Saturday, October 11, 2014

Plotting Via the Capri Method

Scott D. Parker

If the two camps of writers consist of pantsers and plotters, call me more of a capri.

Back in 2005, I got asked a question by a co-worker/aspiring writer: “Will you read chapters of my book?” My answer was simple: “Sure, if you read mine.”

Crap. Now I had to produce. I had nothing on paper and needed a direction. Knowing nothing really about writing other than what it took to write my thesis, I bought a comp book, different color pens, and a stack of note cards. I then proceeded to brainstorm about the story I wanted to write. I had in mind a single scene, but I didn’t know where it went. I knew it wasn’t first, so I wrote a bunch of scenes that lead up to it (it was a big reveal) and then the outro from it. Each card was a scene, color-coded per POV character, and, after I had the whole story outlined, I started writing.

What was good about that process is that each night at 10pm—the only time I had to write—I picked up the next card and wrote just that scene. Since I knew where I came from and where the story was going, I could foreshadow or refer back to other things. The only stumbling block I got was from my critique group: “Hey, what are the other bad guys doing during all of this?” I told them and they said to write it down and put it in the book. I did and I finished my first novel using the outline/plotter way.

So, the next seven years, I tried NOT doing it that way. I finished nothing.

Lesson learned. Last year, after I wrote a novella—my first finished piece of any length; you’ll see it in 2015—I needed something else to continued my writing streak. I picked up an unfinished novel and wrote the next chapter. Liking the story again, I sat down and remembered how well the index card method worked for me back in 2005. You know, you dance with them that brung ya. Thus, before writing another word, I outlined the story. Granted, I didn’t get to the end. I only outlined to the midpoint, but I had my road map. Boom, I was off like a flash. Once I got to said midpoint, taking a few deviations along the way, I outlined the rest of the story.

Again, a few deviations were met with pauses and more outlining, but basically I realized that, for me, an outline/scene breakdown/roadmap is the way I write best.

Proof? I finished that novel.

Then wrote another novel (starting the very next day) with the same method.

Then wrote another novella (longer this time, 34,000 words) with the same method.

Then wrote another novella of 29,000 words with the same method.

Then wrote a short novel (approximately 60,000 words) with the same method that I’ll finish this weekend or next week.

Lesson learned: I am a plotter. With the caveat that I freely let myself drift off course if the story dictates it. But here’s the key factor for me: If I drift, I still plot. Let me explain.

I have a bunch of scenes mapped out, either to the end or some point before the end. Doesn’t matter. In the course of the actual storytelling, characters start to get some of their own personality and not just be cardboard cutouts being moved by me. When the story takes a turn I didn’t foresee, I take a step into that new path. But only a step. I then stop and ponder the new direction in light of what I’ve already written, what I’ve already planned, and then decide if the new path is worth taking. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

This process, while it may sound clean, can be rather messy. But it seems to work for me. When I do action scenes, I actually have to choreograph the scene and break it down into smaller chunks. But I get there.

For an example of how this works for me, here’s a shot of the current WIP’s index cards/post-it notes, etc. in my writing room.

  • A - Initial set of index cards before I went with post-it notes. My goal is to have each corkboard have two separate stores, the one I’m writing and the one that’s coming up next. I’m not there yet.
  • B - Post-it notes on large piece of paper. I laid that paper out on a table, drew a line from beginning to end, and started pasting scenes. They’re color-coded but I’m not sure you can see it.
  • C - Post-it notes on 11x17 paper. This is just the finale scenes since I wanted to be portable and write elsewhere in the house. Also, that’s my PC (I write on a Mac) where I have my dictation software. When I’m brainstorming the index cards, I’m live on Dragon Naturally Speaking talking…well, to myself and the program records everything. Nifty.
  • D - I diagramed one of my favorite novels, breaking it down into scenes, chapters, plots/sub-plots, etc. just to see how it was written. Enlightening.
  • E - Current calendar of events as I prepare for 2015. More on this in a future post.
  • F - More sheets of paper taped on doors. This is my big list of plot ideas based on series characters.
  • G - (far lower left) - That is my shelf of manuscripts. I have them separated by series. That one in particular is the third novella.

I love talking strategy and processes. I use Scrivener exclusively to port most of this stuff into electronic format. As I mentioned in a previous post, I also copy/paste my active WIP into Google Docs so I can write on the go.

What are your favorite techniques?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Plot, Baby, Plot*

By Russel D Mclean

This week was supposed to be Plot Week (unofficially) which kind of brought up an issue for me as I'm actually working on a thing about plots for another market just now and most of my thoughts on plot are being taken up with that.

But I have been thinking about what plot is. I think a lot of folk believe that plot is action. That there is a dividing line between plot and characters - character is the psychological part of your story, where plot is the action, and often the two are seen as separate things (are you a "plot" or "character" kind of writer). But this kind of thinking is, I believe, quite wrong.

Plot isn't action.

Plot is interaction.

By which I mean that there is no plot without character and likewise no character without plot. Plot - and therefore action - is driven by the interactions of characters. At its most basic level, plot is about what happens when beings with conflicting goals come into contact. Its about how people are affected by the actions of a) other people/animals/Great Faceless God beings who have opposing goals and b) their environment, which can in a metaphorical way have opposing goals, too.

Plot is character. Plot is opposing characters. Plot is characters opposing environment. Plot is about forces pushing against each other to produce change.

I first realised this when reading Elmore Leonard. You don't think of Leonard neccesarily as a plotter. You think of him as character. But reading his books, what you see is that they do have plots that are composed of character interactions. The book unfolds because of the people involved and the choices they make. Every Leonard book is exciting because he sets up so many apparently disparate people and lets them interact with each other in ways that are exciting and utterly true to their characters. The plot stems from the characters. Do it the other way around and the plot becomes something forced and unnatural and ultimately unbelievable. Force a plot onto characters who cannot act in ways that would create that plot and you only create a mess. "Plot" is our way of describing the bigger picture of character interaction on a macro scale.

Plot is character. Character is plot. Once you realise that, everything becomes a little easier.

*with apologies to Dave White

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Plots: Beat the Cat

By Steve Weddle

We were in junior high when I saw my first penis.

Well, not my first, of course. So my second. My first penis that belonged to someone else.

We'd finished football or baseball or track practice and were in the locker room. Someone wanted to see whether Toby Leonard had gotten his pubes yet. He was small and nerdy and, for whatever disturbing reason, the consideration of his pubic hair was something writ large throughout the soles of  a couple dozen boys. So his sweatpants were ripped down to his ankles by Arnold Baker.

On that day, the day that Toby Leonard received a new nickname, I made two vows. One was to always be in possession of a sturdy belt. Two was to swear off pantsing. And so, in honor of Toby "Long Dong" Leonard, I share with you now my thoughts on pantsing and plotting.

My thoughts: I don't do either. Hunh. OK. My thought, then.

Plotters and pantsers are jealous of each other. "Oh, I wish I could do it your way," each will say. That's because whatever way you're doing it is a giant suppositorial asspain. You're thinking the other way, any other way, has to be easier. Because the way you're doing it is too hard. Too complicated.

Takes too long. And you're probably right.

I'm not a plotter or a pantser. I'm a plodder.

I try my best to figure out the main character and go from there. For example, in Country Hardball, I tried to figure out what Roy Alison wanted. Then I worked on the conflict, as if these were real people in a real world. So my planning process was essentially two-step: 1) Figure out what he wants and 2) Kick him in the balls.

(This post has more wiener references than a Labor Day cookout at Ron Jeremy's house. My apologies.)

But how I write is none of your damn business. So let's talk about some cool resources for plotters.

If you're stuck for plot points or structure, you can take a look at these Beat Sheets. (Have some more plot sheets.) From that galaxy guardian movie to the Disney movie about the snow queen, you can download the "beats" to these movie and substitute your own characters' names and VOILA you have your book. (I'm not certain whether this is actually a workable process.)

Earlier this week, Kristi mentioned the Save the Cat book. I've mentioned this before at DSD. That book and the site itself have some solid resources you can play around with. If i'm stuck at a point, I'll goof around by reading through all of that and letting it knock something loose in my head.

If I get caught up in too much of that though, I feel as if I'm watching the same movie over and over. Oh, we're getting close to the end of Act the Third. Must be time for the No Turning Back scene and and and there it is. Yup.

It's when you can see the plotting instead of the plot that I worry.

See, and this is just me talking here, if you're going to stick too closely to this kind of plotty thing, you're going to be using the same movement a thousand other people just used last week. For me, I find that hopping in and out, getting what I want and moving along, is what works best for me with this plot stuff. Wait. Why are we talking about me? I thought this was about you. Crappers.

OK. Here's the thing: movement. Plots or pants or whatever, what your story has to have is movement. Pace and obstacles. Those things are cool. Get your character moving in the right direction and then kick your character in the crotch. "What do you want? Oh, this? Here it is. BAM! Hahahaha." See, to me, that's the important thing with plot and structure -- making sure it goes on.

I write slowly, because I don't owe anyone shit. When's this next story due? It ain't, Bug off. But if you want to write two novels a year, you're going to have to work out a structure that helps, you know? You'll have to find beat sheets and spread sheets and index cards that work for you. Take a look at the Blake Snyder stuff and if it helps, great. And if it doesn't, well you've always got 500 other blog posts on How To Write posted online each week.

I'm the character guy around here, not the plot guy. I'm not even supposed to be here on Plot Week.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Country Mouse, City Mouse

by Terry Shames

Holly's note: I'm happy to host this guest post by Terry Shames because I consider her to be a good friend and a great writer. If you haven't tried the Samuel Craddock series, you're in for a treat. 

The first time I met Terry was at Left Coast Crime in Spring 2013. At that time, both of us were waiting for out debut books to come out. Terry has since published three novels, and I've published two. It's kind of hard for me to believe.

Now I'll get out of the way and let Terry speak for herself.

“Congratulations on all your great success!”

“You are on a roll!”

“Wow, you’re doing great with your books.”

How many times do I have to hear these lovely accolades before I actually believe what I’m hearing? How many times before I believe that I’m a published author with a decent track record and three actual books with my name on them in bookstores, libraries and on the bookshelves of relatives, friends, and strangers?

When my first book came out, I wasn’t surprised that I felt a sense of unreality. It had taken me a zillion words and almost that many years to get a publishing contract. I was used to being “not quite.” I knew the feeling of “finally made it” would be strange—a little Alice in Wonderland. And I was right. But I figured the feeling would pass and pretty soon I’d have a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. I knew that I’d still be tongue-tied in the presence of my heroes. How could the likes of William Kent Krueger or Sue Grafton ever be considered my “peers?”

At first I hoped that one day maybe I would be on a panel at a conference with someone I admired. Someday in the far future. But I found out that it wasn’t in the far future at all. It was right away. Six months after my first book came out, there I was on a panel with Tim Hallinan. And guess what? He was really nice. As were the other authors I was on panels with. A month ago I was one of four authors at an event attended by hundreds of people. There was wannabe me with the excellent Catriona MacPherson, Cara Black and Rhys Bowen—each of them with scads of fabulous, popular books under their belts. And in a few days I’ll be at a benefit library event with two more big time authors—Cara Black and Laurie King, both really gracious, warm, funny people.

So I’m wondering. When do I finally feel like I belong in such high-faluttin’ company? When do I stop feeling awkward when I’m with Laurie King? When do I stop being surprised at how friendly Elizabeth George is? Or Alan Jacobson? Or any of the writers who’ve “made it?” Is it after my fifth book? My tenth book? Do I have to make the New York Times best-seller list? Will losing twenty pounds make me feel more authentic? Buying a wardrobe as beautiful as Rhys Bowen’s or Hank Phillipi Ryan’s? Will it happen if I start a second series? Or write a thriller? Do I have to make a certain amount of money before I feel like I belong?

I was brought up in a small town in Texas. Maybe it’s a country mouse/city mouth thing. Or maybe I just have to get used to the idea that yes, I really am a published author with good reviews and a publisher I’m happy with, and an agent I love and people who love my books. Even a country mouse can have fans!


Terry Shames grew up in Texas and has an abiding affection for the people she grew up with and the landscape and culture of the town that is the model for Jarrett Creek.

Terry's first Samuel Craddock novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, came out in July 2013 and was named one of the top five debut mystery novels of 2013 by MysteryPeople. The Last Death of Jack Harbin and Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek are now available. She's finishing up edits for A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, fourth in series, which will come out in spring, 2015.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Plot and Structure–Whatever Works

A couple of weeks ago I gave a workshop at the Winnipeg Writer’s Festival about characters in a continuing series and I started with these quotes:

“We start with a theme, or a situation and then come up with the best characters to tell it.” David Simon, creator of THE WIRE.

“I start with a character and think about the kind of situations he can be in.” Elmore Leonard.

I like those quotes because they are pretty much opposite approaches and they both work so they lead nicely into the discussion about there being no rules, just whatever works for you.

This week we’re going to have a little discussion here on DSD about plot and structure and it’s probably going to come down to agreeing that there are no rules and you have to find whatever works for you. I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me.

My last novel, Black Rock, and my next one, A Little More Free, are set in 1970s Montreal and are pretty much police procedurals with the same main character. And they both have a lot of real events in them that follow the chronological order in which they happened.

There isn’t really any reason for the correct chronological order other than I decided to do that so I did it. I don’t think there’s any obligation when dealing with facts in a novel to be true to them, the only obligation is to be true to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Whatever works for you.

But once I decided to do this I went from being a pantser to a plotter. And once I did that I decided to go all in and I made a timeline of the historical events I thought would be in the book (they didn’t all make it in). For each novel I knew the historical event I wanted to start with and end with.

I don’t imagine it makes any difference when writing the novel if these events on the timeline are historical or completely made up. I didn’t use every event on my timeline and I made things up when I needed to.

But I never thought about any of the things that Kristi mentioned in her excellent post on Sunday. I didn’t divide the book into acts, I never considered FIRST PLOT POINT or THE ATTACK or the MIDPOINT or any of that so maybe I’m using some hybrid pantser-plotter abomination. Whatever works.

I think a few things have come with the experience of writing 8 or 9 novels (and getting a few of them published) and maybe the most important is the understanding that at the three-quarter point everything will feel like an unholy mess with so many loose ends that it will be impossible to bring it all together in any coherent way. And that maybe if it isn’t like that at the three-quarter mark you’ve taken too direct a route to the end and it might not be involving enough for the reader.

Because not involving the reader is the only thing that doesn’t work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

On writing Jungle Horses by Scott Adlerberg

jungle horses scott adlerberg
A long time ago, I read some useful words of advice about hatching story ideas.  It’s so long ago I can’t even remember who wrote the words. But the gist of the thought is this: often the best story ideas come from linking two unrelated ideas you have, ideas that came to you weeks, months, perhaps years apart.  You make a connection between these two ideas (or three or four), and you may just have the germ for an intriguing tale.
My novella Jungle Horses developed this way. It began as a story about a horse race gambling addict in London.  I knew how it would start and where it would go, up to a point.  A married guy of older middle age, a weary man whose best friend is his wife’s lover, would see his life change because of his betting fortunes.  But the change wouldn’t happen as he’d hoped or foreseen.  Then what?  Something clicked in my head and I thought of another story idea I had, one that had to do with a sinister island in the Caribbean.  Certain odd phenomena were occurring on this island.  Would it be possible to send my poor London guy to this island for the second part of my story?  If so, what would prompt him to make this trip?  I meditated on this for a while and then found an answer.  Yes, a reason did exist to send him to the tropics, and the second part of my story could take place on this island, far from the guy’s familiar environs. He would have to deal with different horses there.  They’d be a mysterious breed, not thoroughbred racehorses like the ones he knew, and would impact him in a huge way.  But the London part of the tale was realistic, the island part, as conceived, fantastic.  So…blend them.  The fantastical would and could happen in the new environment, gradually transforming his character.  A merging of genres if you will, noir and fantasy, with the shift in tone coming about as imperceptibly as possible.  In fact, I thought, this genre fusion should be a lot of fun to do.  In one section I’d try to create the dark mood you get from noir fiction, in the other the uncanny atmosphere you find in a certain type of fantastic fiction.  These are two strands of fiction I love, and it just so happens that these two strands aren’t combined all that often.
The main character, Arthur, is a guy I had fun with because of how pathetic he is.  He’s a World War II veteran and a former landowner in colonial Kenya, but he’s gone to seed since returning to England. Besides his gambling, he drinks too much.  The challenge here is to make the reader care for him despite his sorry existence.  I fudge on the time in Jungle Horses, but it’s suggested that the story is taking place during the 1960’s or 1970’s, and Arthur seems like a man from an earlier era, when Britain ruled the world.  Unfortunately for him, that era has passed.  There will be no returning to the luscious farm he owned in Kenya.  He is, as Graham Greene might say, a burnt-out case. 
If British tales of defeat and decline were an inspiration for the London part of the story, the Caribbean island section reflects other influences entirely.  Call it a sub-sub genre: the tale that takes place on a weird island where an outsider comes and tries to understand what is going on around him.  In a large scale way, Lost of course used this conceit until it ran off the rails.  Over complication destroyed it.  But the best of these stories keep things simple, with one fantastic premise as the underpinning.  H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is a favorite of mine, and as I was writing Jungle Horses I also had mind two short novels by the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares – The Invention of Morel and A Plan for Escape.  All three of these books are sterling examples of fantastic fiction.  They are concise, fast moving, and suspenseful.  Each develops its premise meticulously so that the reader believes what’s presented.  In each, the island-bound protagonist is at first baffled by the phenomena he encounters, and he has to investigate and explore. Danger is involved, physical, emotional.  There’s a kind of peeling of the onion effect in these narratives; more and more is revealed to the protagonist until he understands what is behind the island’s mystery.  And if the fantastic is done well, the key to the enigma should have a kick that surprises the reader but comes across, in the context of the story, as plausible.  In Jungle Horses, Arthur reaches this point of discovery, and by the time he does, he is far away, mentally as well as geographically, from his old noirish world in London. 
The publishing history of Jungle Horses is a curious one.  Several years back, I submitted a somewhat different version of the story to a small press and they accepted it for publication.  An ISBN was assigned and the title appeared on Amazon, albeit without a cover illustration.  I’d approved the completed artwork for the cover, but nothing went further than the artwork and the galleys because the publisher soon was arrested.  Federal charges, mail fraud, the FBI involved.  As the FBI agent in charge of the case told me after a raid on the publisher’s office, all rights to material acquired by the publisher would now revert to me.  Good news, but for whatever reason, call it demoralization, I didn’t send Jungle Horses anywhere else.  It sat in my computer in a Jungle Horses folder for years and years.  Still, something about giving up on the story bugged me.  From time to time, I’d open the folder, read the story and close the folder.  Then one day I kept the folder open and found myself reworking the story, trying to improve it, polish it.  I said what the hell and sent it out, and J. David Osborne at Broken River Books took it.  What a tortuous road for a slim book.  But it did end up in the right place: Broken River sure as hell isn’t averse to a little genre mixing.  This time around the whole process has been a pleasure, though even the adventurous Mr. Osborne did express some surprise when I told him that the person I last signed a contract with for the book got 65 months in Federal prison. 
“She has no rights to it now, though,” I said.
“You sure?” he asked me.  “No issues with that?”
“Well, she can’t sue me from jail.”
I don’t know how many books have been launched with these particular words, but I have to say I liked them.


Bio Info:
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He is the author of the crime novel Spiders and Flies, and his short fiction has appeared in various places including Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Spinetingler Magazine.  Each summer, he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. His novella Jungle Horses is out now from Broken River Books.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Plotting 101

by Kristi Belcamino

The super cool and awesome Laura Lippman prompted a Twitter discussion yesterday about plotting that Jay Stringer and I jumped on. And then decided the topic was perfect for Do Some Damage.

A few of us, possibly all of us, are going to blog about plotting this week. I'll kick it off.

I was asked this week on a Spreecast with other WitnessImpulse authors whether I began writing my novel's knowing the bad guy's motive.

My answer was yes.

I'm a plotter, not a pantser.

I'm incredibly jealous of "pantsers" — defined as writers who fly by the seat of their pants in writing and don't outline or plot ahead of time. I can't do that.

I must know where I am going before I put that first word down on paper.

But I don't write a detailed thirty-page synopsis of the entire book (and there are some writers who do this) but I usually know a few key scenes in my novel before I begin.

I've read many books on plotting and three-act structure, including SAVE THE CAT and WHAT

But the ones I turn to time and again are these two: STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks and PLOT & STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell.

Both books explain three-act structure, the common way most books and films are plotted. To sum it up, the story is broken into three (or four) parts.

The first act is often the first 25 percent of the novel where the writer is introducing the characters and the story problem. In this section, the reader learns about what obstacles the protagonist faces in achieving her goals. It is a bit of the normal, ordinary life of our hero.

For instance in Harry Potter, we see how bad he is treated in the Muggle world.

Right between the first act and the second act is the FIRST PLOT POINT. James Scott Bell calls this the doorway of no return—once your character steps through this door, his life will never be the same again. Everything is different.

In Harry Potter, this moment is marked by when he goes through the wall to get to the train platform leading to Hogwart's train.  He's taken a step and his life will never be the same again.

In my novels, before I sit down to write, I must know the first plot point, which is essentially the reason for the book — the quest or journey that Gabriella Giovanni goes on.

Larry Brooks defines it this way: "... the moment of change in the story that define's the hero's quest and need going forward, and does so in the face of an antagonistic force that the reader suddenly understands to an extent that empathy and emotion are evoked, while creating obstacles to the hero's quest, and thus creating stakes that depend on the hero's ability to overcome those obstacles."

He says it can be a moment or a sequence of scenes.

During Act II, our hero is usually reacting to the antagonist. Usually the hero is not going after the bad buy in this part, or if she is, she's not doing it very well and keeps facing a series of setbacks. It's not until Act III that this usually changes.

As you might have been able to guess, the SECOND PLOT POINT occurs right between acts two and three. This is the moment where some key information is revealed and our hero goes on the attack. Usually the rule of thumb is that once you are into Act III you can't introduce any brand new characters or information that hasn't at the very least, been hinted at previously.

In the third act, THE ATTACK, the hero goes after the bad guy and—in most books—wins.

So, when I sit down to write a book, I usually know my first and second plot points. In addition, I also adopted Larry Brooks plotting advice and have two "pinch points" in the middle of Act 1 and in the middle of Act II. (Brooks uses four-act structure in his plotting.)

By the way, there is also the MIDPOINT, which is smack dab in the middle of your novel and usually involves some revelation that turns everything upside down. I won't go into it in this already-too-long blog post.

So before I write, I have a huge stack of index cards. One has my first plot point, one has my second plot point, and so on. In addition, I usually have my opening scene. As I write, each index card becomes a chapter. I write what happens, where it happens, and what day of the week it is. (See picture for example)

If I'm stuck drafting, I might take a stack of index cards to the coffee shop, load up on caffeine and brainstorm possible scenes, putting each one on a separate index card and then figuring out how they fit in my story.

That is the beauty of index cards, you can rearrange scenes and chapters in a visual way. For me, this really works. Also, I carry them around in my bag (secured with a rubber band) and pull them out when I'm bored or inspired.

When I finish a first draft I like to plug my story into one of several Xcel programs that outline exactly at what page number and word count my novel SHOULD be hitting these key points. (This link contains a wealth of information on worksheets for plotting

Okay, that's all for the first post on plotting. I hope some of it might be helpful. Stay tuned this week and next for more posts on plotting. And I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Pictures are welcome!