Practical Plotting

Writing pal Bob is working on a new idea for a book, the first novel he’s written in awhile. Bob has published a bunch of funny and clever mysteries, but, as most writers find, every new book is another challenge. First you need an idea. Then you need to convince yourself it’s not boring. Bob sent a three or four sentence elevator pitch about the book in his head. It was not boring.

Bob moved on with a synopsis draft. Here he writes out exactly what the book will be about and who his characters will be and how the plot will turn. He has the story worked out in his head! Yes, Bob is a plotter. I find plotters fascinating. But this time, Bob has a problem.

“I’m writing a much longer summary than usual,” he said. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but being the helpful writing friend, I offered to send him a version of Jane Cleland’s Road Map, which I wrote more about here. I say “a version of” because after I diagramed the road map, and tried filling it in, I customized it to fit onto a notebook page. Here I’m simplifying it down to two lines of writer’s code.

Inciting Incident-SP1-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-Turning Point-All Plots Resolved

Inciting Incident: Where does the problem start? The point at which the story and character are headed into a mystery and there is no turning back. Start there.

SP stands for subplot. I like two. Introduce the first one about 30 pages in for a 300 page novel. (I write short novels). Another thing about subplots…if you don’t have, let’s say, a romance subplot, but an agent or your editor wants one, just write a love story for your character. Then you can piece it up and place it in 3 or 4 slots in the book. You can do both your subplots this way.

Turning Points need to escalate the drama, turn the heat higher. Lots of people call these Plot Twists. I think of them as going deeper into the mystery. There’s new information that changes everything the main character thinks they knew.

When the story hits the highest possible point of tension, the subplots braid together with the main plot. Each illuminates the other and all need to fit into the final resolution. I like to use one of the subplots to put a “sting in the tail” ~ just one final twist the reader never saw coming but also makes absolute sense.

Speaking of sense, I hope this made some. Questions or observations?

My Revision Process

Organizing Revision

I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.

After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.

It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.

I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.

The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”

After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)

I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.

After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.

If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.

Six Signs Your Manuscript is Complete

There comes a time in every writers’ life when she has to decide to let go of the book she’ s been writing. It can be ten years or two months, depending on the writer, but for me the entire process of concept to submission takes a year or two.

Sign #1 You’ve been steadily working on the book for a year or more.

The book I currently want with every fiber of my being to let go started in the summer of 2013. Eighteen months ago. It’s a novella, less than 45K, and it should not have taken that long, but life intervened. And sometimes life gets more real than others. More intense, more distracting. But I gotta say, what with all the drama, on and off the page, I have a strong feeling that not only do I want to let this book go, I need to do so in order to move on with my writing AND my real life.

Sign #2 Time to let it go.

So there I was, in the middle of my second Blue Lake novel, thinking I had found my third. Or rather it had dropped from the sky into my head. I tucked the idea away and let it brew. This is part of the process for me. I’ve published seven novels and a few patterns have emerged. One pattern I no longer fight is that I will get the idea for my next book about halfway through the one I am currently working on. Everybody knows the second half of the book goes more quickly that the first half, so bingo, time to move.

Sign #3 You have a new idea.

Some people think I’m lucky. They’re always asking me “how do you get your ideas?” Seriously folks, ideas are everywhere. It’s all about what a writer does with her idea. My idea was not original. I knew that. But what I also know is that the writer’s job is to take a common theme and make it her own. That’s a huge part of the work of writing. It might be everything. But for me, it’s fun work. It’s a pleasure to try new things, to say yes.

Sign #4 You have made an idea your own.

Another thing I have learned about this book release process is that you can’t rush it. It’s stubborn. It will have its own way. Stephen King gives this revision advice: once you’ve finished your first draft, read it straight through without marking up the mistakes. I’ve never been able to follow Steve’s advice, not exactly, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. And that’s how I revise. I keep reading draft after draft until I don’t feel compelled to pick up my pen and fix it anymore.

It’s different for every writer, but for me, the first draft is the most fun. It goes quickly. I’m never at a loss for what to write. That’s because I follow the first draft process I learned from Jennifer Crusie many years ago: don’t look down. Just write whatever and get the story to the end. Don’t judge yourself, don’t revise, don’t do anything but pile up pages. So, I can do that. I’m not worried about it. I write with glee and great pleasure.

I also write in longhand, the sweetest part of the process for me. Sara Lewis taught me to allow myself this decadent indulgence. I cannot do without the longhand dreamy draft now, which means I have to type the pages out later. And in that typing, the pages will get their first revision. (Another treasured Sara tidbit.) Then I read the last days’  pages and revise again because I have a critique group and I really don’t want them to see the first draft. So, after critique group offers suggestions, I am on my third revision, fourth draft.

Sign #5 You have outside feedback that encourages you to continue.

I try to read the next draft after critique straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and put it away for a week or two. Then I try to read the sixth draft straight through but I can’t, so I fix it and hope it’s done. Stories can go stale on a writer if you groom them too much. Here’s how I know when to stop revising: I have a draft I can almost read through, with just one more day’s work.

That happened yesterday.  I read draft five almost straight through. I have a handful of changes to make. A dozen or so pages and the fixes are all minor. The read wasn’t as good as I’d hoped (they never are) nor as bad as I’d feared. This book turned into something different than a simple reunion romance, so I’m trying to let that freshness be, not fuss with it too much. It’s a little scary to let go, but I have a process for that, too.

Sign #6 You have edited, revised, and repeated the process until you are satisfied.

IMG_1312Now let go. But, how? What if you’re wrong to be smugly satisfied? What if the book is not ready, or it’s awful, you’ve over-reached, your talent isn’t up to it, you’ve blown it big time?

David Hawkins advocates a process of releasing that goes like this: Embrace all positive feelings and surrender all negativity. Look at the thing, feel the feeling, and if it’s not serving you, acknowledge that, and Let It Go. Most of not wanting to relinquish this  manuscript is based on fear, a negative.

I feel good when I think about letting this manuscript go. Also, I live in Michigan where we currently have a couple feet of snow on the ground and temps well below zero. Which brings me to the second best reason I want to relinquish this book for now. In a week or so I’m off to sunnier climes for a bit or rest and relaxation. Before I leave, I want that manuscript off my desk and in my editor’s hands. Also, best reason of all: that next book is knocking. Loud.