No Wonder People Don’t Plot

I love writing. I have to keep reminding myself of that. Sometimes, it’s a pain in the you-know-what. Some days, I don’t want to sit at my keyboard. Somedays, the words don’t flow. And before I start a new book, I always have to plot the darn thing . And right now, that’s making my brain tired.

Amazon announced a new thing they’re starting this summer–serialized novels. The idea appealed to me, because for a long time, when I used to have a weebly webpage, I posted free stories and books on it–one chapter at a time. It was always a little dicey, because every once in a while, I got behind and then had to come up with a chapter at the last minute. Probably not my best writing. But I finished novellas that way, then I took them down and polished them, and published them. That’s when I was having fun with the Babet and Prosper series under Judith Post. I posted a witch novel, foo, The Familiars, that way. I loved writing series, and those stories are what prompted me to write Muddy River. Every once in a while, I still crave a supernatural fix.

Now, when I used to read one of my supernatural fantasies to my writers’ group, I always got the same comments. “That was fun, and I’m sure someone wants to read it, but I never have. I’m not sure how to comment.” LOL. No surprise there. My group is pretty serious. Literary. Historical. Thrillers. Weighty novels. Alliteration and lyrical. Werewolves and witches? Not so much.

BUT…if Amazon is going to do serial novels, my mind immediately went to Muddy River. And…since my discipline isn’t what it should be…I have to try one. BUT, and this is the problem…l can’t make sure I have enough of a story without plot points. UGH!!! So I’ve been beating away on them for a week. A WEEK! And this is a short novel.

I admire Craig Boyack. He’s found a way to conjure story ideas with a storyboard. He’s written about it on Story Empire: Expanding on living documents | Story Empire (wordpress.com) I’ve tried it, and it works if I start WAY ahead and keep reminding myself to add to it. But unfortunately, I usually end up cussing and fretting, trying to write however points I need in a few days. Because I want to start the story, but I don’t want to go in the wrong direction. And that’s what I’ve been doing this week. A lot of fussing to come up with enough plot points to make a good story for a serial.

They trick you, you see. An idea springs into your mind and looks wonderful, like so much fun, you can’t NOT want to write it. So you start whipping out ideas for it, but the ideas begin to get harder and harder to come by, and how do you wrap them up? How do you make them build into a rhythm and crescendo at the right points and coalesce into a story? That’s when I start cussing. And finding things I have to do–like clip my toenails. Anything to avoid plot points. But if I stick with it, (and I try not to), I eventually end up with a halfway decent outline (of sorts) for a story.

Not everyone wants to bother with this. And I don’t blame them. Like I said. It’s a pain! But I need it. I’ve learned that the hard way. Some people can fly by the seats of their pants. Some people do journals. Or storyboards. Or humongous character studies. Whatever works for them. Me? I finally finished my plot points, and I’m going to go celebrate, because whenever I finish them, I feel like I’ve survived a tsunami. I’VE DONE IT! THEY’RE DONE. And life is good now. Until I have to start writing them and making them come to life. We’ll talk about that some other day…..

Writing: why plotting is good for me

I’ve touched on this before.  I’m a plotter.  Not everyone is, and that’s fine.  One of my writer friends tells me that if she knows what’s going to happen in a scene, she doesn’t write it.  The surprise element is gone, and it’s too boring to bother with.  But the opposite holds true for me.  If I write by the seat of my pants (like my pantser friends), I’m always struggling to come up with new scenes and new ideas and trying to sequence them together.  I feel like I’m blindfolded and “feeling” my way from one scene to the next in my story.

When I started work on my third Fallen Angels novel, I sat down to scribble out the main idea for the story.   After that, an opening scene came to me.  Since this is a sequel, I knew the main characters, but I made character wheels for the new characters who’d be in this book.  I played with and discarded several turning points for the main plot before I settled on two major ones, and I knew the ending.  Sometimes, that’s all I’ve got when I start a book–the inciting incident, set up, two turning points, and the ending.  But when I put my fingers on the computer keys to write these basics for Enoch and Voronika, plot points just kept coming to me.

My writing muse smiled on me.  Thank you, Muse!  When I got done, I had twenty-seven plot points for the novel.  I’d write one, and the next one would pop into my mind.  The what if’s led from one scene to the next.  Awesome, because in my ideal world, I like to have one plot point for each ten pages of manuscript.  Just an average.  Some scenes or chapters are short and some are long, and sometimes I sneak two scenes into one chapter.  And usually, when I write, new scenes spring from things my characters do that I could never think of in advance.

This is NOT my typical brainstorming session, but I’ve learned that no two books are ever alike.  I fight with some books, trying to bring them to life, and others are like a gift that makes plotting them easy.  This one was a gift.

I was so happy, I told one of my writer friends about it, and she shrugged.  “That would ruin the book for me,” she said.  But one thing I’ve learned about my own writing style is that if I have a sense of direction, my characters actually surprise me more.  I look at my notes and know what needs to happen in a scene, and I think I know how I’m going to accomplish that, but then my characters whisper, “But what if I did this instead?”  And if it doesn’t change the direction of the story, and it’s better than what I came up with, I let my characters have their way.  And almost always, their way has more conflict and more interest.

For me, if I don’t have to think about the basics of writing, then I can concentrate on adding more drama and depth.  Having plot points frees my imagination to explore how to get the maximum punch from each scene.  And you’d think, with twenty-seven plot points, I wouldn’t hit snags or worry about soggy  middles.  But I’ve never found that to be true.  Somehow, somewhere, all the plot points and subplots tie themselves into knots, and what looked so neat and tidy on paper clusters into a giant mess that my mind tries to hide from.  My pacing bogs down into a morass of confusion, but I know that if I follow my guideposts, I’ll eventually slog in the right direction and hit solid ground.

Each writer has to find what works for him or her.  But I’m a champion for plot points.  I’d rather travel with a map than follow the sun and stars and hope I’m going in the right direction.

(Just want to let you know that I won’t write a blog next Sunday.  My friends are coming to my house for an Oscar Party.  I’ll be cleaning and cooking and having fun.  But I’ll be back the Sunday after that.  And if anyone has any topic they’d like me to write about, leave me a comment, and I’ll give it a shot.)

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Writing: starting up a new book

I have the first draft of Spinners of Fortune ready to give to my critique partners.  It’s as good as I can make it at the moment.  While they red ink it, it’s time for me to start plotting out my next book.  If I immerse my head in the third Enoch & Voronika story, it will give me enough distance from Spinners to look at it more objectively when I get my friends’ remarks back.  The added bonus is, if I get the plot lines and character wheels finished for the new book, I can let them noodle in my head while I do rewrites for Spinners.  Good for both books.

So, how do I start a book?  I just read Jayme Beddingfield’s writing process, and it’s pretty close to what I used to do when I wrote mysteries.  http://jaymebeddingfield.tumblr.com/post/61736583352/how-i-build-a-story#  This is one lengthy, thorough process of plotting.  For mysteries, it served me well.  In its own way, it gave me a great feeling of freedom.  I could do anything I wanted to bring each scene to life as long as I hit the vital plot points.  Characters still surprised me.  Things didn’t always go as planned on paper.  For urban fantasies, however, I have even more leeway and flexibility.  So my plotting’s changed.

I start with the kernel idea that brought the story alive for me.  I let it squirm in my mind until I sit down to write it.  Enoch met Voronika in the first book in the series, Fallen Angels, close to the same time that Danny and Maggie met.  In Blood Battles, Danny and Maggie get ready for their wedding, and Enoch wants a commitment from Voronika.  He won’t be happy until he gets one.  In the new book, Maggie’s going to be pregnant.  We already know that Voronika was pregnant when Vlad turned her into a vampire, and she lost the baby.  Maggie’s pregnancy is going to make Voronika yearn for what she can never have–a child of her own.  Vampires don’t birth babies, only more vampires.  Enoch, a fallen angel, doesn’t intend to father children either, so they need to find a way to resolve Voronika’s feelings of loss.  That’s the starting idea for the new book.  Now, I just need to figure out how to make that story happen.  Once I have the idea for the story and the starting incident and some idea where the story’s going, then I sit down to look at my characters.

For writing, I need something visual that I can glance at and “see” the person I’ve created. I started using character wheels when I went to a workshop given by Shirley Jump.  She gives awesome workshops, by the way, if you ever want to sign up for one of them.  She offers them online.  Over the years, I’ve kept the main concept she taught (along with much, much more), but I’ve made it my own.   I draw a 2″ circle in the center of a piece of typing paper.  In that circle, I write my character’s full name (and nickname, if he has one).  Under that, I put his age and physical description.  You’d be surprised how many times, after I’ve changed stories a few times and then go back to write the third book in a series, that I can’t remember if I gave someone brown eyes or amber.  What color was his hair?  One I glance at his wheel, though, I know.  From that wheel, I draw 7 lines–sort of like the sun’s rays.

The first “ray” is for info about his family.  What were his  mom and dad like?  What did they do?  Did he get along with them?  What about brothers and sisters?  Any aunts or uncles who were special to him in a good or bad way?  Cousins?  Etc.

The second “ray” is for education or training and his career.  Did he like school?  Barely pass?  Get a degree or certificate or join the military?  Each decision he makes tells me more about him.

The third “ray” is for where he lives and what he drives.  Does he rent an apartment or own a house?  Does he take care of it or is it a pigpen?  Is his car flashy or functional?  Or does he own a truck or a Jeep?  Where he lives and what he drives says a lot about him.

The fourth “ray” is for relationships–his past or current romances.  Did he fall in love in second grade and stay a romantic?  Is he player who dodges commitment?  How many women has he known/been serious about?

The fifth “ray” is for close friends (at least 2).  What’s their friendship like?  Easy?  Do they meet to play pool or work out at the gym?  Is my character a leader or a follower?  Does he put up with too much crap when he knows better?  Each of those traits is a line that connects with his ray.

I draw lines from the sixth ray for each of his quirks or hobbies.  Does he love to cook?  Go camping?  Go to a shooting range?

The seventh and last is for antagonists or enemies.  Has he rubbed some people the wrong way?  Is there someone he competes with who’d throw him under the bus to get ahead?  Is there a journalist who wants his story?  Or a cop who thinks he’s guilty when he’s not?

When I finish the wheel for that particular character and move to the next, I consciously try to make the new person different enough with a different agenda that the characters will have built-in conflict when they meet, even if they decide to work together.

Once I have my characters in mind, I can finish the main plot points for the story.  I won’t start a book until I have the book’s big question, the inciting incident, the turning point at the end of the first fourth of the book, the turning point for the middle of the book and then again at three-fourths point, and finally, how the book ends.  If I can fill in a couple of scenes for each fourth, so much the better.  That gives me a lot of flexibility.  But whatever you do, however you write, enjoy the process.  I do.  Bringing the book to life in your mind is a wondrous thing!