On Monday I wrote about plot, and the three main parts of a story: the beginning, the middle, and the end. They’re the bits we all learn in elementary and middle school English class. Most, if not all, people can pick a book up off the shelf and identify those parts (unless, of course, it’s a Murakami novel, and in that case you’re better off just not worrying about it).
Beginnings are often the easiest parts to write when you’re sitting down to draft a novel or a short story. The first few pages, chapters, they come so easily and energetically, it’s hard to believe that all of that enthusiasm is going to peter out before you’re finished with the beginning. The middle starts feeling like a drag, and you find yourself avoiding moving on, instead staring blankly at the screen and poking out a few words on the keyboard before giving up and raiding the ice cream you’ve got stashed in the freezer.
Making sure that you’ve got a good starting point – a solidly crafted beginning – can help you make sure that you get past that roadblock.
I very much believe that a rough draft should be just that: rough. But there’s a difference between rough and sloppy, and it’s sloppy that gets you in trouble. Rough gives you freedom; sloppy gives you little to nothing to work with. Making sure that you have a few certain things in your beginning, no matter how rough your draft is, can make a world of difference.
1. Character. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised. A main character is a must; in fact, it’s usually the first thing that we have mapped out in our heads when we decide to finally sit down and write. But you can’t just have the main character. If there are going to be other people in this story, we need to know who the people closest to her are, and we need to figure it out in the first 8,000 words.* We don’t necessarily need to know all of their back-stories, but we need to have a clear definition of their personalities.**
I don’t do this often, because I usually have a pretty good idea of where I’m going with my characters, but when someone seems a little too bland, I go to a 3.5 D&D character sheet and try to build it according to how I have the character in my head. No dice rolls, no point-buying, just arranging their traits as I think they would go. Sometimes it helps me give a little more depth to a character, sometimes it shows me that what I’m trying to do is force an extraneous, pointless character to participate in a plot that they really have no part in.
Sometimes that’s the problem, too – not that there aren’t enough characters, but that there are too many. Plots can get slogged down by too many people vying for attention from both the writer and the reader. One of the things that helped me to get deAngelis up and running again was to cut out half a dozen extraneous characters that I really didn’t need. If you’re struggling to develop too many characters, see whom you can put on the backburner until another story.
- 45 Master Characters, Victoria Schmidt (above)
- Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Dr. Linda Edelstein
- Creating Characters, Howard Lauther
2. Setting. One thing that was really killing deAngelis for several drafts was because I had no idea how the location worked. I knew Jenna lived in a crappy apartment, I knew she frequented a bar, and somewhere there was a DMV and a police station. But I didn’t know how the city was set up, I didn’t know how big it was, what its population was, or how affluent it was (or wasn’t). I knew the time period, and I knew the time of year, but I couldn’t have told you if it was a Midwestern location or Northeastern or Southern. You would not believe how much difference this makes.
If you’re writing a modern story, it may help to find a map of a city that’s similar to the one you’re working with. For now, District 40 (the setting of deAngelis) is loosely based on Indianapolis. I’m from there, and while I’ve made some changes to it, having a general map to follow helps out a lot.
Check out the map of Middle Earth on the right. Yeah, there aren’t floor-plans of everyone’s house, and we don’t have an exact description of every nook and cranny of Minas Tirith, but looking at that map, you can roughly tell the distance between places (helping with traveling times when the characters are on the move), and it helps you feel more grounded in your story while you’re writing. If you’re not much of an artist yourself, you may try and track down a friend who will help you out. An old friend of mine, A Chroi of Fictionpress, designed all of the maps that we used while we attempted to co-author an epic high fantasy novel together. You can see them here.
3. Conflict. Your character’s challenge isn’t something that can be introduced during the middle, which is another issue that I find with a lot of would-be authors. The beginning is not just a character- and setting-introduction; you need to jump into the action from page one, if you can. In deAngelis, although Jenna doesn’t get caught in the thick of things from the very first moment, in the first three pages, I showed the reader what it was that was going to cause all of the conflict in the book: the murder of the steward of District 40, which somehow has something to do with both Jenna and the as-yet-unrevealed villain. Because no one in the story but Jenna knows that the villain exists, Jenna is the one being blamed for the murder.
Everyone’s heard the term in medias res, which is Latin for “in the middle of things”, and that’s what you need to do here: start your story in the middle of the action. The steward of District 40 is killed because of something he’s stumbled upon. However, I don’t need to show him stumbling on it, I don’t need to show his flight from his pursuer, I don’t even need to tell you the reason he was there (at least, not yet). The most interesting part, the best bit, is when he finally comes to terms with the fact that it’s over, he’s done, he’s going to die and the only thing left for him to do is make the most of the last few moments that he’s got left.
You can’t spend time dithering around. The audience that you’re writing for has been the patron of television shows and movie theaters for years, now. They expect an entire plot on the silver screen in no more than 120 minutes, and on television, things had better be wrapped up in 50 minutes or less. Your story has to be fast-paced and well done, and you can’t do that by spending thirty pages talking about your main character’s daily routine, which may include grocery shopping, visiting her mother every Saturday afternoon, and scooping dog poop out of the backyard.***
If you can pull together the basics of a story and make sure that they’re all present in your beginning, you won’t run into that depletion of enthusiasm, that roadblock that mocks you and this supposedly good idea you had for a book. Rough drafts are fantastic, exciting things, and you should have fun with them. But don’t let fun turn into careless; otherwise, your rough draft will be years in the making, instead of months.
*Assuming you’re writing a novel-length story, which usually runs 50,000 to 100,000 words. Most novels that I read tend to run between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
** Personality, not looks. I cannot tell you how easy it is to spot an amateur by this mistake. My biggest problem with a lot of the manuscripts I critique for this sort of thing is that people tend to think they need to differentiate their characters more with appearance than personality.
*** I can actually count on one hand the number of times I’ve read a scene where a character admits to having to use the bathroom. It’s like the magical disappearance of the need to poop that you find in every Star Trek series, evidenced by the magical lack of bathrooms.
One of the most common questions about the writing process is, “Should I write a plotline before I write my novel?”
A written plotline may come in many forms: a numbered list, a few paragraphs or pages of synopsis, or a diagram like Freytag’s triangle or the “10 Scenes Tool” from Jim Smith’s Writer’s Little Helper. Ideally, a plotline will give you the direction you need as you write, helping you to keep the goal in mind when you finish that adrenaline-pumping chapter one, move into the intriguing chapter two, and then get lost somewhere around chapter three and aren’t quite sure where to go from there.
I’ve used variations of written plotlines over the last several years, and it seems like every time I write a new novel, the format differs (or, in some cases, disappears completely). Steel had a chapter-by-chapter outline, and while that story wasn’t spectacular by any means, it did have direction, it didn’t stray from the point (much), and it went where I wanted it to go in the end.
The first draft of deAngelis, however, had no plotline. However, I wrote the majority of it for NaNoWriMo 2009. NaNoWriMo is famous for it’s “no plot, no problem!” slogan, and in a way, that’s what I’ve found works.
I’ve moved away from plotting, for the most part- I like to discover where the characters take me, because a lot of times I experience the story as I write it. It’s easier to realize how my characters will act, react, behave when I’m already in their heads. I do, of course, have a process – and a large notebook.
- Get Down the Basics. Every story has three key parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you don’t know these three things, then you are not ready to write this story. At the time when you’re writing these parts down, you don’t need to know every tiny detail of every scene, who all the supporting characters are going to be, and the intricacies of every subplot. You just need to know how the story begins (the inciting incident, if you will), what the main character spends the majority of the story doing, and how everything winds up after it’s all over.
Ideally, that’s all I’ll start with. Often I’ll jot down a few things that I know I want to happen in any of those three parts, but I try to keep my plot as loose as I possibly can. I don’t like to lock myself down to something. I don’t want to restrain a story before it’s even started.
- Just Write. NaNoWriMo is great for this. It encourages you to just spill the words, get them on the page, and not worry about quality. Getting the story, from beginning to end, written is the main priority. Since this seems to be the hardest part for a lot of people, NaNoWriMo can be the one incentive they need to just get the damn thing done. The community support, both online and in the local writing groups that usually meet at least once a week, is also a huge bonus. If it’s not the encouragement of your fellow writers, it’s the drive to get a higher wordcount than all of them that will drive you to the finish line.
NaNo is the producer of rough drafts, and yes, all of them suck. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are, if you participate in NaNo the way you’re supposed to, you’ll end up with plot, characters, and 50,000+ words of absolute garbage. Maybe 10,000 of them will be worth using, and of that, only 2,000 will remain intact in their original form (not counting articles, prepositions, etc).
After that, things get a little tricky. This is where I like to start actually writing out a plotline. There’s a couple ways that I tend to go at it. Once again, that great big notebook* is great to have handy.
- Read through the manuscript and pick out the beginning, middle, and end first. Then pick out the clear plot points, put them where they go. Rewrite, add, remove, and arrange them as you feel works best, shaping it into an outline for the story you want it to be.
- Go at it blind. Sit down at the computer, open the old draft and a new, blank document, and split-screen it, with the draft on one side and the new document on the right. Use the old draft as a guide and just start rewriting.
- Plug the biggest scenes into Smith’s ’10 Major Scenes’ tool and then perfect those, rewriting them until they meet your own standards. Fill in the blanks as you go, kind of playing connect-the-dots. You can go in order, or jump back and forth between stretches of blank plot and populate it as you will.
- Another technique, similar to both #1 and #3, is one I’ve used writing academic papers. I outline as briefly as possible, and then go over it again, and again, and again, expanding a little more each time.
You can use only one of these methods, or two of them, or all of them. There may even be a few that I haven’t thought of or tried. After each draft, I often switch to another method.
Of course, outlining isn’t for everyone, but for the writer who can’t seem to figure out where to go next, it’s definitely a useful tool. It may not fix all of your problems, but it can help, and even if you don’t use a neatly numbered list, or a diagram with perfect, straight lines, just jotting down a few lines to give yourself a goal to work toward can work wonders. A short description of a scene, jotted in your notebook, or a line of dialogue you mutter to yourself and try to recall later.
Are there any methods you use to map out where your story’s going?
* I do, actually, prefer to use a notebook for plotlining, as opposed to a computer or a stack of looseleaf paper. While I write prose and dialogue on a computer best, my plotting plans seem to flow better if I’d doing it by hand.**
** I also tend to write only in black ink, and the thicker, richer the ink, the better. I like the pricier black pens***, but not too big around – I grip writing utensils too hard, and it makes my hand and arm cramp after five minutes.
*** There you go, birthday gift idea.
The one thing said by Aaron Michael Morales that I will always remember is that he didn’t believe in writer’s block. If a writer was having some kind of impediment to writing, then it meant that they weren’t ready to write the story they were trying to write. They weren’t meant to write it then. The block would go away when they were ready to write.
his pretty much lines up with my belief about writer’s block: either the writer is being lazy, or they’re pushing too hard. On my part, it’s usually the former. I’ve been known to distract myself with everything from food to internet “research” to Sims based on my characters.
There’s ways to get past the infamous “block,” although some methods may work better for other people, or need tweaking on an individual basis, or actually may work as a procrastination tool instead.
I carry a notebook and pen with me everywhere I go – or at least I try. Anything that comes to me while I’m at work, in class, or on the bus, I write down as soon as humanly possible. Even if it’s a line of dialogue, a character description, or a few sentences of narration. Even if I have no idea how or where it will fit into the novel, I write it down anyway – you never know what you’ll end up being able to use. I’ve saved everything I’ve written deAngelis-wise since the more or less unrecognizable twelve-page original draft from 2004. There are things I’m picking out of there that I’m using now, even though there are virtually no similarities left between the two stories. For example, in 2004 Jenna Devries was actually called “Cherokee Scot”, and instead of the fear of being Fallen, she was actually infected with the vampire virus and fighting the shift to vampire with both medication and sheer force of will. She could also do one-handed push-ups.
The point is that there are certain lines of dialogue I wrote, the way I described a room or a gesture, that I can remember I’ve done well before but can’t necessarily reproduce to my own satisfaction now. While this can lead to the danger of copying everything and never do any new writing – which can be so, so damaging – it helps to have something to work from if you get stuck.
I already talked quite a bit about my method of compiling soundtracks on iTunes for the purpose of writing. It helps to pay particular attention to the music when watching movies, and making an effort to find new music at any opportunity is a must.
Sometimes I will get so frustrated with a scene I’m struggling with that I start forcing it, and that’s just no good. Usually this is about one or two in the morning, and I’m tired and a little peckish and I probably smell bad, too. One of the things I started doing, back when I livd in a dorm, was to just get in the shower. Something about being shut off from any visual distractions and forced not to look at what I had already written removes a lot of the stress I had started to associate with the scene, and I could let it just sort of play through in my head like a move screen while I showered. By the time I was clean, dried, dressed, and had my hair combed – which is a time-consuming process in and of itself – I was able to sit down and get through the scene much more easily. Not painlessly, but without wanting to stab myself and kill things.
Things I Have Done to Facilitate Writer’s Block
The fact of the matter is, most of the time I just go with the writer’s block and goof around, later complaining to my unsympathetic friends, coworkers, and classmates about how I can’t get my novel written and I will never amount to anything as a writer. You know why they’re unsympathetic? Because I do things like…
1. Create Sims based on my characters.
At some point around junior high I started creating Sims based on the characters in the novel(s) I was working on. Mostly this didn’t going anywhere, until Sims 2 came out, and then I was like – YEAH! Procrastination station!
Why this ever seemed like a productive idea is far, far beyond me.
2. Collect LJ avatars
I was hoarding these things like nobody’s business. Don’t believe me? I filled up two free Photobucket accounts with JUST 100×100 pixel avatars. And there were more on my hard drive.
3. Watch Television
Every once in a while I would decide that I needed to watch television in order to better understand the archetypes to which my characters ascribed. Maybe this makes sense. However, my track record with this reveals the tactic for what it really is.
Spooks – entire series in 11 days.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – entire series in 17 days.
Rewatched all of Eddie Izzard’s recorded standup
True Blood – seasons 1 and 2 in less than two weeks
Torchwood – entire season in two days.
This is not a tool to combat procrastionation, this is procrastination in its worst form.
Now you know why my book isn’t done yet.