Tag Archives: prewriting

God Bless 3 Act Story Structure

I started looking at 3 act story structure last year. I didn’t have the first inkling when I wrote I Wish… I made an outline sure, but it was just based on a story that occurred to me. I was blissfully unaware that there should be a midpoint or that the B story should reinforce the theme. I didn’t even have a theme in mind. I just went for it.

It was an amazing feeling. Words just poured out of me and onto the page. But was it flawed? Oh yeah. Most notably is the ending. It ends abruptly. I reworked it a couple of times and it still doesn’t flow quite right.

For this first experiment with script writing, I’m relying really heavily on the Save the Cat beat sheet, which is influenced by Syd Field. I’ve watched around 8 or 10 movies since I started this project and they all pretty much followed his formula within a minute or two. I did have some troubles pinpointing the beats in Little Miss Sunshine. They are probably there, but the emotional highs and lows are so mild that it’s really hard for me to spot. A character dies and the family is no worse off than they were. The emotional low point is color blindness? Really? Oh well, it’s something I’m not getting, I’m sure. It has to be because that movie is pretty much universally agreed to be a good one.

Anyway, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got my little digital cork board all set up with 40 index cards. I’ve got a story that’s sitting in my head in a fairly complete state. I’m still missing a few filler scenes, but pretty much every important scene is stewing away up there. Now I’m in the process of plugging those scenes into the framework. And incredibly they are starting to fit.

This isn’t going to be the script where I internalize the structure and neither will the next one or two, but I can see where there’s potential for it to happen. Before long I’m going to be able to write a script that hits the marks at all the right places without having to rack my brain and decide if what I’m thinking should go in the second act or the third.

This can only mean good things for the stories I will write in the future. I can already tell that my endings will be much better paced. In fact I’m going to take a look at my outline and make sure that there are clear cut beats for the midpoint and plot points. I think I had some idea of them when I laid it out before, but it’s definitely becoming clearer to me as I work with this concept more.

If you’re working on a novel and you feel like something is missing, it might be the underlying structure isn’t quite right. I’d strongly recommend that you read up on 3 act story structure and see how well your story works. It sure can’t hurt. And in my case, I think it’s going to be the best thing I’ve done to improve my writing yet.

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Scene-storming Redux

I’m getting closer to my self imposed, January 1st deadline to start working on my new novel. The other day I talked about the way I’ve been approaching this outline. I’ve been tweaking it and getting it closer to the final version. One of the main things I’ve done is to color code each bubble of my mind map by POV. I decided early on that I needed about 60 scenes to make my word count. I estimated about how many scenes I wanted to give to each of my POV characters.

As I broke my scenes down by POV it was easy to decide on some scenes as they can only be told from a certain perspective, but I also found that a rather large handful of them could be told equally well by at least 2 different characters. Something I will do for the next day or two is brainstorm how the scenes would go as told from each POV and see which one provides more conflict. Each scene should start with a character wanting something and end with something having been changed. My goal is to figure out which character has the most to lose or gain and then make sure that the change is something that makes their goals even harder to achieve.

The other thing I’m working through now is arranging the scenes into the most probably order. My first 10 scenes or so are plotted out entirely right now. After that point I started just writing down pretty much anything that seemed like it might make an interesting scene or that I knew I needed to establish somehow. I have a rebellious teenage girl character, but I know that I need to show that she’s not a lost cause so that her character arc is believable so I know that I want to have a scene showing her bond with her younger siblings. So one of my scene bubbles just says something along the lines of “Gen has a tender scene with her siblings”.

I’ve only come up with around 50 of my projected 60 scenes. I’m going to start arranging the ones I have into an order that I think will tell the best story. Once I’ve done that, I’ll start to fill in the blanks. How do we get from point A to point B? This is my first attempt to use a formal story structure to arrange my story. I don’t know if it will help or hurt me during this stage, but I’m trying to be open since I do feel like there’s real value to keeping that in mind as I write.

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Choosing a setting- real or not?

When I wrote I Wish… I set it in a totally fictional town called Desire. I wanted to be able to create a town that lived up to my idea of what a town populated with a bunch of witches would look like. There wouldn’t be a “bad part” of town since every family would be incredibly wealthy due to the powers they have access to. I also wanted it to be filed with elegant old Victorian houses that have been around for years and will continue to be there for generations to come.

No real town would live up to the picture I had in my mind’s eye. So I went crazy building a town. I have maps of who lives where and different street names, even though I haven’t needed that information in the story. It’s just nice to know. Nobody can take offense to anything that happens in this town because it’s a totally made up place.

So now as I’m planning this new story, I’m considering setting it in Savannah, GA. Savannah has quite a reputation as a haunted place. It’s full of atmosphere and awesome old buildings. And from a world building perspective, it’s a lot less work since you can just use existing maps and names.

The downfall is that if I use a real place and take certain liberties with it, I risk upsetting people who have actually visited that town. I remember reading Stephen King’s The Stand when I was younger. He wrote a note somewhere, possibly in the foreword, but it might have been somewhere completely outside of the book, saying that he made a lot of mistakes such as turning a ticket booth or something similar in a New York subway into a toilet. I’m heavily paraphrasing here, obviously, but the point is that everyone makes mistakes, even the wildly successful people.

I have an extremely limited knowledge of Savannah. To write about it is to risk making a lot of mistakes. I’m thinking about going for it anyway because the setting is perfect for the story I want to tell.

I know another option that some people use is to create an alternative place where all the magic happens in a real place. A hidden street, a pocket dimension, or something else along those lines. But that route won’t work for this story so for now it’s not on the table as an option.

Anybody have any opinions one way or another?

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My new approach to outlining

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve recently discovered the joys of Curio for the prewriting stages of my writing. I wish I got a commission for selling copies of that program because by the time I’m done I’ll have converted my entire readership, it’s just that cool.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of visuals. It’s probably the artistic side of my mind taking charge, but I think so much better when I can SEE a representation of my thoughts in front of me. That’s why I’m such a big fan of finding pictures to represent my characters. With that in mind I decided to try something new for plotting this story.

I’ve talked about how I outlined I Wish… in the past. For that book it was purely text. I started out with some ideas for scenes that I jotted on a piece of notebook paper and then it developed into a pretty good summary of the plot from start to finish. That’s the point when I started breaking it down into individual scenes. It worked well for me and it got the job done. I stand behind that approach for anyone. It’s not labor intensive and I knew exactly where I was in my project every single day I sat down to write.

For this upcoming project, I decided to play a little bit with my approach since I’m trying to write something that’s a little more complex. I Wish… is told from a 1st person POV so there’s no need to work out who’s POV a scene will be in and there aren’t a lot of crazy subplots. It’s a very linear story.

I’ve gotten a lot more ambitious with my upcoming project (F My Afterlife) and it was becoming difficult to write everything I want to happen in a summary because there are scenes that exist to lay down clues to crimes as well as clues to more subtle things like a shared history that will color their reactions to each other throughout the book. How on earth do I keep track of all that?

I briefly considered doing something similar to what I’ve done in the past with Onenote. With ON I was able to set up a page for each scene with a few sentences or more of description of what’s supposed to happen in the scene. Then I can easily move the pages up and down to try out different orders or add new pages as new scenes occur to me during the planning stage.

Since Curio supports mind mapping, I decided to use the that to my advantage. It’s easy to move the bubbles up and down in the map. I can color code each branch (including all the sub levels) so that I can tell at a glance who’s POV the scene will be in. And perhaps the most useful for an outline is the fact that I can convert the mind map into a traditional outline and back again at will. I’ve been calling this process “scene-storming” because I dig cheesy names.

Screen grabs anyone? You know how I like them. 😉

Screen Shot 2011-12-14 at 2.53.37 PM.png

So this is pretty much what it looks like. I have a quick scene description and the sub branches are just me going into more detail about what happens during the scene. I make as many of those kinds of notes as I want. It’s my guide post to writing the scene later so the more, the better. If there are other things I need to consider such as maybe there needs to be a long lingering look or a visual clue slipped into the description I’ll make a sub level bubble for it.

Screen Shot 2011-12-14 at 2.57.08 PM.png

This is pretty blurry, but hopefully you can tell that it’s a traditional outline. It’s just a super long column of information. But I’ll probably refer to it a lot as I’m writing to make sure I’m on track. Actually, I’ll probably have a copy of both views so I have options for tracking the information.

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Another thing I’m doing differently during this process is keeping a “parking lot”. It’s a concept that was introduced in a couple of different training classes I took years ago. The concept is to let the instructor know any questions or terms you want to have explained in great detail later and he’ll either write it on a white board in a designated spot or else write it on a post it note to stick on the wall. It keeps things from getting derailed without losing any important information along the way.

My parking lot is full of snippets that aren’t quite worth their own scenes or that I’m not 100% sure which scene they should be mentioned in. Maybe it’s something like a connection I want to make between two characters at some point. What does not go there are full fledged scene ideas. If I have an idea for a scene, it goes on the mind map/outline no matter how vague it is. I have plenty of scenes labeled something like “Scene where hero finds a clue”. What clue? I don’t know yet. It doesn’t matter at this stage. It’s just a place holder for later.

As I come up with new ideas for this outline, I’m adding, rearranging, and deleting scenes like crazy. That’s the awesome thing about outlining before you write. I feel free to change things drastically as my ideas develop because all I’m losing is a few words rather than 30 pages and hours of writing. There’s just not as much at risk.

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Long time no see!

This is the first in what I hope will be a long string of regular blog posts. Of course I thought that a few months ago too and then didn’t have much (if anything) to say for the last 4 or 5 months. So no promises.

One of the main reasons for a lack of blogging has been dissatisfaction with my blogging software. To briefly recap, my old laptop was a Dell. It wasn’t good for much but typing my stories and when it started randomly pressing the control button while I was typing, it wasn’t any good for that anymore either. I replaced it with a lovely Mac machine, which I was extremely leery of at first. These days I’m happy to report I’m actually quite smitten with it and spend hours of every day doing pretty much everything on it.

One of the downfalls to switching OS was that I needed to replace Windows specific software, including the Windows Live Writer software I used for blogging. It’s free and intuitive and I love it. But how hard could it be to find something similar for Mac? Well, I wouldn’t know because I more or less gave up on it. I tried Qumana, but it didn’t click with me. Now I’m working with Ecto. So far so good.

I only tell that long and ultimately uninteresting story to segue into the real point of my post. Almost a year ago now, I posted about my go to software programs for my Windows set up. I’m still 100% supportive of those choices, by the way. It was hard to find replacements for them, especially Onenote. That one was tricky, but I’m so inspired by the replacement that I found that I overcame my aversion to finding a new blogging tool to just to be able to share with you.

Scrivener– This could very well be a one stop program because it has some pretty robust planning tools built into it, but I personally just use the word processing capabilities because I don’t care for Open Office (free). There’s a lot of positive things to be said for Scrivener that have been mentioned at length in the many reviews out there so I won’t restate them all. It’s worth checking out.

Curio– This is the only other program I use for writing these days. I tried several note taking/organizational programs before I settled on this one. It combines the mind mapping features I loved in Xmind (free) with the free form note taking capabilities of Onenote. It does have a pretty steep price tag. I bought my copy on “Cyber Monday” at 25% off and still ended up paying over $100 for the mid-grade version, but I feel good about it. I’ve posted before about my need for extensive outlining and prewriting so I get a lot of use out of the program.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, Curio does all the same things I used Onenote for and then some. It’s got all the flexibility to arrange text, images, and other media around on the page that I enjoyed with ON. In a writing context, I used that feature to arrange several pictures per page (I use pictures I find online as inspiration for characters or settings) and I like to write summaries in one column with annotations running beside it. I’ve tried other programs, but that’s a fairly unique feature, but one I really wanted.

Another improvement is that Curio supports more levels of hierarchal organization than ON. ON is committed to a notebook analogy, which is fine. I actually find it very attractive. But that seems to preclude very many levels of organization. Curio uses a combination of sections, folders, and workspaces to organize everything and allows folders within folders. I haven’t found a boundary to that yet, although I haven’t tried to go deeper than 4 or 5 levels at this point.

The visual tools in Curio are what really sets it apart in my mind. You can make mind maps and lists using several preinstalled templates and you can then further customize them with color swatches you can download from different online sites. That’s such an unnecessary feature, but one that I love anyway.

Here are a few screenshots of Curio in action with the story I’m working on currently.

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This is an example of one of my character’s mind maps. I have a blank template that I have saved and I just copy and paste it onto each workspace I create for a character. I customize the colors as desired, but otherwise the style information carries over from the original. This is also a look at the interface itself.

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This is just an example of how I drop a photo onto the workspace to use as visual inspiration. I either search Google for photos or look at stock photo sites. I don’t pay for the images since they are for my own personal use. I just ignore the watermarks. Sometimes I’ll add a paragraph of notes underneath if there’s more to say than what I can easily put into a mind map. Curio supports voice recording and other kinds of media, including handwriting using a tablet, so there’s a lot of room for building some truly epic notes.

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This is a grab of the list tool. It also supports color customization. These are just some notes I took while reading a book (“Story Engineering” (Larry Brooks) good book, btw. I’m enjoying it a lot.) the other day. **

Curio also makes tables and notecards, although I haven’t used those features at this point. You should truly take the time to look at their samples. If you aren’t totally impressed then I want to know what note taking program you use because I think I want to buy a copy.

That concludes my little essay on the reasons why Curio is a writer’s best friend and a viable substitute for ON. As far as the Ecto experiment, I haven’t tried to publish yet, but everything else has worked as good, if not better than, hoped. It even has an “Amazon Helper” tool that let me look up the link for the book I mentioned without having to leave the editor. Very cool. I think you guys might be seeing more of me around these parts real soon.

**Edit: I took new screen shots for this post since the old ones were too small to be useful due to my inexperience with Ecto at that time. The list is actually from “Story Structure Architect: A Writer’s Guide to Building Dramatic Situations and Compelling Characters” (Victoria Lynn Schmidt) which is another helpful book that I’d recommend.

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A real look at how I outline

I’ve described my outlining process before on the blog, but this time I’m going to show you guys real pictures of my notes. I can not stress strongly enough that these are my actual notes from the book I Wish. If you haven’t read it yet and want to, there WILL be spoilers. Avoid this post at all costs if that will ruin the experience for you.

The program I use is Onenote by Microsoft. I swear by it. It’s about the most amazing notetaking software ever invented. Do yourself a huge favor and get a copy.

The first thing I do is a brain dump on paper. These are some actual crappy cell phone pictures of my actual crappy written notes. Seriously. Nobody can read my handwriting. It’s like a blind gorilla wrote them with his stupid foot. But it’s just an example anyway.

paper notes 1

paper notes 2

I love bullet points. Some of the notes made it to the final version, some were changed until they didn’t resemble the original note at all, and some I just scrapped completely. I can’t stress enough how important it is to just let yourself go during this part. Sometimes if I piece of information or dialog occurs to me, I’ll write right up the margin or further down the page. I use a lot of arrows and underlines or boxes to link ideas together or emphasize some. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just what makes sense to you later on when you’re reading over it. I’ve also been known to go over sections with a highlighter.

paper notes 3

A lot of times I’ll use Xmind for mind mapping (ooh, I’ll take a picture of that too!), but sometimes it’s just faster to grab a sheet of paper and make a quick diagram. This is one I made when I was brainstorming some new scenes to add length to the book. I think really well in this manner. That whole chart took me about 10 minutes to come up with and I had ideas for an extra 6 scenes.

It’s totally unrelated to anything, but don’t my fingertips look fat in that picture? I just got sized for our wedding bands and my ring finger is a size 4, which is pretty small. I had no ideas that fingertips could even look fat, but there we are. Ahem. Done now.

mind map 

mind map 2

So here are a couple of samples of different mind maps I made to get some ideas onto paper. Again, some were used in the stories, some weren’t. The process of brainstorming this way really unlocks a ton of potential ideas in my mind and inspires lines of thinking that I personally feel enrich my writing.

At this point I start plugging the ideas into Onenote.

onenote

This is an example of the summary I write before I start breaking my ideas into individual scenes. I write the summary as if I were telling it to a 3rd party. This is where I find out if I’m missing important information. It breaks down roughly to each paragraph = a scene. I leave myself notes on the side to remind myself to add more information to a a section when it becomes a scene or to make sure I don’t forget something that’s coming up. Also if you’re actually reading my notes, you’ll see that this was before I determined that Katie is an overused name and changed her to Krista.

ywriter

The last thing I do is write out a scene description. For I Wish… I used yWriter. It made formatting a bitch when I added new scenes though so I don’t think I’ll be using it this time around. But you get the idea. I wrote a couple of paragraphs of what was supposed to happen in that scene and then turned it into a 3000 word passage. Not a bad conversion, right?

I filled out each scene in the book before I wrote a word of it. Some descriptions are a lot more detailed than this one is. I included any ideas for dialogue or other phrases I liked and wanted to include. You can’t do yourself any disservice by being really wordy on this part. When I was ready to write every day, I knew exactly what I was planning to work on. I never had to spend any time trying to think of what came next because I already knew before I started writing what happened in what order.

There was one pitfall to the whole thing. My outline was TIGHT. I had every day accounted for, even if it wasn’t specified in the story exactly what day it was. It doesn’t matter if the reader knows as long as I do so that I don’t have my character in two places at one time. So when it came time to add more scenes it was like crap, where the hell can I fit that in? It took a lot of wiggling and a few serious rewrites at the beginning or end of the scene to fight them all in.

But that’s a minor problem and if I had a better handle on how long my average scene length was it wouldn’t have happened. The nice part about yWriter is that it tracks how long each scene is for you so it’s easy to do the math. Now I know that my average scene length is almost exactly 1500 words and I can plan enough scenes in advance to come out to where I need to be by the end.

Hopefully, this clarifies my process for anyone who was confused. Xmind and yWriter are both free programs and a lot of people have Onenote on their computers and don’t even realize it. If you have any questions you can leave it in the comments or hit me up on twitter @wrenem. I’ll be happy to help you out as much as I can.

Edit: Wow guys, totally didn’t expect this to go viral like this. It’s awesome, thanks for stopping by my fine little piece of web real estate. I’d love to have you visit again in the future. If you are interested to see what this outline and 2 weeks of 1st draft writing will net you, please consider buying a copy of I Wish… for only $.99. I’d sure appreciate it. Smile

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Plotting vs Pantsing

Hi, I’m Wren and I’m a plotter. 

Phew, glad that’s out of the way.  I’ve had 2 pretty in-depth conversations about my process in as many days and I decided that it might be worth exploring further via a blog post.  Courtney and Will are both pantsers (as in flying by the seat of their pants) and maybe they can write something from their perspectives.  If you’ve ever wondered what aspiring authors talk about, it’s really just about that exciting.

I never would have thought of myself as the type of person who would plot a book in advance.  I’m disorganized in real life.  I have trouble making short term goals and even more trouble meeting them when I do.  The idea that I’d be able to plot out an entire book before writing a single word just seems totally out of character for me.

I’ve tried just making things up as I go along.  I never made any progress.  I distinctly remember my first Nano as a perfect example.  I took off like a bullet and wrote in a frenzy for maybe 3 or 4 days straight.  I was around 10k words in when I realized I had no earthly clue where my story was going.  The story ended up scrapped and I felt like a failure.  

The same with my attempts at writing high fantasy in high school.  I had a notebook that I carried everywhere full of character sketches and pages and pages of long hand scribbles.  I’m a little sad when I think about how many hours I actually spent writing a story that was destined to fail.  It doesn’t matter how amazing the characters are if there’s no story for them.  Again, the story ended up scrapped and I felt like a failure.

I even attempted to do Nano again this past year.  I had epic notes.  Seriously, you can’t even fathom the amount of notes I have on that particular setting with piles more just on that one idea set there.  I was all set.  I even had an outline of sorts, but I still failed.  I understand now what was missing for me.  But still, it took the story getting scrapped and feeling like a failure to make me admit I was doing something wrong.

I want to share my process, not because I think I’m an expert.  I’m not.  But it took a lot of trail and error for me to figure it out and if I can help someone else skip some steps by putting it out there, then I’d love to help.

I think the biggest factor in me coming around was Lazette Gifford’s article about phase writing.  She writes about how she micro plans each scene.  Basically, she writes a really really skeletal first draft and then fleshes it out into a more traditional draft afterwards.  For some reason, that really resonated with me.  And from that article my method of writing was born.

So this is my process broken down into steps as clearly as I can explain it.

Step 1:  I use the world building/idea generation as described in my last post to flesh out an idea.  The idea has to capture my imagination or else it won’t take off, but once I find that idea and start the process, I’m off and running.  Just try to stop me. 

Step 2:  Once I have a solid idea about who my characters are, what obstacles they face, and where the story happens I start making a list of potential scenes.  I usually have a good idea of the start and end from the beginning because that’s a big part of knowing whether I even want to work with an idea or not for me.  I add all my ideas for scenes, no matter how stupid they might be.  This isn’t the time to cut anything.

Step 3:  Now I get to try to fit all the pieces into a narrative that makes some sort of sense.  I do this in the form of a long summary.  I leave myself a lot of snarky notes during this process so that I can address any issues that come up.  Do I need more information about a characters background or a scene that explains how the current political machine came into power?  All that kind of stuff and more are noted.  I also add notes about things I think about later in the summary but want to add earlier.  I use OneNote for this part, but paper and pen would work too. 

When I’m done I have a really good idea of what my story is going to look like finished.  It’s nowhere near what Lazette describes in her article, but there’s still quite a bit of information.

Step 4:  The last thing I do is make the outline.  I use that term loosely though.  It’s more of a scene break down.  It seems to work out that each paragraph of my summary becomes a different scene.  I then fill in any scenes that I’m missing and give each one a detailed summary of its own.  So that by the time I’m ready to start I have a really good idea of what I’m going to be writing about.every day.

It is a lot of prewriting, I’ll admit.  I Wish came out to 47k words (I’m currently editing, in part, to go back in and flesh things out a bit more), but the outline was 7k words by itself.  However, I was then able to turn around and finish the book in 2 weeks with 2 days in which I didn’t make my word goal.  2 weeks to write a ~50k novel isn’t a bad deal.  If I didn’t dread editing so much, I’d already be done by now.

Another advantage is knowing in advance how long it will take me to finish a project.  I know now that my scenes average out to 1500 words each, almost perfectly.  So I can guess at how many scenes I need to make my word count goals.

And the last reason I prefer to do it this way is that I can plan sequels more effectively.  I wrote I Wish already knowing what’s going to happen in the second book (not as sure about book 3 though yet).  Nothing happens in the book without a reason, even the seemingly random things make sense by the end of the second book.  That would be impossible if I didn’t already know in advance what was coming.

So the 10 second recap:  I like to plot because I can write faster, I can get a decent estimate on the length of time and number of scenes it’ll take me to finish a project, and I can create multi book story arcs easily.  If it sounds good, give it a try.  I wouldn’t have thought I was a plotter, but now I can’t imagine writing any other way.  I’ve found a way that allows me to get this story published and makes me feel like a success.

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