October Oops

          This isn’t the first time I’ve been surprised that it is Wednesday and I have no blog written. I think it might be the first time that I haven’t twisted my schedule into knots trying to write something at least a little interesting and helpful. This time, though, I really have no time. I have papers due, computer labs to finish, art projects and studying for mid-terms all vying for my attention. I’m taking 20 minutes to compose and upload this, then it’s back to doling out pieces to each of the screaming vultures devouring my time.

          In the course of writing a paper defining the term subplot for my English Composition class, I came across a website, Seven Story Plat Patterns, that might be useful. It’s written to those teaching children. Your first inclination may be to dismiss it or to be insulted. Don’t. When I homeschooled my children, I discover the best way to get a good overview of a topic was to get a children’s book on the topic. Although I did not use this site in my paper, it was a huge help in focusing the direction of my research and my writing. I hope it helps you, too.

         Off to feed those birds!

Writing and Publishing Tips from Angela James and Patricia Wynn

This past Saturday my local RWA chapter (Orange County Chapter in California) met. Our guests were historical romance author Patricia Wynn talking about combining history and mystery, and Carina Press’s Angela James talking about publishing in the digital age. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole day and thought I’d share some of the things I found most interesting.

PATRICIA WYNN
Though I don’t write or read historicals (except for the occasional regency romance) or mysteries, there were a couple of things Patricia said that struck me as useful in my writing.

  • She believes your story should grow out of the setting in such a way that it couldn’t happen just that way in any other place, at any other time. I started thinking about my superhero books and wondered if I’m doing enough with setting.
  • In terms of scene and sequel, Patricia said that if you have fewer and shorter sequels, you will increase the pace and the tension of the story.
  • Another thing that will increase conflict and tension is giving your protagonist fewer people to talk to and confide in. At first I thought, I’m not getting rid of Tori’s best friend or her sister. But then I thought, all I have to do is create reasons why she can’t confide in them, or can’t confide right away.

ANGELA JAMES
During Angela James’ talk, several topics caught my attention.

  • Authors need to understand their contracts before they sign them. (I strongly agree as a business person. I know several authors who couldn’t tell you what their royalty percentages are, let alone on what basis they are calculated.)
  • She wouldn’t suggest that an author already getting published by a traditional print publisher switch over to an epublisher just because of the better royalty rates for ebooks. There are many factors to consider, and there are still a lot of benefits in being published by a traditional print publisher like Harlequin.
  • It’s to an author’s advantage for the option clause in their contract to be as narrow as possible. You don’t want to sign something that sells all rights, in all territories, in both print and digital and in every form yet to be created, in perpetuity. Remember you are licensing your work, not “selling” it. (See the blog by Kristine Kathryn Rusch discussing both licensing and how writers are agreeing to be paid less than in the Great Depression.) Know what the term (length) of your contract is. Once you sign it, you’ve agreed to that deal for that length of time.
  • The greatest position of strength for either party trying to come to an agreement is their willingness to walk away from the negotiations. Know where you stand, what you’re willing to accept, and in what areas you won’t negotiate. Almost all contracts are negotiable, but not all sections of the contract are negotiable.
  • In answer to the question, “Why should I choose Carina Press or any other publisher over self-publishing?”, Angela smiled and said, “I don’t think all of you should.” She said some self-published authors have made it very clear that they hate to be edited. That’s one reason not to try to find a publisher – you’ll both end up miserable. Some people like the inherent control in self-publishing. Others like that a publishing house is doing more of the work (for more of the money) so that the author can spend more time doing what they presumably do best – writing. And she reminded us that there is still a lot to be said for a brand. Harlequin, Penguin, Random House (my list, not Angela’s) are still powerful brand names that people associate with quality books.

Angela’s talk gave me a lot to think about. I agree that there are more benefits to being published by a publishing house than self-publishing and doing all the work yourself. But I agree with people like Kristine Kathryn Rusch and J.A. Konrath who believe that there are better ways to pay for the services than to pay a large percentage over the life of the contract (which can be forever, depending on what you sign).

THE COST OF SELF-PUBLISHING
Self-publishing is expensive. I firmly believe an editor will help you write a better book. How many times have you heard an author say that their editor pushed them to make changes the author wouldn’t have made on their own, changes that made the book better? But many (most?) self-published authors don’t spend the money on quality editing. (I’m talking about both content/structural editing and copy editing.)

I expect to have to pay hundreds of dollars per book for the right content editor, and additional fees for a copy editor. I’m going to start paying someone to format my books as soon as I have some extra money to do so. Meanwhile, I have to accept the opportunity cost of doing the copy editing and the digital and print formatting myself: for every hour I am not writing, I am potentially losing money. And there are many more expenses that I have to pay for out of pocket as well.

It’s a difficult path I’ve chosen. I’d add one more reason to Angela’s list on why you should choose self-publishing over licensing your work to a publishing house: because you really get a kick out of creating your little business yourself!  🙂  That’s how I feel. And I think I’ll continue on my path as long as I feel that way.

Super Inspiring

If you haven’t seen SUPER 8, the new movie by J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, run don’t walk to your nearest cineplex! I’ve seen it twice now – the very first showing on the very first day with John in Sydney, and last night with my family and friends in California. In my opinion, it’s the E.T. of the decade!

One of the best things about summer blockbusters is that many of them tend to be movies that really inspire me to think of far more creative stories than I might otherwise come up with. Of course, sometimes they make me feel like I’ll never think up stories as awesome as these writers’ stories! 😀

Some of the things I learned by watching Super 8 include:

  • Make the young people as fascinating to follow as the adults. They might take over the story but you’ll be pushing your writing to a fresher level.
  • Think of other ways to tell the kind of story you’re writing. The “extra character” (I don’t want to say too much if you haven’t seen the movie yet) is not what I expected, but I was fascinated by the unexpected parts.
  • You’re going to capture your audience with emotion. Stephen King grosses me out. Dean Koontz scares me. Julie Garwood makes me fall in love. I have to remember to not just tell a good story, but to tell it with all the emotional complexity I’ve got inside me. (Plus, you’ll begin to be known for the kind of emotion you always deliver.)
  • Write something playful, entertaining, FUN! So what if I’m not going to be eligible for the Pulitzer Prize? I’ve always told stories (sometimes called “lying” when I was a little kid) because I wanted to hear people laugh or gasp. It’s the biggest reason I spend so much time talking! LOL!
  • And finally, “Drugs are soo bad!”

After seeing Super 8 twice (and already I want to see it again), I started thinking of different ways to tell the same story. You know, what agents and editors say they want – the same thing, but different. What if your vampire novel wasn’t about the vampire but another character who was affected but didn’t actually meet the vampire until the climax? What if your monster wasn’t really monstrous but so much more evolved and intelligent that it became monstrous out of frustration? What if your anti-hero wasn’t really an anti-hero, but someone working undercover who had to continue with the ruse to accomplish his or her mission?

Watching a movie like Super 8 might help you get a fresh line of ideas. I felt the same way after watching Inception and The Adjustment Bureau. Are there any other movies you’ve seen that have done this for you?

Character Builds Plot Builds Character

My husband bought me a t-shirt a few years ago that read: Plot Builds Character. I love it. But I tend to write based on my characters and what they’d do. So in that way, I guess I believe characters build plot. But the more I think about it, the more I think the most accurate way to describe how stories are developed is this: a plot action pushes a character out of his comfort zone and the character’s actions and decisions create plot actions and reactions which build character choices which drive the plot actions which force new character choices and actions which… etc.

I went to a two-day screenwriting workshop last week called Slaying the Dragon: Secrets of the Second Act, taught by Lynda Heys. I was afraid it might be just a re-hash of everything I already know, but I was pleasantly surprised. While there wasn’t much presented that I hadn’t read before (storytelling has been around for thousands of years, after all, and I’ve been studying it for fifteen years), I loved the new way Lynda presented it.

It was like she took everything I ever learned from Chris Vogler, Robert McKee and David Freeman (and everyone else who’s written a book or article that I’ve read on writing or screenwriting) and condensed it into a few powerpoint slides with pictures representing each stage of the journey. I hadn’t realized how much what I’ve read lately has focused on plot until halfway through the first day of Linda’s workshop when I thought, “Wow, that’s brilliant! We’re going back to character again.”

I don’t want to share a lot of details since Lynda teaches these workshops as part of earning her living. But you’ve heard a lot of it before – your character has a major flaw that came about as a defense mechanism to protect himself from his deepest fear, but he is also driven by a need that causes him to make plans (plot!) to achieve his goal. Okay, you’ve heard it before, but have you worked to make these points resonate in your story? I’ve seen a lot of movies used as examples in writing workshops, but this particular section is so well shown in Shrek that I urge you to go watch it again.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantster, whether you build your stories around your characters or around your plots, it can only do your story good to consider how your character’s choices affect the kinds of plot problems he faces, and how the problems affect and change his character.

Since getting home from this workshop I’ve been drawing all over my whiteboard and making all kinds of notes in my notebook. The two stories I’m working on are already showing signs of additional growth after only a few hours’ work. I’m excited to see what they will look like in a month!

So what kind of storyteller are you? Do you focus on the volcano exploding or on the heroic rescue worker?

Plot Pictures

Last week I mentioned that my friend Betsy suggested a technique she learned in a writing class. Her teacher had told the class that he likes to draw out what is going to happen next in the book to orient himself within the new scene. Betsy said he was a pretty good artist so his drawings really came to life there in the class. I can’t draw well, but the idea intrigued me enough to want to give it a try.

I have to write a new scene for my Thursday night class, so yesterday I sat on my balcony and thought about the scene I wanted to write. As I began to picture it in my mind, I drew the things that came to me.

I knew there would be two SUVs with four people in the first one and two in the second, and they would stop by the side of the road, near the woods. I drew the road, the direction of travel, the two vehicles with the number of people in each, the woods and the possibility of a fence (see above). I decided the police would come later, so I drew the police cars farther away. After a while, I decided the building would be a big three-story building hidden beyond the trees with the main entrance from the parking lot and a helicopter landing pad on the roof.

As I looked over my awesome looking plot picture <grin> I could visualize what my kinds of things my characters would decide to do to break into the building, and what kinds of things could go wrong. For instance, I decided that there was only one entrance, and it was away from the road, but there are half a dozen fire exits. I liked the idea of the helicopter pad even though I don’t know if I’ll use it yet.

After musing about the options while staring half-focused on the drawing, I began to see what I wanted to write. I turned over the page and began. An hour or two later – voila! – a scene was born!  🙂

Have you ever used a plot picture to help you figure out what to write? Did it help?

The Power of “Why?”

Today I met with my friend Betsy for hot chocolate and brainstorming. We’re both in our last semester of our Master of Arts in Creative Writing degrees, so we’re both working on our “final project” book. We’ve read a little of each other’s work over the last 14 months, but it’s not like being in the same critique group for years: we don’t know each other’s stories inside and out.

So it was with some trepidation that I started trying to explain-slash-figure-out my story in the back room of a nearby cafe. Twice Betsy said, “But why?” Why does the story have to be set in the future? Why do you need to have destroyed the government before the story begins?

I was getting frustrated because I didn’t know how to answer the questions (hence the world building brainstorming). I was too nervous to explain some of the reasons in my head because they sounded silly out loud – like that the second protagonist/mentor is an undercover angel. But my not explaining things was confusing to Betsy.

She finally stopped and said, wait, what did you want to brainstorm about, I’ll stop interrupting. But I saw the opportunity to really dig into the story (only because now I’ve had years of experience in missed opportunities), so I said, no, let’s figure out the answers to your questions. Maybe we’ll think of something fresh and new.

And in less than an hour, my dystopian futuristic fantasy that I knew very little about was suddenly a Kitty story. Not dystopian, not futuristic, but a world I could totally see in my head. I really knew the location now that we’d re-set it in Philadelphia, and I really knew the world now that we’d made it “now.” I understood the ways children could go missing and no one could find them, and I had believable reasons for how a secret underground group could exist in this small world we’ve created with our technology.

The story began to have my voice again. And that, perhaps, was the thing that had made me most nervous when I woke up this morning – it was a really interesting story, but not a Kitty story.

So now I’m sitting here with a glass of Australian wine, some Green & Black’s 85% dark organic chocolate, and episode 1 of several TV shows we own that have characteristics I’m interested in for my story. Oh, and an open notebook with a lot of writing in it. Life is awesome again.

What are you struggling to brainstorm? Can you try discussing your idea with someone who knows nothing about it so you can be forced to answer the question, why?

Tell us what you’re doing and what has worked for you!

Get Your Idea Ready

Every time I get ready for a writing push, NaNoWriMo or otherwise, I prepare differently. Each story is in a different place in my head and on paper, so I’m coming at it each time from a different angle. Nonetheless, I have some writing routines that work for me.

FRESH START

If I’m going to write something brand new, I spend the weeks before the writing push thinking about all my ideas and choosing one. Then I think about the characters and write down whatever comes to mind about them. Perhaps I’ll fill out parts of a character sketch or write some journal entries from their point of view. I’ll write down any plot points that are in my mind (usually as brief notes or bullet points). Backstory can stop me cold if I haven’t considered what happened in the past to make these characters behave this way, or if I don’t know how the situation got to this point, so I’ll brainstorm as much backstory as I can.

I had to come up with the beginning of a story “with magic in it” for a class assignment last week. I spent an hour or so sitting on the couch shuffling cards and thinking. I’ve found that doing something mindless with my hands frees up my brain to get creative. So I shuffle cards or crochet (only rows back and forth, not patterns that have to be counted). After a few minutes, I had an interesting thought. I wrote it down and continued shuffling. Another interesting thought. Wrote it down, shuffled cards. Then after a couple of those tangents, my brain started tying the thoughts together. I put down the cards and wrote all the pieces of backstory and reasoning on my paper. Then I turned to a clean sheet and started writing the story. (It was due, no time to waste!)

CONTINUING A NEWER IDEA

Often, I take time out to go on a writer’s retreat to work hard to finish something I’ve started. If I already know bits and pieces and/or have written bits of the actual story, I need to decide on one of two approaches that usually work best for me. Either I spend a lot of time brainstorming and making notes so I know the general path the book is going to take (a “plotter” technique) or I spend some time brainstorming how to get from the beginning to the first turning point, or about a quarter of the way through the story (a hybrid plotter/pantster technique).

I have to email at least 1000 words of my new “magic” story to my class by Friday night, and turn in 5000 words on that story in two weeks for a grade. I have enough of the backstory to understand the concept a little bit. I found out by writing the first scene that a girl who’s been involved in dark magic has to save her little brother and the only person who can help her is a scary guy involved in white magic. Now I have to take some of Shonna’s Wonder Wheel ideas and/or Stephanie’s Mind Mapping ideas and decide when and where the world is, who my characters are, what they want and what’s stopping them from getting it, and then figure out what the first few things are that will happen. (That’s the approach I’m taking to this story, the hybrid approach. Sounds more fun to me!) If you read Davis Bunn’s post from yesterday, the fact that I don’t have much time to do this might actually help me come up with some great ideas!

EDITING A COMPLETE DRAFT

Sometimes I come up on a big writing push with a complete or nearly complete first draft, and what I really need to spend my time on is editing it into as polished a second draft as I can make it. I have two books competing for this kind of time right now. I’ll work on one during my writer’s retreat at the end of the month, and the other during my summer break when school ends November 15. This is when my biggest strengths and weaknesses glow like a match in a dark room. I’ve been writing long enough to know what my main strengths and weaknesses are, so I’ll make a list and go through the manuscript looking for these areas.

For instance, I tend to not get all of the emotion on the page in the first draft. More of it is in my head than I realize, so one of the first things I’ll look for is emotion on the page. Description is often sparse in the first draft as well. I go through my list and, one by one, rework my known weaknesses until they aren’t noticeably lacking anymore.

One of my strengths is character humor. Someone (Donald Maass? Jim Bell?) said in a workshop that you want to spend your time polishing your strengths until you can’t make them shine any brighter. Readers will forgive your weaknesses if they like what you’re good at. Spend time trying to shore up or strengthen your weaknesses, but make your strengths really stand out.

HAVE FUN AND BE CREATIVE

Whichever method I use, if I look at the work as fun, I am far more creative. If I can’t think of what to do next in the plot, or what to change to make a character more interesting, I make lists of 10 and try to come up with crazy or silly or exciting or scary ideas. I try to act like I’m 10 when I’m brainstorming. I have to say, I really like the ideas that 10-year-old Kitty comes up with! She’s much more fun than adult Kitty.  🙂

Revising Plot–Scene by Scene

Two weeks ago when we were talking about the “big picture” Jordan Rosenfeld talked about taking a plot inventory to get a handle on what you have written. So I made a chart using headings that I’ve gathered from a bunch of sources:

 

(Set your page to horizontal and write these headings at the top of the columns.)

 

Scene #
Chapter #
 # of pages (or words)
Date /Time
What happened
Place
Purpose (question raised or answered)
Emotional affect on reader

 

You can make this chart even fancier by using the shading tool to shade the rows which indicated the various turning points, dark moment, etc. that goes into that big picture overview.

 

Once you’ve got a handle on the big picture, having a chart like this really helps as you examine plot at the scene level. Revising the entire manuscript is daunting, but taking it scene by scene seems doable. A chart like this even makes it easy to plan your day. Just decide how many scenes you are going to revise and work your way through it.

 

After doing my own plot inventory I think I’ve found a new way of looking at my short first drafts (gotta try this a few more times to test out my theory). I am a minimalist when it comes to a first draft. I basically write: this happens, and then this, and then this, and this is how it ends. Then I go back and beef everything up, usually doubling the size of the manuscript.

 

The WIP I’m wrapping up now started out as an unofficial NaNoWriMo novel in 2007. Kitty and Stephanie had signed up for NaNo but I didn’t think I could do it. So I wrote along with them for fun and ended up with a middle grade novel in 60 pages. Yeah. Minimalist.

 

Through multiple revisions I’ve changed the plot a little to make life more complicated for my protagonist. I’ve added descriptions and more dialogue so the reader can hopefully see what I’m seeing in my head. Since that initial draft I’ve added 100 pages. But, I don’t believe I have any extra scenes. No rabbit trails. All dominos. My new mantra.

Plot – Make It Resonate With YOU

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you read my post from last week “Digging for Characters,” well… second verse, same as the first.

When it comes to plot – whether coming up with the first draft, or going through it in revision – it needs to resonate with me, with my values and my interests. Shonna and I were recently talking about the romance novel I’m writing and I said I just can’t write about people who seem to hate each other in the beginning and then wind up madly in love at the end. It doesn’t ring true with my experiences, and it doesn’t echo what I would like to see in a fantasy about people falling in love. I could write it, but I wouldn’t want to write that kind of plot because I wouldn’t enjoy it.

As I mentioned last week, I love stories full of sacrifice and grand gestures and redemption from something awful. It can be on a large or small scale – I appreciate my husband telling me to pick the movie next weekend as much as I appreciate him telling me I get to choose our new apartment when we move. What I love is when someone does something for someone else because they love the person and care about their opinions.

This is important to me when coming up with a new plot. When I take someone’s advice for where my new plot should go just because they’ve been in the business longer and have a good business sense about these things, I tend to make a mess of the story. The pieces of the story are no longer from my heart, but are simply ideas that sell well. If it doesn’t come from my heart, how will it touch a reader’s heart?

When it comes to finding a “routine” for coming up with characters or plot, or revising them to make them ring true, I have to think about whether the plot points and plot twists resonate within me. If they don’t, no matter how “ripped from the headlines” they may be, I know I can’t make my writing resonate with the reader.

For instance, I have a book I’m still revising that has an evil villain doing genetic experiments on children. He also happens to be the biological father of the protagonist, unbeknownst to her at the beginning. He is evil, and it makes sense to get into the science and the experiments and the results. But I’m more of a relational person, so I wanted to know how he became who he is now, and does he have any regrets, and how does he feel about his children that he walked away from when they were toddlers, and how can he do genetic research on children knowing some of them die horrible deaths as a result. Even though I know intellectually that more of a hard science, investigative approach sells well, it doesn’t do a thing for me.

But when I started thinking about my own father, why he left, things he did, what regrets he might’ve had, the soft qualities he still had deep down as well as the harder qualities that were easier to see – well, my brain just starting going and going! Suddenly my villain, while still truly evil, had human qualities that anyone could understand.

If I were going to give you advice about how to write or revise your plot, I would say the most important part is finding something that fascinates you and makes your heart beat a little faster. Then go for it!

Building a Plot–A Guest Blog by Jordan Rosenfeld

In the competitive world of writing programs and the marketing end of publishing, plot-driven writing, often referred to by the glib word ‘commercial’—as if it is designed to sell you something—is sneered at. Literary writing—where ontological investigations of the self and existence flow out of characters in lyrical prose—is the glowing standard to which all writers are supposed to want to achieve, at least the ‘serious’ ones. So I’ve taken it upon myself to become the great defender of plot, that hapless device with the audacity to entertain, surprise and thrill readers (and without which, literature would be mighty boring).

 

Plots reconstruct, from the humdrum pieces of life, a far more satisfying matrix of meaning than we find in our daily lives. Why would we want fiction that is just like real life? A novel of my life would consist of endless tomes recounting my trips to the grocery store, diaper changes and a billion inconsequential moments of attending to the functions of the body and paying the bills. Most of us live a version of that already.

 

Plot is the engine that keeps your work alive. But that can be daunting when you try to find your way through a large or complex story you’re telling, or a simple but lovely one. I know lots of writers who get lost in the forest of plot they’ve created because they looked too far ahead and gave away the important stuff too soon, or took off on too many sub-plot paths. Relax, I’m here to tell you that plot is constructed in scenes.

 

Every scene is another mile of plot under your novel’s wheels. Which means if you run across a scene in your work that does not reveal new information, deepen characters, or take us a smidge closer to the mystery or problem at your novel’s core, you have a scene that doesn’t fit into the fabric of your plot and it’s time to take out the snippers.

 

What does it mean to reveal new information? Every scene must make the reader just a little bit smarter, but also hungrier for more. You must drop a clue, a revelation, an answer, a larger question, a motive, a sudden discovery, a new consequence and so on, or else you’ve just got a pretty little vignette.

 

When I revise for my plot, I work scene by scene, reading the last one I finished to see how the next scene plays off of it. I make notes to myself about scenes that don’t seem to fit the plot at all, and I ask myself, in every scene, have I revealed something new here without giving away the whole show?

 

Try it in your own revision and see if your plot doesn’t reveal itself like one of those holographic images.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a fiction writer, freelance journalist and editor. She is the author of the books, Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books) and Write Free! Attracting the Creative Life with Rebecca Lawton (http://www.writefree.us/). Jordan is also a contributing editor & columnist to Writer’s Digest magazine. Her articles have also appeared in such publications as, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, The Writer and more. Her book reviews are regularly featured on The California Report, a news-magazine produced by NPR-affiliate KQED radio.

 

Visit her blog: www.jordanrosenfeld.wordpress.com