Inspiration from the past, and all the stuff I didn’t think I wanted to learn

 (Photo by me.)
(Photo by me.)

So this week I’ve been plotting like mad, and the new book has required me to create not only the regular kind of things for a book (overall plot and characters, romantic and character arches, etc), but also something more: I’ve had to create the entire world my story takes place in, down to planets and their resources, the gov’t systems controlling those planets, and potential political issues.  It’s been crazy, but a lot of fun too.

And as I’ve been considering starting a rebellion and a war in my new solar system, I’ve considered how much I owe my ability to do so to two high school social studies teachers: Mr. Tietzen and Mr. Long. These men had very different styles, and how they taught their subjects, covering history, political systems, current events, and position papers was also very different, but both of them have contributed to my new world, and I thought how thankful I am they taught me all of that.

One of the projects Mr. Tietzen gave us was, coincidentally, invent your own country. You were given basic guidelines (like about resources, etc), but then you had to come up with all of the rest of the information, like political system, values, exports, flag, etc. Yeah, I’m betting you can see how useful that was. (Just of note, I can still remember the name of my country: Elephanté, and yes, it did have an elephant on the flag.) 😉

Mr. Long taught me a lot more, probably some of the best things I first learned about writing and a position paper, current events, and his favorite: watching and learning about history and political events on the spectrum of the rise and fall of three primary elements. These were: individualism, egalitarianism, and nationalism (and if I’ve forgotten one, it’s not his fault, totally mine!)  You wouldn’t believe how important this, as well as considering the causes and repercussions of both the French Revolution and World War I, is to my development of this new world.

The other teacher who has to get a shout out and who I’ve drawn on is my Classics 101 prof, who sadly I can’t recall the name, but who let me focus my entire paper on how pirates brought about the fall of the Roman Empire.  And yes, this too plays into the creation of my new world.

All of which made me think how much we can draw upon what we know, and how sometimes, we hit on something that really is intended for us, something that makes use of what we know and what we love. And if we’re writers, sometimes it means we get to create that perfect symmetry. In my case, I think it’s going to turn into a space opera romance; I’m terrified and tremendously excited all at once. 🙂

So now to you: have you ever found something you’re doing in your current life makes you draw on things you never thought you’d find useful in your past? Maybe that one thing you didn’t even want to learn?

Thanks for reading, and wishing you all a great week and happy writing out there! 🙂

Fresh New Idea

So I have a new idea for  story cooking in my head. This past week has generally been one of those good news-bad news kind of weeks, and the WIP I was working on isn’t working. And I don’t mean a little difficulty, I mean it’s not moving forward.

I have therefore given myself permission to start work on something new and come back to the other WIP at another point. Perhaps the distance and time will provide some added perspective I haven’t thought of yet. But of course, this means I have to figure out how to develop what is essentially little more than an idea into something that might become a story.

For me, I often get a character come into my head first, a character looking for a story. Since I right romance, the next step is trying to find a partner for the initial character who will eventually become the secondary lead. Beginning the story this way means that the path of the story generally comes through the overall character arch I want the character(s) to follow and achieve.

This latest book is different. Yes, there’s definitely a character, but she came with a whole world of her own, something crazy and strange, but filled with my favorite things. 🙂

How then, to develop this?

My first step was to write down as much as I knew about the story as it first came to me, because it came to me all in a rush and thunder.  Bizarrely, there are even images associated with this story in terms of setting, which is unusual because I don’t think much about images, but there it is.

The next step for me is developing and nurturing this idea into something real. I have a couple of my favorite books help me out with this, including tips from James Scott Bell. I free-write on the idea, fleshing it out, deciding what it is I love about it and why others would love it. This time I also really want to focus on why this book is unique, and how it will be accessible for readers. Plus, I think I need to give some time to the back-story just so I know what’s true for this world, even if much of that detail never makes it into the primary story.

You see, I’m trying to improve my method. In fact, I tweak and change things a bit every time I write. And one of the things I’m worse for is coming up with an idea and starting to write right away … before I’ve properly figured out much. This often necessitates rewriting or often throwing out the first act completely after I change my mind. Ideally, I’d like to avoid doing that if possible. 🙂

So what about you: when you have that fresh new idea, how do you develop it into a fleshed out story? Next week I want to look more specifically at some of the steps, since this week I have to see what they are first. 🙂

Have a great one, and happy reading out there. 🙂

Hunting Cookies and Plotting

My current WIP bears greater resemblance to a tangled rat’s nest of ribbon and string than it does to any kind of ordered tapestry of all the elements of story working together. And you know when you start writing from the beginning AND the end simultaneously you’re really in trouble.

So anyway, then I found this great post through a post by Kate Nolan, which led me to “Coaxing Out the Magical Cookies” by Susan Dennard.

I highly recommend you go and check it out for yourself and then head out on a “cookie expedition,” but to give you the gist, the “magical cookies” are the essential reasons you wanted to write the story in the first place, and then the scenes you just can’t wait to write.

If you’ve been reading this post, you know I’m what’s often considered a “pantster” or what I like to refer to as a “Gardener.” In most areas of my life, I love being über-organized, and usually I am. I have a plan A, B, C, and D for most everything, and lists are my best friend … until it comes to writing, where for some reason, I like to work much more organically. Which gets me into trouble sometimes (see Exhibit A, the Great Rat’s Nest, aka my current WIP.) That said, I’ve come to a point where I know everything can be worked out in revision, and that sometimes, for me, coaxing out the story means going on the ride with my characters and sometimes going places I wouldn’t have considered or come up with if I’d tried to outline. (Or perhaps that’s my excuse … I’m also notoriously impatient, so getting directly to the writing works best for me.)

So where does this leave us? With a short blog post and a tiny note of advice that’s kind of stuck for me: Write what you love. Write the book you’d love to read.

Which is what I’m off to do right now. Well, after I dig out a few more of those cookies and figure out exactly where I’m heading again. 🙂

What about you? How do you write? And how do you get yourself out of trouble when you’ve written yourself into a tangle?

Thanks for reading, and hope you’re having a terrific week.

Basic Plot Structure 101

I’ve been obsessing over plot structure recently. And, I’ve made some discoveries and had some major “aha!” moments. So perhaps you can take a shorter route there, I’ve decided to try and share with you what I’ve learned about basic story structure.

Plot Structure

So, first we start with our lovely diagram (yes, I drew it myself). You can see the basic plot arc that looks basically like a really lame mountain range. This is basic 3 Act Structure. But, seeing as how I’ve always been annoyed that the 3 Acts ends up Act 1, Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, and Act 3, I prefer the four parts, as used by Mr. Brooks (more on him later).

Part 1: The Set-up. This is where your characters and ordinary world are introduced, and lasts roughly the first 1/4 of your book. You start off with a Hook, which may be accompanied, or followed by the Initial Incident, that is, the first event in the book that is a big deal for your protagonist. It will be dramatic (sometimes called “The Call,”) and much of the first part is the Argument phase as your protagonist decides how to respond to the initial incident that has changed his world. This is not to be confused with the First Plot Point, sometimes known as the End of the Beginning, which ends Part 1. The First Plot Point changes the hero’s world profoundly, such that s/he is thrust into “The New World” phase of Part 2, and defines the conflict that will carry the rest of the book.

Part 2: The Response. This is where you show your protagonist encountering the New World and how they respond to the challenges presented by the First Plot Point and the conflict of the book (often in the form of challenges raised by the antagonist). The protagonist now has a quest and conflict, but he doesn’t know where to go or what to do. S/he will usually react in the same ways they always have – they haven’t experienced profound change yet. This section ends at the Midpoint, which can either be a false victory or a low point. The Midpoint provides information that profoundly changes the protagonist and the understanding of hero and reader.

Part 3: The Attack. No longer wandering lost, the protagonist now actively pursues the antagonist and searches out ways to defeat challenges, warrior-like. S/he also understands that they need to change to succeed. The Antagonist, however, gets increasingly stronger, providing more challenges. This act ends after the Crisis or the Second Plot Point, which provides all the information the protagonist needs for the climax, and is often the lowest point for the protagonist (The All is Lost / Whiff of Death). The terms of the climactic final battle are usually clear by this point.

Part 4: Resolution. Action increases and speeds up as the protagonist and your reader are hurtled along towards the inevitable climax. The protagonist accepts that s/he may not succeed, but is willing to fight to the last against the antagonist, or sacrifice themselves to the cause if necessary and to achieve their goal. The climax hits, and the protagonist battles an often losing battle, until he takes hold of all that he’s learned (over the course of the book) and hopefully the solution to achieving his/her goals. After the smoke clears from the battle, there is some indication of the new state of the world post-climax, providing understanding and closure for the protagonist and reader.

So, totally and completely clear, right? 😉

Don’t worry. That’s why I’m providing you with some books to go and learn more. They’re not paying me anything to recommend their books, I swear. But these three books are where I’ve learned a huge amount about plotting, and which I highly recommend. In no particular order:

The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. By Martha Alderson. (2011).

I like this book for clearly explaining and going over the general structure, and specifically each “Energy Marker,” as she refers to the main plot points.

Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling. By Larry Brooks. (2013).

He also has “Story Engineering,” but I haven’t read that one, so can’t recommend it. This one I like for the explanation of some of the other elements of plot, and while I don’t find his plot structure arc the prettiest, it does have a few helpful other points I hadn’t considered before. He also uses examples from other books to help illustrate how plot works – especially when and why it works really well.

The Story Template. By Amy Deardon. (2011).

I love lists and clear charts, and this book has lot. It goes through with free-writing exercises to understand and plot your own work, but (especially in re-write phase), I found the Comprehensive Template Cheat Sheet of Chapter 9 awesome. Here she breaks down in list-form all aspects of the plot – including how layers work together – and gives you a check-list either for when you’re plotting (or as I was, restructuring) a novel.

So, are you a plot structure expert? What did you find the hardest element to master? What tips about structure do you have for other writers out there? Any books or resources you’d recommend?

Thanks for reading and commenting. And hey, like the post? Why not follow the blog. I don’t usually bite. 😉

Revision and Plotting: Do as I say, not as I’ve done (pt 2)

As promised, here are the last 5 tips, or my advice on writing that sometimes, I’ve had a hard time remembering, and other times, has been learned the hard way. (for part 1 of this post, see: Revision and Plotting: Do as I say, not as I’ve done (pt1). Hope it helps!

  1. It’s your story. Protect it. Only you can tell your unique story, and while others will try to help you – and you need to accept some changes – beware of them trying to change the direction of where it’s meant to go. Certainly you can change your mind, but protect the essence, the little nugget and vision you had of it, which is what makes it yours and unique.
  2. Be open to critique. Understand it’s part of the process, and it will make your writing better. Remember point 6 and 7 when considering what critique to accept or reject, but critique is the only way to really gauge the reaction of your reader and what your writer is successfully conveying.
  3. Make yourself a revision road-map, and clear goals. I can’t tell you how much difference this has made to the revision process. It means you’ll hopefully have to go through fewer drafts, it makes clear the weaknesses and strengths, AND it will keep you going when things start to get hard. (For more on this, check out my post on revisions: Light at the end of the Tunnel: Revision Pt. 1 & 2)
  4. Breaks are not evil. You need to rest, or you’ll burn-out and crash. I’m terrible at this one, but I’m getting better. Remember, your brain needs breaks sometimes too, allowing it to refuel. Taking time to nurture yourself will only make you stronger – and doesn’t have to mean lack of productivity. Because …
  5. Just get writing, already! Above all else, worrying about writing, fretting you can’t find the time, it’s not good enough, taking too many courses, allowing in too much input, etc, etc, what you HAVE to do is get writing. Because that’s the point of all this, right? Sometimes all you need to clear your head is to stop worrying about everything else, and just allow the words to flow from you. You can worry about everything else later – and I’ll bet you’ll be less stressed about it after a productive writing session. I know I go kind of batty if I haven’t been doing enough writing. For most of us, it’s a part of who we are, and to deny it is foolish.

So, have I missed any tips / mistakes you make? Want to share so everyone else can avoid them? Come on, giving advice is SO much easier than taking it. 🙂

Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

Books on Writing: Some go-to greats

Source: acobox.com, by Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA source Wikimedia license CC

As with most writers, I’m also a reader, which is why I probably am just as likely to buy a book about writing and the writing life as a work of fiction. This week, I wanted to share some of my favorite go-to writing books, especially the ones I return to again and again when I need a pick-me-up, or sometimes just a reminder of why it is writing is important. In the weeks following, I’ll be looking at some ideas from one book in particular in a series of blogs. Just to be clear, these are simply my opinions, which haven’t been solicited, but I find I’m always interested in other writer’s sources, techniques, and work life, so I’m sharing mine with you.

But, enough preamble. Let’s get to the books!

Books on technique and particular writing needs (this category became a bit of a catchall, for which I apologize:

  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (and Writing the Breakout Novel workbook)

The first of Donald Maass’ very successful books, like the follow-up (The Fire in Fiction), it aims to help you fix the problems that may be getting you rejected, and to help you produce the best book you can. I find the workbook especially helpful, since it’s a lot like a workshop (or several workshops) in a book, and can be used on its own, or for some stubborn scenes or chapters when nothing else works.

  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass

Why this book? It’s inspiring, makes you think about your reasons for being a writer, and suggests ways to make your writing better. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if I’ve ever completely finished it, because I often hit a section that has me running to the computer to write, abandoning the book!

  • Break into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love

Another interesting book with tips and guides to what worked for these authors and others, and again, ways to make your own writing shine. (As you might be able to tell, I’m often searching for different options, some which work better for some manuscripts than others and vice versa.)

  • The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines:  Sixteen Master Archetypes by Tami D. Cowden, Cara LaFever, and Sue Viders

Perhaps one of my favorite plotting tools since I discovered it. This is especially useful when you’re just starting to flesh out your story, searching for inherent conflicts, what direction the plot may go, etc. Very interesting and fun to use, and just read.

  • Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D.

Another great plotting book. This book proposes to break down all the different types of plots, and then divides them into the Act structure, with questions as prompts to fill in “what happens now” – at least, that’s how I use it. 🙂

  • Breathing Life into Your Characters by Rachel Ballon, Ph. D.

Pretty interesting book, helpful for fleshing out characters, and sometimes for working out the issue if you’re worried characters are coming across as flat, or in character and plot development to help you understand GMC (goals, motivation, and conflict).

  • The Element Encyclopedia of Birthdays by Theresa Cheung

Nope, not technically a writing book, and I confess, my husband and I purchased it on impulse a few years ago. BUT, it has been fun not only to look up friends and family, but also assign specific birthdays for your character, and essentially look up their horoscope and reading, based on the date of birth. It can help flesh out a character (and again, lots of fun!).

  • The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease

Another not-technically-a-writing book, but a very fascinating one just to read. It’s helpful in writing to remind you to watch the body language of characters, and how mood, emotions, character, relationships, etc can be conveyed through a way of holding one’s arms, feet, etc.

Writing Productivity:

  • Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Just as the title suggests, this is an actual plan (with a full plan to full in, and calender of actions, etc) to complete a first draft in a month. It’s also helpful for helping speed up your writing or boost your productivity, even if you don’t have the time (or inclination) to get an entire book done in a month. I find the method of planning and plotting interesting, and something I’ve incorporated into my own writing.

Because this post is getting quite long, I’ve decided to divide it into two. Next week: books on the writing and artist way of life – may favorite category. But meanwhile, have I forgotten some books here? Any that you find it difficult to live without? Please, leave a comment and let me know (my husband will forgive a few extra books on the shelves – it’s Christmas soon anyway. :)) Thanks for reading, and have a great week.