Misleading Plots

I admitted on Instagram the other day that I’m at a crossroads as an author… Not only am I considering shifting genres from historical fiction to historical fantasy (gaslamp fantasy?), but I’m also taking a hard look at my recurring writing habits with an eye to improve.

While reading WRITING FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, and Jay Lake, I realized a hard truth… my plots misdirect the reader. This would be ok if it were done with well-crafted intention, but of course, that is at the reader’s discretion about how well I’m doing that.

Now, clearly I’m improving or I wouldn’t have won the 2017 Self-Publishing Review award for THE LAST APRIL. Even so, I’ve been learning more about the types of stories that populate fantasy and sci-fi and instead learning more about how I should be crafting my historical fiction. Isn’t that funny?

The book mentions four story categories: milieu, idea, character, event, a.k.a. “there and back again,” “answer the question,” “character transformation,” and “bring the world back to order.” At least, that’s how I’m interpreting these to help me dissect my own writing.

Card mentions readers get frustrated when you start with one category yet end with another. This made me reflect on some of the criticism I’ve received for my published works.

For instance, HAUNTING MISS TRENTWOOD starts as an “idea” story. Mary’s father crawls from his grave and we end the first chapter wondering why she is the only one to see this or if she’s losing her mind. The question the story needs to answer, at least based on the set up, is why is Trentwood haunting his daughter? Those who have read the book know this is actually a character story, because the mysteries culminate in a couple character transformations, and while we solve the mysteries, the characters are the true point. I have readers who love this, and readers who felt misled by the gothic nature of the first chapter.

THE LAST APRIL also begins as an idea, but it is more apparent that is has to be a character story because anyone who knows anything about President Lincoln’s assassination knows it had nothing to do with anyone in Ohio. Or at least at this point in our understanding of historical events, that is true. Anyone who has never learned anything about that event will feel misled by the premise. Anyone who is aware will realize this book is about the characters and the feeling of being one small individual caught in the storm of national events.

So anyway, it’s making me wonder why I start my stories on an idea but end with character transformations. I’ve always said I’m a character-driven writer, I’m proud and excited by that fact. The obvious thing to do is stop writing “idea” beginnings and instead write “character beginnings.” Putting this into practice will certainly be a challenge.

Have you read a book that you felt misled you? Did it work for you, or were you left wondering what happened?

Plan Your Novel with Trello

Starting a new project, whether for NaNoWriMo or something longer term, is a great opportunity to seek out new tools and methods for planning your novel. When I worked on The Last April, I found a number of tools that helped me, and I want to use them again for a new project… with some tweaks.

Even though I write first drafts in a paper notebook, most of my planning and research is digital for quick reference. The Last April had spreadsheets for character details and motivations, plot timelines, and news media excerpts. It had book plan documents and plot diagrams. I had to bounce between too many documents to get the big picture.

I need to see my characters, plot, historical timeline, and marketing plan in one location so I don’t lose sight of the objective. Enter Trello.

Why Trello?

Trello is a powerful tool because it is so simple. You create an account, open a board, and start creating lists. Within each list, you create cards.

What do you do with the lists and cards? The lists could be family member names, while the cards are chores for the week. The lists could be phases of a project (to do, in progress, done, blocked) and the cards could be components of the project. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the reasons why I chose Trello to plan the next book, whatever it may be.

Trello is…

  • Free, though you can pay for a subscription and get additional features
  • Both textual and visual planning
  • Accessed from any web browser and has a mobile app
  • Popular enough for some pretty cool extensions

The extensions are what really make this planning method shine. The default Trello experience is a series of columns in a single row. To combine my character sheets, story arc planning, marketing definition (book plan), timeline, and historical research into one board, I need rows of lists, preferably with a heading so the grouping is clear.

Default Trello is a single row of lists

Trello comes with what they call Power-Ups to extend the experience, but I didn’t see anything that met my need. Plus, for free accounts, you only get one power-up. Enter browser extensions.

Set Up Your Trello Board

Create a Trello account if you don’t have one already.

  • Create a new board
  • Create lists to plan your novel, like
    • Characters
    • Eleven stages of a three-act story
    • References (setting, newspaper clippings, maps)
    • Timeline (my stories span a couple weeks)
    • Book plan (goals, market demographics, marketing plan)
  • If you know the content already, add cards to your lists

Create Your Swim Lanes

For this to work, you need the Chrome or Firefox web browser and its associated browser extension. These extensions only work on desktop/laptop views. I have Firefox, so the instructions at this point might differ for Chrome users.

Swimlanes for Trello is pretty simple. To make a new swim lane, or row, type the pipe character (the vertical bar) into the name of your list. To make a characters row in the screenshot below, I named the first list “Main |Characters.” I waited about two seconds, and the board shifted to having headings above rows of lists. That’s it!

Browser extensions make multiple rows of Trello lists

You will need to follow the instructions for List Layouts if you are on Chrome but I assume it is just as simple.

Success! What was multiple documents is now a single board. The fun thing about Trello is you can add labels to cards; I will like do this for the plot to chart where characters have pivotal moments. You can also add images , which I think will be useful for character sheets, setting, building references, etc.

Caveats and Disclaimers

This stacked list style only works on a Firefox desktop display. Since I write first drafts on paper, often with a mobile device beside me, it is easy to scroll the single list view if needed. When I’m in generative thinking mode and need the entire view, I’m probably on my laptop anyway.

If you make more lists after creating your swim lanes and have to move them around, it can confuse the extension back into a single row. If this happens, refresh the page and everything should return to the stacked view.

Those are the two glitches I’ve found so far, neither of which is a deal breaker for me.

I hope this tutorial helps; let me know in the comments how you set up your board or if you’re using a different tool to plan your novel. If after this post you realize you still prefer pen and paper, check out my Etsy shop where I have novel planning notebooks for sale.

– Belinda

Relying on Writing Exercises

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I picked up the Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks from the library last night and have already worked through it and the select exercises provided within. I found it to be a great book because it’s practical, pragmatic, and from the viewpoint of  an agent who knows what it takes to make a good story.

There were four exercises in particular that I found helpful: Historical, Emotional, Rebellion, and Wanted.

Historical Exercise

The Historical exercise was all about picking an era and writing a short blurb about someone during that time. Since I’m working on a Civil War book set in my hometown of Columbus, OH, this felt like it should have been a natural fit. I think because I assumed it should be easy, I think I made it difficult! Here is what I came up with, unedited:

It’s just after the Civil War and a teenage girl has been helping with the effort. A staunch Unionist surrounded by Copperheads at school, she despairs of ever fitting in. When she stumbles upon a wounded soldier, she helps him home to take care of him. His memories are gone, but little by little she realizes he might be a Confederate prisoner escaped from Camp Chase.

Something about this felt super flat. But it was more important to get the idea out there, so I went with it.

Emotions Exercise

Then I tried the Emotions exercise, where you were tasked with taking some emotions you remember from your teenage years, and applying them to a character. This is the result of that exercise:

A Unionist teen is rejected by her Copperhead friends now that the war is won. She buries herself in preparations for Lincoln’s funeral procession [to avoid wallowing in sadness] when a wounded Confederate soldier falls into her lap, forcing her to confront ideas of what’s right and fair as she nurses him back to health.

This feels like it has a little more meat to it, if only because it feels more… human. There are emotions involved, people hurt and needing help, and you get a hint of the protagonist’s personality.

Rebellion Exercise

The Rebellion exercise was interesting because it is a lens where you think of a time when you tried/felt like rebelling against your parents…

Forced to stop associating with people she considered her friends, ______ resents her father for breaking her apart from them. She hates these people for following the new rules even while she makes excuses for them. She feels alone, betrayed, unheard, discarded, trapped, rejected, and yet somehow, aloof to it all if it will help her deal.

I didn’t really like that one. It felt kind of whiny.

Want Ad Exercise

The Wanted exercise was fun because it’s all about writing a want ad for your protagonist…

Average-looking, gangly 18-year-old female, unaware of her ability to make anyone feel at home. Questionable manners, average command of English, with a twang from childhood living in countryside. Staunch Unionist, but former friends with Copperheads. Logical-minded. Annoyed by inconveniences. Caring, but clumsy about showing it. Tendency to speak bluntly. Only daughter with younger brother, expected to be responsible and calm while mother fights illness and father returns from war.

I don’t know. Writing all of this out makes me realize how much work I have to do to really get back into writing. I’m fighting my looming frustration and sadness, trying to stay positive about this new book attempt and that I’m not a terrible writer. I have a lot of doubts right now, and as long as I don’t think about them, I can write. As soon as I think of my readers, however, I seem to freak out!

Anyway, feel free to send me your thoughts about these exercises! Email me, comment on Facebook, or here at the blog.

Best,
Belinda

Worderella’s How to Make a Character Map

Dear Reader,

After giving you a taste of Haunting Miss Trentwood, I thought it would be nice if I showed you one of the many ways I keep track of who I’m writing about, how they relate to one another, etc.

I love pen and paper, and could probably buy out any office supply store in the blink of an eye (that is, if I had unlimited funds, which, thankfully, I do not).

That said, I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that I adore Post-it notes. The image in this post shows how I visualize the love triangle(s) from Haunting Miss Trentwood. I would make the image bigger but then it might spoil some of the plot twists!

You see, dear Reader, this is a sort of map for me. I use this to remind me where tensions occur between characters. I’m color code so I know which character is part of which plot or subplot, and then I draw arrows with visuals to tell me the generics about the relationships.

I was thrilled to read Deanna Raybourn’s blog when she said she does something similar: a collage of images that help inspire her current work-in-progress. I love learning other types of writing exercises that don’t—shock!—require you to write. I need to make things because I am a Maker. I need to use my hands while I’m figuring something out, even something as cerebral as a plot twist. And then after I’ve made the thing, I want to share how I did it. Like this.

How to make a Character Map

  1. Have a crummy day at work.
  2. Have an awesome conversation on Facebook.
  3. Grab a tabloid-sized sheet of paper, multiple colors of small sticky notes, a pen, and a pencil.
  4. Write the names of the main characters on different colors of the sticky notes. Try to group the characters based on their primary plot lines.
  5. Play around with the configuration of the character sticky notes on the page until you can get them to fit, and represent the relationships.
  6. Draw arrows from one sticky note to the other to show direct connections.
    • Use dotted lines to show indirect connections.
  7. Use a pencil because you might make a mistake and try to draw one arrow over another.
  8. To keep the character map legible, try to arrange the stick notes so you won’t have to cross arrows.
  9. Have fun with it! I drew a funny angry face to show antagonists, hearts to show love interests, and broken hearts to show tragedy.
  10. Put the character map somewhere you can glance at when you need inspiration.

I had so much fun with this, I might do it for the relationships I have in my life, and use it as a sort of art piece in my apartment. Or as a way for me to remember who is who at work. Learning the organizational scheme of a new workplace is always so stressful…

All the best,

Belinda

Explode Your Ideas

“When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea.”
– Ernest Hemingway

This quote describes my idea process fairly well. Many of my ideas come from that liminal state of mind between sleep and wakefulness. This can get frustrating, because who remembers to grab a pencil and paper when half-asleep? I’ve trained myself, thankfully, to keep a pad of paper within flailing distance of my bed.

But that’s the end result of an involved idea process. How do ideas begin? I’m a people-watcher, for one. I often will sit in a crowded place with my headphones on, and my music turned down really low so I can hear the conversations around me. This isn’t to spy on people, but rather to grab impressions.

Maybe Lord Hartwell walks like that man, and scratches the back of his head like that little boy. Maybe Mary twitches her nose to the side like that woman when she smells something she doesn’t like. Mr Spencer sneezes like that old man over there, despite his only being 26 years old.

I take these impressions, along with snippets of stories I hear and read throughout the day, and do…nothing. I think about them for a while, try to decide why I find them interesting, and then I continue with my day. As a graduate student, I have a lot to do, so it’s almost never a problem to let my ideas stew.

A couple of days later, my idea will explode like Hemingway’s stove, and I’ll scramble for pen and paper. I’ll write furiously, scratching out words that don’t work because it takes too much time to erase. I’ll feel triumphant if I catch everything in the first attempt, and then I’ll fall asleep with a smile on my face.

The next morning, I’ll wake and examine what I wrote. Sometimes, I’m pleased with it, and decide it will definitely go in the new draft. Sometimes, it’s complete trash, but I tuck it into my journal anyway, because it’s a piece of writing and all writing counts, whether it’s trash or not. Practice makes perfect, right?

How do your ideas come to you? Do they explode into being, or do they sneak in unawares?

Break the Seas

A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.
– Franz Kafka

We all know that a story in which nothing bad happens to the character isn’t much of a story. The character needs something to fight against, so the reader has a reason to root for the character. This can be for heroes and villains, believe it or not.

That being said, when you write, who do you keep in mind as you write? The characters? Your overarching plot? Your theme? Your reader? Or all of the above?

When I began Trentwood’s Orphan, I had no idea who or what I was writing for. I simply had a character (Mary Winslow) who, like many of you mentioned in the comments two weeks ago, wouldn’t leave me alone. And that was good enough for me, then.

Now, I find that I’m writing not only to learn more about Mary, but also about how the world affects her and how she affects the world…that world including the reader. Can I make my reader cry? Can I make them frustrated? Will they be drawn into the story and wonder how Mary will get past her grief? Will they be desperate to know whether she will allow love, in any form, to break the seas frozen in her soul?

Some might discount this as a romance thing, only. As in, only in romance would an author try to tease such an emotional response from their reader. I beg to differ. Many a literary fiction has done much worse to me than the majority of the romances I’ve read. And perhaps that’s why I want to bring emotional turmoil, real emotional turmoil, to my romance.

Romance is a part of life, as is tragedy. Oftentimes, they come hand-in-hand. Is this so in fiction? Not always. Does this mean romance and tragedy should never happen together in fiction? Not necessarily.

In fact, if an author can touch me in such a way that I feel as though my very soul was burned, I’m much more likely to recommend the book to a friend. That is what I strive for, something so…fierce, I suppose, that my reader is scorched, forever changed by my writing.

Tell me, is this something you’ve considered? Do you feel breaking the ice of your reader’s soul is applicable to your genre? Explain why or why not, I’m very curious to know how you feel about this.

Pursuing Water

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

Tell me what your character wants in your first chapter.

What is their basic want, the one that propels their actions for the first fifty pages of your work?

My main character, Mary, wants a little bit of peace. That’s all she’s asking for. Can it really be that hard, finding peace?

The important thing about this is that I don’t allow peace of any sort to come anywhere near Mary. In fact, I throw more demands on her so she’s not likely to find peace for the entire book.

What is your main character looking for? What about your secondary characters? Your romantic hero, if you have one?

I know there are a number of you reading this blog but for some reason are reluctant to comment…so I’d love to meet you for the first time through this exercise!