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Structuring a story is a challenge that writers meet in one of two ways: either they outline diligently before they write so much as a sentence, OR: they fire up the word maker and see what happens. The former are called plotters. The latter people are called pantsers and I am one of them.
The difference between the groups lies in how comfortable a writer is with chaos. To write is to literally visit a foreign land. Plotters like to have an itinerary. They know where they will be in the morning, where they are eating lunch, etc. Pantsers wake up and walk out the door with nary a thought for the day. Plotters attempt to impose control. Pantsers attempt to maximize experience.
I view writing as a discovery process. It lets me explore the characters, their interactions, the plot and setting. It lets me feel the story. I’m frequently surprised by what occurs, which leads me to more character driven, organic stories. For plotters, the outline process performs the same function. The end result for both groups is a story that is thematically and narratively coherent.
For me a story begins with either a situation or an image. If I see an image then it is usually the climax. Seven men on a sailboat in the Pacific. One of them is trying to sabotage the boat, everyone knows it and everyone is on edge. If I have a situation, it is usually the inciting incident. A dying billionaire wants to read his obituary so he fakes his death.
Why my brain works like this is not something I think about. I believe it is churlish to be picky about how one receives inspiration. One does not find a ten dollar bill on the sidewalk and get upset it was not a twenty. Inspiration is a gift.
Next I figure out the bones of the story, a.k.a. structure. Authors use story structure because it is how people’s brains and hearts respond to narrative.
In the first act, the character sees a flaw in the normal world and ventures into the unknown to fix it. In the second act, the character faces myriad challenges to create a solution to the problem. In the third act, the character braces for a final showdown to win the prize and restore the normal world. This template covers everything from Star Wars to Liar Liar and all points in between.
After being bit by the “I’m going to write a book” bug, I blazed through five months and 113,000 words to create two separate stories. All the time I spent was filled with excitement and enthusiasm, feeling my ‘muse’ on my shoulder cheering me to the finish line.
As it turned out, I realized I was in a race on a very long course, not a drag strip. Completing the first 2 eBooks was just the beginning. As I wrote those stories, each chapter I completed filled my head with new ideas and plot twists for the follow-on story.
After completing the second story to my second trilogy (that’s another by itself) I took the leap and decided to go the self-publish, print-on-demand route by placing my completed work on CreateSpace for all to hold if they so choose.
Unfortunately, while my artist and I struggled with a formatting issue on one of the covers, my ‘muse’ decided to take a nap as it were, without permission. I still had pages of notes and plotlines to work through on my fifth WIP, but my desire and motivation had left on the heels of my ‘muse’.
One thing I do to escape is to listen to music, and this is what I turned to in an attempt to coax my ‘muse’ to return. Thankfully I have an abundance of instrumental music to dive into, and so for several days, actually weeks, I would sit and listen, staring at the proverbial blank page of MS Word in the hopes something would jump out and stick.
My other trick I used in the past, and once again in this case, was rereading my previous work. After writing 3 individuals ‘chapters’, I create a new file allowing me to consolidate what I’ve completed. After this is done, I continue to add my completed pieces until I exceed my word count or page count, whichever comes first.
I’m happy to say, this works for me, but for others, I’m sure they have their own methods, tricks and secrets. In the end, it all comes down to one think, Keep Writing!
By Anthony Harrison
READ THIS FIRST
Today is a writing day. This is about word production. Start at the beginning then go in chronological order. When finished, put the word count in the title. Change the icon to something awesome like a star or something.
STARTUP: Keep a legal pad handy for notes.
-What’s my goal for today’s writing session?
-Word count by 15 minute increment.
-Doubts about my character.
-Doubts about my fictional characters.
-Doubts about the direction of the scene.
-Questions about the next scene.
-Any other interrupting thoughts.
Then at the end of a writing session:
-What did I accomplish? Yay me!
-What should I do before next writing session?
-What will I write next?
-Review these notes before the next Day’s writing.
NOW CRUMPLE IT UP AND THROW IT AWAY! YAY!
KEEP IN MIND WHILE WRITING:
-Why do I love writing?
-What is my story about in a paragraph?
Act 1 is a bitch.
It took me 2 years to write Act 1 of my recently completed WIP Winded Embers. It took 7 months to write Act 2.
Act 3 took less than a week.
Act 1 seems daunting because there are multitudinous variables to organize and implement. You must answer questions like: What does this character want? Why does he want it? Who is in his way? Why?
I’ll stop now lest I begin sobbing. You will revise so breathe.
That is just what comes from the story. Never forget, humans are pre-fabricated with self-doubt and anxiety. This is extra true for creatives who must essentially get naked in public. Accusation and questions will flood you while you write.
What if I suck and have to re-write the entire thing? Wow, am I screwed up for writing about this? Who am I going to offend by writing? Worse, I am not going to offend anyone? Am I writing garbage that doesn’t mean anything?
In my experience (limited though it is) stories tend to come more easily when unimpeded by Writer’s block. Industry secret: Writer’s block= personal problems.
Here is my advice on surviving the production of act 1.
–Create a positive writing habit (more on this in “go Analog”).
–Recruit allies. Writer buddies can shut down your self-doubt and make you work better. There are some questions you cannot answer about your own book. Knowing you have beta readers creates a mental toilet for the questions you can’t answer. “Is my character relatable?” I have Betas for that. ::FLUSH::
–Go Analog. never underestimate the power of paper. Physically setting down a noisome idea is underrated. Nothing gets rid of negative thoughts like a pad of paper. Little in this world is as satisfying as crumpling said thoughts and winging them across the coffee shop into the waste basket. I’m just sayin’
Below is my warm-up. I needed it while writing Act 1. KEY: This worked for me. Use what works for YOU!
Now go write and be awesome, you writer you.
Ames Karas candor.amykaras.com
Thanks so much for having me here, Benjamin! It’s a privilege. One of the things that many writers struggle with is how to begin their stories. And that’s not just a problem for new writers, either. Even very experienced writers can find that first bit of a story to be a challenge.
There are lots of different ways to get started, and no one way is ‘the right way.’ So, I can just share the approach that’s worked for me. I write crime fiction, and, most of the time, that means that at least one character is going to get killed. The thing is, though, that most of us couldn’t imagine taking a life. So, if a story’s going to be believable, there has to be something about the victim that gives someone a compelling reason to kill.
That’s one reason I start my stories by introducing the victim in some way. I want readers to get a sense of who this person is (or was). Then, I hope I can convince them that this is a plausible murder victim. Starting a story with the victim also gives me the chance to make that character seem like a real human being. This, I hope, invites the reader to engage in the story.
I’ve used different strategies to introduce the victim. In my first two novels, the first sentence of the story takes us into the victim’s life. Here, for instance, is the first sentence of B-Very Flat:
‘Serena Brinkman smiled as she took a deep breath of the crisp October air.’
The next sentences place Serena on the campus of (fictional) Tilton University, where she is a student. Then, she encounters other characters, and readers get a sense (I hope) of what her relationships with those characters are, and why she would become a victim.
In my second two novels, the victim’s basically dead before the story really starts (although in one, the victim dies in the prologue). Those novels begin as the victim’s death is discovered, and the police, as well as my sleuth, Joel Williams, start to ask questions. That approach lets me offer the ‘hook’ of a murder case to the reader, and still lets me introduce the victim as the case is investigated.
There are, of course, lots of other ways to start a story and invite readers to engage themselves. Some crime writers introduce a story with the sleuth. Others start with a particularly compelling setting or incident. I do it by introducing the victim, but there really is no one ‘correct’ approach. As long as the story gets the reader’s attention, that’s what matters.
Thanks again for hosting me, Benjamin!
Thank you so much for letting me stop by for a visit on your blog. I love to talk about books and writing.
Writers usually fall into one of two camps, plotters (those who plan, plot, and outline before writing), and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Plotters know the path and the plan to get to the end. Pantsers go where the characters and story takes them.
I am probably a hybrid of the two, though I lean heavily on the plotter side. I plot everywhere. I jot ideas on sticky notes and on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook in my purse for plotting emergencies. I have outlines, character biographies, and color-coded storylines. I keep a chart of all the places and characters. I describe them to the nth degree. This is also helpful if you decide to write a series. That way, my character’s eye color or the color of her kitchen doesn’t change in a later work.
I also use this to take care of my urge to write backstory. I put all the details in this document. Some of the information will never see the light of day, but it keeps me from overloading the story with too much history. Backstory or historical details are better sprinkled in throughout the work.
After my major plotting, I’m ready to start writing. And that’s when the pantser raises its head. I always decide I like a minor character better than another, and sometimes the story takes a tangent. In my first novel, Secret Lives and Private Eyes (May 2016), I planned to keep one character around for the series to create some tension. But as it turned out, I liked another character much better, and his role took on a life of its own. So, without spoiling the surprise, character two is around for book two.
After the plotting and the first draft, which my friend Mary Burton calls the “sloppy copy,” I am ready to revise. This phase takes me the longest. I can write pretty quickly once I get started, but it takes me forever to reorder, change, and revise. And what I think is chapter one during the writing stage, never ends up that way in the final, published version.
I try to write every day, but it doesn’t always happen. I work full-time in IT, and sometimes the only thing I wrote in a week were performance evaluations and budget recommendations. Life gets in the way. I’m much happier when I stopped beating myself up about writing and hitting daily word counts. I write when I can. I binge write. I get up at 5:00 AM and write or do my social media promotion before work. I write at lunch. My coworkers tease me when I write in the cafeteria (but they always want to know who dies in the next book). I write a lot on my days off, weekends, and holidays.
You need to decide what works for you and create your style. It is harder to pick up your writing after you’ve been away for a while, but you need to balance your writing with everything else in your life. The best advice that I’ve received throughout the years is to be persistent and keep writing if you want to be published.
Heather Weidner, a member of SinC – Central Virginia and Guppies, is the author of the Delanie Fitzgerald Mysteries, Secret Lives and Private Eyes and The Tulip Shirt Murders. Her short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series and 50 Shades of Cabernet. She has a novella included in To Fetch a Thief (November 2018).
Heather lives in Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers, Disney and Riley. She’s been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew.
Some of her life experience comes from being a technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, IT manager, and cop’s kid. She blogs at Pens, Paws, and Claws.
Private investigator Delanie Fitzgerald, and her computer hacker partner, Duncan Reynolds, are back for more sleuthing in The Tulip Shirt Murders. When a local music producer hires the duo to find out who is bootlegging his artists’ CDs, Delanie uncovers more than just copyright thieves. And if chasing bootleggers isn’t bad enough, local strip club owner and resident sleaze, Chaz Smith, pops back into Delanie’s life with more requests. The police have their man in a gruesome murder, but the loud-mouthed strip club owner thinks there is more to the open and shut case. Delanie and Duncan link a series of killings with no common threads. And they must put the rest of the missing pieces together before someone else is murdered.
The Tulip Shirt Murders is a fast-paced mystery that appeals to readers who like a strong female sleuth with a knack for getting herself in and out of humorous situations such as larping and trading elbow jabs with roller derby queens.
Website and Blog: http://www.heatherweidner.com
Pens, Paws, and Claws Blog: http://penspawsandclaws.com/
Amazon Authors: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00HOYR0MQ
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