Best Laid Plans

Writing is a slow process. From idea to draft, from early drafts to later drafts, from query to agent, from contract to publication. That doesn’t mean things can’t move faster, just that they so often don’t.
Patience is a quality you need to cultivate if you are going to survive this field. I understand all this—even if I don’t like it. One thing I like to do is make plans to distract myself from the futility of waiting (I’m type A all the way).

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantster, I think being able to plan is a crucial act of writing, even if it’s the just-in-time variety pantsters employ. We have to be able to hold large amounts of information in our heads and then turn that information into something that’s not only literate but adheres to a recognizable structure. This ability is explored in part by Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographerby Peter Turch—a book that’s geared more to thinking about writing than actual writing, if you know what I mean, though in this case that’s not a dig.
Planning, making mental maps, using words to formalize what has only been nebulous or intangible thought… these kinds of activities take a lot of time, and can be the very means to work through the periods of waiting that always seem to crop up.
These activities for me often include:
–Planning out my next project
–Determining what I need to do on the blog
–Prioritizing story drafts across projects, critiquing for my writing groups and CPs, and research time
I also create contingency plans in my head.
Sometimes I create contingencies when I’m plotting out a novel and need my research to corroborate the action. I want X to happen in my story, but if the research doesn’t support X, I’ll need to go with Y. Or Z. Or maybe X will work but another set of conditions need to be considered. By planning out what needs to happen, and what alternatives could also work, I’m able to work through tricky plot issues and stay on target with my story.
Or in the case of submitting, say I have a handful of short stories under consideration at markets. However, most markets have no simultaneous or multiple submissions policies in place. Because of this, I have to consider what is the best order to submit them. Usually factoring in some combination of
1. Impact (higher tier/exposure over lesser markets)
2. Response time (quicker over slower)
3. Fit (always hard to judge)
4. Deadlines
For example, let’s say the average response time at a market is a week. And there’s a deadline for stories with a theme similar to my story coming up in two weeks. I would probably submit my story to the market with the 1-week deadline, under the assumption that if it gets selected (great), but more realistically I might get some feedback that would help me to submit to the themed market in time.
I’ve also created contingency plans in my head for what happens if something big and exciting happens. What then? I don’t recommend this last one. For starters, I can make a gazillion plans and all that mental effort goes out the door with one rejection. Sure, a contingency plan will kick in then, and I’ll remain optimistic for another few weeks and then… Well, you can see how this cycle could last forever.
So planning can range from the highly useful (as in the case of story plotting and time management) to busy work (micromanaging story submission orders) to entirely unnecessary (winning the publishing lottery).
But writers write. And in the case of this writer, I plan as well.
Happy writing (and planning)!

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Pitfalls of Writing Tight

We are constantly told to write tight. No unnecessary words. Story as iceberg. Kill our darlings. Et cetera. You know, the Elmore Leonard school of writing.

And this is something I’ve taken to heart as I’ve tried to further my craft over the years. I like to think I’ve developed a spare style for myself. Which also may have evolved out of my experience writing flash fiction in one of my early writing groups. Still, I try to write tight, no matter what project I’m working on.

But sometimes this hurts me.

A long time ago, I wrote a post on how I have to write in layers, starting with a skeleton of action and dialogue and layering in all that other stuff that makes for a coherent and satisfying story.

Once I have a sense for my story, I’m eager to get it all down on the page and move on. I know what my characters need to do, when, and how. And then try to convey that as efficiently as possible.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Because I’ve already figured out what happens, there’s not always enough of an intellectual challenge to flesh the story out. Another reason is that there’s always another story jumping up and down in the back of my brain, waiting for its turn to be written. I have to take care to manage both of these impulses since I’m writing for publication, which requires a higher level of storytelling from me than if I were writing for my own entertainment.

Writing tight is great for controlling a story’s pacing. But if I’m too thin on the details, the character insights, the scene setting, and so on, I often rob my story of its full potential. So I have to spend a significant amount of time lingering over my scenes to ensure they are fully realized without slowing things down. And I often rely on my CPs and trusted readers to figure out what the right balance is.

Plot complications are another area I have to watch out for. After all, why delay the inevitable? I already know what happens in my stories, and complications just muck that up. But it’s also those complications that ratchet up tension and make the story’s climax awesome (or at least they should contribute).

There’s a reason I’ve stayed away from writing mysteries and suspense novels. So many of those stories rely on misinformation and red herrings to carry the story until the real plot is revealed at the three-quarters mark. And it’s hard for me to justify spending so much time developing irrelevant plot threads, when there’s a real story to cover. But I guess that’s just another writerly flaw of mine.

So while my craft has definitely benefited from learning to write tight, there are some pitfalls:

  • Write too sparely, and you risk confusing your reader. 
  • Write too lean, and you rob your story of its full emotional impact. 
  • Write too tight, and you could ruin the journey for the reader.

How do you strike that balance between tight writing and fully realized stories? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Recursive Plotting with Guest L. Blankenship

Today I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from L. Blankenship of Notes from the Jovian Frontier. Not only is she an awesome critique partner, but she also contributes to Unicorn Bell and Science in my Fiction. Enjoy!

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First, a thank-you to Bluestocking, my awesome CP, for letting me guest blog here to promote my Kickstarter project! Details for that at the bottom.

Recursive Plotting:
I’ve been working on a six-part, gritty fantasy romance for some time now. As popular as multi-volume fantasy stories are, they’re not so easy to write. Some of that is because of plotting. A six-book series has all the same plotting problems that a one-shot book does — only with the added size and weight of a lot more words.

There are many ways to break down plots into stages. Here’s the one I use: inciting incident, first plot point, other plot points, climax, resolution. You can further group these into a three-act structure or apply other methods of plotting if you want. For now, I just want to focus on the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is that event which sets off the whole story. It sets things in motion. Some call it the point of no return — because of this incident, something must be done. Something will happen. Because of the inciting incident, the first plot point happens. Because of that first plot point… and so on, building toward the climax.

The first part of my novel has an inciting incident: my protagonist, Kate, is given an early graduation into the duties of a physician and told to attend to a small party heading into the mountains on a mission that nobody seems to want to explain.

 Something must be done: the authority figures in her life have laid this on her, and being a bright young student she wants to live up to their expectations. The rest of the plot hinges on this one event happening, or Kate would have just stayed home and kept studying.

To step back, this is Part I out of six. and while each individual Part contains a plot structure of its own, the series as a whole also contains a plot structure. Writ large, as it were. The series has an inciting incident, first plot point, other plot points, a climax and a resolution.

Part I is, as a whole, the inciting incident for the other five parts. It sets a larger plot structure in motion and because of this, certain things must happen. Certain things must be resolved by these characters. Part II is, as a whole, the first plot point. This larger plot will build its way up to a climax and resolution in Part VI. Though, as I said, each Part will still contain all the plot stages to support what happens within that Part.

In short, plotting is recursive. (This makes my nerdy little heart smile.)

Shameless Plugging:

I’m running a Kickstarter project to fund the professional editing, proofreading, and cover artwork for my gritty fantasy romance, Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet. There will be six parts in total, published over the course of the next few years.

I’m pre-selling e-books, paperbacks, offering promotional bookmarks, and more at various pledge levels (ranging from $1 – $100). Check out the project page for my book trailer, budget, and production schedule.

Kickstarter.com is a fundraising platform for all sorts of creative projects. Artists post a profile of their project and offer rewards in exchange for pledged money. The pledges are not collected unless the artist’s funding goal is reached within a set period of time. If the goal is reached, the artist receives the money, carries out the project and distributes the rewards promised. It’s a fascinating site and easy to lose time in!

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I’ve had the privilege to read the first three parts of Disciple, and can’t wait to see the rest of the series. If you like strong heroines, unique magic systems, and realistic medieval detail, both action and character, these books are for you. 

Be sure to check out the first chapter here

And please consider donating as a little as a dollar to help L. get these books into the world. Thanks, and happy writing!  
 
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The Chasm between Intentions and Execution

We all intend to write the best we possibly can. In fact, we probably intend a lot of things with our stories.

Maybe we want to create the most nuanced yet relatable of characters or an innovative twist on x plot or a unique structure/voice/premise that will blow readers away. And yet once we finally finish our masterpiece we realize what we actually have is a two-dimensional protagonist, a plot that closely resembles two other books that came out this year alone, and a structure/voice/premise that leaves readers scratching their heads at best.

How did our stories fall so short of our intentions?

Skill Level

Sure we all want to be that author who writes the Great American Novel right out the gate. It’s normal to want to succeed so fantastically at something you work hard at. But what’s more realistic is that you tinker with a few story ideas, even write out some of them, and realize you have so much to learn. In this case, your skills as a writer are keeping you from writing the way you intend to.

Maybe you are still mastering ways to incorporate description without derailing story action. Maybe you are still trying to figure out how to go deeper into your character so they feel like real people. Maybe you have all these grand ideas for plot points, but you struggle to make them come about in a natural way in your story. If you keep writing, keep practicing, keep honing your craft, you’ll gradually see the gulf between your intentions and your writing ability narrow.

Competing Story Elements

This one is harder to generalize since it really depends on the individual story. However, maybe the reason your story falls short of your intentions is because some other aspect of your story got in the way. Perhaps this competing element distracted you from what you were trying to accomplish or perhaps it simply made it impossible.

If your story is derailed from what you intended, you must decide if that is a problem or not. Maybe you had the good fortune that your story actually improved. If not, you must ferret out where things started to go haywire and work your way back out. This is not easy work. But it is a useful process to go through, even if you don’t succeed.

Maturation

I’m a firm believer that some stories simply need more time to develop. I know that can be a discouraging thing to hear when you want that book deal/agent/career now now now. But some stories simply take longer to create and shape, so that they fulfill your intentions in writing it in the first place.

If you have a story that has disappointed you in how it has turned out, set it aside for a little while. Time away can show you flaws you couldn’t see before. It could also be you rushed into writing the story without thinking it through adequately enough before putting pen to paper. Story ideas need time to gel, coalesce, mature before they’re ready to be written. Knowing whether or not your story falls into this category comes with time and experience.

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Along these lines, I’ve included part three (four in total) of Ira Glass’s talk On Storytelling, which is totally worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

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A Matter of Choice

Our characters are constantly making choices, from answering the call to action to something as innocuous as deciding what to eat for breakfast. It may not always seem that way from where we sit in the author’s chair, given the illusion of control we have over our stories, but our characters should be facing choices, even if we don’t always dwell on them.

Choices could be binary (between options A or B) or multiple (options A, B, C…X). They could be mutually exclusive (if A is chosen, B is no longer possible) or not (if A is chosen, B is still a possibility).

But I want to focus on the types of choices characters face, and the associated repercussions the decisions can have.

Explicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make and have acknowledged it (to themselves or others) in some way. They are also aware of the repercussions of their decision (stakes).

For example, your hero knows if he chooses to fight the bad guy, there’s a chance he could win and save the girl. If he doesn’t fight, the bad guy wins. Those are explicit outcomes.

Explicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make but they are uncertain as to what impact their choice will have on themselves and others.

Think of your traditional call to action. A young man or woman is told they need to undergo training to harness their latent powers/magic/intellect/abilities (think college or grad school for contemporary purposes). There’s an obvious choice here, to train or not, but the stakes here are less certain. Success is not a guarantee if they undergo training. Maybe there are other paths to success that don’t include training. These are vague outcomes.

Now, a call to action moment could certainly have explicit stakes (think “chosen one” tropes), but I personally feel there needs to be some uncertainties, some vagueness to the choice, for it to be dramatically satisfying.

Implicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is where your character is unaware/unconscious of the fact that there is a choice to be made. You’re probably thinking: How can that be? Well, let’s start with the fact that we make hundreds upon hundreds of choices everyday (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Small ones, ones we don’t even realize we’re making. Now think of the way you were raised, beliefs or traditions your parents or caregivers passed on to you that you never had reason to question. Yes, assumptions, ignorance, and to some extent notions of culture and privilege all come into play here. Now you can start to see how there may have been a choice to be made, but your character was unaware of making it or ignorant of other alternatives.

For example, your character grew up as an only child, and therefore is used to doing things autonomously and has what is perceived by others as selfish tendencies. Let’s say they monopolize a conversation at school (an implicit choice since they don’t have to compete for their parent’s attention at home, and that behavior unwittingly carries over into other settings) and in doing so, they cut off someone else who tries to speak, pissing that person off (explicit outcome).

Implicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is where a character is unaware or unconscious of the fact they have a choice to make, and the ramifications of that choice are not immediately apparent.

Let’s return to the college example. Maybe your character is descended from a long line of blue-collar workers. This means they’ve lived their whole life to the cycle of the nearby plant/mill/factory. Their parents worked there, their grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. As soon as they turn 16, they start picking up weekend shifts or work there during the summer.

When it comes time to graduate high school, they just assume they’re going to work at the plant too (implicit choice), never considering the option they could go to college or join the military or spend a year working for Americore. The ramifications of this choice are unknown. Maybe this person will rise through the ranks and manage the plant one day. Maybe the plant will shut down, and it’s harder for the character to translate their skills into another trade or go back to school. Maybe they’re stuck on the ground floor for the rest of their life. These are all uncertain outcomes, based on a implicit choice.

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For all of these different types of choices, there’s a lot you can play with. Your character’s deliberations leading up to a pivotal choice could be a dramatic, angst-ridden ride. The impact their choice has on other characters and the plot of your story could also be as big as you can make it, both positive and negative.

But don’t forget about the quiet choices, the ones that add texture and nuance to your characters. Consider showing how your characters learn from the choices they make, and the differences in how a lesson learned from an implicit or explicit choices will affect them.

Happy writing!
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