Best Laid Plans

Well that didn’t quite go to plan.

I had almost made it an entire month of blogging every single day when somewhere along the way I got derailed. I lost the momentum because I was struggling for ideas, and the notion of going on vacation was starting to make me perhaps a touch lazy. (This is perhaps the first vacation I can remember in which I wrote absolutely nothing– didn’t even take my laptop with me).

Now in (admittedly early) May, I’m a bit behind in multiple things. I didn’t end up recording anything of Drag Con for a vlog (as I somewhat suspected I wouldn’t), and I’m a week behind in blogs and just general writing. It seems my outline that I was so sure I was going to make my writing the sequel to my current work that much easier has not proven true as of yet and I find myself currently trying to find said outline so I might get back to work after a well needed vacation.

Writer: Blocked

essayIt started unexpectedly as I was working on the sequel to my previous work-in-progress. I had accomplished a number of things already, I had written the better part of three chapters, I had outlined what the rest of the story needed to be, and I had titles and notes for the better part of the 30 chapter novel I was planning. Everything was falling into place, I was confident, and more importantly I was eager to get to work.

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Outlines: A Necessary Evil

This week while working on edits for my current work in progress, I had a sudden strange thought that, if enacted would essentially annihilate the central plot that runs through the series. It was a frustrating thought, but perhaps a necessary one, if only because it got me thinking about my books in an entirely new light. Because much of my energy has been focused for the last several years solely on the first book, there’s sort of been this looming question of whether or not the plot can even hold up for as many books as I planned to write, or even beyond that, what happens in between the major plot points and the beginning and the end of the novel.days_wed

Outlining for me has long been the bane of my existence, but if there is one thing I know as an absolute and unquestionable certainty, it is that if I have any hope of actually writing the series in it’s entirety I’m going to need to outline a few things. If for no other reason than to make sure I don’t lose my timeline of things.

I have a good idea of where things are going over all and I think I have a good grasp of plot points generally, but its filling in the gaps that’s going to prove tricky. For now however, I’m focusing all of my energies to finishing the edits for this work in progress, (I think I’m on like chapter 13 of 21) or so, so that’s the most important part for now.

A Pantsers Guide to Plotting?

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Pantsing v: To write by the seat of your pants.

The blank page, your cursor blinks judgingly at you as you stare into the white abyss. For some, facing the blank page is the most daunting part of writing a novel. For me, it’s a new adventure, the story can go anywhere, and as a pantser, it probably will. The pantsing method is a simple one, an outline, if one should exist comprises as little information as possible, you have a general idea of overall plot of the story and where you want to go, and maybe some things about characters, but the vast majority of what’s going to happen is a mystery. It’s exciting and you learn things as you go along much like your reader would. But the pantsing method isn’t without its drawbacks. Because you often don’t really know where the story is going to go, there’s a risk the story can go off the rails, (or rather, more off the rails). When you’re writing a series (as I am) its difficult to write a novel without knowing how everything is going to fit together in the overarching story and ultimately where the hell this thing is going.

Over the years I’ve tried many tricks for becoming a more organized writers, from multicolor pens, pencils, and highlighters to a series of notebooks, and software programs, to a sticky whiteboard attached to my desk that allows me to write a dry erase timeline of my story that my cats can lay on and erase. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.)

This month however with NaNoWriMo once again drawing near, I feel it imperative to work on not only an outline for my next novel, but the overarching outline that will encompass the entire series as well as each individual book. For this I purchased a five subject notebook which will house information for each book allowing me to see where I’ve been, and where everything fits in. For instance, if something in book one is going to be foreshadowing for an event in another book, I’ll have a note that will reference me to my notes for that book. This sounds a bit complicated, and I’m sure doing this all with Scrivener would be a lot easier, but the truth is, I have to start from a hard copy. I may transfer my notes to a Scrivener file to make it easier before actually writing, but there’s something about outlining in hardcopy that I just can’t seem to pass up.

So, where do we begin?

  1. Book One: Start by outlining the book you’re already on, I’ve looked at a few different outlining methods including the Snowflake method (which at this point is one of my favorites) but my method is more madness than method, and it combines a few methodologies into one. The first of which being…
    • Outline: In a wonderful post (actually about editing, Chuck Wendig) suggested that you should write an outline after the first draft is written. I generally like to do a chapter by chapter outline, just a few sentences to get the overall plot and important event notes. Then you write an outline of where you think the story needs to go from here, what changes are needed etc, and you go by that. After the final draft is done you’ll want another chapter by chapter outline to give you an idea of everything that happened so you can work on the next book.
    • Snowflake: The Snowflake method is a multi-step method for outlining that begins with a one sentence summary and turns into a multi-page outline of major scenes, plots, and character arcs. If you’ve written nothing of your first book you’ll want to start with the Snowflake (or similar method) to outline your novel.
  2. Book Two-End of Series: Once you have a foundational set of characters and settings, you can use the snowflake and chapter by chapter methods to allow you to figure out where the story is going, where it needs to go and ultimately how you should get there.

There are numerous outlining methods, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and frankly how you outline depends entirely on what works for you, but as a pantser who wants just a little more structure for the rest of my series, I’m going to do my best to keep up with my outline and make sure everything goes according to plan.

Mapping Out the Series

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I’m not known for being a plotter. Were I writing a stand alone novel I don’t think it would be something I would find all that necessary. Being however that I’m writing a series, I realize that there are a lot of things that you have to keep balanced in order to make it work. Timeline, characters living and dead, plots, subplots, locales, and the over all story arch that’s going to run in between the series. It’s a lot to try and keep in your head, so I’ve been working on trying to write it all down in a tangible form.

Series Summary: 

What’s it about? What makes this story worth dedicating more than one book to, or even more than four? This is probably the most important factor and will give you an idea of where the rest of the story goes. For me this also lead into…

Book By Book Summary: 

This is an individual summary of each book. Like the overall series summary it doesn’t have to be long (it’s mostly for you) but it gives you an idea of what you want to happen in each book, if you happen to have ideas that far ahead.

Characters:

This is where things can get tricky. Keeping track of characters, their importance in the story and where then they show up and where they go within the story is vital. You probably don’t want to introduce a character in chapter 3 of book 1, kill them off then bring them back in book 3. In the most recent draft of the first book I have at least 40 characters that we meet throughout the course of the novel, this is definitely a shorter list than most, but it’s a lot to contend with in one book, and it’s made me realize I need to have a timeline of where they are in the book, when they show up, when and if they exit and everything in between. You should also include history and future plans even if never explicitly stated in the book.

Plots and Subplots: 

If you’ve ever seen J.K.Rowling’s notes from Order of the Phoenix (which have been making the rounds on Social Media and websites again lately), you’ll know how crazy plots and subplots can get. Particularly when you need to balance what character is in which part of the plot and their importance to that scene. The plot and subplot can make or break your story as much as characters can, so this is where specifics are key. You can’t mince words when it comes to plots and subplots, it needs to be clear where everything is going, and why it matters.

Timeline: 

When did I set that scene? Where does the first book start, and where does the last book end? Timeline is one of the most crucial elements to the believability of you work and it dictates everything from how your characters talk and dress to possibly even what food they eat and how they act towards others. Also, it’s sort of difficult to start the book in the Fall, say six months had passed and have it only be Winter. People might be concerned at the weather pattern in your novel, so it’s important to know what’s happening and when. Because you’ll need to add to this, I recommend writing in pencil.

Location, Location Location:

More than just is it a city or is it a mystical land, you should probably know what building a scene is taking place in. What does it look like? What’s the median temperature in the winter? (Yes I did look that up once for clarity). It’s important you have an idea of where exactly everything is taking place, because if you don’t, it’s likely your readers wont either.

After you’ve written your first draft, you should check back on your over all story arch and make sure everything fits. I would also recommend writing a book by book version of this kind of mapping as well, that way you make sure you have an idea where everything is going for each book as well as the overall series. If something doesn’t look right in this map, it probably doesn’t in the book either so it might be something to check out in your next round of edits.

Something to Try

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A few weeks ago I came across this blog post by SheWrites.com (and was featured in HuffPo) called 52 Things—Ideas for 2015 in it, the author Brooke Warner, details fifty-two things authors should do in 2015. It’s a really great post and I highly recommend you check it out. One of the greatest things she mentions however is #26.

Map a book you love. It will teach you a lot to outline a book you’ve read more than once to see how another author thinks about structure, scenes, and narrative arc.

Outlining has always been a struggle for me, and even though I’ve already taken the time to outline the majority of book 2, I can’t help but want to re-evaluate my plans and I think mapping a book I love will help me out in my outlining efforts and hopefully in the future as well. If it goes well, I may map out a few books I love, in varying genres to really give myself a thorough look at different authors, different types of genres and storylines and what they all have in common, if anything, and how they differ. It’s going to be a really fun and exciting challenge for myself and I’m going to spend much of February working on that, as well as maybe updating my outline for the sequel to my current work-in-progress.

I still have every intention of reading my February author, Gillian Flynn and Sharp Objects as this was recommended to me by a friend of mine, and like the Reading Franzen posts these will go up Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, though hopefully at the usually scheduled 0830 time that most of my blogs go up at (assuming Ms. Flynn uses actual chapter breaks I think we’ll be fine).