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5 Ways to Tighten Up Your Plot

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Plot - Back to the Future - Indiana Jones - Novel Conclusions literary writing blog

The Ramifications of Time Travel via tapiture.com

There are many different successful writing styles that get books to fly off the shelves, but most successful fiction books need one thing to really work: a solid plot.  In my opinion, calling an author a tight plotter is one of the highest compliments.  A few authors that are great at this are Stephen King, Suzanne Collins, and George RR Martin, among others.

With a tight plotter, we’re hooked into the story, we encounter some crazy obstacles along the way (that totally make sense at the end of the story – I’m waiting on this one with Game of Thrones, Mr. Martin), and we solve whatever we’ve come to solve, while tying up most loose ends in ways that push the plot forward.  I like to think of it as a complex puzzle that doesn’t fully make sense until you put in the last few pieces – that’s some classy plotting.

How can I tighten up my plot?  Of course, I can’t give any in-depth advice about this without actually reading what you’ve written.  However, a few things generally always apply.

  1. First of all, make sure you actually have a plot.  This is a post in itself, so I’ll point you to a couple of experts in the meantime.  See Nathan Bransford’s Do You Have a Plot? and Mary Kole’s Writing a Hot Plot.
  2. Kill Your Darlings!  What does this mean?  (And why do I hear it so often???)  This means that there may be a few extra secondary characters just hanging out in your story that don’t really do anything for your main character or your story line.  If the character is present in your story, their presence should matter.  Does this character affect my main character in any important way?  Does this character move the plot forward?  If your main character has a best friend and a sister that fill the same role, perhaps that character can be combined.  If you have an evil neighbor named after that teacher you hated just to spite her, perhaps that character should be cut.
  3. Are the stakes high enough?  Obviously the stakes will be different depending on the genre.  However, are your stakes high enough for the reader to care?  If, in Jurassic Park, the story was just about whether or not the dinosaur theme park itself was viable, that’s not particularly exciting.  When suddenly our main characters’ lives hang in the balance, that changes the stakes.
  4. On the other side of the coin, are the stakes laughably high?  Remember to work within the confines of the world you have built.  It’s okay for your characters’ goals to seem a bit unreasonable (like Katniss surviving the Hunger Games or Scarlett O’Hara getting her family through the Civil War alive), but not laughably unreasonable (like Katniss learning to fly or Scarlett becoming president during the Civil War) – unless you’re writing parody or satire, of course.
  5. Cut out extraneous scenes.  How?  Go through your story scene by scene.  Does each scene push the plot forward and/or show readers something they must know in order for the story to work?  If this scene doesn’t fit those criteria, why is it in my story?  If you can’t answer the “why,” the scene might be ripe for the chopping block.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  What else can we do to tighten up plot?  What can we add/take out/change to make our plots tighter?

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Books vs. e-Books

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Books or e-books?  First of all, I don’t think this is a zero-sum game – that is to say, there’s definitely room for both real books and e-books in the world.  Although I definitely read way, way more real books (I have yet to pay for an e-book; I’ve only read free ones.  If I’m going to pay for it, I want to be able to HOLD it), there’s definitely a place for e-books.

What do you think are better places for e-books and better places for real books?  For example, one may be better for traveling and the other better for lending.  One may be better for reading embarrassing books (a la 50 Shades); one may be better for reading to a kid at bedtime (picture books!).  One may be easier to sign than the other…  Anyhow, check out the infographic below and feel free to weigh in!

Books vs. eBooks infographic - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - reading

Books vs. eBooks via stephenslighthouse.com

P.S. My favorite part might be the reminder that “Walking to the library is still the most ecofriendly way to read.”

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Authenticity in YA Fiction

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Child Soldier Drawing - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - authenticity in writing YA fiction

Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast, Africa, by Gilbert G. Groud via Wikimedia Commons

Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward.  Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously.  Why should a child represent humanity?

In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,

Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child.  I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today.  I never felt that I spoke childishly.  I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.  And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t.  This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now.  These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such.  If we do not, we risk losing our readers.

Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues.  The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).

What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity.  This can be harder than it sounds.  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that

Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter.  So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount.  If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.

What are our takeaways?

  • Be authentic in your writing.  Write truth.
  • Treat your characters’ issues like they matter.  If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.

What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists?  Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?

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Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot

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Sparkler by Josh Wickerham via Wikimedia Commons

What’s an inciting incident and what makes it so important?  Why are writing teachers always talking about them?

First of all, let’s get on the same page about what an inciting incident is.  It is that moment at the beginning of the story when something changes and sets the plot in motion, or, as Mary Kole puts it in Writing Irresistible Kidlit , it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”  This usually takes place at or around the end of the first chapter, sometimes sooner.

In Natalie Whipple’s Transparent (yes, the book I mentioned a couple weeks ago – it’s awesome!  Check it out!) Fiona’s father is trying to force her hand to get her to murder someone, and she has to run away or become a killer.  This catapults us into the story.  Although invisible Fiona has done her dad’s bidding before, she’s never had to kill anyone, and this pushes her and her mother to take action and run away.  It pulls Fiona and her mother out of their normal and into a world of conflicted plot awesomeness.

In Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, Emma and Josh log on to the internet for the first time – and discover their Facebook pages, fifteen years in the future.  Facebook hasn’t even been thought of yet, but their careers, spouses, kids, and status updates are all there.  Every time they change something in their present, something in their futures changes, too.  Aside from the fact that this is such a cool concept, it also causes Emma and Josh to act very differently in order to create the futures they want.  They just don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.

In Ender’s Game, Ender is accepted into Battle School, and his life completely changes.  He is not allowed to see his family again for several years, and he’s going to be trained to be an isolated child warrior.  This moment defines him.

Why are these incidents so important?

  • They give the reader a feeling for the flavor of the book
  • They tell us something about the main character – and if they don’t tell us something about the main character, they should.
  • Most importantly, they kick off the plot of the story.

What are your favorite inciting incidents?  What else is important about this moment at the beginning of the story?

P.S. One of my favorite inciting incidents is the Reaping in The Hunger Games (awesomely plotted, Suzanne Collins!).

P.P.S. Check out my guest post over at The Art Abyss, How Perseverance Helps Creativity Blossom.

5 Everyday Ways to Spark Your Creativity

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Crayon Logs by Chris Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons

Crayon Logs by Chris Metcalf via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the muse is hanging out on our shoulder, and the words just pour onto the page.  And sometimes, the muse has taken a lunch break … or maybe a long vacation.  How do you spark creativity in those situations?

First of all, let’s define creativity.  Dictionary.com says creativity is “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.”  Creativity is not just limited to the arts.  It also has to do with invention and the sciences and the way you live your life every day.  Being more creative in your artistic life can help you innovate in other areas of life as well by expanding the way you think.  So how can we expand or shift the way we think?

(Disclaimer: try not to use these things to put off actually writing)

  1. Change your routine.  It doesn’t have to be something major; it could be as small as going to a different grocery store, taking a new route to work or school, or making a new recipe for dinner.
  2. Read.  If you’re writing, you probably read more than the average person already, but reading new stories almost always gives you a different perspective, at least briefly.  Read in your genre to see what others are writing about.  Read outside your comfort zone in genres you’d never write in – they will have a different feel than the genres you’re comfortable with.  Read nonfiction; I’ve found some of my best inspiration has come from nonfiction that helps me to look at the world in a different way, especially books about how the world works, like Outliers, Freakonomics, and most recently, The New Geography of Jobs (one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years).  Books on writing are always a great source, too, like Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Save the Cat, and On Writing.
  3. Do something new.  Novelty helps your brain create new neural pathways.  Go on a little adventure – take a class, go to a new restaurant, go on a trip, learn something new.
  4. Journal.  Observe what’s going on around you.  Observing things in detail and/or organizing them into an order of events makes you look at them more closely than you normally would.  Free write in your journal; this is also called stream of consciousness writing.  It acts like a warm up for your brain.  You can set a timer, maybe 5 minutes, and don’t let your pen off the paper (or your fingers off the keyboard) until the timer goes up.  This might result in a little babble, but there may be some gems in there, too.
  5. Change your associations.  Associate with people who have similar goals, who work in the same field; these type of associations foster innovation and creativity (there’s a whole section on this in The New Geography of Jobs that I mentioned above – such a great read!).  This might mean joining a writing group, going to book signings and book festivals, and going to literary events and conferences.  This might mean blogging and visiting blogs of people with similar interests and goals.  You could also read books written by writers, agents, and others in the publishing business (this includes listening to audiobooks in the car – such a great use of traffic time).

How do you spark creativity?  What have I left off this list?

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How Can I Help Debut Authors? And Why Would I Want To?

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Transparent - Natalie Whipple - Debut Author 2013 - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips

Transparent via nataliewhipple.com

Today is a very special day.  Today is the day that debut author Natalie Whipple’s book Transparent comes out.  Transparent is about a girl with the power to become invisible whose mob boss daddy makes her do crazy stuff – and she wants to escape.

What makes Natalie Whipple so special?  Well, as of last summer, I hadn’t written much of anything that wasn’t work-related in about 7 years, since I graduated from college.  At first, I wasn’t writing because I was teaching, and teaching in a bad area is an 80-hour-a-week job.  Later, I wasn’t writing because I had gotten out of the habit.  Last summer, I ran across Natalie Whipple’s blog, and I realized how much I really missed writing.  She inspired me to write again (Side note:  I’ve been following her blog since last summer, but I don’t comment on it frequently because of how often the Captcha ate my comments in the past.  Boo Captcha).  Although my current work in progress is far from finished, it is thousands of words more than it might have been if I hadn’t been re-energized by Natalie’s blog.

How can we help debut authors like Natalie Whipple?  And why do we want to?

Spread the word.  Tell your friends, ask for it at the library, post about it on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/etc., or even blog about it.

Buy the book within the first 3 months it comes out.  This seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating: if it’s an author you really want to support, actually buy the book.  The first 3 months are when publishers are watching.  Pre-order it or buy it in the store.  And then write the review afterwards.  Remember that buying it in a brick and mortar store does more for the author than buying it online.  If you buy the book in a store, that store is more likely to stock an additional copy or two – and shelf space is at a premium.  Shelf space is free advertising for books that they don’t get elsewhere.

Why should we support these hard working authors?  We should support them because good books need a leg up.  There is only a certain amount of publicity budget available at publishing houses these days (and even less budget available for many self-published and indie authors), and mid-list authors with great books can benefit from a few extra recommendations ever so much.  Getting the word out about authors and books we love is paying it forward.  Every single mention counts.  I’ve heard John Green got to where he is because his books spread virally before he made it big.

But, you say, there are so many!  Well, just pick a couple you’re excited about and spread the word.  Here’s a few sites to encourage your imagination:

What other advice would you add about supporting debut authors and their ever-so-fabulous debut novels?  Where else have you seen debut author listings online?

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Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

How a Book is Born

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Today is the day for a short post.  Galley Cat over at mediabistro.com recently shared this oh-so-fantastic infographic that absolutely deserves more blog love.  You can find the origin of the infographic over at weldonowen.com.

My favorite part of this infographic is that it is never ending; no matter where you are on the chart, you can end up with a book about goat farming (or publish a novel).  What would you add to this chart?  Perhaps a section on self-published books?  Perhaps a section on unicorns?

How a Book is Born infographic - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - literary blog - writing tips

How an Idea Becomes a Book via weldonowen.com

What Do Your Fears Say About You?

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Vincent Thomas Bridge - San Pedro - fear - character motive - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Vincent Thomas Bridge via Wikimedia Commons

What do your fears say about you?  About your characters?  How do your characters react when they’re afraid?

This past week, I had to go to a restaurant in San Pedro for a work event.  San Pedro is the hub of the Port of LA/Long Beach, the largest port area on the west coast and home to the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  I freaked out a little on the way there when I saw the words “Vincent Thomas Bridge” on the directions.

I’m not normally afraid of heights, but this bridge FREAKS ME OUT because it is so high and so curved.  It feels like you’re looking over the edge of the horizon into nothingness.  It is 185 feet up at its highest point (egads!!!  That’s like 15 stories!).  I avoid it.  Avoiding it is not usually a problem since I rarely go down there, but I couldn’t skip this event.  I told myself I would get in the middle lane and grit my teeth and be done with it.  Fortunately, when I looked at the directions more closely, I realized I was just passing by the bridge.  At the event, my coworker A, who is more afraid of heights than I am, told my boss R and me (only half kidding) that she was going to turn around and not come if she had to drive over that bridge.  R, on the other hand, said he’d been really excited when he thought he might get to go over the bridge (at this point, A and I both gave him looks of horror).

This got me thinking about fear and how we react when we’re afraid.  My coworker A, my boss R, and I all had different reactions to the same event, having to drive over this crazy bridge.  A was planning to turn around and go home; I was going to grit my teeth and push through; and R was going to enjoy it.  How someone reacts to something shows us more about them than if we were just to say, for example, she’s afraid of heights.

In Jurassic Park (spoilers ahead, y’all), Michael Crichton uses fear to reveal traits about nearly every character.  Early on, after T-Rex shows up, the lawyer runs away and leaves the 2 kids all by themselves.  This underlines for us that the lawyer is a cowardly punk, and it also makes it more impressive when Dr. Grant comes to the kids’ rescue.  Crichton used this T-Rex experience to not only show us more about these 2 characters (the lawyer and Dr. Grant) but also to use the lawyer as a foil for Dr. Grant.  Later on, we see how greedy creep Dennis becomes impatient when he’s afraid – talking too much, driving erratically, and eventually bringing on his well-deserved demise.  We also come to find game keeper Muldoon is calm and collected in the face of fear; it becomes even scarier for us as the audience when the raptors have trapped Muldoon, the consummate tracker.

How can we apply this?  We show our characters taking action in the presence of fear.  What actions are they taking?  What does this show us about the character?  How is their objective influencing their actions in the presence of fear?

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Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

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