Project 2012: It’s June

Somewhere near Esk in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

I’m a pretty organised person.  I like to plan things out so I know exactly what I’m doing when.  I’ve got a full time job, a child and an addiction to Diablo 3.  There is no such thing as spare time.

I planned out this year from January to December with the ultimate goal of submitting my first novel in January 2013 while also completing the first draft of a new novel.

How’s it going, I hear you ask?

Well, you might as well say I planned to drive to Melbourne and ended up in Darwin.

Okay, so it’s not that bad.  But the original road map has flown out the window.  The novel I wanted to work on turned out to be not strong enough to be worth it.  So I put that away and decided to work a completed novella up to submission status.  That, I’m pleased to say, is coming along well.  I’m 3/4 of the way through the second pass.

In the meantime, I finished an 8k short that had been languishing on my heard drive for 5 years.  I completed a 10k short that I want to submit to Extreme Planets anthology.  I’m 3.5k into a novella for Crossed Genre’s Winter Well anthology.

I can’t help it, I just love short stories.

But while I’ve been doing this, I have also been thinking about my next novel draft, and I have one in my sights.  Writing starts 1st July.

So while I’m nowhere near where I planned to be, I’m not upset.  I’ve revised my plan and kept moving forward.  I’ve been writing and revising the whole time (except for 2 weeks where I angsted over some words that were really giving me trouble).

I could have thrown my hands in the air and given up.  I could have let the failure of that first novel send me into a spiral of writer’s block.

But I have learned three important things from writing and selling short stories.

  1. Not every story will work, no matter what you do to it.
  2. New ideas will always come along, demanding to be written.
  3. If you keep writing and learning and improving, you will sell stories.

I am not at all upset that this year didn’t fit in with my big plan.  Because I still have that big plan.  The end date has just blown out a little.  And in the meantime I have explored new stories and learned more about the craft of writing and revision.

Never let a wrong turn make you miserable.  You never know what you might see along the way.  Just keep driving.

Your turn: how has the first half of the year gone for you?  Have you lost your way?  Are you still driving?

Project 2012: an example of revision in action

If you’re having trouble getting to grips with Draft #2, or if you’re curious to see how other people revise, hop over and have a look at Kerryn’s disgustingly organised revision.

It was incredibly refreshing to start the outline of Draft II from scratch. I could follow the flow of the story where it was strongest without the terrible feeling that I was deleting thousands of words or even one scene from the first draft. The whole structure and text from the first draft is still there in Scrivener under the Draft folder. The reference in my spread sheet was enough that I could zoom in to the scene level when I needed to while still allowing me the freedom of restricting the novel as it needed. And so Draft II was born with 40 scenes.

I’m in awe.  My revisions, while following the same process, never look this neat.  Nice work, Kerryn!

Project 2012: End of Quarter 1

Well, here we are at the end of the first quarter.  It’s only been 3 months but it feels like a lifetime.

This quarter was all  the big picture.

  • Hook versus climax
  • Plot arc
  • Character arcs
  • Mapping tension
  • Voice, tone and language

By now you should have completed the read-through of the revision project to develop and understanding of the weak and strong points of your story.  You should have re-plotted where you need to, to bring the loose first draft into a coherent story.  You should have scrutinized your characters’ journeys to make sure that they get where they are going, and that you only have as many characters as your need.  You should have examined your plot for the up and down beats that develop tension, and made sure the tension rises from the beginning to the middle to the end.  You should have firmed up the voice of your work so you can be consistent all the way through.

For your first draft project, you should have either a developed plot to write, or be well into the draft if you are a pantser.

My personal journey through this first quarter was full of ups and downs.  After the initial read-through of the revision project, I scrapped the lot and started again.  It took me another 40,000 words of writing the second draft before I realised this story was never going to be what I needed it to be.  So I put it to bed.

In the meantime I started revising another project and plotting for 2 more.  So while I am behind on the first draft project, I am up to speed on the second revision project.

April 1st brings us into quarter 2.

Second quarter is all about the chapters, zooming in to make sure that each section of your book develops the story, advances the plot and illustrates character development.   You’ll be looking at flow and movement and making sure each chapter strengthens the work and moves the story forward. For each chapter you’ll be looking at:

  • Hook to climax – chapter
  • Rising tension
  • Character development

Now that you have your big picture and your story and character arcs, you need to start looking at chapters (or scenes) and making sure that each one strengthens your story as a whole.  You should have already discarded the weak scenes in quarter 1.  Look at each chapter and the events, and how they contribute to the story as a whole.  You will be writing a lot of new words in this quarter as you manipulate your scenes and chapters to bring them into line with your overall plan.  But remember, don’t worry too much about the prose at this stage, because it can still change.  We’re still looking at the big picture, we’ve just zoomed in a degree.

See the whole program outline for Project 2012.

In the comments (or on your blog) let us know how you are going, and how you feel about tackling the next stage.

Project 2012: Revision and story length

Dizzytangerine asked:

When you’re done, should your novel be longer or shorter? Meaning do you tend to add more content or delete. Thanks in advance!

Whether you end up with a longer or shorter novel depends on what you need to do to tighten and strengthen your story.

For some writers, the first draft is a concise exploration of the basic ideas, to be expanded on in the second draft.  For these writers, the second draft will be longer.

For some writers, the first draft includes a lot of extra information as the writing explores and expands on their original idea.   For these writers, the second draft should be shorter.

Look at the length of your first draft.  Is it in the range of 90,000-120,000 words?  Good.  Stick with that.  If it’s under, you have room to add words.  If it’s over, mostly you should be looking for things to cut.

I usually write short first drafts, because when I’m writing I leave out a lot of description and feelings in my rush to get the story down. When I do a second draft I still cut, but I also spend a lot of time expanding on the world and expressing the characters’ feelings.

What about you?  Are your first drafts long and wordy, or short and curt?

 

Project 2012: Finding your plot

Jessica asked:

Any tips for plotting a novel you pantsed the first draft of? When I wrote my first draft I didn’t have one and now I’m trying to figure out a plot for my novel because I’m revising it and it’s not working very well.

A good question, and one I’m sure more than one of us has had problems with before.  Sometimes even with an outline you’ll end up with a plot disaster that needs a major rework.

Not to worry.  Revising the plotless story is a simple process.  It’s not a short process, but it is a simple one.

Step One: Character

Who are your characters?  What do they want?  Character goals and motivations are the driving force of plotting.  What kind of goals they have depends on the genre.  Think about it.  There are thousands of Mystery novels out there, all with the same basic premise: somebody dies and the main character needs to find out who kills them.  So why aren’t they all the same?  Because it’s the character who is doing the investigating that makes each plot unique.

So when you approach plot, it’s a good idea to start from character.  Make sure you have a clear idea of the main characters and what drives them through the story.  Why are they involved?  Why is it their story?  What is it about this character that you want to show to the reader?  What drives them to be who they are and do what they do?

Spend some time on your main characters and be sure that they are real people with goals and motivations, and not just ciphers carrying the Big Idea around.

Now write down what each main character wants in one sentence.  Jane wants…  John wants… If you can’t put your character’s goal in one sentence, consider revising the goal.  For example, I want a million dollars.  Who I am will determine how I go about achieving that goal – do I rob a bank, do I head for Las Vegas, do I sell drugs or do I set up my own business and work tirelessly to achieve my goals?  Character and goal are important and interlinked.  Spend time with them both.

Step Two: Conflict

Plot, at its most basic level, is about conflict.  Man vs. man, woman vs. nature etc.  This is a very simplified view, of course.  What makes the plot live is not man vs. man but John McClane vs. Hans Gruber.  It’s about two opposing forces going head to head.  And that’s the key to a plot.  Evil king invades the land is not a plot.  That’s a setting.  Whiny farmboy must save his sister is a plot.   And to turn character into plot, you add conflict.

Conflict in fiction (and in life) comes in three types.

  1. Personal conflict
  2. Environmental conflict
  3. Inner conflict

Personal conflict

Personal conflict is one character against another.  It’s goal against goal.  It is driven by your character’s motivations and needs.  It results from conscious actions from the protagonist and antagonist.  One character performs an action that affects another character in a negative way, and bang!  Conflict.

Environmental conflict

This is the conflict that comes about from the setting of the story.  Evil king invading is environmental conflict.  So is misogynist society, racism (Huckleberry Finn) dystopia (A Handmaiden’s Tale, The Road), frozen moon, desert society (Dune).  Any part of the setting, whether physical or cultural, that affects the actions and freedoms of your characters is a conflict that forms part of the plot.  Don’t neglect it.  It can turn a bad situation into a disaster.  And disasters make great fiction.

Inner conflict

Inner conflict is the character fighting (or not) against themselves.  It’s the naturally shy character trying to survive high-school (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).  It’s the son going to law school to please his parents when all he wants to do is act (Dead Poet’s Society). It’s the sorcerer shunning society out of fear of his own power (The Name of the Wind).  While it doesn’t often drive the plot, it is a powerful source of conflict for any character who is out of his comfort zone.  Don’t neglect it.  Make sure you throw things at your character that are going to mess with the very essence of who they are.

Now you should have your characters and goals and the setting.  Look at your characters’ goals and ask yourself, what is standing in their way?  What’s stopping them from getting what they want?  What force is opposing your main character?  (A note: if your antagonist is a group, e.g. an evil cult, it’s a good idea to have a single character do most of the opposing.  This puts a “face” on your antagonist, rather than have them exist as some sort of evil hive-mind.  Unless they really ARE an evil hive-mind.  Hmm.)

Now extend each character’s sentences from step one.  Jane wants to be a doctor but girls can’t go to school in Pakistan.  John wants to survive but the zombies have found a way through the fence.  And yes, survival is a perfectly legitimate goal. (For more on this, check out Maslow’s Pyramid and writing.  There are plenty of resources – here’s one to get you started.)

Once you have this sentence, you have your plot.  Really, it’s that simple.

These first two steps are very important.  You cannot move on to the next steps until you really have a grip on this.  So take your time.  Read.  Think.  Create.  Don’t rush.

And if you’re lucky, all this will already be in your first draft.  You will have already done a lot of the exploring of character and setting as you write.  If you’re lucky, all you will need to do is find it and do some tweaking.

If you’re unlucky, like me, you’ll need to throw the whole thing away and start again.  No, stop crying.  Really.  This can only make your story stronger.  Have a tissue.  Better?  Let’s move on then.

Step Three: Cards

Now we get down to the physical.  There’s less creativity and more order here, but don’t neglect it.  This helps you to pinpoint the weak parts of your story.

First you need to work out what you already have.  Read each scene and figure out its purpose.  What happens that lines up with your character’s core conflict?

Now reduce each scene to a sentence.

  • Tarzan rescues Jane and takes her to his tree house. 
  • Tarzan demands Jane do the cooking and cleaning.
  •  Jane stalks out and gets a job as a safari guide. 
  • Tarzan is lonely and realises Jane is more important that his misogynist principles. 
  • Tarzan seeks out Jane at the safari park and begs her to return. 
  • Jane and Tarzan hug, and draw up a roster for cooking and cleaning.

If you are having difficulty pinpointing the core concept of the scene, put a big fat question mark next to it.  Because if the conflict isn’t immediately apparent to you, the writer, it’s going to be fog and elevator music to the reader.  Don’t let that happen.

Take your time with this one.  Sometimes you’ll need to spend a couple of days mulling things over.  Often you’ll get ideas on how to strengthen the core conflicts.  Jot these down, they’ll be very useful later.  At the end, you should have a stack of cards (physical or electronic) that break your novel down into a neat package.

Note that you don’t have to use cards.  You can use a piece of A4 for each scene.  You can use a notebook, and write each scene on it’s own page.  But the value of the cards is that you don’t have to pull your book apart to rearrange scenes, and it really forces you to condense the scene to its essence.

Step Four: Cull

This is the hard part, the part that makes a lot of writers cry.  You have to go through, merciless and dispassionate, and cull any scene that doesn’t add to your plot.  So that wonderful scene where Jane paints a masterpiece and looks out over the jungle, musing on its cruel beauty?  Yeah.  In the bin.

You could have a ceremony where you don black crepe and a veil, print out each discarded scene, cremate them and scatter their ashes on your hopes and dreams.  Or you could just suck it up, professional writer in training that you are, cut them from your narrative and put them in another file.

I don’t suggest you delete them, because you never know when you can steal a little bit from a discarded scene that will fit perfectly in your new improved scenes.  But don’t hold on to them.  They are a dead weight that will hang like a stone around the neck of your story and drown it in mediocre.

A well-written scene is useless if it doesn’t advance the plot. A scene is useless if it has no conflict.  A scene is useless if the situation at the end of the scene is the same as at the beginning.  Read your scenes.  What changes?  Write that down.  If nothing changes, junk it.

Step 5: Construct

Now you have the bare, skeletal bones of a story. The amount of flesh left on those bones will depend on how much your original draft supported your character’s core conflicts.

Now you need to read the story in your head.  What do you need to add to fill in the gaps between the surviving scenes?  What do you need to change in each scene to make it a better fit with your plot?

Figure out what you need to fill in to make it work, and write those scenes from scratch.

With your BLOOOOOD.

There you have it; a five-step method to find your plot and turn it into a finished draft.  I hope that helps, Jessica, and good luck with your next draft.

Project 2012: Questions on revision

Does anyone have a particular question related to revising?  I know I’m tootling along here doing my own thing, and I have some specific posts lined up, but is there anything that you struggle with?  Any part of revising where you simply don’t know where to start?  Anything on a specific aspect of revision that’s giving you grief, such as characters, voice, tension,plot?

Throw them at me and I will answer them this week.

 

Project 2012: What to do with draft number two

At this stage, if you are following along, you will have completed the read through of your first draft and removed those scenes that don’t add to the narrative.  You will have saved the surviving scenes into a new document.  This is draft two, and this is where we start to do a lot of structural work.  So open your spreadsheet, grab some notepaper and lets get to work.

Before we start, lets talk about structure

Eye of the Mother-Ship by sunsurfr

There are as many ways to structure a novel as there are grains of sand on the beach.  Okay, maybe there aren’t that many.  But there’s certainly more than way to do it.  How the novel is structured depends on a lot of different factors: who is telling the story, what genre it is, what type of story, what the author is trying to achieve.  So don’t rush out looking for the “perfect” novel structure.  It doesn’t exist.  What you want to find is the structure that is right for your story.

Beats and rhythm

One of the most important parts of structure is the rhythm of your story, how and when you deliver the high- and low-intensity scenes to your readers.  Think of the big set-pieces in your novel: the moment where it all goes wrong, the moment where your main character hits rock bottom, the moment when he comes face to face with the antagonist for the first time (literally or figuratively) and that moment when the two opposing forces in your novel come together for the final showdown.  These are the “beats” of your story.

In general, (and I say this advisedly, because there is always an exception), each “beat” should bump the tension up a degree until the point where it explodes, i.e. the climax.  And rather than go into a long and rambling analogy involving sex, I’ll direct you to a recent and excellent post by Chuck Wendig on the subject (language warning!).  Go read.  Done?  Okay.  That’s most of what you need to know.  So now let’s get to work.

Constructing your story

If you did a lot of plotting before you wrote the first draft, you might already have a structure set out.  If you wrote by the seat of your pants, you might be a bit all over the place.

The goal of this step is to make sure that the order of your scenes and chapters lends itself to building rising tension in your story.  You also want to make sure that you don’t have a couple of beat scenes in a row followed by a long stretch where the tension stays the same.  Spend as much time as you need on this step, because it will save you hours of time and a great deal of angst later on.  You don’t want to revise an entire chapter, only to find that it it needs to move to the front of your story and be revised AGAIN.  Get the order right now.  Worry about the prose later.

The how-to

This is all hard work.  Don’t think it’s going to be easy, or over in one session.  Even if you plotted before the first draft, I will venture to suggest that things have changed as you wrote and there are still improvements you can make.

Firstly, write out a list of your scenes.  Either put each one on a notecard, or if you are using something like Scrivener, make sure each corkboard card has a summary of the scene on it for you to refer to.

Now pick some colours.  You might choose red for a beat scene, yellow for an action scene, blue for a quieter scene of introspection or character building.  Scenes can be more than just one of these things, but there will usually be a predominance of either action or introspection.

Also remember that an action scene doesn’t mean car chases and explosions.  If you are writing a romance, the action scene might be one where your two main characters are in conflict, with each other or someone else.

Go mad with your colours.  If you find a scene that you can’t tag easily, put it aside for now.  This might be a good indication that it doesn’t serve a purpose.  When each scene has been tagged, sit back and look at your story.  Do you have a lot of blue scenes all in a row?  Are the scenes well spaced out in terms of action and introspection?  Are all of your beat scenes towards the end of your story?  (If they are, consider cutting most of the scenes that come in front of the beat scenes.  It’s often a sign that you have started your story too early.) Do you have a cluster of red and yellow at the beginning of your novel, but a big blue expanse in the middle?

The next part is pure fun.  Get your cards and start moving them around.  Shift scenes to try and get a good buildup of tension and remove any clusters of colour.  Yes, this will mean that some scenes will need to be rewritten, or even removed.  But it is worth it to strengthen your story, so don’t be afraid to throw those words out if you have to.

When you have a potentially good structure happening, stop.  Take a photo or a screenshot and give it a name (e.g. structure #1).  Now grab your notepaper and go through, looking for places where the structure change has interrupted the narrative. Make notes on what scenes need to be changed to fit.  Look for opportunities for new scenes that increase the tension and add to the flow.

As you go through, you are likely to get more ideas on changes.  Don’t change this structure!  Make notes, but do the whole process without altering structure one, otherwise you risk getting yourself and your story in a tangle.

When you have finished, put your notes together with that structure.  THEN go back, make the changes you identified, and run through the exercise again.

After a few goes, you will find that certain scenes will stay where they are.  When you are down to shuffling a couple of blue scenes around, stop.  Leave it alone for a while and go write some more on your new story.  Leave it long enough to get some distance (1-2 weeks at least) then go back and read it again.

Is it still working for you?  Can you actually feel the building tension as you read the scene notes?  If you can, well done.  Make any tweaks and get ready for the next step.

If you can’t, then you need to start thinking about why.  The progression of the story should be just as visible, if not more visible, at the precis stage.  If you can’t see the progression of the story when looking at it like this, there’s a good chance that you might not have a strong plot, just a collection of events.  And this might mean some major replotting is required.  Don’t be down.  Better to spend time making an average story great, than to spend hours revising a story that has serious structural problems.

So go to it.  Have a look at the bones of your story and see what you can do to strengthen the structure and make the narrative more powerful.