Posts Tagged outlining

How to fix a plot hole

470346677_8ee3532e15_zI’ve had this great question:

I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.

Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)

Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.

1 Does your story climax really fit?

You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?

I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.

I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:

  • Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?

Also:

  • Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
  • Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?

Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.

learning from fahrenheit 4512 Check your midpoint

You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?

If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)

So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)

3 Get fresh inspiration

As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)

Dissatisfaction is progress

There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.

Drafting is more than transcribing your notes

All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.

2 nynsMore about the Nail Your Novels here. Even available in Brazil.

Thanks for the pic Corinnely 

What would you say to Eric?

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How to write a novel to an outline and still be creative

8108383545_0a63c2bddf_zAs you may have seen from the interwebs, I’ve finished the first draft of Ever Rest – which I’ve been announcing with giddy hullabaloo because I’m relieved to have got to the end.

I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.

Planning v pantsing

Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?

Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.

But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.

Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.

The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.

Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.

And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).

Wasted plans?

It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.

Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.

So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.

And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.

My tips for using an outline creatively

  • Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
  • If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
  • Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.

But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.

Thanks for the pic Axisworks

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersmlThere’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.

Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!

 

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A site to help you fill the gaps in your story outline

I’m shuffling ideas for The Venice Novel and I’ve come across a fantastic site that’s helping me clarify where I want to take the story.

It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).

I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.

If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.

But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.

Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.

One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’  is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.

If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.

Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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How to outline your story for National Novel-Writing Month – checklist

Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?

We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.

However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)

Why is this story going to grab a reader?

All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:

  • a literal outrage like a murder
  • a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
  • an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.

Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.

What do the main characters want?

Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?

What is the first change that starts the story rolling?

Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?

How does it escalate?

No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.

I never would have thought…

How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?

Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?

Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.

In the end…

What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?

Characters  

Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.

Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.

But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.

Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?

Thanks for the pics Wonderlane and Takomabibelot

That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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7 tips for keeping your motivation as a writer

I’ve had an interesting email from Zoe that sums up some typical challenges of the writerly life:

I started writing two years ago. I’m bored with my story. I have outlined every scene and character and I know how it will go; but I find while I am writing that I change it completely and like that better. Do I stick to my outline?

1. Outlining to flatlining

Outlining is essential. Very few writers can make up a whole novel on the spot as they’re typing. Even if they don’t plan in writing, they’ve usually done a lot of preparation in their heads.

We all have a greater or lesser need for a formal plan. You may be discovering that if you outline exhaustively you kill the idea. In that case, don’t write a detailed synopsis, just put a few notes on cards and set sail (more on outlining methods in Nail Your Novel). Or you may be discovering that detailed outlines free you to take turns you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

2. Have you let the book rest?

Are you changing stuff because you’re stale, or because you’re having better ideas? We all get to the stage where it’s impossible to tell. Change if you’re improving the book, but not for its own sake because you’re no longer entertained.

Sometimes working on a novel is like hearing the same joke over and over. We need a break before we can tell if it’s funny.

3. Is this your learner novel?

You mention you’ve been writing for two years. Is that on this same book? Most of us start writing because we’ve had an idea and we hurl ourselves in. A few years later, that novel has had a lot of pummelling as we learn what to do.

Sometimes we should let that learner novel go.

We might grow out of it, but cling on because we like the familiarity, or we refuse to be beaten by it, or we worry we won’t get another idea.

Some learner novel ideas are so ambitious we won’t have the wisdom to write them for many years.

On the other hand, some learner novels turn out just fine.

Again, the best cure is to let it rest.

4. Going in new directions

Don’t be afraid to take the book in new directions if the muse suggests them. Novels evolve all the time – as you understand the characters more, fill logic holes, make new discoveries in research or fix things you’ve fudged. These realisations make your book stronger and you shouldn’t try to force the book back on track.

But I find that if I go totally off piste I can get in a fearful muddle. So if I need a new direction I stop and work out the consequences. Redraw the map and continue.

5. Get your enthusiasm back

When you take a break, give your book the best chance to win you back. Read some novels that are like it, to remember why you love that kind of story.

Do you still have the very first notes you made? It’s always worth keeping notes from the honeymoon period. Dig them out and find what got you excited in the first place.

6. Writer’s block

Zoe also asked:

What do you do when you get writer’s block and don’t feel like reading over what you have written?

If I’m blocked it’s because there’s a problem I haven’t diagnosed. Like you, I don’t want to open the file. But this reluctance is my brain’s way of telling me I’m sending my story in a direction I don’t like. So I figure out what that is and find ways to change it. Once I have, I’m happy to continue again.

7. Confidence

Zoe’s final question was this:

Do you ever feel like no one will like your work?

What do we mean by ‘like’? Do we mean ‘where’s the market’? Will agents, publishers, readers in their millions like our work?

We can’t write with fashions in mind because they’ll have changed the next time it rains. We can only write the books that would satisfy us as readers.

There’s another question here – will you like your own book?

All the creatives I know – artists, animators, game designers, musicians, choreographers – worry that we are creating rubbish. We’re hoping we can fix it before anyone finds out. I look at my finished novels and cannot imagine what super-brain made them so coherent – because now I’m on a new idea (The Venice Novel) I’m splashing blind.

Our sense of perfection can paralyse us. But it’s also the spur that makes us raise our game. So like most things in writing, polish the book until you’re satisfied, have a rest and repeat. When you can’t go further, find beta readers, polish until they’re satisfied… approach an agent or an editor… and spread out wider and wider until you have a comfortable majority who agree it’s good to go.

For more on outlining and editing methods, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

It’s a year since I launched My Memories of a Future Life and I’m planning a very special giveaway. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to my blog (somewhere in the sidebar) or sign up to my newsletter (somewhere in the sidebar and also here)

What saps your motivation as a writer? How do you beat it? Share in the comments!

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Repost: Nail NaNoWriMo! A routine to help you finish

As NaNoWriMo gets under way, how are you doing?

Are you finding NaNoWriMo easier than you thought it would be, or harder?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have had to write several novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months, finished and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times. I had detailed synopses, but I had to just get my head down and pound out the words. It taught me a thing or two about keeping myself at the keyboard.

Here are my top seven tips.

1. Are you getting into the scenes enough? If you’ve written a synopsis, you’ll have summarised everything. The first draft is where you turn it into living, breathing scenes. That’s how you meet the wordcount, because it takes a lot more words to write a scene blow by blow than it does to say ‘Vanessa confronts the woman who betrayed her’. In your NaNo draft, DO NOT summarise anything. Show, not tell. Try writing to music – it can help you immerse yourself. If scented candles do it for you, give yourself a Proustian boost!

2. Are you worried about the quality of what you’re writing? Don’t be. NaNoWriMo is about inventing. Editing is not allowed until the month starts with a D but you might be better leaving it until J is involved. You can’t edit as you invent, your brain doesn’t work that wayand you’ll never make the wordcount if you stop to fret over what you’ve written. So let the scenes unfold in your head, write down what’s happening and to hell with how it reads.

3. Are you getting stuck in your story? Use reincorporation. Find a thing or a character you put in the story before and work it back in to solve your problem. This is the single most useful way to solve a story problem.

4. Are you giving yourself enough credit? Make yourself visual awards. Find a way to visually represent how far you’ve got – a thermometer with coloured bars, a graph climbing slowly skywards, or any combination of these. Put them up in your work area. Yes this is just like in infants’ school where the teacher puts up rows of stars. We are primitive at heart. Reward your inner child for writing so much.

5. How NaNo is your environment? Theme your writing area. If you’ve made an ideas scrapbook for your novel, put up pictures and make the edges of your monitor or your desk into a mood board. Change them regularly to keep your interest and sense of immersion, or to kick-start your writing for the day. In December, tinsel and stuff helps you feel Christmassy; in November, decorate for NaNoWriMo.

6. Will you be derailed if you miss a day or fall behind? Everybody falls behind a little, because we all have lives to live as well as books to write. A sudden birthday or crisis need not derail your NaNo plan. Make sure your writing plan includes some slack so you can steal back time if you need to. If it doesn’t, rewrite it NOW, while you still have plenty of room for manoeuvre.

7. Remember NaNoWriMo is an experiment. You are experimenting with your muse and your writing habits by setting yourself a challenge – and a difficult one. Experiments don’t fail or pass; they produce what they produce. Some of it will be nonsense, and some will be sublime invention. This is why it’s a good thing to do, despite what its critics will say. Stay the distance and see what happens. Enjoy the journey and the surprises. That’s what it’s all about.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, how’s it going? Post up a link in the comments to let us all cheer you on! If you’re a past WriMo, what advice would you give to this year’s runners?

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.

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