Preptober Plotting Tips

Welcome to Preptober! If you’re like me, you’re probably gearing up for November, which for lots of writers is simply known as NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last four years participating in every NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never been able to fully finish a challenge. After much careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s probably because my writing habits could use a change and a little more self-discipline. I’m very much a pantster when it comes to writing – I just start writing by the seam of my pants and hope for the best.

While this method might be great for getting the creativity flowing, it also means that you’re more likely to encounter roadblocks to the plot. I find these happen most often in the middle of your book. It’s easy to write the beginning and the ending of a story, but the middle is where you’re most likely to drop the ball if you don’t have a set plot with a linear continuity already planned out. And if you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo it’s so easy to give up halfway through because you don’t know what you’re doing. 

That is why it’s a great idea to try and become somewhat of a plotster. You don’t have to detail out every single minor event or occurrence, but having a general idea will definitely help get you from point A to point C without giving up when you hit point B. And this year for NaNoWriMo I’m determined to finish a full 65k manuscript, which is why I’m spending Preptober coming up with a solid enough outline to help me next month.

I’ve been following a simple three-act outline that focuses more on the character development. The setting isn’t something that you need to worry about as it pretty much writes itself. But the plot and characters are pretty intertwined. I personally like to outline my characters’ reactions to certain major plot points. And if you follow the traditional three-act plot, it’ll create a pretty easy-to-follow outline that you can turn to when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo.

Check it out below:

Act One

Opening/Narrative Hook:

  • Introduce character 
  • This is also the place where you can do a bit of world building as you set up and Introduce your character’s normal world
  • Introduce your character’s unfulfilled desires or what’s holding them back

Inciting Incident:

  • What happens to disrupt your character’s sense of “normalcy?”
  • Character can react to either want to change things or escape things

First Plot Point:

  • The moment the character makes the full commitment to whatever the inciting incident has called them to pursue
  • Character struggles with fears or a lie they believe about themselves/others/the world

Act Two

Rising Action:

  • Your character begins the proverbial “hero’s quest” and along the way must confront the things that make them uncomfortable such as fear of failure, fear of their own shortcomings, breaking down long-held beliefs, etc.
  • Your character’s fight against the antagonist begins
  • This is also when your main character begins to see that their fears/beliefs are wrong

Midpoint/Second Plot Point:

  • This is the biggest part of your novel so far, in which your character comes face to face with the antagonist

Post-Midpoint Rising Action:

  • The main character devises a plan to defeat the antagonist
  • They make a small step toward their goal
  • While continuing to grow as a character, they still struggle with previous fears/old beliefs

Act Three

Character’s Darkest Moment:

  • Right after that small step toward their goal in Act 2, the main character suffers a major setback that forces them to confront the fears or misplaced beliefs that have been holding them back the entire story
  • The release of their repression further fuels them to defeat the antagonist

The Climax:

  • The conclusion of the character’s arc is complete with the defeat of the antagonist (but keep in mind if this is Book One in a series then the smaller antagonistic force is stopped, but not the overarching antagonist of the entire story)

The Resolution:

  • Your character returns to “normal” but having experienced change they can’t return to the status quo, so they begin their life in a new way

Narrative Tension for Beginners

Narrative tension. You can’t create a page-turner without it. If there is no tension, the story won’t be very intriguing. How many of us have always dreamed of reading a book about a man who just sits on a bench the entire story? My point exactly. We want to read something that will pull us in. Give us the story of a man on a bench waiting for his blind date when some aliens suddenly land on Earth. That definitely makes things more interesting. Adding tension to your story can be tricky when you’re first starting out as a writer because it’s all about finding balance. You don’t want to overload your story and make it so convoluted with tension that you confuse your readers, but at the same time you don’t want it so thinned out that your story reads more like a to-do list with different characters than an actual plotted out idea. 

So, how do you find that balance? Simple. I’ve come up with some tips for first time writers looking to build tension in their stories. It’s important to keep in mind that tension is something your story should have, no matter if it’s 2,000 words or 200,000 words. 

Keep Raising the Stakes:

Okay, so you’ve got an initial conflict that sets your story in motion, but then you need to layer on top of it the smaller complications that arise from that end goal. Let’s dissect a classic plot for a moment. Lord of the Rings. We have the overarching goal that sets the story in motion, Frodo has the ring of power and he has to get it out of the Shire. But he’s only supposed to get it as far as Rivendell, however, the council votes to take it to Mordor and throw it into the fire and Frodo volunteers. Boom! The stakes just got raised for Frodo. Then the mines of Moria happen and Gandalf is lost. Stakes are raised again for the whole fellowship. Then the group splits up when the Uruk-hai attack. Stakes raised even further. Merry and Pippin are taken hostage causing Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli to go rescue them. More raised stakes – and that’s all just the first book!

But you can see where I’m going with this. One main conflict can have a ripple effect of other conflicts that arise, and your characters have to react to them. Each new minor conflict is you leveling up the tension for your characters, and making your readers want to keep reading because they don’t know how the character(s) will react. Your plot doesn’t even need to have a dragon and five armies to make it tense, every day contemporary stories can be just as intense. It all boils down to your main character wanting something, going after it, and setting in motion a bunch of minor hiccups that arise along the way, making it a constant choice between A or B. Love triangles are a very popular example of this. And a character’s desire doesn’t always have to be this grandiose desire to bring justice and equality to the world and tear down the corrupt system in order for your plot to have a purpose and drive conflict forward. Let us not forget that Shaun of the Dead’s events all started because someone wanted a Cornetto. 

Balance Tension with Moments of Calm:

I know I said you need to keep raising the stakes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character(s) a bit of break every once in a while. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to give your readers a chance to digest what’s happening in between obstacles. If you have too many problems arising for your characters all at once, it becomes too much. Plus, these moments of “rest” are where you can build the stories in other ways like characterization or revealing bits of backstory. For example, if you have two bank robbers trying to make it down from Montana to the Mexican border, you can slow it down a bit by maybe giving them a flat tire on a remote stretch of highway somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona. You’d still have the tension of a flat tire when they’re so close to achieving their goal, but there is still a chance to have some calm moments. While the two bank robbers are waiting for Triple A to arrive, they can have an in-depth conversation. One can reveal that he’s trying to pay off a loan shark, while the other can admit he’s never changed a flat tire before. Either way, that slow moment on the highway can be a chance to work on backstory and characterization. 

Don’t think that a story’s action needs to be all rise all the time in order to create tension. You can get the same effect from a few falls. Tension works best when you have a rise and a fall. Another great idea for tension is these false senses of security. When your character thinks they’ve accomplished their task and they’re home free, that is a fine time to reveal that there’s still a little ways to go. Again, drawing back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell. Everything seems chill. Those scenes are very calm for Frodo who thinks he’s soon going home. But then the council happens. The “oh my goodness” moment when Frodo offers to carry the ring to Mordor wouldn’t be so powerful if you didn’t have those calming moments before. While Frodo is in his false sense of security you’re able to digest all that he just went through to get to Rivendell. You feel for him. Which brings me to my next point…

Make Your Reader Emotional:

You can create the most intense plot with the perfect rise and fall pacing, but it won’t mean anything if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in what your character is experiencing. I will admit that a good portion of making your reader like your character, is to create a likeable character (I wrote a blog post on that if you want to read it). But another way to get your readers to like your character is using the plot. Even if your main plot of your book is something big like dismantling the ruling system, it’s a good idea to start small in terms of your character’s desire.

One example of this The Hunger Games. Across the three novels Katniss ends up creating a revolution and bringing down the corrupt government. She’s hailed as a hero. But that wasn’t her initial goal. Her initial goal was quite simple and quite relatable: She wanted to protect her sister. Even if we don’t have siblings, we all have at least one person we’d be willing to volunteer for if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. Therefore, as readers we are more willing to emotionally invest in a character that wants to protect her loved one from death, rather than a character who right off the bat is ready to take down the government. While something small, like a character wanting to return a library book before the library closes or getting a the last bag of jelly donuts for their sick family member can be what is needed to set a bigger plot in motion, it can also serve to make a character relatable to the reader. We’ve all needed to get somewhere before it closes just like we’ve all rushed to the end of the aisle to pick up the last something because it’s for someone we care about, and it’s these small, universal actions that readers relate to that help them become emotionally invested in your character’s conflict. 

Bring the Tension from Various Points:

When we think of tension between characters we tend to think of heroes and villains. And yes, the tension between your hero and your villain is important. But that doesn’t mean that we can overlook the side characters. Some of these side characters can actually help to create tension for your main characters. In fact, some side characters can be integral to subplots that create tension in the story. Never under-estimate the power of secondary conflict. For example, Batman. You have the main conflict of a superhero trying to clean up Gotham’s streets, but at the same, you also have the tension from his personal life as Bruce Wayne to factor in as well. Of course, while you want to bring in tension from all angles, you also don’t want to overcomplicate your plot either. It’s a fine balance.

The Essentials of Editing

I am currently studying a Copyediting online course offered by Writers Digest. The course is amazing so far. The course covers the basics of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The importance of writing in the active rather than the passive voice is also included. The recommended reading books are The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Style book, and the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

When we write, we may sometimes forget the basic rules of using nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs. The course has been invaluable in helping me improve my writing. The course also discusses how to work as a copyeditor and how to professionally edit copy. I encourage anyone who wants to greatly improve their writing to take this course or a course like it. You don’t have to study this course just to work as an editor.

I was always scared of the book The Chicago Manual of Style. But now that I must become familiar with the book to succeed in the course, I have learned it’s not so nightmare inducing. I have learned that there is way to more to writing and editing than I ever suspected. For example, the rules on using the serial comma is one I still struggle with. But for anyone who is serious about their writing, this just may be the ticket for you.

The course offers grammar exercises and we practice editing our own writing. We edit a written assignment first on paper with a red pencil then we edit online using track changes. This teaches us how editing is done. If we make mistakes, then we learn from them and build our knowledge.

I recommend a few other good books about editing. Grammatically correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Stillman. This book discusses the essential points of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. There are also exercises for the reader to do at the end of each chapter. It’s a great reference book. It is not a dry read, the author makes it fun and enjoyable.

The final book about editing that I recommend is CopyEditing: A Practical Guide by Karen Judd. This book may be out of date but it is a real gem. This is more like a training guide.

Writers must demonstrate a mastery of the English language. We know we must get our submissions past the editor’s ‘gate’ to get it into the hands of readers. But with the above suggested sources, that will not seem like such a huge task. I encourage everyone to consider studying an online course offered by Writers Digest. Or at the very least, to brush up on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Your writing will benefit from it.

Good luck!

Nip the Naysayers

It is hard enough being a writer, sending your writing out only to receive rejection letters. But what about those around you who are critical of your passion for a career that pays little, but calls to your soul? I get criticism too. Often people tell me they see it as a hobby. It is not a hobby to me. It is my life. They don’t see it that way no matter what I tell them. I want to share some tips on how to ignore them, keep writing, and maintain your sanity.

A rejection letter is harsh. When your aunt or employment counselor chides you for not becoming a lawyer or an executive, it’s even harder. They make you grind your teeth at night and develop headaches because you feel like quitting writing just so they would be quiet. Well, take heart.

Writing, like the arts, doesn’t get much love from those who don’t see it the way we would like them too. From their perspective, it’s a dalliance, a hobby–or worse–a waste of time. To those of us who are serious, getting published in magazines or books is life or death. We love seeing our byline in a publication and are bit by the itch to get the next byline or the next publishing contract. We perfect our query letters and synopses to the best of our ability.

If you do sense you are under attack, perhaps telling people you are busy writing and closing the door to your writing studio will do the trick. Be assertive, but not overly upset and they should get the hint. We can’t change them. It is a sad fact of life, but we can change the way we respond to them. It’s not fair, but life is not fair.

Another great way to get naysayers off your back? I can think of two. One, you put honest effort in… and you are, right? Two, they see you succeeding at it. Then they will look forward to seeing your next published book or that article in the magazine you were dreaming of seeing yourself published in.

Never take the chiding or ridicule seriously. Maybe they are secretly jealous of you, seeing you reading your draft of your writing project, looking like you are not spending your time more responsibly and wishing they had the time to do what you are doing. It’s them, not you. Treat this the way you would if you got a rejection letter. File it away and keep writing. Keep writing because you are not writing for them; you are writing for you, the editors, your readers.

That’s what matters. Own it and be responsible for it. Getting angry is giving them another reason to harass you for not following your heart and work instead on an oil rig- -anything that makes “actual money!” See it from their perspective. If you follow all these suggestions, you may persuade them to see yours. They may even offer help or suggestions.

Good luck!

 

How to Create a One-Sentence Punch

Ah, the dreaded blurb so small you have to condense your entire book into a single sentence. In the literary world, this is often referred to as the elevator pitch, stemming from trying to sell your book to someone with the same amount of time as riding in an elevator, but without the uncomfortable staring. How do you do that when your book is something like 80k – 120k words long, has multiple main characters, a dozen supporting characters, and a plot along with two subplots?

First off, let’s think of how many words we get to use for our sentence. At the very most, twenty-five. Any more than that, we’re asking for a headache by creating a run-on sentence.

Second, we now examine the overall plot and break it down into three parts:

  1. The Main Character
  2. The Overall Conflict
  3. The Villain

Let’s take the example of a book titled Fallen From the Stars:

A human with no memory tries to adapt while dealing with prejudice from the elves as the village prepares for the arrival of the Bloody Baron.

These parts can be in any order, but typically, you want to start it with the main character. The human (Main Character) with no memory (the Overall Conflict – Man vs. Himself) tries to adapt while dealing with prejudice from the elves (Villain) as the village prepares for the arrival of the Bloody Baron (Villain).

The key point to summarization is always write it about the plot of your story. With that in mind, writing a one-sentence, a paragraph, or a full-page proposal shouldn’t prove too challenging.

Happy Writing!