Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

“A story tells us what happened, but a plot tells us why.” – E.M. Forster

“But, how do you know if an ending is truly good for the characters unless you’ve traveled with them through every page?” – Shannon Hale

“Plot as such is not a major ingredient in my novels… it’s often better to sail on the unconscious sea.” – Richard Adams

It has taken me years to write this blog post. YEARS. Actually almost halfway through a decade, since I began to write this series on the Big Three (Setting, Character and Plot), and the Spark that connects them in a haphazard and somewhat painful but always invigorating process we call Writing A Novel.

I did not follow this timeline for the first three installments (which emerged from the depths and into the blogosphere at a tidy pace, between January 2018 and January 2019). I knew Plot was going to take some time, ultimately because – and I will gladly die on this hill – there really is no single correct way to plot a story.

You heard me.

Okay, let me specify what I mean. The “what” of plot is easy to research: we’ve all learned the narrative structures in high school English classes. MasterClass has a pretty comprehensive article to that effect.

What I’m talking about is the “how.”

First, I should acknowledge the intrepid writers who throw caution to the wind and venture into the wilderness that is their novel-in-progress without a second glance at that damn Fichtean Curve. They are on the same journey their characters are. They don’t know what’s coming. They don’t know where they’ll end up. They just know the adventure is worth the end result, whatever that ends up looking like. And that’s… certainly one way to go about it. I envy those writers, to be honest. The National Novel Writing Month community (who affectionately refer to ourselves as NaNoers), have a term for those folks: “Pantsers.” Apt description, to be sure.

The opposite end of the NaNoWriMo plotting spectrum houses the Planners, a distinctively meticulous and cautious bunch, who live by the outline. Org charts and narrative structure drafts are their bread and butter. Planners have a sub-spectrum, of course (why wouldn’t they, these slightly-fastidious lovers of order, who live to categorize and subcategorize)… within this group you have those who need to have each step of the journey measured out ahead of writing a word, down to the smallest detail. Others within the Planner cohort are a bit more flexible, preferring a solid outline but understanding that, even though they created the universe the story resides within, they might not have all the answers at the outset.

I tend to fall into this latter subgroup of Planners. My ideas become tangible through outlining. My characters come alive faster when I have some degree of direction for them in the beginning. Outlining is freeing to me, because it allows me to dream big. I can support those dreams by identifying and filling any plot holes ahead of writing. I don’t accidentally end up in a dead end corner of the story. Several of my failed projects, earlier in my writing career, were lacking an outline. Some of them were complete stories (beginning, middle, and end) but still failures. They did not succeed, in my mind, because I hadn’t devoted enough time to building a foundation that would support the story and my characters’ journey through it.

The outline grounds me in the story, and can even help me see arcs down the road that may result in sequels, or series. My novel-in-progress, Stormriders, began as an outline, after the idea phase and world-building. I flushed out my characters in tandem with construction of the main story arc; well into the plot development, I realized I had enough story – and my world was rich enough – to create arcs for a sequel, and then a trilogy. And a spinoff novella. There is a lot more to explore within the world of Stormriders now, because I connected the plot threads ahead of weaving the tapestry.

So how do I plot?

I start by writing a chapter-by-chapter summary. I tend to see plot steps/chapters almost as scenes in a movie. I write a paragraph per scene. I insert additional character notes with each scene. Who is there? Who isn’t? Where are they? What is happening in that moment? How does everyone interact? What happens to get them to the next scene? And so on, and so forth.

My chapter-by-chapter summary for Stormriders is 21 pages long.

Even though my outlining process tends to be fairly linear, my writing process is not. I jump around to different scenes, flushing them out. A bit of striking description or witty dialogue may pop into my head unannounced and unplanned, and I jot it down knowing there may be a place for it later. Once I have the summary, I can assign those random pieces of writing to a chapter, or scene. I can add and remove scenes, or rearrange them, at will. I can attach my author notes to the outline: thoughts on what’s working, and what isn’t. The summary is the plot foundation. I can double-check to make sure I have the narrative structure needed to be a successful and satisfying end product (eventually).

Another critical reason why I outline is the inevitability (and sometimes obstacle) called life. Even if I have to step away from a project for a while, I can return confident in the knowledge that the dream isn’t gone. The ideas are there, bookmarked for me in summary form.

Plot development, no matter how you experience it, is a journey. And there is no ultimately perfect way to embark on this journey, but knowing your own tendencies and style, coupled with the literary basics of plot structure, will help any writer tell the story they need to tell.


This is the final (hooray!) post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).


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Writing Them to Life (or: The Complexity of Character)

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.

~Joss Whedon

Artist: johnhain (Pixabay)

It all begins with the faint early tingles of a story idea creeping through my brain.

When that “spark” turns out to be a fantasy/speculative fiction idea that requires extensive world-building, the work begins. Through that planning and building process, as mentioned in my previous post, I learn the context for how my characters are going to live, interact with each other, and move their way through the world.

But without the characters, you have an empty landscape.

It’s as if they are reading over my shoulder, as I fill pages and pages of Google Docs with the geography and culture and systems of government within their world. They frown and shake their heads when I sketch costumes that are impractical for their trade or daily lives. I feel them rolling their eyes behind me when I write conversations on their behalf: words and statements that ring false, dialogue you’d never ever hear uttered from their mouths.

And suddenly, here we all are. Me, and the fictional people in my head.

I’m sure other writers relate to this, to some extent, although I can’t be sure to what extremes they take it. On the surface, at best it seems a little eccentric. Prior to writing the fundamental bones of the story, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the people in it, as if they are living, breathing people who live actual lives when I’m not writing about them.

There are many different schools of thought, regarding Character Development; the art of creating characters people empathize with and whose journeys they want to follow. I, for one, start with one general rule, once I have the idea for the story roughly sketched out in the world I’ve painted. I get to know my protagonist first. There are many tools one can use to accomplish this; my favorite is the official National Novel Writing Month Character Questionnaire. Completing this exercise gets you thinking about how your protagonist grew up within the world you’ve created, prior to the events of the story you’re writing. It gets you thinking about what formative events shaped the personality traits you envision for them, and clues you in on what they might say or do in future situations (i.e. plot twists and obstacles). It helps you understand what they want, what their future aspirations are, which also shape their behavior.

My next step is to get to know my primary antagonist. The villain. The bad guy. The person (if it is a person) that adversely and actively acts as a foil to your protagonist, yet needs to be a fully realized and complex person/nonperson in his/her/its own right (this last point is extreeeemely important. Important enough to warrant a separate blog post). If there is no conflict in the story, it is difficult for that story to go anywhere or for your protagonist to experience personal growth, and for me it is more interesting to have that conflict stem from another vibrantly real and complex individual (although it is possible to create conflict without a villain… yet another blog topic for another day).

Next, I think about secondary characters. These are the supportive characters who know, are related to, are subservient to, have power over, are in love with, and/or despise the protagonist and/or the antagonist. They, too, need to have well-rounded backstories and motivations, even if not everything is alluded to in detail as the story is being written. Using character development tools for even minor characters will prevent them from reading one-dimensional on the page. Readers can absolutely pick up on characters who are plot devices, who exist merely to propel the plot forward. They receive a couple of pages (or even paragraphs) of exposition or action, their literary “15 minutes in the spotlight” and then they disappear into the depths of the plot and are not heard from again. Give these folks more credit, if you can. Especially if they create what I call “relevant complexity” within the narrative by bringing their own influence, advice, experience, hubris, perspectives, prejudices, and motives to light.

As with world-building, your readers might never see the full Character Development profiles you’ve so painstakingly crafted for your characters. They might never know the full background and exploits of Character A’s history as a notorious pirate, but they will know enough to understand why Character A has acquired so much wealth, and why the authorities are after him, why he hates storms, and why he avoids a certain port on a certain island. The more time we spend with our characters, the more details we flesh out… and the more details we know, the more we treat them as real people. Real people, with real motivations, with whom readers can empathize. Real people to admire or detest, but always to learn from, and – on some level – understand.

And when I do reach the point of understanding them, the people in my story, they become anchors. If delving into their world is my entry-point into the story, the characters I meet along the way keep me grounded there.

And along the way, I start to understand that the story is no longer, and probably was never, mine.

It is theirs.

 


Become a Patron, and unlock additional content! View the Character Profile for one of the main Stormriders protagonists… meet Ben Corley.


This is the third post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)


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The art of being happily alone, a “Stormriders” update, and some other miscellany.

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No Internets mean much writings.

A solo weekend getaway would usually be considered an odd choice for me. I like people, generally. However, being bombarded with so many distractions (of political and sporting nature) this summer has not been conducive to fulfilling my commitments as a writer, and to myself. The distractions add up. With all the negativity and stress hanging around society lately, a weekend away from humans (physically and digitally) sounded like a phenomenal plan. An uncle owns a gorgeous piece of land on Little Alden Lake, a stone’s throw northwest of Duluth. And so, last weekend I ventured into the Great Northern Wild Pine Forests of Minnesota, with only my dog Layla (with the very real title of Bear Scarer bestowed upon her) in tow, and with the very real intention of disappearing from the rest of humanity for 72 hours. Minimum.

From my journal, the morning after I arrived:

Twenty-five minutes outside the city, and the pavement turns to dirt and gravel. The forest presses in on you as you take the winding road, which you begin to think is taking you into the bowels of a forest purgatory, or toward some hidden backwoods colony of survivalists; you try to ignore the banjos playing the theme from “Deliverance” in your head. You shouldn’t have started the journey after sunset… what were you thinking?
 
The moment when you are absolutely, hysterically certain you have lost your way and your fate is to be eaten by the bears, you are there. Ahead lies a little idyll of certainty in the heart of darkness. An A-frame cabin and a few outbuildings nestle between fully grown pines that soar into the black overhead. A precariously handmade stairway of stones create a path down a shaded slope to the lake. The property is surrounded by a thick ring of pine trees and underbrush, muffling the presence of the few neighbors who live there year round.

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Little Alden Lake, a.k.a. The Perfect Place On Earth

You turn off the ignition and are immediately aware of the utter absence of sound. The nocturnal creepy-crawlies, momentarily disturbed by the intrusion of bright car headlights, have fallen silent. You look up, and as your eyes adjust, you see the blackness has dissolved into a cacophony of the brightest stars you have ever seen. You could swear they are only a few inches from your face, for how bright and clear they are.

Your dog’s low, uneasy growl snaps you back to earth. She stares intently beyond the circle of light from your high beams, as if she can sense something out there, waiting beyond the trees. And, then out of nowhere, the unearthly shriek of a loon warbles up from the water, echoing through the trees. Your heart jumps into your throat. You run inside. You will unpack tomorrow.

You may be thinking I was thinking I’d made a big mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being utterly alone for those three days was exactly what I needed.

Some people call it recharging their batteries. I call it an exercise in focus.

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Nature + wine = happy tingles. Thanks, Science.

Aside from the massive amounts of writing I was able to accomplish in the massive void left behind by the Internet, there are several moments from the weekend I can pinpoint, where I was not doing a whole lot. Waking with the morning and walking out onto the deck that faces the lake, watching Layla chase frogs in the grass, feeling the sun’s warm kiss on my skin, drinking in the scenery with my coffee, merely thinking about my novel… and I would feel this strange tingly buzz that started somewhere under my ribs and spread through my arms and legs, to my fingers and toes, flowing up my spine and prickling across my scalp.

I don’t know if there’s a word that can accurately explain that feeling (“Endorphins?” asks Science), but maybe I’ll call it the body’s reaction to the brain’s realization of pure and utter joy. Contentment. Confidence in the knowledge that when I did sit down to write, I would write and write and write. I was so happy I was tingly. Everyone should be able to feel that feeling.

So, I say, seek out the places that make you tingly. Take a break from the places that squeeze, that apply pressure, that weigh down, that pull apart. Unplug. Be by yourself for a weekend, a day, an hour even. Give yourself the space to rest, “recharge,” refocus. Let your senses take in the small things in those moments. The fluid sparkle of sunlight on the water. The surprising complexity of loon song. The squelch of mud between your toes. The hilarity of a hound dog learning what a frog feels like in her mouth (the frog survived). The late summer wind that already has a crisp bite to it, hinting of an early autumn. On a tree branch of a thousand green leaves, espying the one with a reddish tinge. How the wine in your glass tastes different as you breathe in the scent of fresh pine.

Allow yourself the pleasure of being alone.


STORMRIDERS UPDATE:

During my voluntary absence from human contact, I was able to complete the next chapter in “Stormriders.” For more information about the story, and to read the first 4 chapters free, you can visit my Stormriders page.

 NEW STUFF

While some of my other writing projects have taken a backseat to Stormriders (I’m only human, and just one!) I am still incrementally moving them forward. My Tanzania travel memoir survived its second edit, and I’m working on the specifics for getting that out into the world. Namely, to Amazon.com or not to Amazon.com. I would be appreciative of any feedback from my fellow indie authors, regarding alternative print-on-demand and e-book vendors. Which vendors are your favorites? What as worked for you, and what hasn’t?

I’ve also got a few short story ideas in my head that I will undoubtedly make available for free here, on my site, in the near future. More on that down the road!

Observations in Reading Terminal Market

Notes on a Bar NapkinJune 4th, 2015.
Molly Malloy’s. Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia. 


Spicy hops of golden goodness slip past my teeth
In a strange little corner of a pulsing chaos
stretching a full city block.
Stuck in between magical places called
The Tubby Olive and Head Nut,
Facing down the neon sign glare from one of thirteen cheese shops,
This beer tastes like the promise of salty snacks and good decisions
to follow.
And in the throb of bustling commerce,
The ebb and flow of a thousand conversations,
I can finally relax.

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