Monthly Archives: May 2011
There are plotters and there are pantsers, but usually I find that it’s best to be somewhere in the middle. I find it’s much more important to understand and be familiar with your setting and characters than to know all the details of your plot. This is because you’re writing from that point of view in that place, and those details help you decide what decisions characters make and how they influence the story. With that in mind, I’ll help you create a basic outline.
I prefer to use printer paper for this and to draw my own border near the edges of the pages, but it’s really up to you what kind of paper you use and the aesthetics of your outline. I do however insist that you use paper, not your computer, for this exercise. Paper is much more inspirational and I find it much easier to create background notes and info on a piece of paper than to try to conjure them out of thin air onto a computer.
Look at your factsheet and decide which events are most important to your story. You should start with the three most important: the one that really gets the story started (like your characters finding an ancient relic and learning that they have to go on a quest), the rising action (the turning point in the story, when you feel the conclusion creeping up on you), and the resolution of the story-the final battle and the scenes that follow. Put the first event in big letters at the top of the page, the second one in big letters a third of the way down, and the third one in big letters near the bottom.
Now that you’ve got the main events down, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. Now you go back to your factsheet from last week and start listing the smaller events that need to happen to create the story. These should be in order from first to last-in between the three you’ve already established of course-and in point form. You don’t want a lot of details here, just enough so you know what each event is.
Once you’ve got all the essentials on the page you can start adding fun stuff, new scenes and subplots. Remember that every empty space is a place where you can put a new scene as you’re doing this, but that you don’t want to fill up the page entirely. Why? Because if you fill up the page completely, you won’t be able to add things to this outline as you’re writing and new scenes appear-which makes editing harder.
How do you outline?
Previous Posts in this Series
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning
Plot in Early Planning
You’re staring at a blank page, obsessing. You’re a writer, but today, the computer screen is staring at you, blank and taunting. Today the words aren’t flowing. And it’s okay, because we’ve all been there. Writing is hard work, and some days are harder than others. The important thing is that when you’re down, when writing is hardest, you try to make it easier, you try to still get done what you need to get done. Today I’ve created a short list of things you can do to pull yourself out of a creative slump. They aren’t necessarily the first things you’d think of-writing exercises and prompts-though those can be helpful too. These suggestions are about truly getting in touch with your inner self, the deep part of you that does the writing.
Without further ado, let’s begin:
1. Meditate Take a few deep breaths and still your mind. Focus first on your breathing and then on nothing at all. You’d be surprised the strange things your inner mind says to you if you really listen-and if it’s outside stress that’s getting you down, meditation will do wonders for your peace of mind. Don’t just follow this advice when you’re having trouble writing-try to meditate at least once a week. Make it part of your self care routine. You can use incense or candles or whatever helps you meditate. Make sure you keep pen and paper on hand so if you get a great story idea you can write it down right away.
2. Get Outside And I’m not just talking about your backyard. Go for a walk down the street, spend an hour sitting in the nearest park. Write down descriptions of the people you see, the sounds you hear. Focus on the descriptions while you’re there, and when you get home, see if you can find a story in it.
3. Research Research something you’re interested in. If you have something specific to write about, look for information related to your theme, maybe even read a short story or two that have similar ideas. If you don’t, then research whatever catches your interest, whether that be science, history, other cultures, other languages or even the behaviour of zebras during mating season. Keep your mind open to ideas and note interesting facts. Even if you don’t make a full story out of it, you might make part of one, and the information might be useful later. For fantasy writers, I highly suggest researching an unfamiliar mythology.
4. Observe Watch the people around you. Listen to the people around you. Notice what they say, how they act, their odd behaviours. You can write them down, but I find when it’s people I know, I remember these details. Little things that a person says which hint at the deeper issues-comments about their appearance, fishing for compliments, mentioning an ex in passing who’s more important to them than they let on-the kinds of things which let you into a person’s psyche. You can learn a lot about characterization by studying people-and they can give you some weird ideas.
5. Explore Not physically-though I’m sure on your adventures there will be some of that-but mentally. Go to see a musical or a play. Go to see a new movie. Look for interesting events that are new to you-events where you can see and learn new things. Study a new form of dance. Adventure, explore, and live your life without fear; dare to experience things others wouldn’t, and you’re sure to find something to write about.
It’s okay if you don’t write anything one day-but you have to keep living life and looking for inspiration every day. You have to always be thinking about your craft. And you have to do everything in your power to get yourself out of the slump.
How do you get out of your writing slumps?
Now that we’ve talked about setting and character, it’s time to talk about plot. Plot is the conflict and its resolution, the story itself, which is built upon the building blocks of setting and character. Today we’re going to talk about the things you should establish before you write your outline.
Today you’re going to create a fact sheet in relation to your story. The first thing you need to put on this sheet of paper is the location in which your story takes place. Next, write down each of the characters’ names and their roles in the story. Leave some room here-you’re probably going to run into more characters along the way, and it makes it easier if this list stays up to date. Finally,write down the main conflict and the point-what you’re trying to accomplish with this story.
Now that you’ve established the basics, it’s time to start asking questions such as:
What other conflicts might arise? These are the minor conflicts that make up the story. Things like characters not getting along, or characters getting lost, or encountering an obstacle not directly related to the main story. This is where most of your subplots will come from.
What internal struggles do each of the characters face? These are the struggles that make up the real emotional tension in books. Lord of the Rings wouldn’t be half so amazing if not for Frodo’s internal struggle regarding the ring.
What events absolutely have to happen to reach the conclusion? These are the things that will for sure be included in your outline, the things which are unmovable in your story (at least how you see it now).
Which parts of characters’ pasts are most important? This is the backstory which again, you need to include. These are the things you want the readers to know to help them understand your characters and your story. The things that are crucial to knowing them, like if they used to have a wife who’s dead now, or if both their parents were killed by goblins when they were young. Remember there’s not too much of this that you want to include, but you want to have at least one important item in every character’s past-including the villain’s-to help the reader understand them.
What are each characters’ motivations? This is what each character wants, why they act the way they do in the story. These are important to keep in mind and to weave in during the story.
There are lots of other questions that you can ask, but these are the ones that I find most important. These should give you all the material you need to write your outline and begin your novel.
Previous posts in this series:
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning
Every person wants different things; every person’s definition of success is different. There are individual successes, like when you ace a test in school, and there are overall successes, like when you get your high school diploma. As writers, we share many of the same individual successes-finishing a book, finishing an edit, submitting your book, getting published. These successes are shared by writers of all genres. Overall success, however, changes from writer to writer.
Individual successes in the fiction writing business are universal: the first finished book, the first successful rewrite, the first agent, the first contract, the first book sale. The first royalty check. Success in writing cannot be determined by the amount of money you make, or you’re sure to get discouraged-it takes time for even the best writers, even the promotional geniuses, to make any real money in this game. And so we measure and think of success in different ways-each new challenge we overcome as a writer is a success.
But what does overall success look like? Well that’s different for everyone. For me it looks like a small house in my ancestral land-the highlands of Scotland. It doesn’t involve any kind of corporate job; it involves gardening, cleaning, hiking, and writing. It involves at least one cat and preferably a husband of some kind-not a ceremonial wedding but a man who will stick with me through the thick and thin of my writing career-possibly a househusband if I ever make enough money for that kind of thing.
Most of all, when I’m older and looking back on my life, I’ll know I’ve reached success if I have a long line of published books which people really enjoyed. I’ll know I’ve reached success when my non-writing time is filled with talking to readers and other writers about books. I’ll know I’ve reached success when I go to a writing conference and some kid I’ve never seen or heard of before tells me that they read one of my books and were inspired not only to read more-but also to write. It is easy to blog and to give prompts to those who already write; it is harder to reach out to a young mind and make them think hey, maybe they could write a book too.
In the end I want to give back to young people. Writing has saved my life and I want to give that gift to other young people going through hard times.
What does your vision of overall success look like?
Today’s Prompt is:
Bitter Childhood Memories
My response to today’s prompt will be written from Riana’s point of view. Riana is the main character of the novella-which might grow into barely a novel territory-Moonshadow’s Guardian. I have just begun to rewrite Moonshadow’s Guardian. I’m moving slowly still because I’ve got some work left to do, but I should have the new first chapter (not all the chapters are changing drastically; the first one, however, is) finished in the next day or two. I’m excited to be back to work on this project.
I spent the first fourteen years of my life with my mother, a human woman named Elaine. She was a pretty woman, though she never lost much of the weight of childbirth. We lived in a one room hut with two beds and a wood burning stove. It was just the two of us; Elaine’s only affair was with my father, whose name she refused to speak. She only told me that she had done a terrible thing, and that she feared his return every day. I would always ask her why, never understanding; when I was twelve she told me she was scared he would take me away.
When I was fourteen puberty began to hit me. And with puberty came strange happenings. I had always been able to see my mother’s aura, which was a navy blue-a colour I now associate with sadness, loneliness-but now I could see those of all the people in town. And I could hear a lot more, like the things they said as they passed our house on the road.
The first magic I ever did was not on purpose. My mother took me to prayer at the Temple of the Twins one morning. I was cranky, in the midst of growing a woman’s figure and full of all of those aches and pains that come with it, and I didn’t really want to pray to anyone outside of my own house. But my mother wanted to go, although I think it was only to see if she could make conversation when we all had tea afterwards.
She did. And so did everyone else. With my new hearing not under control the voices made my head pound. I told my mother I had to go home and I was preparing to leave when I heard the woman across the room call me a whore. I had only taken a step towards her when an invisible force took her and threw her against the wall, knocking her flat out. Everyone turned just in time to see it, and there were screams all through the temple. I took one step back and then the crowd turned its eyes to me. And they knew.
I ran for it. I ran back to the house and I started packing my clothes. Elaine arrived a few moments later.
“Please don’t go.” Her eyes watered as she spoke.
“I have to, I have to find someone to teach me.” My mouth tasted dry and gross like it was full of cotton.
“But they’ll come for you. Soon enough.”
“Who are they?” I threw the shirt I was holding at a wall. She whimpered.
“Your father’s people. Please-”
“I’m a demon, aren’t I? Is that why you would never tell me about my father?”
“That is,” said a man’s voice. It was a demon, with red eyes and big fangs. “Your father is a very powerful demon. And now it is time for you to come Home to your Family. We will be better to you than these people who do not understand.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“You don’t have a choice.” A pair of hands grabbed my arms and twisted them painfully behind my back. The demon was behind me now. He whispered something in my ear but I was struggling too hard to really notice what it was. And then we were going down, through thick layers of rock, to the underground place where they always said demons had to live…
We hit the ground hard and I puked.
I looked up and I knew these caves would never truly be my home.
This week we are going to talk about character. I know that I said we would talk about plot next, but I decided that we should talk about character first. This is because I believe plot should usually be built upon setting and character; together they are the building blocks of a well written story, and without them, plot means nothing. The greatest story in the world will fall flat on its face if nobody cares, and without a great character-or at least a decent one-nobody will care.
For many writers, character is the first thing to appear when they are working on a story. This does not make it the easiest; a character may say hello to a writer days before they give the writer a name, and months before they tell the writer their story. Characters are part of us, but they are also outside of us. I think our subconscious knows what’s going on, but our consciousness is making constant objections, thinking the character should do things differently. The purest writing is created when conscious and subconscious meet, but I’m not here to talk about the philosophy of writing.
It is not only the reluctance of some characters which makes this part hard; it is the fact that to create a beautiful story, a masterpiece, you must not only know your main character well, but also your secondary characters, and especially your villain. Today I’m going to talk about some basic exercises which will help you get to know your characters.
The first thing to do for each of your characters-including your villain-is to build them a basic profile. This profile will consist of name, age, height, weight, physical description, dominant personality traits, and a one-to-four paragraph bio. The bio isn’t supposed to contain all the details of their life, rather it is there to hold the most important facts about your character. We’ll talk a bit more about character references when we start talking about characterization in story.
The second thing to do is to talk to your characters. This can be an interview-check out these sample questions-but I suggest that perhaps it shouldn’t be. I find it’s much more productive just to have a simple conversation about life. The conversation might turn into a debate of some sort and it likely won’t stay simple, but it’s more likely to produce good results than an ordinary interview.
One of the best ways to get to know your characters-and the last I’m going to talk about today-is by writing short pieces from their PoV. Essentially akin to the prompts I do here every week, putting your character in a series of interesting situations is one way to get to know them-let them do whatever they want and you’ll soon learn what kind of person they are by how they deal with different situations. You can make these pieces before or after that character’s story, but you won’t want to make them during-then they don’t add all that much depth. Let them surprise you; you learn more that way.
Setting and plot can tell you a lot about character; a very religious world will tell you that your character is either religious as well or oftentimes shunned. A plot about a spunky princess tells you that your character must be female, a princess, and capable of learning how to kick some bad guy butt. But character can also tell you a lot about plot and setting. A character who has been cast out of her religious order for a sexual act shows us a land where sex is taboo and dark; a character who partakes in fertility rituals speaks of an entirely different kind of society. And the prince regaining his throne story might fall flat on his face if the prince would sooner die-though it’s more likely to fall flat on its face if he’s just a jerk.
As a final note, we should never stop learning about our characters. They always have more to tell us, more to say. And they almost always have something interesting up their sleeves, if only you are willing to listen to the surprise.
How do you develop your characters? Have any of them seriously shocked you?
Previous posts in this series:
Setting and its Purposes in Early Planning
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a New Project
Today’s Prompt Is:
The people in the village continued to treat me as a stranger despite my efforts to participate in the community. It baffled me when just before the dawn of winter, a new man arrived, rescued from the river-an exile of the Queen-and they accepted him as one of their own. Edith told me it was because most people entered the village by the river or were born here; my entrance was a rare thing, almost unheard of. I did not take it to heart too much, following Edith’s advice, but I could not help but feel some anger towards the man.
This man came to us with bad news, worse than I could have imagined. The Temple of Memories was due to be closed down in one mooncycle; the hall would be turned into ‘Ahkmar’s School of Swords and Sorcery’. As though Ahkmar cared for the people, cared what they did or did not learn; I knew he cared not for us, particularly not those of us exiled to this village. Astra’s people rioted in the streets, and they were massacred by the Sun Warriors. Priests and Priestesses were cast out of the city-and those who were not cast out yet would be soon, unless of course they ran first.
We mourned for those who had fallen and we lived then in fear. The Queen had no one left to stop her, for both Evelyn and the King lay dead. The King had died of a sickness only a week before the man was cast out. He had been a servant and he believed that the Queen had poisoned the King. She was crazy-and she was likely to lead a ‘purge of those barbarians’ in the near future-such things had been done before by other monarchs who did not realize that our existence was crucial to the survival of the kingdom.
I practiced my sword now more than ever. We believed the attacks would begin a few days after the temple was officially closed. I woke up earlier and went to bed later so that I could practice as much as possible. Edith sent a messenger to the town of giants-something I wasn’t entirely sure existed-and we began to prepare for a food shortage. I practiced just outside of the town, twenty feet from the fence. Always the man with the long hair watched me. I did my best to ignore him, but it grew more unnerving with each passing day.
It was ten days after the man came out of the river when the stranger came to talk to me. As I began to wind down my practice and the sun was setting, he approached me. I finished my routine as though I had not noticed, but then I turned to him. I noticed for the first time a silver pendant the shape of a falcon claw, which held an emerald. It was a beautiful pendant, and something-long lost knowledge, most likely-told me that the pendant was very magical. It gave off its own small aura, an aura which was bright green, though it didn’t seem particularly nourishing or helpful.
He smiled slightly. His teeth were good-or at least better than most of the older locals’ teeth-and his eyes sparkled in a friendly sort of way. I waited for him to speak; I was still not sure if I had anything to say to this man.
“Hello stranger,” he said.
“Hello stranger,” I replied.
“I see you practicing. Are you afraid?”
“Not entirely, for I am skilled with a sword. But one skilled sword will not matter if the queen comes down upon us with an army at her feet.”
“I suppose it will not. What is your name, stranger?” Of course he had to know the answer to this question. Word got around fast in a small town like this. But I supposed I might as well humor him.
“I am Ceri. What is your name, stranger?”
“My name is Donovan. I am a man of many talents, particularly those of magic and archery. I can see you are a woman of equal talents, and I would like to invite you to have dinner with me and my comrades.”
“So I shall,” I said. He turned away and led me to the village. I had no idea what I might find there on this chilly evening, but something about my new friend told me that it was worth finding.
Today’s prompt of the week is:
A Strange New Life
Living in the village meant that I must work amongst them. It was a stark contrast from my life in the temple, where I spent most of my time in the pursuit of knowledge. I spent the mornings farming in the fields with the other villagers, who worked with me but did not say much to me. The old woman who ran in the village took me in because she had once known Evelyn. I spent my afternoons mending clothes with her. Dinners were usually held among the entire town in the temple three times a week; once a week I helped with the cooking and serving of this food, though cooking was not my greatest strength.
Despite the work that I did and the fact that I always sat at Edith’s-the old woman’s-table, I was friends only with the priests and priestesses and a couple of the other elders. There was a man named Vindictus who was very tall and said to be a half giant, and he was now growing old and had a silver braid hanging down from the back of his head. He had been a great hunter and warrior in his youth and was still fairly skilled; the servers at the temple were gossipers and said that his mother, a giant, had left him on the doorstep of his father as soon as he had been old enough to stop nursing. And there was a woman, a fully human woman but a powerful witch, named Aerith. She had lived in this village all of her life and was now very old. Most of these people had been in the village for only a couple of decades; plague came often but so did new arrivals.
I was not spoken to by most of the other villagers. I learned mostly about their village either from Aerith or Vindictus, who both had a talent for storytelling and a nature to tell many of them. Whatever else I picked up was usually gossip among the temple servers.
I hoped the people of the village would warm up to me sometime soon, quickly; but they did not. I adjusted fairly quickly to a life on society’s fringes, having always been kind of an outcast at the temple, neither priest nor trainee nor servant. I also had one day entirely to myself because of this, the one day when I did not work at all-for we worked five and a half days to keep the village running-when I read the books we had, limited though they were, and practiced my weapons. I also had time to practice before dinner at Edith’s, for she insisted on cooking the meals there.
Sometimes in the early evening I would see a man stare at me. He looked similar to Vindictus with sharp features, though he certainly did not seem giant; he wore his hair in a long ponytail which was still black. I did not know his name; I was not going to ask. I would wait for him to speak to me.
I did not take the time to contemplate the slight loneliness, this slight longing, for a true friend, perhaps a lover, which slowly grew in my heart. Such things were not to be considered; if I gave them thought they would only take form and grow bigger in my heart. I put them out of my head and worked my days away.
I did not think of the city; there was no going back. It was not my home without Evelyn.
Perhaps I would never have a true home without Evelyn.
Please post the first 75 words of or a link to your response