The other day, I started plotting my novel Smoke and Blood, the prequel to my debut novel Blood and Water. If you’ve known me longer than a few months, you know I’ve never been a big fan of plotting. Heck, while writing Blood and Water I even wrote a post detailing why I don’t outline anymore. But that was quite some time ago, and a lot has changed since then.
The biggest change has been that I am now a fan of plotting. A few people have commented that it seems like I wrote the first draft of Reflections faster than they expected, and that’s mostly due to that fact that I had the whole thing outlined. I used to be a die-hard pantser, and this strategy made a significant difference in my writing productivity. After Blood and Water, I was so sick of struggling and slogging through drafts. I needed a change. That’s why I started plotting.
It all started when I read Libbie Hawker’s book, Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Better, Faster Writing. This book changed my writing life. In a series of anecdotes and knowledge gleaned from personal experiences, Hawker provides tips for plotting a novel without losing your mind. That book, combined with this post by Rachel Aaron, made me view my process in an entirely different light. Based on what I learned from these wise ladies, here’s how I’m plotting my books going forward:
- Take note of what you know already. Whenever I get plot bunnies for a new book, I make sure to write them down in Evernote. That way, when it comes time to start plotting, I’m not starting from scratch.
- Find your characters. Rachel Aaron recommends, at a minimum, knowing your main characters, antagonists, and power players. Don’t get bogged down in character sheets right off the bat. All you need for now is names and some identifying details that are relevant to the story.
- Figure out the end and the beginning. Try deciding them in that order. Once you’ve discovered the end, it’s a lot easier to get there from the beginning. If you know the end, all you have to do is figure out how you’re going to get there.
- Determine the setting. Where and when will your novel take place? Consider some minor worldbuilding here, but like with the characters, make sure you don’t get too wrapped up in the specifics of this part.
- Fill in the gaps. If you have the beginning and the end of your novel down, all you have left to do is fill in the gaps. of course, this is much easier said than done. Focus on moving from one plot event to another, building a compelling, believable framework. Connect the major twists, scenes, and climaxes until you get to the conclusion. If you get stuck, don’t panic. That’s totally normal!
There you have it! Whether you’re a full-fledged plotter or a pantser looking for a better way to write, consider giving some of these techniques a try. If you’d like more information, I wholeheartedly recommend reading Libbie Hawker’s book. She goes into much more detail than I have in this post.
As the time this post goes live, I’ll hopefully have gotten through some of the plotting process for the Blood and Water prequel, titled Smoke and Blood. I’ve never written a series before–only standalone novels–but I’m optimistic. A lot of my readers have suggested I should make a series, and I do miss the virus-ridden kids in my debut book, so I thought it was a good idea.
Now, I’m a little anxious. I had no clue where to start. So, I sat down at my desk, drank some coffee, and make a plan. I felt better. I’m certain that part of this process will change, but it’s nice to have at least some idea where I’m going. Without further ado, here’s how I’m preparing to write a series.
- Making timelines. I didn’t make one of these bad boys before drafting Blood and Water, and it came back to bite me. When revising, I wanted to tear my hair out because I couldn’t figure out what happened when and who knew what at what time. This time around, I’m making a complete timeline for the prequel and the sequel, as well as an overarching series timeline for all the big events in the trilogy. That way, I don’t have to struggle so much with that nonsense when I go back and edit.
- Rereading Blood and Water. This one is a no-brainer. There’s so much information I dropped in that novel that I can use while drafting this one that it would be stupid not to go back and take some notes. While I am a little nervous (I haven’t read the novel since publishing it), it’s a necessary evil. It’s probably not as awful as I imagine it might be.
- Picking relevant scenes. While not having a timeline made the flashbacks in Blood and Water confusing for me at first, I’m so glad that I wrote them. Not only did they add depth to the world of they story; they also made it easier for me to outline some important scenes in the prequel. For example, I know I’m including the scene with Jay and Melanie at the museum that I mention in B&W.
- Reading The Hot Zone. Chris Mahan, among others, recommended this book to me. It’s about Ebola, which is fantastic, since that kind of hemorrhagic fever is what my virus is based on. I’m excited to dive in. I’m also taking notes, of course.
- Outlining. In addition to making different timelines, I’m also going to make a loose outline for both the prequel and the sequel, so that I can ensure all my loose ends will be tied up in the sequel. Again, I’m doing everything I can now to make things easier on myself come revisions. I used to be terrified of outlines, but I used one while drafting Reflections, and it saved my life.
- Drawing character maps. My writing is and has always been focused on my characters. With a series, one of the biggest challenges I’m facing is character growth. There’s no doubt in my mind that many aspects of these characters will change as the series progresses; I’m just not sure how much, in what ways, or why. That’s why mapping out some major changes in their personalities, goals, and relationships will help me so much moving forward.
- Worldbuilding. Since nearly every part of the characters’ lives is affected by the virus, I need to make sure that I fully understand it. In order to accomplish that, I need to come up with causes, symptoms, incubation periods, and things of that nature. Good thing I’m not squeamish.
Feel free to steal any of these ideas if you think they could help you in your writing process. Also, please let me know if you have any links/resources that could help me with this stuff. I’m slightly intimidated, but I love a good challenge. I’m ready now. Let’s do this.
What do you think? What tips can you give me for planning a series?
What tips do you have for planning a series? Take a look at @brianawrites’ preparation process. (Click to tweet)
I never used to outline. For the longest time, I got by writing without outlines. Writing without them came naturally to me. When I started using them, I felt trapped, bogged down, and nothing like myself. My whole process felt constrained. I suffocated. In my writing workshops, I was taught not to write without outlines. My professors frowned or scowled when I shunned the thought of planning. “You can’t write like that,” they said. “You’re setting yourself up for failure.” Well, they were half-right.
Outlining doesn’t work for me. For the longest time, I tried to fit in with other writers who swear by it, but the process felt forced. I was sure that everyone knew I was faking. My productivity ground to a halt. I put so much pressure on myself to do what everyone else was doing, instead of focusing on what worked for me. Since outlining wasn’t working, I must have been doing it wrong. I spent ages researching different outlining methods, trying to find out what might work for me. Heck, I even wrote some blog posts about my findings.
None of it worked for me. I stalled out. I stopped writing. I plunged into the depths of despair and had a hard time getting back up. Then, I read a post by author Ksenia Anske.
This post changed my life.
Like me, Ksenia prefers to write without an outline. Like me, she also tried outlining without much luck. It didn’t work for her, either. In the post (READ IT!), she says that if outlining works for you, keep at it. If it doesn’t, there’s no reason you need to stick to it. Do whatever works for you. In Ksenia’s words:
Don’t outline. Ditch it. Just write. If you’ve never tried it, try. It’s an amazing discovery process. You will think thoughts you didn’t know you had. Don’t be afraid to discard them, to kill them, abandon them on the road. Wait for more thoughts to come. Wait for the right thoughts to come. Deep in your gut you will know them. Recognize them. Your problem is, it’s taking a while. At first. Because you’re a beginning writer. If you are, that is. Like me. It will speed up. With time. Make sure you allot yourself this time. Quiet time. Time when you’re not distracted, bored out of your mind. Get your mind still. Make it watch your thoughts. Get lost in them. Write.
That was her bottom line, and like I said, it changed my life. Since reading that post, I ditched the outline and have never looked back. I tried outlining MUD EYES and got stuck (had to put it away). I tried it for half of BLOOD AND WATER, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m moving on.
It doesn’t matter how you write as long as it gets written.
If outlining doesn’t work for you, throw the outline away. I won’t tell anyone, I promise.
How do you feel about outlining? Are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid of the two?
How do you plot your novels, if at all? Writer @brianawrites shares why it’s okay to ditch outlines. (Click to tweet)
- After reading K.M. Weiland’s OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, I’m a reformed pantser who’s seen the light. I downloaded a Scrivener template based on her book, but the template horrified me. It stressed me out. I couldn’t used it.
Some messing around on YouTube led to my discovering this novel outlining video. Little did I know that it would change my life. The video is long, but it’s worth the watch. The outline method presented in the video is as easy to understand as it is effective.
In the video, user Kaytastic presents a 27 chapter novel outline. The story structure for a 27 chapter novel is as follows:
Set up- Introduce hero & ordinary world.
C1: Introduction (set up).
C2: Inciting incident (conflict).
C3: Immediate reaction (resolution).
Conflict- A problem disrupts hero’s life.
C4: Reaction (set up).
C5: Action (conflict).
C6: Consequence (resolution).
Resolution- Hero’s’ life has changed direction.
C7: Pressure (set up).
C8: Pinch (conflict).
C9: Push (resolution).
Set up – Hero explores new world.
C10: New world (set up).
C11: Fun & games (event/conflict).
C12: Old world contrast (resolution).
Conflict – Hero encounters crisis of new world.
C13: Build up (set up).
C14: Midpoint (conflict).
C15: Reversal (resolution).
Resolution – Hero dedicates to finding a solution.
C16: Reaction (set up).
C17: Action (conflict).
C18: Dedication (resolution).
Set up – Hero faces defeat, victory seems impossible.
C19: Trials (set up).
C20: Pinch (event/conflict).
C21: Darkest moment (resolution).
Conflict – Hero must find power and take action.
C22: Power within (set up).
C23: Action (conflict).
C24: Converge (resolution).
Resolution – Hero fights and wins, resolving quest.
C25: Battle (set up).
C26: Climax (conflict).
C27: Resolution (resolution).
This structure is so easy to set up using Scrivener. For me, it’s a great fit because it allows me to see where I’m going without making me feel too constricted. If you’re looking for a new outline method, check out those videos and try it for yourself.
How do you feel about outlining? What do you think of this 27 chapter method?
Writer @brianawrites shares a simple and effective 27 chapter outline method (via @kat_tastic). (Click to tweet)
Think outlines are too complicated? @brianawrites and @kat_tastic might be able to help. (Click to tweet)
- I am not one of those writers who outlines everything. I despise outlines. I feel like it’s more work to write a decent outline than it is to hammer out fifteen pages in an hour. I thought I would never grow to appreciate outlining–until I learned all about Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag’s Pyramid, for those of you who are a little confused, is a pattern used to display the conflict progression in a story. Most of you have seen it before, even if you didn’t know what it was called. The pyramid looks like this:It’s fine if that picture doesn’t do it for you. It doesn’t do it for me, either. Let me explain what all those words mean for the sake of your novel or short story.
- Exposition. This term refers to the start of a story. The exposition lets reader’s get a sense of the setting, characters, atmosphere, and sometimes even the conflict of a piece. In order to move from the exposition, there must be some kind of inciting incident that presents the protagonist with a problem to solve.
- Rising action. This part of the plot revolves around complications. Obstacles from the antagonist, minor characters, or other elements such as nature prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her goals. More conflicts arise, and tension mounts.
- Climax. The point of highest drama in a literary work. Everything that has been simmering under the surface comes to a head during the climax. It is also referred to as the “turning point” because it changes everything for the protagonist–for better or worse.
- Falling Action. The danger has passed, the climax ends, and the main conflict begins to wrap itself up.
- Denouement. Also called the resolution, the denouement refers to the end of the piece, after all the loose ends have been tied up into a bow. Side conflicts are resolved and the characters in the story return to their normal lives, somehow different than they were at the exposition.
See? Geometry can be exciting, even to fiction writers. But how can you use Freytag’s Pyramid as a plotting tool? This is a loose outline I compiled using this technique:
- Sharon Prince is a struggling actress searching for work in New York City. She’s been living in Manhattan for a couple of months, and she has yet to find a job. When the rent for her apartment goes up, she realizes she has to become a waitress.
- Sharon waits tables at a diner in Times Square. She doesn’t get paid much, but at least she’s making money. A customer leaves her a massive tip one night. She thinks she will finally be able to make rent.
- On her back back to the apartment, Sharon accidentally leaves her wallet on the subway. She’s sure someone has stolen it. She breaks down crying on the front stoop of her building.
- A man from the subway approaches Sharon and tries to comfort her. He hands her the wallet she thought had been stolen. He tells her that she is too pretty to cry. She tells him what’s happening. He suggests she attend a casting call taking place the next morning.
- Sharon gives the guy her number and skips up the steps. She pays her rent and returns to her apartment to practice her audition.
As you can see, this outline is rough, but it should be enough to get my point across. The great thing about Freytag’s Pyramid is that it allows you to get the sense of security from the outline while allowing for some breathing room. The next time you want to plot your story, experiment with this simple technique.
Today I stumbled across this interesting article by Maya Rodale with The Huffington Post. Written in honor of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), this articles gives some tips and tricks for cranking out a novel in close to thirty days. This method is the one I’ve been using for my novels, so I thought I’d share. Here’s what it says:
November is National Novel Writing Month and in honor of that, I thought I’d share my system (developed over the course of writing 10-plus books) for quickly producing a good novel without a ton of angst and anguish.
If cutting yourself off from the world (and Internet) at a five-star hotel with excellent room service is not an option, try the following:
Know your characters. A novel won’t work without fully developed, compelling characters. Take the time to know the hero and heroines story before you start plotting or writing. You may never explicitly use this information in the text, but it will enhance your story.
An outline is totally worth your time. I know, you want to start immediately and see where the muse leads you. Well, the muse is a trickster and may lead you down a dead end path. Or perhaps she’s using Apple Maps. With an outline, you know where you’re heading and have an idea of the route you’re going to take, which makes for a smoother journey. You can always take side trips.
Draft #1: Focus on dialogue.
Estimate word count: 40,000
The first draft of my novels is entirely dialogue. This is the most direct way to make sure your characters are telling the story and moving it forward. Unless it’s a multicharacter scene, I won’t even include tags like “he said” or “she said.” If you can’t tell when your hero or heroine is talking without identifying it, then it’s a sign you need to go back and work on their character and voice.
Draft #2: Crank out everything else.
Estimated word count: 65,000
This is another FAST draft full of description and everything else. It’s full of really awkward sentences and misplaced punctuation marks. I add lots of “TKs” (wherever something is “to come”) when I’m not sure of a word but just want to keep going.
>Print, read, make notes. Print out a copy and read it with a pen in hand. You’re not just looking for typos or ways to tighten your sentences, but also trying to figure out how the story hangs together before you write so many words that it’s a nightmare to relocate scenes. Likewise, it’s far easier on the soul to cut fluffy, useless scenes when you haven’t invested much time in them.
Draft 3: Craft.
Word count: 80,000
This is where it starts to get good. You’ve cut the rubbish scenes, sketched out some new ones. I go over each scene, line by line, really crafting my sentences by cutting useless words and selecting the very best ones to use. This is slow going, but it’s where the magic happens.
Draft 4: Give it to someone to read and do something else.
Find someone willing to read your manuscript with fresh eyes while you allow your eyes to rest by working on something else entirely. I like to get a few people to read it, if I can. And then I do not revise until I’ve gotten everyone’s feedback. If three out of three people say your first chapter is weak, it is. If one person says your heroine is vapid, one person loves her, and another commented on something else…well, that’s a muddle to sort though and it’s up to you.
Send it off into the world. After spending years in the writing world, I suspect that this is the step where most authors fail. This is what separates the published from the unpublished. I think there are many excellent books tucked under beds…but you’re not competing with those. You’re competing with the ones composed by brave authors.
So that, more or less, is the process for writing a novel in a short amount of time with limited stress and anxiety. All it comes down to is prewriting, outlining, and blood, sweat, and tears poured onto your paper or over your keyboard.
What do you think? How do you write a novel?
Note: This information comes from the following article. I cannot take credit for any of these rules.
When I stumbled on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, I realized the company knows exactly what they’re doing. It’s clear to me now why Pixar is the leading contender when it comes to film and animation. Here are a few of my favorite points:
#2: Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. More often than not, the material that gets you unstuck appears.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#19: Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it is cheating.
#22: Putting it on paper allows you to start fixing it. If a perfect idea stays in your head, you’ll never share it with anyone.
These are just a few of the excellent tips Pixar offers about storytelling. Interested? Read them all. You just might learn something.
What do you think? What is your favorite storytelling tip?
- A little while ago, I introduced you to the Signpost Outline Method for plotting stories. This technique worked for me for a little while, but I’ve never been a fan of outlines. They can feel too rigid sometimes; too strict; too limiting, if you will. While using the Signpost method, you might also find yourself feeling trapped. You might be looking for another, less confining method, and if that’s the case, then I have a potential solution. This next method is something that I discovered around the same time as the Signpost method, but I personally feel that it is much more helpful.First of all, get a stack of index cards. It doesn’t matter how many – just make sure you have enough to realistically plan a whole novel or short story. If you’d like a number count, I tend to shoot for twenty to twenty-five cards for a novel and four to five cards for a short story. Each index card will represent a scene in your work. On each index card, write a single action. By the time you’re finished, you should have a string of plotted actions that look something like this:Atalanta leaves Anderson for Julian.
Atalanta stays the week with Julian.
Julian tells Atalanta that he yearns for control and power.
Julian refers Alaric to Atalanta.
Alaric meets with Atalanta for a consultation.Alternately, you could put the actions down on paper. However, I prefer index cards because a) they’re informal, b) they’re portable, and c) you can move them around to change the sequence of events. Once I have all of my actions written down, I like to spread the cards out on the floor and rearrange them several times until I find the ideal sequence. Sometimes, when you do this, you’ll find arrangements that surprised you – sequences of events you hadn’t thought about before. This method also helps you get past writer’s block by reimagining the story arc.The Index Card Method might now work for everyone, but I wanted to suggest it in case you were looking to try something new. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this technique! Have you used the Index Card Method before? Which method of outlining do you prefer? Leave your comments below, and I’d be happy to respond to them!
- Recently, I’ve been researching different outline methods in an effort to find one that works for me. I don’t use outlines as a general rule, but there seems to be a lot of merit to them for everyone else I’ve talked to. Thanks to Writer’s Digest, I’ve discovered the signpost outline. It’s structured, but it allows for a high degree of flexibility. It looks a little something like this:Scene 1: Action SceneSETTING: The park, late afternoonCHARACTERS: Shelly, a stalkerPLOT: Shelly sits on a park bench reading the paper. She feels like someone is watching her, but when she looks around, she can’t see anyone.Scene 2: Interior/Contemplative SceneSETTING: Shelly’s house, midnightCHARACTERS: Shelly, an intruderPLOT: Shelly wakes to a sound in the middle of the night, but she thinks she must be paranoid. She thinks about the effect that her impending divorce has had on her life as she goes back to sleep. Unbeknownst to her, she has a nighttime visitor.Scene 3: Dialogue SceneSETTING: Shelly’s house, an hour laterCHARACTERS: Shelly, the policePLOT: The next morning, Shelly wakes up to find all of her underwear is missing. She calls the police, and they begin an investigation into the mysterious panty-snatcher.I’m sure there are some flaws to this method, but it’s working fine for me so far. I don’t prefer to outline, but if you do, this is a great strategy. If you’re averse to outlining, you might want to give this style a shot.