A Home Grown Power Plotting Weekend

By Kristin Nador

In my not so humble opinion, character’s and their distinct voices are strong among my writing talents. But plotting stories — not so much. Having been a pantser from day one of my writing career, the plot has been a second or third step. I carved a plot slowly, one excruciating revision after another. So when I read Ginger Calem’s glowing report of a power plotting weekend she participated in early this spring, I was pretty envious. Short on budget and time, I decided to devise my own power plotting weekend with the help of my writers’ group. We have just concluded our first Power Plotting weekend and I think each of us would highly recommend that you try it yourselves.

The Set-up

Based on Ginger’s experience, I bought the book, Break Into Fiction: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells and read it. Then, read it again. I had a couple of email conversations with Ginger. Then I sat down with my writer’s group and explained what I wanted to do. I have to say, my writer’s group is a terrific group of people with a wide variety of education and experience. They were open to trying as long as I took the lead on this one.

I used information from a number of sources: Mary Buckham and Dianna Love’s Break Into Fiction, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, The Script Lab and a number of other sources. I wrote up an agenda, forms that could be used to help develop your plot, and examples of how those forms would be used. We discussed these things briefly at one of our regular monthly critique sessions. We also discussed that we would try not to critique the ideas but to ask leading questions or make suggestions in as positive a manner as possible. No one would be forced to participate more than their personal comfort level would allow. We wanted to nurture these ideas so they could be grown into full-blown stories. Our plan was to meet a minimum of three different times during the weekend. Each person would go home and work on our stories independently between each meeting.

We planned to meet at a restaurant for the first evening, then meet at our usual location for our monthly critique sessions for the rest of the weekend bringing potluck meals.

Execution

Most of us submitted at least a paragraph of a story concept via an email group a day or two ahead of time. Each time we met, each author had a brief amount of time to present his or her story concept. Group members asked clarifying questions and asked structure-focused questions of the author. It was enlightening to see how the others came at their stories and even more enlightening to have questions asked that forced one to focus the story better. I think we each left each meeting with our brains buzzing with information and ideas. Each time we met again, the author had a stronger and stronger vision of his or her story. Characters and situations were fleshed out. Structure problems were identified and in some cases resolved. Story logic was developed or reinforced.

It was one brainstorming session after another and it was glorious!

My homegrown Power Plotting Weekend was a brainstorming session extraordinaire. You can do one, too!
Image: Brainstorm by Christos Georghiou @cutcasters.com

In the End and in the Future

Scene-by-scene plotting was not accomplished this weekend. Each of us agreed that there had been a lot of value in the weekend’s activities. Looking at story structure, plot, was helpful to all of us. In fact, we’ve decided we’ll be doing it at least once every year!

This worked for us because we respected each other’s ideas and abilities. It worked because each of us was willing to do the work on our own. It worked because we attempted to meet each author’s needs for his or her particular story.

We will set up our time a little differently next time. The restaurant was too noisy and distracting. Perhaps next time we’ll end the weekend with a meal at a restaurant or a pizza party instead of beginning there. We will keep the format of the author presenting his or her idea and the problem he or she would like to work on. We’ll use the question/suggestion method of exploring the author’s story problem. But we won’t call it a Power Plotting Weekend, we’ll call it a Writer’s Weekend.

I’d love to hear what you think. Would you be willing to discuss your story ideas in a small group like this? Or do you keep your stories secret until they are on the page?

If you’d like more information on story structure you might want to read How to Construct a Solid Gold Story and Re-Visioning Your Story.

And don’t forget. Next week our first stop on my Going to Mars, Word by Word series. I’ll be commenting on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars

Taking A Risk

A nib of a Parker-Duofold-Pinstripe International fountain pen, © Parker Pens, CC
A nib of a Parker-Duofold-Pinstripe International fountain pen, © Parker Pens, CC

My online friend, Asrai Devin, wrote a post last week about a contestrunning on Men with Pens: The Best Online Writing Contest. Two people will win a place as a student in the May edition of the Damn Fine Words writing course. (Retail value $1,599.) We’re taking a risk. How about you?

All you have to do to win is to write a blog post about why writing is important to you and your business. Why becoming a better writer could literally change your life. How not feeling confident in your writing has affected you, and what it would mean to you to have that obstacle swept away. And of course, link to Damn Fine Words, and post a comment on Men with Pens.

If you aren’t familiar with the Men with Pens website and blog, it offers web design and copywriting for businesses. James Chartrand is the pen name of the owner of the Men with Pens and the Damn Fine Words websites. Damn Fine Words is a 10-week training course for business owners. According to the website, it’s a combination business and writing course. Could I use that? Oh, my, yes. My husband and I own several small online businesses and neither of us has a lick of business training.

But, oh my gosh, what a conundrum! Asrai wants to win that contest so badly. She’s a friend, so I want her to win. But, I hope she’ll understand, we’re both writers. I want to win it, too. So, I’m going to risk it and enter the contest hoping that both of us win.

Drum roll, please. Here is my entry —

Why is writing important to me?
Writing helped me find myself. I was lost in the wrong marriage, the wrong career, the wrong life. Ironically, my first husband (now ex-) took me to my first science fiction convention where I heard writers talk about writing. It stirred something in me. I took a chance and enrolled in a correspondence writing class. That began a quest for the words to express myself. I read every how-to-write book I could get my hands on. They recommended writing exercises: Express how you feel when you are angry, or frightened, or happy. So I wrote.

It was through recording my feelings in my journals that I began to understand that I had a dissociative memory disorder. If things got unpleasant, I buried the memory. Writing became a safe way to explore the memories I’d locked away. Exploring my memories I found my true self and was able to say no, to move on, to find a way to live better. And who was this new person I found? A writer. 🙂

I discovered a desire, a compulsion, to write fiction. Books had been my safe places. Through books , I had learned about different types of people and how right choices affected one verses wrong choices and the effects they had. These things helped me make choices. I wanted, no, I want my writing to touch people the way that the books I read touched me.

At the first writers conference, I ever attended we were given an assignment to describe life without writing. I wrote: “I suppose I could survive without ever writing again, but I’d rather live than survive.” Now, many years later, that is still how I feel. If I’m not involved in a writing project, I’m just surviving.

How has not being confident in my writing affected me and what would it mean to have that obstacle swept away?
Confidence in my writing ebbs and flows. When I am not confident in my writing, I fight for every word written. I become a master at one-more-thing-to-do in order to avoid writing. That starts a downward spiral. Less confidence translates into wishy-washy words that don’t sell fiction or products. Words I’m embarrassed to show anyone. My production goes down even further. When I’m not writing, I get less confident in every other aspect of my life. A less confident me is less pleasant to be around, just ask my DH if you don’t believe me!

To feel more confident in my writing would help me put wings on my words. I’d be more productive. And my words would work for us by selling more products. More sales equals more income. I’d be able to quit the day job and be an active, productive, full-time writer.

Why is writing important to my business?
I want my fiction to be read, to be enjoyed. My business, though it’s part-time now, is to write fiction, to write copy that sells my fiction, and to help my husband write copy that sells his products for his online businesses. I’ve got to succeed at these businesses. They are our retirement plan. Our only retirement plan. And retirement age is knocking on my door.

Would winning this contest change my life?
You betcha! Learning more about business, copywriting, and blogging can only help. You see, I don’t want to retire from anything but the day job because I can’t stop writing. I want to LIVE.

And now, you know of some of my flaws and my dreams.

Are you taking a risk to live your dream?

Life – It’s a Balancing Act – Really!

Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.I’ve read a lot of blogs during the last week or two that mention a goal or resolution of restoring balance in their lives. Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it’s a balancing act.

I find webmd.com to be a source of reliable information. Their article: 5 Tips for a Better Work-Life Balance may be helpful to you. I think they are right, we should learn to relax. After all, we could live in Bangladesh and have this guy’s job:

Mayo clinic’s article Work-life balance: Tips to Reclaim Control suggests, among other things, to bolster your support system. I think Henri Fochatin could use a little more support, don’t you? (don’t watch if you have acrophobia, seriously!)

In 5 Essential Zen Habits for Balanced Living, you’re reminded to use awareness and mindfulness, to find some calm in the midst of the madness. How? Allow yourself some downtime. Even just ten or fifteen minutes of time to recharge your inner self. Do what brings you peace. For me, that’s a waterfall in a beautiful setting.
Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

But I think all these articles have missed the mark.
 

Life is chaotic and messy.

Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

Things happen. Suddenly you have to juggle more than one thing at a time.

Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

If you let it, life’s chaos will divert your attention from the things you want to do and from the ones you love. How do you handle it?

With Silliness.

 

Apparently, 2011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

Apparently, 2011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

Laugh, even when things are upside down.
Apparently, 2011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

No matter how small you feel in comparison to the things that keep you from putting your best foot forward, a smile will lift you up.

Make time to have fun.

Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

Most importantly, take a breath. Recognize what you’ve accomplished: the milestones, the successes, the learning that you’ve done, no matter how small. It’s important.

Celebrate!
Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

If in your struggle to find balance, you take the time to do a few of these things, I am certain that you will find

you have soared higher than you think!
Apparently, 2 011 left a lot of people feeling unbalanced for a lot of reasons. Ever the helpful girl scout, I went in search of all things balanced and discovered, as always, it's a balancing act.

It’s a balancing act, this thing we call life. But with all the tools and methods available to you, you can enjoy your balancing act and fly high.

Do Your Characters Play Well With Others?

Lesson 4: Re-Visioning Your Story

Do your characters play well with others? While writing the first draft you can allow your characters to ‘’take over’ your story, but not so in revision. By play well with others I mean, your characters must interact in an interesting way with other characters in your novel. During revision you may find that your characters react more than act, are less than focused on their goals, or simply aren’t a good fit for your story. In that case you have some characters that need re-visioning.

Every character in your story must be there for a purpose. A story is not like life where you meet random people that appear and disappear without disturbing your world. Every character should serve your story by doing the work of the story. Even in a heavily plot-driven story, your characters must be in the driver’s seat. So how do you make certain your characters are taking charge? With more analysis of your story, of course.

Before you read your story this time, you’re going to make a table or an excel spreadsheet. Across the top there should be columns for number, character name, role, traits, relationships, and physical attributes.

Number the rows of your table so that you will have a total count of characters when you’ve finished.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Sorry Shakespeare, the wrong name would not smell as sweet. In stories, character names matter. In this column, list every character you have named in your story. Does the name suit the time and setting of your story? Could Huckleberry Finn have been named Mycroft Holmes? What if Arwen had been named Hester Prynne?

Does the name suit your character? Consider the names Scarlett O’Hara vs. Jane Eyre. Is there any other name that would suit Hannibal Lecter? What about Voldemort? Each name evokes a certain feeling, an expectation. What can your reader expect based on your character names?

Another thing to look for in revision is how many of your characters have look alike or sound alike names? John and Sean can be confusing. Even in the television series Charmed where one of the gimmicks was that the sisters’ names each began with the letter P, the characters had distinctly different names: Piper, Prue, Phoebe, and Paige.

Character Roles

Characters play certain roles in stories. This is not to say they should be stereotypes. But if you understand the role your character plays in your story, you will be better able to refine your character’s motivations and goals. Character development could be a series in and of itself and not the focus of this post. In this post, I will only briefly define each of these roles. (for brevity and clarity I use the pronoun he).

Protagonist:

    • the character whose pursuit of a goal drives the story in a particular direction. Often the story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, but not always.

Hero:

    • according to most definitions, the essential trait of a hero is self-sacrifice. This doesn’t necessarily mean your character has to die, but he must pay a price to obtain his goal. King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo function in their stories as heroes.

Anti-hero:

    • generally, this is the protagonist who makes choices that are not heroic or of a self-sacrificing nature. Macbeth is the classic anti-hero.

Antagonist:

    • The Antagonist has a goal in direct opposition to the protagonist’s and does everything in his power to keep the protagonist from his goal.

Sidekick:

    • A Sidekick is loyal, faithful, and supportive. He can be associated with either the protagonist or antagonist. He can be a dog, a robot, an alien, or a human.

Mentor:

    • sometimes also called guardian or teacher: The Mentor can be a wise teacher such as Obi Wan Kanobi to Luke Skywalker or Dumbledore to Harry Potter. He can also require the hero pass a test before bestowing an object that the hero will need later in the story.

Reason:

    • This character role generally appeals to the logic and reasoning of other characters in the story. Examples of this type are Dr. Spock, Hermoine, and Sherlock Holmes.

Emotion:

      • This character role generally appeals to the emotions of other characters in the story. In the Harry Potter books, Ron fills that role. Dr. McCoy and Deanna Troi are

    Star Trek  characters in this role.

Skeptic

    also called contagonist, trickster or temptress: This character is a clown, a mischief maker, or skeptic or is contrary to the protagonist or hero. Fred and George Weasley are the mischief makers in the Harry Potter series.

Spear Carriers:

    • These are characters whose purpose is limited to specific scenes. They might have a piece of information or a weapon or item that the hero needs. These characters are not larger-than-life types and often do not have names.

Setting or background:

      • These are the characters of crowd scenes. They enrich your story by demonstrating that there are other people in your story world. They do not interact with your story characters but sometimes they serve as obstacles such as the crowds in the movie,

    Blade Runner.

Narrator:

     The Narrator tells the story about the protagonist or hero. Dr. Watson is a narrator.

How Many Characters

Not every story will have every character role in it. Sometimes one character serves multiple roles. For example, a protagonist can also be a hero or an anti-hero. A sidekick can represent emotion or reason, sometimes even the skeptic.

Every character you list must fulfill at least one role. If you cannot tell what role your character fills in the story, neither can your reader. That character needs to be better focused or killed off.

No two characters should fulfill the same role. If you find you have more than one sidekick who is the emotion character, merge them or kill one off.

Characteristically Speaking

In this table you are creating, characteristics are the three primary personality traits of your main characters. Is he honest, trustworthy, and reluctant? Or is he self-aggrandizing, dishonest, and loyal to his gang?

Why did I say three traits? A series of three conveys a kind of balance, a rhythm. The Rule of Three exists in story structure (beginning, middle, and end), titles (The Three Little Pigs, Three Musketeers, etc.), jokes and comedy usually have a series of three beats (ba-dum-dah!), and the most minimal and stable structure is three-legged.

These traits should be the three that are typical of your character, the ones that matter to them. If these traits are important to your characters (either consciously or subconsciously) then your reader will also care about them. To avoid stereotypes, I suggest that each character have one unexpected trait as in my examples above.

Do you show the primary traits of your characters in action on the page? If not, your character may appear weak or dilute to your reader.

Do your character’s primary traits match his character role and (for your main characters) his story goal? Your story will be even stronger if your character’s traits relate to your story theme.

If you find that your characters are not consistent, or have more than three characteristics, you must carefully consider whether that enhances your story or not. Inconsistency and too many characteristics confuse the reader.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Relationships matter, in the real world and in the world of fiction. What relationship does each character have to the other? Are they friends, enemies, or frenemies? Perhaps they are family but the family is highly dysfunctional. Are they best buds or new acquaintances?

How do your characters feel about each other? They do feel something, don’t they?

What feeling does your character evoke in your readers? This is also a relationship you, the writer, must build. You build this relationship by understanding why should your reader care about this character.

If you find the relationships of your characters do not enhance your story, re-visioning is necessary.

Let’s Get Physical

The physical attributes of your character are the least important. Your reader will fill in blanks, so unless the genre of your story requires detailed descriptions, don’t over describe. Some description is essential. But do the physical attributes of your characters contribute to the story? At the very least, the physical attributes should not get in the way of the story. If your ninety pound weakly goes through the entire story without working on his muscle tone, he’d better not be able to be able to scale the mountain and beat the martial arts expert in order to obtain his goal.

When you introduce the character, does the introduction include specific traits or features? Remember that each descriptor you use increases the reader’s expectation that this character is important. If the character isn’t that important to the story, delete some of those traits and physical descriptions.

Are the physical attributes consistent? Readers hate it when the blue-eyed brown haired protagonist turns out to have coal black hair and twinkling hazel eyes three chapters later.

Does everyone look the same? Sometimes that can be the point of your story, if so, soldier onward. Most of the time your story is much stronger if you have contrasts in the physical appearance of your characters.

Do Numbers Matter?

In short, yes. It is difficult for a reader to care about a cast of thousands. Look over your cast of characters. Are there characters that appear in only one scene? Is that character necessary? Is there a way to use that character in other scenes? If not, perhaps you should consider rewriting that scene, un-name that character, or delete that character.

The number of characters in your story depends upon the scope of your story. A more intimate story should have fewer characters. A large, sweeping saga will have more characters. Remember, the more characters you have the more dilute your story may become. If your story requires a multitude of characters I strongly recommend that you study successful books such as George RR Martin’s series, A Song of Fire and Ice. The more characters you have, the stronger your other writing skills must be.

Your Assignment

If you’ve been following my Re-visioning Your Story series, you’ve read your manuscript a few times already. Hopefully, you are not sick of your manuscript, but if you are, hang in there. The light is at the end of the tunnel, sometimes it’s a long tunnel, but if you keep moving, you’ll get there.

This time, as you read your manuscript you will be focused on your characters. Fill in the table as you read. Again, do not revise, do not change one typo. Make notes of things you would consider changing and of the things you wouldn’t change. All your notes, all the dissected parts of your manuscript are brewing in your writer’s brain. There are just a few more things to evaluate, then your muse will be ready to pull it all together and turn your manuscript into the story you wanted to write.

I’d love to hear how you are doing with your deconstruction of your manuscript. Won’t you take a moment to write a comment or two?

ETA: Additional posts on Re-visioning Your Story

Lesson 1: Re-Visioning Your Story

Lesson 2: : Are Your Character’s Goals Golden?

Lesson 3: Twist the Knife Slowly

Lesson 4: above

Lesson 5: As the Plot Turns

Lesson 6: Is There a Time and Place in Your Story?

Lesson 7: From the End to the Beginning

Lesson 8: Putting the Pieces Together

Two Secret Rules for Writers

All sorts of people, from experienced professionals to the newest of neophytes, offer up rules on how to write, what to write, the order of scenes, types of characters, rules about rules for every flavor of writing from nonfiction to flash fiction. The rules offered by one author are often contradicted by the rules of another. The new writer searches and sorts through all of this looking for the secret rules for writers. She seems to think there is a secret out there that once unveiled will lead her down a petal-strewn path to a shiny finished manuscript and a publication contract. Here are two secret rules for writers that shouldn’t be a secret.

All sorts of people, from experienced professionals to the newest of neophytes, offer up rules on how to write, what to write, the order of scenes, types of characters, rules about rules for every flavor of writing from nonfiction to flash fiction. The rules offered by one author are often contradicted by the rules of another. The new writer searches and sorts through all of this looking for the secret rules for writers. She seems to think there is a secret out there that once unveiled will lead her down a petal-strewn path to a shiny finished manuscript and a publication contract. lynettemburrows.com
A nib of a Parker-Duofold-Pinstripe International fountain pen, © Parker Pens, creative commons

The secret rule is:   

There is no secret.  Nor is there one, right path to publication.  The only real rules for writing are those of grammar, syntax, and editor guidelines.  And even those rules can be broken if you have an understanding of what you are doing and why.

Is there harm in reading the advice of others?  Possibly.  If your attempt to “follow the rules” drowns your muse in the overload of information, freezes her in the quandary between opposing rules, or blocks her with rules that don’t apply.

I propose that as you immerse yourself in the “how-to” books and articles that you will undoubtedly seek out, make two hard and fast rules.

Rule one: The story trumps all rules.

There are all kinds of good books and articles out there on how to write a story, I won’t rehash any of that in this article.  But there is very little out there to help the budding novelist sort the wheat from the shaft.  That brings us to:

Rule two:

All how-to advice is one of two things: a guideline or a tool.

A tool is any method by which you can help yourself discover the novel within.  A writer needs many tools in order to achieve a strong, well-written final draft.  You, the writer, get to pick and choose which tools you need and when you need them.

A guideline is a principle that sets an indication of a course of action as opposed to a rule which is a principle governing conduct, action, procedures, etc.  The difference is huge.

Rules confine you to one course of action. Guidelines give you boundaries and limitations in order to achieve a goal, but do not force your muse on down a particular line.  And just as with tools, the writer decides which guidelines apply to his story.  How do you decide which guidelines to use?  That’s a post for another day.  In the meantime, find tools and guidelines that allow your muse to play and be creative.

Want to read about some tools and guidelines? Try a few of these:

The Best Writer’s Tool

Stories Need Structure

Re-Visioning Your Story

The two secret rules for writers are not a secret — develop a selection of tools and guidelines and free your muse to write the best story you can.