But there’s an internet game where you describe your job in a way that makes it sound bad. So a police officer might say she locks people in small rooms or scares small children with a weapon, or a teacher might say he ruins teens chances of a better life by writing bad recommendations (i.e. bad grades). Yes, I know that isn’t really the way it is– but if you look at it sideways, it can be. That’s the point of the game.
If I were playing the game, I could tell you that I brainwash people. Sure I do. I manipulate them into believing what I want them to believe. I put my own words in their heads. I make them picture what I want them to see. I make them remember something other than their own memories.
What? you say. Isn’t that illegal or something?
Well, it would be if I were doing it in real life, but I’m an author, remember? I’m only doing it to you within the covers of a book.
If I do my job right, then when you read my books, you’ll be immersed in my world. You’ll picture the scenes I want you to see. You’ll hear my characters’ words in your heads. You’ll remember my story instead of just your own life. Your real life will disappear while you live the imaginary life I created for you…
I just highjacked your brain.
*cue evil cackle*
And it’s all legal. In fact, if I’m very good at what I’ll do, you’ll beg me to do it to you again. 😉 And again, and again, and again…
Ah, now you’re getting interested. And just how do I do this, exactly, you ask?
Well, that is too complicated to discuss in just one post, but I’ll give you a few hints.
First, it’s a careful balance. If I tell you too little about a scene or a character or a world for you to picture it/them, it won’t draw you under my spell. But if I tell you too much, then you’ll get bored and remember your real life. I can’t have that, now can I? So I have to figure out just the right amount of information to spark the picture in your head without jolting you back into reality. That’s right, my world is more fun than your world. Stay a while and play…
Second, it’s about choices. What words will evoke the right emotions without being distracting? Will a precise but unusual word bring the picture to life or overshadow it? How would the character say it? How would the character NOT say it? The more natural the writing feels, the less likely you are to notice the way I’ve made you think what I want you to think.
Third, it’s about emotion. If I can make you feel for the character— or from the character— then I can really brainwash you. I might even make you temporarily forget who you are. If you feel my character’s emotions, like you are my character, then I’ve really won. You don’t even exist anymore, because you’ve become my creation.
*cue more evil cackling*
And that’s why I can describe my job as being a brainwashing, manipulative telepath. I put my thoughts directly in your head (okay, almost directly) and take over your brain. Until you put down the book.
In case some of you might be interested in how editing works for an author, here’s what I do. 🙂
First I write the book. That tends to take months, if not a couple of years. I’ve gotten faster, hallelujah, but I’m still no book-a-month author.
Then I do a self-edit, rereading it and fixing what problems I notice. With earlier books, I did this several times before the next step, but nowadays I can usually get away with one pass.
Next, I run it through my critique group, one chapter at a time. (If my schedule is tight, I might run chapters through as I write them instead of waiting for the end of the book.)
Then I self-edit again. If the chapter (or book) is giving me problems, I might repeat the self-edit and critique steps more than once.
This edit/critique cycle took four years with my first book. Yep, four years. It was torture. Even now that I’ve gotten better, it takes months because I can only submit a chapter or two at a time.
When I think I have the problems worked out, I find beta readers. Based on their feedback, I always, always find more problems to fix. Sigh. No, I am very thankful for beta readers who aren’t afraid to tell me I could improve XYZ; I just wish I’d make fewer mistakes. But I’d rather hear about problems while I have the chance to fix them, instead of in reviews of the published book. Some of my best beta readers are other authors, but some are just readers. I have a very nice fan who’s happy to tell me where the story is broken.
So, then it’s back to self-editing, then back to beta readers. I repeat this cycle until the only problems being reported aren’t ones I consider problems, or until I admit I don’t know how to fix it and have to send the book to a developmental editor. In earlier books, this took many, many cycles. I’ve gotten better since then, and found better critique partners, so the process is shorter.
Once the book is theoretically as good as it can get, I finish with a painstaking copyedit for grammar, problem words, typos, and other nit-picky stuff. Why don’t I do that before the beta readers? Because it’s wasted effort until I know I’m not going to be changing whole sentences, paragraphs, or plot points. Please note that my natural grammar is good enough that beta readers won’t suffer even if I made a few minor mistakes. (If your grammar isn’t that good, please edit it before you ask for betas. It’s painful to struggle through a big mess of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other technical errors. No, readers can’t just ignore the errors and concentrate on the story if the weeds are bigger than the flowers.)
After that, I submit the final copy for formatting and publishing. Yay!
If beta reading sounds like fun to you, let me know! I’m always looking for good beta readers. 🙂
“So, how do you write your characters?” people ask me.
“Do you fill out a questionnaire? Do you figure out their personality type first?”
No to both. I just write them. But AFTER I know them well, I’ve been known to run them through a personality test. *clears throat* Or six.
I started off with Meyers-Briggs and Color Code
I was already familiar with those two personality systems. (MBTI in college and CC from reading).
In Color Code, each of my four main characters in my secondary world fantasy series ended up a different personality color (of four). Hmm. I always thought they were very different, and I guess they are. But one test is hardly conclusive, right? So I ran them through the MBTI. Each of them ended up not only a different type (of 16), which was not surprising, but in an entirely different section (of four). More hmm. Considering I wasn’t TRYING for that much diversity, it’s pretty impressive.
Then I found a Hogwarts test online.
My stories aren’t even set on Earth, so the characters certainly wouldn’t go to school there, but okay, I’m curious. Guess what? Yeah, that’s right — each of them ended up in a different House. And, by the way, Slytherin isn’t automatically bad. They just feel that “their” people are more important than “all” people. Obviously, that can get out of hand, but go ahead, tell me you’ve never once given preference to someone you love just because you love them… (No, I’m not Slytherin, but I can imagine how they feel.)
Then I read about the Four Tendencies and the enneagram
Of course, I HAD to run them through those, didn’t I? (The answer is yes. Don’t be silly.) Both of these were trickier. In the Four Tendencies, I’m pretty sure the four characters ended up in four different areas all over again. And oddly, this was the only test where I was like one particular character, whom I usually write by saying, “What would I NOT do.”
The enneagram took even longer, but I finally figured it out. I’m sure you can predict that they all ended up different. Some of them overlapped a smidge, some didn’t even touch.
Recently, I found the DISC system.
And all four characters still scored in different areas. By now, I was very amused but not at all surprised. A little more surprisingly, all four fit fairly solidly in one of the four main groups, rather than overlapping (which is allowed). When I took the test for myself, I overlapped…
I have not yet figured out their CliftonStrengths.
I’ve been very busy and frankly, it’s intimidating. But I’m willing to bet they’ll end up different. 😉 Of course, with CS, that’s less surprising, since there are 34 strengths and millions of combination/orders of having them in your top 5 or 10. (I did take CS for myself, and wow, that was an eye-opener. Some of my top strengths are so ingrained that I couldn’t imagine people NOT using them, but now I see it just is not so… But seriously, people, how do you not think all the time??)
By now, I have reams of notes.
I rarely use them in plotting or character development, unless I’m stuck on something, but I read them for my own enjoyment. Because that’s the nerdy kind of person I am…
Surprisingly, I found things as I studied that fit my characters perfectly even though I hadn’t known them as belonging to a certain personality before I wrote the books. For instance, one character is pretty intense— except when he isn’t. He can quite suddenly flip into humor or pranks (oh, his pranks!). I’ve had readers call me on that as not fitting his personality, but according to the MBTI, it’s a real thing for his type. LOL. I’d really like to claim I’m a genius and planned it all, but really, he just told me that’s what he does, so I wrote it down.
People also ask me if my characters are like me.
Well, they can’t possibly ALL be like me, since there are four of them (not counting minor characters or all the short stories) and only one of me.
But really, the answer is still no. Some of them are a little like me in this way or that, but none of them are really like me. Of course one of them shares a Color with me, since there are only four, and a Hogwarts House and a Tendency for the same reason, but our MBTIs are different, and our enneagrams are different, and because DISC allows for partial overlaps, we’re still different. And whenever I break down and figure out four sets of Strengths, there will probably be some overlap, but also some significant differences.
“So will I like your characters? Is one of them like me?”
I hope you’ll like all of them, whether or not they’re like you! But with four very different characters, chance are pretty good that you will feel a kinship in something with someone. And if you don’t feel kinship, I hope you will at least find friendship.
My next planned book (not counting an omnibus with bonus material) is a collection of short stories set “contemporary” to the Unexpected Heroes series. The earliest one is 60 years before the first book, and the latest one is a couple of years after the last book. (The NEXT planned book will be “legends” from much earlier in “history.” Think “fairy tales not placed on Earth.”) You can read a few of these contemporary stories already, in Unexpected Tales.
In a way, short stories are easier to write, because the plotting is much simpler. On the other hand, description and character have to be squished into a smaller space, and there’s no time to meander.
Anyway, all of the stories have ended up being connected to the series rather than merely set in the same world, though some are tightly connected and some are merely side stories of characters or expansions of casual mentions. Three of my four main characters have parents-meeting stories (the fourth was an arranged marriage). I’ve got survival treks and new jobs and races and pirates and weddings… It’s an interesting mix. A few of the stories have sequels in the collection (or in the series).
Some of the stories were easy to choose, for one reason or another. The last handful were harder, because I was looking for holes to fill. (Like needing a story from a female Nokai POV that took place between books 2 & 3. Yes, really.) In fact, I just figured out the last tagline in January, because it ended up being the prequel to another story I decided on the week before. And by “figured out,” I mean very generally. I actually finished writing that story before I finished one of the earliest planned stories, which gave me fits. It was supposed to be a short, one-chapter story but expanded to four chapters and almost 10,000 words. Some of the older stories in the collection had to to be rewritten to have complete arcs instead of just being bonus scenes.
I discovered a few entirely new characters for this collection, and they still ended up tying into the series. I can never read chapter 2 of Wind of Choice the same way again because the new backstory explains so much. I cried writing the last scene, literally. My mom cried when she read the sequel, then she backed up to read and cry again. Um, okay.
For my short stories, I use an abbreviated version of my usual outlining process, and sometimes I wing it (now that I’ve written almost half a million words). Except for that ornery romance… I had to research romance beats, alas. I still always start with a character and a situation and an ending and/or premise, and then I connect the dots from there. Sometimes I use more than one POV, sometimes only one. I’ve balanced stories from each country as well as male and female POVs. I tried to sprinkle the stories between the novels, but they still ended up heavily pre- and post-series with only a few between the books. Most of the stories have happy endings, because I like that, but a few ended up being sad or dark. I can’t help it! Some stories are sad!
One of the stories that’s already in Unexpected Tales has gotten so many questions about what happens next that I’m pondering turning into a complete novel. I’ll let you know…
Mmm… what else do you want to know? Toss me a comment, and I’ll either comment back (for a short answer) or write a post (if it needs a long answer).
Another time, I’ll try to remember to tell you about the “legends,” which I frequently describe as “loosely based on Earth fairy tales, as they would be if they came from Kaiatan.” For instance, Japan has a story about a stonecutter who kept wishing to be more powerful. What would that story look like if the main character was a shapeshifter??
Sigh. Yet again, I’ve gone too long without giving you an update on my writing. That’s probably a good thing for me (indicating fewer frustrations), but maybe not as good for you (assuming your interested in the topic).
So, book 4 has actually come out already. *cough* Writing it was easier than the first three in some ways and harder in others. Each of my books has had different problems.
How was it easier, you ask? My plotting system is working better now that I’ve had some practice and fine-tuned my process, so I didn’t struggle as much with the beats. I write a little faster than I used to. I’m very familiar with the characters by now. 😉 I got to wrap up all the little strings I left in the other books.
How was it harder? I had to wrap up all the little strings I left in the other books. Several characters wrote themselves into the story with quite a bit of determination, and they insisted on being important instead of walk-on characters. I wrote myself a pretty little dilemma (how does an entire world lose the key to a city, and how would one person find it?) and had to figure out how to solve it.
I have become much more of a plotter than I used to be, but I still make up a lot of things as I go. In this book, that involved both character and plot elements. For instance, I found out (and yes, it really feels more like “found out” than “made up”) that Ahjin has a cousin I didn’t know about. She used to be a priest and left when Ahjin told Irajahan he couldn’t force recruits anymore. Now she’s a diplomat from Ioj to Iskra. I thought that was the extent of her involvement, but no, she wiggled her way into the climax of the story, too.
Then there’s Tarakh. He’s a nice boy who likes Zefra. (Zefra isn’t sure how she feels about that, especially when he says outrageous things to her…) I thought he was going to be a minor character for a few chapters, but no, he really wanted to be part of the adventure. Also, if you’ve read any of my books, you’ve seen my cute chapter headings with cultural info or book excerpts or “world” proverbs. It takes me a long time sometimes to choose those sayings, even when I’m borrowing proverbs. (“Which one fits this chapter?”) Then Tarakh comes along, and he’s spouting proverbs like crazy, and I don’t even have to make them up, because he’s supplying them. (I promise I’m not insane. Writer-brain is just weird sometimes.)
Let’s not forget the lost city. I hadn’t planned on it being lost or a maze, honestly, but I hit a spot in my beat planning where I needed something, and I had nothing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I outlined 2/3 of book 4 and then discovered some major problems and had to start over. It was pondering what kind of song I’d write for this book that gave me the clue out of my mess. 😉 After I had the first missing part figured out, I reread the prior books for inspiration, and lo and behold, I’d accidentally left a trail of clues for myself without realizing it.
Book 1 had the newly rediscovered starting point for finding the lost city and a casual mention of Zefra’s grandparents’ occupation which I threw in just because it was convenient but now it was important. Book 2 mentioned the collection of “legend” maps AND the fact that some of them came with songs. Book 3 and a short story that hasn’t been published yet had some villain characters I needed, as well as the beginnings (continuation) of the conspiracy. Nia’s language talents became important again, and this time, her singing was important to the plot instead of just everyone’s mood. I managed to tie in the romance from book 3 in an important way, and Ludik’s children became plot-essential. Ahjin’s political shenanigans in book 1 made a difference to book 4. Everything started tying together in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Yeah, the first three books can be read as standalones if you really want (though *I* think they’re better in order), but book 4 is much more dependent on the others.
One of my biggest headaches came when I needed to write the “key” to the maze. I already had the design for the maze, but I needed two pathways through it (“right” and “wrong”) and a poem that would lead BOTH ways depending which way it was interpreted. If you aren’t groaning already, then I haven’t adequately explained how awful this was… To make it worse, I had to wrote music for the poem that would have clues in it, which meant I had to write the music THEN instead of waiting until I finished everything else, as usual. And even though I’ve written four songs for the books, music and all, I am not actually a musician. As if that weren’t enough, then I had to figure out how Zefra unraveled the mystery in the story, and she’s no musician, either!
Whew! Writing the book ended up being almost as tangled as the conspiracy IN the book, but at least I got to write some really cool scenes, like shapeshifting spies and a midnight duel and a race through the desert. And Tarakh flirting with Zefra. 😉
2020 hindsight is supposed to be perfect (but usually isn’t). I’m sure my plans for 2021 won’t be perfect, either, but I’ll give it a shot. I want to change my methods a bit next year, and I know some of it, but thought I’d also give you a chance to vote on what you see in the coming year.
First, I’ll be shifting my blog to every three weeks instead of every two, so that I can spend more time writing. I still plan to alternate book posts and writing posts.
Second, unless you have another category for which you want a list of recommended books, I think I’ve run out of ideas for lists. I thought maybe I’d go back through my lists and start writing more detailed reviews for some of them. Please feel free to leave a comment requesting a new list that would help you, or your opinion on leaving reviews and which category you’d like me to start with.
Third, I wondered what topics would be most helpful to you in the “writing” posts. Are you interested in personality stuff? I could tell you about the personality tests I took for my main characters. Do you like the “how to be an author” posts? Do you like posts about outlining? Plot? Characters? Something else? Do you like hearing about my progress in the books I write? Would you like to hear more? Less? About the same but some kind of different? Do you want to hear about writing groups or critique partners? Do you want to hear my lecture on why an editor is not a replacement for learning grammar and punctuation? 😉 Do you have questions you’d like me to try to answer? Go ahead and put all your ideas in the comments, and I’ll see how many I can tackle during the next year (or two, if you give me lots of ideas!).
Fourth, did I miss something you’d like to vote for? Consider this a blank essay space where you may right anything (legal, moral, and polite) that you’d like. Go ahead, give me a comment about anything… 🙂
I promise to read all the comments. 🙂
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I’ll see you in January,
M. C. Lee
I had an interesting conversation with someone recently. I was answering a survey about a writing tool I use, and it was much less technical than I expected. One of the last questions wasn’t about the tool at all, but about what my writing means to me. To my surprise, and probably to the surveyor’s, too, I found myself talking about God.
(Spoiler warning: If you don’t want to hear about God, you should change to another page now.)
This is more or less what I told him.
I believe we are children of our Heavenly Father. As His children, we share some of his attributes and powers (in a lesser portion, of course). One of these is the power of creativity. Yes, I believe that the ability to create comes from God, even though it can be misused for ungodly purposes.
Since it is a gift from God, I believe I should use my creativity and practice my talents. Doing so honors Him and helps me become a little more like Him.
Now, creative talents come in all sorts of varieties. We hear a lot about music and sports, art and writing, and other “performance” talents, but I don’t think those are the only ones that exist. Some people create friendships easily. Some people create a tidy, happy home. Some people create fresh bread or delicious meals that are always on time. Some people create happy children. Some people create beautiful gardens. Some people create sewing masterpieces or amazing crafts. This is not an all-inclusive list. If I didn’t name something you can create, then go ahead and add your personal talents to this list. 🙂
I do a few of those, though not necessarily the ones I most want. But for the survey, I was talking about my writing. I do believe that I write because of a gift from God. (No, I’m not saying my writing is a gift from God; I’m saying my ability to write is a gift from Him. What I do with it after that is up to me.) Of course I have to work to improve my talents, especially since I’m not one of those amazing writers who seems to know everything already. But it doesn’t matter how much talent I start with it, or end with, only how much I improve and use it.
So when I write, I hope my stories find readers who like them. I look forward to the day they touch someone who needs it. But even if that never happens, I believe I’m honoring my Heavenly Father by using a gift from Him, and I will continue practicing to be more like Him.
This Christmas season, I hope you reflect on all the gifts your loving Father has given you, both the tangible and intangible. And then I hope you look for a way to share your gifts with those who need help or hope or a loving hand.
Every year, tens of thousands of people participate in something called NaNoWriMo. (There’s a whole debate about pronunciation, Wree vs Wry. I’m on the side of Wry.) It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and the idea is to write a book of at least 50,000 words, all in the month of November. That’s right, an entire book.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. You need an average of 1667 words each day. Let’s pretend you type 30 wpm (which isn’t very fast, but that’s okay). Let’s assume you can compose sentences as quickly as you can type (which is actually more of an assumption). 1667 words divided by 30 wpm=56 minutes. That’s less than an hour a day.
So in an hour a day for a month, you can write an entire novel. Wow, that’s pretty impressive!
You can track your progress for free on the official site (and indeed, you must to qualify for the prizes), and it’s rather fun to see your progress creep up the graph. You can add writing buddies and projects and more! At the end of the month, if you met the goal, you get a winner’s certificate and a bunch of prizes (mostly discounts on various writing programs).
Wait, you say. There must be a catch.
Well, yes and no. It really is free. The prizes are real. It sounds pretty easy.
Oh, wait. That’s the catch. It’s not always easy…
Remember me saying that composing as fast as you type might be an assumption? Some people have no problem coming up with words, spewing them out as fast as their fingers can move. Some people, and we don’t have to name names, struggle with the perfect sentence or even the perfect next word. Or they get a scene done and then don’t know what comes next.
Folks, this is normal. Repeat after me. It’s normal. You’re normal. Really, it’s fine.
It took me two years (or was it three?) before I passed NaNoWriMo. I got close, but 40K doesn’t count, alas. Now I’m faster, but I still struggle. I’m normal, too. 😛 I try to hard for the perfect sentences and need to practice just letting it spill out. Edit it later, I tell myself, but sometimes myself doesn’t listen…
So, if you’d like a challenge this November, or if you’ve always wanted to write a book but didn’t get around to it, here’s the perfect excuse. Come join us in NaNoWriMo!
Disclaimer: I can’t speak for ALL writers, so this is really just a day in MY life as a writer.
I don’t write or do business on Sunday, and Saturday tends to be erratic, so this is for weekdays.
I wake up early enough to make me wish I was still asleep, but not really that early. (Sometimes it’s before the sun in winter, but the sun beats me in summer.) I shower, dress, eat breakfast, and read my scriptures. Ideally, by 8 am, I’ll be at my desk.
For those of you who are interested in office spaces, I use the family computer and my desk is currently in the living room, though I hope to get an office one of these years. When I get my own office, I’ll add white boards and bulletin boards and a filing cabinet and a bookcase and a cheap timer and a door to keep people out… Right now, I get a water bottle, a pair of headphones, and an assortment of pens and pencils.
I try to write new stuff until noon, though sometimes “write” means “outline” or “brainstorm” or “research” or “pick names” or “world build” or any of the other author-y tasks that sometimes have to come before actual writing. I also resort to side tasks when writer’s block is being stubborn. I’m not particularly fast, but I try to get 2000 words in that time. My goal is to one day get 1000 words an hour and be able to purposefully leave time for outlining/brainstorming.
I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who can write 10,000 words/day (good for them!), but I used to get about 5000 per MONTH, tops, so I’m still faster than I used to be. (By the way, don’t compare yourself to others. Nothing good comes of it.)
On my critique-group day, my group takes the place of my morning writing. I also have a Friday obligation that cuts my writing time in half.
After lunch, I take a break and do more-brainless activities, like house cleaning, reading, errands, or social media. Sometimes I give up and take a nap.
Around 1:30 or 2 pm, I get back to work. After a quick spin through my email, I spend some time editing my own work and/or beta reading/critiquing other people’s stuff. I also use this time to go over my own beta feedback. I love my beta readers. 🙂 I love finding out what’s working in my stories and what needs to be fixed. (If you’d like to be a beta reader, let me know…)
Most of the time, beta reading for others is also fun, since I tend not to accept beta reads that bore me to death. Reading other writers’ works-in-progress is actually a good way to learn more about your own writing, by the way.
In a couple of hours, I switch to business things like marketing, budgeting, or formatting. This is not the funnest part of my day, but it needs to be done. Always keep track of the business stuff, guys, or you’ll be sorry later.
If the weather is nice, I take a break to walk and meet my sweetie on the way home from work. In winter, I just keep working until supper.
I try to reserve the evening for my family, but occasionally I either NEED to catch up on something or WANT to avoid what they are doing (zombie movies, for instance…) In that case, I’ll work on whatever is farthest behind my goals or has the closest deadline.
After I turn off my computer, I spend some time reading and relaxing before bed. If I’m smart, I don’t let myself get so carried away with the reading that I don’t get to bed at a decent time. *clears throat*
It’s pretty boring, actually. A lot more goes on INSIDE my head than outside. My family assures me that I am not at all interesting to watch when I’m writing. 🙂 That’s okay. I’m happy if my books are interesting, instead.
(This post originally appeared as a guest spot on Jami Gold’s site. For her introduction or her many plotting resources, please visit her website.)
I’ll start with a brief history of my plotting evolution, so you can understand why I do what I do.
When I started writing, I thought I was a plotter.
I mean, I had a one-to-three sentence note for all six chapters of the short story I had in mind. Isn’t that an outline? (Those of you who actually outline can stop laughing now.)
But as I wrote and the middle of the story expanded, I had to keep bumping plot notes from one chapter to the next. By the time I finished my “short story,” I had a novel of 104,000 words that included all my original notes, plus a lot, lot more.
Does Our Story Have Structure?
Then I heard about plot beats and story structure. No worries. A story is structured however it is made, isn’t it? And I had beats. I could prove it…
I took several different story-structuring methods that mostly made sense to my warped brain and smooshed them together into my own little chart (which I will discuss later). Then I reverse-outlined every chapter of my book and marked every plot beat.
That proved something all right, but not that I had proper beats. So I revised the entire book.
Are Goals Pulling Our Story Forward?
Then I learned about chapter goals for characters and chapter page-turners. Did I even have those? So I created a second chart for my little reverse-outline.
It became very obvious why my story slowed down in the middle. I had four chapters that had the same (boring!) chapter goal.
Oh, sure, there was important stuff in the chapters. There was funny stuff. There was… too much stuff without something happening to make the reader care. After deleting half of those chapters and rewriting the rest, I had to redo my reverse-outline.
By the time I revised that book enough to be good (and 15,000 words shorter), I had outlined it so many times. Outlining up front—once—was becoming a more attractive option.
Next time, I could do better, right?
We Learn What Doesn’t Work
For my second book, I planned the beats in the handy chart I invented for reverse-outlining the first book. Then I got the book half-written (in random chunks), realized I was trying to stretch too little story over too much book, and had to redo half the organization.
What had been the midpoint moved to the first quarter, and a whole new event landed in the middle. And, thankfully, my plotting chart let me realize I had problems before I wrote the entire book wrong. Yay!
Discovering the best writing process for us often means figuring out what *doesn’t* work. I also noticed that one of the things that made me write more slowly for the first two books was trying to figure out the “steps” of a chapter as I was writing. Sure, I knew where I was going, but how do I get there?
So for book three, after completing my charts, I also tried outlining a little more detail for each chapter. After a little experimentation, I aimed for about 10% of the anticipated finished words for each chapter. (Your mileage may vary.)
Now it’s time to discuss my actual method…
How to Turn a Beat Sheet into a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline
As I describe it, I want you to keep one thing in mind: You can stop after any step that makes you feel ready to write.
Maybe you’ll make it all the way to the end. Maybe you won’t. You won’t hurt my feelings. *smile* Use what works for you.
Step #1: Define the Story Concept and Beats
First, I write down my concept. What’s the one or two sentences that tell me what my story is about? That goes below my Beat Sheet chart for reference.
Next, who are my point-of-view (POV) characters? I write with four POVs in my YA fantasy series, but this still works with only one POV. Each POV character gets a vertical column (and I add a column for anything special, like a romance subplot), while each beat point gets a horizontal row. (Stay with me, I’ll get to the beats.)
Now, looking at my concept sentence(s), how does each character end in the book? That goes in the last beat slot for “resolution.”
What is their opposite starting point (in some way)? That goes next to their name in the top row. The differences between the two rows are the character arcs.
Between the beginning and the resolution, I have seven beats. I have to hit:
the Hook (10%)
the Point of No Return (25%)
the Midpoint (50%)
the Crisis (75%)
the Climax (90%)
Optionally, I can add Pinch Points at 37 and 62%. When I’m writing, those percentages are just estimates, and I might hit the beats early or late depending on the needs of the exact story.
You may know these beats by other names or use other percentages. That’s okay. I have seen beat sheets with many more beats. (Jami has some great examples.) They tend to make my brain explode, so I stick with this list.
Step #2: Get Creative with Brainstorming
Now is crazy brainstorming time. What are some things that could happen in this story to my characters?
I make a list of as many ideas as I can think up, without discarding anything yet. Once I have a long list, I go through and mark events that could force my characters through their arcs, or that could turn the story in interesting ways, or that will just plain be exciting.
Next to the ideas I want to include, I write the name of the character most affected by that event. Then I play around with the events to see how they would work in different beats.
The Climax should be the most exciting, physically and/or emotionally. (Emotionally is harder to write, but I prefer it.)
The next most exciting beats should be the Hook and the Midpoint.
Sometimes I just go with Pixar’s strategy: Everything gets worse until the end.
Whether or not I include Pinch Points depends on how many great ideas make the cut.
By this point, the story is starting to come alive in my mind.
Step #3: Adjust If Multi-POV (Skip Step for Single POV)
Because I write multi-POV, I have another step that I started with book three.
First, I highlight each character’s column in a different color and number the beats in order.
Then I cut the chart into little pieces (one box per piece).
I place the colored boxes in a rough sort of order, making characters take turns somehow.
I keep early beats before later beats for each character, but one character’s Midpoint might come before another’s Pinch Point, for instance. Whoever is the main POV for the book gets roughly half the chapters, and the rest are more or less evenly divided among the other three. (That is just my style for this particular series and might change in the future.)
I make sure the major beats are POV-centric, but some of the minor beats for one character might be seen through the eyes of another character if space requires. This part of my process tends to take a while as I arrange and rearrange. If you have a headache right about now, I unfortunately empathize.
Step #4: Add More Definition to Story Ideas
Once I have the order of events and POV settled, I start my Summary Sheet chart. (Remember, you can stop anywhere in the process you like.) The second chart contains a horizontal row for every chapter, and several vertical columns.
The plot/character beats go in the Summary column, though sometimes they copy to the Question/Surprise column later.
The Summary and POV columns are the ones I always fill out before I write, based on my first chart.
Other than the chapter number, the Chapter/Timeline column stays blank for now.
The other columns might not get filled out until I write, for story analysis as needed.
Chapter Goal is for character goals, not author goals. What are the characters trying to accomplish in that chapter?
Success means “did they get what they want?” and answers might include “yes” (rarely until the end), “yes, but (made it worse),” “no” (semi-rarely), and “no, and (made it worse).”
The Question/Surprise column is where I look if my chapter endings are boring, and frequently derives from either the Summary or Success columns.
Step 4: Outline
Now I start my actual in-text outline. For each chapter in my new book file, I type whose POV it is in and the Summary/Beat info from the second chart.
Then I go back and brainstorm each chapter. “If this is the beat/chapter goal for the chapter, where does the chapter start? What are the characters trying to accomplish? What’s the setting? What happens first? Next? After that? What clues need to be in the chapter? Etc.”
I work in random order, with lots of bouncing around, until I have about 10% of my finished words in rough summary. (I’ve been known to write things like “they argue,” or “add emotion,” or “drama llama, struggle and smash” for a fight scene.)
What If This Isn’t For You?
Some of you pantsers might be cringing about now. That’s okay, you keep pantsing. I admire your crazy brain. I started doing this because wandering was too time-consuming for me. You might have a better sense of direction than I do.
Even with this outline, I still have enough wiggle room to make my pantsing brain happy. Sometimes my 10% outline ends up wrong and I wing the chapter anyway, but I know the most important parts to include. Sometimes a little planned part expands unexpectedly. (“Oh, one of the diplomats is his cousin? He has a cousin? And she’s going to show up in the story again? Cool!”)
Some of you plotters might also be cringing. “My outline is half the length of my book,” you cry. “I hit twenty-five beats!” That’s okay. You keep plotting like a maniac. I admire your crazy brain, too. I wish I were as organized as you. As for me, my crazy brain finds this mishmash of a method to be just about right.. *smile*
Whether you plot or pants, I wish you happy writing and a perfect amount of “outline.”
Marty C. Lee