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!

The best-laid plans of mice and writers

Just want to mention before I start how much better and better the help keeps getting that writers have been offering one another here. Such a pleasure for me to read. Kudos to you all!

This is a continuation of the last post. Here’s a rerun of the question: On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

What followed was an exchange with Christie Valentine Powell, which I didn’t post last time. Here it is now:

Christie Valentine Powell: Does it need to be a specific outline? Many “plotters” I’ve talked to have a rough idea, maybe up to a page, of where things are going, but not a precise blow-by-blow description. I’ll have the story broken down into big sections, but without a ton of detail. That way I know where I’m going but I’ve still got room to play (like giving yourself extra time on the vacation for exploring new places).

Another thought: I’ve heard of the Snowflake method, a type of plotting that works for some people. You might give it a try.

Lady Laisa: I don’t know if I’ve tried your way yet. I have tried a very vague outline, just two or three paragraphs to explain the basic “shell” of the story, if you will, but that wasn’t enough detail. I didn’t know what my character’s short term goals were when I did that, and goals are, I’ve found to my dismay, a VERY big part of a character. I just have a really, REALLY hard time figuring goals out (if anyone has anything to say about character goals I would like very much to hear it).

So when you say that you have your story broken down into sections what do you mean? Like “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Final Solution” sort of thing? I’ve never really tried that, but I could see how it might work.

I do like having elbow room to give some room to spontaneity. Tolkien himself had no idea that Strider, when he wrote him into the scene at the Prancing Pony, would end up being such a pivotal character.

But if I have too much elbow room the plotless expanse stretches before me like an open prairie, and I feel like a rabbit trying to reach his warren and knowing full well that at any moment a hawk might swoop from the sky to devour him.

Christie Valentine Powell: I have somewhere between five and ten sections. The book I just finished (er… mostly) is a quest, so it included different geographical regions. The next one I’ve outlined are more story-related (something like this: Exciting Opening, World Building, Character Building, Betrayal, MC character growth, Exciting Climax, Resolution). I’ll have a few bullet points under each of things I think I should cover. When I’m writing and getting closer, sometimes I’ll stop and plot out the next section more clearly–either on paper or in my head: “Okay, this is the Hanan region section. I’m going to start with the characters sneaking into the city, then they’ll meet some humans who tell them how to find the heir. How can I do that in an interesting way?”

With goals, I think it might depend on your story type. For my quest story, it was pretty easy. For most of the book, the driving goal is trying to find the true heir (although the very beginning and very end have different ones). For my first book it was harder and changed more, and I feel like it’s not quite as good because of it. I imagine a more realistic or character-driven story would be less cut-and-dry–which honestly is one reason I haven’t been able to write that kind of story.

Trying to outline is tedious for me, too. In fact, I just googled the snowflake method that Christie Valentine Powell mentioned, and I got so bored reading about it that I fled the site before finishing. However, the method may work for you, so check it out. When I outline, I always long to start writing scenes. I have a short outline for the novel I’m working on now, but I rarely look at it and rarely change it based on what’s happened in the writing.

I do often use fairy tales as the taking-off point of my plot, and they help me find my direction. Usually, it’s the flaws in the tale that shape my story. In the original “Cinderella,” for example, the eponymous heroine is passive; evil is done to her, and good is done to her. She doesn’t do much except what she’s told. So, I wonder, who is she? Why is she so obedient? Why doesn’t she strangle her step family, or at least ignore them? I get to work to figure out why. The answers shape my plot.

That’s one strategy: use a known and problematic story. Yours can be a fairy tale, too. Or a myth. Or a story in the news that seems incomplete. How was that bank chosen as the robbery target? Why that museum? Or, how did the art forger get her start? (If we’re going to do this, we probably want to invent our answers–although research can help us frame more questions.) Moments in history that seem inexplicable can generate ideas. We’re likely to find character goals when we start interrogating our story.

I agree with Christie Valentine Powell that the quest is a great plot shape for seeing one’s way through. I love when I can frame my story as a quest. But the quest sometimes needs to be set up. Ella’s quest doesn’t start until after her mother dies, because she’s protected until then. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Addie’s doesn’t start until Meryl gets sick. In The Wish, Wilma’s doesn’t start until she finds out her wish won’t last forever. However, Aza’s in Fairest is with her in the beginning, but changes later on.

Before the quest in Two Princesses gets going, Addie has different objectives, which vary from scene to scene. Then the objectives narrow when Addie tries to save her sister, but still, some scenes call forth another response. In Fairest, Aza wants to be pretty or at least not ugly. That’s her character’s goal. If she achieves that or conclusively fails to, her character arc will be resolved, or so we think. But the story has other ideas, and the solution is different.

I’m suspicious of the idea that we have to think up our characters’ goals ahead of time, before we start a book or write a scene–at least for us pantsers or partial pantsers. A few years ago, I used a car service to go to a kids’ book event. It was late at night, and the driver hit a deer, which caused a pretty big jolt. If I had been plotting the scene in advance, I would have given myself, the caring person I believe myself to be, the first objective of making sure I was okay, then the driver, the car, the deer–the important stuff. Actually, my first goal turned out to be making sure my laptop was intact (granted, it was obvious to me that I was still alive). The driver (uninjured) was impressed with how cool and unworried I was. Sure–my laptop hadn’t been damaged. Not really cool. My priorities were haywire.

The funny part is that I used the car service because I hate long distance driving, especially at night, and I realized that if I had driven I would have been miserable but I (probably) wouldn’t have totaled a car, injured or killed a deer, endangered any human or laptop–because I would have made the trip during the day, when most deer are snoozing.

When I planned out the trip, the real-life equivalent of outlining, I didn’t expect deer accidents. I didn’t pack human or vet first-aid supplies.

Let’s imagine a chase scene. Our MC is pursuing the major villain through a forest, desperate to catch him. He’s armed and more familiar with this place than she is, but she’s more fleet. She’s focused on what’s about to transpire. We, the pantser writer, are thinking along the same lines, but something pops into our head and we act on it. Birdsong penetrates our MC’s concentration–not any birdsong, the distinctive call of the elusive purple nightingale, which hasn’t been heard since her grandmother’s time. Without thinking, her feet slow.

(Either the reader already knows that in peacetime our MC is an avid bird watcher, or we jump back fifty pages to slip that info in.)

In that foot-dragging moment, her body has one objective and her brain another. We can go a lot of ways from here. She can goad herself even more and take after the villain again. She can stop to enjoy the bird, justifying the delay according to her character. The villain can hear it, too, and also be entranced. Or he can realize she’s stopped and use her slowness to his advantage. Or any other possibility we may come up with.

If I were a committed, happy outliner, I probably would have built this surprise into my outline. I would made the delightful bird discovery earlier in the process and would have had fun figuring out the repercussions.

In my opinion, pantser or outliner, the complexity of the bird improves the story, even if it complicates the goals. And we are likely to learn something about our characters from the surprise. Maybe our MC realizes how important wildlife is to her and how it needs to be part of her plan to save the kingdom. Or maybe she discovers something about her villain that will help her–or vice versa!

Regarding me and my laptop and the late-night accident, I was forced to see how intrinsic writing is to me. My work was backed up. If my laptop had been destroyed I would have lost no more than a few new pages and, possibly, some money, but I reacted as if much more had been at stake.

I hope this is good news for those of us who worry about advance planning. Whether we’re pantsers or outliners, we can’t expect total control of our stories or ourselves. We can go with the flow. I don’t know what my characters are going to do or want until I get into the moment. Something may crop up that I haven’t seen coming, and that’s what keeps the writing un-tedious.

My mantra these days seems to be Relax. Don’t sweat. No worries., which, if repeated at fifteen-minute intervals all the way through a story, may be the key to finishing. Near the beginning of the writing, when we’re either outlining or writing notes and lists (my method), or writing the first few scenes and getting to know our major characters, we can speculate about what might be a satisfying (not necessarily happy) resolution. The answer can be vague: come into herself as a leader; be loved; be safe; find the treasure; rescue somebody. We don’t have to know how the resolution can be achieved. Then we can let our subconscious work for us. While we’re writing scenes, it will keep an eye on the goal, and–I really believe this–create a path to get us there.

I don’t mean this is easy. With my Stolen Magic I had to swim upstream and downstream and start again three times for over four years. But I did get there, and I guess I did my flailing about in the spirit of exploration.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Lady Laisa asked Christie Valentine Powell about sections in rough outlining, so let’s use the first two of hers and two more of mine: “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Accommodation;” and “Part Four: The Terminus.” Use these suggestive headings as a bare-bones outline for your story.

∙ Write the above chase scene with the birdsong.

∙ Cinderella’s fairy godmother from the original tale arrives to help Cinderella go to the ball. Just as she’s about to wave her wand, have someone else come in. You decide who and write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plan or pants?

Before I start the main post, I’m re-posting part of a question capng asked in comments on the last post: I’m worried that if one of the minority characters dies, readers will read too much into it – I’ve seen enough criticism on the internet because of things like that.

Yesterday I wrote this and I don’t want it to get lost, because people have stopped checking and it’s important: I don’t think we should pay much attention to what we read online about what’s good or bad in writing. We don’t know the person who said whatever it was or what his motive was–or how good a writer he is! I don’t know any rule about killing off or not killing off minor characters. It depends, as it always does, on how it’s done and how the death fits into the plot. One of the things I adore about this blog is how positive and encouraging we all are.

On to the post.

On April 17, 2015, Hypergraphia wrote, I know, Ms. Levine, you said you didn’t outline. However, I know of many famous authors who swear by it. What about you guys (other readers of this fabulous blog)? Do you find it easier to finish a story with or without an outline? Does it make your story better? I hadn’t outlined until I read all these things saying it was much better if you did outline, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me, so I was just wondering what you guys thought.

Kaye M. repeated the question: I’m reading WRITER TO WRITER now, and I’m curious to hear what Mrs. Levine thinks about the benefits of pantsing over plotting. I’ve always outlined because I have friends that outline religiously, but sometimes, especially if it’s raw in my head and not a revision, I feel like I’m bleeding out my enthusiasm for the story and trying to commit the colorless remains to paper. Other times, I try to get by without it and I realize that there are parts missing or I worry about my stakes being high enough. Does this mean I should try pantsing?

People kindly weighed in.

Tracey Dyck: It all depends on the writer. I know of excellent writers who outline (extensively or sparsely), and also excellent writers who “pants” everything (meaning they make the story up as they go along). Both kinds of writers are equally capable of pulling off AMAZING books.

I myself tend to fall into the outliner’s camp, but I don’t plan so thoroughly that I know everything that will happen. I like to leave some room for creativity. My outlines are never set in stone. For shorter projects, I plan much less and end up halfway pantsing it, but for the 4-book series I’m working on… let’s just say I would be entirely lost without my outlines! So I guess it depends on the project as well as the writer.

Song4myKing: I agree with Tracey that it’s different for different writers. That seems to be the way with any art.

I outline. I find I have to know that there is a possible way to reach a good ending before I can actually begin writing. Basically, I figure out and write down what the main plot points will be, and I have in my head at least some idea how I’ll get from one to the next. Sometimes this takes the form of possible chapter titles or a rough timeline.

I do go through a bit of a (very unorganized) process in my head before I can figure out an outline. I compose scenes and try out various directions that I then keep or kick out. I wonder if those of you who don’t use an outline do a bit of that same processing while actually writing?

carpelibris: I’m a pantser. I’ve tried to outline, but it quickly goes astray.

From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of my favorite writers are pantsers too. I wonder if that’s common?

This subject fascinates me! I’m always interested in better ways to write, and I love to hear what other writers’ processes are. I want to know what people do to get past the bumps that trip me up.

We may not have free will when it comes to outlining versus pantsing versus falling somewhere in the middle. Our method may choose us. I’m like carpelibris. I’ve tried to outline. I’ve asked writer friends to explain their outlining procedure. I’ve listened, nodded, even taken notes. But when I try to follow their example, I get confused and bored. I itch to try my ideas out in scenes. On the rare occasions when I have managed to work up an outline, I inevitably and quickly discover that I forgot some major factor that unhinges it, and I veer off into uncharted, pantsy territory.

However, I’m not a total pantser. Even without outlining, I’m happiest if I’ve got a notion of my story before I start writing, and I like having an end in mind, although it may change when I get there. It’s possible that I retell fairy tales because they give me a sketchy outline, and they’re generally pretty simple, so I can embroider and go in fresh directions while still sticking to the original story shape.

I’m delighted to announce that I finished the first draft of the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which took me only about nine months. Contrast that with four-and-a-half years for Stolen Magic. The difference is that I imagined the prequel as Rapunzel meets Moses (just part of the story of Moses) while I made Stolen Magic up from scratch–and got lost and made a few very foolish story choices.

It’s possible that some genres lend themselves more to outlining than pantsing, and the mystery, which Stolen Magic is, might be one of them. I’m speculating here, but a mystery, or a complicated one anyway, calls for more moving parts than, say, one of my adventure fairy tales. In a mystery we have to figure out the movements of not only the villain but also the suspects and the victim. Everyone has secrets, and we have to get interested in them all. It’s complicated. Maybe an outline, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, can more easily be followed to reach an ending.

And conceivably a simpler plot works better for a pantser. Take “Sleeping Beauty,” for example. Nothing to it. The pantser has only a few plot points she has to hit, which gives her a sense of security. She has to get the fairies to the christening, but she can have a grand time bringing them there and delving into what’s going on with any and all of them beforehand. At the ceremony, she can have a field day with the dialogue. When Sleeping Beauty sleeps, what dreams does she have? Who is the prince and why does he take on this quixotic quest? And on and on.

I’m with Tracey Dyck in that I, too, doubt that whether one outlines or pantses influences the quality of a book. Quality comes from word choice, plot, characters–all the elements we go into here.

Kaye M. asks if it’s better to pants or to plot, but everybody has to plot. The difference is plotting ahead of time versus plotting as you go.

I agree with Song4myKing that outlining for outliners is a lot like writing for pantsers: exploration, uncertainty, experimentation.

Each method has difficulties. Years ago, I listened to some classes taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University that had been taped and made available for free online, which some of you may find interesting. I did! Here’s the link: http://brandonsanderson.com/creative-writing-class-lectures-updates/. He discussed differences between pantsers and outliners, and I think he said he falls mostly into the outliners’ camp. The difference that I remember is that he said that pantsers love to revise and outliners do not. Wow! Revising is my favorite part of writing. What outliners love, if I remember right, is plotting, and plotting makes my head want to explode, though I do it, and I happen to be a plot-driven writer (rather than character-driven).

A while back, I had a conversation with the young-adult writer Walter Dean Myers on the subject. I’ve mentioned this before, because it astonished me so much. He was (he died last year) an outliner and as far out on the spectrum as possible. He told me that by the time he finished an outline, he knew how many sheets of paper to put in his printer for his draft, and he knew exactly how many pages would be in each chapter. I concluded that he and I had grown up on different planets. He wrote a book about his method, Just Write: Here’s How! I read it, and was glad to have someone else’s method mapped out for me, although I continue to stumble along. You may find it useful.

Whether outlining or pantsing are better for finishing stories, I’m not sure. Pantsers have written here that their stories peter out into tangles and loose ends. Outliners have commented about getting bored. Outliners may need to blow up their plans a little to get excited again, and we pantsers may benefit from imposing order on the chaos we make.

I can’t recommend this from personal experience, because I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard from other writers that it’s helpful. I’m talking about Scrivener, described by Wikipedia as a word processing and outlining program for writers. Scrivener isn’t free, but if you’re comfortable with technology, you can download a similar public (free) program. Does anyone on the blog use Scrivener or anything similar? What do you think?

In these two prompts I may be setting you up for failure by asking you to go against your usual method and maybe against your nature. If you’re enjoying your story but the process keeps getting in your way, abandon it. But first give it your best shot. Here are the prompts:

∙ This can be realism or fantasy: A young man is walking along a cliff with a friend when he falls off. His death is the basis for your mystery story. If you’re a pantser, write an outline for the whole tale and then write the first scene. See if you can stick to your outline. If you’re an outliner, don’t outline, just pants the first scene, although you are allowed to think ahead about how the story might end, but you may not write anything down. If you’re inspired, keep going.

∙ Write a prequel to “Snow White,” that ends with her stepmother ascending to the throne. If you’re an outliner, don’t. If you’re a pantser, do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Plots and subplots

On October 5, 2014, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I’m on the fifth draft of my novel (oh the joy of calling my work a novel!) and I think I’ve lost my way. Originally the story was simple–boy likes girl, boy writes anonymous letters to girl, girl gets in trouble because of boy, girl hates boy, boy saves girl. Okay, so maybe not that simple, but now it’s really complicated. There are multiple perspectives, half a dozen more important characters, and another subplot. With all this extra stuff, the stuff that made up my first draft now only takes up a quarter of the novel. Part of me thinks that all the extra characters, subplots, points-of-view, and stuff should all go, but the other part of me really really really likes all the characters I’ve added. 


So do I cut out all the stuff in an attempt to recapture the original magic of my story? Or do I leave it all in and re-write the story from scratch for the third time and embrace the new magic of my story? Any suggestions?

Most stories follow one or two MCs, who have goals, who face problems, who overcome for a happy ending or fail for a tragic one. But exceptions abound. An example that leaps to mind is the novel (high school and above, I think) Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read decades ago, and which follows multiple characters. The problem of the story, the founding of Israel, doesn’t belong to just one or two MCs, but the struggle unites the narrative.

So that’s one way, a connecting thread. If we look over our story with its octopus tentacles of plot and POV, can we find or devise a problem that unifies everything? Suppose that overarching issue is the romance, and let’s call unsocialized homeschooler’s boy Rafe, and girl Stella. Our other POV characters are Stella’s sister, Pauline; Rafe’s best friend, Tom; Stella’s ex-boyfriend, Oscar; the principal of their high school, Ms. Quincy; and–oh, let’s mix it up–Mellie, Rafe’s cat, who, unbeknownst to everyone, has recently achieved human intelligence due to a freak accident with lightning one night when she got out of the house to go prowling.

Since our unifying problem is the romance, each character has to be invested in its success or failure. Let’s say Mellie, who used to have a happy social life with other cats, now finds her former friends dull. She’s miserable and wants to spread it around, so she’s trying to sabotage the romance. The reader is interested in how she goes about this, and also in whether or not she’s going to remain super-intelligent and whether Rafe is going to figure out her transformation.

Say Oscar, Stella’s ex, wants the relationship to succeed. He’s mad at Stella for their break-up and he thinks (rightly or wrongly) that she and Rafe will be wretched together. He’s moved on, but his new relationship is troubled. If he gets to a better place, he may be kinder to Stella, so the reader is caught up in his story, too.

You get the idea. The lives of these other characters work because of the bearing they have on the main event, and also because we’ve, naturally, made their personalities and their stories compelling.

Now I’m thinking of the novel, Hawaii by James Michener (again, high school and up), another book that I read as a young adult. It proceeds chronologically and tells the story of the islands, starting with the geological events that created them. The six sections are separated by time gaps. One is about the Chinese immigration, another about the influx from Japan, and I don’t remember what else. Each part, as I recall, is long enough to be a novella and to be satisfying, and each stands alone. I don’t think characters appear in more time period.

So that’s another approach, a chronological ordering. We can start our story in the past. Rafe and Stella can be the patriarch and matriarch, from whom everyone else descends. Their romance can be successful, but there’s a problem that succeeding generations have to work out.

A third way might be through theme. Now I’m thinking about Little Women. The MCs are sisters, which makes their coexistence in a story natural, but each has her own narrative arc. One chapter belongs to one, another to another.  They come together in the theme, which is growing up.

Love can be our theme in this example. The cat Mellie may find a turtle who was similarly storm-struck and whose intelligence was also enhanced. The two bond, and the reader experiences inter-species affection. Ms. Quincy becomes increasingly engaged with her job. She embraces the challenge of running a successful school (falling in love with her work). Oscar could be the failure. His new relationship founders, and his subplot is of love gone awry.

Writing in third-person can provide unity of voice, too. All of the books I mentioned are in third-person, but I don’t think that’s a necessity. Variety is fun for the reader, in my opinion.

Going in a different direction, however, we can decide that some of our subplots, new characters, and POVs deserve their own stories. We can split them off and give them their day in the sun. If we do, we may be able to be more expansive with them and not have to cram their problems into a story that belongs primarily to others (Rafe and Stella).

I’m painfully aware that I sometimes over-complicate my plots, and the result is that the tension flags. Then I have to slash and burn to get things rocketing along again. Many of us may struggle with this.If this is happening in your story or in unsocialized homeschooler’s, simplifying may be the only answer.

To go back to unsocialized homeschooler’s question: I can’t say whether she should cut back, embark on draft number six, or find some middle. Here on this blog we don’t mind writing again and again to get it right. The point is to create a sense of continuity.

Here are four prompts:

• Little Women is old enough to be in the public domain, which means you can fool around with it and not worry about copyright infringement. It’s possible that there’s more to Jo’s story than Louisa May Alcott was able to cram in with all the demands of the other sisters. Write a story about Jo that isn’t in the book. You can even make her an only child if you like. Then go on and write separate stories about each sister. You can also write one about Laurie. If you’re inspired, each one can be a novel, and the result can be a series.

• Write a story about Rafe and Stella and the others with the overarching problem being their romance. Add or subtract characters at will. Try it in third person and then in first from more than one POV.

• Write a story about them using the chronological approach. Rafe and Stella are the founders of the family, and they set up a mystery that succeeding generations have to resolve. Each secondary character can be the MC of a generation, or two of them can exist at the same time. Don’t forget Mellie the cat!

• Treat these characters thematically. Their stories are united by a common theme, which can be love or anything else.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fresh plots for sale

On July 5, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, How can I come up with original plots? I’ve searched up on the Internet, and I know that you should write the story you want to read, but I’m sick and tired of reading books on quests, rescuing, riddles, forbidden love, escaping, or revenge, though it seems like all books and stories and plots fall under these categories and more. But I want my plot to be more enticing to the readers that read it and to myself. I want it to be new, original, and unique. 


I do like quests and escaping an evil enchanter etc., but its so common. How can I accomplish this?

This reassuring response came from Michelle: I think that perhaps the reason that these topics are used so much is because they’re popular. For many people, these adventures are so exciting and suspenseful that they never get boring. Of course, the success of a book depends on its author. If you feel bored with these topics, don’t use them. There’s a good chance that readers won’t be interested if you’re not.


Write about what you think is interesting. As for the uniqueness, I don’t think there is any advice to give. It’s a hard question. But, I do think that every plot, even original plots, have piggybacked off others at one point or another. If you like quests and an escaping evil enchanter, ponder those topics. And eventually, ideas will come. Good or bad, they always do. By the way, if you’ve done research on the internet, this means you’re a serious writer. You have an imagination. And if you have an imagination, there’s nothing to worry about.

On my bookshelves are two books about plot, bought a long time ago, probably out of desperation. Interestingly, I just looked on Amazon and discovered that neither author seems to ever have published any fiction!

The point of one of the books, which is similar to Michelle’s comment, is that there are only a few possible plots. I agree with Michelle and the book on this: a limited number of plot types. But character possibilities, situations, settings, are limitless. Complete originality may be impossible, but uniqueness is inevitable. Except for plagiarizing, no one writes exactly the same story, comes up with the same dialogue or identical characters or identical anything.

We all, I think, have dreams for our stories; we hope that we’ll create a marvel, which we may actually achieve. But not by concentrating on wished-for greatness. Once I sit down to write and start spinning my tale, I need to put those hopes aside to concentrate on my words and my story. If I think about how stupendous I want my book to be, I freeze. Guaranteed.

Having said that, as an example of pretty significant originality, I’ll put forward The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which I just read, and which won the Newbery in the 1950’s and is, in my opinion, a tour de force in plotting. It’s too young, I’m pretty sure, for almost all of you who read the blog, and it may seem old-fashioned. But I recommend it highly, because it has a lot to teach us about plotting, and I’m sure I’m going to learn from it. There’s little at stake, only persuading two storks to nest in the Dutch village of Shora (so it’s a quest plot), but the tension stays high, and DeJong varies carrying out the quest with astonishing ingenuity. Repeatedly, when I thought the problem was solved, he came up with something new to keep me reading. Besides, it’s a charming book, and, here and there, throughout are marvelous brush-and-ink drawings by Maurice Sendak. If you do read it, or if you already have, I’d love to know what you think.

Athira Abraham, sounds like you may be tired of the kinds of books you usually read. Maybe your writing would be re-energized by reading outside your usual preferences. I don’t know how old you are, but when I was in high school I went through a phase when I read mostly nineteenth century Russian novels, and then I moved on to other kinds of novels. I also read a lot of plays, and several were by George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain is another favorite, and he’s so unsentimental that he’s cleansing. I adore A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Or, in the world of young adult literature, I admire the work of Virginia Euwer Wolfe boundlessly, and my favorite is The Mozart Season. Short story collections may be useful too, because you come across a lot of plots in a single book. A librarian or a knowledgeable bookseller may have more suggestions.

You may already know all these books and authors; you may read short stories regularly, but the point still is that stepping outside your usual preferences may give you new ideas and may suggest approaches to plot you haven’t tried before.

Another source of unpredictable plots is life, where the unpredictable meets the random meets the intentions of people. They combine and recombine, and we find meaning. We shape what happens to us into story. We can use family stories as the basis of our fiction. I’ve mentioned before that my book Dave at Night is an invented version of my father’s childhood in an orphanage. Tucked into the story are fragments of truth and the real-life personality of my dad. Soon I’m going to start reading another book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, my ancestors among them. I’m hoping to find a true story I can fictionalize, because something that really happened often has a surprising shape. You may find something in history that you’d like to turn into a story. Or a piece in the news. Or something that’s going on in your community.

When I think about turning fairy tales into novels, I look for leaps of logic, anything that doesn’t make complete sense, which usually leads me to exploring my characters’ motivations. Why does the prince fall in love with the maiden in “Toads and Diamonds”? What’s up with the cat in “Puss ‘N’ Boots”? Why is he so willing to help a master who was about to eat him? The answers usually take my plots in surprising directions.

In The Wheel on the School, author DeJong uses not only his characters, but also the weather, the dike (since this is Holland), and a bell tower to twist his story.  Oh, I hope you read it! As we write, we can think, What else can I bring in? What’s handy in my story that I haven’t exploited yet?

Here are two prompts:

• Begin your story with the achievement of a quest. The magic statue has been found at great cost. The heroes and heroines are celebrating, and it all falls apart. The statue doesn’t do what it was supposed to, or someone drops it, and it shatters.

• Here’s a little germ of an incident from my girlhood, which you can use as a story seed. A friend and I read a book in which the heroine’s name was a variant of the name of another one of our friends. We announced to her that she had to go by that nickname from then on. I won’t say what followed. That’s your story. Think conflict. You can go small and keep the tale to the confines of the friendship. Or you can widen it. You can imagine that the three are members of powerful families (as we definitely were not!), and more people get involved. Whichever route you take, the point is that, since it derives from reality, the story is unlikely to follow a predictable path.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lost in Story Land

First off, a message from the sponsor (me): Amazon is promoting The Two Princesses of Bamarre e-book with the low low price of $1.99. The promotion runs until August 5th.

Now for the post. On June 19, 2013 Athira Abraham wrote, I have a problem. With the story I’m writing, I haven’t created a plot but I want to because I don’t want to be lost in my story. But at the same time, I don’t want to create a plot because then I’ll have no fun writing it and will get bored. But without no plot, I’ll end up nowhere. Please help!

This generated a big response.

unsocialized homeschooler wrote, Athira, I have this problem a lot. Some of what would be my best stories disappear forever because each time I plan it out, it gets really boring.


First, are you sure that if you don’t create a plot you’ll end up nowhere? Sometimes the best plots and stories come together when you just wander around in the wilderness of your story for a bit. Maybe you should try writing it freestyle with no idea where the story is going, and see where it takes you. Because, if plotting out a novel makes it boring to write, why do it? (Okay, I realize that logic isn’t very sound, and there are hundreds of authors who will tell you that you have to be bored with your writing for a while to finish it–But that seems a little pointless and ridiculous. Write because writing is enjoyable, fun, creative, and all that good stuff!)

And Caitlyn Hair wrote, I plot my story in segments. Maybe that would work? The one time I tried plotting out the whole thing I ended up so far off my outline that I had to redo it anyway. 
I usually do three big chunks: beginning, middle, and end. I usually go off my outline by the time I get through those too, but not as badly. By outlining a little at a time I can incorporate the ideas I come up with while I write and not stress about it not fitting in to my plan.

Elisa chimed in with, Athira, do you have a favorite scene? In one of my stories-to-be I created a random scene where my heroine completely neglects the guy who traveled across two countries and 892 hundred miles to beg for her hand and leaves him living in a tent outside of her moat. I built a story from that. What I picked up is that she was independent and headstrong, also a little mean. Figure out your characters, then make more scenes. Do this, and then figure out how to link the scenes together. That’s how I set up plots for my stories. If you’re basing it on a fairy tale or something, it’s easier, because the plot’s already laid out.

Finally, Jenalyn Barton contributed this: I have two suggestions. My first is to just go with it, see where it takes you. Then, when you’ve finished it and know where it ends, go back and rework it so that your plot better fits where you’ve ended up. This way of writing is fun, because something that starts out as random may become a major plot point.


My other suggestion is to take a look at your story idea and ask yourself, “Where do I want to go with this? Where do I want my hero(ine) to end up?” Once you’ve answered that, write your story, keeping your end in mind. This way you can have a game plan in mind without having to give up the fun of discovery writing, as Brandon Sanderson calls it. You’d be surprised at how flexible you can be even with some major points plotted out beforehand. But, when it comes down to it, it’s really up to you and what you’re comfortable with.

Wow! These are great! I agree with unsocialized homeschooler and Elisa that in art accidents often lead to great discoveries. I’d even say that without the looseness that allows accidents writing can turn out stiff.

And I like Caitlin Hair’s practice of plotting in big chunks, which I think may make the task manageable. We don’t have to deal with the whole thing, just this beginning segment. And we can start to ask ourselves questions. What will get the story started? Who am I dealing with? Where? I do something like this, but in smaller bits, when I plan my scenes out before I write them.

I’m also in synch with Jenalyn Barton’s suggestion that you imagine an ending and write toward it, as I usually do. In fact, the ending often comes to me as a package along with the idea that gets me started. For example, as soon as I thought of Ella’s curse of obedience, I knew that the book would have to end with the lifting of the spell, although I had no idea how that would be accomplished.

However, these comments come from writers who don’t do close, detailed outlining. I’m in that camp, too. Is there anyone out there who can weigh in about creating complicated plot outlines and staying excited when the time comes to expand into a narrative? What are your strategies?

Some of you know that it took me a very long time and a lot of wrong turns before I finally figured out Stolen Magic. So I resolved to plan out the next book before I started writing. And I failed almost immediately. After five or six pages of notes I itched to begin the story, which I did. I’ve written only two pages, and now I’m revising a manuscript for my editor, and it will be a while before I get back to it, but I’ve been laughing at myself. We may gravitate to a certain process, in my case winging it, and be stuck with it unless something forceful intervenes, like an amazing teacher or a how-to book that we follow to the letter. Or a magic spell.

Getting lost in a story doesn’t necessarily mean disaster. When I get lost I often backtrack to the point where I still had my bearings and strike off again. Sometimes that point is 200 pages ago. I may repeat the confusion a few more times; still I’m learning about my characters and the final story shape. It’s possible I couldn’t have found my final book without meandering.

Both Athira Abraham and unsocialized homeschooler mention boredom. When I was writing the languages in Ella Enchanted, coming up with each one and figuring out how they sounded and looked on the page was fascinating, but once I had the scheme, inventing each new word was dull, necessary but dull. Other than that, when boredom sets in, it means I’ve gotten lost, and then I have to do what I talked about in the last paragraph. I don’t think boredom is required for finishing a story, although it may be a necessary sign that what we have isn’t working.

Here are three prompts about being lost. Of course, there’s a third possible ending to each beyond finding the way or being lost forever. A character can wind up in a better spot and not care about reaching the original destination.

• Take a true experience from your life of getting lost. Write about what really happened and how you felt and, if you weren’t alone, who said what.

• Now put someone you know in your place and fictionalize the memory. You may have to try out several people in your imagination before you find the right player. How would this other person handle what happened? How does the story change?

• Now make getting unlost much harder. Introduce obstacles, weather events, a villain. If you like, put it all in a fantasy world. Change your MC so that she becomes entirely fictional.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Thinking It Out

On September 26, 2012, Courtney Arzu wrote, I’m an extremely young author…But I would like to know how to set up a story/novel. I can begin a story but I can’t seem to finish because I haven’t thought it out. I don’t know what I’m going to do, what the main climax is going to be or how I’m going to end it. I just wanted to ask: What “outline” would be best for creating the plot? I’ve tried multiple things, but I always end up writing halfway through and get stuck at my mid point. I don’t like writing blindly but that’s the only way I seem to know how to do. I have extreme difficulty with plot, supreme extreme difficulty and was simply wondering what to do.


I’ve read your only Planning one, and I don’t seem to click with it. I’m an odd one. As I’m so young, and just trying to kick start myself into writing. I have been telling stories since I was able to talk and I love it. I read everything I could get my hands on. By nine years old, I was in adult fiction. It wasn’t enough. I started to write my own stories, yet I could never finish one because writer’s block would poise itself in the middle of a sentence somewhere.


When I’m writing, I write tons but when I’m not, I have no ideas. A story of mine has fallen into the humor category simply because I’m filling space. I’m going to go back and edit it out but I haven’t a clue how to plan ahead. It’s a bad trait of mine and I do hope I’ll figure it out but to me the light is way at the other end of the tunnel, a couple hundred miles and I can’t quite tell if I’m going to get there before a train comes barreling in my direction.

Courtney’s question spurred this response from Maia: I started loads of stories and then never finished them b/c the plots got too complicated and I couldn’t see where they were going…so before I even start writing now, I write out the entire plot using bullet points. It’s very useful – it keeps you on track but isn’t so strict that I can’t add things here and there and often stories have taken off by themselves outside the confines of their structure.


The light in the tunnel is nearer than you think, and fortunately trains don’t happen along very often.

And this from writeforfun: I always force myself to write a roughly one page summary of the story before I start writing, because once I’m writing, I have to know where I’m going. If I can’t write the whole summary, including the climax and end, then I think about it and write an idea for an ending, even if it’s a bad one, so that I have a road map for what I’m writing. Some things will change, but that helps me a lot. Just a suggestion.

These are great suggestions – planning tips for people who don’t completely outline. But if you’d like to learn one approach to really outlining, you might enjoy Walter Dean Myers’ book Just Write: Here’s How.

I don’t outline, but I usually have an idea of the ending, and I write toward it. Often the golden coin of the ending is clutched in the fist of the beginning. The beginning introduces a problem, which the ending will solve, one way or another, happily or not. In Ella Enchanted the problem of Ella’s curse is introduced in the first chapter, and the end is right there, too, the lifting of the curse, or if the book turned out to be a tragedy, the certainty that Ella would never be free. What I wrote in between were instances, as Ella’s life progresses, of the burden of the curse, her attempts to save herself, and the life she manages to live while her suffering goes on (the budding relationship with Char, her friendship with Areida, the continuing support of Mandy).

So we can look at our beginning and ask what problem it’s posing, and then what the possible solutions are. Say we start with an alien invasion. We need to ask lots of questions about the aliens until we discover what the central question is that the beginning is posing. Are these good or evil aliens? How much more advanced are they than we are? What are their intentions toward us? Let’s say they’re neither evil nor good; they’re traders, and we have something valuable that they can trade. Say it’s lumber. They want our trees, and they have marvels to give us in exchange, but we need our trees, too, and yet the marvels are tempting. Some powerful people will make enormous fortunes from the alien goods if we do trade. Now we have the problem, and the ending is sewn up inside it: whether or not Earth will be stripped of trees.

Suppose we decide that the planet will keep its trees. That’s the way we want it to come out. How are we going to get there? Who’s going to be our MC or our MCs? Who will represent the aliens? What other characters do we need? From this we can build our summary. And then we can start working out scenes.

A fascinating but disturbing tale of an alien invasion is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which takes the alien theme in a surprising direction. It’s a book for adults but if I remember right it should be fine for kids twelve and up. Check with a librarian to be sure.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you know I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. I set off without much more than a beginning and a dim idea for the end. I’m familiar with the kind of distress that Courtney describes. The difference between us is experience, which may be annoying if you’re just starting out. Sorry! I’ve gotten through getting lost before and I’m pretty sure I can do it again. I cobble a story together from the threads I follow, and then in revision I tighten and tighten. So part of the solution is tolerance for your own writing style, which may be organized or may be messy. And another part may be tolerance for imperfection. First drafts are not supposed to be good. Good comes later, in revision.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve been working on a book based on the blog, which I just sent off to my editor on Monday. Much of it comes from the blog, but some I wrote for the book. Below is part of a plotting chapter. Although bits may be elsewhere here on the blog, I think at least some is new, and if not new, it all bears repeating:

Try writing a short summary of each scene that you have on an index card, then spread them out and move them around, out of their original sequence. You can even bring in scenes from other unfinished stories. Edgar in your old story can turn into Garth in the new one with a few personality adjustments. When you think about the characters, do you see new threads that connect them? Does one scene suggest itself as a fresh beginning? Another as the end? If, after rearranging, your story flows except for a few scenes that stubbornly don’t fit in anywhere, you can cut them but save them in case you find a use for them when you revise or in some future project.

If you discover that the cards move you farther along but then you bog down, you can lay them out again starting with the point where you got stuck – you don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning.

And here’s a plot exercise you can do in your notes that comes from What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (most of this book is fine for kids, but a few chapters aren’t, so before you use it, show it to a parent). You can use this technique on a new story or an old one. If this is a new story, whenever you’re not sure where to take the story next, ask yourself, What if? and write down five options for directions the story might take. Be wild. Be carefree. Anything goes in notes. Don’t even look at what you have till you’re done.

It might go like this: My MC is at a party and feeling all alone. What if she sees a framed photo of her long-lost brother on the mantelpiece? What if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening? What if she decides the party needs livening up and starts singing? And so on.

Now look over your list. Suppose two options appeal to you. Write a paragraph about each: what it would mean for your story, how it would take place. Pick the one you like best and return to your story. When you reach the next story decision point, ask What if? again and repeat.

If you write five possibilities and none pleases you, write three more or five more.

In an old story that you’ve given up on, ask What If? after your last sentence. If that spot doesn’t yield anything interesting, go back to a point where the story was still burning in you and ask the question. When you find a new path, start writing.

If you find them helpful, use the plotting strategies above for these two prompts:

∙ Write the story about the aliens who want our trees.

∙ Write five more What if?’s about the MC who feels alone at the party. Then write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Destination unknown

On July 12, 2012, Lizzy wrote, …I had started a short novel a bunch of months back off of an idea that I couldn’t keep in my head any longer. For the first couple days I wrote like a mad women, trying to get down all the ideas flowing through my head. Many pages later I slowed down and finally I stopped. I had come to a ‘dead end.’ I wasn’t out of ideas but the current idea I led off from made me realize something when I came to the ‘dead end,’ I had no idea where the story was leading off to! When I started writing I had a couple of ideas to some events which I wanted to happen but then I realized that I hadn’t really thought of any ‘main problem’ or climax, no real moral, and or no ending. It has been months since I have touched the story and I really want to get back into it. Should I edit up what I have, start anew or continue where I left? Have any advice?

I’ve been listening to Brandon Sanderson’s lectures online that Caitlyn recommended. This will soon be relevant for Lizzy’s question, but as an aside, the lectures are quite interesting although I suspect not complete, which makes sense, since students pay for the real thing. Quite a few are devoted to publishing, especially to publishing fantasy and science fiction. For those of you who are at that point you may find the information very helpful. Mr. Sanderson’s experience is more up to date than mine, since I broke in in 1997, which now seems an age ago. The link again is, www.writeaboutdragons.com.

Back to Lizzy. Mr. Sanderson describes two kinds of writers, those who outline and those who don’t. Those who don’t he calls discoverers, and I count myself in that category. We “discover” our stories as we write. The trouble is, we can get lost. We wander around and start over and over and over. (Outliners have problems of their own, according to Mr. Sanderson.)

Before I start writing a book itself I write notes, which is the closest I come to outlining, and the distance is still vast. Usually by the time I think I have a solid idea and often a vague notion of the end, a beginning comes to me and I plunge in. But because I haven’t thought the whole thing through I make disastrous mistakes. I call it getting stupid. I’ve mentioned here that I wrote about 140 pages of the new mystery while forgetting to include any suspects and then about 260 pages of the same mystery. This time there were plenty of suspects but the mystery couldn’t be solved. Sigh. I went back to the beginning.

In my mistakes, however, I generally find something that leads me in the right direction that takes me finally through to the end. It’s not efficient. Obviously! I’m always hoping that the next book will run more smoothly.

And some have. A simple story shape is easiest for me. I don’t mean a simple story, just the shape. If I can see the arc I can throw in complications galore and still see my way through. My historical novel Dave at Night has such a shape. Dave, an orphan, needs a home. Everything that happens (mostly) has bearing on that essential problem. In Ever Kezi is on a quest to find her future – pretty straightforward. Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.” What could be simpler? It was a blast to write.

So for Lizzy and others with our problem, I suggest you think about your story shape. Even the books I had trouble with, like The Two Princess of Bamarre, for example, became possible once I found my story shape, in this case a quest for the cure to the Gray Death in time to save Addie’s sister, Meryl.

Since you haven’t looked at your manuscript in months, you might start by reading through it. If you can resist jumping in, just think about what you have. Write notes. Ask yourself questions that will help you continue. Here are some question suggestions:

What’s the main character’s main problem? You may not know, so other questions follow. What are all her problems? Which seems the most significant, the one that can sustain a lot of spin-off problems, that suggests more events in your story?

Who is your main? If you don’t know, who interests you the most? For whom do you feel the most sympathy, care about the most? Whose company do you enjoy the most? (That doesn’t have to be your main, but most often it will be.)

If what you have seems like a hopeless mess, stop calling your story names! But is there something, some incident, bit of dialogue, thought monologue, that pleases you? Where might it lead? Is that your story?

What does your main want? What, among your pages, have you thrown up as obstacles to the achievement of her desire? What else can you come up with?

What would finally solve the problem, happily or tragically? What might three alternative endings be? Think of two more after that. Which satisfies you the most?

Imagine an epilogue (which you may not need when you get there). Who would be there? What would the mood be?

An organized person, reading this post, would likely roll his eyes and say, Why didn’t you ask yourself all these questions and answer them before you started?

Because discoverers don’t work that way. We throw out lots of bait and let our stories find us.

The answer to the questions Lizzy ended with may be obvious by the time you finish answering mine. If not, I have an opinion. If it’s possible to just keep going and not start over, I think that’s best, because it will get you quickest to the end and the pleasure of revising, since most discoverers love to revise. It’s our great strength – if we don’t get so obsessed that we can never release our story.

But if your fingers feel paralyzed and your brain turns to mush whenever you try to continue (this happens to me), then probably you need to start over. It’s what I do when I must.

Here are two prompts:

∙ An outliner and a discoverer meet at a party. They hit it off, find that they both love the same books and both are writing a post-apocalyptic fantasy. In a burst of mad enthusiasm they decide to collaborate, but when they meet to discuss what they want to do, everything starts to fall apart. Write the scene. Keep going for a story of friendship or love or hatred.

∙ Start with a chase. Irena is fleeing a creature with the body of a horse, the head of a snake, and the spiked spine of certain dinosaurs. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Pasten is in a mud wrestling contest with the champion from their rival village, who does not fight fair. And her sister is at home, surrounded by three men from the rival village. Sew all this together into a coherent story, asking yourself the questions I ask above.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Threading the Plot Needle

First, here’s a link to an interview with me: http://www.bookshoptalk.com/2011/09/interview-with-one-and-only-gail-carson.html. On the site you’ll find interviews with other authors and lots more for us bookish types.

And I heard something horrifying (in a writerly sense) on the radio in an interview with Patricia T. O’Conner, whose books Woe Is I and Woe Is I Jr. I keep recommending. She said that a question came in on her blog, http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/, a fascinating site, about the meaning of head nodding and head shaking. The questioner wrote that she’d (I think it was a she) had always thought a nod meant yes and a shake meant no, but lately she’d come across instances of the reverse. Pat looked into it and discovered that the meaning had shifted somewhat and the questioner was correct; sometimes a nod means no and a shake means yes. Aaa! Talk about shaking. My world is shook, rattled, and rolled. I’ve always used head nods for yes and shakes for no. Have I confused my readers? Have these neat, quick, formerly unambiguous gestures been taken away from me? And from you, too?

I don’t know what I’m going to do from now on, maybe ignore this bulletin from the front-lines of English usage and assume that most readers will understand my meaning. Or maybe make each nod and shake so clear no one can be mistaken, but, ugh, that will require extra words I didn’t need before. Anyway, I wanted to share the news with you because confusion loves company.

The interview moved on to naming places where a nod always means no and a shake always means yes, like Bulgaria and India, which is interesting, but not particularly worrisome.

Now on to this weeks question. On June 24, 2011, maybeawriter wrote, What’s driving me nutty is that I barely have any scenes for my main story, and the one or two I have are no longer completely relevant to my story. I think my problem is that my storyline keeps changing in notes, conversations and deep thoughts. Not that a changing storyline is a problem, but it’s almost changing too fast. And now I had this new, completely story-changing idea. And now my story is shattered and I have no idea how to put it back together and make something from it, something that makes sense and somehow involves my oldest ideas. Maybe I just have trouble letting go of my old storyline. And maybe I fear the blank nothingness of the unknown, of the ever-changing story where nothing is sure, nothing set in stone, nothing to keep this story, well, this story. If I change too much, is it still the same story, or something new and unfamiliar?

I love to get together with writer friends and talk about current projects because the discussion is almost always reassuring. I’m making up names here, not using real friends: Annabelle says she’s trashing her novel and starting over; she had to write the wrong book so now she can write the right one; this has happened to her before.  Randy says he hadn’t been able to write anything for two months but he wrote three pages last week and hopes he can keep going. Inga says she doesn’t know what her book is about fundamentally, which is making the going rough for her. I say I’ve started my novel over five times, once after writing 260 pages.

Nobody I know ever ever ever says, I sit down at the computer every morning without fail and pop out seven glorious pages. Isn’t writing the merriest occupation going?

No, writing is strange and inexplicably hard. It all comes out of our heads. Our materials are ideas, so why can’t we shape them easily? Why don’t they just chink into place?

They don’t, and that’s why it’s delightful to be with other writers, the only people who really understand. Maybeawriter, I don’t have a solution for you. What you’re going through is, in my experience, the writer’s lot. But I have a suggestion, which you may do already: when you’re most miserable, talk to other writers or read writers’ blogs or books about writing. I love the name you’ve given yourself: maybeawriter. That uncertainty is wonderfully honest about the writer’s state.

I glean two questions from you, one about scenes and the other about story direction. Scenes first.

Suppose we have a character, Mallory, who is starting a new school, say it’s magic sculpture school. Graduates create manikins that assist people in subtle ways, physically and emotionally. Mallory’s problems are that she’s brutally honest and has trouble taking criticism. Her strengths are her creativity and her sympathy. The major conflict in this story will revolve around these traits.

We need scenes to show Mallory in action. Where to set them? With which characters? Do we start by getting her in trouble in a small way and build or do we make it bad right away?

This is where I would begin to wander if I were taking this on, because I don’t know how to answer my own questions. Maybe I’ll write a scene with Mallory and her mother. Mallory has insulted her cousin, and her mother is taking her to task for it, and Mallory isn’t responding well.

But the action isn’t going to take place at home, so that scene won’t advance the plot. Probably I won’t use it. Still, I’ve seen Mallory in her home environment, which is informative. Now let me try one at the new school. In this scene we’ll see her creativity and her touchiness and we’ll introduce a character or two who may be important later on.

With luck this second scene moves us into the story and suggests scenes that can follow. Mallory antagonizes one of her teachers but interests another. A fellow student hates her; another falls in love with her. How will the teacher she antagonized react? How will the others? We temporarily forget our thematic ideas in the excitement of the detailed moment-to-moment writing.

Then we stop writing for the day. We walk the dog and ruminate about plot direction. Ideally our ideas support the direction we’ve started in, and sometimes this actually happens to me. But sometimes I anticipate problems based on what I’ve written. I think I need to go back to establish a new path ahead or I see a different route entirely, and I know that’s the way I have to go.

In an earlier version of Beloved Elodie, which finally is moving along, I had madness descend on Elodie’s island of Lahnt. Elodie’s mother is possessed by greed. She imagines herself as King Midas and has no regrets about turning her daughter to gold. It’s a disturbing and powerful scene, and I still love it for its power. I mourn giving it up, which I had to do to take my story in a viable direction. My tale isn’t what I started with, but now it’s one I can write. Maybe someday I can use the ideas in the mother-Midas scene and maybe not.

We have to go with what we can do. I’ve said before that I’m an unconscious writer. This is the way I see it: Our selves below the surface guide what we write. There are layers to that hidden self, which is why we veer this way and that, why the road through a story takes many detours. Although I’m often not happy about how long I need to meander to follow my story thread, I believe the added complexity serves our art. Maybeawriter, “the blank nothingness of the unknown” is where writers operate and where we shape our magic sculptures.

Here are three prompts about Mallory:

∙    Mallory is assigned to create a sculpture that will help a depressed eight-year-old boy. Write the scene in which she meets the boy for the first time.

∙    Write the scene I mentioned above in which Mallory alienates one teacher and interests another, causes a student to hate her and another to fall in love with her.

∙    Write a scene in which Mallory begins to create the sculpture for the boy.

Have fun and save what you write!

The Scene-ic Route

Before I start, you may not know this but June is National Audio Book Month. It’s also forty-two Other-Things Month, like Accordion Awareness, Turkey Lovers, Papaya (also September – greedy papaya people), Dairy, and, weirdly, Dairy Alternative. My favorite is Bathroom Reading. Really! Here’s the link: http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/diversityeventcalendars/a/nat-month-june.htm. See for yourself.

Back to National Audio Book Month, Random House is releasing a CD audio book of Dave at Night, and I was interviewed to promote the release. If you go to my website and click on videos, you can watch it. I like the interview and I’m thrilled about the release. Dave at Night is probably my least known novel and possibly my favorite. The reading is also my favorite of all my book recordings, so I hope the audio book finds lots of listeners.

Also, I missed an opportunity in last week’s post. I made up this passage: Marisette gizoxed down the previo at zyonga speed. If the ashymi didn’t boosheg, she’d find herself and the precious kizage in the boiling svik and all would be owped. But I didn’t think of mentioning “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll’s amazing nonsense poem from Through the Looking Glass. The poem is full of action that’s understandable and exciting and words that either have no meaning or an elusive meaning that we can almost grasp but not quite. If you don’t know the poem, I recommend it and recommend that you read it aloud after you’ve read it to yourself a few times. Here’s the second stanza:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now for the main post. On April 1, 2011, bluekiwii wrote, …I don’t have a problem with linking a few scenes together, but instead, have a problem with how the scenes fit in the grand scheme of things–in the overall storyline. I would have no problem linking two scenes together, but linking 4 or more scenes together that are very different from each other to form a cohesive story–an overall theme–is far more difficult. Still the entry gave me some food for thought. Should writers have a clear picture of what the story will be about or should you flesh out each scene, edit them to form a cohesive whole, and think of possibilities as it goes along? Personally, I want to have a good picture of what type of story I want to create, instead of spontaneously making random scenes with the same characters.

No two writers write alike, and the only wrong way to write is not to write.

I write consecutively for the most part, start to finish. Occasionally I’ll see a scene glimmering in the near distance and write it. But even though I write in order, I don’t have a clear picture of the story as a whole. In the case of the mystery I’m struggling through right now, I know the it will be solved but have no clue as to how, nor have I figured out who the villain is. But I have a detailed image of a moment at the end that will put the source of the story problem away forever.

Does this murkiness make me worry? Yes.

Some of my books have been easier to steer through than others, but my process is generally to hack my way across a plot jungle. Occasionally I climb to higher ground, but – murdering the metaphor – usually I can’t see the forest for the trees.

Meanwhile, I’m writing tons of notes, asking myself plot questions, sometimes confusing myself even more, sometimes gaining understanding.

I’ve recently been able to frame the new mystery, Beloved Elodie (although this no longer seems a fitting title), in my mind as a quest, a simple story shape that I’ve used many times and that I’m hoping will help me now. Elodie’s quest is to discover a thief, and my job alternates between throwing up obstacles and helping her out.

If you can see your story this way, as a quest, my strategy may help you too. You may not know what the obstacles will be, but you don’t have to, you only have to know that you’ll need to create them and then solve them.

I read somewhere that if you can’t express your plot in a few sentences it’s not working. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m sure that a simple story shape is easier to work with. I love simple story shapes, which may be why I go to fairytales for inspiration. The charm of a simple plot is that you can fool around, embroider, have a great time, and still rely on a straight course from start to finish. The occasions when I’ve understood the simplicity of my form have been my happiest writing experiences.

A quest is simple. Here’s another simple idea: Two characters hate each other, and the story is about their enmity and each one’s attempts to destroy the other. Maybe one character is bad and the other good, or maybe they’re both good or bad, or they’re both an ordinary complicated assortment of qualities. Three possibilities suggest themselves: one will defeat the other (a suspense story); both will be vanquished (a tragedy); they’ll come together and both triumph (a love story). Maybe this is a quest tale too, a double quest, one for each protagonist.

See if you can come up with simple story shapes you can use. Think of books you love and search for the simplicity. Hamlet can be seen as a quest for understanding, Pride and Prejudice a quest for balance. You can take these frameworks and adapt them. Probably you won’t have your hero addressed by his father’s ghost, but he could receive a mysterious communication about the death of a loved one. You can bring in false friends and true and a dastardly deed by characters who seem above reproach.

However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the scene approach bluekiwii asks about. I like books of linked short stories, the same characters, more or less, appearing in each story. Some characters grow and change, some remain the same. There’s no overall climax but there’s drama in each story. I come to care about the important characters. The end doesn’t have to nail everything down, just has to make me feel I’ve traveled with these people and we’ve had an interesting time together.

There may be another way to look at your scenes, other than as linked short stories. If you have a bunch of scenes that don’t line up, hunt for common themes. See if the conflicts repeat. Consider what your characters want. Is there conflict in their desires? If Quinn gets what he wants, will Wendy lose out? Who from all the scenes can be your main characters?

Try writing a short summary of each scene on an index card then spread them out somewhere. Move them around. Do they fall into a natural order? Does one suggest itself as a beginning? One as the end or, if not the absolute end, as coming late in the overall story? When you think about the characters, do you see threads? Can you find a simple story shape?

You can even bring in scenes from some of your other stories that haven’t worked out but seem like they might connect thematically to the new one. Edgar in your old story can turn into Quinn with a few personality adjustments.

Not that I’ve tried it, but this seems like a wonderful way to write a book.

Some prompts courtesy of Lewis Carroll:

∙    Alice In Wonderland is beloved by many but not me, and if you adore it this prompt may not be for you. In my opinion, Alice’s actions are random. She’s curious but never concerned. She has no skin in the game, which I believe makes it a book with plot problems. So write a scene for Alice, could be a new beginning for the novel or come from a later point, that gives her a problem and a reason to do what she does. Or choose another character and make him or her the main character of a story or a novel.

∙    Reread “Jabberwocky.” There’s a simple story shape if I’ve ever seen one. Flesh it out with detail. What’s the relationship between the narrator and his (her?) son? What’s at stake in the battle? Develop other characters. Turn it into a novel if you like.

∙    From last week, incorporate nonsense words into a paragraph or a poem. Max out on the made-up words while still letting the reader gain a sense of what’s going on. If you try a poem, remember that rhyming is a snap with nonsense words. Then, if you feel like it, post your results here. I’d love to see them.

Have fun and save what you write!