Tag Archives: plotting techniques

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.

Do You Need to Write Every Day to be a Writer?

Recently, I was at a writing retreat and I learned something very valuable that’s taken a lot of pressure off me. This tidbit of information has changed how I feel about my approach to writing a novel or a short story.

In the writing world, there is a mantra that we’re supposed to write every day. We’ve heard it over and over. It’s our albatross. And when we don’t, the feeling of failure, the feeling of not being a real writer, is all consuming.

We’re supposed to write a certain number of words per day. To write so many short stories a year or to write at least one or two novels a year so that we can fulfill reader expectations because the immediate nature of social media and technology dictates that we produce polished works quickly.

We’re also told that we are better writers if we always work at our craft.

It’s true that we always need to work at our craft. It’s true that we need to produce work so we have something to submit and sell. What’s not true is that we need to be hard at it every day. That may work for some, but for many of us, it doesn’t.

When I learned that, I realized that I don’t feel all the pressure to perform to someone else’s mantra any more.

Sure, I want to write at least one novel and/or five short stories per year. I can do that. But now I write without the expectation I’d learned, the one that states that I need to write every day in order to produce work. At the writing retreat, I learned to relax and accept my own writing schedule. How did that happen? I simply asked others about their approach to the craft.

And that was how I discovered that I don’t need to write every day to be a successful author.

The bottom line is that we all write differently, and we all approach our craft differently. Our personalities and how we process information differs. One writer I spoke with thinks about his novel for 6-8 months, and sometimes longer. He writes in a journal, makes notes about the world, and mulls about the plot and the characters. Another outlines and plots. Another is a pantster with the vaguest notions about the story before she begins writing. Another is part pantster, part outliner. Some write a little every day. Others may wait for 6 months until they’ve got the pieces together and then in 4 to 6 weeks, they write the entire novel. Not everyone writes every day. Some don’t write for months. Some take a lot of time to think and outline while others dig in. Everyone’s method of creating the world, characters, and plot differs as does how much and how often they write every day.

But there is one thing in common: At some point, everyone has to sit in the chair and put their fingers on the keyboard and write the story.

I think that’s why when we’re new to this game, we’re told to write a bit every day. It’s about creating a habit and getting the job done. Unless we’ve tried writing every day, how do we know that it isn’t what we need to do? Unless we’ve tried outlining and writing as pantsters, unless we explore and learn whether we write best after long periods of reflection, or if the muse is more willing on the fly, we’ll never really know which method works best. That’s what I learned from the pros on the retreat – everyone had written long enough to have discovered what works best for them.

Then, there are those other times when we’re not productive. Those times makes us wonder if we’re really cut out for this business. You know, when illness strikes either you or someone in your family. Or, when the job and family leave you too exhausted to be creative (it takes physical and mental energy to write). Or, when good things like vacations, promotions, moving to a new house, new babies, or other events happen. All these life circumstances threaten to derail our story telling if we keep the mantra in our head that there is only one way to be a writer and that is by writing every day.

That mantra, is simply not true.

You don’t need to write every day to be a writer. Yes, it works for many, but not for all and not always. Life happens. But also, our personality and approach to the craft determines what works best.

The good news is that even when we’re not writing, we’re observing, we’re learning, we’re putting things together in interesting ways. We’re watching people and trying to understand what makes them tick. We observe things in our environment and we see interesting combinations and juxtapositions. On a recent road trip, a writer friend noted a corral with a horse and a rusty Winnebago and she began to wonder how she could work those things into a story. Even when illness strikes, we intimately learn about compassion and patience, about the will to overcome and survive, about what it means to be human in those circumstances and it makes us take stock of what we value. And somehow, all that gets translated into the stories we write.

Everything we do and experience contributes to our stories. We need to realize that and give ourselves a break during those times when we aren’t writing. Equally important is for each of us to discover and understand which approach to the craft is most productive.

But the cardinal rule remains: you have to write. You have to get the story down whether it’s a bit every day, whether it’s in a month-long spell, or every weekend, or some other schedule. Find what works for you and do it.

What is my writing method? My goal is always to write at least one novel a year. I tend to research and ponder for a few weeks. This includes world building and character studies. I’ll make a vague outline, which means that I know the beginning and the climax, and sometimes the end. Then, I’ll and jump into the novel, and see what my characters have to say. I’d love if I could, at that point, write for 6 weeks straight, but that rarely happens.

Last year, family health problems and a death happened and that made it impossible to concentrate on my new novel. I could have beaten myself up for not meeting my goals, for not being able to write, but instead, I wrote 8 short stories because those were manageable pieces. I’m back at the novel and it’s being written.

So now I know, that my writing method allows me the time to ponder and create so when I do write, the time spent is productive and stories (novels included) are written fairly quickly.

Happy writing!

Juggling Personal and Professional Lives – Never Drop the Ball

A year has passed since I wrote my post on how we spend our time being a value statement, but I still find that my time is my most precious resource. By the necessity of my choices, I have become very skilled a juggling large workloads. Between extraordinarily long professional workweeks, maintaining my personal relationships, and the every day effluvia of keeping food on my table and a roof over my head, I somehow find the time to regularly blog and write fiction. It is a juggling act that I suspect that many aspiring writers will empathize with.

However, some of those balls, those commitments, have come disturbingly close to hitting the ground recently. I was able to recover, but as I grow older, the number and weight of my obligations grows ever larger. I fear that one day I will accidentally and irrecoverably sacrifice something important to me to feed my ambitions.

I have been pondering this possibility a great deal recently, as both my personal and professional lives gain momentum. For me, personal and professional progress is both exhilarating and terrifying. You see, once you start getting what you want, you have something to lose. As we chase accomplishment, we often put on blinders to what else is important in our lives. As an example, I was fortunate enough to be invited to dinner with an extremely successful author in her field at a convention I recently attended. During the meal, one of the diners asked the author what her greatest professional regret was. I can still remember the broken sound of her voice as she told our group that she was afraid that her daughter would never forgive her for the years she spent locked in her office.

Despite the trepidation that such examples inspire, I am unwilling to give up my writing and my dreams of professional authorship. After all, in biological terms, the fear response serves to both identify potential hazards and prepare us to face them. If I want to accomplish my personal and professional goals, I must use my fear, not be ruled by it. My unease reminds me that I have things that I value outside of my accomplishments, and in so doing, allows me to keep my other priorities in focus. I must choose what I sacrifice, not let circumstances decide for me. As an example, for the past couple of years, I have rarely played video games or watched television. By cutting out these activities, I have made more room in my schedule for writing. I have talked to many authors who have done the same thing. Compared to the rest of my life, that particular sacrifice was well worth the cost.

Throughout my life, I have found that accomplishment is almost always paired with sacrifice. It is up to me live deliberately and choose how I spend my time wisely so that I may both achieve my goals and retain what is important to me. To live is to risk pain. To fear is to be aware of that risk and to manage it appropriately.