Stories Made Simple- Episode 1: What are Stories?

I’ve been wanting to do a few YouTube videos about storytelling for a while, and finally finished the first one. Let me know what you think!

Rob

Plotting Thread

As I discussed in Prepping Your Novel, there are a vast number of different ways you can go about plotting a story. Currently in the Writer’s Cafe on Kboards (the un-official Kindle discussion forum) there’s a discussion going where different writers are sharing their approaches to plotting their novels. And you know what? Almost every one of them is using a different method, and one that works for them.

These run from:

Writer Nicolas Andrew’s very traditional approach:

My outlines are rarely finished, usually because I get tired of summarizing and just start writing. I usually know what the end is going to be, anyway. It’s the middle that gives me trouble. I’ve always used the method of outlining I was taught in middle school, which looks like:

A. Setting
  1. Time
  2. Place

B. Characters
  1. Main Character
  2. Main Character

C. Plot

And so on. For plot, the subheadings used to be a mere list of events. Later on, to cut down on subheadings I would divide it into the five points of dramatic structure (exposition/introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution/denouement). But since I’m not likely to forget these points or their functions after twenty years, these days I simply divide the story into Act I, II, and III. 

I don’t decide what event goes into what chapter at this point. That comes out of the actual writing. I use my instincts on where a chapter break should occur, whether it’s on a cliffhanger, or important information being revealed, or a decision being made. Most times it’s a subconscious thing for me.

To writer Lady Runa’s Half and Half Approach:

I guess you could call me half-plotter, half-pantser. When I begin writing a book I plot the hell out of it but it’s never enough. This is how I do it:

1. Idea: the initial setup and a few main characters. Then I follow Larry Brooks’ structure system (the MC’s journey):

2. I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four parts: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr. This is my hero’s arc.

3. Then I brainstorm the story (it may take a few days or weeks) trying to come up with as many relevant and memorable scenes as I can. Normally they fall within the first two parts. I make sure that every part has its own arc and climax. I also plot out the midpoint (Big Fireworks, Great Revelations) and the third plot point (The Bad Guys Win!)

4. I come up with all the characters using Dwight Swain’s character sheet (it’s AWESOME). As he suggests, I make sure that my cast is as varied and contrasting as possible. I come up with all their arcs making sure they’re relevant to the story. I never bother with petty stuff like “what school they went to and what music they like”. This is what I love about Dwight Swain’s sheet: it only includes what’s really relevant.

5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about novel writing it’s you can’t overdo on drama. You can, but it’s extremely difficult. So I try to make sure every scene is dramatic and memorable. Using Holly Lisle’s term, I try to make every scene a “candybar scene” – something I itch to write. No fluff.

6.  Now I plan the living daylights out of the first two parts: scene by scene. I plan every scene very closely, spelling out the setting, the characters involved, the conflict and the chars’ secret agendas. I also plan as many scenes of Part Three as I can – and a few of Part Four.

7. I plant my backside firmly in a chair and write Parts One and Two based on my scene sheets. Normally, as I do so, all sorts of little alterations start to pile up. New better ideas force me to change certain things, which is why I never plan rigidly after the Midpoint. Normally, by the time I reach Midpoint, I have a whole lot of new better ideas and characters that force me to change a lot of the story.

8. So after Midpoint, I sit down and plot out the rest of the book. I’ll change certain things and add more dramatic and memorable scenes based on those alterations. One rule I never break comes from Larry Brook: I never introduce a new major character after Part Three.

So I guess, I’m a half-pantser because as I write the first two parts from my spreadsheet, I end up with new ideas that ultimately improve the book. I’ve got a few traditionally published novels now and work on the next one so it seems to be working – for me at least. I do recommend this “flexible planner” style to those who feel they can’t just sit down and write a book (I can’t!) but who disagree with the “rigidity” of planning.

 

To writer AnnChristy’s unique “Ellipticaller” Approach:

To an observer, I’m a pantser. Total and complete Pantser.

But that’s not quite true.

Instead, I’m an ellipticaller (Is that a word? If not, it should be.)

I get an idea and then I elliptical a great deal, building the story as I do, rearranging it, tearing bits out and putting bits in, building characters and all of that. I logged 22 hours on the elliptical creating the story for Strikers over a short period of time. 

Then it took me the time to write it. But I don’t use notecards or whatever. I build it entirely in my head. Small details like exactly what everyone looks like and their preferences (handedness, a nervous tick, whatever) I do put in a separate scrivener page.

Whole process: 3 months for about 400 pages. 

If I try to use a more written outline method, I would never get done because I’ll constantly reference it and confuse myself. The only way it works for me is to absolutely memorize it and know it like you know your favorite TV show.

 

So, if you’re on a quest to find what kind of plotter you are, give the thread a look! There’s lots of great perspectives there and you might just find something that works for you!

Rob

How Much Should You Write a Day?

Yesterday, I made a post about Tracking Your Writing Progress using a spreadsheet in an effort to develop good production habits. After I posted it, a friend wrote to me and asked how much I thought was a good number to aim for. It seems like such a simple thing, but it was an issue I struggled over myself, and still struggle over.

My initial answer to him was figure out whatever you think you can handle each day consistently, and then multiply that by 365 to get a target number. However, after considering it, I think there is a little more psychological strategy needed to really get the best out of using a spreadsheet.

Let me explain.

Stephen King, in his amazing book, On Writing, recommends you sit down and crank out about 2000 words a day. It’s a nice number, and I often see other writers quote it as a great target for beginners, since it’s an achievable goal in two to three hours of your time, depending on how fast you type. King apparently churns that out in the morning, and then spends the rest of the day editing, reading (he recommends 4-6 hours a day!) and doing family stuff.  He credits that with some of his incredibly productivity, and he sees it as a manageable pace you can keep without burning yourself out.

I’ve tried King’s approach during the Summer (I’m a teacher, so Summer is when I have time to dedicate myself to writing), and actually made it work. I did 2000 words every morning, and the result is my upcoming release Little Gou and the Crocodile Princess. So yes, it works. I felt the balance, and was refreshed and ready to tackle my next book when I finished it.

Then, I crashed and wrote almost nothing for four months.

For you see, my Summer had come to an end, and as a teacher that meant September- with its flood of preparation work, to be followed by marking and general exhaustion for the following months. (It also didn’t help I had two brand-new classes dumped on me at the last second and had to spend the following weeks desperately trying to get a handle on them, but that’s a teacher’s life.) I had a great 2000/word/day schedule and each day I would come home, look at my computer and think- “No way I’m going to finish 2000 words today.” And this became my excuse for giving into my exhaustion and not writing.

Seriously, those “easy to fit in” 2000 words actually became a mountain I had to climb, and it became easier to play at the bottom than to try to climb the mountain, no matter how much I loved the view from the top.

So, when I came around to try using spreadsheets recently, I really thought deeply about what number I should put in. My initial thought was 500 words/day, then I decided that was too low, and went for 1000 words/day and finally settled in 1500 words/day since I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo in July and that will require 1,667 words/day. I figured I’d better start training for that, and 1500/day would be a good practice number.

But then, I saw Mur Lafferty’s Magic Spreadsheet, and read the thinking behind it, and decided that actually I shouldn’t be writing 1500- I should be writing 250 words/day.

I decided this for 3 reasons:

  1. 250 is a number I can crank out in my sleep, it’s not intimidating, and too low to function as an excuse.
  2. Most days, I’ll naturally write more than 250 anyways. That 250 is a minimum, a starting point, and when it’s done I’ll be warmed up and ready to keep going.
  3. It’s a number I can maintain when school comes and I’m awash with work. Over a lunchbreak, or over breakfast, I can churn out 250 words and if that’s all I can manage- so be it.

Also, I did the math- 250 words/day = 1750 words/week = 91,000 words a year.

That’s a novel a year! And, if I also do things like Camp Nanowrimo, that will be a whole lot more than a novel a year! A hell of a lot better than what I’m producing now- 8 months of little writing and 4 months of inconsistent writing. (Now you see why I’m looking at spreadsheet strategies.)

Now, 250 might not be the right number for you, you’ll have to find your own numbers and do the math, but for me it seems to fit. I might raise it to 500 later on if it’s too easy, but I doubt that will happen until after school starts this Fall. After all, this is about building a consistent habit, and setting myself up for success, not failure.

Good luck!

Rob

Camp NaNoWriMo

na-no-wri-mo1

As a person in the academic field, one of the busiest months we have is November. It is a month of papers, tests, and general craziness for teachers and students and anyone else involved in education. This is why I’ve always considered holding National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) in November a seriously cruel joke. I mean, many students dream of writing a novel, and even more teachers feel they have a novel in them, so why torture them by putting NaNoWriMo in one the few months they can’t do it?

I personally think NaNoWriMo should become NaJulWriMo, or National July Writing Month. (Which sounds really Korean.) July is the one month that almost everyone has the time, in and out of education, to sit down and write a book. Well, although they’re unwilling to change the month so far (probably because the NaNoWriMo brand is too well established), the people behind NaNoWriMo are apparently aware of the issue. Their solution is called Camp NaNoWriMo, and this year it will be held in April (also not a great month for those in post-secondary education) and July (yay! teachers rejoice!)

Here`s how Wikiwrimo describes it:

Each month of Camp NaNo is its own separate event; participants can choose to participate in either session…or both. The default goal for each month is the same as regular Nano: 50,000 words. Previous participants of Nanowrimo and Script Frenzy can simply log in with their existing usernames and are automatically entered into the appropriate month upon creating a novel for the event. The rules are identical to regular NaNo, except you can choose any word count goal (between 10,000 and 999,999, inclusive), and may write either a novel or a script.

Another difference between regular NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo is that while regular NaNoWriMo is structured around people doing their own thing with forums and meetups being optional possibilities, Camp NaNoWriMo is structured around what they call Cabins. Which WikiWriMo describes as follows:

A feature exclusive to Camp Nano is the introduction of cabins, a small message board containing four to six participants that became functional in August 2011. Participants have the option of inviting specific Wrimos into their cabin, joining a cabin with participants of the same age, activity level, word count goal, or genre. They may also opt to join a random cabin or not to join a cabin at all. Cabins have a central “wall” on which Wrimos post messages to all other campers in their cabin. These messages are viewable only to other Wrimos in that cabin. The NaNo tech team runs cabin assignments frequently, so new cabinmates can show up in a cabin after the month begins and users can switch cabins if they so desire. Cabins close a few days after the event ends, but participants can continue to connect through private messages or through the main NaNo forums.

Sounds interesting! As someone who is (totally not jealous of not being) unable to participate in NaNoWriMo, this sounds like a pretty good compromise and I think I`ll probably give it a go this year if I don`t burn myself out writing in June. While writing is a fun pursuit, writing long works can be a real slog, and there`s nothing like a combination of encouragement and peer pressure to keep you on the straight and narrow!

Rob

Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last

via Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing.

KFAT Fiction Launched!

As will come as no surprise to anyone who was reading my posts yesterday, I’ve decided to take the plunge into writing serialized web fiction. At first I thought about writing Flash Fiction, and I may still try my hand at it, but for now I’m going to write serialized stories in a more normal mode. I find my productivity varies a lot recently, and I’m hoping that being forced to produce at least 1000 words a week of prose writing will help to generate some good writing habits once more!

So the plan is to put up a new part of the story of 700-1000 words in length each Monday morning on my new KFAT Fiction website- http://fiction.kungfuactiontheatre.com/. I plan to write a few shorter things first (20,000 words or so) and clear out a couple unfinished projects, and then move on to slightly bigger works. If I find myself getting too ahead on the writing side, I may start posting twice a week, but intially I’m just going to stick to once a week as I’m about to enter my most busy time of the year at work (Yay! September!) and don’t want to miss any postings unless I absolutely have to. (So the idea is to keep a couple episodes ahead at all times.)

For my first story, I chose to serialize The Inuyama Rebellion, which is an ongoing adventure story set in feudal Japan that I’ve half completed, and which I thought felt like a good fit for this kind of format. As it’s already partway done, I decided to put the first third of the story up on the site in handy bite-sized pieces to help give new readers a good taste of what to expect. These first eight pieces take us about halfway into the second “episode” of the version which has been heard on the KFATales audio fiction podcast, and I do eventually plan to finish the podcast version as well once the serialized version is done.

Enjoy!

Rob