Tag Archives: plotting your novel

Murder and the Dry Well of Inspiration #amwriting

We have arrived at week three of 2020’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m still zooming along in my accidental novel. However, this is the place in the month where many writers will fall by the way, as they lose the plot and then lose momentum.

The well of inspiration has gone dry.

When we are writing a story that encompasses 50,000 to 100,000 words, these mental stopping places are how we end up with bunny trails to nowhere. We’re trying to force getting our word count, so we go a bit off the rails.

There are ways around that.

If your employment isn’t a work-from-home kind of job, using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take down notes during business hours will be frowned on. In that case, I suggest keeping a pocket-sized notebook and pen to write those ideas down as they come to you.

This is an old-school solution but will enable you to discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story. The best part is, you don’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

For me, ideas occur when I stop “pressing my brain” to work when it’s on its last legs. Trust me, pounding out 1,667 or more new words a day severely tests both your creativity and endurance.

We know that arcs of action drive the plot. However, random, disconnected events inserted for shock value can derail the best story. Therefore, when I am brainstorming where to go next in my plot, I keep both the ending and overall logic of how to get there in mind.

At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their familiar surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, the inciting incident occurs.

This is the first point of no return and is often where an author’s ideas run out.

They had only visualized the character and the problem but hadn’t thought beyond that point.

A point of no return comes into play in every novel to some degree. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation, whether they are ready for it or not.

I’m writing a fantasy, and I know what must happen next in the novel because it’s an origin story. I’m writing it from a historical view. I see how this tale ends and am merely writing the motivations for that ending.

Try to identify the protagonist’s goals early on. The words will come as you clarify why the protagonist must struggle to achieve them.

  • How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in their efforts?
  • How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  • How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interest?
  • What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  • How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Suppose your main character doesn’t want something bad enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages. In that case, they don’t deserve to have a story told about them.

At the inciting incident, our hero just wants to go back to their comfort zone. They want that desperately, but things happen that prevent it.

  1. What are the events that keep the main characters slogging through the roadblocks to happiness?
  2. Why should the reader care? Every scene and conversation will push the characters 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.

Everything you write from the inciting incident to the last page will detail the quest and answer that second question. Your protagonist and antagonist must both desire nothing more than to achieve that objective.

If they care about the outcome, the reader will too.

I find it helps to have some idea of what the ending will be. Now, as I write my current unplanned novel, a broad outline of my intended story arc is evolving. As I’ve mentioned before, I keep my notes in an Excel workbook. It contains maps, calendars, and everything pertaining to any novel set in that world, keeping it in one easy to find place.

When logic forces things to change as I am writing, as it always does, I make notes to the growing outline and update my maps.

If you are stuck, it sometimes helps to go back to the beginning and consider these questions:

  • What is the goal/objective?
  • Is the objective compelling enough to warrant risking everything to acquire it?
  • What choices will the protagonist have to make that challenge their moral values and sense of personal honor?
  • Who is the antagonist? What do they want, and what are they willing to do to achieve it? Are they facing ethical quandaries too?

Every obstacle we throw in the path to happiness for both the protagonists and their opposition forces change and shapes the direction of our narrative.

When your creative mind needs a rest, step away from the keyboard, and do something else for a while.  I find that when I take a break to cook or clean out a corner, random ideas for what to do next in my novel will occur to me.

Sometimes, these little flashes of inspiration are what I need to carry me a few chapters further into the novel.

Finally, let’s talk about murder as a way to kickstart your inspiration.

I suggest you don’t resort to suddenly killing off characters just to get your mind working. Readers become frustrated with authors who randomly kill off characters they have grown to like.

When a particular death was planned all along, it is one thing, but developing characters is a lot of work. If you kill off someone with an important role, who or what will you replace them with?

You may need to replace that character later, so plan your deaths accordingly.

in the meantime, happy writing! May the words flow freely for you and may you never run out of new ideas to write.

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#amwriting: advancing the plot

e.m. forster plot memeIn the previous post, I discussed the story arc, and how it relates to what E.M. Forster said about the plot: that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. The story arc is a visual description of where events should occur in a story. For me, knowing where they should happen is good, but it doesn’t tell me what those events are.

Planning what events your protagonist will face is called plotting, and I make an outline for that.

“Pantsing it,” or writing using stream-of consciousness, can produce some amazing work. That works well when we’re inspired, as ideas seem to flow from us. But for me, that sort of creativity is short-lived.

Participating in nanowrimo has really helped me grow in that ability, and one nanowrimo joke-solution often bandied about at write-ins is, “When your’re stuck, it’s time for someone to die.” But we all know that in reality, assassinating beloved characters whenever we run out of ideas is not a feasible option because soon we will run out of characters.

As devotees of Game of Thrones will agree, readers (or TV viewers) get to know characters, and bond with them. When cherished characters are too regularly killed off, the story loses good people, and we have to introduce new characters to fill the void. The reader may decide not to waste his time getting invested in a new character, feeling that you will only break their heart again.

The death of a character should be reserved to create a pivotal event that alters the lives of every member of the cast, and is best reserved for either the inciting incident at the first plot point or as the terrible event of the third quarter of the book. So instead of assassination, we should resort to creativity.

This is where the outline can provide some structure, and keep you moving forward.  I will know what should happen in the first quarter, the middle, and the third quarter of the story. Also, because I know how it should end, I can more easily write to those plot points by filling in the blanks between, and the story will have cohesion.

Think about what launches a great story:

The protagonist has a problem.

You have placed them in a setting, within a given moment, and shown the environment in which they live.

You have unveiled the inciting incident.

Now you need to decide what hinders the protagonist and prevents them from resolving the problem. While you are laying the groundwork for this keep in mind that we want to evoke three things:

  1. Empathy/identification with the protagonist
  2. Believability
  3. Tension

We want the protagonist to be a sympathetic character whom the reader can identify with; one who the reader can immerse themselves in, living the story through his/her adventures.

Also, we want the hindrances and barriers the protagonist faces to feel real to the reader. They must be believable so that the reader says, “Yeah, that could happen.” Within every scene, you must develop setups for the central events of that moment in their lives and show the payoffs (either negative or positive) to advance the story: action and reaction.

Each scene propels the characters further along, each act closing at a higher point on the story arc, which is where the next one launches from.

Some authors resort to “idle conversation writing” when they are temporarily out of ideas.  Resist the temptation—it’s fatal to an otherwise good story. Save all your random think-writing off-stage in a background file, if giving your characters a few haphazard, pointless exchanges helps jar an idea loose.

imagesDon’t introduce random things into a scene unless they are important. What if you had a walk-on character who was looking for her/his cat just before or just after the inciting incident? If the loss of the cat is to demonstrate the dangers in a particular area, make it clear that it is window dressing or remove it.

If the cat has no purpose it needs to be cut from the scene. To show the reader something  is to foreshadow it, and the reader will wonder why the cat and the person looking for it were so important that they had to be foreshadowed.

Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable.  In  creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov.

Finally, we want to keep the goal just out of reach, to maintain the tension, and keep the reader reading to find out what will happen next. Readers are fickle, and always want what they can’t have. The chase is everything, so don’t give them the final reward until the end of the story.

But do have the story end with most threads and subplots wrapped up, along with the central story-line. Nothing aggravates readers more than going to all the trouble of reading a book to the end, only to be given no reward for their investment of time.

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#amwriting: revisiting the story arc

howards endE.M. Forster was one of the great English novelists. He was also a short story writer, essayist, and wrote librettos. Forster was considered a master of creating ironic, well-plotted novels that examined class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. He really understood how to structure a novel or short story.

He has been quoted as saying that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. His example was, “‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story, while ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”

That is the absolute truth. You can tell that story baldly, but without a plot, the above story is only a casual commentary on the death of two monarchs.

I am not good at winging it when it comes to plotting a novel. I find it helps me to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole, how it begins, how it ends, and why it went that way. While I am brainstorming, I write an outline to use as a framework to guide the story. I may not keep to the outline exactly, but the plot points occurring at each of the four quarters will be met, to maintain momentum and not inadvertently introduce inconsistencies.

Inside every good story that seizes the reader’s imagination, there is an arc to the action within the plot, and when it is graphed out, it forms an arc: the story arc. My outline will provide me with the framework for this story arc.

51i0K3WVpML._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_The story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. It occurs around the ¼ mark and triggers the rest of the story. It is “the problem,” the core conflict of the story. This is where the protagonist is thrown into the action and is also where they first find themselves blocked from achieving the desired goal.

Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what really launches the story.

Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Someone may die.

Midpoint is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the end of the third act, the protagonists are getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the final, fourth act, where they will embark on the final battle. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

By the end of the book, all the threads have been drawn together and resolved for better or worse. The ending is finite and wraps the conflict up.

No matter how many or how few words you intend to write, your story arc should work the same way. I do this all the time with short stories, because if you know what has to happen at what point in a narrative, you can develop the characters and write each section to that point.

short story arc

In genre fantasy and science fiction, we often have story arcs that evolve and take place across multiple volumes. If you are writing the first novel in what you plan to be a series, it must have a finite ending, regardless of how many books you plan to follow. Even a famous author should obey this rule.

Out of respect for the time the reader has spent reading your work, do not leave them hanging. A second volume can have a less conclusive ending, but the first and the third books must end well or at least finitely. Readers will want to buy that second book simply because of the characters you have created and the great experience they had reading the book they just finished.

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Prepping for NaNoWriMo: Building the Novel

alien-worlds from NightTransmissions.com copyrighted material private use onlyI have found that prepping well for NaNoWriMo really gets me in the mood to write.  I start with  the idea of the novel, and write a blurb for a book I would like to read:

UNDERGROUNDERS Prep-sheet

GOAL – 60,000 to 70,000 words

Short synopsis for proposed Novel:

A retired fighter pilot and leading researcher in the field of adapting plants to alien environments,  Professor Elena Brend has been invited to continue her work at the University on the distant colony-world of Alpharse.

But all is not as serene as she had been told–the ecology of Alpharse is both fragile and dangerous.

Handsome shuttle-pilot, Braden Langley wants more of Elena’s life than she is willing to give and she will have to make a decision that could break two hearts.

Two factions within the community now fight for dominance as Alpharse is cut off from the rest of the human worlds.

Can Elena survive in this new world of power, politics and brinkmanship?

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Where does this mayhem all take place? This is where I brainstorm the possibilities: I spend hours on the internet researching the physics and the possibilities of each and every technological thing that appears in my work. Morgan Freeman, Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking are my friends, but the best hard facts are found through scouring the internet.

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1.       ALPHARSE

Alpharse is a colony world.  Humans have begun leaving the Solar System, and have successfully colonized the worlds of fifteen stars near to Sol. The star systems inhabited by humans have remained in contact with each other, but are autonomous and entirely self-governing due to the constraints of distance.  Now humans have begun colonizing a new world, spreading out from Lorann, to Alpharse.  Humanity’s presence on Alpharse has only been established for two hundred years.  Alpharse is still in the terraforming process, and human habitation is still either underground or in the Asteroid Ships that originally brought the colonists to the system.  It was a leap of faith to choose to colonize any new world.

Alpharse is located across the galactic arm from Lorann, and to travel the quickest route involves crossing an area of the galaxy inhabited by the Ernsaa, a race of methane breathing beings who don’t want anyone coming near their worlds. They don’t care who they are, or why they are there, they just don’t want anyone in what they consider their space. The closest route that was a four-month perceived-time trip  is now closed to everyone.  Thus, with the arrival of Professor Elena Brend and the crew of the Barge, and asteroid-cargo ship carrying medical supplies, Alpharse is a two-year perceived time trip from Lorann, but it is 20 years real-time.

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CAST OF CHARACTERS:  Who are these people and why should I care about them? I like photos, and have a fairly good idea of who my characters look like. SO, I make a bio of them, a personnel file, complete with pictures of actors who most physically resemble them and who could play them well.  In this case, enter Jamie Lee Curtis and Bruce Willis.

jamie lee curtisProfessor Elena Brend:

  • Physical description: 5’8’, perceived-time age 55, real-time age 168. Works out daily. Has iron-gray hair worn in a short cut, not military short, but for ease of keeping neat. Is a cyborg—left leg is a grafted prosthesis.
  • Occupation:  Colonel, Retired. Experienced 33 years as a Warbird Pilot in the Lorann Space Corps.  Forced into early retirement from the Corps due to prosthetic leg. Leading researcher in the field of biosomes – breeding and adapting plants able to thrive in alien environments. Not too keen on promoting plants that require radical adaptations, but a strong proponent of plants that are able to easily adapt without destroying the ecosystem.
  • Hobbies:  hopping-up an anti-grav speedster in her garage. Loves flying low and too fast over dangerous ground. 
  • —————————————————————————————–
  • bruce willis
  • Colonel Braden Langley, Ret.:
  • Physical description: 6’2, works out daily. Lean and muscular.  Perceived-time age 57, real-time age 198.
  • Occupation:  Colonel, Retired. Experienced 45 years as a Warbird Pilot in the Lorann Space Corps.
  • Hobbies: cooking, hanging around watching Elena work on her speedster. Also enjoys flying low and too fast over dangerous ground.

2.       THE ENVIRONMENT:  I draw maps and describe the environment my characters are living in. What does it smell like? What is the most compelling view? What is the worst part of town?

For this tale I will have to consider:

The Cities: Where do my protagonists live? Do they cohabitate? What do they love about their home(s)? What do they find inconvenient?

The Agriculture: In this tale, agriculture is the central topic of conversation, as planoforming is still an ongoing process and will be for at least another 1000 years. WHERE does agriculture take place at the time of this tale? On the surface? In controlled environments? A mix of both?

The Society: Who are the movers and shakers? Who has power, and who wants it? What lengths are they willing to go to gain that power?

The University: Again, what is the internal environment? Where does Elena work and what does her lab look like?Who has power?

The Uninhabitable Terrain: What is the surface of the world like at this time? What makes it dangerous? Can humans breathe the air yet or must they wear protective suits? Are there native organisms, or was it a young world when it was first colonized?

Each of these environments will come into focus during the course of this tale

3. THE PROBLEM: This is where it gets sticky. I have created a detailed 3 page description of the plot as it stands now, but in the end, the plot description will change quite radically as the tale unfolds.

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Will I somehow miraculously get this tale written during November? After all this work I don’t know.

I have also just had a complete revelation in regard to Valley of Sorrows, the third book in the Tower of Bones series and I may  put Undergrounders on hold until that is done.

If I do change course now, I will have to scrap everything I have done to date on VOS, some 75,000 words, but this idea that came to yesterday is stuck in my head and I can’t get it out until I write it.  The whole book has to be rewritten, and now I’m obsessed with it.

*doh*

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