Friday, April 27, 2012

Resources to Help You Plan Your Book: Plot Talk, Pt 5

Courtesy of Google Images
I'm wrapping up the plotting and pantsing series with some great resources recommended by several Twitter friends, that I didn't yet mention in parts 1-4 of the series. (If you want to check those out, the links are below.)

And... I'm doing a little giveaway too. Details at the bottom of the post!

But first, let me make my own final recommendation: Jim Butcher's blog. If you've read my blog for a while, you already know I love The Dresden Files as a reader. I also highly respect Butcher as a writer. He is one of the few people who has kept me around for 13 books and counting, and frankly, I'm jonesing for his next book in the series.

Part of my passion results from the terrific cast of characters, who I just don't get tired of. But I also admire Butcher's ability to keep his plots moving. He is a master of scene and sequel, and he talks quite a bit about how he learned to write on his Live Journal blog. Page down to his posts on writing, and you will definitely learn something about structuring a novel. I know I have.

Now, for some friends and their recommendations...

Rene Sears (@renesears), who guest posted for part 3 of this series (see link below), recommended the Kait Nolan post, From Pantser to Plotter. Kait's post captures a lot of the problems that arise when you're pantsing without a plan, a hope, a prayer... You get what I mean. It's worth a read. (And the pictures are great too!)

Joe Hesch (@JAHesch) recommended K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel, a $2.99 ebook available on her website. I haven't read it myself, but since Joe is recommending it, I'm sure it's a useful resource.

Lisa Hall-Wilson (@LisaHallWilson) suggested using the templates available at the Self Publishing Team blog. For some reason, I wasn't able to access the website when I wrote this post. So, I hope the site is just temporarily down.

The social media guru for writers, KristenLamb (@KristenLambTX), suggested Larry Brooks' Story Engineering. His blog is storyfix.com, which Rene also recommended in her post. Kristen also said that Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) is a must-have. 

Rosalie Lario's post on Using Turning Points to Pace Your Novel shows how planning (aka plotting) your big moments in the novel, and spacing them properly, helps you propel the reader forward, creating a quick read. I have to apologize to whoever recommended this post to me. I can't find it in my Twitter feed. If it was you, let me know, so I can credit you here!

If you missed the earlier posts in this series, check them out here:

To Pants or Not to Pants
Common Myths About Plots and Pants
Learning to Love Preplanning
Making My Own Map

Ok, now for the giveaway contest... I've got several books that I've enjoyed, but hey, I have to clear shelf space. So, I'm going to start giving them away. This week's giveaway is the young adult dystopian novel Variant by Robison Wells, one copy in hardcover. Here's my review of it. You get one entry each for doing the following:

  • Comment on this post and let me know you want the book, as well as sharing something about your experience with plotting and pantsing
  • Like my Chipper Muse page on Facebook (or if you've already liked it, leave a comment there)
  • Tweet this post or another Chipper Muse blog post to your followers, and be sure to @chippermuse me so I know you tweeted about me.

I'll announce the winner on Friday, May 11. So be sure to join in the fun! See you next week!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Making My Own Map: Plot Talk for Writers, Pt 4

This week, as promised, I'm sharing how I personally plot stories. My experience as a writer, teacher, and editor is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. You have to play around with writing techniques until you find what works for you, and you can always learn new tricks.

In fact, that's exactly how I'd describe my evolution in plotting. I'm like a dog learning a new trick. And not a bright dog either. More like Odie. But even the goofiest puppy can learn something. And so, let me share what works for me, and what doesn't. I'll be interested to find out where you and I share similarities, and where we differ.

A mix of plotting and pantsing. We've talked about this in earlier posts (see the links below), so I'll cut to the chase.

Why this works for me: Having a sense of where I'm going helps me to figure out what to write. I like to plot just enough to know some of the main events of the story. I use 3 x 5 cards and make simple notes like this: "Shae goes to see her father at the asylum, which bizarrely is designed like a fancy law firm. She confronts him about the key. He reveals that there is a storage unit, then flips out and has to be sedated. Shae leaves with a plan to go to the unit soon." I don't get more specific than this.

Instead, I draft the scene and see what happens. For me, too much detail in outlining gets me off-track and I don't finish what I start. As I sit down and start typing, I go with the flow and let my subconscious go to work. I write a good deal by instinct and follow my gut.

For my current work-in-progress, I didn't have all the major plot points in mind before I started writing. I only knew a few. But when I hit a third of the way through the draft, I applied the seven-point story structure to it (I talk about this method below). Applying structure after I had a third of the book drafted really helped me. I was able to see the missing pieces and identify what needed to happen. Now I have my plot synopsis done, and I'm back to writing. This is the first time I have created a full plot map (not detailed, but complete nevertheless) without feeling that I forced it. In other words, I have a firm plan and yet I'm still excited about finishing the novel. For me, this is HUGE. And it's why I wanted to share with you about plotting and pantsing.

Highly detailed character sheets
There is a logic to using character sheets. They can help you make your characters three-dimensional. They can suggest contradictions that lead to conflict. They are a good tool for keeping track of details you might otherwise forget. Learn about them here.

Why they don't work for me: While keeping notes is always a good idea, I don't do well with planning the small details, like whether my protagonist likes dogs, unless that trait is meaningful to the story. It's important to know your characters' internal and external motivations, their values, and how they'll change in the course of events. But I don't need a character sheet for that. I remember it in my head.

Starting with a character in a setting that challenges them in some way
I get a mental picture of a person in the middle of a problem or a surprise, and my brain goes to work asking what the person is experiencing, and how she feels about it. This is the essence of story. I freewrite the scene to see where it goes. This often leads to a premise for a story.

Why it works for me: I have no idea, but I've always done this, so I'm keeping it up. Some things are instinctive. When you have an instinct that works for you, don't be ashamed to use it.

The snowflake method
The idea behind this plotting tool is to start with a bare bones story structure...the very basics, like the one-sentence premise...and then progressively build details in to add nuance and depth. Find it here.

Why it (mostly) doesn't work for me: It's logical to fine tune your premise because without a clear premise, your story will meander, and you may get lost and never finish. But there are several steps to the snowflake method, and at some point, I lose the sense of creating an organic story. Once the story feels contrived, I check out mentally. So I have to stop planning and start writing before I hit that point.

The hero's journey
If you haven't heard of the hero's journey... Well, I'm sure you have because it's so ubiquitous. But for the sake of thoroughness, this is the concept that stories about heroes share certain incidents that have to happen because they force the hero's development. Learn about it here.

Why it kind of works for me, but not completely: There are some basic elements of story captured by the hero's journey, like the idea that the hero is in his normal world when he is called to adventure, and usually he resists the call in some sense before he commits to it. This mirrors the real world, where most of us don't change unless we have sufficient motivation to deal with the discomfort. But planning a story based on the hero's journey can start to feel contrived. And as I said earlier, I check out of a story the moment it stops feeling natural. So I use elements of the journey at times to think about what might happen in the story, but I don't use it as a firm roadmap.

The seven-point story structure method.
It may be that this has been around forever, but I associate this method with YA author Dan Wells, who talks about it on his blog and has a great video series about it on YouTube, which I highly recommend you watch because it's so informative. The essence of this concept is that you can plan your story around seven major beats. (It's like a more detailed version of the three-act structure.)

Why it works great for me: This is the method I'm using to plot my current novel. And to be fair, I had to do some freewriting and playing around to get a sense of the story I wanted to tell before I could shape it into a plot with the seven-point story structure. However, after I had enough of a sense of the characters and possible plot events, I was able to see how it all fit into several major beats, and I was able to fill in the missing beats quickly because I could see what was missing and why. My gut tells me that as I get more familiar with this method, I'll find it easier to plot ahead of time and write faster.

Other plotting resources that you should really check out:

25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story by Chuck Wendig
Chuck is the man. Seriously. He curses a lot, but he is so good at distilling concepts down to a manageable bite that you can chew on, you should make it a habit to read his blog. This post on plotting is very useful.

Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure by Holly Lisle
Holly runs a good blog, with lots of resources for writers available by membership, other resources for free. Her notecarding method helps you examine your plots and subplots to be sure the story structure is balanced. Plus, the brainstorming aspect is appealing.

Fire Up Your Fiction by Donald Maass
Donald Maass has his own literary agency and he is one big player, but more than that, he has a really strong sense of how to ramp up your little story idea into a killer premise. He understands story structure. His advice pushes me to challenge myself and aim higher, which I think is probably what will help me land a book deal one day. You might also check out his books. I have found Writing the Breakout Novel immensely helpful.

Be sure to check out the earlier posts in this series:

To Pants or Not to Pants
Common Myths about Plots and Pants
Learning to Love Preplanning

I'd love to hear more about the plot techniques that do or don't work for you! Tell me all about it. And have a great week plotting, or pantsing, or both.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning to Love Preplanning: Plot Talk, part 3

When I started this series on plot (in part an attempt to tackle my own challenges with preplanning a novel), I asked my Twitter buddies if they started out as pantsers, only to grow better at plotting in advance. Enter Rene Sears, a supportive Twitter friend and writer who agreed to share her thoughts on why she is growing fonder of plotting her fiction. Hope you enjoy her guest post, and when you're done, follow her on Twitter. Her contact info is below. Thanks for sharing, Rene!




Preplanning, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plot


Guest Post by Rene Sears


I've always written. In creative writing classes in high school, bits and pieces in journals, comics in my sketchbook, some truly appalling poetry in college which I then inflicted upon my fellow students at coffeehouse poetry readings. (You're welcome, fellow students!) But the vast majority of what I wrote weren't stories, as such, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I wrote character sketches, vignettes, slices of life that meandered  on for a few pages and then petered out. I took a short story writing class at the local university after I moved home from college; I produced some more rambling pages, but although the professor seemed to like them, they lacked resolution. They weren't satisfying.

About five years ago, I decided to get serious about writing, as a result of a conversation with my husband. We were talking about things we'd like to do, the kind of things you dream about getting around to, but haven't yet for whatever reason. One of mine was write a novel.

So I did. I sat down at the computer with a few vague ideas. I was going to write about an undead assassin who gets an assignment to kill the mistress of a political leader--only when he goes to kill her, she's the last descendant  of his lover, who's been dead for centuries. 

That was pretty much all I had getting started. After that, what I had in mind was "then they go on the run" with maybe "and they fight crime." It's an okay set-up (at least there's some inherent conflict and he has some sort of motivation), but what are they up against (besides the people who wanted her killed)? What changes? How does it end? What happens?

I didn't know, and I was too excited to wait. I plunged in, and ended up writing a completely different book, featuring the same main character, about how he became an undead assassin and how his lover died. In hindsight, the reason I ended up writing the 'prequel' instead of the book I intended to write was because I knew how it ended, and with the book I planned to write, I had no clue.

Like many first books, it was awful. The middle was extremely long and saggy (while I knew how it started and how it ended, I had no idea of the stops along the way), and it was packed with cliché upon cliché. The main character was too passive, and didn't change much (emotionally, that is; he did become undead) over the course of the novel. I went through the entire manuscript and made extensive notes on where I would revise it, but I never did. It had so many problems and I didn't love it enough to fix them all. On the plus side, I could look at the first chapter and the last and see the vast improvement I had made in sentence-level writing in that hundred thousand words.

On the greater level, structurally, I could tell that I needed to learn a lot. The best way to learn writing is to write; but there's no need to reinvent the wheel, either. I wanted to inform myself so that I could identify where I was going wrong. Writing with an eye to what you want to improve will bring your craft to a higher level more quickly than just seeking to produce a volume of words.

Luckily, there are many, many resources available to the aspiring novelist, both online and in your local bookstore. (I list some of my favorites below.)  I read extensively, trying to figure out what works for me and what doesn't.

I have come to the conclusion that, for me, what's important is not necessarily a scene-by-scene outline, but knowledge of the important emotional beats and the "hinges" of the action: where motivations change, where characters make important choices--plot points. One of the most important things my first book taught me (besides that I have the capability to improve) is the importance of knowing the end. The events might change in the process of getting there, but for me, it's vital to have something to aim toward. What matters is not so much the mechanics of figuring it out (beat sheets, scene cards, outline, synopsis--I've tried them all, and each has varying degrees of usefulness), but that I put the thought in beforehand.

There are writers who don't need to do this, who write as it comes, and who end up with publishable novels. I am not one of them. The more books I write, the more I see the value of pre-planning. It's not that I can't stray off the map, but with an idea of where I'm going and what I'm trying to do, leaving the path is more likely to be fruitful. Without it, I get stuck in the brambles.

Some resources for plotting that you might check out:

www.storyfix.com -Larry Brooks' website on story planning. (He also has a book, Story Engineering.)

http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/ - Alexandra Sokoloff's excellent site; she also has a book, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (And Screenwriters!)

http://hollylisle.com/my-articles/ - Holly Lisle has a number of useful articles and workshops free on her website, in addition to some paid content.

Elements of Fiction Writing--Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress

How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman


Many thanks to Michele for inviting me to her blog! I am an unpublished writer constantly striving to improve my writing. I am also the editorial assistant to Lou Anders/ first reader at Pyr ( www.pyrsf.com ). You can find me at @renesears on Twitter.


----


Yes, please give Rene some Twitter love! And if you have your own plotting resources, ideas, and stories to share, I want to hear about it. Next week, I'll talk about my own favorite plotting tools, as well as some honest comments on what hasn't worked for me (though it make work for you), and some more links to good plotting resources in print and online.


Read part 1 of this series, To Pants or Not to Pants.
Read part 2 of this series, Common Myths About Plots and Pants.


Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta for this post's intro and conclusion. Guest post titled "Preplanning, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plot" copyright (c) 2012 by Rene Sears, with rights to share it on this blog. Thanks, Rene! And yes, all rights reserved.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Common Myths about Plots and Pants: Plotting Talk for Writers, Pt 2

Last week, I gave you a little window into the madness of the Chipper Muse's mind when it comes to planning a writing project. As discussed, I am more disorganized than I care to admit, but I'm growing to appreciate plotting more than I used to. I suspect all writers wrestle with this issue at some point in their career.
Image from the blog of Rob, a writer.
http://robertstevenson.wordpress.com 


Today, let's look at some common myths about plotting versus pantsing, and why we should jettison them.


Myth #1: Plotting is hard. Pantsing is easy.


Some people have the idea that writing by the seat of your pants is far easier than taking the time to craft an outline. I don't know why they think this. Perhaps it comes from too many painful outline assignments in high school history class, but the thought of organizing before writing scares the hell out of many writers.


Now, I agree that outlining can be tedious. And it certainly is hard work. But pantsing is not any easier. You're still putting forth the effort to get words on paper, in the right order, revealing the right thing, and leading inexorably to the climax of your story. The difference between plotting or pantsing comes not from how hard you work, but where and when the hard work happens. For the plotter, a lot of effort gets expended before they write, as they figure out how details and logic lead from scene to scene. For the pantser, much of the effort is expended during and after they write, when they have a draft to shape.


It's like the difference between being the architect of a building, who draws his plans in detail before laying brick upon brick, verses the pottery artist, who throws the clay on the potter's wheel and makes corrections to what he's throwing as he works. Both methods produce something beautiful in the end, when done well. And both take hard work and thought before the product is finished.


Myth #2: You're either a plotter or a pantser. Can't be both.


As I said last week, I don't believe this is true, because I am a hybrid writer, both plotter and pantser. I do some plotting before I begin writing. The outline is never fully fleshed out, but it's not totally absent either. It's simply incomplete. I fill in plot notes as I write, because that's often when ideas come to me. (They also arrive when I'm driving or when I'm ready to fall asleep at night. Oh, those sneaky ideas...)


And I'm not the only one. Many writers talk about how they have morphed from pantser into plotter. Or even plotter into pantser, though that's a bit rarer. Many writers describe doing both. They outline and then are willing to go off the outline if the rabbit trail looks good enough. Or they start out as a pantser only to get lost and have to outline to map their way ahead.


This is why it's so important to write and write until you know what works best for you. There are no hard and fast rules to art. Find what works for you. Don't be afraid to mix both plotting and pantsing as needed.


Myth #3: Plotting sucks all the life out of your creativity.


Yeah, I've heard people express this idea. And it's ridiculous. The creativity comes from making that outline, which is dry and factual, come to life through how you write your story, which is art. Plenty of well-known, successful, powerful writers plot the crap out of their stuff before they actually start writing. So this myth can't be true.


However, if you overplot, or worry the details too much ahead of time, you may start to feel frustrated and bored, and thus end up lacking enthusiasm. A lack of passion definitely saps our creativity. So, maybe this myth has a tiny root in truth, which is that at some point, you have to move from thinking to doing. Plot just enough to protect your passion for your idea, and then start writing it while the passion is still hot and while there's still some exploring to do.


In fact, a decent plan can help you stay on track and avoid writer's block, which can happen when you've pantsed yourself right into a corner with no way out. Plotting's not the work of the devil; it's useful. Don't give it a bad rap.


(By the way, I think this relates to another myth, raised by my friend Lissa Clousser on Facebook, that if you plot, you lose the element of surprise as you write. That may be true if you plot to death, cataloguing every tiny detail to every scene. It certainly kills my enthusiasm when I overplot. But if you create a general plot outline that lists the most important scenes in big picture view and then start writing, I think you end up with plenty of surprises as you write.)


Myth #4: Pantsing is a total sign of chaos in your mind. If you pants, you're just a mess.


No, you're not a mess. Lots of people start off writing without a clear, narrow goal in mind. It's called freewriting, and the students of my college writing classes often find it a helpful technique to get them moving. In fact, I have had students say to me that they never have good ideas and can't write more than one or two pages, only to become prolific after I teach them to use freewriting as a technique.


Look, the reality is that sometimes, you don't know exactly what you think before you start writing. This is one reason why we write in the first place: to discover. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as you recognize that if you pants, or freewrite, you're going to have to do some heavy revising, because you will end up with some rabbit trails that sound great but that don't add to your overall point.


(Remember, by the way, that you may not know what that overall point is until you start writing. Maybe it's only after you get 30-50 pages written that you realize the story isn't about Esmerelda the fairy godmother but about this Cinderella chick whose life is a wreck. Now that you know what your story is, you can shape it like that potter shapes clay on the wheel. You have to cut out all the stuff that has nothing to do with what you want to say and flesh out the stuff that's good. You cut out the three pigs, but you add in the prince. That's all revision is: adding what is missing, and cutting out what is not needed.)


The point I'm making (and yes, I planned to make it ahead of time in this case) is that pantsing has a genuine correlation in the world of composition educational theory, and that it can be a useful tool to helping a person communicate. So if pantsing is what gets words onto the paper for you, go for it. Just know what you'll have to edit later. And so do the plotters.


For next week, I have asked a Twitter buddy, @renesears, to share her journey from pantsing to plotting. And the week after that, some resources to help you with planning your stories. And who knows what else? As I said, I plot and pants. Which means this blog series is sort of planned, but open to the unexpected at any moment.


If you have questions you'd like me to address, or thoughts on writing myths, or anything else, share your thoughts below. And by the way, the Chipper Muse is on Facebook. Finally. If you get a chance, like me there. Really, really like me. (Sally Fields, eat your heart out.)


See you next week!


Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

You Know-it-All... or, Second Person Omniscient

I'm talking to YOU!
(Image from
dominickmondi.wordpress.com)
So, I'm posting mid-week for a little fun. You see, I was listening to Writing Excuses this week, a great podcast of tips for writers, and their April Fools episode was about the writing excuses we make, and one of their suggestions was to write in second person omniscient. In other words, write as if you know it all (which they didn't say, but that's what it means, right?)

And since I'm a little demented (but in a charming way, right?), I couldn't resist thinking about what second person omniscient would sound like. And so... Here's a version of the comment I left on the Writing Excuses website for their podcast.

Writing in second person omniscient... You can't ask for a more beautifully futile writing excuse than that. Or perhaps you could. Perhaps you would have all kinds of excuses like the many other writers across the world that you can't possibly know about but that are right now making their own beautifully futile excuses to avoid writing as you are also avoiding writing as you sit here at your keyboard now, reading blogs and imagining greatness that is not yet yours...


Hmm. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Maybe I should write more of that... Hahaha! See you on Friday with a regular blog post.

For more on Writing Excuses, check out their home page. They are cool people!