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

The Big Question

Dear Reader,

As of writing this post, I’m 17k words into The Rebel’s Hero, which is about 24% toward my word count goal. Without fail, when I get to this percentage mark, I get cold feet. I don’t know why. It’s very frustrating. I start to doubt my ability to write, to craft characters, to weave details, to drive the plot forward. I think this is because the beginning is complete. Now the meat of the story takes over, the plot thickens, and more questions are thrown to the reader.

I’m standing in place, deer in the headlights, frightened by this monstrous train called The Rebel’s Hero steaming full blast down the tracks because even though I’ve set up a good story with a multitude of questions I need to answer throughout the plot…

I still don’t know what The Question is. What am I trying to answer with this work? What is my big question that I’m struggling to explore and engage?

Peeking over shoulders

Do other authors do this? I feel like they do. I think MJ Rose explores the question of “what if the paranormal were real?” Her form of paranormal is more of the mundane… reincarnation, hypnotism, etc. Her fiction is fascinating, deep, driven. Joan Reeves, highlighted at The Book Designer last week, asked the question “Why would a woman marry a man for money?” and was surprised when her book was labeled a romance.

Sometimes crafting fiction feels backwards. I know I write romances, sweet though they may be. But maybe I should stop worrying about the genre, since I already know that’s what I gravitate to. Instead, I should worry, what is my question?

Exploring the space

I write this blog to be transparent about the writing process. It isn’t easy, and sometimes, it isn’t fun. I look to my previous fiction to remind myself that I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. Catching the Rose asks the question “what would you do to find your first love?” Haunting Miss Trentwood asks “what do you do after your parents have died?” Mad Maxine, my short story, asks “what happens when you don’t let go?”

I’ve blogged about The Big Question before in terms of individual characters, but for the plot? Here is a list of questions The Rebel’s Hero could be about…

  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Why would a woman marry a man with no memory?
  • What would you do to escape an arranged marriage?
  • What would you do to help a man in need?
  • What would you do to regain your memory?

I think the last one might be a winner. Throw the question into the Civil War, add the Underground Railroad, and I just might be able to pull this off. After all, it always feels impossible until it is done.

Best,

Belinda

I LOVE Historical Romance Web Comics

Dear Reader,

If you haven’t realized that I am a huge geek, I am outing myself right now. I have been a fan of web comics for the last… oh… seven years or so. Three of my favorites happen to be historical romances. Be prepared, as this post is a huge love rant for all of them.

The Phoenix Requiem

Sarah Ellerton is a genius. Hands down. Ellerton is the writer and artist behind The Phoenix Requiem, a “Victorian-inspired supernatural fantasy story about faith, love, death, and the things we believe in.” Heavy, right? Not really, it’s a joy to read.  The reason why I love The Phoenix Requiem is because of Ellerton’s detail to clothing and culture; her hero is charming and adorable, her heroine is serious and lovely. From the website…

On a cold December night, a gentleman stumbles into the town of Esk, gunshot wounds leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind him. Despite making a full recovery at the hands of an inexperienced nurse – and deciding to make a new life for himself in the town – he is unable to escape the supernatural beings, both good and bad, that seem to follow him like shadows.

As they try to discover why, the nurse must question her beliefs and risk her own life in order to protect her family, her friends, and those that she loves.

The comic is now complete, and you can read the whole thing from the start. I plan on buying all the volumes once Ellerton puts them in print. That is three (or longer) years of work that she released for free, and as a fellow independent author, I want to support her fantastic work.

Dreamless

Dreamless is another of Sarah Ellerton’s comics, this one written by Bobby Crosby. Set during World War II, this is a tale of star-crossed lovers who share their dreams. Literally. Eleanor and Takashi don’t sleep the way the rest of us do.

When Eleanor sleeps, she is in Japan, seeing what Takashi sees. When Takashi sleeps, he is in the United States, seeing what Eleanor sees. They can’t speak to one another, exactly, but they can hear what the other, and the people around them, are saying. Read the complete web comic to find out what happens to this young couple in the days leading up to Pearl Harbor.

And finally, we have…

The Dreamer

The Dreamer is a web comic by Lora Innes, an artist who lives in the same city as me and seems to know some of the same people I do, going off her blog. I have never met her but it would be pretty sweet if I could! One of these days I will make it to the Columbus Comicon. One of these days. From the website…

Beatrice “Bea” Whaley seems to have it all; the seventeen year old high school senior is beautiful, wealthy and the star performer of the drama club. She begins having vivid dreams about a brave and handsome soldier named Alan Warren–a member of an elite group known as Knowlton’s Rangers that served during the Revolutionary War.

Bea begins to research Colonial America only to discover that her dreams recount actual historical events that she knew nothing about! She grows increasingly detached from her friends and family as she tries desperately to figure out what is happening to her…

This comic is in the middle of its story, so unlike Dreamless and The Phoenix Requiem, you can’t pick this one up like a book and blast through all the pages until reaching the satisfying conclusion. The interesting thing about reading web comics is that it’s a lot like reading a series while the author is still writing them. Remember how antsy you felt when waiting for the next Harry Potter? Same thing. Except it’s on a weekly basis.

So there you have it! Those are the historical romance stories I keep up with weekly in my RSS reader. Are you reading these comics or others that I should know about? Let me know in the comments!

All the best,

Belinda

Plotting with Strangers

Dear Reader,

In March, I wrote the first 14 chapters of The Rebel’s Hero. Within this first week of April I’ve discovered a problem: I don’t know why my characters are doing what they are doing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know their motivations better than when I wrote Catching the Rose, so much so that I was able to write the first 14 chapters without a problem.

Still, after reading the first two books of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and absolutely loving (as always) his well-developed subplots, twists, and surprises, I looked at my manuscript and sighed. I have work to do.

In a fit of creativity during my lunch break at work on Monday I sketched out a table on a scrap sheet of paper with the column headings: Character, Initial Goal, Roadblock, Recovery, 2nd Roadblock, 2nd Recovery, 3rd Roadblock. The rows of this table are the main characters, whose goals, roadblocks, and recoveries complement and clash.

When I came to one of the supporting characters, I realized I had no idea why he had his initial goal in the first place. To get outside my head, I posted a question on Facebook and got so many wonderful answers and theories that I feel totally inspired.

If you missed out on the conversation, that’s ok. I have a new question for you.

Why do YOU think someone would risk their life to free a slave?

– – –
This post is part of the ROW80 bloghop.

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

A Six Word Story

This month, I’m doing a series of short exercises, one a week, to help those of you who are stuck with your WIP. Maybe you’re doing NaNoWriMo, maybe not. In any case, it helps to have an exercise to spark your imagination.

This week’s exercise is a challenge in brevity. The goal of NaNoWriMo, for instance, is to write 50k words in a month. A 50k word work is about the length of a short novel, similar to an Avon or Harlequin romance. This can be a challenge in and of itself… how do you write a novel with developed characters and an interesting plot in 50k words? Some writers, who are cheating themselves, will litter their WIP with adverbs, adjectives, and unnecessary description just to make that word count goal.

Here is a popular and well-known writing exercise… Hemingway was once given a challenge to write an entire story in only six words. His answer:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Apparently, he thought it was his greatest literary work ever. It speaks to the audience, and pulls them in. We know the ending to the story, and can surmise how it began. Most importantly, we care.

Here are some of my six word stories:

He smiled, and her world ended.

She always hated writing the beginning.

Her lips were chapped. Damn frogs.

Required: knight in armor (shining optional).

There are many writers who practice this sort of flash fiction through their Twitter accounts, where each update can only be 140 characters long. Can you tell a story in a sentence? What is your six word story? Do you even count these micro-narratives as stories?