As we near the end of July, I’m about halfway through Draft #2 of WINTER: Book Four of the Lunar Chronicles, so I thought this would be a good time to talk about my process for tackling this book, before I forget what I was doing when I took all of these very impressive looking photos.
For me, the first draft of a novel is all about getting to know the characters and figuring out what this story is about. Although I’m an outliner, the first draft inevitably veers away from that outline as I uncover plot twists that hadn’t occurred to me and character motivations that I’d been previously unaware of.
Which makes the second draft the “making it all work” draft. Now I know where I’m going with the plot, the major points I want to hit, and I have a general idea of how the characters grow and change over the course of the story. I just need to rewrite, revise, and re-arrange it all in a way that makes sense and (hopefully) keeps the reader engaged throughout it all.
This is the process I devised for wrangling the massive, complex plot I’d unearthed in WINTER’s first draft.
1. Read through the draft. First, to refamiliarize myself with the story (which I wrote in early 2011), simultaneously taking notes on things that need to change and things I think could be stronger: where the plot gets convoluted, where character motivations seem weak, what is working and what isn’t. I may make notes in the file for smaller changes I plan to make, but I don’t bother changing anything right now. Mostly I’m just making a list of ideas as they come to me.
2. While reading the draft and taking notes, I also make my scene list. The scene list is easily my favorite tool when it comes to revising. Simply: It’s a list in which every scene in the book is summarized down to just two or three sentences. It allows me to see the major plot points and how the story progresses from beginning to middle to end, without getting bogged down with any superfluous information.
3. Determine the major plot threads and subplots—assign each one a color. WINTER is the first book for which I’ve been this neurotic about keeping my subplots straight, but it’s complex enough that it felt warranted. Every major conflict (the war, the plague, Cinder vs. Levana), every major character arc, every romantic subplot—they all need to have something that resembles a beginning, a middle, and an end. They all need to face obstacles and set-backs. They all need to grow and change over the course of the story.
All in all, I counted sixteen plot threads in WINTER. That’s a lot to keep track of!
(At this point, I also began organizing those notes I’d taken in Step One, noting which plot thread each one most relates to. For example, if I’d made a note during my read-through that I needed to find a way to give more closure regarding the letumosis antidote, I would put that note under the Plague plot thread.)
4. Using their assigned colors, I indicate each plot thread throughout the scene list. Does this chapter relate to Winter’s character arc? Does this one involve a new obstacle in Cinder’s attempt to undermine Levana? Then it’s highlighted to correspond with that plot thread.
Most chapters relate to more than one subplot at a time, and you’ll probably find that the most pinnacle chapters often bring three or more subplots together all at once, so this can get messy.
But then, when you’re done highlighting, you are given a very telling view of your entire book.
At a glance, you can see:
- which subplots tend to be completely ignored
- which subplots are all clumped up near the beginning or near the end
- which subplots remain stagnant, with no increasing stakes or suspense, for long portions of the story
5. I separate the scenes and lay them out by subplot ,so I can work on each one individually. After cutting the scene list into little strips of paper, so that each scene is on its own, I pull out one plot thread at a time and begin to analyze. What could I do to make this plot thread stronger? How could I reorganize the events to make them more suspenseful? What obstacles could I add to make it more intense?
Note: I found that this method only worked for about a third of my plot threads – namely, the major ones. Subplots, such as how a character grows during the story, or the romance arcs, tend to hinge on those other major plots, and are therefore harder to isolate.
And so, once I had each major plot thread more-or-less figured out, it was time to…
6. Put it all back together. This requires much staring and thinking and brainstorming. Much shuffling around. Many notes about what will change in each existing scene. Many sticky notes indicating brand new scenes that need to be added. Much more rearranging. Until finally I felt as though each major plot works together and plays on each other to create a single interwoven story.
Then I went back to dealing with those subplots…
7. More color-coordinating. By this time, all those pretty highlights I’d made at the beginning had stopped being effective because things had changed so much. So I decided to use colored markers I’d found in a board game to once again indicate which scenes related to which plot threads.
Once again able to see (at a glance) which subplots were weak or unbalanced, I added more notes and more scenes to strengthen them.
8. Transcribe the changes to thescene list (or Scrivener). Once I felt that I had done as much as I could to make a strong novel, short of actually writing it, I made the necessary changes on my Scrivener cork board (or you could notate it all on that handy dandy scene list). I rearranged the scenes from the first draft that needed rearranging. I added the summaries of the new scenes I’d come up with. I made notes about ways to show how this romance is tried in this chapter, how this character is made to question their motives here, how this chapter is meant to bring closure to this particular subplot, how I must mention here that the character has a weapon (foreshadowing a time in the future that they’ll have to use it), and on and on.
9. Then, finally, I start in on Draft #2. Self-explanatory, I hope.
This entire process took about two weeks, which is significantly longer than I would normally spend on planning a revision draft, except this book is just so long and so complicated. In the end, I suspect taking the time to do this has saved me months of additional revision work.
That said—I wish I could say that putting all this forethought and planning into my first revision draft has made it an absolute breeze. But the fact is, no amount of planning will keep plots from shifting, character motives from changing, and little interesting details from creeping up during the actual writing of a scene and throwing you for a tailspin. I’m still constantly making changes to that scene list and reworking plot threads that had seemed perfect when they were laid out on my dining room table, but I’ve since realized have an unexpected flaw in them. I’m already making a list of things I want to change and fix in Draft #3.
But this process has given me a foundation to work from, and the confidence that—no matter what changes—this story has a beginning and a middle and an end, and all plot threads are at least accounted for. There will be more work to do later, but this gave me a place to start, which is often the scariest part of any draft.
Years ago, I read an article in Writer’s Digest about an author who had a personal writing cottage in their backyard, constructed from beautiful vintage windows and surrounded by a quaint English garden. That’s been a dream of mine ever since, but one that always lingered behind all the other dreams. I have a Pinterest board of Writing Spaces that I hope will inspire me one day, but for the most part, my vision of an ideal writing cottage has been something of a blur.
Except for one particular detail.
I wanted it to have a vintage Dutch door.
Why? Good question. I don’t know. I just like them.
Well, a few weeks ago, my husband and I were wandering through a shop of reclaimed building materials in Seattle and stumbled upon, what else? A vintage Dutch door.
Well, I couldn’t resist!
And now we have to figure out what to do with it, which means it’s time for me to start thinking about my dream writing cottage after all.
Though we won’t be able to actually build my writing cottage for at least a year or two, I’ve started compiling a list of some things my dream studio might have. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on at least one wall.
- pretty vintage windows
- a large writing desk with enough space to check page proofs and lay out chapter synopses for complicated plotting maneuvers
- also, space on the desk for garden-fresh flowers
- and probably a coffee maker
- a cozy reading chair, with a side table for a lamp and a glass of wine
- a large corkboard for posting fanart and inspiration photos
- a special wine chiller/refrigerator, and a space for snacks, and maybe a watercooler? No, that’s too corporate. A pretty pitcher for filtered water then.
- Artwork that can be easily swapped out for new artwork that inspires the current WIP
So, what am I forgetting? What would you put in your dream writing cottage?
I just got back from San Diego Comic-Con!! Here I am with my husband, rocking our fairy tale costumes:
We’re already contemplating what we might be next year. I suggested Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask (adolescent dream come true!), and he said he’d consider it… if we could zombify them. Ha! I guess we’ll see.
Anyway, on to today’s blog post!
Solo Presentations for Authors: A Breakdown
Last week I talked about the what, how, and why of author panels. Today I’m offering tips for an even more intimidating type of presentation: when you have to go it alone.
When Cinder came out, I was more-or-less thrown into the deep end as far as author presentations go. The day of Cinder’s release I had my launch party in Tacoma, WA. The next evening I was at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnatti giving my first solo presentation as a published author.
Since then, I’ve honed my talk/presentation into something that I hope is fun and entertaining for readers who come out to the events. But I’ve been to enough author signings as a fan/reader myself that I’ve started to notice a lot of authors seem lost in front of an audience, and I’ve met plenty of authors who are terrified by the idea of presenting solo.
But if you’re writing in a genre where publishers frequently tour their authors, the reality of touring may very well be in your future.
So here are some general tips and tricks I’ve picked up both from giving and watching solo presentations.
- Tell anecdotes. Readers usually want to know where the idea for a story came from, so that’s a good place to start for just about any writer. Beyond that, give some thought to the writing process and if there are any interesting or humorous experiences that went along with it. Did you learn some fascinating tidbits while conducting research? Did you travel anywhere cool? Did a completely bizarre run-in with a stranger inspire one of your quirkiest characters? Readers love this behind-the-scenes info.
(During my presentations, I usually talk about getting my start writing Sailor Moon fanfiction, the short story contest that inspired the Lunar Chronicles, and the NaNoWriMo contest in which I wrote 150,000 words in an attempt to win a walk-on role on Star Trek. I didn’t win either contest, but it still makes for a decent story.)
- Show and Tell. Props can be a great way to break the ice with an audience – it gets their eyes off of you for a little while, and it gives you something to do with your hands. What can you bring to show your readers? Copyedited pages and page proofs? Foreign editions with unique cover art? Inspiration photos? Many readers are interested in the publishing process, so props can also help segue into a talk about what happens between selling a book and it hitting bookshelves.
- To Read or Not to Read. Some writers are very, very good at reading their own work. If that’s you – by all means, go for it! I recommend choosing a short passage that has some humor in it. Like, two pages or fewer short. Unless you’re going to do character voices or act it out with sock puppets or entertain in some other way, people get bored really fast listening to a person read. (Plus, there’s a good chance that many people in the audience will have already read your book!) So keep it short and sweet. Also, practice looking up once in awhile to make eye contact with the audience. It’ll feel weird at first, but will keep them engaged more than if you’re hiding behind the book the whole time.
That said, if you’re like me and you HATE reading your own work (with a great, burning passion), it’s almost always acceptable to skip it. Most bookstores don’t care, as long as you’re presenting in some other way, as discussed above. Or, what about reading something that’s NOT your own book? Crazy, I know, but I’ve started telling some of the old Grimm tales at my events. Not reading word-for-word, but my own summarized versions of them. It’s fun and so much more enjoyable, for both me and the audience.
- Q&A. I suggest leaving at least 10 to 15 minutes for Q&A. For me, this is the easiest part of the presentation – I could answer questions all day long. It tends to be pretty laid back, and if readers are asking questions, then you know they’re engaged with what you’re saying.
That said, it can be tough to get the questions going, especially if you’re presenting to a smaller audience. People are shy and no one ever wants to go first! For this, I started bringing prizes for the first three people to ask questions. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – a signed bookmark will do. But everyone loves free stuff and once you get those first few questions out of the way, it tends to loosen everyone up.
- Presentation length. I try to aim for about 45 minutes of speaking time at my events. I feel that’s long enough that people who drove a long ways will feel it was worth their time, but short enough that people don’t start getting antsy, and it leaves plenty of time to sign books. My solo presentations look something like:
- 15 minutes: The story of where I got the idea, writing the book, getting published
- 10 minutes: Tell some Grimm fairy tales
- 20-25 minutes: Q&A
- Sign books!
I hope that gives you some ideas for what to do when it comes time to give solo events. I know they’re intimidating, but they can also be a whole lot of fun, and readers will appreciate you putting some thought into your speech rather than just giving a 30-minute reading of your work. Trust me.
Questions/thoughts? Let me know in the comments!
I’m going to San Diego Comic-Con tomorrow!! I am super excited. Last year I was pretty overwhelmed with the sheer size of it all, but this year I’m feeling like I have a much better handle on the schedule and what I want to do while I’m there.
Where to Find Me at San Diego Comic-Con
Friday, 11:00-12:00, MacKids Booth #1220: I’ll be signing Cinder and Scarlet and the first 20 people in line also get advance copies of CRESS.
The rest of Friday: Keep an eye out for Little Red Riding Hood (me!) and the Woodsman (my husband!) wandering the halls, and please say hello if you see me. I’ll have swag, too!
Saturday, 11:00-12:00, Room 23ABC: PANEL: WHEN GRRLS FALL IN LOVE: Romance and the YA Heroine.
I’ll be talking tough protagonists who can stay tough while falling in love. And holy cow, you guys, check out this line-up of authors!!
Holly Black – The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
Cassandra Clare – The Mortal Instruments series
Ally Condie – the Matched Series
Marissa Meyer – Scarlet
Lissa Price – Starters
Veronica Roth – Divergent series
Veronica Wolff – The Watchers series
Did I die a little bit when I saw my panel mates? Yes. Yes, I did.
I suspect the panel will be followed by another signing in the autographing area, but I don’t know that for sure. And there will not be CRESS ARCs at that one.
All About Author Panels
I’ve been meaning to blog about the somewhat obscure and can-be-intimidating aspects of author events lately, because I’ve met lots of debut authors in the past few months who are very nervous about the prospect of presenting their work to audiences (and understandably so!). So today I’m going to talk a little bit about author panels/group presentations, and next week I’ll talk about my experiences and advice for when you’re presenting solo.
So, what is an Author Panel?
A typical panel consists of a group of authors and a moderator presenting to an audience. The moderator might be another author, a blogger, a librarian, or a bookseller. Panels often take place at conventions, conferences, book festivals, schools, bookstores, and libraries.
I’ve been on panels with as few as three panelists and as many as ten, but I find that four or five panelists is just about perfect – it makes for good conversation while allowing everyone enough time to talk about their books and writing process. (That said, how many authors are on a panel usually isn’t up to us).
There’s often something that ties these specific authors together. They may all be from the same publisher (such as those featured on Macmillan’s Fierce Reads or Penguin’s Breathless Reads tours), or they may have books with a similar theme (such as the above mentioned tough-girls-in-love panel), or they may be part of a blogging group, or maybe they’re just friends who thought it would be fun to do an event together.
Most panels begin with introducing the authors and their work (either each author introduces themselves or the moderator introduces them), followed by the moderator asking questions and directing the conversation toward specific topics, followed by Q&A from the audience.
The Benefits of Author Panels
The first benefit is a personal one. In my opinion, author panels are a just a lot of fun to participate in. A great panel can feel like you’re sitting around a table chatting with old friends, even if you just met. You all have a love of books and writing in common, after all, and so many of us have common interests and subscribe to the same fandoms (Harry Potter, anyone?), that it’s usually pretty easy to forge connections with your panel mates.
From a sales/promotional perspective, author panels are great because you’re going to get fans from different authors in for the event, and hopefully they’ll hear you talk about your book and be intrigued enough to pick up a copy.
Preparing for an Author Panel
- If you can meet with the other panelists beforehand and discuss the format, that’s ideal. The more comfortable you are with each other, the better. I like to suggest to my fellow panelists that we keep the format conversational, and encourage everyone to comment on each other’s points and make jokes. It’s more fun for you and the audience that way, as opposed to a Question – Answer – Answer – Answer – Answer, Next Question format, which kind of drives me crazy.
But sometimes, if the panel is too large or you don’t have much chemistry, there’s just not much you can do to liven things up. Try your best.
- Practice summarizing your book.
- No, seriously. Practice summarizing your book.
Most panels begin by giving each author the chance to tell the audience what their book is about. Practice your short pitch beforehand, until it rolls naturally off your tongue. You should be able to give a basic synopsis of your book in under two minutes.
Why the emphasis here? Because I estimate about 30% of authors I meet really freak out when they have to summarize their books, but of all the things to be nervous about when it comes to presenting to an audience, this doesn’t have to be one of them. You wrote it, so you obviously know what it’s about! Read your query letter. Read the back cover copy. Read the synopsis posted on Amazon. Describe your protagonist and the problem their facing and leave the audience wanting to know more.
Just, please don’t say: “I’m so bad at this… I hate summarizing my book… I don’t know… it’s about a girl… who falls in love with this cute boy… and learns an important life lesson… it’s kind of coming-of-age story, I guess? And I think it’s kind of good and you’ll just have to read it if you want to know what it’s about.”
This convinces approximately no one to read your book. Don’t sell yourself, and your book, short like that.
- Sometimes the moderator will send you the questions before the event so you can be prepared. I rarely look at them because I prefer to wing it and hope for good conversation between the other panelists. But if knowing what to expect makes you more comfortable, by all means, read them and consider how you might respond to each one.
- If the panel revolves around a theme (i.e., strong female protagonists in YA fiction), consider some talking points you might want to make. Remember, you’re trying to entertain the audience, but you also want to pique their interest for your book. So if you can work in any intriguing tidbits about your own strong female protagonists, all the better.
- Familiarize yourself with your fellow panelists. I attempt to read at least one book from every author I present with, although lack of time sometimes means I only get to read a few chapters or the synopsis on Amazon. It happens. (That said, there isn’t an author in the world who doesn’t understand the lack of reading time in our schedules, so no one will hold it against you if you haven’t read their work.)
- Consider the etiquette of presenting with other authors. Try not to interrupt other people when they’re speaking, but also don’t be afraid to speak up if you have something to add. Try not to be all Me-Me-Me, but also recognize that there are members of the audience who want to hear from you, so don’t be the silent, shy author, either. Pick and choose which questions you answer—some questions you’ll have a great response for and you should certainly give it, but you don’t have to answer every question if you have nothing relevant or interesting to say.
- Relax! Make jokes! Let the audience see how enthusiastic you are about your book, and if you enjoyed the books from your fellow panelists, by all means, let the audience know that, too!
Author panels can be one of the great highlights of touring and promoting your book. It’s an opportunity to meet fantastic, talented people and talk shop with them for a little while. Plus, it gives readers a chance to see some fantastic, talented people interact and discuss the inner workings of writing and publishing. It’s a win-win! Smile and have fun.
One question that I get asked all the time is: “What does a normal writing day look like?” And I usually respond with something like, “Well, there really isn’t such a thing as a normal day for me. Each day might include this, this, this, or sometimes even this.”
Which seems like such a copout answer, but it’s true! While there are authors who keep very strict writing schedules, my days tend to vary drastically depending on where I am in the writing process, what promotional or travel obligations I have coming up, and what else is happening in my life.
So I thought I would start this semi-regular blog feature to give you guys an inside look into what, exactly, I do all day long. (Plus, I asked Twitter if they thought it would be interesting, and got the go-ahead. So I am going. Ahead.)
My thought is to make this a monthly feature to show how responsibilities vary based on the stage of writing and marketing, but that depends on you guys—interesting? Dull? You tell me!
This was my time tracked from last Friday, July 12:
5:30a.m.: Feel strangely awake, despite the early hour. Get up, start the coffee, feed the cats, make the bed.
5:45: Sit down on the sofa to see what happened on Twitter and Facebook overnight. Read some blogs. Fall in love with Joss Whedon all over again when I read his super smart tips on Getting Things Done. Pin it. Tweet it.
6:30: Hey, where did all that energy go?! Fall back asleep on the couch. So much for that inspiring article on productivity.
7:30: Okay, now I’m awake. Call the vet and make a morning appointment because Callie Jo has had a weird skin reaction going on lately. Get dressed, eat some breakfast, brush my teeth.
8:15: Off to the vet! Turns out Callie has had an allergic reaction, requiring twice-monthly shots until it goes away. Boo. But she’ll be fine.
9:00: Back home. I quickly morph into an email answering machine! Manage to clear out two of my four inboxes.
10:00: Phone interview with a very nice journalist. This will be posted with the CRESS cover reveal which I think is happening next week. CAN’T. WAIT.
10:30: A couple more emails, then ask Twitter if they think a “day in the life” blog feature would be interesting. Two thumbs up from the Hivebrain. Start writing this post.
10:50: Distracted by the internet. Watch the new trailers for Austenland and How to Train Your Dragon 2. I might swoon over grown-up Hiccup. Just a little.
11:00: Take a look at the next two chapters I’ll be writing in WINTER. They’re brand new chapters (not being revised from the first draft), so I print out their summaries and decide to take my AlphaNeo out to lunch later to work on them.
11:15: Off to see my sister-in-law / hair stylist! Comic-Con is next week, so it’s time to make myself presentable for the public again.
11:15-2:30: Manage to read about 30 pages in between the cut and color. Currently reading (and almost finished with) The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs. I’ve been reading non-fiction lately in an effort to stay focused on the WIP and not sit on the couch all day reading YA. I’m enjoying learning lots of interesting things, but I miss fiction. I’ll be treating myself to a major reading binge in August!
2:30: Totally in love with my new hair, and impressed with my Sister-in-Law who just got back from climbing a friggin’ mountain. I head over to the restaurant across the street from the salon and order up some lunch.
2:45: Finally, it’s time to get some writing done! I whip out my AlphaNeo and the scene summaries I pulled together earlier and get to work.
5:45: Two chapters, done! Satisfied, I pack up my stuff and head home.
6:00: The first thing I do when I get home is transfer the two new chapters over to my laptop so I can see how many words I wrote. That’s my favorite part of using the AlphaNeo – you can’t keep track of your word count as you’re writing, so at the end it feels like you just racked up a whole bunch of words in seconds!
Total words written for the day: 3,073.
Evening: The evening is spent watching a movie (Sky High, in which I am super disappointed in the romance aspect) and finishing The Know-It-All.
Just a short post today, because lately I’ve been in a “aren’t I lucky this is my life” sort of mood. So I thought I would list some of my favorite perks that come with the job of being a writer.
- We get to work in our pajamas! (Probably my favorite perk of all time.)
- Reading is productive – it’s all market research, after all.
- The freedom to set your own hours and take breaks to go see a movie in the middle of the day if you want to.
- You can work with a cat on your lap. Bonus if they’re purring.
- You can work almost anywhere. Parks, restaurants, aboard a yacht… if you had a yacht. Or knew someone with a yacht. Hey… do any of you have a yacht?
- “Company retreats” generally refer to you, your pajamas, and a lot of chocolate. No silly ice breakers involved.
- That, or writing retreats with other authors, where you get to drink wine and eat cookies and talk about agents and editors like… you know, real writers.
- There are lovely people in New York who will take you out to eat when you’re in town.
- You get to do all sorts of cool things in the name of “research” (which means they’re also a tax write-off).
- Also, books are a tax write-off.
- You get to meet other authors at conferences and signings, including some of your personal icons.
- A certain amount of eccentricity is expected of you.
Whether writing for you is a hobby or a career or a hobby-waiting-to-become-a-career, there are all sorts of perks to be had. What are some of your favorites?
A few weeks ago my husband and I made a trip down to northern California, including a special detour to San Jose so I could cross off one of my life-long goals: to finally see the Winchester Mansion (or Winchester Mystery House). This house has been on my bucket list since I was a kid, ever since I heard the completely bizarre and fascinating history behind the house.
It was built by Sarah Winchester, wife of William Winchester (of the famous Winchester rifles). The rumor/myth/belief behind the house is that, after her husband died, Mrs. Winchester was told by a Boston psychic that the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns would haunt her the rest of her life, unless she built a house . . . but never finished it.
With those orders in hand, Mrs. Winchester bought a small farmhouse near San Jose, CA, and started building.
Construction continued 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 38 years.
Then, on September 5, 1922, Mrs. Winchester was found dead of heart-failure in her bed. Construction stopped immediately. As so much mystery and curiosity had surrounded the house, it was purchased by a private company and opened for public tours within a year.
According to the web site, the sprawling mansion contains 160 rooms, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. Much of it was left unfinished (including nails half-driven in, which seemed to annoy my carpenter husband a great deal).
And it is bizarre. There’s a stairway that runs up into the ceiling, a door that opens up into nowhere, cabinet doors that open onto walls, a window in the floor, and (my personal favorite) a séance room where Mrs. Winchester would commune with the spirits nightly. There was only one entrance to the séance room – for which Mrs. Winchester held the only key – but there are three exits. One door opens up to a drop that would land a person in a kitchen sink one floor below, and one exit has a door handle only on the side of the séance room – from the dressing room it leads into, it appears to be just a paneled wall.
Why so much kookiness? There are two theories – one, that Mrs. Winchester had no training in construction or architecture and simply didn’t know what she was doing, or there’s the more intriguing theory that she was attempting to confuse the spirits by building so many nonsensical things into her house.
The 160-room mansion was a treat to visit, for its fascinating history, beautiful Victorian architecture, and, of course, for all the story fodder. If a crazy lady trying to confuse dead spirits by building a mansion-turned-carnival house doesn’t spark some writer-y ideas, I don’t know what will. If you’re ever in Northern California, I definitely recommend checking it out!
Unfortunately, picture aren’t allowed inside the house, but here are some I took from the grounds:
(The door to nowhere.)
Learn more about the house at http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/.
It’s inevitable that at some point in the writing process, we’re going to get stuck. Even for serious outliners, like me, there’s bound to be a point in the story where you’re just not sure what should happen next. I find that, for me, this usually occurs when my plot has taken a detour away from my outline and I’m trying to figure out how to get it back on track, or when I realize that something in the outline isn’t going to work after all and needs to be revamped before I can proceed.
Luckily, there are plenty of techniques for figuring out where to go with a misbehaving plot. Just a quick sampling of some techniques I’ve used in the past (with varying degrees of success):
- Writing down the problem before bed and hoping I dream up a solution
- Treadmill time + the novel’s playlist
- Staring out a window
- Acting out a potential scene as the protagonist
- Having a conversation with the protagonist and asking them what they want to do next
- Procrastinating on Pinterest
- Going for a walk
- Giving up and watching Firefly for the rest of the day
And on and on.
But one tactic that I’ve become pretty fond of and seems to be met with success almost every time I try it is the “What If” list.
- a good pen and a piece of paper
(No, really – step away from the computer screen. Writing by hand unlocks all sorts of sticky things from your brain.)
First, figure out where you got stuck. Backtrack to the most recent chapter you were happy with and take stock of where your characters are, what dilemma they’re facing, what their current goal is, and where the story is heading (or, where you hope it’s heading).
Then make a list of all the things that could happen next – from expected to obscure to entirely ridiculous.
What if Sally confessed her love for Joe right now?
What if Sally slapped him?
What if Sally confessed a deep dark secret from her childhood?
What if the villain planted a bomb in her apartment and it exploded?
What if a flock of seagulls flew in through the window?
What if the news announced an alien invasion?
What if Sally’s mother called to say she’s dying?
What if her mother called to say she’s being held hostage in a bank and Joe is the only one capable of saving her?
And on and on. Set yourself a goal—say, you won’t stop listing until you’ve hit at least 30 potential ideas. Then be random. Be absurd. Be dark. Be cruel. Be funny.
Need an extra push? Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your characters right now. What’s the best thing? What minor characters could be brought in? What subplots could tie in here? What new goals or obstacles or dilemmas could you throw into the story?
Some things will be cliché. Some things will be stupid. Some things will obviously not belong in this book.
But then—out of nowhere—the most brilliant, perfect idea will strike. You’ll know it’s the Right Idea when you gasp and stop writing, even if you haven’t hit your goal number yet, because your head is suddenly filling up with all the potential that one perfect idea has to offer.
Applaud your genius and go with it.