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.

Scene vs chapter, it matters not

I’m doing a lot of writing in the spare room lately, sitting on the futon bed.  It’s a good place to write, distraction free, quiet, and I can change position when my neck or back gets sore.  It’s going well.  I’m 10,000 words into the rewrite of draft 2 and starting to pick up the pace after my rocky start.  I mention this mostly to explain why I haven’t been posting any helpful revision posts lately.  I’m trying to get a solid chunk of words down on the draft, and I have very few to spare for the blog.

So I thought, while I’m here procrastinating, that I would have a brief discussion on writing in scenes vs writing in chapters.

In the first draft I was a writing-in-scenes gal.  I plotted out 63 tidy little scenes to get be from the front end to the back end of the story.  I wrote.  Some of them were big scenes.  Some were small.  But on average I was writing scenes about 1600 words long.

A few months ago I read a book that had eleven scenes in it.  Eleven.  It was a full sized novel.  Each scene made up one chapter.  It was a good book.  So when I finished, I went back and had a look underneath the story, at the structure the writer had used and the way he had developed his scenes.

(By the way, if you don’t already do this, start.  When you read a book that rocks your world, go back over it and try to see the hidden wires and the mirrors and all the other tricks of the magician’s trade.  I mean the writer’s trade.  It’s a great way to learn.)

At just eleven chapters, for a full-length book, we’re talking honking big scenes here.  9000 words plus.  No scene breaks.  Just one continuous flow of story.

And for that story, it worked.  There was only one POV.  The whole story ran in a continuous timeline from the first line to end.  Even the protagonist sleeping didn’t break the scene, and yet the story never faltered.  I was impressed.  (The book, if you want to do some research, is Dauntless by Jack Campbell.)  The author made good use of exposition to keep the scene moving in places where you might normally expect a scene break.  It was a good trick.

So good, in fact, that I totally stole it for draft 2 of Traitor.  The second outline has only 16 scenes, rounding out at approximately 6,600 words each.

Is it working?  Well as a matter of fact, it is.  I am finding it quite easy to write honking big scenes.  I am not having trouble with messy scene breaks.  I am also finding it a lot easier to make the scene do multiple things.  I have a lot more space to play with.  And the story reads so much more smoothly without regular breaks.

I like it.  I’m not saying that I would write every story like this from now on, but it is a tool that I have added to my toolbox.  And in the end, the only real difference between a lot of short scenes rather than fewer but longer scenes is the number of words.  The end result, the story, is basically the same.  It just comes down to style.

Your turn to pitch in.  Do you write in chapters or in scenes?  Do you write large scenes or small?  Have you ever read a book and then tried writing in the same style?  Did it work for you?  Let me know.

End of January check in

It’s the end of the month.  My read-through is complete, my spreadsheet has been filled out and I am ready to embark on draft 2.

Here are some stats on my progress so far.

Total scenes in first draft: 69

Total wordcount in first draft: 83,000

Number of scenes that made it to draft 2: 31

Points of view dropped: 1

Subplots discarded: 2

Characters expunged: 11 (!!)

Characters merged: 2

Cliches obliterated: 3

Times I loved the story: very few

Times I bemoaned my decision to be a writer: lots

Times I required alcohol: most of them

Bright moments of hope for my career: one and a half

Cups of coffee consumed: 4 hot, 1 cold

Plotting for my new story is on track, but I think it will be a while before I start writing as I have a lot of new writing to do on the revision piece.  But that’s okay.  I have all year.

How about you?  How did you do?  How are you feeling? Are you even still here?  Post about your progress below, or link to a blog post of your own.

Project 2012: Scheduling Quarter 1

I’ve been happily pottering along in my revision, and realised today while talking to Cassie that it’s already halfway through January and I haven’t posted a timeline for those who are looking for guidance.

Quarter one, as you may recall, is all about the big picture of our story.  In the first 3 months, we’re aiming to gain a better understanding of the story journey, the character arcs and the flow of events.

We’re also writing the first draft of a second novel, so by the end of March we should be at least 10,000 words into the draft.

If you’re currently panicking, relax.  This is a very modest proposal.  The first quarter is all about thinking and exploring, both in the revision and in the first draft (unless you are continuing a half-finished draft, in which case, just keep going).  There’s not a lot of actual writing time, just lots of notes, jotting down ideas, and spending time in your own head.

The important part is to spend some time with your story each day.  It could be in the shower, or driving to work, or a dedicated time in the morning/evening.  Just remember to keep a notebook handy to jot down those lightning bolts of inspiration.  But keep it all ticking over in your head and your subconscious will come out to play with all sorts of ideas and solutions to make your story stronger.

This stage is very important.  We’re trying to get deeper into the story and the characters, to move beyond a simple edit of sentences and structure, to actually identify the weak points of our stories and characters, and make them stronger.  And that is a fully creative exercise.  The more technical part comes later.  For now, we want to be creating, as if we were writing the draft from scratch.

And that’s why it’s easy at this stage to start your second draft.  The brain is in creative mode.  We are already brainstorming one story, so it’s easy to brainstorm another.  So we develop the two stories in tandem.  By the time we get to the technical part of the revision, we will have enough momentum on the new story to keep writing through our editing process.

You might think that you can’t brainstorm two stories at once.  You might be concerned that the stories will meld together in your head into one single story.  It is a valid concern, but one that we can work around, using the following strategies.

1. Make sure the stories are significantly different.

Don’t try to write two high-fantasy stories at the same time.  If you are revising a sword-and-sorcery extravaganza, think about writing an urban fantasy.  Or if you are writing in the same genre, make sure that the stories and protagonists are different enough that you won’t get confused.  I’m revising a science fiction story with a male protagonist and writing a science fiction story with a female protagonist.  One is a political thriller, one is space opera.  They have nothing in common, other than being set in space.

2. Keep your notes separate

Get a different notebook for each story.  Stick pictures on the outside to represent the story, something visual that will cue you in when you pick it up.  This helps your brain click over to the right story before you even begin writing.  If you use spreadsheets, colour the backgrounds.  Use any visual trick you can to get you into the right story at the right time.

3. Spend time in blocks

If you find it hard to have 2 stories running at once, or you struggle to switch between stories, consider working on them in blocks.  Spend 3 weeks on one story, then switch.  As a bonus, when you come back to the first story, you will often find that working on the second story has allowed your subconscious to come up with all sorts of interesting ideas on the first story.

4. Go with the inspiration

If you really, really can’t focus on two stories, then let your inspiration lead you.  Work on one until you get tired of it or stuck, and then switch to the other.  If inspiration hits, go with it.  This isn’t the most practical way to do things, but who said being creative ever followed the rules?  In the end, the process has to work for you.

So now, some dates and times.  These are a very, very loose guideline to make sure you progress towards the next stage.  Work out the timing that suits you, but no matter what, keep moving.  Keep thinking and writing.  If you’re 2 weeks in and you’ve not made any significant progress, then you might need to set yourself more stringent daily goals.  Work with what you need.

January 31:

Revision: Read-through of manuscript completed.  Plot and character spreadsheets completed.  Should have significant notes on what needs to be changed, and might also have some ideas from brainstorming.  By now you will know everything about your first draft, and where the weak points are.

First draft: Main characters should be solid.  General outline of story, type, location, outcome.  Plotting may have started.  By now you will know what story you are going to write, and how.

February 29:

Revision: New plot outline, connecting hook and climax should be complete and solid.  All character arcs showing growth and characters de-cliched.

First draft: Plotter: Outline should be ready to go.  Pantsers: Why aren’t you writing?

March 31:

Revision: Getting into the nitty gritty of theme, message, tension mapping and beats.  Scenes rearranged for maximum impact.  All these should be firmed up ready for Quarter 2.

First draft: Plotter: You should be 10,000 words in at least.  Pantser: Why aren’t you writing?

Like I said, it’s loose.  But you will find that you can’t just work on one thing at a time.  All parts of the revision are interconnected.  So look for general progress, rather than “I’ve finished that bit”.

Good luck!  Questions and panicking in the comments.

Why I write longhand

I know I promised this post days ago, but my workdays came up in the middle and they have been craaazy.  In a good way; new clients, lots of progress, but I end up mind-numbingly tired at the end of the day, and I need to focus my writing time on this marathon.

The marathon is going well.  To answer Ruzkin’s question, “Do I think I can keep up the pace?”  There’s no think about it.  This is no longer an option; it’s a certainty.  I will finish this.  It’s my willpower versus the story.  So far, I’m keeping one step ahead.  The cheering is helping immensely, though.  Thanks guys!

So, back to Diane’s question; why do I write in long hand?

I’ve tried to explain this three times, and I’ve deleted each attempt.  This is try number four.  The problem is my explanations keep ending up in a morass of neo-spiritual gobbledegook.  I’m a skeptic and an atheist.  Neo-spiritualism of any kind is abhorrence to me.

So, the practical side.

1.  It forces me to slow down.

My handwriting can’t keep up with my brain; my typing almost can.  By handwriting, I force myself to think over each sentence and each new direction before I write.  It cuts down on the waffle and the pointless sidetracking.  Not entirely, but a lot.

2.  There are no distractions.

If I sit at the computer to type, it’s all to easy to twit or checks blogs or e-mail or just mindlessly surf.  When I’m at the table, it’s just me and the page.  All I have to do to be productive is turn up with my cup of tea, and I get words.  Significant words.

3. You get a free edit.

My first drafts are still chemical sludge, but by having to transcribe the handwritten pages into the computer, I get a first-pass edit, to catch some of the more obvious errors, like spending 5 chapters writing ‘east’ when I meant ‘west’.  Or the scene where my MC forgot to put his clothes back on and walked naked across the camp, stopping along the way to have a lengthy conversation with his aunt.

Now to the not-practical side.  Feel free to skip this part.

Writing by hand is like meditation.  When I put pen to paper, the physical act, the movement, becomes soothing.  Time disappears.  The story flows unbidden from my subconscious to my hand.  I just spell out the words.

Aside from the pleasure of making forward progress, the very act of writing words has become part of the art.  The journey takes on a significance that it lacked when the pathway was keyboard and screen.

Whether you call it the muse or the creative energy or the subconscious mind, there is a wellspring of creativity that we tap into to write.  I’ve always had difficulty pushing past the logical side of mind (a.k.a the editor) to reach it.  Now I barely hear a murmur from the inner censor when I write.  Oh, he’s as loud as ever afterwards, but during, there’s a pool of silence in my mind, a peaceful place where I can write without fear.

I did warn you.  But that’s the best way I can describe how it feels to write by hand.

I can only say; try it.  If the way you currently write isn’t working for you, give it a go.  Be prepared to take time to get used to it; I would struggle to get 200 words when I started.  Now I’m producing between 1000 and 2000 words a day, in under 2 hours.  Take the time, you might be surprised at the results.

I know I was.