Saturday, October 18, 2014

Finishing a Manuscript and Asking Why Not?

Scott D. Parker

On Tuesday afternoon, during one of my five-minute breaks at my day job, I put the final period on the first draft of my latest manuscript. On my iPod Touch. Again, as I’ve written about before, I still can’t believe how productive I can be writing a first draft on an iPod. I realized that I was close during my 5am writing session but wasn’t able to finish at home. But that was just as well since…between 40-50% of the first draft was written on my iPod. I went home and copied the new text into Scrivener and then printed it. There it is on the left.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: if you want to write, there are ways to write when you’re just about anywhere. I celebrated by going to rehearsal that night and then chilling later that evening with a glass of pinot grigio. As only writers can attest, there’s nothing like finishing a novel. This one clocked in at 59,000 so it’s officially a short novel. 

I'm not the only one, either. There's a post over at The Digital Reader about writing on smartphones. 

And the next day, in order to keep my writing streak alive (every day since 1 May), I started the next one. But it’s low-key because I have other things to do with my spare time. What, pray tell, are they? Astute readers will likely have drawn a conclusion to many of my side comments in my posts these past few weeks so it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I am starting my own independent publishing company to publish my own ebooks starting in 2015.

Probably the first question you may have is why? My short answer is Why Not? My longer answer is more nuanced and I’ll write about it in the coming weeks.

You’ve been reading about my productivity in completing manuscripts since May 2013. In that time, I’ve written six manuscripts of varying length, eight if you count a couple of short stories. And you will have the chance to read them come 2015.  So stay tuned.

But back to the iPod (or smartphone or whatever device you carry around): Always Be Writing. You can do it. Modern technology makes it unbelievably simple. You only have to want to. And I do.

Do you?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

There’s a Story in Your Voice

“How do you plot?”

The question has bounced around my head since I got an email from Jay Stringer asking me to play nice and join the DSD crew in talking about our craft.

I’m not completely sold on the “to plot or pants” debate, which suggests that either you plot heavily before diving into the writing or you just wing it - i.e., start writing and see where it goes and then edit until you have a book. I don’t think it’s so black and white. I know my plotting, for example, is very gray.

My experience writing Silent City was one of trial and error - most first novels are like that. I started with a blank page and wrote a scene where we meet our protagonist, Pete Fernandez, as he awakens - hungover and regretting his misbehavior from the night before. This scene is still in the final book, but later, and it’s changed from the initial first person to third.

But when I put down those first few words, I had no idea where the book was going. I knew who Pete was - sort of. I also knew that he would stumble upon some kind of case while working at the paper and that it might involve a missing woman.

Pretty loose, right?

I wasn’t ready to handle that. I floundered. I spent time over-thinking the details and less time moving the plot along (or “writing”). I got a few chapters in and Silent City took a nap on my computer. Months passed. Finally, I started jotting down ideas for chapters (including a new Chapter 1). The descriptions became longer and the character mentions evolved into mini-bios. By the end of it, I had a fairly robust outline that incorporated my initial chapters and gave the book direction.

The rest is easy, right? So I thought. While having a detailed outline helped, it didn’t do wonders for spontaneity. I knew exactly what was going to happen - and I felt a little bored by it. So, over a few months, I went to what I see as the two extremes of plot vs. pants: the completely liberating blank page and the cluttered, somewhat recipe-like “detailed outline.”

But then the characters started doing things. One of them ran off with a bag of money. Another turned out to be a bad guy. Most shockingly, one of them died in an unexpected car explosion. None of that stuff - the cool, surprising things people who liked Silent City seem to bring up when I meet them - was in the outline. Thankfully, the outline - detailed as it was - still left just enough room for the characters to breathe. To get up and move around and determine that maybe the roadmap Alex created for them wasn’t that set in stone.

I remember trying to rest in bed, staring at the ceiling, after writing for a few hours and realizing the end was in sight in terms of a first draft. All the pieces were in play and I was going to roll into the epic, final battle that would reveal to the reader who the big bad was.

I couldn’t sleep.

The outline, as it was written, had it all mapped out. But something was missing. There was no twist-before-the-twist, no sucker punch to add weight to the final reveal. Nothing out of left field that still made perfect sense. Then it hit me.

I jumped out of bed and typed out a sentence. I’d would go on to write the actual scene the next day, but that line was enough. I slept soundly.

The sentence was brief, and changed the entire direction of a character’s arc in a way that made perfect sense but I hadn’t considered before. It also made the book more interesting and didn’t disrupt what was already in the outline.

So, the lesson learned from writing Silent City that I implemented most in the writing of my second novel was that while outlines are helpful, they should not be treated like scripture. Tweak as you go. Change. Delete. Let the characters do stuff. If the characters are pushing against the outline, maybe there’s something wrong with your outline. Don’t be beholden to an outline.

I read a great quote from comic writer Brian Michael Bendis this week that supports this. I won’t repost the whole thing, but it basically said that writers worry so much about plot, they forget about character and why they’re writing a story.

Don’t do that. Find the happy medium that allows you to feel like you have a complete story to tell, but don’t prevent yourself from being able to improvise and vamp a bit. Your characters will be stronger for it, and your readers will be surprised more often. If you’ve choreographed something, chances are your readers will be smart enough to figure it out, too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How I Plot a Mystery Novel

by Holly West

Plotter or Pantser? That is the question the Do Some Damage crew has been discussing over the last week or so. I'm mostly a plotter--that is, I do my most efficient work when I outline a project before I get to the actual writing. But sometimes I wonder whether it's my best work. Am I somehow stifling myself by plotting a story in detail before it's even written?

I don't spend much time worrying about that, however. As Jay said in yesterday's post, whatever works. And for me, plotting works. Pantsing--well, it's useful if I just want to sit down and wander through a potential story, but it inevitably leads to writers block when I realize I have no idea where it's going and I've spent the last month writing 40 thousand words, 38 thousand of which might need to be scrapped.

When I plot, I generally use the three-act screenwriting structure, because I have a bachelor's degree in screenwriting and this method works for me. This is more or less the basic outline I used to write my latest mystery, Mistress of Lies. I usually try to fill in as many of these "blanks" as possible before I start writing the novel.

Screenshot of my outline for current WIP

Act One: 20k words
Opening Image

Begin Set Up

Inciting Incident (happens around 5k) - In Mistress of Lies, the inciting incident is a young girl who claims that Isabel Wilde's brother, Adam, was murdered instead of dying of the plague as Isabel had always thought.

Theme Stated or Central Question - The theme is stated by Isabel's brother, Lucian. He says, "Life is for the living, Isabel. Let the dead rest."

Continue Set Up (5 - 15k)

Catalyst/Stakes are raised (around 15k)

Debate (15-20k) - Should Isabel investigate her brother's death or leave well enough alone?

Act One Climax/Break into Act Two (around 20k)

Act Two A (20 - 40k)
In screenwriting, this act is called "Fun and Games" or "the promise of the premise." In a mystery novel, it's the investigation into the murder.

While I do plot it, it's a little less defined than Act One. Basically, I plot out what I think are the logical steps in the investigation, pausing around 22k to introduce the B story and raising the stakes (usually a subtle attack on the hero) around 26k.

At about 30k and leading into the midpoint, I do what Alex Sokoloff calls the "Parade of Suspects." The hero re-visits in some way each of the potential suspects we have. It could be an interview, a date, a confrontation--whatever is appropriate to the character(s) and story.

Midpoint Climax/Break into Act Two B (40k) - Usually, the midpoint climax will take the story in a dramatically different direction. It's often called a "reversal."

Act Two B (40 - 60k)
Continue Fun & Games (or in this case the murder investigation) - Often this will entail a re-calibration in response to whatever happened in the midpoint

Continue B story

Bad Guys Close In/Loss of Key Allies

Attack on Hero (Stakes are raised) (50k)

Dark Night of the Soul/All is Lost - That moment when your hero has lost all hope and doesn't know where to turn. He or she is tempted to give up.

Act Two Climax/Break into Act Three - In a mystery, this can be the revelation of who the murderer really is.

Act Three (60-80k)
The final battle - This can play out in a few ways. Sometimes it starts a "ticking clock."

Final image - A new normal has emerged.

I know, I know. It's a lot of detail. But my historical mysteries have been consistently praised for their good pacing, so I stand by it. And I really haven't addressed all of the elements that make up a good story. This post is simply a starting place for writing a mystery novel using the three-act screenwriting structure. Your milage, as they say, may vary.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Plotting.

By Jay Stringer

Whatever works. That's the only thing that really matters in all of our plotting chat. You've got a story to finish, and whatever gets you there is okay. It might well be a different thing next time. That's also okay. There's more than one way to take cocaine. Ummm...I mean, there's more than one way to skin a rabbit. Or something. Shit, ignore me.

So any advice you're given should always be taken purely as what has worked most recently for the person giving the advice. It's not a rule, and it might not be the way that works for you.

With that out of the way, here's some specifics about my own methods.

Pantser or Plotter?

I call myself a pantser. But in truth, I'm somewhere in the middle. I know the ending when I set out. I'm a big believer in endings. You haven't told a story if you haven't hit an ending. And because of that, I'm always aiming for something when I write. I don't know the details of how to get there, but I already have the final scene, or image, or line of dialogue. There are times I've tried setting off without knowing the ending, and those are the times I've failed to finish. Also, there are times I've set off with an ending in mind and then gone a different way. Those are fun times.

I've written about dyslexia many times before, so I won't go back over all of it. But what it does mean  is that I knew storytelling and structure before I knew reading and writing. I'd learned from comics, films and television. I find this is common with other dyslexic writers that I speak to; we're bleedin' obsessed with structure. Other writers at DSD have already discussed various definitions and distinctions, whether they're plotters, pantsers, whether they think more of character, whether plot and character are the same thing.

My writing process is really about putting a character into a collision course with something. It might be the ending that I have in mind, it might be a political argument I'm having with myself. It might be the colour blue. It all comes down to throwing character and theme at a structure. If there's no structure there, there's no story.

So, while I talk like a pantser, and while I make up the large part of the book on the fly, I'm always writing with an ending in mind and I'm always aware of three act structure as I go. Even with my first couple of books, when I was essentially learning everything as I went along, I was aware when I was approaching the end of an act, or when I needed to hit some kind of mid-point reveal.


Old Gold is the exception to my rule. It only has two acts. I got to the point where I expected the second act to end, and I hit a moment, and a line of dialogue, that felt like the ending of the book. So I left it there. No third act. And that worked out okay, because then I got a trilogy out of it....

For the book I was writing this year -currently called Criminals- I decided to try things a little differently. I kept a loose road map. I was only plotting ahead one act at time, but it felt like a good hybrid between the two different sides of my writing brain.

So, in case this helps anyone, I'll talk some specifics about writing this book.

How I Structure

Firstly, I took a look at my last few books and decided on a loose guide of where I was going. This is what I came up with, and the numbers in brackets are what I actually achieved;

Act 1-     80 pages  20k words                        (19755)
Act 2A-  60 Pages 15k words                         (13150)
Act 2B-  60 Pages 15k words                         (15769)
Act 2C-  30 Pages  8k words                          (9951)
Act 3 -    60 pages  15k words                         (14221)

You'll see from that rough guide that I break my second act into three chunks. Some people might see this as five acts, but they're not. Act's 2A, 2B and 2C are all very much part of the same long progression, but I use the three-act structure within it to keep things moving. Act 2 has it's own beginning, middle and end, so that the situation at the start of the act is completely changed by the end of it.

Each section of ACT 2 moves things along.

During ACT 2A, the status quo that started the book is still in sight. Things could go back the way they were. Nobody has gone all in. There's a slow burn at this point. Or picture the fuse in the Mission Impossible opening credits. The plot is moving, the fuse is burning, but it hasn't all blown up yet. I do a lot of character work here, but as the act progresses things start to get out of control, there may be some violence or emotional arguments.

During ACT 2B, the slow burn gets fast. The emotional dynamite goes off, and pieces fly everywhere. By the end of this segment, things can't go back to the way they were. This whole section is really the mid-point reversal or climax, but I give myself  plenty of time to linger on it.

ACT 2C is then the point where the characters try and figure out what they're left with after the can of worms was opened. Things are moving out of their control now, but they're not happy about it. They might even be kidding themselves they can stop it. This is all the night before the war, leading up to a point at the end of ACT 2 where everyone is all-in. ACT 3 is coming and they realise they can't stop it, so they just strap in for the ride.

I also make a point of ending each act on an emotional beat, rather than an action scene or some heavy-lifting plot-wise. Sometimes I can managed to do all three in one scene, but my emphasis is always on the emotion. I'm aiming for the feels. The rest is just an added bonus.

In this picture, you can see me keeping track of the structure. The little marks you might be able to make out on the right are for violence. The more stars, the higher the violence. And, of course, as the story progresses, there are more stars.

So there you go. For what it's worth, this is my current process. It may well change completely when I start the new book in a couple weeks.

-Three Acts, but think of ACT 2 as a moving thing, a story in itself, with a beginning, middle and end. 

-End an act on an emotional beat. 

-Have an ending in mind, a landing that you're aiming for. 

-Keeping a visual aid for the structure helps to keep track of the pace. 

-Remember to go to the toilet sometimes. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Do You Call Your Resting Place in a Cemetery?

Answer: Plot

Plot can mean a lot of different things. On the one hand, it can be the sequence of events in a story. It can also mean a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end.

Or, it can refer to the piece of land where a person is laid to rest in a cemetery.

I think the various definitions are fitting, particularly because a writer's approach to plot can kill the story. Some of the other posts on plot have touched on that; on Saturday, Scott talked about trying to avoid a particular plotting method, and not completing any projects. I could tell you a few stories myself.

The truth is, I don't use the same method for structuring my books each time. In that respect, maybe I am a true pantser. I go with whatever works.

However, I also don't believe there's strictly pantsing or plotting. There's also what Laura Lippman called distant shores.

I belong to the "distant shore" school of plotting. Imagine a trip across a broad river, where the destination is shrouded in mist. I think I know what I'm going to find, but it may change as I get closer. And the journey itself may be slower or faster in places, and the current may carry me farther downstream than I anticipated.

That process can be true of drafts 1-3, with discoveries still occurring. I believe very strongly in what I call the organic solution, revelations based on what the story has revealed so far. The one critic I really wanted to take to task was the reviewer who didn't like BY A SPIDER'S THREAD. She claimed the ending was deus ex machina. Love me or hate me, but I've never written such an ending.

At one point or another, I've used a little of everything. It is true that I wrote my first book by the seat of my pants. I had no idea where it was going. It's also true that when I wrote What Burns Within that I used the distant shores method. I had one particular storyline I could see an ending for, and everything ultimately wove itself toward that end.

When I write short stories, I tend to plot them out. The reason is that pantsing allows for you to go on tangents and explore subplots that might present themselves throughout the writing process. In short stories, you can't afford to indulge in a lot of subplots. I liken it to the advice Luke Skywalker got in his attack on the Death Star: stay on target.

In saying this, I don't think that means that I discount other plotting approaches, such as three-act structure or the quest motif.  I think that once you've written enough, some things become instinctive. It's like playing an instrument. You know if you're playing 3/4 or 5/8 time signature.

One of the things I do as I write is keep a power point file. It's my electronic bulletin board. You see, if I was like Scott, I'd be fussing with cue cards and sticky notes and rearranging my display boards constantly. To avoid that, I work with a power point file. Power point allows me to have a lot of different slides, and to insert and move slides with ease. I keep slides on main characters, and slides with information on secondary characters. I keep a chapter list with pages and events. I bold out what I consider to be major plot twists or significant revelations, and then, once the draft is close to done, I check the math to see how close those events are to following three-act structure. I've been amazed to note that it's pretty instinctive at this point, and even if I'm not trying to employ that method, it's often there, as part of the support structure of the story I'm telling.

When I work on critiques with newer writers, I reinforce using three-act structure and the structure of a quest. I was always taught to plot out the story before I started writing. It never worked for me like that, at first. It was only after I threw the plot away and listened to the characters that I progressed with the story. Everything else felt forced and unnatural; like my characters were cut-outs there just to do what I needed, rather than integrally involved in the story and reacting themselves to the events I was throwing at them.

However, when you're starting out, it's good to have some ideas. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. Many stories die due to lack of direction.  That's another reason I like my power point files; I keep slides on events I think will happen at some point in the story, and I can plot out subplots as they're occurring and make notes that help me track all the threads, so I don't lose them.

In that respect, even if I haven't worked out the ending, I am seeing forward into the story and considering what I know is coming.

And when the things I don't know are coming arrive, I weave them in.

Some people cook following recipes strictly. And other cooks can taste the food and know if it needs more salt or oregano. No matter what approach you use primarily, most writers probably find themselves integrating methods at some point.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Words of Wisdom from by Sarah Manguso

This article is from Work in Progress, Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s mostly-weekly missive from the front lines of literature.  (

I suggest you sign up for their weekly newsletter, too!

I think every writer should read and re-read this advice from Manguso. I know I do.

How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers

Work. Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you. Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone.
Money. Learn to live on air. Buy the best health insurance you can afford. If you have roommates, work in the library. Run and do calisthenics instead of paying for a gym membership. Invest in ear plugs, good sneakers, and a coffee machine. Buy oatmeal in bulk. Learn to cook simple, nutritious meals. Save and eat leftovers. Cafes are a waste of money, calories, and time; leave them to the tourists. Buy books used, perform periodic culls, and resell them. Wasting money on clothes is the stupidest habit of all. You will only ever need two good outfits.
Health. Stay healthy; sickness is a waste of time and money. Smoking or overeating will eventually make you sick. Drinking and drugs interfere with clear perception, which you will need in order to make good work. It may be worth paying for psychotherapy sessions now instead of paying for inpatient treatment next year; see someone in-network.
Friends. Avoid all messy and needy people including family; they threaten your work. You may believe your messy life supplies material, but it in fact distracts you from understanding that material, and until you understand it, it is useless to you. Don’t confuse users, hangers-on, or idols with friends. If a former friend asks you why you don’t have time to see him or her anymore, say your existing responsibilities have made it impossible to socialize as much as you used to. Cutting someone out with no explanation is an insult that will come around.

Asking favors. When requesting a favor in writing, ask outright and respectfully for what you want. Don’t write what appears to be a long, friendly letter full of compliments and then ask for help at the end, pretending it’s an afterthought. Such behavior smacks of tit-for-tat, or prepayment for a commodity, and it’s ugly to point out the existence of the favor economy. Just do favors and ask favors in a vacuum. If a favor is given immediately after one is received by the giver, pretend not to notice the coincidence. When given a favor, honor those who helped you. Be gracious and sincere, and don’t overthank them.
Giving favors. Don’t give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence. Publishing or showing work where no one will see it or giving a reading where no one will hear it is a favor. Learn graciously to decline. The world will catch on that you are a valuable commodity. When you find great work, help it along; expect nothing in return. Bringing great work to the world is your job, whether you or someone else created it.
Kindness. It should go without saying that you must be kind to everyone you meet. People have long memories. Bad behavior should not be returned in kind. When people forget their manners, take it as an opportunity to practice yours.
Dignity. Don’t respond to personal attacks, either aloud or in writing. Don’t respond to criticism outside the letters section of a magazine that routinely publishes responses to criticism. When asked an ignorant question, take it as an opportunity to educate the questioner; compassionately explain his error in judgment or perception.
Allies. Recognize those who would help you, and let them know who you are. Assemble a coterie of influence that will protect and serve you. Doing someone a favor and then immediately asking for one is inappropriate; favors don’t win allies. Only you and your work win lasting allies. Do good work and treat people kindly, and strangers will reach out to help you. Recognize those who will never help you, and ignore them; indignation and regret waste energy.
Enemies. Know who they are and monitor them. Those who offer or ask for favors might be enemies in cheap disguise. Calling enemies out in public makes you look weak; in the company of others, act as if no enemy could possibly hurt you. When asked about an ad hominem attack, pretend never to have heard of the attacker. Don’t overlook the possibility of enemies’ influence, but don’t become overinvolved, either. You aren’t guarding state secrets. No vendetta is so important that it should distract you from your work.
Onward. Once you’ve truly begun, slow down. The difference between publishing two good books and forty mediocre books is terribly large. Don’t expend energy in writing and publishing that would be better used in your family or community. Become tempered by life. Make compromises for love. Provide a service to the world. These experiences form the adult mind. Without them both you and your work will remain juvenile.

Sarah Manguso is the author, most recently, of The Guardians: An Elegy. Her previous book, the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay(2008), was named an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times Sunday Book Review and a Best Book of the Year by the Independent(UK), the San Francisco Chronicle, the Telegraph (UK), and Time Out Chicago, and was short-listed for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.