Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Plotting of a Novel

Scott D. Parker

Would you read some chapters of my book? That was the question a co-worker and aspiring novelist asked me one day in the summer of 2005. To that simple question, I responded immediately, without thinking, with a question of my own: Sure, if you read some of mine.

Just like that, I started writing my first novel and faced my first major obstacle. You see, while my friend had already started writing his book, I hadn't written word one of mine. I knew I wanted to write a tale where Senator Harry Truman was the main character. I wanted it to be a secret history--that is, one that could have happened, but it just never made it into the history books.

A pause. How in the world do you go about writing a novel? This was 2005, way before I started a blog, way before I met the wonderful writing community on the web, and way before I had written "The End." I'm not entirely sure how I came to my plan of action, but came to it I did. I had been through graduate school in history and the grueling process of researching, drafting, and revising a thesis. I knew what I did for that project so I applied those same skills to novel writing. Before I wrote a single word of prose, I needed to know where the story started, what it did in the middle, and how it ended.

Thus, I became a plotter. And I decided to write the novel from front to back, beginning to the end.

Soon after that decision, I had a vision of a scene. It's a crucial scene in the novel so I won't give it away here. The details of this scene were crystal clear. I knew the basic players, but I didn't know how they got to that moment. So I made my next major decision: I would not write that scene until I got to it, chronologically, in the book. I would wait and arrive at that particular place and time with Truman and his partner, Texan Carl Hancock.

Notecards and Seeing the Movie in my Head

I know there is a substantial delegation of writers out there who do not plan out their novels. They prefer the immediacy of just writing and seeing what happens. I like that, too, but I do it with a stack of 3x5 notecards in front of me. For the Truman book--which ended up being called Treason at Hanford--I sat on the floor of my guest room, closed my eyes, and "saw" the book play out. Each new scene got one notecard. I numbered them in pencil because I knew they'd change. I labeled the main POV character, the other players in the scene, and an overview of the action. I underlined all names so it would be easier to see who's in the scene.

This worked for me because I was the first audience member for Treason at Hanford. Me just seeing the "film" of this book allowed me to live it, to get excited when the action picked up, to be curious when Truman and Hancock started asking the right questions, and terrified when some of the characters started acting out on their own.

Yes, that really happened. I'll admit that, at first, I had stock characters. Truman couldn't get hurt, obviously, so I needed co-stars whose fate the readers would not know. During the notecard/scene stage, these characters did just go through the motions. But something changed along the way. They came alive. They started moving and acting in ways I had not intended. And that excited me to no end.

Writing the First Draft

I got a bit impatient and couldn't wait to start the prose creation. Remember, I told my friend that I'd be giving him new chapters of mine every week when he delivered his own work. I had to bust out some pages. So, even though I hadn't mapped every single scene in the book, I knew enough to get started.

But when was I supposed to write? I had a wife, a child, two cats, and a dog. I worked full time and had other duties and responsibilities to attend. My commute was 45 minutes one way, so writing before work was out. I could write at lunch, but I usually chose to work through lunch so I could leave at 4pm and be home for the family at five. Dinner, play with the boy, and time with the wife took up most of the evening. Carving out the time to write was a choice that ended up being 10pm to midnight every night. And here's where the notecard idea paid its true dividends.

I don't know about you, but I'm a bit tired around 10pm. The last thing I wanted to do was stare at a blank computer screen with nothing to write. With the notecards, however, I knew exactly what to write: the one scene on the next notecard. The notecards, by this time, were thumbtacked on a corkboard so I could see the flow. I colored coded the names of the characters so I could visualize how many chapters it had been since a particular character's last appearance on the stage.

Every night, I took the next notecard and wrote that one scene. Often, it took the full two hours because I let the scene wander around a bit. But each scene had to end at certain way. More than once, a character would raise their meta-fictional hand and inform me that they had more to contribute to the story. I listened and, in that first draft, I put it all in. Editing was what came later.

This notecard-per-night thing worked wonders. I gave me a singular focus for those two hours: one scene. If I blew through it and still had an hour left, I might start the next one but only if I could finish it. I didn't take Hemingway's advice of stopping a writing session in the middle of a scene.

For all the power of the notecard, there was still one more fundamental thing that helped me get over the hump.

Deadlines and the Power of Peer Pressure

Every Wednesday, my friend and I ate lunch together, my one time where I didn’t work through the lunch hour. We'd deliver our fresh chapters and return the marked-up copies from the previous week. Then, we'd dissect and discuss each other’s work. I'd offer hints on how he could tighten up his story and he'd tell me what he liked and didn't like about mine.

The criticism was immensely helpful. At one point, my friend asked me about the villains and what they were doing. Since I had my notecards and my comp book--one of those black-and-white things you get when you go to college; I had one for the Truman book and put EVERYTHING in it--I easily spouted off their activities. After I'd finished, they said "Put that in the book."

Lovely. I was nearly done with Act II and now he wanted me to go back and insert new chapters and scenes from the beginning. Sigh. Thus, my next crucial decision: instead of writing notes to get to later, I stopped my forward progress and backtracked. In the end, I preferred it that way as it enabled me to deliver a better-rounded story.

In the spring of 2006, the last piece fell into place for me. As you could imagine, there is the time in the process of a novel when you just want to stop. How, then, do you keep going? In my case, it was easy: I signed up to attend the Southwest Regional meeting of Mystery Writers of America. There were to be agents there and I wanted to give them a pitch. Knowing nothing about the industry, I assumed that you had to be finished with a manuscript when you met with an agent. The conference was on 17 June, so I made my deadline 1 June (to give me time to edit).

I made the deadline. It was a grueling slog through certain passages, but I arrived on the other side. As anyone who has ever done it can attest, writing "the end" on your first novel is a sublime experience. Cloud nine was way below where I was walking. The sheer magnitude of the accomplishment was astounding. I made my pitch and the agent asked for 100 pages. Boo-yeah!

The Calvin Carter Stories

The types of short stories I write come in two flavors. One the one hand, there is the spur-of-the-minute variety. Here, I do what others do with novels: describe a scene and just go with the flow. Those are exciting, but I don’t think I could do it for a novel. The other type of short story I write—usually my Calvin Carter, railroad detective tales—require the planning. You see, Carter is an actor and he likes a little flourish when he gives the big reveal. When he arrives at that point, he likes to show off and tell the bad guy the error he, the bad guy, did to get himself caught. Thus, I need to know the story before Carter does. Who wants to be upstaged by an actor, right?

For my short story mysteries, I do plan out the main crime, the villain, and how the crime was committed. For these, I use large spools of paper from Ikea. I unroll a 4-to-5 foot swath, tape it on the wall of my writing room, and mark it up. The good thing about this pre-planning is that I can bust out the first draft of a story in one sitting. That keeps it fresher for me.


I am a planner. For novels, I work best with a road map. Having the boundaries more or less defined enables me to blossom within them.

I use notecards to write scenes. I put the notecards on a corkboard with color coding.

I use a comp book to collect any and all thoughts.

For short stories, I use paper “worksheets” on my wall.

For the actual process of writing my first book, I used an old version of Word on an old Mac laptop (OS 9 for you Mac folk). Now, I use Scrivener on my MacBook, and export a Word file whenever I need to do so.

I use my iPod Touch as an on-the-go notebook. Whenever something strikes me for Carter or any of my other characters, I pull up the text file for that particular subject, input the new idea, and date it. Yeah, I know, weird, but I thoroughly love re-reading these notes and seeing the progress. I have re-read my Truman comp book a few times just to see how I got through it all. More times that I care to admit, I’d give myself pep talks.

Both the TaskPaper and SimpleNote apps wirelessly sync on my Mac, and I can import the text files into Scrivener where they show up in the research tab. On occasion, when I don’t want to lug my laptop out of the house, I’ll carry a Bluetooth keyboard that I sync with the iPod Touch and I’ll type directly into PlainText, my favorite app for writing out in the wild.

Book of the Week: The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. A Sherlock Holmes novel, commissioned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, written by the guy who created "Foyle's War." I'm in heaven. And that Derek Jacobi narrates the audio version is icing on the cake. I'm on chapter 3 and can state Horowitz has perfectly captured the style and vibe of John Watson, er, Doyle. Read and enjoy.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Beat It

By Russel D McLean

Here’s the thing to remember:

You might want to do as I say, not as I do. Like any other human being I am given to whimsy, and find that I approach something different. Let’s look at like this:
THE GOOD SON was written one line at a time, barely knowing what was going to happen from one sentence to the next. I mean, I knew my character’s motivations and more or less what the backstory was, but I didn’t know what was happening from one line to the next. This resulted in multiple drafts and cutting and a real effort to pull the story into shape. There are several different versions of the book, but the one we wound up was the one I was happiest with.

When it came to THE LOST SISTER, however, I didn’t have time to mess about. I had to supply a plot synopsis and the first 10k words in lickety-split time. Depending on how my memory is working, “lickety split” as a unit of time can vary but let’s say that it was far less time than I was used to after THE GOOD SON. I mean, this one had to be written fast.

I was at an advantage of course. I knew – as I always do – the basic motivations for the central cast. I knew my opening scene. I knew (with minor variations) my final scene. But getting there was the trick. Especially as I had to submit a plot before the novel. Something I hate doing, for fear that I’ll run off the rails at some point in the writing.

But what I realised was that I knew how to plot. It was just something I hadn’t done in long form. Yet without thinking about it, I pretty much religiously plotted all my short stories.

See, when I was a would-be author, my dad and I both subscribed to Writer’s Digest. And back in those days a young chap name J Michael Straczynski wrote the screenwriting column (with occasional assists from another fella called Larry Ditillio). And of course I wanted to be a screenwriter, then, I really did. So I hung on these guy’s every word.

And I’m sure it was Stracsynski used to talk about story beats.

Beats saved my bacon (and still do - - I wrote the third McNee novel, which will be available in the UK late next year, using beats). Now my method may or may be the same as Straczynski’s. After all, writing is a bit like cooking. You may use the same ingredients as someone else but ten to one you’ll wind up putting your own individual spin on things.

So here’s how it works (at least for me):

you divide your story into five acts or beats. Real simple. Real clear. Something like this:

1. Introduce characters and situation.

2. First inciting incident and/or complications

3. Stick characters up at the very top of the tree.*

4. Throw those damn rocks.

5. Get them the hell down.

Then you start to flesh out those beats. One sentence and idea at a time. You write beats within beats. You answer questions about how or why things happen. You flesh out and out and out until you have something that you can then turn into a prose outline. But what you ensure at every point is that working within those beats gives your story a structure. And yes, when you start writing your story with those fascinating and stubborn characters you may have to sacrifice some beats, but at least you have a rough idea of what you’re doing and most of the time you’ll find that working to plot beats forces you to account for your characters actions in ways you never expected. Often I’ve had to swap character’s fates and destiny’s for the sake of a beat and every time its worked out better than I’ve ever expected.
If I’m working for myself, I mostly work with those five beats and sub-beats taped over the desk or open in a separate window on the computer that I can click back to. But like I say, I’m not s slave to them. If it feels right to sacrifice a beat I’ll do it. But I’ll usually make new beats to work out where this change takes the stories. And I’ll keep my beat list as a reminder, as a map, as a light in the dark world where you must balance plot and character.

But what is plot, I hear you ask? Oh, that’s simple. Plot is essential. As essential as character. Because without plot – with conflict, resolution and action – character is useless. The best characters in the world cannot come to life without something to do. And by planning out those beats, by working out the rough outline of a novel, you’ll ensure that you’re always giving those gorgeous, wonderful, flesh out creations something to do. And more than that, you’ll be able to keep track of what has gone before and what has to happen next saving you embarrassing conversations with your editor about why action later in the novel contradicts completely what happened at the start.

*For those who don’t know, one of the clichés of talking about writing is to say the essence of drama is sticking your charcaters up a tree and throwing rocks at them. Yes, to be a writer you basically have to be a complete bastard.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gunpowder, Treason And Plot.

By Jay Stringer

I've admitted this before, I think, but I wrote my first book by accident. I'd always intended to write a novel some day, but Hadn't intended to write one then. The way I stumbled onto the first full draft taught me what kind of writer I am.

I was a film student and a failed comedian. From telling jokes, writing scripts and editing short films, I'd picked up a grasp of structure. I was confident -too confident- that I knew how to tell a story. And I had a few bold and silly ideas about writing a crime film. What would it be like, I thought, to have a P.I. film set in Wolverhampton. Where the character was walking the mean streets of a post-industrial midlands town, rather than a black and white American soundstage. Where the script was full of fast, hardbitten dialogue, but it was spoken with my local dialect. Where there were slightly crooked cops, but they were crooked in the same way as any other civil servant, bored and looking to fiddle their expenses in some way, rather than gun toting mavericks.

So I thought, one day I'll write that script. I never did.

At some point I decided to see what that plot would be like as a short story. I started to write, and it was about a bartender who works as a PI in his spare time, who gets caught up in a murder mystery, in a town where murder mysteries are unusual. And I had fun with that for awhile, but I was running on empty. I hadn't had anything more than a jokey idea of inverting a few cliche's, and the story wasn't interesting me. But there was another guy at the bar, in that first scene. He had an interesting background, and didn't want to give much away about himself. He was slightly more criminal than he wanted to let on, and wasn't the most reliable of narrators. He interested me. So I kicked the bartender to the curb and let the new guy tell his story, and before I knew it, I had a messy, broody and wordy 80,000 word first draft. That first draft bore little relation to my original idea, and the final draft bore little relation to the first draft. But when I read through it, I can see the signs, I can see the books DNA.

I learned that, if I sit down with a plot in my head, I'll struggle to write. But if I can use an idea of a theme to discover a character, then that character will lead me to a plot.

I relearn this every time I sit down. Last year McFet and I were collaborating on a project. He'd created a bunch of characters and was writing the first part of a story, and I was writing the next part. In theory. I sat and thrashed out a plot. I had a scene by scene break down of what needed to happen -the only time I've tried that- so I knew what needed to happen, to whom, and in what order. If I had the story already, surely It would be a breeze?

Nope. Nothing happened for a long time. I probably drove McFet crazy with random emails about how much I didn't 'get' certain characters, and if he could tell me what music they liked, or what they talked like. I learned again that if I didn't know the characters, at least a little bit, I couldn't write. At some point the penny dropped. I don't remember what it was, it was probably a comment from McFet, I don't know. Something happened, and I knew the characters I was writing. And then the story happened. And the characters all did pretty much what I'd planned for them to do, and the story ended with the same final scene I'd intended, but I couldn't have done it without having the characters voices in my head.

What Dave said on Tuesday is true. Each time is different. I've written two crime novels, I'm halfway through an adventure story, and I'll be writing a third crime novel next year. Each one has been different. Each one is a wrestling match. So much of the work that many writers put into preparing the plot, such as the structure, the themes, the character arcs- these are all things I do in rewrites.

I find my plot by finding my characters. How to find a character? Well, that's for another time.

I want to give a few practical tips this month, so for the sake of plotting, let's just assume you've already got your character. Now get a pen and paper. Or a laptop, I'm not fussy.

-What does your character want, more than anything else in the world? Write that down
-What is the quickest way for that character to get to what they want? Write that down.
-What aspect of themselves is your character most ashamed of? Write that down.
-Who, or what, would be the biggest obstacle to your character getting what they want?
(you guessed it, right that down.)

So you have a list. It's not a big list, but you'll find you've already got more ideas spinning around in your head than when you were staring at a blank page. The next step is also pretty simple. Write a paragraph about each item on your list. By the time you've finished, you've got enough of a plot to get started writing your story.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

PLOT: The Anthodome Annihilation

By Steve Weddle

Thriller writer Ari Stotle, author of The Poetics Conundrum, The Ethics Hyperbole, and The Metaphysics Gamble, has said that plot is more important than anything – including character.
Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.
These “personal agents” can be CIA, FBI, MI6, KGB, what have you. But the agents must have character and thought useful to propelling the action. In this way of thinking, characters serve to move the story forward.

I've read every Dan Brown book except the last one. I think we can consider him a fairly "plot over character" dude.

Let's take a look at a couple you might not know about.

When the NSA's invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant, beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power.

The NSA is being held hostage--not by guns or bombs -- but by a code so complex that if released would cripple U.S. intelligence. Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves.

When a new NASA satellite spots evidence of an astonishingly rare object buried deep in the Arctic ice, the floundering space agency proclaims a much-needed victory...a victory that has profound implications for U.S. space policy and the impending presidential election.  With the Oval Office in the balance, the President dispatches White House Intelligence analyst Rachel Sexton to the Milne Ice Shelf to verify the authenticity of the find. Accompanied by a team of experts, including the charismatic academic Michael Tolland, Rachel uncovers the unthinkable: evidence of scientific trickery -- a bold deception that threatens to plunge the world into controversy.

But before Rachel can contact the President, she and Michael are attacked by a deadly team of assassins controlled by a mysterious power broker who will stop at nothing to hide the truth. Fleeing for their lives in an environment as desolate as it is lethal, their only hope for survival is to find out who is behind this masterful ploy. The truth, they will learn, is the most shocking deception of all.

What we have in these books -- and those like them -- is that some big thing happens and the world is threatened. OK. So what's the thing? The threat? Figure that out.

What's at stake? Is it big? Huge? Great. Make it bigger. And put a ticking clock in there. This big, devastating thing will happen in two days. Unless someone can stop it. So we need a character. Someone who can stop The Thing From Happening. It's a nuclear thing. So we need a nuclear person. A scientist. Yes. But we have to have this person apart from the others. Oh, and make the person a chick. Chicks buy more books than guys. Oh, and make her hot, too. There might be a movie.

OK, so hot chick scientist has to stop The Thing From Happening. Who wants it to happen? Someone who has A Grudge. But why? OK. Let's just put a pin in that and come back to it. No need to slow down on characters. It's like John "I Sold A Million Books On Kindle" Locke said. People don't read his books because he's a great writer. People read them because he can entertain them. So let's entertain them.

We need a love interest for the Hot Chick Scientist. Someone she'll hate at first, but wind up climbing into the shower with on the last page. Maybe it's a rival from another agency. Yeah, that's perfect. OK. This nuclear thingy is discovered and she's a government scientist and he's a corporate scientist. So they're at odds. Conflict. Great.

Yes. So there's a discovery at a government lab and she's trying to study it. She tells one of her co-workers. Someone she trusts. About The Implications. It's something that she thinks she can use to heal crippled children. She's talking to her co-worker and he says maybe it could also be used as a weapon, so she needs to keep quiet. Why? Hmmm. Oh, because the lab is at risk of losing its funding and the Man In Charge of the lab has already joined in with BigMegaCorp for the corporation to fund some trials. The public/private partnership. So she decides to keep it quiet. But then the co-worker winds up dead. And the corporate handsome guy comes in to work on the discovery. So the Hot Chick Scientist thinks her co-worker was telling the secret. Then the nuclear discovery thing goes missing. And they have to work together to find the nuclear discovery thing before it destroys the world.

OK. So what skills does she need to do this? What conflicts will she encounter? What does she need to 1. encounter conflict and 2. overcome it? She's headstrong (duh) and so she gets herself in trouble. And she won't take help. Then something something something she has to trust the handsome scientist she started out hating.

Maybe her father was killed when she was a child. Maybe she freaked out when they led the lambs to the slaughterhouse. Maybe she's afraid of being trapped in a well.

The Anthodome Annihilation 

When the USNT’s experimental lab discovers a new nuclear anthodome, Jennifer Cox, the beautiful and brilliant scientist, proceeds with what she thinks may be the cure for cancer. Despite her attempts to keep the news quiet, word reaches her father, Senator Hugh Cox, who uses his influence to bring to the team Juan Miguel Ricardo, a charming, yet arrogant scientist from BigMegaCorp.

Trapped between her father’s presidential election campaign, the proposed dismantling of her expense-ridden agency, and her developing relationship with Juan Miguel, Jennifer plummets into a devastating betrayal as her father is murdered at his home.

Before Jennifer can reach out to her family, she and Juan Miguel are trapped in the USNT secret lab as terrorists attempt to steal the anthodome – the radioactive discovery locked deep within the impenetrable vault. As Jennifer and Juan Miguel fight for their survival, the security system of the The Vault kicks in – threatening to detonate the anthodome, bringing devastation to the eastern seaboard and destroying the new love blooming between Jennifer and Juan Miguel.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Throw It All In

Plotting is so haphazard to me. It takes drafts and drafts and drafts for me to get the plot right.

But if we're talking first draft plotting, it all boils down to this: I take what I see and throw it in the mix. A cool article I saw in the newspaper? Jam it in there.

Someone telling an anecdote about their night in the city? That'll fit somehow.

A location I've only been to a few times and is perfectly creepy? I can use that.

Basically, anything cool that's running around in my head gets thrown into the mix. Then it's a smoothing out (or altogether cutting out) process. I go over and over and over what I've done and smooth out the edges, create other more jagged edges, and then I have a plot.

Okay, that's not entirely true. There are other things too. Mostly I start with a central idea. A lot of people start with a character. Not me. I start with an idea.

A detective's mother has Alzheimer's and remembers a murder from her past.

A man is convinced his ex's new boyfriend is actually a spy.

Then I just start to build. And revise.

And revise.

And revise.

It's hard to write this all out because it changes each time. Duane Swierczynski likes to say that each time he writes a novel he has to learn how to write that novel. I agree with that. Plotting is basically a different process each time. For WITNESS TO DEATH, I really had to get to know the characters.

For THE EVIL THAT MEN DO I had to be somewhere and overhear something at the right time.

So, each time I plot, I plot differently.

Yeah, I'm no help at all, am I?

Sorry, I'm just trying to get the plot that's in my head out on to paper.... for the fourth time.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Plot Thickens... and sags and dips and curves...

If you don't know where you're going, how will you know when you get there?

The black-and-white side of my brain believes that. You need a direction to get where you're going. A+B=C. But this other side of my brain wanders into the subjective, and then I get frustrated. When you put me into the realms of unknown quantities, I can go crazy.

Yet when it comes to writing, I can't do it any other way. Years ago, I took a creative writing diploma program through correspondence. And when it came time to touch on novel writing, we were taught to plot out the book and prepare an outline before starting. Years later, in a critique from a published author, they told me much the same, and even showed samples of prepared character bios that they made before they started writing the book.

It was back then that I started SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES. I had character bios. I had an outline. I had a plan. Everything was great.

And then I moved, misplaced my files, switched computers, and months went by after I convinced myself the project was crap and quit working on it.

When I returned to the manuscript I'd started almost a year earlier, I made a few discoveries. It wasn't crap. It was good. But I'd lost the outline and didn't have a clue where the story was going anymore.

The greatest thing about that was, I started re-reading what I'd written, and decided to listen to the characters. I got to know them. It was like peeling the layers off an onion, and as I learned more and more about them, the story fell into place.

I'm not one of the writers who thinks you have to know everything about a character before you start writing about them. I also don't think the reader should expect to get a nutshell synopsis of a character's whole life. We don't know everything about anyone when we first meet them. It is through our interactions and our time spent with them that we discover all the interesting little things. Just a few weeks ago, I said something offhanded to Patrick. It was so offhanded I don't even remember what it was. I was doing laundry, and he was talking my ear off, and I made some comment and he said, "I never knew that about you. Every day I learn something new about you."

I said that's what a relationship is, like an ongoing discovery about another person.

Occasionally, when I sit down to start a manuscript, I do have something that's inspired the general story. There will be a topic I want to touch on, and I'll put that in the pot and stir it around and see what comes out. I did that when I wrote The Frailty of Flesh. I'd been working in the GVA, and was the director of a child care center and summer camp program, working with over 100 high needs students annually, as well as two dozen staff I was responsible to train and oversee.

And something happened to one of my kids. Something that prompted the school staff to ask me to support a report to social services against the parent. On our own, we didn't have enough, but together, we finally did. We made the report, and as soon as the parent found out she moved a few blocks over city lines. Since she was now out of our jurisdiction, our report wasn't investigated.

I spent that whole book working out my frustration with the system. And in the midst of it, I read about the deaths of some children in the system, who'd been removed from their homes. Natives. Or Aboriginals, as we call them now. Native kids dying in foster homes at the hands of white people.

Suddenly, Tain clicked into place. I started that book knowing I was going to rip Ashlyn's life apart, but the unfolding of Tain's story gutted me personally.

My greatest compliment ever was hearing from Sean Chercover after he'd read the book, and learning it had reduced him to the edge of tears. That was the translation of all that emotion I had, onto the page.

I occasionally have a specific event or scene in mind that I think will be in the book. That was also true with THE FRAILTY OF FLESH, but I won't give you spoilers.

There is only one book I've written where I knew what the last scene would be before I started. Some people call that Distant Shores. It's when you know where you're going, in general, but as you navigate across the river you might go upstream or downstream a bit instead of straight across. You might have to dodge driftwood or hazards under the water... but you have the general idea in mind when you start.

For all the rest of my books, they've centered on characters and ideas. In the case of HARVEST OF RUINS, I started the book in 2007. The book went through about four incarnations. It was retitled BELOW THE LIGHT at one point. I had to revisit the whole manuscript at one point and restructure the framework.

In short, I never know what the journey from start to finish will look like. Joelle and I seem to both feed primarily off the characters and their dialogue and listen to them for direction. It works for me. When I have tried to write with an outline, it's felt stilted and forced and I feel like I'm holding the characters back so that I can check off boxes instead of let the story unfold.

For other people, the meticulous planning works perfectly. I've learned there's no one right way to develop the plot or approach your writing. As a writer, you have to learn to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your approach to be most effective for you.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

This month on DSD and Follow the Yellow Brick Road….

by: Joelle Charbonneau

For all of our regular readers, you know that our DSD group tends to march to the beat of our own drummers. We tend to blog about whatever topic is festering at that moment in the dark corners of our minds. This month, however, we decided to give you a look into writing topics from each of our individual points of view. Every week will be dedicated to a specific topic and we are hoping it will be educational, inspirational and just plain fun to see how each writer approaches the same writing challenges in very different ways.

This week – Plotting!

Which leads us to the second part of this blog post which I have titled:

Follow The Yellow Brick Road

As a reader, I always dreamed that writers sat down at their keyboard and knew with absolute certainty where their story was going the minute they typed the first sentence. This meant when I started writing I believed I had to know exactly where the yellow brick road was going to lead me before I took my first step down the path.

So, I outlined. I sat in front of my computer screen and brick by brick, plot point by plot point, I mapped out where my yellow brick road was going to take my characters. I knew where it started. I knew where it ended and I knew every stop in between. It all looked awesome.

Until I started writing.

Somehow the beautiful path I’d created for myself that should have gotten me from the opening line to The End landed me in a ditch somewhere around page 70. Nothing worked. Why? On paper, everything I’d plotted made complete sense. And yet, while I was writing, my path slowly, but steadily began to travel in a different direction. The characters reacted just a bit differently to situations that I’d originally imagined which moved them off the yellow brick road and onto a new path. One that didn’t follow any of the plot points I’d so painstakingly constructed.


For a while I tried desperately to push my story back onto the track the outline said it was supposed to travel. It didn’t work. No matter how hard I tried, the story didn’t ring true to me unless it was allowed to follow its own course. What’s a girl to do?

I tossed the outline and decided to follow the path that the characters wanted me to travel. That book never got published, but it taught me something important about my own writing. While other writers can create detailed roadmaps for their work – I can’t. Trust me, I tried more than once to fashion the perfect outline that would help guide me through the story. But while outlines sound glorious, I’m just not wired to follow them.

For me each action or moment of dialogue from a character determines the next action. I might think I know how a scene is going to go, but there are always surprises and small variations that move the plot in new and interesting directions. The cause and effect of each action and reaction drives the story. Until I see exactly how the dialogue or action unfolds, I can’t know precisely what comes next.

So how do I plot? Well, I’d like to say that I don’t, but that isn’t technically true. I can’t do a linear outline that takes the story from plot point to plot point, but I don’t fly completely blind either. In my mysteries, I determine what the main mystery plot is. I then write down a couple of things I think might happen in the course of my sleuth investigating that mystery. Once that’s done, I create a couple of other columns for other plot arcs I’d like to explore such as relationships between certain characters or secondary mysteries. I then list a few ideas I have for each of those plot threads under each of the headings. The last thing I do before writing the first sentence is I decide how chapter one is going to end. Once I have that hook, I start to write. I don’t necessarily know who done it? I don’t have a clue what the final reveal moment is. I just write.

It might seem strange that I only know where chapter one is going, but it helps me focus on making sure each moment of the chapter is geared toward getting the characters to that point. Once they get to the hook, I can then show the characters reactions to it and begin to write to the next hook – whatever that might be. As the story unfolds, I will go back and look at ideas I had for each plot heading. Sometimes my initial ideas work and I am able to weave them into the course of the story. Other times, well, the action of the story no longer makes them such great ideas. Cause and effect. One moment drives the next to wherever it is supposed to go.

Or at least I hope it does. That is the goal.

Personally, I envy anyone who can not only outline but follows that outline to the bitter end. But this method, as odd as it might seem, works for me. And part of me wonders if maybe the reader in me doesn’t want to know where the story is going until I get there. That way, my inner reader gets to enjoy the story, too.