Moving forward…plotting revisited

Now that I’ve stepped beyond the “we don’t want your book” response from my publisher, it’s time I dove back into the part of this whole business which is the most fun and the reason d’taire for driving oneself crazy, writing. This means starting from ground zero and working my way toward another finished book, and ground zero for me is plotting.

I like plotting. It’s one of the most enjoyable elements of the process for me, where I get to toss about ideas and develop a new plan of action. My brain, for whatever reason, really gets into this aspect of writing. Part of it is taking this massive cloud of ideas, thoughts, characters, events, settings, and the like, and plucking them out of the ether and creating something coherent and enjoyable out of it. It’s like digging into a big box of legos with all sorts of interesting pieces, pulling out ones you like and seeing what sort of thing you can build. I believe this process is something that appeals to most writers, but for some, they get it through the actual writing of the story, whereas a writer like myself prefers doing it before any words are actually on the page. If it were a house (one of my favorite analogies), I start from the foundation and work my way up, whereas other writers work on completing a room before moving on to the next, working from the inside out instead of the outside in. It’s all a manner of perspective, with the goal being the same, just the methods differing, with no one method being any better than another, just more suited to each particular writer.

My plotting starts with a paragraph idea of the story, which expands to a general synopsis of a page or two. It’s very broad stroke, just getting the general lay of the land so to speak. The purpose here is to get down the beginning, middle, and end, and a bit of info about the main characters and what the conflict is, both in action and character. Then…it sits. I stare at it a lot. I mull over ideas related to what I’ve come up with. I see where these general threads might lead. I wonder how the plot will move from beginning to middle and middle to end. I do this when I’m in the shower, doing things at work, when I lay down for bed, and so on. It’s a bit like random word association. If I start with “this” what’s a potential next step? If I want to get to “that,” what sorts of things are going to have to happen. At the end of the synopsis, I begin to write down these things, paragraphs, short blurbs, lists, that begin to fill in the meat of the story. Here’s an example paragraph from my current plotting:

In the Upper Forty, Rhoan’s investigation leads to the involvement of one of the 40th Precinct’s detectives, Stan Brickman. A hard-nosed, no bullshit man, Brickman has no love for the strange Mer, especially when it comes to meddling in his part of town. Things get complicated however, when he discovers there may be something to Rhoan’s digging around, and of course, there’s the problem of June Garwood. It figures she would end up mixed up in this mess, and now he feels responsible to make sure she keeps her nose out of places that might get her killed. After all, he did promise her mother he would be around for June if the need came up. The past always seems to catch up to you sooner or later, and Stan really wishes he had left well enough alone when he got involved with June’s mother back in his days on the water. And it certainly doesn’t help matters when the daughter has the same appeal as the mother had.

This is a brief description of one of the major characters and how he gets involved and why. I currently have about three pages of this stuff. Doing this allows me to begin to coalesce the story in my head. I’m very logical, step oriented in this process. Initially, my goal here is to cement the anchors of my story: the beginning, the  middle, and the end, with the turning points inbetween those. Once this is done, it’s time to lay down the outline, a simple format that looks something like this:

  • Summary
  • Elements to include
  • Prologue
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 10 (turning point 1)
  • Chapter 15 (midpoint)
  • Chapter 20 (turning point 2)
  • Chapter 25 (crisis point)
  • Chapter 28 (climax)
  • Chapter 30 (ending/lead-in)

That’s the basic starting point for me. It’s sits there, open on my computer at all times, which I look at off and on during my freetime, and I gradually work my way through, starting with chapter one and progressing my way through until I have a sentence or three for every chapter. At the point I will begin to put words on the page. What I want to do will be cemented pretty clearly in my mind from start to finish. Of course, things can change, sometimes things don’t work out on the page quite like I’d envisioned, but for the most part, what I plot is what I write. The biggest benefit to this is that I have little editing to do, at least structurally, when I’m done. This is a good thing for me because editing is not my strong suit. Something I need to get better at.

Anyway, that’s a little glimpse at my process of plotting, where and how I begin my stories. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t, but hopefully it’s at least interesting to read. Happy reading/writing everyone!


When Plots Go Awry

Remember when I said that I plot everything out ahead of time, so that I know exactly where I’m going, and I can pretty much write straight through once I start? Yeah, about that. Not happening this time. Somewhere along the way, Jackie, Nick and crew began to figure out some things before I had originally planned, and because of this, have ended up doing other things I had not plotted. This is probably the norm for many writers. I don’t particularly like to write this way because my flow is constantly interrupted with the fact that I’m just not sure what the characters are doing with some chapters. Flow is an important element for me when writing. When I know what’s coming up, it gives to direction to what I’m currently writing. It helps to set the stage, and my brain is working ahead, seeing how on chapter flows into the next. I like this sense of continuity. But now? I find myself stuck on a chapter, smacking my head on the keyboard trying to figure out exactly what the characters should be and will be doing. When I’m on a 1500 word per day schedule to meet deadline, trying to decipher what should and will be happening next is an issue and a pain in the ass.

I’m what you could call a “muller.” I like to mull things over, chew on them, let them stew in my head, trying things out until I can wrap my mind around exactly what I want to do. This is why I spend so much time in the pre-writing stage of things. It’s how my brain works best. When I don’t get to do that, my writing tends to meander, and I end up with stuff that will need to be edited out later. While editing is a central element to good writing, I try to avoid it as much as I can, mainly by knowing what I’m writing ahead of time. I take even more time on editing because I’m one of those writers who has a very difficult time stepping away from my writing and viewing it objectively without a significant amount of time having passed first. Being on this tight deadline does not give me that luxury. I don’t have a month to let the book sit so I can pull back enough to do some good editing. So, I am now currently staring at my most recent chapter with what amounts to a big, “Uhhhh,” as I frantically attempt to figure out just what the hell is going on and where it’s leading to. My end game has not changed. Certain events are still upcoming as planned, but the path has descended into fog, and the dim light of my brain at the moment is not doing a very good job of lighting the way.

Ah, the life of a writer. This is one of those frustrating times I like to avoid. So, back to the pages, where I will spend today smacking my characters around in the hopes that events will sort themselves and I can get back into the flow of things. Happy reading/writing everyone!

Structural Integrity

Regarding stories, I’m a very linear thinker. I got from point A to point B in straight lines. Ask me to write a convoluted story with double-crosses, hidden agendas, and double-meanings to everything, and I would have a difficult time of things. While I do plan stories out in advance, my brain just doesn’t think in such a way to make this very possible. This isn’t to say I don’t or won’t try such things because I love stories like that, but this is all just lead-in to how I like to structure stories and why I think it works (at least for me).

I think of story structure much like stairs, a connected series of flights, supported underneath at each landing by columns. I’m rather fond of using architectural analogies for writing. So,

when you build your house, do you put in the stairs first (these are you various plot lines)? No, you construct the frame of the house first, built upon a foundation. The foundation is the basis of the story, your themes and goals. Basically, why are you writing the story? In Deadworld, the main goal is to find and defeat the bad guy. The theme revolves around lives lost (both physically and emotionally) and learning how to get them back. The framwork, the walls, pillars, and such are the main turning points of the story, the places at which the themes and goals reach a certain stage of development, be it a crisis, a revelation or what have you. When I plot, this is what I work on the most. What are those important elements that will lead the characters from the bottom to the top? It’s important to not only understand how they relate to what has gone before but also what is coming up. Each set of stairs here is a particular plotline, whether it’s the action or character development. Each chapter in the plotline is a step on these stairs leading from one base of support to another. In the end, they all lead to the top, where hopefully the whole structure is fully realized.

So, I’m a bit anal in how I do this. I like structure. It helps me make sense of things. I like to see things from one point to the next, in nice linear patterns. It helps me, and hopefully for some of you, it’ll allow some insight as well. Happy reading/writing everyone!

Getting Stuck

Getting stuck at some point in a story is a pretty common affair for writers. We don’t generally have all of the elements worked out or more often than not, something happens along the way to send the story in an unexpected direction that wasn’t planned on. Characters develop along with the story and you realize they would not do something as originally thought. Basically, things can and do get off track on a regular basis. For me, hitting a roadblock in the middle of writing the story is one of the worst things. I hate having the flow interrupted, because figuring out plot issues is a very different thinking process than putting the story down on the page. This is one of the reasons why I plot the entire book out before I start writing. I don’t want to get stuck. I do however, get stuck in the plotting process.

I’m currently trying to finish my plot outline for Deadworld 3. I had a decent idea of what the main story would involve, what the major character development arc would be, and the fact that I wanted to continue a plot element briefly raised in book two. This plot element came into being as I pondered this series on a long term basis. Where did I want it to go? It could easily turn into a case to solve per book sort of series, which could and likely would be just fine. But, I like bigger things than that. I like epic stories. So, an idea spawned that I thought could turn into something great. It was vague and murky, but I decided it was something I wanted to run with. As you can likely figure out by the title of this post, I got to a point where it needs to be figured out. I can’t finish the story until I do. Frustrating. I need to know what’s going on long term, beyond this book, in order to figure out how to end this one.

Lots of ways to go about this challenge. Many writers will dive in, write up to that stuck point, and see if something comes up to solve the issue. Because of the way my brain works, I can’t do this. Not knowing the entirety of the story disrupts my creative energy for a story. I need the entire skeleton of the book laid out so I can see how the whole thing will be in the end before I dig in. Might just be me and my odd, little brain, but there you go. So, what do I do? I stare at the computer screen a lot. I look through my outline over and over again. I play around with possibilities, trying to see what grabs me the most and will work within what I’ve constructed thus far. It looks like a whole lot of nothing and feels very unproductive, especially when I’m very ready to dig into this story. I’ll talk to my wife who will spout out ideas or problems with my ideas, which helps churn the wheels. It’s a very all-over-the-place method and time consuming, but eventually small pieces will eventually fall into place and I’ll figure it out. I just wish it would hurry the hell up. I’m ready to start.

So…what do you writers out there do to figure things out when you’re stuck? I’m curious.