Someone recently asked me how I choose character names, and I had to admit that it varies by series.
For Unexpected Heroes, my epic fantasy series, I started with baby name sites that had a “meaning” search. I’d type in a meaning that was significant to the culture, then I’d search for names I liked that fit the pertinent alphabet or could be altered to fit. (Yes, for that series, the letters mattered.)
After a while, I got tired of doing a search every time I needed a name, and I made a list of possible choices for easy selection, sorted by applicable culture. That made it quite a bit easier to hunt whenever a new character appeared.
To be fair, only two of four cultures cared about the meanings of their names. One cared very, very much, and one just had a pool of traditional names that they used. The third culture cared about as much as modern American culture, which is to say that some people did and some people didn’t, and choosing by sound was way more important. The fourth culture chose almost entirely by sound, stringing together lots of syllables just for the fun of it.
What can I say? They’re different…
Anyway, since *I* cared about the meanings and it helped me choose, I kept a list of the meanings. It’s on this website, if that sort of thing interests you.
Return of the Fae (in progress)
For my new series, which is contemporary fantasy with a sprinkle of science fiction and large dollop of mythology, I would have originally told you that I chose the human names by origin and random selection and the fae names by ancient-history origin. Which is true…
But when I was answering the question for the person who asked, I realized that quite a few of the names are also inside jokes. Ahem.
Some of them will be explained in the story. Though not immediately.
Some of them won’t. I’m cruel like that. I’ll just enjoy the jokes myself.
No, I won’t be listing the meanings of the names for this series on my website, because they aren’t culturally meaningful. I might list some of the origins, because that would be. But we shall see. The first book hasn’t even been published yet, so I’ve got time to ponder how much I want to tell you and how much I want to leave to amuse myself privately.
I know, I’m mean. Think of it this way—it gives you something else to think about after you finish the story. 😉
Relatively Hauntedseries (yet to come)
My pen name is working on an adult cozy paranormal mystery series, but I don’t expect publication for a while. But just for the sake of covering all my bases, here’s how I picked those names.
Mostly by random, honestly, with a bit of “origin matters.” Modern characters were almost entirely random. Sometimes I asked people for a name and used that one. Sometimes I used a random generator.
For historical names, I used a random generator set to the proper country, or occasionally did an internet search for names that fit multiple criteria, like country AND religion.
Other than that, I just made sure I hadn’t already used the name (I kept a list) and that it wouldn’t be too much like someone else in the same story. Easiest name choosing ever.
If you’re trying to choose names for your characters, here are some of my best tips.
Decide what’s important to you. The sound of the word? The meaning? The origin? The number of syllables? Whatever matters, write it down.
Try out a few baby name sites and find one that allows you to search by the factors you identified as important.
If not much matters and you just need a name, try a random name generator. You can find ones for regular human names or for fantasy or whatever. Seriously, just search the internet.
Write down all the options you like every time you do a search. It might save you from a search the next time you need a name.
Try not to confuse your readers with names that sound too much the same. If you can make them not start with the same letter, that’s great. If you have too many characters to make that work, at least give them different vowels or different numbers of syllables or don’t rhyme them. You know, make them sound very different.
I think that’s it, folks. There you go, a naming primer. 🙂
I know, I already listed my favorite writing books. But I recently went through and sorted my craft books for my own purposes, so I thought maybe it was time to update my list. So here are my favorite writing books that are about (or partly about) plotting and outlining.
First, my absolute favorites.
The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings, by James Scott Bell. Okay, so it only talks about plotting the END of the book, but it’s a great book for that. I mean, great!
The Heroine’s Journey, by Gail Carriger. I used to really struggle to fit my stories into the Hero’s Journey plot points, and I thought maybe I was just too stupid to figure out. Then I read this book and discovered that I was using the wrong plot structure. I write heroine’s journeys (which can be used for male or female characters). Ta da! Problem solved! If you only write Hero’s Journey stories, don’t worry about this one (though it’s fascinating).
Next, we have a bunch of actual plotting methods.
Building Better Plots, by Robert Kernen
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland.
Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction, by Larry Brooks
Story Pitch: The How To Guide For Using A Pitch To Create Your Story, by Scott King. Create a plot from a 30-second summary.
Plotting Your Novel, by Janice Hardy.
Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between, by James Scott Bell. If you don’t feel like a plotter but think outlining would improve your story or writing speed, try this one. It starts with just three plot points–beginning, middle, and end–and tells you how to write from there.
And then some ways to improve your plotting method, or other “side” informationthat isn’t necessarily strict structure.
Behind the Book: Making The Death of Dulgath, by Michael J. Sullivan. A glimpse into the mind of a writer as he plots and writes an actual book. (If you haven’t read the book, I suggest doing that first, since this has major spoilers.) I discovered that my plotting PROCESS is pretty similar to Sullivan’s, so this book was a comforting revelation to me.
Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, by Brandon Sanderson et al. Like Dulgath, this is a glimpse into the process of writing & revision.
The Fantasy Fiction Formula, by Deborah Chester. So many tips on how to make your plot have the effect on readers that you want it to.
GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction, by Debra Dixon. It really helps set up the conflict that will run your plot.
Understanding Conflict and What it Really Means, by Janice Hardy. Like GMC, it helps you make your plot beats more effective, but it works with any plot structure.
The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write with Emotional Power, Develop Achingly Real Characters, Move Your Readers, and Create Riveting Moral Stakes, by Donald Maass. Like Fantasy Fiction Formula and GMC, this can improve the effect of your plot on your readers.
Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. LeGuin. How to get structure to work for you.
Pulp Speed for Professional Writers: Business for Breakfast, Volume 9, by Blaze Ward. How to use plotting to increase your writing speed.
The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers, by Matt Bird. General story tips to improve your favorite plotting method.
As I mentioned in an earlier writing post, I’m in a lot of Facebook author groups. A frequent question is “How do I find/choose an editor?” (Sometimes preceded by “Do I really need an editor?” but the answer to that is “Usually.”)
So, let’s talk about editors.
First, not all editors do the same thing.
Developmental editors work on big picture items, like plot, character, theme, broken endings. Sometimes they give you a shorter report, like an editorial assessment, and sometimes they give you comments all through your book. Ask what they do…
Line editors work on your prose. Do you have paragraphs in the right order? Do you make sense? Can your sentences be improved? Are you having the effect you want? If your story is good but you want to sound better, this is frequently the kind of editor you want.
Copyeditors work on the nitty-gritty stuff. Did you get your character’s eye color the same every time? Is the spelling and grammar right? Did you accidentally use the wrong word? Did you have Thursday and Friday and then Thursday again? Some editors will combine line and copy editing, so ask. Editors will sometimes define their own work a little differently, too, so ask…
Proofreading. Here’s the controversy: true proofreading is done AFTER formatting (reading the proof…) to make sure it’s formatted correctly and printing errors haven’t crept in or the layout gone wonky. Now that most formatting is done electronically, you frequently find editors billing light copyediting (grammar, spelling, punctuation only) as proofreading. So ask how they define it. 🙂
Now that you’ve chosen a kind of editing, where do you find an editor??
Lots of places. Facebook groups. Linked In. Professional organizations like EFA or ACES. Referrals from other authors or from reading the acknowledgement page in your favorite books. If you have a local university with an editing program, you can ask if they have any last-semester students who want work. Seriously, this is the easiest step, even though I used to think it was hard.
So how do you choose the right one?
An excellent question.
Start by reading their websites or Facebook pages or whatever they have. Check out their reviews or testimonials. Look for experience in your genre. See if they offer a sample edit (free or paid). They probably don’t have samples already posted, but if they do, read them. They might or might not have prices listed, but if they do, eliminate any that are out of your budget. No, you may not ask them to drop their price or take a royalty share. If you really like them, you can haunt their page to see if they ever have a sale.
And/or you can post your project on a job board at one of the professional organizations and THEN do the research for the responders.
Talk to them and/or request sample edits.
Now email/call/message all your chosen finalists to get a quote. If they offer a free sample, ask for one. If you’re willing to pay for sample, you can query the editors who do those. Don’t ask a paid-sample editor to do a free sample. Follow their guidelines for how much and how to submit. DON’T ask twenty different editors to sample-edit twenty different chapters in hopes of getting your book edited for free. First, that’s rude. Second, the different styles will show, and your book will be weird.
Also, developmental editors rarely do samples because of the nature of their work. If you’re looking for a dev editor, you’ll have to depend heavily on testimonials and an interview with them.
Read your sample edits.
When you get the samples back, don’t even look at the quote yet. Read all the comments in detail. Read your work before and after editing. See what you like and what you don’t, both in corrections and in communication style. It’s okay if you don’t agree with everything they say, but if you don’t agree with MOST of it, at least after thinking about it, then they aren’t the right editor for you. (I once declined an editor who uncorrected my subjunctive mood. If you don’t know what that means, then don’t use it as a filter.) Competence is important, but a good fit for your book is just as important. If they don’t get what you’re doing with your story, they aren’t the right editor for you. If they make you feel bad, they’re not the right editor for you.
If you have questions about any of the suggestions, follow up with the editor. Ask lots of questions. Now is a much better time than after you’ve paid a deposit and suddenly decide you don’t like the editor. If they can’t explain their suggestions, they’re not the right editor for you. If they’re rude, they’re not the right editor for anybody.
Look at budget and scheduling.
Hopefully, you’ve narrowed your choices down after going through the samples. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a clear favorite. NOW is the time to read the payment quotes. If you can afford your favorite, go with that editor. If you can’t afford your favorite but the next two or three choices are pretty satisfactory, pick one you can afford. If you can’t afford any of your favorites, you either need to save up or start the process from the top.
No, I really don’t recommend picking an editor solely by price. I see a lot of horror stories about authors who did that and then had to pay for ANOTHER editor to fix what the first editor did.
Also make sure the editor has an opening for you that will meet any deadlines you have. Some editors are booked for months in advance.
While you’re at it, read the contract, too.
Sometimes it’s called Terms of Service or something else. It’s perfectly normal to ask for a deposit, even a non-refundable one. It’s normal to reserve copyright on the edits UNTIL final payment, but then it should be released to you. Make sure you know when payments are due, and how. Make sure you know the deadlines on both sides. When you have to have the manuscript in? When will it come back? How do you submit, including prep work and app/format? What format will you get back? Read all of it, boring or not. If you can’t go along with all the terms, you can ask the editor for an amendment, but if the answer is no, find a different editor with a contract you can fulfill.
Did I miss any of your questions? What else do you want to know?
I’ve been thinking about writing a grammar post for a long time. Stop groaning; I can hear you all the way over here. I’m not going to talk about the technicalities of commas and capitalization. Instead, I want to talk about the motivation *behind those technicalities.
So, why do we care about grammar and punctuation? They are just nitpicky traditions, anyway. Aren’t they?
Yes and no. They serve an important purpose by smoothing the way for your reader/listener to hear your message instead of your medium. It is their JOB to be invisible but to make your words shine brighter. If you mess them up, your reader might have to struggle to figure out what you meant, which means they are no longer engrossed in your story. They might have to reread a sentence (or more), which means they aren’t reading forward. Or if you forget to break your paragraphs when you switch to a new character’s speech/action, your readers might have to reread to figure out who said or did what. By failing the technicalities, you have failed your reader.
Written punctuation also allows you insert drama and emphasis where *you want it. Yes, by making your reader unconsciously pause longer or shorter, you can shift emphasis to a particular word or phrase or idea. You can influence the voice of the character. You can slow the action or speed it up. You can shift emotions in the character *and the reader. That’s right— you can hijack your reader’s brain and make them think what you want them to think. And sure, the words do a lot of the work, but I assure you, sneaky punctuation can make them not even realize what you did…
So, am I just advocating for following stupid rules all the time? Nope, not what I said. I’ve been known to use commas incorrectly to help a sentence be easier to read. And then there are big rule-breakers, like fragments and run-on sentences. The “rules” say to never use them, but they are actually useful to a writer when used sparingly. Fragments can speed action and add emphasis. Run-ons can create voice or show emotion. Changing where your paragraphs break can add drama.
I just said breaking rules is okay, so what difference do they make after all? Okay, let me rephrase. You should follow the rules almost all the time, so that *when you break them on purpose* it has the precise effect you want. For instance, if half your sentences are fragments, then nothing has emphasis and your reader will struggle to figure out which half-sentences belong together rather than feeling the one-two punch of the isolated phrase.
Fine, you’re convinced that grammar and punctuation are the good guys. Why not just let your editor fix your mistakes?
You want to be a professional. Learn to use your tools. Words might be your hammer and sentences your screwdriver as you assemble your story, but grammar and punctuation are your nails, screws, and veneer. (If you don’t want to be a professional, which is totally fine, please see #5.)
Editors charge more to clean up a bigger mess. Yes, they do, whether they tell you that or not. So the cleaner your manuscript is, the less you will pay. No, you can’t possibly clean it up enough for it to be free— you still owe something for their time.
If you are submitting to a publisher, which do you think they would rather buy? A good story with a ton of technical errors to fix, or a good story with few errors? “But,” you say, “I’m competing against the BAD stories, and I’m better, with or without errors.” Nope, you’re competing against the good stories. The bad stories already got kicked out.
Remember me talking about creating the precise effect you want? Do you think your editor is going to know exactly how you want to hijack your reader’s brain? Um, probably not. He or she will certainly try, but if you want to be sure of getting it right, you need to do it yourself. Yes, your editor will still help you fix typos and misplaced commas. Nobody expects you to be perfect, just competent.
If you are still at the beta reading stage, or if you are writing only for fun, then the icky technical details don’t matter, right? Wrong! Imagine for a moment that you are visiting a famous garden. You heard it was full of beautiful roses and acres of meadow flowers, but when you arrive, you discover it’s covered in weeds. “Oh, never mind that,” your guide says. “The flowers are still there, and we’ll get it weeded next month, before the Queen comes. For you, just pretend the weeds are gone. Look, there’s a flower. All those yellow things there are flowers. Over here are the blue ones. Smell how gorgeous they are.” And the flowers ARE there. But can you concentrate on them, or do you still see the weeds? And how do you feel about getting the weeds when the queen gets the flowers? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. So have mercy on your readers *and your story, and clean up the weeds before you show off your garden. This is actually one of my pet peeves. No, I can’t ignore the errors and just tell you about the story problems, because the weeds are setting off my hayfever!
You’re going to look at the title and the first few paragraphs and be confused, but stay with me. It will all make sense… in the end. 😉
Authors frequently say “write what you know,” but it doesn’t always mean what you think it does. You don’t have to be a spy to write a spy thriller, and you don’t have to know how to ride a horse to write about them (although you should ask an expert if you got everything right enough to not look stupid). What you should “know” is emotions and conflict and human behavior and all that good stuff. Fortunately, life usually gives you lots of material, as long as you pay attention.
Can’t you make it all up?
You can try, but your readers will probably notice. However, you can cheat a little. You don’t need to lose a boyfriend to write about losing a boyfriend. If you lose a friend, you ought to understand the loss of a relationship well enough to make your readers believe the emotions. You don’t have to understand wanting a bike more than anything in the world, you just have to understand wanting SOMETHING that badly.
What about the conflict in your story? Do you have to have an archenemy to write about one?
Nope. Remember, you’re allowed to cheat. What about that neighbor that always puts up fancier Christmas decorations, or the student across the aisle who got ONE measly point better than you on the final? Or what about the serial killer you read about, even though you never met him? (Whew!) You know, the one who reminded you of that weird relative who is certainly not a serial killer but has a really peculiar collection of something?
Even better, think about the conflict in your own life and find a way to apply it to your story. You can tweak it. You can bend it completely out of shape! But keep the emotion so your readers will feel it when they read.
Trust me, life will provide you with plenty of opportunities to collect conflict.
Can’t you have a story (or a life) without conflict?
Let me sit down for a minute. When I can stop laughing enough to catch my breath, we can talk about this.
No. Neither stories nor life are worth much without conflict. Think about it. If you’re reading a book and everything falls in the hero/heroine’s lap without any effort or opposition, is it an interesting story? Even more important, when you get to the end of the book and the happily-ever-after, do you think the character has earned it? Do you put it down and say, “that was great,” or do you slam the book shut because “nothing happened!” Why should the girl win the prince without even a bad date in the process? Why should the guy get his dream job without struggling through a degree (and the interview)?
In order for the happy ending to be believable and satisfying, it needs to come after a struggle to achieve. And the character at the end of the book is stronger and bigger and better because he/she has overcome challenges and grown to conquer.
And since we’re writing what we know, and because we want to earn our own satisfying happy ending, we need to remember that our lives will also be full of struggles. (Don’t go looking for trouble; trouble will find you just fine.) While frustrating, that’s not entirely a bad thing. (But take note of the sad feelings so you can write them later. If you aren’t a writer, take note anyway, so you’ll be ready to comfort your friend when he/she feels sad.)
So I have a challenge for you. This Thanksgiving, while you’re giving thanks for your blessings, take a moment to give thanks for the challenges that have—and will—shape you into a better person. It will all be worth it. In the end.
Happy writing, and good luck with your struggles,
Marty C. Lee
Short term: Write down what is distracting me and promise to deal with it later. (This does not work for depression…) Play music. Talk briefly to a friend. Write in my journal. Don’t distract myself with things that can be done later. (Email, I’m looking at you!)
Medium term: Schedule time to deal with things, even before deadlines. Plan ahead so I’m not running against the wire all the time. Improve my physical habits. Figure out what time of day I usually write better and try to take advantage of that time.
Long term: Try different stress-busting techniques so I know what works best for me. Get serious problems solved/treated (this includes depression). Improve my valuable social relationships and eliminate things that don’t matter. (Don’t eliminate valuable relationships!)
I don’t know what I’m doing
I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know what to do with the characters. The story (or scene) is broken, and I know it.
Short term: Work on something else. Pick a different project or a different section. Do a brainless physical task while I ponder (perfect time to wash dishes or fold laundry).
Medium term: Do some plotting or talk to a rubber ducky. Look at my goals for the story/scene. Brainstorm. Figure out the last time I knew what I was doing and work from there. Fix a story question in my brain right before bed and hope to wake up with an answer.
Long term: Study story/scene structure. Develop a plotting method that works for me. (This is a very personal and varied thing. Don’t assume your method will look like someone else’s. This is mine.)
I don’t know–I’m just stuck!
I have a plot (of whatever sort works for me). I’ve been writing, but it just fizzled out. I shouldn’t be stuck, and it’s very annoying!
Short term: Eliminate other causes. Mark it [insert argument/fight/discussion/whatever] and work on something else for now.
Medium term: I’ve been learning that when I’m just mysteriously stuck, it’s sometimes my subconscious objecting to a story problem my conscious brain hasn’t noticed yet. If I suspect that might be the case, I’ll try talking to a rubber ducky, reverse-plotting my story, or skipping to another spot. If I keep working on other projects or other sections or hacking away at the stuck spot one sentence at a time, sooner or later, my brain will admit what the problem is, and then I can work on fixing it.
Long term: Write every day (or almost). Study story structure. Read a lot. Learn to meditate or ponder.
What did I miss? What else causes writer’s block for you, and how do you fix it?
(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
As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This covers character & setting/world-building topics. Structure & plot was last month, and business topics will be next month.
Poison 101 Very few things will kill you quickly. Most of them are inhalants. Nothing will kill you immediately.
Animal: venom, sting, bacteria, penicillin & antibiotics, smallpox, viruses, allergen, etc
Vegetable: alkaloids, ricin, mushrooms (non-poisonous mushrooms can pick up poison from nearby poisonous ones)
Mineral : carbon monoxide, chlorine, radiation, arsenic, (accumulate in liver and hair)
Synthetic : drugs, pesticides, herbicides
Methods : Inhalation, topical (mucus membranes or skin, ingested, injection (including snakes and insects and platypus)
Symptoms : find in material safety data sheets
Can build a small immunity to some things (but iocane powder doesn’t exist).
Oaths & honor Before breaking a norm /belief can touch the reader, the importance of the norm must be established.
Secondary characters are for contrast.
Loving the other (mermaids, vampires, etc) Use a variety of internal conflicts, physical conflicts, external conflicts like societal norms.
Girls like the thought of someone extraordinary loving them.
Lost Technologies Watch PBS Nova
Why can’t we do stuff anymore?
Tech disappears at height of its use. Mechanical calculators gave way to digital, etc.
Flint-mapping (artwork), Damascus steel, oiyas potteries (auto-water plants by seepage), metal knife for fire-starting instead of flint, Iroquois lost skills when trading for easier products, obsidian surgery tools, Saturn V rockets (each hand-built), heirloom seeds, craftsmen, enigma machine (tech parts have changed), Thor Heyerdahl, obsidian arrowheads (some made to break & slice)
Rediscovered after WWII: colossus encoder (decoder?)
When writing, if an idea doesn’t advance story, toss it.
M.S. Stirling recreated lost technology.
Why would you need to? Eric Flint (book 1600?) Town went back in time & had to fit in.
If your beta reader says bored, listen!
Look at leap tech (rich can afford) vs common tech (context is key). Example: shovel for the rich (need shoes to protect feet), poor used sticks.
Pointy Sticks & Fried Dough What are constants in many/all cultures?
Stereotypes dominate thing that describes them.
Funeral rites: how does your culture handle it? Describes human value.
Celebrate special events, holidays, commemorations: yes, no, how?
Taboos? What do they look like?
Superstitions, myths about monsters, fears.
Ask family/friends “what did you eat for dinner growing up?”
Who has power, who makes choices?
Money, form of wealth, trade.
Social economic differences: clothing, education, where allowed to live.
What is your starting point and how do you build around it?
Show-not-tell through character’s eyes.
Read outside your genre. How do other genres discuss food, etc. Transform it to your culture, deepen & change it.
How do you balance different languages & slang?
How does language fit in the story you’re telling?
When Should Your Character Outsmart You?
Writing species smarter than humans: their learning, interactions, emotional intelligence
Smart characters come up with solutions faster than you.
Construct character from back: you do research, they have answer
Many ways to demonstrate intelligence, and they shouldn’t have them all.
So much research.
BS to make them sound smart. Make up words, things they can talk about.
Don’t go into more details than needed for story.
Make character relatable. People like human disasters.
What are environmental pressures? How do they evolve?
Culture, species, political. What was childhood environment? Vulcans=logic, Klingons=violence, etc. Find ways to relate.
What pressure drove human evolution processes? Prey or predator? Evolution & culture values?
Facial features demonstrate emotion in humans.
Communication with each other is valued.
What leads to higher intelligence?
Hive mind? For greater good?
How much do they worry about food & shelter? Once safe, can think about arts, etc.
Why does one race think they’re smarter than another?
Can intelligence be warm/welcoming?
They have something we don’t understand.
Need to be in competition with something.
Repercussions of getting intelligent?
Disabilities aren’t Superpowers
Write disabilities to give character depth
Disabilities are part of life; adapt & go on.
Are they an asset or not? Are a lot of work, but can gain a skill with practice.
Monk TV series: physical disability
Avatar movie skips training steps
Disabilities become normal over time
Don’t use disabilities to gain sympathy in romantic comedies
Mental disabilities still affects everyday life
Fight, flight, or flee? When is it life-threatening?
Sounds, like MedAlarms, are like WWII alarms & can panic vets.
Examples: Toth, Last Airbender; Numbers TV series; Captain America movie, Falcon character
Writing tips: people are people; don’t give backstory, give clues; research everyday details of disability; some people wallow until death, your character has to make an active decision. How do they compensate & get through life?
Is plot around disability or about character growth?
Borderline Curiosity Disorder & Hoarders are disabilities.
How do people live with someone with a disability? What changes are made? Look at people around character.
Why is murder/honor killing acceptable? Make sure to answer why and motivation.
Killing vs murder: murder is against law/society.
Blood offerings: why?
State sanctions vs war: innocent person selected as scapegoat to satisfy god or natural disaster (usually low caste)
Honor killings by psychology today: Reputation is what protects you; if damaged, it ruins everything. Highest form of currency.
Honor: N. European gets honor by throwing lot with stronger man/best corporation. Middle/ S. European honor from family/family first. If can’t support family, someone must die. India: knock off bride for better bride. Mid East: groom pays for bride. Iran: honor killings frequent. Women used to be able to prevent, but now capital won’t listen to locals. Aztec: stage battles to capture sacrifices.
Willing self-sacrifice vs punishment: usually built into law structure.
US has so much killing (illegal but socially acceptable?) 1st degree, 2nd degree, manslaughter, etc.
Honor killings: video games, movies?
Untouchables & consequences: no one cares; tainted person becomes outcast, rejected to maintain order.
Castes of society: lower caste shame, dishonorable reincarnation, mental health issues
Cattle drive: each cowboy had seven horses. Grain-fed horses: only need one, but must bring grain.
Camping needs water, wood, and grass.
Horses are prey & prefer herds.
They sense tension & stress.
Stallions, geldings, or mares. Stallions have one-track mind when intrigued. Charge & hit hard. Mares have hormonal cycles; some will go psycho.
Read Horsetamer by Walter Farley
Cutting horses are like colliers for sheep: Youtube
Hard ground naturally trims hoof. Check hooves daily; stuff gets stuck in it.
Horses are afraid of paper bags & water.
How do humans deal with being prey? Other species smarter.
Do you live in keeps? Trees, walls, etc.
Cooperative hunting, etc. Fight or flight?
Consider life cycle. Do they consume everything? Do they turn on each other? What’s the balance nature provides?
How much does predator move around? How much energy used?
Small predators: are humans scared of it? Snakes rattle, spiders, swarms. Just kill you or kill & eat you? (Hunt in groups)
Cats: watch their behavior.
Are there triggers for being attacked? (Non-threatening to attacking)
Other species attacking–do humans develop defense mechanisms?
How do humans defend against intelligent predators or societies?
How do you protect against night predators?
Species like us but different lead to war/death or truce/division.
Apex predators reproduce slower, try to protect the few left.
Can they walk among us & pass as one of us?
How can they communicate with us? What happens with the communication?
Mixed species association–learn to trust each other.
Trap/hunt together as pack.
Things that scare us are things most like us
United enemy or united problem?
Cats take care of small problems & live a comfortable life.
I always learn a lot at my writing conference, so if you have a chance to go to one, give it a shot!
As usual, I attended a three-day writing conference in February. Here’s a brief report of some of the classes I took. I’m sure you will notice that they aren’t comprehensive notes, just personal tidbits for me. But if you can get something useful from them, you’re welcome. This post covers structure/plot topics. There will be another next month on character & setting, and one after that on business topics. Whew!
Firming Up a Sagging Middle Use cliffhangers every chapter, such as physical danger, new characters, bad news, epiphanies, messages, romance, what’s behind the door, something to cheer about, decision to make, foreshadowing, awe, death, blow up something.
Everything about writing in 3 minutes Stories are ripples in status quo.
Hero has problem. Acts. Makes problem worse! Deal with worse problem. Hero solves problem or problem solves hero. Can’t return to prior status quo.
To help your subconscious, clearly state the problem, then give it 1-2 days to work.
Write down the ideas.
Feed your subconscious with books, movies, walk, zoo, etc.
Story Mapping Plotting or outline 3 ways:
1) Intuitive (pantser)
2) Plotters (story map), sometimes start at end & work backwards
Character-driven stories lend themselves to intuitive writing.
Plot-driven stories (mystery, thriller, sci-fi) have to know outline.
Historical & fantasy can go either way.
Why create story map in advance? Shorter writing time, place clues/red herrings, force reader to turn page by placing & answering questions, avoid dreaded blinking cursor, easier revisions, most publishers require story map in advance, helps with unexpected problems like ghostwriters/dead authors.
Proposal for trad pub is first three chapters + outline.
Does plotting story in advance stifle creativity? Depends.
Story mapping process.
1) Start with really cool idea.
2) Let idea marinate.
3) Record ideas.
5) Write synopsis.
6) List of scenes.
7) Write book.
Some people like to color-code by POV or character.
Light in Darkness: Horror Stories Horror is 7% words, 55% body language, and the rest is voice.
Subtlety/description is better than all dialogue/narration.
Horror as genre is a myth, created by booksellers to sort books, first invented for Frankenstein.
Hollywood can’t replicate the feelings in books, so they use gore and shock. Books can convey feelings.
Uniquely moral setting genre–good vs evil.
Two kinds of horror: hostile (not good) and redemptive (you can climb out of dark pit of soul).
Bible is godly horror (redemptive story).
Future of Fantasy RPG is going into fantasy & ebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure.
Noblebright is next trend, trying to do good & right.
Need motivation that makes sense. Need to elicit emotional reaction from reader. Does character impact reader?
Covers for youth are different than covers for adults.
Jen Lyons uses footnotes in ebooks to do worldbuilding. (Big debate: distracting vs expansive. Runs risk of breaking narrative.)
If you rely on a map, rewrite it to let readers know where characters are.
Mental health stories (heroes & villains) are upcoming trend. Makes them more relatable.
Second-world fantasy will always have place but needs to be relatable to humanity.
Lines Between Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Fantasy: magic, nature
Marketing might be only difference. Genre exists for shelving purposes. Trappings determine how book is classified & need to be at beginning of story.
Star Trek is soft sci-fi (about people). Inception is hard sci-fi, then fantasy in dream machine.
Tailor presentation to audience.
Gandalf is soft magic system. Hard magic system/science needs same tone throughout book.
Don’t spend too much time worldbuilding. You can get away with anything if it’s entertaining.
Structure vs Character-Led Stories
Rules base vs follow heart type
Writer needs to know ending of plot-based story or will have issues.
Review structure & character journey
If you paint yourself in a corner, is that the story?
Needs to be a set up and pay off
Need red herrings
Get readers involved by the how (thought & motivation)
Character & world building is the what
Types of structure:
Aristotolian structure: boom, everything goes
Characters: What do they want? Include foreshadowing/hints.
Sometimes you pants it, then go back & structure
Don’t write directly to story beats
Look at ending, promises you made.
Need a good motivation for characters.
Understand difference between plot (logical sequence of evens to reactions) & conflict (creates plot)
Characters in relationship & environment create conflict
Character vulnerabilities: why?
Character needs to CHOOSE, not be blown in wind.
Anything that makes you want to write is good for you.
Goal, motivation, conflicts (relationships), should be felt.
Need smarts & hearts.
Stereotypes & Tropes
Stereotype: usually demanded by fashion
Cliche: overused ideas, becomes tiresome
Trope: literary shorthand to achieve emotional effect. Can’t be the rule & the journey.
2nd world fantasy: have stereotype, then break it.
Stereotype reveals a lot about a character. They exist for reason–why? It’s reasonable to expect certain things, cultural expectations.
Make your villain somewhat identifiable.
Characters are more compelling when there are dynamic aspects.
Zombie: no reasoning, no race, an elemental force.
Write a story from the POV of an orc.
Tropes: when to avoid? When used wrong. What does it accomplish? Use for emotional response. Reflect reader’s expectations in your genre. Do not use trope to replace plot.
Romance: happy ending
Horror: evil villain
Thriller: master mind
Action: needs romp at start
Sci-fi: tech, sounds futuristic
Fantasy: discover, sense of wonder
Western: watch Silverado
Things not to do:
Romantic comedy: She’s been terrible to him & he still kisses her. Or honorable the whole time & then turns bad.
Don’t use stereotype to avoid character development.
Read short stories to learn tropes.
Read reviews on genres you want to write, pos or neg.
If you ever get the chance to attend a writing conference yourself, I recommend you do. 🙂