Alright, the last thing on plotting that I want to talk to all of you about is your outline. Yes, pantsers, I get it, you don’t outline. But again, I think this is something super useful that you can create as you write as well to help you remember what happened in your story for when you go back to finish the manuscript or edit it later. It can also help when you’re trying to figure out what is necessary or not when editing, or in trying to rearrange content. So whether you outline before, during, or after you write your novel, it’s still incredibly useful. For me, its an indispensable re-writing tool. A lot of my outlining I do in my head, but I always have at least one line of info to get me started on a chapter.
So, how does one outline? It’s a personal choice, but this is my method:
First, start with the big bullet points you know you need to hit.
- Dude gets accepted to magic school
- Dude finds out about a super secret thing
- Dude saves super secret thing
- Dude is a hero
That’s a bit over-simplistic, but you get the point. Big, broad strokes. Then you go back and start putting in a bit more detail:
- Dude is an orphan, killed by man who wants super secret thing
- Dude gets accepted to magic school
- Oh hey, wouldn’t it be nifty if they rode a train?
- Dude doesn’t like the people he meets from this one part of the school. Let’s name it after a snake, cause that sounds menacing.
- Dude makes friends with a guy and a girl (gender balance is good)
- Kinda like a heart, guts, and brain combo
- Dude gets to play school sport
- Soccer meets flight. How’s that supposed to work?
- Dude finds out about super secret thing
- Dude does more research, finds out others are after it
- Dude saves super secret thing
- challenges for all his friends
- Dude is a hero
See how I dropped in questions as I had them? This reminds me when I go back through on my next pass that this was something I wanted to work on. So maybe I spend the entire next day figuring out the rules to this imaginary sport, or trying to name the houses. As I outline, I will find lots of these places where I should probably expand, and I will also find those pesky plot holes when I discover I have no idea how to get from one bullet point to another. Like, how does Dude get from finding out about the super secret thing to saving it? What steps do I need to have Dude take? Also, I should probably spend some time figuring out what to name all these people…just saying.
Keep expanding your outline, and add in as many subdividing layers as you need. Sometimes my outlines are all one level, sometimes I’ll have four or five indented lists under things. It all depends on the story and how much detail it is going to require. Once I feel like I have dreamed up all the stuff I’m going to need prior to getting down to the actual writing, I do one more thing. Divide by potential chapters.
Here’s where that Google drive setup comes in handy again. I’ll keep the whole outline in one file, but then I’ll copy the section I think belongs in which chapters into individual files so that it’s easier to look at just that chunk of prep work. Of course things are going to change and shift, and the end of your story may end up being drastically different from what you initially thought it would be, but this way at least helps make your writing process go a bit faster. And it also keeps you from looking at a blank page, because, man, are those scary.
Now, go get to outlining, and I’ll see you back here next week for Character Building! Until then, happy writing!
That last post was getting really long, so I decided to break up my plotting lessons a bit to make them more digestible. Today, we continue the grand discussion on how to plot your novel with a discussion of the Hero Cycle, or, as I also like to call it, the way to plot a best seller. No, this isn’t some get-rich-quick formula, but an astounding number of stories follow this format, so much so that a scholar named Joseph Campbell identified and simplified it for us. It seems to rove around in our subconscious as a culture, which makes it particularly easy for our readers to identify with. If you find this lesson interesting, definitely look up more about Campbell, he’s written several amazing books about tropes and archetypes that fuel our subconscious.
Some of you may already by familiar with the cycle, though there are a few different version. If you think you remember something about it from school, go ahead and see which of the steps you remember on the chart below:
1? 2? Get all 12? Well color me impressed if you remembered any of it, I always have to go look up a few of them. Want to know what the ones you couldn’t remember are? Here you go:
See! You remembered more than you thought you did. Now, what do all these steps mean?
- Ordinary World – This is the everyday, the normal world, the status quo. Wherever the character was and whatever they were doing before the story begins.
- Call to Adventure – This is the inciting incident: death, attack, imminent threat, something is going to change the normal, if the character is willing to take it on.
- Refusal of the Call – Normally in these stories, the character, even if they’re excited for the opportunity, is sure there has been a huge mistake in asking them to take on the adventure. They’re not worthy, they’re not ready, or maybe they’re just feeling really lazy. But they start by saying no, before they say yes. If they just said no, this would be a very short story…
- Meeting the Mentor – There is always somebody who can give advice, whether it’s an aged wizard, a teacher, a friend, a computer simulation, there is usually a figure who knows a bit more about what is going on than the character and can guide them through the difficulties.
- Crossing the Threshold – Here’s where things get weird. Up until this point, the character has been safely in their old world, but things are now new. Sometimes that’s taking off in a spaceship, landing on a new planet, going through a mirror, or sometimes as simple as going through a doorway into a new classroom. It marks the transition from the known to the unknown. Frequently steps 4 and 5 are reversed, as in Harry Potter. He crosses into the wizarding world before he meets Albus Dumbledore, his main mentor in the series.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – Just like with rising action, the bulk of your story probably happens here. Making friends, making enemies, learning and testing new skills, and in general preparing for the ultimate confrontation.
- Approach – This is the ramp up to the climactic encounter. Sometimes a series of challenges, sometimes a long dark hallway, just something that gives the readers a hint that the big bad is coming.
- Ordeal, Death, & Rebirth – Here’s the money shot, what the rest of the story has been working up to. Big fight/confrontation/climax, whatever it is that your character has been going after, here’s where it happens. Sometimes they’re facing an enemy, sometimes they’re facing themselves, sometimes they’re facing the environment. But here is where their old self dies, and their new self takes its place. That can mean they literally have a near-death, or death experience and get brought back, but sometimes it means they have a revelation and chose to make themselves different/better/more evil. Think about Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He’s confronted with the horror of his own death and in that moment his old life dies and he is reborn a more giving man.
- Seize the Prize – Pretty self explanatory. Loot the room. This may be a magic sword, or self-confidence, or a new found purpose and strength, or even just the safety of a removed threat, but here’s the prize the characters have been working towards.
- The Road Back – Your characters have to leave the place of encounter, which can be as simple as walking over to a group of friends, a month long journey home, or the simple act of letting go of the rage and anger that led them to the confrontation. Not everything in this cycle has to be literal and physical. Mental and emotional journeys are just as important.
- Resurrection – Here’s where your characters get back to their friends and they were all, “We were sure you were dead!” Sometimes they literally think the character was eaten, and sometimes they just can’t believe the character didn’t get beat up by the bully they went to confront. Feels good to be loved.
- Return and Reward – Here’s the very end of the story. They’re home (whether a new home or their old home, either works), they’re out of combat, wounds on the mend, or, maybe, the character is drifting in heaven and looking back and wondering precisely when they forgot to duck, but they are done with this cycle and can reflect on the rewards reaped from the story, whether physical, mental, or moral. Of course, the nice thing about the cycle is that when you get to this point, and the character is basking in their new normal, they are primed and ready to go for another cycle. Feel free to drop in some foreshadowing!
These twelve steps make for a pretty tidy storyline, don’t you think? The important thing to remember about the cycle is that this is an approximate summary of hundreds of stories, so your story might not fit in exactly. It’s more like guidelines than law, if you know what I’m saying. Keeping that in mind, how do you think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fits on this cycle? Here’s a blank worksheet to help, image below, pdf here.
Think you can identify most of the correlating steps? Excellent! Here’s what I came up with. Yours don’t have to match mine, but if you got stuck on a step, see what I thought about it:
See, stories don’t have to fit exactly to still be similar enough to the cycle for it to apply. The fun part is, all the Harry Potter books follow the cycle in at least a cursory manner, but the whole SERIES overall fits the cycle almost perfectly. Quite the adventure.
So are you ready to start expanding your cursory plot roller coaster? Your mission, if you chose to accept it, is to start trying to map out your story in relation to the hero cycle. You’ll find that all kinds of stories will fit, from realist literary fiction, through to the strangest science fiction, it’s not just for fantasy stories. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below!
Next, we talk about the importance of an outline! Until then, happy writing!
Today, we’re going to be talking about plot. What is plot, you ask? Well, it’s what happens in the story, or in other words, the action. If you need more of a definition, check out this article. Now…
Drop and give me 20!
Since today we’re starting with plot, your first task is to summarize your favorite story’s plot in exactly 20 words. No more, no less. Twenty. For example, I would summarize Harry Potter’s plot as follows:
A boy learns to be a wizard, makes friends, learns he has enemies, and tries to save the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Post your plot in the comments below so we can see your brilliance, and try and we will all try and guess what book you’re talking about. Fake internet points to whoever gets them right!
There, we’ve warmed up your brain a little bit and we can get down to business. We may know what a plot is, but can anyone here name the parts that make up the basic plot? Here’s a hint, the structure is a bit like a roller coaster. Don’t scroll down yet! Take a moment and see if you can dredge up the names of the parts of a plot from your freshman English course. Any luck?
If not, don’t worry. If you did remember parts, did they look something like this?
There’s a few different names you can give some of these parts, but today we’re going to be using Hook, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. I’d also have accepted Denouement for that last one, but Resolution is just so much easier to say and spell. What do these parts do? I thought you’d never ask!
- The Hook – This is the part where you do something interesting to get your readers, well, hooked. Something different, something that makes them ask, what’s going to happen next? Common tropes I advise you to stay away from: flashbacks, waking up, dream sequences, flash forwards, unexplained action. All of these things have been done to death and unless you’ve gotten really REALLY good at writing, you’ll probably leave your readers sneering at the page. If you’re lucky, they won’t put it down. You can do some very creative things with dialog, exposition, and characterization to keep a reader interested. The best thing you can do is write a whole bunch of hooks and go back later to decide which one does the best job of setting up the rest of the novel.
- Rising Action – This is 2/3 of your novel, ish. Don’t get out a ruler, it’s a rough approximation. This is everything leading up to the really super exciting part of the novel. Making friends, making enemies, learning life skills, setbacks, love, a lot happens during the rising action. One thing to keep in mind is it should all be relevant to the climax of either this book, or the climax of the series if you are working on a series of books. Get rid of anything that doesn’t serve the larger purpose of the narrative. If it’s something you think is just WAY too cool to cut entirely, save it for a short story teaser you can give to your fans as a Christmas gift after you get famous. They’ll love you for it.
- Climax – This is the part we all love, isn’t it? You’ve been working and working towards the big event and it’s finally here…and then it’s over. Just make sure whatever you make your readers work for is neither anti-climactic, nor unsupported by the rising action. Remember, if you’re missing parts of the track leading up to top of coaster, your readers are going to fall of the track and die. Not really, they’re just likely to put the book down. Boy, that’d be something though, wouldn’t it? Death by plot hole?
- Falling Action – Here is everything on the downslope from the climax. Tidying up from the battle, patching your wounds, planning recovery, burying the dead, dropping foreshadowing for the sequel. Whatever needs to be taken care of, but remember, readers don’t always like everything tied up in nice pretty bows. Leaving a few rough edges can have them coming back for more. It’s like that bit of corn kernel stuck in your teeth after eating popcorn. The feeling when you finally get it lose and have an “aha!” moment can be so satisfying. Make sure you leave some of these for your reader to connect on their own, they appreciate it.
- Resolution – This is your “what’s next?” spot. Are we done and the characters taking a curtain call? Is everybody in a better place? Is everybody dead? Or are they all gearing up to go hunt down the guy who killed their family, friends, dog, and class turtle? This is the full stop at the end of your novel.
Phew, okay, did that make sense to everyone? Excellent. Drop any questions you have in the comments below.
One more thing I want to mention about the plot roller coaster. The diagram above is a lovely skewed right bell curve, and overall, that’s the case. Particularly in simple things like short stories. However, such a straight line would get a bit boring in a novel, so don’t be afraid to put in a bunch of small rises and climaxes with a bit of a break after them, gearing your readers up for the big rise and fall at the true climax, like below.
Now we get to practice identifying these aspects in a story most of us are likely familiar with: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone. I’ve even made a handy dandy worksheet to help! You can use the image below, or download the pdf here. You task is to identify all the parts of Harry Potter that fall onto the plot roller coaster, and where. Remember, you can’t fit EVERYthing on there, just the really important stuff. Ready? Go!
All set? Good. Now let’s see how you did compared to me:
Not too shabby! See, you don’t need to be super detailed in this exercise, this is just to sort of give you an idea of how things go together to shape a plot. Are we feeling more comfortable with plotting? Yes? Excellent. Then, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take that blank plot worksheet and start figuring out the direction you think your NaNo novel is going to take. Some of you may be thinking, but, Rebecca, I’m a pantser, I don’t WANT to know where my novel is going. That’s just fine! Keep this worksheet beside you to make notes on your plot as you go to make sure you’re keeping all your bases covered, and maybe you’ll find you do have an idea of where you want your story to go. It can be as detailed (or not) as you want. Some others are probably thinking, but I don’t KNOW where my novel is going, is that a problem? Nope! Not at all. Revel in your lack of knowledge and let your characters take you for a ride. But again, use this to keep notes on what’s going on in your head. Try some plots out, see if any of them strike your fancy. You’re not wed to any of them.
Oh, and that reminds me of the most important note of them all at the end of this lesson. Say you know precisely what you want your story to do, and then, all of a sudden, you’re writing along and one of your characters starts going off the rails. You yank them back in line, but nope, there they go again. Don’t force it! Maybe your subconscious has a better idea, see where it goes, and don’t be afraid to change things up, even if you’ve already outlined it. Everything can and should be fluid right up until your editor tells you the book is going to print and they can’t possibly change another thing. And even then, that’s what second editions are for…
See ya next time where we’ll be talking about a tried and true plot format, the Hero’s Cycle! Until then, happy writing!
Drop and give me 20!
20 unique letters and number, maybe a special symbol or two, for a password. No, don’t tell me. You’ll need it for the two things you should set up before you start writing.
The first thing we need to do, before we start talking about craft, is setting up everything you need to succeed. Now, how you choose to write, how you choose to set things up, this is entirely your own thing. I’m just going to outline for you how I set up my digital writing space so you can take what you want and leave what you don’t.
First thing first, I know there are a lot of you who prefer to write by hand, but you won’t survive NaNo that way. You need to write 50,000 words in the space of 1 month, and to officially “win” you need to be able to drop those 50k in NaNo’s official word count verifier, so they have to be typed. Can you imaging trying to hand write 50k words and THEN having to type them all in as well? That right there’s a nightmare, that’s what that is. So you need to set up a digital space in which to write.
(Edit – According to the official NaNo site, if you don’t have access to a computer, you can write by hand, count all your words the old fashioned way, have a friend verify that, and then use a random word generator create the words you need to fill the word checker on nanowrimo.org. As you were…)
I highly recommend setting up your space in an online file storage system like Google Drive. Dropbox works, or whatever your favorite cloud storage system is fine, but Drive is my favorite for two reasons: ease of use and auto-save. That’s right, it saves your work FOR you, and frequently, so if something crashes, you won’t lose everything you forgot to save from your writing session which started three hours back. If you already use drive, good for you! If you want to set up drive, click here.
Next, you want to set up your files within Drive. Create a new folder with your working title, so all your files are in one place. Then I create three files immediately. Outline, People Places and Things, and Table of Contents. Lastly, I start creating separate files for each of my chapters. This allows the files to be more manageable, have fewer errors on saving, and open faster. Of course, you it’s harder to tell what your total word count it, but that’s where the table of contents file comes in handy.
I use table of contents to do three things. 1) Track word count 2) Check that my relative word count per chapter is roughly balanced for whatever effect I’m driving for (sometimes having long and short chapters is desirable, sometimes more equal lengths creates the proper effect) and 3) Help figure out my chapter naming scheme once the book is written. It’s totally fine to keep your chapters numbered and unnamed, most people do, but this particular series uses quippy fun titles to reference what’s coming up in the chapter, so making sure they work together is necessary. Here’s what my TOC looks like at set-up:
Ahhh, nice and fresh! I’ve left my cursor on the total count cell so you can see the equation I’m using to track the important stuff. The equation for total page count is, you guessed it, =SUM(D1:D15). The reason it goes to 15 is because I’m pretty sure I’m going to have more than 11 chapters, so i’m just being prepared. The nice thing about Google Spreadsheets is if I insert a line within the equation parameters, it automatically adjusts it for me. How sweet! Make sure to update this every time you write, and then you can drop your total word count into the NaNoWriMo site.
What’s that? You don’t have a log in for the NaNoWriMo site yet? Well, that’s the second thing you should probably set up. I mean, you can totally go it alone and not bother with NaNo at all, but I find the community and tracking system very motivating. So, if that sounds like fun to you, you should go here and set up your free NaNoWriMo account!
From there, you can set up your profile and the details for your novel for this year. It’s a lot of fun thinking up a working title and designing a quick little cover. You can also link up with your friends (my username is writerlybliss) and keep track of how well you all are doing! Check out my page for this year:
I think that about wraps it up for the prep work I like to start with. Come back next week when we start the story prep with plotting! And even if you’re a pantser* you can still benefit from this session, promise.
*A pantser is a novelist who prefers to write by the seat of their pants rather than creating an outline prior to beginning work.
Have you ever wanted to write a novel? Have you read about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) but were too scared to give it a go? Or thought you just didn’t have the time? Guess what, that’s about to change!
This month, I’m starting a NaNoWriMo bootcamp, taught in person at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas on Greenwood in Seattle, and posted online here for anyone who wants to play along remotely! I will be working on the sequel to Less Than Charming (working title Written to Be) at the same time. But you won’t get spoilers out of me that easily! For the purposes of the exercises we’ll be using Harry Potter to fill out the worksheets and talk about the various aspects of a novel you need to have prepped for next month.
If you want to make sure you don’t miss anything over the next couple months, be sure to subscribe to my blog! And you may yet get a surprise at the end as a treat for attempting NaNoWriMo yourself…
Hello all! So sorry I haven’t been communicative the last little bit, but whoo boy have I been dealing with a lot! I’ll make a post following up on these things individually, but here’s the summary:
First, Less Than Charming launched in May, and the party was fabulous. And I went to the National Storytelling Festival to promote it, which was a ton of fun.
Second, Zosozo in Oz, the second of the Ozite Cycle novellas, is done and live! You can get your copy now from the usual sources.
Third, I am now teaching classes at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a wonderful writing center for grade-school aged kids in Seattle. This October and November I will be teaching a NaNoWriMo bootcamp, and I’ll be posting the course materials and lessons here at the same time to help anyone who wants some pointers for writing 50,000 words in a month.
Fourth, a large part of the reason I’ve not been updating my website much is because I’ve been dealing with a lot of health stuff over the last few years, and it had gotten particularly difficult to keep doing everything, but I finally have a diagnosis! After 5 years of specialist visits and non answers, I have a few diagnoses that explain *gestures to all of me.* I’ll have more details down the way because I think some people might benefit from education on these topics.
A while back, I had a marvelous sci-fi short story titled “Pit Stop” accepted for publication by Geminid Press for their space opera anthology. Today, it was released! Check out the Night Lights Anthology on Amazon and get it for free for your Kindle, but only for a limited time!
Sorry for the long hiatus, friends, but there was a LOT going on in the last year. Started with some health issues, then getting engaged, getting married, and then moving across the country, among some exciting (and time consuming) writing projects. I am now finally settled enough to come back to this page, and boy do I have a lot of news for you!
First: Less Than Charming has been picked up for publication by Parkhurst Brothers Publishing! And I got to do the design for it as well! Check out the cover:
Its launching in June of 2016 and I will keep you updated on its progress and event news.
Second: Zosozo of Oz, the second novella in the Ozite cycle (see what I did there?) is almost ready for release and should be hitting shelves by the beginning of November! Again, I’ll keep you posted.
Third: My short story, “Pit Stop,” is going to be featured in the Night Lights Anthology by Geminid Press! I’ll let you know when that’s available for purchase as well.
I think that’s all for now, but rest assured that during my silence I’ve been hard at work creating more content for all ya’ll! Happy reading!
As most of you know, I have spent most of the last year working with the new Seattle Play Series on their debut set: The Green Lake Collection. Not only do I have a short play in the series, I was also in charge of all the design and layout for the project. For those of you who backed the Indiegogo project, your copy is being mailed to me as we speak and you should have it before Thanksgiving! For anyone who hasn’t purchased their copy yet, but wants to, click the link above, or the picture below, and it’ll take you straight to Amazon to get your own copy! The play is available in print, in every digital format, and, really, any way you could want it. Let me know if I missed a format…