Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?

Pantsing

If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.

 

Plotting

After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.

 

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 1

Gwynn Scheltema

My favourite procrastination tool is Pinterest, but unlike my next favourite procrastination tool, Solitaire, it actually serves many useful purposes for a writer.

What is Pinterest?

Think of Pinterest as an infinite digital corkboard. On your “corkboard”, you have visual topic collection files called BOARDS for your PINS. Pins are visual web links that take you to the source of the information you are pinning (magazine article, blog, website, youtube video etc.). If you pin someone else’s pin (greatly encouraged) you are RE-PINNING. A person who has a Pinterest account (it’s free) with a collection of boards is called a PINNER.

Pins don’t have to be only informational text.. You can pin pictures, infographics, videos, photos and all kinds of ideas and inspiration. You can make your board public or secret. You can be social or not as you choose. (I choose not.)

Best of all, you can search by topic and define whether you are looking for a pin, a board, or a person. For example, I can search for all pins on “plot”, or all boards on “writing tips” or all people for “mystery author”.

If you download a “pin button” to your browser search toolbar, you can pin from anywhere you go on the internet including your own photos if they are in the cloud.

Novel vision boards

When beginning a novel, I create a board with my novel’s working title and pin images of possible characters, buildings, period dress, geographic details like birds or plants or places. Later I can add research links, newspaper cuttings, quotes, cover ideas, relevant books to read or anything else that might inspire or inform me.

I can even create sections within my board. For my mystery novel “Pyes and Ivy” I have sections for my characters, my town “Riverton” and the B&B where the action takes place “Ivy Lodge”.I find having the visual helps me keep things consistent.

Novel development boards

Of course, not every aspect of your novel has to be on one board. (You are allowed up to 500 boards and 200,000 pins). So let’s say you are working on your villain. You can create a board just for him/her. Get writing tips on writing villains. Get quotes from or about villains. Get ideas for names, motivations, and personality traits.

Rinse and repeat with other characters or setting or events…..

The craft

And when you have characters, you need an arc for them and a story arc too. Pinterest gives you access to loads of free printable worksheets for every aspect of planning your novel. Ditto for articles on “how to…” and “tips on …”

 

Looking for another way to describe hair colour? Words to use instead of “amazing”. Pinterest has pins for that. Also pins for commonly misused words, when to use what kind of hyphen, and avoiding clichés—including cliché characters.

 

 

Motivation

I have a board called “Words to write by”. It’s full of inspirational and kick-in-the-pants quotes. A quick visit there when I’m feeling like my writing is crap or I’m getting nowhere usually gets me going again. And let’s not forget the hundreds of writing prompts—visual and text; story starters and what ifs.

If you like to be social, you can follow other pinners, join group boards or comment on pins. There are even hilarious “Pinterest Fail” pins.

 

Making money.

Once you have a book to sell there are great ways to sell it on Pinterest. It’s the up and coming social media market place. But that’s a whole other blog. Stay tuned for Pinterest for Fiction Writers Part 2.

 

 

 

Theme and Premise

Theme and Premise

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m often asked what the difference is between theme and premise. Here’s my take—with a comment or two from others:

 What is theme?

A story needs to be unified around something, and that something is theme, a recurrent idea or motif.  You can begin to identify your theme by coming up with ONE word to sum it up. That one word is usually a human quality: Friendship. Love. Trust. Fear. Redemption. Abandonment. Freedom. Motherhood. Truth. Ambition. Justice. Revenge. Confidence.Or a universal quality: Duality. War. Confinement.

But the theme of a novel goes deeper. Theme in a novel is not just that one word, say LOVE, but the statement the author makes about the motif with the story.

FROZEN: sisterly love is greater than power.

Generally, theme is linked to the emotional growth of the protagonist, or the personal vendetta of the antagonist.

Sometimes you don’t know what your theme is up front. You might change it, or discover it in the course of storytelling. It evolves. And that doesn’t matter because it isn’t stated anywhere in the narrative. It’s a sense we come away with, a flavour, a key.

Theme can also be several statements/explorations around a human quality. For example, an author could explore different kinds of LOVE through different characters: brotherly love, love of self, absence of love, parental love, love of money over people, love of country etc.

What is Premise

Premise, on the other hand, is the idea behind the story, what the author is writing about, the basic idea and foundation for the plot.

John Truby suggests premise is the simplest combination of character and plot: Some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character and some sense of the outcome.

Author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff talks about the premise being “the pitch” for the story. That works too. After all, a pitch is the one-liner distilled version of your book and introduces us to the main character, what obstacles he must overcome, and why.

 

HARRY POTTER: When boy wizard Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts wizard school are threatened by the Dark Lord, Harry must find his magical power to overcome him and become a man and a great wizard.

 

Premise out of theme

Chris Vogler agrees that premise is the basic idea and foundation for the plot but also that it is “a more developed expression of the “theme” idea, beyond just one word. It’s a sentence that you pull out of that one word.”

First be specific.  “LOVE” isn’t specific enough. What kind of love? Brotherly love? Blind love? Love of country? Loving yourself?  What kind of trust? What kind of faith?

And then restate it as a kind of formula:   

X behaviour leads to Y consequences

MACBETH: ruthless ambition leads inevitably to destruction

 

 

Why does it matter?

Premise is useful as you write because it holds the ultimate character transformation in the front of your mind, so you are conscious of your character’s actions and reactions being in step with where he is along the character arc. For instance Harry Potter could never have faced the dementors at the beginning of the series, not only because he didn’t have the wizardly skills, but because he had not yet found his confidence or his loyalty.

As you write, theme doesn’t matter, but when it comes to editing, it provides an umbrella measure to decide which scenes and characters can get cut. Does this scene support the theme better than this one?

One last word

Screenwriter Andrew Oye sums the whole thing up very nicely. He says premise and theme are cousins not twins. That the premise is the subject of the story and the theme is the meaning from the story.

 

Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.

I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.

The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.

An “Artiste” at work

I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World.  Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.

Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?

My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?

Pshaw. What do they know?

They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.

What Andrew taught me

Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.

From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…

…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.

But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.

Act Two = Two Acts

Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?

No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)

If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.

No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)

Self-reflection

So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?

If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.

If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.

DID YOU KNOW?

Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.

On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.

 

 

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Deadlines: Motivator or Barrier?

Ruth E. Walker

Discovering Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a thrill. Oh, the combination: wit, satire and science fiction comedy. As a young-ish mother of four, the escape was delicious.

And lately, I’ve enjoyed getting reacquainted with his wacky worldview in the television series Dirk Gently’s Holisitic Detective Agency. But all that is an aside (which is one of things I loved about reading Douglas Adams — the incredible digressions…but then I also enjoy Monty Python.)

What I most admire about Douglas Adams is how often his words (either from his books or otherwise) remain so smart and relevant. Here’s a gem from a speech “Parrots, the universe and everything” at the University of California in May 2001. It was just days before his untimely death at age 49:

We don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it.

And here’s my favourite because it fits my writing world:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. 

Yes indeed. So today, I have no less than two writing deadlines. First, I need to finish THIS post and get it proofread and ready to launch by midnight. And second, long before midnight, I need to send the last four chapters of my novel to my critique group.

Time Management?

Look at that. My “midnight” deadline is secondary to my “long before midnight” deadline. Well, that must be because my last four chapters are ready to go.

Nope. They are “mostly” ready (Python-esque description, yes?) I’m still agonizing over plot decisions I’ve made. I’m unsure if I’ve overwritten the final few scenes, that I’ve gone for “big” when “intimate” might better serve the story.

Yes. Of course I hear you. Isn’t that what my critique group is for? To offer feedback on the writing? So what is my problem?

It’s the deadlines that are killing me and my creativity today. Add into the mix some background on another deadline, one that I’ve missed. In the past couple of years, I’ve been at a few writing conferences. At those conferences, there were optional pitch sessions with literary agents. I started with the idea that I could use those sessions as a chance to practise a real pitch for when the book is done.

So I paid attention to the questions the agents asked. I noticed what got their interest in the written query and writing sample and what put them on snooze. And I practised being comfortable sitting across from someone who might have a profound effect on my writing career. Believe me, I need that practise.

True confession

I can stand at the front of a room and deliver a workshop with passion and confidence. But offer up that compelling elevator pitch? Describe my book and its themes in 25 words or less? Open my mouth and not jam my foot directly into it?

Something terrible happens to me when I’m talking about my novel to agents and editors. My brain leaves the room. So practise is necessary, in my case.

Last September, I was at a pitch session with a well-known literary agent. I didn’t even have to open my mouth before she let me know how much she enjoyed my writing sample. In seconds, I went from Nervous Nellie to author. We had a great meeting and I imagined how lovely it would be have this woman as my agent. She asked to see the full manuscript in November. “Of course,” I said. I was only a month or so from penning “The End” so that timing was a perfect fit.

I had a deadline. I had strong interest from an agent. And a manuscript so close to being done, I could taste it. What could go wrong?

The Douglas Adams effect

Whoosh. That deadline went by so fast, I barely heard it. Sure, I have a lot of reasons that the book languished, unfinished. But I suspect that a big part of the missed deadline is related to my lack of confidence in writing the darn thing. That’s not a logical reason. Feedback from agents and editors in my practice sessions, along with my excellent (and tough) critique group’s comments, confirms that the writing is strong and the story original and engaging.

But when are we logical beings? When does our passion for our craft translate into efficiency and organization? In my case, it often doesn’t. Remember those digressions I love? Squirrel! And I’m madly off in several directions, forgetting the original goal.

Nonetheless, I’ve made it to the end of this post so that is one deadline met. As long as no squirrels pass my window and the house remains relatively quiet, I should also manage to meet the next one. And as to that November 2016 so-important-I-shouldn’t-let-it-whoosh-by deadline? I can only hope that literary agent is okay working with authors for whom deadlines are sometimes counter-productive. And that she’ll like the novel well enough to sign me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Did You Know:

You’ve got lots of time before registration deadline for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. But don’t let that stop you from signing up. The first four writers who sign up get a special bonus: a suite room with a lake view. Still waiting for the deadline to creep up on you? With this year’s guest author Vicki Delany ready to share secrets on how she’s one of Canada’s top mystery writers, we expect a full house. Don’t be disappointed. November 3, 4 & 5.

Frogging It

Frogging It

Erin Thomas

I’ve often taken satisfaction from the idea that writing, in some ways, is like knitting. Not the following-patterns part, although sometimes in the depths of my writerly frustration, I imagine that would be nice. And it’s not the tangible result, either; a writer goes through many, many iterations before having something tangible to show for her efforts.

No, it’s more the idea of building something big—a scarf, a sweater, a blanket—out of a series of small steps. It’s holding the “whole” in your mind, when all you can see is a pile of yarn, when all you can do in the moment is make one more tiny stitch towards that whole.

Word by word, or bird by bird if you’re an Anne Lamott fan. Stitch by stitch.

I work away at my shawl; one stitch is almost nothing. It’s a word, a period. An entire row of stitches, maybe that’s something. There’s a sense of completion there. A paragraph, or maybe even a scene. But it takes so many, many rows to make a shawl.

Writers work in “the end” and “the now”

Building a novel, or a draft of a novel, feels a bit like that. You have to split your mind; part of it imagines the finished product, holds the shape of it before you. This, it says. This is the reason you’re working. This is what you’re making.  But that finish line is a long way away, so another part of your mind focuses only on the task at hand, the small piece you’re doing just now. The stitch, the row, the bit of lace. The next twist of the cable.

Maybe you go so far as to admire how it connects to what came before, how the project is growing. What you cannot do is focus on how much there is still to do. That way lies discouragement. In knitting, as in writing, it pays to have something of a zen mindset. Your work is the work of the moment.

Sometimes, though, there’s a mistake. Sometimes there’s a mistake so big, so early in the project, that you can’t work back and fix it. For a while, maybe, you pretend it’s not there. You pretend no one else will see it. It’s okay. It was near the edge, near the beginning, before the pattern really took shape; maybe you can pretend it happened on purpose.

But it nags at you. After all, you started this because you had a vision. And this object in your hands, it doesn’t match that vision.

You work ahead. Maybe you can fix it. Maybe you can repeat it, somehow, or work in a call-back. You’ve made so many stitches since that point. Good stitches. Stitches that look the way they’re supposed to. You keep going, building on those good stitches. But if the initial flaw is big enough, it will affect the whole. The pattern is broken; the count is off. You could push ahead, you could even finish it, but will you be happy with the finished project?

The fix is usually necessary

Sometimes, the answer is no. Sometimes, the only answer is to start over. So you pull on the yarn and all those lovely stitches unravel, and you rewind the yarn, and your project dissolves back to the mistake or even the starting point, and you begin again.

Knitters have a term for this. It’s called “frogging it,” apparently because “rip it, rip it” sounds like the noise frogs make.I’ve used other f-words from time to time.

I’ve frogged novels, too. When something is wrong that’s fundamental to the story, when it’s built into every scene and chapter and fibre of the novel, sometimes it’s best to start over.

Starting over hurts. You’ve written all those lovely words. Your critique partners have helped you hone them. Some of those chapters sing. Starting over feels like a waste.

What remains is priceless

It’s not a waste. When you frog your knitting, you don’t lose everything. You keep the yarn, the substance out of which the project is made. And you keep the knowledge you gained—the new stitch patterns you learned, the deeper understanding of how the garment comes together. This time, you can do it better. You’re aware of the pitfalls. You can work more easily. Maybe you can even add something that will improve it.

Frogging it isn’t always the answer. Sometimes there will be a way to fix what’s wrong without pulling apart the entire manuscript. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s necessary. And when it is, the best thing you can do is grit your teeth and rip that yarn with courage and commitment, knowing that you’re going to tackle this project again, or even build something better out of the same stuff.

And you begin again. Stitch by stitch.

Erin Thomas writes books for children and young adults (and knits compulsively) from her home in Whitby, Ontario. For more information, visit www.erinthomas.ca.

Plotting a Search for Structure

Plotting a Search for Structure

Ruth E. Walker

At my critique group last night, we did a bit of dissection on the plot of a member’s novel in progress. Sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Here’s a bit of background. One of our members has a great story for middle grade readers. It has lots of elements that the age group enjoys:

  • a relatable POV character with a problem to solve
  • some simmering tension with a member of the opposite sex
  • a science fiction backdrop that is fun and fantastical
  • a school full of goofy rules, and
  • a dastardly villain bent on stopping our POV character dead in his tracks

All the right ingredients. But the novel wasn’t quite working the way the writer hoped it would. So he continued to work on the story and recently sent us a revised synopsis.

Our role, as with all submissions, was to look at the synopsis, mark up the copy with questions and notes, and bring it to the session for discussion. Questions and detailed notes are important but the discussion in our critique group is widely considered the true gold of membership.

Our critique group collectively has some wide-ranging skill sets and expertise. This we all bring to the table. But a couple of us (not me!) are exceptional in the plot department. One, in particular, often brings visual aids, related reading and notes from research and workshops.

Last night, I suspect Christopher Vogler’s ears were burning. And the meeting room’s white board was a colourful palette of ideas and plot points.

How it worked for one writer:

Our two-hour session focused on reviewing our colleague’s current plot structure as outlined in his synopsis and getting to the heart of his story.

It was brilliant. Dividing the basic plot into three main acts and then placing the existing story into that structure allowed the writer to consider changes that simplified areas of the story. Some parts were more complex than they needed to be. At least one character needed to be shipped to the Island of Unwanted Characters.  And some goals needed to be adjusted.

The writer had some significant ah-ha! moments. He left the meeting with a renewed sense of where he wanted his story to go. What started out like a last-ditch revision became the groundwork for a new vision and plenty of possiblities.

And, as a side benefit, I found it all immensely helpful in looking at my own work in progress.

The basics of the Three-Act Structure:

Act I sets the stage, introduces the POV character with a problem(s) to overcome and the inciting incident.

Act II is the meat of the matter and has its own moment of crisis in the mid-point. As our colleague explained, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where they reach the Wizard, and Dorothy thinks he’ll send her home. But no. First they have to complete this impossible task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West.

So using Dorothy and Wizard, Act II is divided into two sections: Act II a (following the yellow brick road to see the Wizard) and Act II b (kill the witch before she kills Dorothy, Toto and her three companions)

And then, of course, Act III. This final act has the crushing disappointment of learning the wizard is not all-powerful after all, quickly followed by a joyful realization that everyone had what they needed all along, the journey home and most important, the POV character’s completed arc of understanding or change. (There’s no place like home…)

Can this approach work for you?

So, looking at your plot, are there areas in your story that you think could use a bit of tightening up? Could a three-act structure overview give you clues about needed changes? Or does it confirm that you have all the necessary ducks in a row? Good for you if that’s the case!

A word of caution. My critique group example is just a simplified version of one approach to looking at plot. Screenwriter and script consultant, Christopher Vogler, has a popular book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (which, strangely enough, had a cameo in our session yesterday.) Vogler’s 407-page book is only one of the many great resources for writers on structure and storytelling.

Have you struggled with structure? What did you do to help you get past the challenge of plotting? If you have suggestions, let us know what resources and approaches you recommend for other writers.

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Ruth E. Walker

It’s true. We all love a really good villain. Providing, of course, that they’re between the covers of a good book or kept safe inside a movie or television screen. That’s the other side of our love affair: we control where and when we spend time with those villains. Writers know that if we want readers to root for the hero, we need to create a good bad guy. Here are some points to consider.

The hero/villain bond

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. Shere Khan and Mowgli. The White Witch and Aslan. A villain is the counterpoint, the mirror, the connection to the dark side of our hero.

Voldemort would just be an ugly, nasty, nameless whozits without Harry Potter. With young Harry in our hearts and minds, He Who Cannot Be Named notches up the terror-meter. And when he finally shows up, he sets fire to the page. Harry’s emotions catch fire too, and not always with good result. That’s important. For Harry, the villain is part of his journey, and all good heroes have flaws that villains love to exploit.

But we don’t just need the villain to serve as the foil for our hero. The most interesting villains come with baggage and struggles of their own. And generally, they don’t even KNOW they are villains.

(I see dead people…all the time. And they don’t know they’re dead.)

Well, unlike the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, most villains do know what they’re up to. But in their own story, they’re the hero. George R.R. Martin said:  A villain is a hero of the other side.

King Joffrey, anyone?

Author Stephen King has created many memorable twisted characters and sometimes, they start out as the hero of the story — Carrie, for example. Villains in King’s hands are much more than stereotypical bad guys. Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win. Indeed, Mr. King. Indeed.

What does your villain want?

Your villain is more than window dressing. When you write them, do you consider their life story? What about their childhood disappointments? Their losses? Their fears? The source of their desire for world domination?

Maybe Iago secretly reads romance novels to learn to be less awkward in lovemaking. Maybe The White Witch just wants Narnia to stay a frozen wasteland because she’s afraid of growing old.

Just like your story’s hero, your villain needs goals. Readers may not need to know all about the “inciting incident” that sets your villain on the road to bad deeds. But as the writer, you need to know your villain’s motivations.

To support a good plot, the villain’s goals should be contrary to your hero’s goals, or at the least, interfere with your hero’s ability to achieve them. Energy and tension come from those conflicts. The greater they are, the stronger the plot, so your villain better not be feeble. Think of it this way: a weak villain makes for a weak plot.

How complex is your villain?

Compelling characters resonate with your reader. They trigger emotions. Villains hold our attention when they are three-dimensional and we believe they exist.

Your villain may only have a walk-on part to trigger the inciting incident for your hero, but that villain still needs to be believable. And one part of making villains believable is to ensure they believe in themselves.

Consider Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables. An intelligent man of principles, he relentlessly pursues justice, but without an ounce of compassion. We believe in him because he believes completely in his truth. Actor Jack Gleeson, who plays maniacal King Joffrey in the Game of Thrones television series puts it this way: Both villains and heroes need to have a steadfast belief in themselves.

How well does your villain fit with your story?

This one can be a tricky question. Simply making a character “evil” and “heartless” doesn’t mean that character will fit the story you are telling. As already noted, you can look to your hero to find some of the right kind of villain qualities. But you also have to consider time and place.

A story set in medieval times can have a villain who is chivalrous and noble but has no hesitation in running a broadsword into child’s heart to make a point. That same twisted knight may not fit so easily in a contemporary horror novel.

Take a close look at the story you are writing. Is your villain the best antagonist you can create, or is there room to refine your “baddie”? Up his sympathy factor? Lose some of her stereotypical nasty behaviour? Since I started to write this article, I’ve had some ideas that will send me back to my own in-progress novel. Again.

But that’s okay. I like my villain and hopefully, you will too.

DID YOU KNOW?

Villains, Vendettas and Vagabonds is a one-day workshop Ruth facilitates for writers. She’ll be in Niagara-on-the-Lake in September sharing insights and ideas on creating great “bad” in fiction. The workshop is part of the NOTL Writers’ Circle programming for 2017.

She’ll also be offering this workshop in Durham Region this fall. Stay tuned for details.

Janus: the god of writing?

Janus: the god of writing?

Gwynn Scheltema

January is believed to be named for the Roman god, Janus. The first month of the Gregorian calendar, January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year, no later than 153 BCE.

As we’ve left behind 2016 and begun 2017, consider that Janus is, among other things, the god of time, beginnings and endings. His two faces look simultaneously to the future and the past.

Janus symbolized change, transition and motion. He presided over the progress of one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood, transition from savagery to civilization, from rural to urban space, from one universe to another. Janus oversaw the beginning and ending of conflict. As a god of motion, Janus caused actions to start.

He represented time, and was worshipped at planting and harvest, at births and marriages and deaths. He had a role to play in journeys and exchanges, gateways and thresholds.

Doesn’t that sound like a writer? I think writers are a lot like Janus, presiding over our fictional worlds.

So what can we learn from Janus?

Past and Future are connected

At any point in the writing of a story we need to be looking into the past and the future simultaneously. Even though action and plot are moving forward into the future, we need to be aware of our characters’ pasts or back story, because that is what drives all our characters’ quirks and traits and shapes the decisions they make.

The distinction between past back story and present, or future action and plot, is a cornerstone for understanding pacing. The plot and action is what moves the story forward and keeps the pace up (and the reader engaged). The moment you indulge in a flashback (back story; the past), your pacing stands still. Sure we learn things about the characters, but the storyline is momentarily halted. Stay in the past too long, and the reader will lose interest.

That’s not to say that backstory is not important. It is. It is the subconscious motivation that drives the characters’ present actions. The future unfolds according to the events of the past, and witnessing some of the past will help the reader understand why a character acts the way he does.

Beginnings and Endings are connected.

We all know that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more than that. Like Janus, we need to be aware of the beginning and end simultaneously wherever we are in the writing of the story. Everything is causal. Nothing happens without a reason.

Plotters write their plot beginnings with plot endings in mind. Pantsers freewheel the plot but know their character arc beginning and ending. At any point in the story the reader should feel that there is change afoot, that there is growth and discovery around the corner. Your reader should sense that at the end, it will have been worth the journey, and that the promise given at the beginning has been kept.

Duality in characters

The two-faced Janus reminds us, too, that our characters also have dual aspects. They are at once good and bad. Readers relate to villains who have redeemable qualities. Readers like heroes with flaws. It makes them rounded and believable, not cardboard.

A character arc is a progression from one condition to another: from shy to confident, from intolerant to tolerant, from angry to calm and so on. Cardboard characters have no arc. They are shallow and act without motivation, act only because the author needs them to. If the writer, like Janus, is aware of the character’s past as she writes the action and change of the future, then the character will be more developed. The reader will care what happens to the character and keep turning the page. And that’s what we all want.

So as we write, let’s remember Janus, this January and all year long. Our readers will thank us.

DID YOU KNOW

You can explore your inner Janus this April at Writescape’s Spring Thaw retreat. This all-inclusive getaway at Fern Resort on Rice Lake, Ontario, offers plenty of time to focus on character arcs, plot developments and flashbacks that don’t drag down your story. Gwynn and Ruth are on hand to give you one-on-one feedback on your work in progress. Registration is open now.