of writing a story.
  • Your MC, Daedalus, who designed the labyrinth for King Midas has been trapped in it himself. He has his architectural plans in his belt, but his handwriting is so bad and his notes so scattered, he will need hours to determine which way to go to get out, but he doesn’t have hours—the Minotaur is on his way, and he’s murderously angry, as usual. Write what happens.
  • Your MC is a cultural anthropologist at a dig in north Africa, where bone fragments from several skeletons and part of a single skull have been found. The bones come from a previously unknown hominin species. The skull is damaged, suggesting its owner was killed by being clobbered. The thighbone of someone else shows a puncture. Bones from a single hand have arthritic changes that suggest repetitively holding something narrow, which may have been an arrow or a spoon. Or a pen??? Also found are bits of pottery from long before pottery is believed to have been invented. Your MC puts the clues together and writes a novel. Your job: write her story and, within it, her novel.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The PP

On October 19, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course.) I know I’m a plotter (pantsing has never worked out for me), but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it and test out some different methods.

Christie V Powell wrote back, I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline. Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully, my abbreviated version makes sense).

Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win

Hook- inciting question

Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)

Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

Act 1.B: Normal World

Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

Act 2.A:

Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons

MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need

Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

Act 2.B:

Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

Act 2.C:

Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.

Truth is blatantly stated.

Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

Act 2.D:

False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win

Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

Act 3.A:

Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.

Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

Act 3.B

Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.

Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

A year later (today—10/4/21), I asked Christie V Powell to define BG, and she wrote this: I used “BG” to stand for “bad guy” (the antagonist).

I don’t know if this would help or just be overwhelming, but I did just write a new blog post that went into depth about my plotting method. It’ll have more information, and hopefully spell things out a little better:

https://thespectrabooks.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-cvp-method-story-structure.html.

I’m sure Christie V Powell’s method gives a writer security, which I’d love to have, but I’m part pantser, and we live on the edge. I hope my stories have rising action and a climax and falling action, but I don’t think about those things, or I haven’t so far.

I start with notes in which I jot down my thoughts about a possible story. Sometimes, just thinking brings me to find a knot I can’t untangle, or can’t untangle yet, so I drop the idea into a deep hole in my mind, where I hope it will simmer and untie itself (can take years). Many of my notes are questions, which I may answer or leave open.

I write lists of possibilities for what may happen. Always, I search for an ending, because I can’t start unless I have imagined the finish, which is where I part company with complete pantsers. I was a complete pantser until I got tired of getting horribly lost in book after book. So this is one strategy: We can think about how we want our story to resolve itself.

In my notes, I often write about what my story looks like if I shape it as a quest based on either what my MC wants or needs or what terrible circumstance she’s landed in. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a great example. I had intended to write a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but there were mysteries baked into the fairy tale that I couldn’t figure out, like why the dancing princes were enchanted. From somewhere along the way of attempting to write the story, I introduced a terrible disease. Eventually—it didn’t happen instantly—I realized that a quest for its cure could be the heart of the story, which would be an original fairy tale, and I was able to write it.

Most or maybe all of my fiction can be expressed as a quest. My historical novel Dave at Night is a quest for a home. Fairest is Aza’s quest for relief from her own dislike of her looks. Ogre Enchanted, like Ella Enchanted, is a quest for spell release. Sometimes, I don’t see the quest until I finished writing. But we can be more intentional about our quest for a quest. That’s another strategy: Express our plot as a quest and see if that helps it take shape.

Once we see the goal, we think about the impediments (like BGs) we can put in the way for our MC, and we can also decide what can help her. I bet you (not me) can use this quest structure to set up your rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions.

We can write a one-page summary of our story as we envision it. If it were a fairy tale, we can ask ourselves, how would it go? (We don’t need to be writing fantasy to do this. We’re just going for a story shape.)

Lately, I write an actual outline, a short one, recording events I want to make happen. I just looked at my outline for Ogre Enchanted, which can be called an outline, really, only by a partial pantser. It’s full of questions that often aren’t answered. Once I started writing the book, I mostly forgot about the outline.

That’s another strategy. We can write a short outline reflecting how, at that moment, we want our story to go, but we don’t have to attach ourselves to it with leg irons. Pure outliners, I think, change course too, but they fix the outline along with the story, so they can see how the shift affects everything that’s to come. I rarely do that. Once I start writing, I follow my characters and what they do. Still, a corner of my brain is keeping an eye on the plot and remembering where I want to go.

Character is super important to me, but plot has primacy. I’m a plot driven, rather than a character-driven writer. Alas, plot is harder for me than character is, which is why I like to use ancient stories—like fairy tale, myth, or history—as frameworks I can hang my plot on. Many writers do this, including Shakespeare!

Suppose we want to write a love story, well, we have a trove of fairy tales at our disposal. Or say we want to write about poverty, we can use “Hansel and Gretel.” If we want to bring to life the end of a civilization, we can read up on the fall of Rome in history or Troy in mythology. For self-deception, there’s always “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I’m hoping that my next novel will be a historical murder mystery about the death of a Jewish moneylender in 13th century England. I’ve just started my research, and the conditions for Jews rich or poor back then were difficult and precarious. The question that I’m asking myself is: What can I balance the sadness with—what hope? what happiness?—that will make this work as a book for kids? The question is an early step in my plotting process—as an example of how I do it.

Here are four prompts. You may have seen them coming:

  • Use “Hansel and Gretel” as the basis for a contemporary story about a mother and father with two kids to support in grinding poverty and the choices they make. Who will the gingerbread witch be? Write the story.
  • Write a love story about a selkie and a human. Decide whether or not it’s a tragedy.
  • Do a little or a lot of research as the basis of a story about the downfall of a civilization. Write the story.
  • Write a story about self-deception based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Dreaded Fog

Once upon a time, on April 13, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I am actually writing a “Hansel and Gretel” retelling, and I was wondering – how do you figure out the plot? Like, I know that Gretel has to find out in some way that she has magical powers and then eventually go on some kind of quest and defeat some kind of witch, but I am still having trouble figuring the plot out and I’m always losing my way.

I don’t know if that was clear enough or not, but basically here is the summary: I need tips on plotting because all I am really doing is stumbling blindly through the fog of writing.

Two of you responded.

Katie W.: As someone who has stumbled through the fog of writing many times before (and who only really figured out how plotting works a week ago), here are a few tips. 1. Plots are the way characters try to reach their goals. So, if you make a list of the character’s goals and the things they do to achieve them (kind of like New Year’s resolutions), you have the bare bones of an outline. 2. Freytag’s Pyramid (the upside-down triangle that shows action rising and falling over the course of the story) can apply to anything from a scene to a series. Everything has exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution, and if you can find your story’s inciting incident (where the rising action starts), climax, and resolution, you can fit the rest of it around those three points. 3. Feel free to stumble, get hopelessly lost, and backtrack as many times as you need to in order to find your story. It’s easier to plot the second draft than the first.

Kit Kat Kitty: I’ve been where you are so many times before. And what really helped was reading a book about plotting. For me, I didn’t understand plots well enough to hit all the right beats without writing out an outline, and I didn’t know how to write an outline because I didn’t understand plot well enough. I was too scared of all the complicated outline methods out there to watch videos or read articles about them. But when I finally sat down and read a book about plotting (Save The Cat! Write a Novel) it helped me a lot. It has fifteen beats that I used to outline my current WIP. Of course, that isn’t the only plotting method out there, but it worked for me because it was simple, and a very universal outline. (All books have most if not all of the beats whether or not that’s what the author intended. The book goes into this more, and I would highly recommend reading it.) So I was able to grasp it easily.

Of course, if you’re not a plotter, being a pantser is perfectly fine! I’d still recommend reading books about plot so you can absorb all the information and subconsciously get to all the places you need to in your book once you understand what they are. This was my main problem when I tried pantsing novels, I didn’t understand plot nearly as well as I needed to.

I guess I’m saying the best thing to do is research about plot structure, and if you want to plot, research different methods. It might not be easy, but it’ll be worth it. For once, I don’t feel hopelessly lost when I’m writing. For now. I hope this helps.

I agree with Katie W. The first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, or even good. I’m working on a zero draft right now, which is basically just throw-up in word form on a page, but once I’m done, I’ll have something to work with that’ll (hopefully) eventually become a good story.

I love the idea of a zero draft! That takes the pressure off.

In the version of “Hansel and Gretel” collected by the Brothers Grimm, neither Gretel nor Hansel does anything magical, and there isn’t a quest. You can read a plot summary in Wikipedia. The original may make the plotting easier because we can come up with our own complications.

Writing Cat Lover may be working from an adaptation, which can be tricky. If the adaptation isn’t old enough to be in the public domain there may be infringement issues. I suggest checking this out.

The old fairy tales in their original form are in the public domain, but not necessarily adaptations (a Disney version, for example) or translations (because translations are copy protected too).

By now I’ve fogged and stumbled through a bunch of novels. The sweet ones seemed to want to be written. The meanies (The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, especially, my second fantasy mystery, Stolen Magic) preferred to keep their secrets to themselves. They stuck imaginary tongues out and dared me to write them.

Stolen Magic scarred me. It took over four years to write and didn’t become even a first cousin of the story I hoped to write: a version of the 19th century original fairy tale, “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, which I love for its atmosphere but not so much for its predictable plot, which I hoped to correct.

Before Stolen Magic, I believed E. L. Doctorow’s advice that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow wrote a lot of novels, and his advice may work for some, but he led me astray.

Nowadays, I have to have the major kinks figured out before I commit myself to a book, whether it’s a retelling of a fairy tale or an original story. I may write a few pages before then, though, and call a halt to think.

But I’ve never used the inciting incident, rising action, etc. method though I assume my stories have those things. I like to adapt fairy tales or myths because they give me a skeletal plot, or I think they do. Most of them are riddled with logical holes big enough for a dragon to fall through. I have to figure them out before I can get going.

I often find my way by framing my plot as a quest, which, for example, is what pulled me through Two Princesses. I think most stories can be looked at that way. “Hansel and Gretel” can be looked at as a quest for a safe home. Or one to end the witch’s reign of terror. Or something else that we can decide.

To find the quest and our plot in general, we have to decide whose story we’re telling. Take “Snow White,” for example. In the original, the character with the most agency is the evil queen, and her tragic quest, in a way, is to stop time to keep herself from aging and Snow White from growing into her beauty. We have to rearrange things to make it Snow White’s story, which can be a quest for a safe home as it is in my mind for Hansel and Gretel. Or for power. Or for true love. All depending on how we do it.

So when we think about our plot, we need to ask ourselves questions:
• Which character is our MC?
• Who’s telling the story? May be our MC–or not.
• What does our MC want or what caused them to be at risk?
• What are the obstacles and who stands in the way?
• What qualities will help or harm our MC?
• What kind of world is this, because the answer will affect our MC’s ability to act and the sorts of actions that are possible.
• How do we want it to end? What will that look like? How will we get there?

In my case, since I tend to get mixed up, it helps for me to write notes and review and re-review my ideas, because I’m likely to forget about a snag that threatens everything, that will make me have to delete fifty pages–or much more.

Having said all this, though, the fog of writing may be the writer’s curse. Writing Cat Lover may be doing nothing wrong. It may be that, for most of us, if we’re not in some amount of fog, we’re not mining the depths that lurk in our story. A friend told me that Stephen King takes his laptop to sports events and types away, able to write and follow the game at the same time. He must not be an ordinary mortal.

Maybe I’ll be wandering in my fog and bump into you, wandering in yours!

Here are three prompts:

• Write your current WIP as a three-to-five page fairy tale.

• “Before the Law” is a parable within the novel The Trial by surrealist Franz Kafka. It isn’t my kind of thing, but it may be fun to fool around with in terms of plotting. Ask the questions I pose above to write a story that appeals to you. This summary comes from Wikipedia: A man from the country seeks “the law” and wishes to gain entry to it through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says it is possible “but not now.” The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man he only accepts them “so that you do not think you have left anything undone.” The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain entry to the law, but waits at the doorway until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years he has been there. The doorkeeper answers, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

• In case you don’t have enough fog, here’s more! You may know the Greek myth about Demeter, Hades, and Persephone. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess, whom Hades (god of the underworld) falls in love with, abducts, and marries. Demeter, overwhelmed with grief, prevents anything from growing. People starve, but Demeter refuses to relent. Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger god, to get Persephone back. There’s more to the story, because Hades does something sneaky, but this is all you need for the prompt. Hermes is your MC. Write his journey through the land, which Demeter has plunged in darkness, to the murky underworld, to retrieve Persephone.

Have fun, and save what you write!

On the Links

Many of you have started NaNoWriMo. I wish you the best. May your fingers never flag. May your dreams–if you sleep–deliver scenes and characters. Put them in! May your brain send ideas: the surprising, the wild, even the ordinary–no judgment, just so they generate words. Go, writers, go!

On January 21, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!

Several of you responded.

Christie V Powell: I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.

I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.

Melissa Mead: Exactly! “This happened, which caused X, and because of X…”

Raina: I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:

  1. Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitional (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).
  2. Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two Lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).

As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.

Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).

And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.

I love reading everyone’s approaches, because we all get to the same place–story–by different routes. And I’m with Raina on the infinite possibilities of revision.

Here are some approaches that I use that may be helpful:

Even though I’m mostly a pantser, I do need to know the overall problem of my story. At the moment, I’m thinking about my next project, and I’m turning the fairytale “Aladdin” over and over in my mind. The problem is the problem, because I’m not sure what that is. Is it the love story with the sultan’s daughter? Defeating the evil magician? Wielding the genies’ magic? If I’m going to go forward, I’ll need to know.

Knowing helps with the links. When a scene wants to be written, we can think about how it relates to the problem. If it doesn’t relate, we can explore how it might be shaped so that it does. (This may require a list.)

Once I’ve figured out the problem, I move onto my characters. What kind of person will my Aladdin need to be to both overcome the problem and struggle with it? Who will the princess be? The genies? What sort of villain will the magician be? These can change, as Raina says, but to get started, I need a preliminary idea.

Same with the ending. From the start, I need to know where I’m heading. Even pantsers can know that much. The ending is a beacon that lights and guides the writing road. As we write, we can ask ourselves how the scene we’re about to write will move us toward the end, either by throwing up obstacles or by overcoming them.

All of these will automatically pull the story together and forge links.

Most of my novels are from a single first-person POV, though the Trojan War manuscript I’m revising now is told in the first half by one character and then, several years later, by another. Unity is natural when there’s one teller. The reader reads her thoughts and understands how events connect.

But even with multiple POVs, a POV character’s thoughts can pull plot points together.

Writing chronologically also creates links, which is similar to the causality that everyone above wrote about. This happened, then that happened–and the reader connects them.

I’ve written here about handling flashbacks and backstory, which are fine techniques–please use them at will!–but they do wrench the reader away from the current action and make the linking harder. Even foreshadowing does that. If our story is getting unruly, we can stay in one time zone.

Lately, from more than one sad experience of losing my way, I do write a very basic outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a page–even though I’m almost intolerably bored by the exercise. Once I start writing, I forget the outline, but it influences me anyway.

I also do a sort of rolling outline sometimes. In my notes, I write about what will come next based on the scene I’ve just written, what arises from it. This may yield bullet points that will carry me through a few more scenes, when I have to regroup again and plan ahead.

If we’ve already written, say, fifty pages, that don’t seem to link, we can look them over with a dispassionate eye. We can ask questions about what we have. Is there a problem that seems more pressing than any other? If yes, how can we make it filter into everything else? If not, is there a problem that particularly interests us? Can we punch it up? Which character (or two or three characters, probably no more) interests us most? Can we relate the problem to this character? How might the problem end? We can list possibilities.

We don’t have to wait until we reach the end to revise. We can reshape our fifty pages and then continue, keeping our eye on the problem and the ending we’re aiming for while remembering that we can change any of it.

Finally, trust yourself! Trust your mind! Don’t yell at it or poke it. Let it meander and find the connections.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take another fairy tale that continues to confound me: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The reader is supposed to rejoice at the success of the soldier in figuring out why the princesses wear out their shoes every night, but these young women come out of it without gaining their freedom, and the reader never finds out what’s really up with the underground dancing princes. In my opinion, the story solves the mystery of the shoes, but not the more interesting problems. Decide what the problem is, who the MC is, and what the ending might be, and write the first scene. If you like, keep going.

• Look at three unrelated articles in your newspaper. Stare at them. Imagine they are somehow linked. Consider what the links might be. If the three don’t yield links, you can add more articles. Find a story in them, with a problem, an MC, and an ending. Write the story as another news article with a banner headline.

• Personify an inanimate object, a plant, and an animal. Write a paragraph about each, including its personality, problems, backstory, and anything else you think is important. Look at what you have. Did you happen to include common elements that you can expand? If not, look for connections. Decide which of the three will be your MC, which your villain (if you need a villain). Write a first scene. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tangled!

For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Burrowing Into the Blur

Before I start, the countdown is on to the release of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, on May 12th, six days away!

On December 5, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote: How do you write past the beginning? The farthest I’ve ever gotten in a novel was 15707 words. (Yes, I failed NaNoWriMo. After a little I hated my story so much, I had a hard time looking at it.) Once I’m done with the beginning, I tend to get stuck. Every time I think about it, I can only imagine the climax/falling action/ending. Everything between the Inciting Incident and climax is a blurry haze of no ideas and wanting to slam my head against a wall.

A few of you weighed in.

Writing Ballerina: There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically. Write whatever part excites you. Then you can go back later. Writing the climax and ending might actually make it easier for you to know where you’re going. It also might help for you to plan that part you get stuck very in depth so you always have a place to go. And if you’re having a really slow day, you can throw in some silly things like sea monsters nibbling apples, or a random cat into your scene to get things moving. I did this a couple times during Nano.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is really helpful! (I love cats, and when I was younger they were in my stories all the time.) But I think my big problem is I’m not really sure what’s supposed to go in the “rising action” place. (I don’t know what else to call it, I’m going based off of what my English class has taught me.) I think if I could figure out how to write something interesting that moves the plot forward without being so crazy and over the top it doesn’t make sense.

Writing Ballerina says: Plot is driven by tension more than action, so focus on events that will build the tension of the story. I really recommend the book Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He has lots of great tips on how to build tension, write plot twists, and a bunch of other stuff. You can probably get the book on your library, or even google excerpts.

Melissa Mead: I learned by writing short stories first. They give me experience with writing stories all the way through.

future_famous_author: You could skip the beginning, or you could just keep exciting things happening the whole time to keep you–and the reader–excited. My current WIP is about a princess, and she is eventually going to get captured, but I have to wait until I have about twice as many words as I have now to get to that part. So, while I wait, I try to keep the tension high. And, when there is a boring conversation, I try to throw in important information, or maybe even foreshadowing, so that it isn’t boring. Just because you haven’t reached the climax does not mean that there can’t be problems. My MC’s biggest problem will end up being that she gets kidnapped, but for now, there’s an awkward love triangle going on, and so she has to deal with that.

These are terrific!

Before sheltering in place and after, I hope, I work out with a trainer named Tony, which makes me a very strong old lady. When I tell Tony something like, “I’m worried I’ll drop this fifty-three pound kettlebell on my toe,” he always answers in all caps, “DON’T DROP THE KETTLEBELL ON YOUR TOE.” So, with Tony in mind, I say to Kit Kat Kitty, “DON’T SLAM YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL.” !!!

Writing Ballerina’s first comment–about writing out of order and writing scenes that excite us–is along the lines of what I said in the most recent post. Likewise, my ideas about being stuck, so Kit Kat Kitty and others may be helped by rereading that.

Before we progress beyond our beginning, let’s talk about beginnings themselves and take a look at one of the most famous first lines ever, by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. What does this beginning do, in addition to making us smile?

Well, even though it’s lighthearted and ironic, it lets the reader know that the book is going to tackle something big–love and matrimony. There will be the two sweethearts and all the circumstances that separate them, which will have to involve other characters, probably friends and family, and a milieu in which they move.

Here is a sampling of first lines I found in a Google search. I’ve read all but the book by Anne Tyler (but I’ve read others by her), and they’re all, except, I think, for The Red Badge of Courage, best for high school and up.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

(An aside about copyright: Most of these books aren’t in the public domain, but quoting such a small bit is okay, covered by something called the Fair Use doctrine.)

I want to be clear here: I don’t mean we should agonize over our first sentence. A big deal is often made about the need to have a knockout first sentence or first page for queries or agents. I hope that’s not true, and I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how to think about our beginnings so that they set us up to move into the rest of our story.

Each of these first sentences suggests big things to come, maybe thorny problems or complex worlds or complicated characters, or all of the above. We can look at the beginning we have, that we’re feeling hopeless about, and ask what we’ve suggested in it. We know the end, but what else did we put in the beginning that we can use, that hasn’t occurred to us before? We can write notes, ask questions, make lists. Who are the characters? What can we do with them in the course of our story? How can we use the world we’ve hinted at? What do we have that will make our ending richer when we get there?

I’m with future_famous_author on developing exciting scenes to get us from dot to dot along our storyline. We can ask, What will be very hard for our MC? Is there a hint of this in our beginning? (If not, we can add.) Who will put her in this tough situation? How can we bring it about? Will she learn something, or fail to learn?

I like the rule of three, which I’ve talked about here. It’s used repeatedly in fairy tales. The evil stepmother in “Snow White” tries three times to do in Snow White and seems to succeed only on the third attempt. Cinderella goes to three balls. The wolf blows down two houses before he comes to the third, the brick house. We can consider how we can bring three tries at something into our story.

Each try can be fleshed out. At each of Prince Charming’s balls, events happen; characters behave characteristically; feelings may be hurt; unforgettable things may be said. What’s wrapped up in each ball can fuel the rest of our story. The evil queen may spend days figuring out her next ploy, while Snow White compulsively replays the last one in her mind, and the dwarfs whisper among themselves about how best to protect her.

Since I find plotting so hard, I like to have something external I can follow, one reason I use fairy tales, which provide steps to get me where I need eventually to go. I elaborate on the steps and turn each one into dozens of pages or more. Right now, I’m writing a version of the Trojan War. I start with the moment when Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy but curses the gift so that no one believes her. The story runs through the incidents that lead to war, the war itself, and ends soon after the Trojan horse deception. Those steps are laid out in Greek mythology, so my job is to drape my own, new story over them. This is another strategy for finding our way from our dynamite beginning to our great ending.

Here are three prompts:

• Take one of the famous beginnings above, preferably from a book you haven’t read, and use it as a starter for your own story. You can copy it right into your first draft and then insert something else or cut it when you revise. Or–you’d need to check on this–you can keep it and acknowledge the source in a note or an Afterword. Think about the problems the beginning hints at. Write notes and lists about how you can use them. Imagine an ending and write your story.

• Look at headlines in a newspaper, in print or online. Do not read the articles that follow, at least not yet. Pick one and make it the beginning of your story. Think about the issues it raises and the characters you’ll need. Imagine an ending. Jot down three or more events that will get you to the end. Write the story.

• Imagine the three little pigs are three human sisters orphaned in a kingdom after their parents, the duke and duchess of Mewks, have died. These young women are rich and they don’t get along, so they each set up a separate establishment. But they’re all threatened (you decide how) by the evil Baron Spythe. Write a story about the choices they make and how they all come together in the end to defeat the mustache-twirling Spythe. (You don’t have to give him a mustache!)

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

And:

Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!