Tag Archives: plotting the novel

The Author’s Toolbox – Stylesheets #amwriting

We are approaching the last days of NaNoWriMo 2022. If you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to think about creating what I think is the most helpful tool in my toolbox—the stylesheet.

toolsWhen a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a stylesheet.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until needed. Some editors refer to it as a “bible.” Sometimes it will be called a storyboard if it also contains plot ideas or an outline.

Nowadays, I make a new stylesheet at the outset of each writing project, even for short stories. I copy and paste every new word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. This is an essential tool because if each name, place name, and made-up word is listed the way I originally intended, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

Some people use a program called Scrivener, which is not too expensive, but which has a tricky learning curve. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and found it quite frustrating. Nevertheless, I understand that it works well for many people, and you might find it works for you.

Myself, I don’t want a fancy word-processing program. I use MS Office because I have been using the programs that come with that software since 1993, and I’ve been able to adapt to each upgrade they have made. It’s affordable, so I use Word to write and edit in and Excel to create stylesheets.

Mac ComputerFor short stories, the stylesheet will probably be a Word document. I have written them out by hand on occasion. You can create them in Google Sheets or Docs, which is free.

And free is good! Everyone thinks differently, so there is no single perfect way that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

When I have an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory. For most publications, you must keep strictly within their word count requirements.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

IBM_Selectric (1)Page Two:  The projected story arc will be on page two of the workbook. I list each chapter by the events that need to be resolved at various points in the manuscript.

Page three of the workbook is the most important—the Glossary. This list of made-up words, names, and places is crucial for the finished product. The way words appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I lay down prose in the first draft.

I update the glossary page whenever a word or name is added or changed. I do this even in my non-fantasy work, as it helps to have a quick, easy-to-access reminder of how real-world names and places are spelled.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central tool that keeps the events happening logically.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009. It has grown since this screenshot was taken.

neveyah stylesheetWe never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. We will probably deviate some from the original outline. Usually, for me, the major events will remain as they were plotted in advance, even though side themes will evolve. The outline keeps me on track with length and ensures the action doesn’t stall.

When I know the length of a book or story I intend to write, I know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters I need to devote to that section. I like to keep my chapters at around 1600 – 2000 words. Sometimes they go longer, and other times shorter.

PinocchioThe plot usually evolves as I write each event and connect the dots. In one instance, it was completely changed. The original plot didn’t work at all, so drastic measures had to be taken.

Making that course correction was less work because I had the stylesheet with the outline. Events were easy to cut and replace or move along the timeline.

As we near the end of NaNoWriMo, we are beginning to dig deeper into all aspects of the story. We’re still writing the basic first draft, but emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, are growing more apparent.

Secrets characters have withheld from us emerge now as we write. Perhaps some ugly truths have been discovered. These details arise as I write, reshaping how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions can alter the plot.

Even though each manuscript starts out linearly, I work “back and forth” when writing rather than in a linear fashion. I work from an outline, but each section of my novel is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale.

The central plot points get written first. Then, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete, like assembling a quilt.

A detailed outline ensures I won’t get lost in the weeds of wacky side quests.

Book- onstruction-sign copyOnce the first draft is finished, revisions will mean updating the stylesheet, but that’s part of the job. This ensures my editor will have less work when we get to the final draft.

In the process of editing for me, Irene will find things that didn’t get listed but should have been and will update the stylesheet.

Writing a novel is a process of growth and development. It doesn’t stop until you sign off on the proof copies and the book is on sale.

And even then, you will think of things you could have done differently.

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep our novel by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novel, short stories, poems, memoir, personal essays, etc.

nano prep end this messPost two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), so we have an idea of who they are and what they do.

Post three explored the setting, so we already know where they are and their circumstances.

Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot.

Now we’re going to jump to the end. I know it’s rude to read the end of a book before you even begin it, but I am the kind of writer who needs to know how it ends before I can write the beginning.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

Julian Lackland was my first nano novel. In its proto form, it was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project. That novel emerged from my mind because I had written a short story of about 2500 words featuring an elderly knight-at-large. Julian was a Don Quixote kind of knight, returning to the town where he had spent his happiest days in a mercenary crew.

He enters the town and finds it completely changed. The town has grown so large that he becomes lost. Julian talks to his horse, telling him how wonderful the place they are going is, and all about the people he knew and loved. When he does find the inn he’s looking for, nothing is what he expects. The innkeeper he was so fond of has died of old age, and stranger still, the old innkeeper’s middle-aged youngest son, is the man behind the bar. Most of the friends he’d ridden with are dead. The story ends with Lady Mags, the third leg of his love triangle, entering the tap room and their reunion.

On October 28, 2010, I was scrambling, trying to find something I could write, but my thoughts kept returning to the old man’s story. The innkeeper had referred to him as the Great Knight, stupidly brave but harmlessly insane. Had he always been that way? Who had he been when he was young and strong? Who did he love? How did Julian end up alone if Julian, Beau, and Mags were madly in love with each other?

What was their story?

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

On November 1, I still had nothing for a new novel, but I had committed to writing 50,000 words. The short story nagged at me. I found myself keying the hokiest opening lines ever, and from those lines emerged the story of an innkeeper, a bard, three mercenary knights, and the love triangle that covered fifty years of Julian’s life.

That book spawned Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers. While Julian Lackland was the last book in the Billy’s Revenge trilogy to be published, it was the first to be written.

The trials and tribulations of that first novel’s publishing path, the title change, and the numerous reasons it took so long for Julian to make it to the finish line is another story, but he did eventually make it.

If I know how the story will end, I can build a plot to that point. So, let’s look at my current project. I have one book that has been languishing for 5 years now because I don’t know how it ends. Unfortunately, the ending I’m detailing here is not for that book.

For my new novel, I have my characters in place. We’ll call them Marco and Dinah for this post. In reality, they have other names, but I am using their situation to show how I brainstorm my plots. I have my setting, and I know their place in that society.

This story is a murder mystery with no title as of yet. The exact details of solving the murders are still a bit murky. However, I know who is dead, how they died, and who the murderer is.

Right now, the end of the outline just says, “Marco and Dinah prevail, Klaus dead. Sarie and Jon safe.” That isn’t a lot to hang a story on, and when I begin writing the novel, I will need to know a little more, or I will lose the plot.

What I do is write an outline that will become the final chapters. This is what I came up with:

Klaus ties his barge up at the pier and goes to the inn while his crew offloads the cargo. He overhears that the mages have repaired the Temple. He decides there is only one way to end it: to take out the healers who had failed to save his daughter.

Dinah spots Klaus entering the Temple and is surprised because he didn’t pass through the gate. She recognizes him from down at the docks and wonders why he’s there when he’s been so anti-Temple. Something about him bothers her, so she follows him.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMarco arrives at the inn. The innkeeper mentions Klaus was there, but now he’s gone. Marco sees his barge is still there, and the deckhands don’t know where he is. He goes to the gatehouse where Dinah is supposed to be on duty and immediately knows something is wrong. He fears Klaus has gotten to her, and instinct tells him to go to the Temple.

Dinah tracks Klaus toward the infirmary, where Sarie and Jon are working, treating an elderly man. They’re in a healing trance, unaware of anything other than their patient.

Loren is working in his study, unaware his wife and her journeyman are in danger. He glimpses Dinah sneaking through the shadows and knows something is wrong. He follows her, meeting up with Marco as he leaves his study. The two confer and move on to the infirmary.

Klaus senses he’s being followed. He steps behind a pillar, ambushing Dinah. He attempts to strangle her, but she grabs him by the hair. Her feet slip out from under her, and she falls, pulling him down to the floor. Twisting around, she pushes him away with her feet and manages to grab her staff as she stands. Klaus has also regained his footing and is coming for her, but as she swings her staff, she slips again, cracking his skull, just as Marco arrives and fires off a lightning bolt, killing Klaus.

Or something like that. I’ll choreograph the fight when I get to that spot, but I guarantee it will be quick. I dislike reading drawn-out fight scenes and usually skip over them.

Anyway, Sarie and Jon have no idea what has just gone on, and the patient is healed. Loren agrees the new floor is too slick after all, but at least it won’t burn. Dinah finally tells Marco she’s expecting, and they all live happily, at least for a while.

30 days 50000 wordsIn real life, people live happily, but no one really lives deliriously happy ever after. But that’s another story and a different genre.

So now I know how the novel ends, and I thank you all for listening to my mental ramblings—I hope they help you. All I need are a few paragraphs, a skeleton to hang the story on, dots to connect, and I can write the first draft.

Next up, we will decide where and how the story begins.

Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

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The Antagonist’s Story Arc – part 2 #amwriting #nanowrimo2020

In Monday’s post, The Antagonist’s Story Arc, I explained how I organized my notes for each book or series using a workbook from a spreadsheet program, such as Excel or Google Sheets. Today I am continuing to plot out the opposition’s story arc to dovetail with what has already been established in the protagonist’s storyline.

So now, I go back to the notes on my protagonist, Alf, and look at my calendar of events. What clues have I inserted about the antagonist, Daryk, from Alf’s point of view? I need to make sure those are noted on Daryk’s timeline.

At this point, Daryk is only partially formed in my mind. I see him as he was before he triggered the mage trap, which is how Alf sees him. Daryk was a close companion, a canny adversary in any competition, and especially at the game of stones. He was a dedicated Sword of Aeos, deeply committed to rooting out the Bull God’s secret covens. Strategy and battle tactics were second nature to him. His best skill was how well prepared he was for every turn of events. He and Alf had worked together successfully since becoming hunters.

Alf only wants to remember him that way but knows he will be forced into a direct confrontation at some point. I have written the book’s opening chapter, where the event that changes everything occurs.

Since NaNoWriMo ended last year, I’ve gotten the first draft of most of Alf’s story arc written to the point where these two characters must face their destinies.

But only the protagonist has been fleshed out.

One thing that occurred to hold up this aspect of the first draft was the protracted illness and death of my good friend and structural editor, Dave Cantrell. Dave was an integral part of my writing posse, giving me the male perspective, which helped to round out my characters.

Now I need to decide how many chapters will be devoted to Daryk, and what events are important enough to be highlighted from his view. First, I need to identify his quest.

In a good novel, characters aren’t evil for no reason. Perhaps what the protagonist perceives as evil is merely a radically different way of living, a cultural difference. Or maybe they’re under pressure from some external force. In Daryk’s case, it is both.

While battling a mindbender and his coven, Daryk is separated from the Swords of Aeos. He enters the enemy’s altar room and finds a statue cut from amethyst crystal. This is a trap set to snare mages serving Aeos, Goddess of Hearth and Home.

The moment he touches it, Tauron, the Bull God, seizes Daryk’s mind. No mere mortal can withstand the personal attention of a god, and Daryk is now set on a collision path with destiny. Tauron is the God of War, jealous, paranoid, and insecure. He demands abject worship, extreme sacrifices, and harshly punishes those who fail. Success is rewarded richly, and the strongest rise to the top to rule over the weak.

Steeped in the lore of his warrior culture, Daryk is easily bent to the Bull God’s path. He is now convinced that he is the rightful heir to be the War Leader. He sees Alf as serving a weak and feeble deity, and that the tribes have lost their strength. His goal is to seize power and use the tribes to conquer Neveyah for the Bull God.

Tauron gives Daryk new gifts, one of which is the ability to sway large gatherings of people. Since he has no empathic magic, he needs to find and snare an empathically gifted healer to project his compulsions.

To do this, Daryk must accomplish several things from the outset:

  1. He must find the crystal cave and undertake a vision quest. The Bull God doesn’t know how Barbarian shamans are trained, so this quest is very different. The high trial Alf undertakes is vastly different from his first shamanic quest. Daryk was not trained to be a shaman, so he doesn’t know what the true trial entails. Since only the strongest are fit to rule, the test the Bull God sets before him is a much darker journey, one of overcoming and bending demons to his will.
  2. Having survived the trial, his first task is to find an empathically gifted healer and bind her to him. He uses Helene to project his spells of compelling and takes over her village to make his small army.
  3. Daryk needs a base of operations, so he must acquire a citadel. He and his new wife go to a lesser known place, Kyrano, as it isn’t somewhere Alf would look for him. Using compulsions to present themselves as distant relatives and charming the elderly baron, they are officially named his heirs. The old man dies that night in his sleep.
  4. Daryk needs to conceal the fact he is a rogue-mage, or he will have enemies on all sides, and he isn’t ready for that yet. He acquires a coven of elemental mages, binding them to him and using them to have a greater chi reserve to draw on when casting spells. They conceal from the population at large the fact that their new baron is a rogue mage.
  5. He must gather the resources to lay siege on Aeoven. Everything is at stake here: if he can’t defeat Alf on his home turf, Daryk will never bring Neveyah to the Bull God.

By charting his story arc, I’m laying the framework for what I will begin writing in November. Those weeks will be spent writing backstory and building Daryk’s world. I will connect Daryk’s timeline to Alf’s.

This kind of work is mind wandering, in a way. By writing this out, I am cementing Daryk and Helene’s characters and passionate commitment to their struggle in my mind.

Certain scenes showing critical information that Alf doesn’t have will be included in the final draft, but only those essential to the advancement of the plot. This is so the reader knows what is happening in the enemy’s camp.

For the reader, this knowledge raises the tension. Daryk must be shown to have a stronger position and better resources.

I intend to write about 30,000 words detailing Daryk’s story. Little of what I write will find its way into the final manuscript. My hope is that it will be there in how solidly I show these characters, their deities, and why they do what they must.

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The Antagonist’s Story Arc #amwriting #nanowrimo2020

We’re already approaching the middle of October. This is prime NaNo prep season for me. A few weeks ago, I shared that one of my projects was writing the final chapters to Bleakbourne on Heath, a novel that began life in 2015 as a weekly serial. I have the outline all written for that, and the ending is now firmly established. Finishing that should cover about 20,000 – to 25,000 words.

My second project is for my new duology set in Neveyah. I need to write the chapters that show my antagonist’s storyline. For my protagonist’s story to make sense and be compelling, I must show why my antagonist opposes Alf, and why we should have compassion for him and his struggle.

To that end, I must spend the next few days outlining what needs to happen for him at each point in the overall two-book story arc.

I also have three short stories and a novella to fill in on those days when I can’t focus on the tasks at hand, so I’ll be well set up with ideas.

So, let’s take a look at what I have to accomplish on Heaven’s Altar before November 1st.

The first hurdle I must leap is a trap of my own devising.

The calendar.

Neveyah Calendar © 2015 Connie J. Jasperson

In 2008 when we were designing the world of Neveyah as an RPG and before the story had been written, I had the bright idea to make a calendar where each month has

  1. 28 days
  2. The months are named after astrological signs and the days are sort of named like the Julian calendar.
  3. The 13th month is called Holy Month and is between Harvest and winter, but belongs to no season. It’s set aside for religious observances and family events.
  4. The 365th day of the year falls on the Winter Solstice and is called Holy Day. A day of feasting, it stands alone between Holy Month and Caprica, the first month of the new year. Every 4 years you have a double Holy Day, and the community throws a big party.

Was I out of my mind?

Yes! I suggest you stick to the common Julian calendar we know today, as it makes things a lot easier for you.

However, six books later, it’s canon in that world, so I have to roll with it. Fortunately, I was smart enough to make a visual calendar in an Excel workbook. I can cut and paste easily, note changes, and move events around if need be. This workbook covers all of the books set in the Tower of Bones world of Neveyah.

I was a bookkeeper for many years, so I use an Excel workbook to keep the stylesheet, plot outline, pertinent back history, and worldbuilding in one logical place. The tabs across the bottom show the different sheets detailing each aspect I need know for that world and that story.

I do this for every project or series, and you can do the same. If you don’t have Excel, you can use any free spread-sheeting program, such as Google Sheets. It’s just a visual way to keep things organized and avoid introducing conflicting elements.

The process of writing out my antagonist’s storyline is essential. At the outset, from Alf’s storyline, we know that Daryk has powerful earth-magic. However, Tauron, the Bull God, gives him new gifts, one of which is called “compelling.” Since he has no empathic magic, he needs to find and snare an empathically gifted healer to project his compulsions. He also needs to enslave a coven of elemental mages to have a greater chi reserve to draw on when casting spells.

So, there are five people with whom he has close relationships and conversations. The backstory of each of these characters must be created and added to both Daryk’s storyline and the overall cast of characters.

This is so I don’t inadvertently give two characters the same (or ludicrously similar) name.

I have already designed the magic systems for both sides of this conflict, and the world has been established. I have comprehensive maps that I use in conjunction with the calendar for plotting my events.

I’m fallible, but I do try to take everything into account when plotting my events. This way, when I begin writing I can concentrate on laying down the opposition’s story as if he were the hero and maybe generate a little sympathy for him.

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#amwriting: circumstance, objective, and the story arc

Book- onstruction-sign copyIf you intend to write a novel, especially a fantasy novel, a little pre-planning and at least a smidge of an outline is really beneficial.

Consider the beginning: At the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs (the inciting incident) and the hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot.

This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. Some things for you consider before you you begin writing:

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the core of your story: Objective. Without this, there is no story.

In every class I’ve taken on plot development, the instructors have emphasized that a protagonist has no reason to exist unless he/she has a compelling objective. If your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

That harsh edict is true because everything you will write from the moment of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.

In the book, Tower of Bones, Edwin wants to free Marya from captivity in Mal Evol. It’s a mission that begins as a somewhat noble desire to help his friends free a healer he has never met, but along the way he realizes she is the girl he has been dreaming about for several years. Once he realizes that, it becomes personal, and he becomes driven. That is when it becomes a real story.

When writing fantasy, you need a broad outline of your intended story arc, and you really need to know how it will end. If you try to “pants” it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What will be your inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

These are just a few things to think about when you are planning to write a fantasy novel, because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems that it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere.

Some people are able to visualize a story in its entirety and can write a coherent first draft without even a minimal outline.

I am not one of those people, nor are the majority of writers. An outline will tell you what you need to have happen next to arrive at the end of the book in a reasonable number of words: 100,000 to 125,000 for a first epic fantasy novel. You don’t have to go into detail, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know how many words you have to accomplish each task within the story line.

The Story Arc

You want to have a smoothly functioning story arc, so you don’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up.  That doesn’t really help, because you run out of characters, and people don’t like it when you kill off someone they liked.

Besides, you might need that character later.

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