Confessions of a Former Pantser

When I wrote my first novel, the 215,000-word meandering monster no one will EVER see, I insisted I was a pantser. I wrote it scene-by-scene, in any order, with only a vague notion of a midpoint and an end, and a few scenes in between. There are lots of chatty scenes and WAY too many scenes set at balls.

In the end, instead of a gorgeous pseudo-Victorian fantasy epic, I had a steaming pile of crap on my hands.

I’m now a card-carrying plotter—in case you hadn’t picked up on that.

And I’m here to tell you, pantsing addicts, that you, too, can shed your unguided, fly-by-night methods and come out of the hairy wilderness that is a book with no rising tension. You can learn to write a well-plotted book while still feeling like the proverbial seat of your pants is guiding you.

The key? Plot points.

To give credit where credit is due, some of what I am about to recommend comes from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (Love or hate the book, it has a lot of good advice!) and is lightly altered by Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. In Story Engineering, Brooks discusses three major plot milestones to aim for and plot around:

1. The first plot point, located 20-20% through the book, a moment that changes everything for the hero and her quest. This is the moment that FORCES her to react, and from this point there’s no going back.

2. The “context-shifting Midpoint,” located (surprise!) 50% through the book, wherein you deliver a piece of information that alters how your protagonist approaches her problem. Generally, this morsel of knowledge raises the stakes and the tension.

3. The second plot point, at the 75% mark, after which your protagonist is active instead of reactive. This is the moment where the hero learns everything she needs to know, and she forms her plan of attack.

Brooks mentions a lot of other points, too, but these are the most important, and the ones that will help keep your plot ticking along. And here’s what I’ve learned: if you plot these points in advance, you can play all around them but still keep your plot running ahead with your reader in its teeth.

There you have it, pantsers: just four plot-points to drive your action onward. If you know these, you can shape how your character achieves these points and what she does in response to them as you write.

And yes, you may alter these points, as long as you keep them in approximately the right place. But you must always be aiming for the next milestone, or your plot will wander off to die quietly in a corner, along with your readers’ interest.

The key is to keep your action aimed at the hero’s goal, shifting the tenor of the action with each new reveal of information. If you keep that in mind, you can still pants yourself into a happy ending.

But with that image in my head, I’ll keep my plotter card, thanks.

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Plotting with Scrivener (With Pictures!)

(c) exDigita

Plotting is a strange beast. It’s a requirement for all writers—even the ones who write by the seat of their pants, the “pantsers,” plot on the fly. Yet, it can induce much teeth-wringing and hand-gnashing. Er, wait.

Anyway.

A plot is simply a map of where you want to go with your story. Some writers like to do detailed maps, many pages’ worth. Others, like yours truly, like to write loose scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outlines that change as the story develops. Still others like to keep these maps in their heads and leave all the writing for the story.

There’s really no right or wrong way to plot, but this is what I do.

First, get yourself a copy of Scrivener. You can do this without Scrivener, but trust me, Scrivener makes life easier. 🙂 You see, Scrivener has a virtual corkboard, on which you can pin index cards. You can then open these index cards to reveal a document! Don’t know what the feck I’m talking about? Here, let me demonstrate:

So, in the picture, you see the Scrivener document for the novella I’m writing. It’s set in the same universe as my urban fantasy series, but uses all different characters. Each of the index cards above has a title (the bold black words), describing what happens in the scene. On the card itself, I jot notes about what I want to happen in the scene, or something I want to make sure I don’t forget while I’m writing the scene.

If I double-clicked a card, it would open up to the document, in which I write the scene in detail. See? It makes it all very neat and organized. Don’t worry about things being disjointed. At the end of the project, Scrivener has a nifty “compile” button you can hit. It combines all your index cards into one document in whatever format your little heart desires. You can add transitions if you feel like it’s still a bit bumpy from one scene to the next. An easy fix during the editing phase.

For my novella, each index card represents roughly 500 words. This helps me estimate the word count at a glance, too. If you look closely, or click the picture to zoom, you’ll see that I’ve marked certain word “milestones,” like 5,000 words. This is helpful because it shows me where I might need to add a significant event—especially helpful when writing longer lengths, like a full-size novel—and it helps counter the Meddlesome Middle syndrome which plagues a lot of writers.

So, what do you think? Do you/would you use Scrivener or another tool to help you plot? Why or why not?

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas

For those of you who are writers that follow Spellbound Scribes, we are now approaching our feature on plotting!

I always envision my book like a Christmas tree. If you don’t celebrate the holiday, bear with me…you’ll still get it! My plot is like a Christmas tree without its fancy glass ornaments that make it festive and bright – everyone’s tree starts off the same, but in the end, after all its adornments, it becomes special and unique.

That’s how I view plots. It’s not to be confused with the story or it’s characters. Usually, it’s what allows the characters to make (or not make) choices. In my Travelers Series, I can sum up my plot into a nice one sentence summary: A group of individuals who form a rebellion against a evil tyrant. Yeah, I told you it was simple enough.

After that comes the lights on the tree – you can chose clear or colored lights, your choice. That’s the story. My twinkling Christmas lights are the different realities and time-travel concepts that my characters must face in order to defeat the villain in my tale (i.e. conflict). In this instance, my series is character driven, rather than plot driven, so I usually have plenty of string lights.

What about the ornaments? Those are my characters. Some are big and shiny, others small and matte. Depending on my mood, I can either coordinate ornaments (or characters) to compliment each other, or just put them up at random.

And what about the star? – or angel, or Santa Claus. Again, whatever suits you. That of course is the resolution. Sometimes I like to think of it as the icing on the cake, or the cherry on top.

But back to plotting. For me, it’s one of the easiest parts of writing a story (all I have to do is buy a tree, right?). I’m a die hard pantser (writer speak for: “I don’t do outlines”), thus allowing my characters to face their conflicts in whichever way they deem appropriate, but as far as plot goes, I control the strings. It’s about the only thing I have total control over – do I buy a Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine, or an imitation tree from Target?

Crafting The Crafty

Villains. 

We love to hate them, and sometimes we hate to love them.

Either way, whether as readers or writers, we forge a connection to the villains in our novels.  From way back, I discerned that I embrace a certain affection for the villainous, the crafty, the bad-guy, if you will, in many a story and movie.  It perplexed me, and downright troubled my poor parents, I imagine.

It’s no well-kept secret that I harbored a preference for Ramses in the Ten Commandments, his declarations of, ‘So Let It Be Written, So Let It Be Done,’ raising the goose-flesh on my bony arms as I ridiculed the silly Nefretiri for chasing after Moses, who didn’t want her anyway!  Likewise, in the novel and the subsequent movie, The Last Of The Mohicans, Magua fascinated me with his devilish war paint, brutal depiction, and harsh countenance.  And who could not love Doc Holiday, a known drunkard and gunslinger, who taunted those he deemed inferior to himself, holding loose morals but possessing a wit and charm sufficient to curl your toes?  Dare we have this discussion (at a paranormal site, no less!) without mentioning Bram Stoker’s Dracula?  One can not help but be beguiled – even knowing what he is, what he inflicts on his victims.

Now, let me say that there are villains wholly unlikable, utterly irredeemable.  We don’t have to think long to conjure the likes of serial killers and war criminals – which are in a category completely outside the one I speak of.  Those…well, we’ll leave that for another discussion.

So, what is it that creates the villains that I, and many like me, dare to adore?  I’ve pondered the question myself, and have come to an interesting conclusion.  It’s their redeeming factor.  Can we find a redeeming quality that sparks in us the want for them to mend their ways, to turn away from their vile behavior, to succumb to love, faith, or mercy?

The event or emotion that motivates our villain is often the very thing that draws us near; likewise, the lack of these leaves a void, impressing a sense of unrepentant evil.  A man bent on revenge after losing his lover, wife or child in brutal fashion…a woman manipulating men in power to gain her own in a culture that oppresses those of her gender…a lover enraged at a betrayal committing a crime of passion…  Within these, we can forge a connection and empathize, we can share in their sorrow, or cry out with them for an avenging.  Even if we balk at and protest their actions.  Even if we wish them to change course and walk a different path.

Crafting a villain is a careful, thoughtful endeavor if we wish our audience to love to hate them – or hate to love them.  Ha!  In The Third Fate, I decided to craft a variety of villains.  In the character Gwendolyn, I wanted the audience to ‘love to hate her’.  She’s downright malevolent!  Wielding her sexuality much as a gladiator would a sword, she cuts down any in her path, hacking mercilessly at the egos of many.  She harbors no loyalty, no love.  In short, she is completely self-serving, and makes no apologies for it.  In contrast, the three child-like Fates, are likewise bent of self-gratification.  But their innocence tips the scales, sliding them into the category of ‘we hate to love them’ – even though we do.

What traits endear a villain to you?

~ Nadja