Plot Points make my brain hurt

I finished writing the supernatural mystery that I’ve been putting up, chapter by chapter, on my webpage.  It ended up being 56,000+ words, and I grew really attached to it.  So, I decided to leave it up for this week, and then I’m taking it down over the weekend.  I like it so much, I’m going to format it and buy a cover so that I can load it on Amazon for 99 cents.

I’ve already started Muddy River Two, though, and put up the first chapter today.  And now, because I shiver with fear if I don’t have plot points, I’m plotting the whole book out.  I knew what the first chapter would be and I had a vague idea for chapter 2, and then blank pages stared at me.  I hate blank pages.  But once I know what the book’s about, and where I want it to go, I need a roadmap to get there.  So I’ve been sitting in front of my computer, writing down ideas for one scene or chapter after another.  I didn’t number them this time, because invariably, when I’m actually writing the words to bring the scene to life, more ideas to come to me.  And then all of my carefully planned cause and effect gets littered with small side trips or scenes I never expected.  And that’s fine with me, as long as they fit in the story line.  And with plot points, I do know each mark the story has to hit.

The problem is, that actually writing out all of the plot points–for Muddy River One, I had 34 of them–just makes my brain tired.  I finish one point and then ask myself What Should Happen Next?  But I don’t want the expected.  I want something with a little twist I didn’t see coming or a little layer that shows characterization or relationships.   I want it to be like life.  Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan.

When plotting, I leave my office and walk to the coffee pot in the kitchen a lot more than normal.  I think of three ideas in a row and then my brain stalls out.  I eat more snacks than usual.  I’ve gained two pounds in the last two days.  My husband knows my routine.  He made Rice Krispie Treats this morning so that when I wandered into the kitchen, I’d find something fun.  Not the best thing for my diabetes, so I had to take more insulin today, too, but it was worth it:)  I whined on twitter, and my writer friend Kathy Palm sent me invisible cookies to help out.  They did.  Because after I mentally enjoyed them, I came up with my last three plot points.

Relief.  The book’s planned out, at least as much as it needs to be to make me feel secure enough to write it.  This time, things are going to get a little jiggly, because next week, I need to look through the entire fourth Jazzi and Ansel novel and write the last chapter.  And then, I have to plot points for Jazzi and Ansel book 5.  Groan.  For the cozy, I can take my time and only fiddle with a few plot points a day.  And while I’m plotting book 5 for J&A, I can be writing book 2 for Muddy River.  At least, that’s the idea.  It looks good on paper.  I’ll see if it works:)

No matter where you’re at on your WIP, good luck.  And happy writing!

Family and Friends

My sister Patty called today and said she was running to KFC to grab a bucket of chicken and sides, and what if she brought them to our house for a late lunch?  The hub and I love fried chicken, but I never make it.  I make more chicken recipes than any woman should, but frying a whole, cut-up one always seems like a lot of work to me, so I avoid it.  Having a bucket of it delivered to my door, though?  That was sort of like having the heavens smile on me.  So, of course, I said yes.

My cousin, Jenny, lives with Patty and came, too.  Once we finally all got settled and dug into the food, the usual flow of conversation began.  There’s nothing like family to sort out recent happenings, old stories, and new gossip.  Family remembers the time Patty thought her hair was too greasy, so I washed it for her with Comet cleanser.  It took my mom a month to get all of the green powder gunk out of her hair.  That led to the time Patty wanted her hair teased for the biggest updo she’d ever had and went to the prom looking like the Bride of Frankenstein.  And then Patty remembered my false eyelash phase and the time I took them off and left them on the sink top and Mom thought they were a spider and flushed them down the toilet.

The hub and I have friends that go back years and years, too.   John and Scott buddied up in second grade and are still BFFs.  He’s known a lot of his friends since high school, and every time one of them marries, the wife becomes part of the “group.”  When all of us get together, the talk often goes back to the old days when the guys worked together at a little hamburger drive-in near Packard Park and the girls’ softball games.

When I start a new book (like I am now), once I have the hook and the big question the plot hangs on, I usually write a chapter to see and hear my characters, and then I make character wheels to flesh them out.  And one of the first things on each character wheel is the character’s family.  What was the mom’s name?  What does she look like?  Did she work?  What job?  What kind of personality did she have?  Any habits?  Did she and the character get along?  Any special memories?

My mom was a wonderful cook, but she always shooed us out of the kitchen, so when I married my hub, I had no idea how to boil a potato, let alone brown a pork chop.  I’m always jealous of my friends who learned special family recipes by cooking with their mom or grandma while they were growing up.

I repeat the same questions for my character’s dad, any brothers and sisters, and any relatives that influenced him/her.  Did the son tinker with cars in his dad’s garage?  My dad raised chickens, and it was my job to gather the eggs and feed them every morning.  My mom hated the sound of the recorder when I had to learn to play it in school and made me practice it in the chicken coop.  Luckily, the chickens weren’t music critiques and seemed to enjoy it.  Often, once I see my character through his family’s eyes and how he sees them, it helps me understand what motivates him and why.

After I scribble out his family background, then I work on his education.  Did he graduate high school?  College?  Trade school?  Did he like school or loathe it?  My grandson had serious ADD/ADHD and school was an every day torment for him.  Was my character popular or a loner?  And what did he do once he grew up?  Escape as fast as he could or stick close to home?  Then I scribble out where he lives and what kind of vehicle he drives.  And finally, I list two friends and how he gets along with them.  Are they old friends or new?  Did he lose any old friends and how?  Any romantic interests presently or in the past?  And then I list someone he doesn’t like and it’s mutual–an antagonist (in his life) or a villain.  By the time I finish all of those, I have a pretty good feel for my character and what shaped him.

If it’s true that no one goes unscathed by family (for better or worse) and friends are the family we choose, there’s a lot of rich history and drama, along with memories, before a character steps onto our pages.

Wherever you are on whatever project you’re working on now, happy writing!


Writing: Wait for it

I’m starting to work on a new romance (my third). I’ve immersed myself in the people and world of Mill Pond so much, I think about them while I’m working on other things. That’s why three Mill Pond short stories have snuck onto my website. In my head, the setting has become as charming as the characters who people it. I want to visit Tessa’s bakery, Harley’s vineyards, and stop at the specialty farms that dot the area. So I love Mill Pond, but I want the new novel to be a little different than the first two. I loved writing about the McGregor brothers, but I want a different set up this time. Instead of boy meets girl, there’s attraction, there are complications, until they finally get together, I wanted to change it up a little. And that’s when the trouble began.

I can picture the entire story in my head. I have a hazy vision of its twists and turns, but when I sat down to write even brief plot points, I couldn’t figure out how to let the reader know or suspect where the story was going. And that’s important. Most writers spell out the book’s big question in the first paragraph anymore, almost always on the first page, but occasionally, not until the end of the first chapter. This story didn’t fall into place that neatly. My protagonist thinks she’s in love with the wrong man. She has no interest in the right man, and he’s not interested in her. He’s interested in the unattainable, and it’s going to take them the entire book to figure it all out. Sounds like fun, right? But how to write the first chapter?

I did character wheels–more complicated than I’ve ever done. I learned new things about my characters, and that will add depth as I plod along (and when I reach the middle of a book, it IS plodding). But it didn’t fix my first chapter. So I did what I always do. I started writing and let my characters take the lead. They weren’t much smarter than I am. The first attempt was crap. It had enough little nuggets, though, to make me think of a short scene I could add. And that scene helped me think of another clue I give the readers. It took three days of writing words I knew didn’t work before I finally had a glimmer of what to do. On the last day, I left my writing room, and my husband looked at me and smiled. “You’re happy with it now,” he said. And I was.

I have nine plot points I pounded out that will head me generally in the right direction. I’m going to write two or three more chapters, let my characters fuss and get to know each other, let me listen and watch them, and then I’ll write more plot points. They keep me afloat when my brain reaches a deadend. And then I should be ready to sit down and dig in. These characters are more opinionated than most I create. Who knows what trouble they’re going to give me? I might get frustated writing this book, but I bet I don’t get bored:)

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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.  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!