Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Main Character

Once you’ve figured out the theme of your novel, it’s time to start nailing down how that is going to play out and shape your manuscript. The easiest place to start with this is the main character.

I’m going to use Hamilton

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and Zootopia to illustrate this first.

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I’m also going to take you through the thought process on my current WIP so you can see it in action (also, it will help me jump back in and finish drafting this thing so it’s a win-win.)

First, you need to think of your theme in two ways. The first is as a general sort of topic, try for just one or two words.

Hamilton: LEGACY

Zootopia: BIAS

My current WIP: COMMUNITY (or WANT VS. NEED. Not totally sure yet.)

 

Now I want you to come up with a sentence that sums up the “truth” about this topic that you want your story to get across. The realization that your MC will have at the end of the book.

Hamilton: YOU HAVE NO CONTROL WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.

Zootopia: CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU.

My current WIP: We are each part of a community and we use the community to address each other’s needs.

 

That sentence you just wrote is the end of your main character’s arc. Now, that means that your MC needs to start the story believing the opposite. This will help you figure out your main character’s weakness/lie they believe. We’re going to call it your character’s false truth or false theme statement.

Hamilton: I can create a legacy for myself by taking risks and doing big things.

Officer Hopps: I will make the world a better place by making sure EVERYONE ELSE does what they should according to MY world view.

MC in my current WIP: I am not important but maybe I can make everyone happy by granting their wishes.

 

These two statements will create your MC’s character arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe the false theme statement, but by the end they should understand the second theme statement. Your entire story revolves around getting your character from false theme statement to true theme statement.

With this idea in mind, it’s time to think about your MC’s internal and external struggle. The external struggle is what we really think of as the plot. But the internal struggle are those motivations that power the choices that fuel the plot.

So…

What does your MC want most? (external struggle)

and…

How does this reflect the internal struggle around theme that I just laid out?

Theme should relate to the external struggle, but the meat of your theme will be found in the internal struggle and the two of these need to be related. The interplay of internal and external struggle, character arc vs. plot doesn’t look the same for every book.

Sometimes the external struggle and internal struggle are very obvious and similar.

Look at Hamilton. His goal is to create a legacy and everything he does is powered around that goal. All of his external struggles are a result of his trying to fulfill that goal. So to me, the external struggle and internal struggle nearly overlap.

In Zootopia, it isn’t quite as obvious. Officer Hopps’ external goal is to become a police officer and, in the process, prove everyone wrong who ever put limitations on what small animals can do. Her internal struggle is about overcoming her own bias. These two struggles strongly mirror and affect each other (as the external and internal struggle always should.)

My current WIP: My MC’s external goal is to make her new neighborhood like her old neighborhood and have a fourth of July barbecue. A real community. Her internal struggle is about seeing herself as an important, integral, and change-making part of that community.

 

Now that you know the beginning and ending points of your MC’s character arc and have an idea of their external and internal struggle and how they relate, you’re ready to fill out those character sheets full of questions.

Yep, NOW.

Why not before? Because you are designing/creating a character. And you need to make sure that you are creating a character who really would believe that false theme statement at the beginning of the book. So questions about backstory are especially important. What has brought your MC to this place? Now that you know the attitude he/she needs to have, you can create a backstory and character details that support that.

At this point, you may be able to see some plot points. You may even be able to fully map out the character arc. But we’re not done planning yet, because next Thursday I’m going to talk about planning your supporting cast and they will be vital to your conflict and tension!

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel

When sitting down to write a novel, everyone has different strategies. Pantsing, plotting, loose outline, indepth character sheets first, there are as many ways to write a book as there are people writing them. As I get further into this writing thing, I’ve found that I plan a little bit more before I begin drafting, but that planning has changed. I now plan a book around the theme.

Not the plot.

Not the character arc.

The theme.

For me, I’ve found planning my book around the theme to be most effective in creating something cohesive and powerful. When I know the theme from the beginning, I see the heart of my story right away, and finding the heart of my story makes revision choices so much easier. I already know what is essential and what isn’t. I know what’s on the table to be cut and changed and the bare minimum few things that are not. This clear vision from the start helps me to shape the right characters at the beginning and when I’m focused on the theme, I usually leave little breadcrumbs in the early draft that I don’t fully understand how or why they’ll be useful, but in later revisions become extremely important. When you write and plan with a focus on theme, I believe your creative subconscious is able to really step in and help you more. (*Note* This is all “writing according to Amanda” and could be complete nonsense.)

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So you might be thinking, okay. But how do you plan according to theme? Well, sit down. Let me tell you. 😉

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First of all, and I know this is going blow your mind because it’s totally crazy, you have to know the theme of your book.

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Now, if you are a beginning writer, this will probably feel harder than for those with a couple novels under your belt. Each novel I’ve written, I’ve discovered the theme of my book earlier and earlier (Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the theme of my first novel was). And finally with this current WIP I figured it out before I began drafting but still needed to write a few chapters to really see how it played out. So don’t feel bad if you have to write 5-10,000 words to figure out what your theme is. I expect that before figuring out your theme, you at least know your premise and have some fuzzy ideas about where the book starts and where it ends and what your main character wants.

Here are some ideas to help you figure out your theme.

What is the big realization your character has at the end of the book? Or, what is the “lie” your character believes at the beginning of the book? Your theme will be found in the focus of these areas.

You’ve probably thought about what the external goal and struggle of your main character is, even if you haven’t 100% nailed it down. But to get at theme, what is the motivation behind it? How is it a reflection of the internal struggle? Your theme will be found mostly in the internal struggle, but also where the external and internal struggle meet and have things in common.

Is there an idea or imagery that repeats often as you think about your story? Your theme is probably found here as well (though it might be symbolic.)

When you think of your story, do you hear a piece of dialogue that is really some kind of wisdom? Your theme might be here as well.

When you picture the few scenes you have planned in your head and think about your story as a whole (even in its fuzzy state where you don’t know everything that happens) what is the feeling that you want the reader to walk away with? This is part of your theme too.

When you describe your book with the standard log line or 15 second pitch, if you’re like me, you probably want to follow it up with, “But what it’s really about is…” What comes after those words? Sure, your book is about a witch trying to take over the world using mermaids and satyrs. But what it’s really about is winning loyalty from people who are different than you….or…you know, whatever. You get the idea. This is your theme!

If you don’t already know the theme of your story, I hope these questions helped you nail it down better. The next post in this series, I’ll talk about designing characters around your theme.

Who even are you?!

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I’ve told you guys I hate drafting and I faux-hate revising. What do I even like about writing, you may ask? Like, seriously, I seem to hate all the steps. Why am I doing this to myself?

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Here’s what I like. More than like. Here’s what I love: I loveeee getting to know my characters.

I’m allllll about character motivations and feelings and mixing and matching different personalities in various situations. I show up for. the. characters.

So, how do I get to know my characters? Like, really, really, get to know my characters?

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I’ve developed a nice little character template I fill out for all my main characters before I get in too deep. And by little, I mean it’s pretty extensive and includes way more detail than will ever make it into the actual MS.

And since we’re all friends here on the internet, I’m happy to share it!

THE GREATEST CHARACTER TEMPLATE TO EVER EXIST (not that I’m biased or anything)

Check it out and read on as I explain a little more about how I use the doc.

The Basics: I mean…for the most part this is self-explanatory. But my favorite part of this is “The ____ One” category. No person is just one thing, but characters (especially in groups) can often boil down to one dominant trait that defines them: “the quiet one,” “the take charge one,” “the angry one.” Who’re we dealing with here? What’s the main perception of this character (even if sometimes it changes later in the story)?

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Physical: Pretty much quick reference stuff. It’ll keep you from having to catch silly things when editing and revising, like changing a characters eye color every other chapter.

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Personality: This is one of my favorites, especially the “What makes them…. They show it by….” When your character is happy how do they show it? Are they giddy? Do they keep it to themselves? What will make your character anxious? Is it confrontation? Being late to things? Small spaces? How do they show it? Do they try to redirect a confrontation? Are they a peacemaker? Are they an obsessive clock-watcher? Do they do absolutely anything to avoid being closed in small spaces? When I sit down and think through these things ahead of time I go in knowing my characters and how they’re going to react in almost any situation I put them in. And, most importantly, I can make sure they’re consistent in their reactions (until they experience a moment of character growth that would bring about a new reaction). Sure, sometimes they still surprise me, I’m always open to that, but it really helps to understand what in general makes my characters feel certain ways and how they typically react to those feelings. What’s their default MO?

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Memories: I don’t always fill out all of these, but I typically pick a few that feel relevant to the story. Thinking through a characters pasts, and what in particular sticks with them, will help you to understand their layers.

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GMC: Goals, Motivation, Conflict: Here’s the money section. As you know, your characters need to have a goal, they need to try to reach it, and something has to stand in their way…. or else you’ve got no story. I take some time to think about what the characters want in the beginning, middle, and end of the story as well as what gets in their way along the journey.

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For Fun: Ok, so this might really be my favorite. Because, as the name states, it’s JUST FOR FUN! But… can also be revealing. It includes the classics, like Meyers-Briggs personality types and Hogwarts houses (the real need to know stuff), but I also give thought to all the little things that make people, people. What’s their biggest pet peeve? Did they take piano lessons when they were younger? Do they have (or want) a tattoo? What’s their handwriting like, perfect and neat or barely legible? How do they drive – super aggressive or super safe? These are things that may never, ever, ever, make it into the actual MS. It may seem like a total waste of time to know that one of my MCs guilty pleasures is watching rom coms with his sisters. And maybe it is? But my knowing these details helps me really know my characters, they’re already well-rounded in my head before I dive in to the story itself.

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This is what works for me, but no guarantees it’ll work for everyone. I’m coming at this from a contemporary-ish YA standpoint, if you’re writing fantasy that takes place in a whole other world you probably won’t need to know what your characters favorite TV show is. But, some of the sections more related to what your character wants and what makes them tick will still be helpful, or, at least, give you some ideas or a jumping off point to find a method that works for you to get into the heads of your characters.

 

What to expect in the CP relationship

In an ideal world, critiquing is an “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours” situation.

One of the biggest lessons through Pitch Wars 2015 was learning the difference between beta readers and critique partners. Here’s one of many good blog posts on the difference. I had found wonderful beta readers before entering Pitch Wars, but becoming a mentee under Laura Heffernan showed me what I had been missing – and needed.

Specifically, I needed deep criticism of my book, along with occasional soothing noises of how it would all be okay. MK England wrote a great blog post on handling criticism. But beyond the feelings (So Many Feelings), another aspect of finding a CP that works for you after Pitch Wars is not only critique styles, but expectations of time frame.

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Laura remains an excellent CP for a bunch of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I LOVE how fast she reads. I feel like I’m a priority, and I try to return that when I read her work. Another of my CPs uses Google Docs, which I like because, as she works her way through it, I receive an email with recent comments she’s made. When I critique these days, I try to send emails when I’ve made it through a chapter or section with questions or overall impressions so the person knows I’m working on it.

That’s not to say your CPs need to always give you a quick turnaround. Everyone reads at a difference pace. Life happens. People are working on their own revisions or took on too much or have children screaming at them. One of my beta readers started my book and received a cancer diagnosis, and stopped reading anything. I did not take that personally.

But it’s been weird to meet people who say “Yes, of course! Send me your chapter/book/query” and then they fall off the face of the Earth.

It invites questions such as: Did they receive the document? Do they hate it? Are they bored? Am I a terrible writer? Am I a bad person? What if EVERYONE HATES ME AND EVERYTHING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN?

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So if you are in this situation, let’s take a deep breath and break this down into more objective territory. I think there are a few likely scenarios: One, the person truly became too busy, grows guilty and flakes. Two, the person lost interest in the book and doesn’t know a way to say that while maintaining a friendship. Three, the person thought they could help, but then realizes they are out of their league. (For example, I enjoy reading sci-fi and romance, but can’t offer much in terms of criticism.)

The paths forward, I think, begin with honesty with both yourself and your CP. Some strategies:

  • Set expectations around how much time you need and keep the commitment. If you say, “I’ll have this back to you in a month,” don’t vanish. If there are extenuating circumstances, speak up.
  • Ask yourself if this is a friend or a CP. They can be both! But one thing I have learned is some people want more encouragement than honesty. That’s okay, but that may make for a better friendship than CP relationship.
  • Discuss whether batches of 50 pages work. If you’re slammed, see if it would work for you to exchange first chapters.
  • If you are critiquing and lose interest in the book, see if that can lead you to say what could help. Did the middle become soggy? Is it the characters? Is there something you’re seeing that made you realize the issue with your own book, and you had to run go and do that?
  • Finally, on both sides, ask what you can and can’t accept. If a friend has had your book for months and never said anything, good or bad, ask whether you can let it go. Or, if you’re not a confrontational type (cough), is it easier to cast a wider CP net?

There’s no reason to believe you will mesh with every potential CP. Don’t lose hope if it hasn’t gone well. Much like querying for an agent, it’s about the right match.

Pantsing To Plotting: How I Plot Now

What are we going to do today?

But no, maybe just our novels.

A few months ago, Cindy wrote a pair of posts (Why I Switched and How I Plot Now) about her experience switching from pantsing to plotting. It inspired me to try and last week I talked about why I have officially switched to the plotting camp. This week, I want to share how I plot, as a follow up.

I used Cindy’s post and a ton of the resources she shared as I did this, especially this post from Rachel Aaron. Then, I made the process my own.

For me, that meant much of the adaptation process involved using cloud-based technologies. I’m one of those people who hordes stationary and never uses it. If I can’t find something with a search in my e-mail or Google drive, I will never see it again. It also means that I can write from anywhere, and switch devices if I need.

I set up my organization on Trello.com. Trello is an online corkboard. Each board is a collection of lists, which have have cards on them that can be reordered or filled with information. I made a LOT of lists: Act 1, Act 2 part 1, Act 2 part 2, Act 3, Plot, Characters – Major Players, Characters – Other, Setting, To Do.   It looks like this when it’s empty:

I filled in what I knew for each column, which wasn’t much: a few scenes that made me excited to write, a couple of characters, the main plot, and a character arc or two. Writing this now, the idea that I almost sat down to write this story with so little information is terrifying. Moving on.

At this point, you need to know that eventually all these lists will fill up. But they are going to look empty for a while.

For me, my “Plot” list had the most information, so that’s where I started. I added a card that said “Pre-Writing Query Summary” and wrote out a few paragraphs that identified the main characters and conflict. Then, I made sure I had a card for the main murder mystery and any subplots, including character relationship arcs. Because I had written the pre-writing query summary, I had an idea of where I wanted to go.

Next, I gave each card that represented a plot or relationship arc a color. This is important for later. At this point, I wanted to jump right into the ACT lists to plan scenes, but I forced myself to write a beat sheet. A beat sheet is basically a plot outline that highlights several beats, such as the inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc. I used a beat sheet from Save the Cat, a screenwriting book that I’ve read several times. (You can find a description of this beat sheet here, while the Save the Cat website has tons of filled out beat sheets for popular stories.)

Save the catAnd…. ha! Yep, I could fill in some stuff, but there was a lot I couldn’t fill in yet. Good thing I didn’t create scenes or start writing (even though I wanted to!).

I left my mostly blank beat sheet and moved on to my “Character” list on Trello. I went through each plot card and made a character card for every character I knew I would need for each plot. Most of them ended up on my “Major Players” list, but some ended up on my “Other” list.

I used a list of questions from Robin LaFever’s blog to explore my characters (Cindy shared this post). I did this for every character on my “Major Players” list. Every. One. Some of those characters ended up playing a much more minor role than I initially thought, but I understood all of my characters so much better.

Now, I went back to my beat sheet and tried to fill in more. I still didn’t know enough to get it all right, though. So, I tried something I’d never done before: Time Lines.

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Using LucidCharts in Google Drive, I made two timelines. The first was for my main plot. I started with the murder and worked my way backwards and forwards – what lead up to the death? What came after? How did the players respond to what was happening and what would that look like. It gave me a bigger picture of what was happening in my story and really helped me narrow some ideas down for my beat sheet.

The second time line I made was for my main character and her current girlfriend and ex. I gave each character a different color and plotted the ways their lives intersected…. from birth. It told me a lot about them that I hadn’t figured out yet: why had they chosen their careers? How long had they been working towards it? When did they start dating? When did they break up? What are their significant anniversaries? I then took all of this information and added it to the character cards on Trello.

At this point, I could flesh out my beat sheet, but I still had one major list to complete before moving on to my ACT lists. Setting. I had a few general ideas about setting in my mind: there is a school, an apartment, a police station, a furniture store. I gave each location a card and really thought about what it would look like. That meant for my school, I thought about how many teachers and students attended, how the classrooms were assigned, what the principal’s office looks like, how far the nurse’s office is, what the parking lot looks like.  For the apartments I thought I might use, this meant searching for apartment layouts and adding a picture, thinking about the quality of furniture there, how it is decorated.

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I added a lot more information to these cards than I ever used in the writing, but I also got way more details into the draft–and kept the details consistent–because of this planning. For example, I made a card for the entire town and wrote about the different areas – which sections had money? Where are my main locations located within the town? What does the town value? Who has power? I referred to these cards over and over again while drafting.

So far, this has all appeared pretty linear, but that feels a bit disingenuous. Yes, I focused on one list and then the next, but I constantly went back to cards on other lists to add information because I kept discovering more. At some point I thought I would run out of things to know about my story, but it never happened. Even during drafting, I kept finding more. And I know when I sit down to revise in September, that I’ll keep learning more.

Okay… now for the fun part.

Remember I said I color-coded each plot card? Now I get to use that color coding in the ACT lists. I started in “Act 1” and started adding scenes based on the beat sheet. Each scene received a color or two that indicated which plotlines it connected to. At this point, I also began dividing the scenes into chapters. I indicated this with “1: Martha arrives home to find out her husband has aged himself into a 12 year old.” (This is not actually what my story is about.)

I thought after all my planning, adding scene cards would be easy, but this turned out to be the most difficult part of the process. It was also the most helpful. I still can’t believe I almost skipped this step to start writing.

As I wrote down scenes of things that needed to happen, I started to find my plot holes. Things that didn’t make sense, subplots that didn’t feel natural. Things I otherwise would have found while drafting or in revision. I fixed them in the cards before writing a single word.

I could also see the distribution of my plots over the course of the whole book. The color coding allowed me to make sure that my main plot dominated, but that my subplots were evenly sprinkled throughout the book. I cut subplots and characters at this point because I realized they didn’t work with my story.

I also hit a stalling point in my third act. I couldn’t figure out how to end it. Part of me was tempted to start writing and figure it out, but I took a few days and worked on act three. I realized that my problem wasn’t act three, but issues with act one and act two. And I reworked major things in the book. Once I had all my scenes card done, I started writing.

In many ways plotting the whole book onto scene cards felt like I was able to do a round or two of revisions before even starting my book.

Pitch Wars: What will you give up?

I love television. I miss television.

As much as I adore Pitch Wars, no one should underestimate the amount of time and dedication it takes, both on the part of mentors and mentees. Pitch Wars hammered home a lesson that others may have learned sooner: Writing doesn’t magically flow through your fingertips through breaks in your life.

Throughout most of my 20s, inspired by my love of Jennifer Weiner and other funny women’s fiction writers, I had a vague idea of a book I wanted to write. I had this idea that at some point I would sit down and Dedicate Time to My Book, perhaps once I broke a leg or needed bed rest after surgery. Tip: If you are mentally scheduling catastrophic events as a way to find time to Do Your Thing, you may need to reevaluate your life.

Instead, between 2010 and 2012, I helped raise a second puppy for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, puppyhelped rescue 30 cats from a hoarding situation, got a new job in a new city, and moved to Chicago. We bought a house. I dedicated many hours to trying to be a success in my new job as a magazine editor. I watched my favorite television programs.

Suffice to say, I did not work on my book for about two years.

I went back to it in late 2012 and began plugging away. But even then, I prioritized a lot over writing. It came after magazine editing, work travel, social commitments, family obligations and vacations.

My book was finally ready, after several drafts, in spring 2015. I entered Pitch Wars and, miraculously, was chosen by the awesome Laura Heffernan. Recently, I looked back and realized one of the questions she asked was about my other commitments.

I promised to her that, apart from a work trip to London in September and obligation to my day job, that I was willing to give up any spare time to her and her edits. I kept that agreement. I spent most of the time between the end of August and the end of November on the couch, rewriting and editing. I’m not going to lie: I barely saw my husband, who was dealing with a family member’s medical emergency far away. I stopped going to the gym. A three-day holiday weekend was spent with my fictional characters. I skipped having an October birthday party. I put all the television and movies I wanted to watch on hold.

I wouldn’t change any of it. Not because of how much I learned, the agent experience, or even becoming a part of Pitch Wars community. That was all fantastic. But a year later, the main lesson I took away from Pitch Wars was that it reinforced what it means to put your writing first. That habit stuck with me once I shelved my Pitch Wars book. It took me four years to complete a draft of that book. It took me six months to draft Book 2 earlier this year.

Whether or not you get into Pitch Wars, there are very few of us who are allowed to write creatively all day. Many mentees have children, and most had (or still have) day jobs. Some were students, some had major mental health or physical challenges, some had emergency family crisis.

A lot of those situations reflect how, at the end of the day, you are still a person. By all means, live your life. Trust me, Brenda Drake does not want your marriage to fall apart because of Pitch Wars.

goodenoughBut. Pitch Wars reminds me of something one of the authors of “Good Enough is the New Perfect” said at an event many years ago. I don’t remember whether it was Becky Beaupre Gillespie or Hollee Schwartz Temple, but one of them said, essentially, to stop trying to achieve work-life balance.

“It doesn’t exist,” she said. “Instead, think of seasons.” She said that there will be seasons in your life where you are focused on your family, or on your career, or your book.

Pitch Wars is going to be your season. It’s not to say you can forgo all obligations. But it will teach you an incredible, invaluable lesson in what it means to be selfish about your art and to make your writing a priority.

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Pantsing to Plotting: I Drank the Kool-Aid

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Here’s the honest answer to why I pants: I’m impatient. I sit down to flesh out my ideas and my characters and the next thing I know I have a draft. It doesn’t help that I fast draft (I write or attempt to write a sh*tty first draft in two weeks). It’s easy to tell myself to go ahead and pants it because it’s only two weeks of my time. If it’s terrible, I can plot it and try again.

But, this is the thing: I never actually try again.
More than that, my life has become so over-committed in the last few years that two weeks to write IS a big deal. I haven’t finished the first draft of a manuscript in THREE YEARS. That is terrifying to me. I used to finish multiple first drafts a year, even if I didn’t revise all of them.
So, when Cindy wrote her posts about switching from pantsing to plotting (Why I Switched and How I Plot Now), I was intrigued. Reading her posts and all of the resources she listed, I decided to try plotting. I thought it would:
  • Fix any plot holes I had before I encountered them in the story.
  • Make sure I didn’t drop subplots and characters and allowed the development of the story to happen smoothly.
  • Write my draft easier.
Did it work? Yes. Enough that I am officially a plotter.
For my current project, I didn’t just switch genres, I switched categories. I went from working on YA sci-fi to adult mystery, something I had never written before. It scared me, so it seemed like a good project to plot.
What did I learn?
Plotting is fun – it is all the good parts of creating a story, like discovering the quirks of the characters or the setting or figuring out the motivations behind the antagonists actions. It’s also HARD. There were times when I wanted to just stop and write the thing, but I made myself wait; I was impatient only because I had a problem with my plot.

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The first two acts were relatively easy to plot. I learned pretty quickly that a character who I thought would be an important side character didn’t actually have a place in the story and removed her. I was also able to make sure that my subplots were evenly spread throughout story, adding tension, personal stakes, and making my main character feel like a real person who has other things going on. Essentially, I fixed things that usually wouldn’t get fixed until revision.
Then, I hit my final act, and… everything stopped. I spent two days like this:

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Then I realized that the reason I didn’t know how to bridge from my lowpoint to my climax was that I didn’t have enough clues for my mystery. At the suggestion of one of my fellow PW15 mentees, I decided I needed a red herring. Once I figured that out, it was SUPER EASY to go back and weave it into previous scenes.
But that wasn’t the only way to solve my problem. This was a mystery and my character isn’t a cop. She needed a way to find out certain information. She needed someone with a certain skill set…

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I added that character into one of my subplots. This character enriches the world, helps that subplot feel real, and, at the end, brings that subplot in to help the main plot finish strong. I almost want to say it was easy. But it wouldn’t have been had I plotted the first two acts and waited to solve the problems of my final act. Figuring out how to better set up my conflict for a powerful conclusion would have launched me into revision hell, emphasis on the hell.
So this is to say, I drank the Kool-Aid. I am now a plotter. Stay tuned for my second follow-up to Cindy’s post: How I Plot Now and maybe a few thoughts on how drafting feels now.

Find Your Tribe

“Why don’t you go on and tell me everything about yourself, so I can see you with my heart.”

  • Kate DiCamillo, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE

I’m a careful person. I don’t trust quickly, don’t easily make true friends. Don’t get me wrong, I am an extrovert, thus, am friendly and enjoy talking to people on a social, casual level. But real, raw, tell-you-everything-so-you-can-see-me-with-your-heart? Not so much. Takes some time for me to feel safe enough for that.

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I wasn’t always like that, but that’s another story.

The people with whom I do feel that safe are those in my tribe.

We all have a tribe. Some of us have more than one. I have a husband and two children, they are my tribe. I am still unusually close to the friends I grew up with in Minnesota even though we are all spread out. We’ve literally grown up and are now growing middle aged together. They’re my tribe too. And in my first career, television news, I had a tribe. The folks who understood the vagaries of our business, the excitement and agony, what personal sacrifices it took to succeed.

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But it wasn’t until PitchWars that I finally found my writing tribe.

Before that, I had joined Twitter and spent time trying to figure out this talkative, funny, opinionated, and brilliant community of writers. I flailed about, trying to figure out how to interact with other writers in ways that are professional and not stalkery.

And then I was chosen for PitchWars 2015. And the angels sang. My mentor, the amazing Kendra Young, took my manuscript, deftly identified its (many) problems, and set me to work reconstructing a better story.

The pressure was both searing and exhilarating. It was the first time I’d ever revised an entire manuscript with the actual help of an actual real writer – and my changes were significant. Structural overhaul, eliminating characters, deleting some scenes and reimagining others. Plus getting rid of about nine hundred gajillion filter words.

And in the middle of all of it, I had to have surgery. Not like landed-in-the-ER kind of stuff, but critical to my health nonetheless.

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So I was pressed for time, a little foggy, and suffering from the same insecurity that dogs us all.

But. There was a saving grace.

The other warriors. On a secret, members-only Facebook page where we could bare our tortured writer’s souls.

And I’ll be honest – I didn’t bare a lot at first. In fact, I barely contributed. (Sorry. Pun. Couldn’t help it.) Remember how I said I’m careful? I was. I read everything and sometimes commented. I even asked for advice sometimes. But mostly, I just watched. Because that’s what I do.

And as I watched, here’s what I found: funny, kind, thoughtful, brilliant, trustworthy writers, all of whom wanted the best for each other, all of whom were unfailingly willing to give time, advice, perspective, beta reads, encouragement, sympathy, jokes, GIFs, and so much more. Plus, bonus, some of them were fond of bourbon and/or red wine.

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My people. My tribe.

Nearly a year later, I still don’t contribute the most to our little group. But now when I get quiet it’s only because life is too busy to play or because I don’t always have something fresh to say.

But when I do say something, I know these are people to whom I have told maybe not everything, but a whole lot of things. And they’ve seen me with their hearts. And I trust them.

Enter PitchWars. And while you’re sweating the selection process, reach out. Find the people who could be in your tribe. Even if you’re not selected, you’ve got something you didn’t have before. People you can reach out to for advice, encouragement, support, and GIFs. People who can suggest a new brand of bourbon you’ve never tried or help you celebrate every moment of exhilaration or offer hugs for all the frustrations we endure on the path to publication.

Good luck.

Writing, Despite Life: Getting It Done

So, you want to be a writer. Professionally. Like, for money and fame and unicorns*. But pesky things keep getting in the way of your writing. Like jobs. And families. School, volunteering, house implosions, parties, holidays, pets, health, acts of nature, taxes, milestone life events (babies! marriage! buying a house! divorce! death! health crisis! your favorite show got cancelled!).

With all that jazz going on, how does a writer churn out words?

First and foremost, with the support of your loved ones. People who allow you to punch out of your shared life for chunks of time without guilting you, teasing you, or otherwise making you feel like you’re stealing time from them to write your stories. They understand it’s a part of your soul, and they let you get it with grace.

But, even the saintliest of people will be six kinds of grumpy cat if you are never there. So…

Set up a writing schedule, and stick to it like gum in a little girl’s curls. I find it works best if I set aside the same time on the regular. Once your world is on board with you being unreachable on Monday and Wednesday nights, or all day on Saturday, it becomes easier to get away. And your body starts to know it’s writing time. Your brain slips into fantasyland at the appointed hour, just like you start getting sleepy at your normal bedtime.

Some people will say you write whenever you can, squeeze it in wherever possible. If you can do this? God bless. You do you. This has never ever worked for me. My brain requires deep, focused monotasking before it hits that point where it burps out words I actually like.

This is one of the toughest parts of taking your writing from hobby to job (full, part-time, or otherwise). To carve out time, and to keep it carved. To hold the general needy and greedy parts of life at bay. On the regular, other things will seem more important. Your students’ papers need to be graded, your kid’s costume needs to be sewn, that tower of laundry is threatening to eat you in your sleep. I get it. But also…I needed to admit this to myself. I would give up my writing time to do these things because gosh, sometimes, I just wanted to feel like I ACCOMPLISHED something.

Which leads me to my next point.

Map out what you want to accomplish in each writing session. If this is your To Do list? I’m sorry, that novel is never gonna happen.

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So, how does that novel get written? Little by little, friends. Little by little.

I know. You were hoping for a magical formula. Let’s hold each other for a moment as we grapple with the heart-rending truth that there is no such thing. There are tricks and tips I’ll recommend, natch. But in the end, it’s you, sitting down and pounding out words, day-in, day-out.

Full disclosure: by day, I’m a project manager. I get paid the medium bucks to take big huge epic projects and chop ‘em down to something SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. This is just as true for writing as anything else.

So, here’s where you start with a SMART goal: you want to measure your velocity. I know. Office-y type words make you roll your eyes so hard they pop out of your head and you have to chase them down the hallway. But it’s true. If you’ve been doing this for any length of time, you should know how many words you can usually spin when you’re fast-drafting or editing.

Once you know your velocity, you can accurately predict what you can do with whatever time you have to write. This is wildly important once you’re under contract. You cannot tell a publisher you’re going to churn out your next novel in 30 days if you’ve never in your LIFE written more than 200 words per hour, and you have a job, and you go to school, and you have kids, and, and, and… You’re violating the laws of math and physics and possibly gravity if you make these claims without crunching your numbers.

At the beginning of each session, you should absolutely know–and write down–what you plan to accomplish. Write a blurb. Fill out a beat sheet. Write 1,500 words. Edit 20 pages. Write for 2 hours. Within the box of time you have, identify what you can REASONABLY do.

It is not reasonable to write half a novel in  one sitting. Also, for real—how great are those 11th hour, second gallon-of-coffee words? There are always exceptions. You can have a 10,000 word day here and there, especially if you’re adept at using dictation apps. But if it’s your expected pace always? Well, they don’t call it the “death march” in software development for nuthin’.

Anyway, when you have a reasonable goal, at the end of your session, you get to cross that task off the list. And holy sh[redacted for tender eyes], you will feel better about the work if you set out to accomplish X, and you actually GET IT DONE.

So, that’s my advice: lock down a routine writing time and make sure EVERYONE knows when it is; chain yourself to that spot at the appointed hour; know thyself and set reasonable goals at the beginning of every session. And then magic happens. Nose to the grindstone, incremental magic.

As promised, I have a few tips. If you are struggling to hit your word count, AKA blocked, there are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Commit to nothing but stream of consciousness drafting for that time. Do this however many times you can during your session.
  2. Invite people on Twitter to sprint. Again, this is fast-draft word vomit, but it typically uncorks whatever’s been blocking you.
  3. If editing… Read the words you are editing out LOUD. It becomes obvious in a nano-second what needs to be rewritten.
  4. If you’ve been fiddling with the same sentence for thirty minutes? For God’s sake, delete it. I know, it hurts. You’ve killed a darling. But nine times out of ten, if you haven’t perfected ONE sentence after that much time? It probably doesn’t belong there in the first place.
  5. Change your setting. Yes, I still advocate a set place/time. But if the words no longer flow, change something. Not everything. Just one thing–maybe go to a coffee shop instead of the couch, or change your writing time, or make a writer date and type in companionable silence.

And lastly… FOR GOD’S SAKE, stay off of social media during your writing sessions. Social media is like eating a five-pound bag of candy. It feels GREAT while you’re doing it, but afterward, if it means you didn’t get your word count in? You feel pretty sick. I’m not saying this because I don’t like social media. To the mega-contrary, I love it like it was my fourth child. But it pulls my focus like nobody’s business.

So, if you (like me) are unable to stay off of social media, there are apps you can download to help you. Check out this article for tips on a few of them. I like Self Control, myself. Maybe because I have none?

Herm. That wasn’t my actual lastly. My ACTUAL lastly is this—unless you are under contractual deadline, figure out when it’s just a bad idea to try to write. Are you a teacher? Maybe that first two weeks of back-to-school is a blackout time for writing. Do you work in retail? Uh, sorry. The days after Thanksgiving through Christmas are going to suck. Figure out what those times are, and plan accordingly. Don’t set yourself up for failure and mental self-flagellation.

Good luck, everyone! See you in the trenches.

Writing Vs. Parenting: The Struggle is Real

notes-514998_960_720I’m a writer. Like many of you, I’m also a parent.

I vaguely remember when I was pregnant with my first-born and planning my future as a mother, anticipating all the glorious quiet time I’d have during the baby’s naps, hours I’d use writing the Great American Novel. I will pause as we all laugh hysterically at naive, delusional, old me.

I had to delay writing anything because of, well, life. That’s another story. But once I did start, I found that the vast majority of my writing had to be done at home, with my kids around, squeezed in between work and carpools and bedtimes. It’s hard to get words on paper without constant interruptions—“Mom, what’s for dinner?” “Mom, where’s my (fill-in-the-blank)?”

There is plenty of advice on how to guard your writing time and fit it in (i.e. get up an hour earlier than the rest of the family and write then, go to the library or coffee shop to write so you won’t be tempted to procrastinate by cleaning the house, learn to write in briefs bursts whenever possible such as the doctor’s waiting room or on the train to work). These are all great tips, whether you’re a parent or not.

But what about guarding your time as a parent? I’ve discovered that pursuing writing while having a family has its own, unique set of challenges. Sure, it’s difficult to leave any career “at the office” during non-business hours, but what if your office is always with you—because it’s literally in your head?

When I’m creating a story it can be almost impossible to turn off my imagination. I find myself forgetting household duties and barely listening to my kids’ accounts of their days because I’m trying to figure out a plot tangle or tune in to my characters’ conversations. I’m multi-tasking and doing a poor job at both of them. That’s no good for anyone.

I’ve found two ways to reconcile my writing with my parenting:

1. Learn how NOT to write.

To do this, you need to be present in the moment. Yes, this bit of advice is cliched and certainly easier said than done, but it’s worth a try. When you’re with your kids, BE with your kids. Obviously, it’s to their benefit to have an attentive parent. But it’s also good for me to be mindful during family time because, whether I know it or not, I need breaks from my story. My writer’s brain needs to rest and recharge, especially when I can’t figure out a plot point. Often all it takes to solve a story problem is to forget it for awhile, let my subconscious do the work, and live my life. After that, I come back to writing refreshed and ready to go.

Extra benefit: You’re setting a good example. Every parent gets preoccupied with their jobs sometimes to the detriment of moments with their kids. Show your kids how to be their best by ditching the multi-tasking and focusing on one thing at a time.

2. Involve your kids in your writing. Share your process.

Okay, I write middle grade novels, so of course it’s easier for me to get their input on plot twists than if I wrote espionage thrillers. But I’ve found kids love to brainstorm names for bad guys, or help decide which sport the main character should excel in, or what career the mom should have, no matter what the genre or category of book. Kids are very in touch with their creativity and mine come up with great ideas which often add a cool, new dimension to my story. Let them read some of your story, even if it’s only a description of the Grand Canyon or a summer night in the backyard. They’re interested in what you do.

Extra benefits: My job isn’t a mystery to my kids. I’m not alone in an ivory tower communing with my muse. They see the hard work and persistence it takes to write a book.

Bonus benefit: Also, and this is probably true for many of you, writing is not the first career I’ve had. It’s not even the second. I came back to my childhood love of after having my own children. I’m showing my kids it’s never too late to try something new, that passion and perseverance pay off. Your path is not set in stone when you’re eighteen and deciding on a major in college. Life is full of surprises.

I hope sharing what I’ve learned about balancing parenthood and writing is helpful. Please share some of your tips below.

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