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Plotting Your Book, Made Easy with Ryan Zee & Cameron Sutter SPF #263
As a novelist and playwright, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Almost every writer I know gets this question, and I think we all feel the same. Ideas are never the problem. That’s the easy part. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part, the magic part, is turning the idea into a polished, final manuscript.
The writing process varies wildly from author to author. Some write extensive, detailed outlines. Others sit down with an idea and write scenes on the fly. A number of writers fall somewhere in between, while they may not outline, neither do they sit down and write completely organically. They might write a synopsis or outline a chapter in advance.
The various combinations of these methods all work, depending on the writer and the project. There is no “wrong” way to write a novel. The “how” a writer works isn’t why their manuscript sells or doesn’t sell. The primary reason an author’s work has not yet sold is a lack of craft.
People who lack craft skills rarely sit down to write a novel. Or if they do, they can start, but never finish. Or if they do finish, they don’t rewrite. Or if they do rewrite, they quit after a single pass. Or, if they do continue to rewrite, they aren’t aware enough of craft to recognize the flaws in their own work. You get the picture. The problem is the writer stops too soon.
As a writing coach—I do one-on-one manuscript critiques as well as teaching workshops—there are some fundamental issues I see repeated in early drafts, over and over. These same issues show up in my own work, and probably on some level, in the early drafts of every writer out there. So the first thing aspiring writers can do to increase their chances of writing a successful manuscript, is learn how to identify these problems.
The first is a lack of clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes. It’s not enough to have a dead body to write a mystery. Someone has to investigate the murder. The person investigating the murder has to need to solve the crime. If they don’t need to solve the crime (objective) there’s no tension about the investigation. If the solution doesn’t matter to the investigator, it won’t matter to the reader.
The sleuth also can’t solve the crime easily, that’s not dramatic. Various impediments (obstacles) have to appear, one after the other, to prevent the protagonist from catching the killer. The more the investigator has to overcome, the more satisfying to the reader when they do.
Lastly, it has to matter (stakes). For example, the protagonist with an internal struggle, coinciding with their investigation, is far more interesting than someone who simply goes through the motions of solving a crime.
The more important solving the case is to the protagonist, the more dangerous or difficult the journey, and the greater the importance to find the guilty party, the more invested a reader will be. That’s what keeps a reader turning pages.
Complex protagonists will also have personal objectives, obstacles, and stakes to go along with their investigation. For example, a crumbling marriage, a child in danger, or overcoming an addiction are common tropes within the genre. When we know an investigator has to choose between catching a killer and saving their marriage, the stakes are high and we breathlessly turn each page waiting to see what the character chooses.
Another common error I find is a lack of structure. All stories have an underpinning structure. While there are variations to that structure, for the most part, especially in crime fiction, we start with the world as we know it, which is disrupted by a specific event, followed by rising action, where events pile one on top the other, each more important than the one that went before. This ends with a climactic scene, with the maximum danger to our hero or heroine, followed by a glimpse into the new world order for our characters.
If any of these parts are missing, the story can feel unfinished. For example, if we don’t have some sense of what the character’s life was before the intrusion, we don’t know what they are putting at risk. The “world before” can often be well hidden, it might not appear in the first chapter, but later in reflections the character makes as the story progresses, but usually a reader can identify it if they look for it.
The middle of a manuscript might falter if a lot of exciting things happen at the beginning, then nothing exciting follows. Rising action is important, because it builds dramatic tension, making it impossible to put the book down.
Lastly, an ending can feel unsatisfying if we have no sense of the outcome. Readers don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but they do want the primary threads to be resolved enough to know what the character’s lives will be like after they read “the end.”
Dialogue can also be difficult to master. One of the most common problems I see is when authors have their characters say exactly what they feel and exactly what they mean. That doesn’t ring true. People lie all the time. We lie because it’s expedient, it benefits us in some way, it keeps us from hurting others, or we don’t want to get in trouble. We rarely say what we mean, we obfuscate, we dither, we agree out loud when disagreeing feels like a mistake. Dialogue works best when each character speaks distinctly from the others, through word choice, sentence length, grammatical accuracy, and the use of slang.
If a writer can identify just these specific problem areas in their own writing, their next draft will be a much tighter, more polished manuscript. It can feel overwhelming to try to identify and fix all the issues I’ve outlined at one time. My recommendation for writers is to choose one aspect and rewrite just for that. Heighten the stakes in one rewrite. Focus solely on dialogue for the next. Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can make each rewrite a more successful venture. This will help the writer get through a series of rewrites rather than attempting one and feeling like the mountain is too high to climb. My final piece of advice. Don’t give up. That’s the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one.
For fans of Julia Keller and Sheena Kamal, All We Buried disturbs the long-sleeping secrets of a small Washington state mountain town.
Deep in the woods surrounding the Cascade mountain range, a canvas-wrapped body floats in a lake, right in Elizabeth “Bet” Rivers’s jurisdiction. Bet has been sitting as interim sheriff of Collier after her father’s–the previous sheriff’s–death six months ago. Everyone knows everyone in a town like Collier. She has made it her duty to protect the people she’s come to see as family. And she intends to hold her title in the upcoming election, but she’s never worked a murder investigation on her own before and her opponent and deputy, Dale Kovac, isn’t going down without a fight.
Upon unwrapping the corpse, Bet discovers the woman is from out of town. Without an identification, the case grows that much more puzzling. Determined to prove herself worthy, however, Bet must confront the warped history of Collier. The more she learns, the more she realizes she doesn’t know the townspeople of Collier as well as she thought, and nothing can prepare her for what she is about to discover.
I can’t say that setting is any more or less important to historical fiction than any other genre as every genre has its conventions. What makes or breaks a novel is how deft an author is at conveying the expected milieu. In that, historical fiction can be unforgiving. Readers who love this genre already know their history. Beware the author who doesn’t check her facts for she will suffer the slings and arrows of critics who remind her that sycamores are an American tree and potatoes come from the New World. For the record, neither of those were my errors but I have heard from readers protesting facts that in other genres would be deemed unworthy of comment.
In historical fiction it’s not enough to be comfortable with the details of your chosen time period. You also have to get that information from your brain through your fingers and into the book in a way that doesn’t stop the flow. For me that requires writing out all the details I think I’ll need for a particular scene, say a meal in a merchant’s house. How many tables are there and how are they set? What’s on the floor? Where are the windows, if there are windows? Is there a newfangled chimney or is there a central hearth? What colors/designs are painted on the walls? What
furniture might there be besides the tables? Is there crockery? How does it smell? What sounds fill the air from nearby homes or their own workshops? Are they close enough to hear the bells from the nearest church? Are there regraters outside in the street selling goods? Is the neighboring merchant shouting out to passers-by about his wares?
Once I’ve answered those questions, I go back and tighten, tighten, tighten, eliminating this, shortening that, until there are just enough details to describe the scene without slowing the action. This is very hard to do for someone who writes history textbooks disguised as novels to educate unsuspecting readers. I want to share every cool fact I’ve learned. To protect my readers, I employ this mantra: “If I love it, take it out.”
I would say very. The historical backdrop is almost like a character in itself. Readers love the details and historical trivia. Otherwise, you might as well stick to a contemporary setting.
Rhys: for me setting drives many of my stories. NAUGHTY IN NICE. TIME OF FOG AND FIRE. Etc etc
And it’s important to get every detail right. I read biographies, accounts of battles, diaries, study old maps.
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!
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