Our writing group always met at Borders in Torrance. But last week, they announced that they would be closing all 399 stores, so we lost our only sponsor. I had scheduled our meetups with them all the way up to September, and now I had to scramble to find us new venues.
Saturday, July 23rd, 2011 was supposed to be our last ever meeting in Borders. But when I passed by on Friday to check, I was greeted by a long line to the cashier that snaked around the store. There were tons of people bargain hunting and the shelves were nearly in disarray.
In short, I had to quickly find a new venue for our group. I emailed those who had RSVP’d for the event and informed them of the situation. I asked for their cellphone numbers so I could text them the new venue address the following day.
Early on Saturday, I drove to the nearest library. I waited for the doors to open, and as soon as it did, I rushed to the Reference Desk clerk.
I told her our situation and she suggested one of the conference rooms. They were supposed to be used on a first come, first served basis, but she reserved it for our group’s use from 1-4pm. The clerk used to be a member of the SCBWI, and was more than happy to help our group.
I was so happy to have found us a great venue at such short notice. I quickly emailed and texted all my members, and though a few of them didn’t make it, most of them were happy they did come—because I gave out a whole bunch of handouts and worksheets on plotting.
Most of the worksheets and handouts were based on Deborah Halverson’s incredibly helpful book Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, and Evan Marshall’s equally useful Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.
Following is an abbreviated transcript of the session:
ALL ABOUT PLOTTING
Some people are plotters—they like to outline the story and develop their characters before they even begin writing the first draft. Some are pantsers—they start with a story idea and just go from there.
Everyone has a different approach to writing, particularly to plotting. While outlining works for some people, it might not be a pleasant experience for others.
Whether you’re plotters or pantsers doesn’t matter. What matters is that you learn as much as you can about plotting from several different sources. Because in the end, only you can decide what works for you or not.
In this session, I’ll give you several different “rules” or ways of plotting your novel. But I’d like to remind you that you mustn’t be afraid to break these rules if it doesn’t work for you.
The first thing you need to do when reading any writing book—especially one on plotting, is to understand what is being said. Once you understand the rule, then you can take it and use it as is, or adapt it in the way that makes sense for you.
You must think of every writing book you read, and every writing session you attend as a GUIDE and not as a set of fixed rules or commandments.
You can follow whatever you learn from today’s session about plotting to the letter, you can tweak the steps to suit your style, or you can even add and subtract certain steps. The point is that as long as you understand the “rules”, feel free to break them.
BEFORE YOU PLOT YOUR NOVEL
Before we actually start plotting our novels, there are certain very important things we must first do.
A. TARGET AGE RANGE & GENDER
Who are you writing for?
Are you writing for children or adults?
- Knowing the exact age range of your audience will help keep your plot on track.
- Not only that, it will help you when you begin to query your work, and will help publishers and booksellers know where to place your books on the shelf.
- Let’s go over the following handout really quickly.
Handout 1: Understanding Children’s Book Genres by Laura Backes
Are you writing for girls or boys?
From Deborah Halverson’s Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies:
- Publishers would like more boy readers.
- Boys develop differently from girls. They develop more slowly than girls, so girls’ reading skills tend to be better. Boys are not comfortable with emotion in books and like action instead—which is why they’re more drawn to video games and movies than books.
- If you want to write for boys, make sure the story is intriguing enough for them to set aside their videogames.
- Lots of action, irreverence, silly humor & sports themes –some authors slip emotional stuff underneath ex. My Big Mouth by Deborah Halverson about a 14 year old training to be a competitive eater also deals with issue of eating disorders in boys.
B. TARGET AGE RANGE
Now that you know the age range of your target audience, it’ll be easy to figure out the word count for each.
Why is word count important?
- It helps you target your readers. Naturally, longer novels have higher word counts and are not suitable for younger children. If you say you want to write a MG novel, for instance and your first draft turned out to be 100,000 words, it’ll be harder for you to sell your work to an agent/publisher.
- Genres also tend to play into word count. Writers need more words for world building, so Sci Fi and Fantasy novels tend to be longer, and its readers more used to reading thicker books. So if you’re writing in this genre, you can easily go beyond the required word count for your target audience.
- HOWEVER If you’re trying to break into publication, it is best to stick to word count. Once you become a bestselling author you can break the rules and write a 200,000 word YA book. JK Rowling’s first book, HP & the Sorcerer’s Stone was 76, 944 words but due to their popularity, her books began increasing in word count until her final book, HP & the Deathly Hallows which had198,227 words.
C. TARGET GENRE
Knowing the genre of the book you are writing/planning to write will help agents/publishers decide whether to pick you as a client or not.
But within each general genre, there are also specific types of sub-genres—and knowing these will help you keep on track when plotting/ writing your stories.
Handout 2: Genres and How to Choose One pp.30-33 The Marshall Plan Workbook by Evan Marshall
- Forget about trend, and write in the genre that you love to read
- If you love reading sci fi, don’t force yourself to write paranormal romance just because it’s the hot thing right now. You will be spending a whole lot of time writing your story, and if you don’t love the genre you’re writing in, you’ll find yourself getting frustrated, or bored or worse—not finishing the story at all.
D. TARGET YOUR THEME
Theme – a concept you want tot teach/a message you want to convey that your protagonist (and by extension your readers) can experience. Themes give your stories focus, unity and a point.
YA fiction reflects the issues and concerns that kids experience as they transition from child to adult. Themes may include self-esteem, popularity, body image, relationships, etc.
You can also pick Universal Themes—which open up your story to a wide audience. The more readers who can relate to your story, the more readers you’ll get.
Worksheet 1: Choose Your Theme. p. 33, Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson
E. FIND YOUR STORY IDEA/ HOOK
“…You must be astute not only in how you craft your book, but also about how you position it in the marketplace. Writing a moving novel about young love and clueless parents isn’t enough; oodles of them are already out there. You must put your parents and lovers in uncommon circumstances and use your great writing to march them through an original plot.”
– Deborah Halverson, Writing YA for Dummies
Hook/Elevator Pitch: A one sentence description of your story that tells people the following as succinctly as possible:
- What your story’s about
- Where your story fits into the current market
- Why your story is a fresh approach to its subject matter
- Who your audience is
Seventeen-year old Bella moves from sunny Pheonix to dreary Forks, Washington, where she falls for a stunningly beautiful boy who turns out to be a vampire with epic enemies. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer; 28 words)
- Knowing your hook early will help you in many ways.
- It will help you keep in mind what your story is really about and help you avoid deviating from this path as you plot your story.
- Once you finish revising your draft, you’ll have a hook ready to use when you start querying.
Worksheet 2: Write Your Hook. p. 71-72, Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson.
Worksheet 3: Novel Information at a Glance
F. FLESH OUT YOUR CHARACTERS
Characters are what make a story great. Your main character, in particular, is the vehicle for your plot. The great story idea you have, the hook you just came up with—the only way you can tell those stories is by telling it through the eyes of your main character.
It is therefore very important to have well thought out characters before you even begin to write down your story.
The more fleshed out your characters are, the easier it will be for you to move your plot along. Often times, the story comes out of your character profiles.
There are different ways of fleshing out your characters, I’m going to share with you 4 of the best ways I’ve found among all the writing books I’ve read.
The best part about these 3 techniques of developing your characters, is that you can use one, mix and match or combine all three of them for the best results.
I’m going to share them with you in order of least intricate to most intricate.
- Worksheet 4: Character Thumbnail & Profile by Deborah Halverson
- Worksheet 5: The Marshall Plan Character Fact Lists by Evan Marshall
- Worksheet 6: Comprehensive Character Profile (compiled by myself)
No matter what worksheet/ character development technique you wish to use, there is one particular technique that you all must know and use. If there’s one technique that I recommend you use, it would be this one:
GMC or Goals, Motivation, Conflict by Debra Dixon
Handout 3: Goals, Motivations, Conflict by Debra Dixon
WHO, WHAT, WHY, AND WHY NOT
- These are important questions for any story
- Your job as a writer is to answer them quickly and clearly
- You need a strong foundation – need compelling characters
- Characterization is the key to successful commercial fiction
- Characterization begins with goal, motivation and conflict
- A character wants a goal because he is motivated, but he faces conflict
||To find her heart’s desire and a place with no trouble|
|Auntie Em is Sick
||She doesn’t know what she wants|
OTHER REFERENCE FOR GMC:
Conflict: The Power of the Dark Side by Pamela Jaye Smith
Characterization/Motivation: Inner Drives by Pamela Jaye Smith
G. PLOT YOUR STORY
Have you ever seen one of those Domino exhibitions on TV? The one where an artist (or a person with a lot of time on his hands) places a whole sequence of dominos on the floor. As observers, we have an idea of what the shape of the artist’s domino work is, but we can’t really tell the final outcome until the artist finishes the process and pushes the first domino forward.
- As writers, we have to have a complete (or at least nearly complete) vision of our novel before we begin writing.
- We have to know what is going to happen ahead of time, so we can shape our story accordingly.
Plot is defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, in a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence.
In short, Plot is a series of linked events. How are these events linked? By Cause and effect. Each event in a novel must have consequences—and therefore, will affect the event that comes next.
- Each domino is linked by cause and effect. If the domino falls forward, it pushes the domino in front of it and so on, until all dominos are felled. Imagine each domino as a scene in your book—it’s exactly the same concept. Each scene pushes the story forward until all the scenes are finished and you have a complete story.
- Each domino has to be directly aligned to the previous one in order for the exhibit to work. In the same way, each scene has to affect the following scenes directly.
2. PLOT STRUCTURE
Handout 4: Conflict and Character Within Story Structure
Simply put, every story has a Beginning, a Middle and an End.
The Basic 3 Act Structure is very important in plotting—and is important to keep in mind in any stage of writing. Some of the problems we have we our novel’s structure is due to the fact that we may not have a clear idea of these 3 important phases in our story. We have to know where our Beginning ends, where our Middle starts and where our End begins.
Each Act in the structure performs certain functions.
A great article by Peder Hill explains The Basic Three Act Structure, and relates it to Character Arc.
The simplest building blocks of a good story are found in the Three Act Structure. Separated by Plot Points, its Act 1 (Beginning), Act 2 (Middle), and Act 3 (End) refer not to where in time in the story they lie but instead fundamental stages along the way.
- In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their “normal” life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about.
- Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.
- In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.
- In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement.Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.
3. PLOT DRIVEN VS. CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORIES
PLOT DRIVEN STORIES: Acting on Events
- Plot-driven stories are stories where things happen to the character. Has a quick, action packed pace and appeals to boys.
- The characters react to the events happening around them and do not actively create the events or situations by themselves.
CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORIES: Focusing on Feelings
- Character-driven stories are propelled forward by the characters of the book.
- The character’s actions, feelings, thoughts and choices cause the events to happen.
- The famed Alice, for instance, fell down a rabbit hole – but she wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t chosen to follow a certain white rabbit.
4. HOW TO PLOT
Before I teach you several techniques for plotting, I’d like to take a survey. How do you plot your stories?
- Most people do a straight up outline of their story. They have an idea of how their story begins and they start the outline from there.
- I find it helpful to do that because I can generate a lot of story ideas just by following the flow of my thoughts.
- But plotting is all about trying to organize those ideas so that they follow the basic plot structure.
- I’m going to share 3 techniques of plotting.
- You may start plotting by doing a straight up outline—but once you’re done with that, I would advice to use one of these techniques in order to organize your ideas.
- You may use all 3 in conjunction with each other, you may mix and match or just use one technique. The main thing is that you find what works for you. Again, this is all about finding the techniques or systems that work for you.
A. OUTLINING WITH TRIGGER POINTS
Worksheet 7: Plot your trigger Points p.104, Writing YA Fiction for Dummies
1. Want/ goal and flaw
What does your character want more than anything? What personal quality/habit/mindset must your character overcome to get his want or goal?
What is the problem throughout the novel, the conflict that the character struggles through?
What gets your character up that tree? What event sets everything in motion?
Obstacle 1: Name the first obstacle to overcome
Obstacle 2: Name the second obstacle to overcome, with higher stakes
Obstacle 3: Name the third obstacle to come, the do-or die moment
State your character’s core strength. What event or situation makes him realize he has strength?
How does your character’s strength get him over that last hill?
Has your character achieved his want? State how he will have grown as a result of his success or failure.
B. CHAPTERS VS. SCENES
Handout 5: Pushing Readers Buttons with Scenes & Chapters p.123-127, Writing YA Fiction for Dummies
- The way you structure your story/ slice it into chapters or scenes directly affects the pace, or making your readers feel anxious, rushed, or relaxed, all on your whim.
- How you divvy up chapters and scenes is your call, but keep in mind that kids have short attention spans.
- Frequent breaks create a lot of white space in the books, providing visual breathers and making the book more welcoming.
- White space is the empty space surrounding the paragraphs and images on a book page.
- Readers see this space as visual breathing room and generally feel more comfortable when there’s more of it. Pages with long text blocks and minimal white space can be intimidating
- Every chapter in your story should have a specific plot goal that propels your character one step closer to the resolution of his overall conflict.
- When you string your chapters together, you have a full plot from beginning to end.
- Sometimes a chapter is a single event experienced from beginning to end.
- Other times, a chapter is broken down into several different events (SCENES) that together achieve the single chapter goal.
Use this list to ensure your chapter has all the necessary ingredients:
- Your character has a need or goal that ties into the overall plot
- The character takes action on that goal but encounters conflict
- The conflict mucks things up further for your character.
- The character is stuck with a new or worsened problem ( a setback) to deal with in the next chapter.
- A scene is a single event with its own conflict that, when combined with other scenes, contributes to the overall goal of the chapter.
- This progression of scenes within a chapter is called scene-sequencing.
- As with chapters, a scene has a main character with a need or goal, the character takes action on that goal and encounters conflict, and then the situation is worsened at the end, leaving him with another problem to deal with in the next scene
- The Big difference between a scene and a chapter is that a scene sticks to its own specific issue, and doesn’t try to move the character into a whole new phase of the plot. That’s the chapter’s job.
- When a scene is complete, readers know more or are more emotionally affected, but the character may have to address another issue or two in one or more scenes before he’s ready to move on.
- You may cut to a new scene bec. of a change in venue. Scenes usually take place in one location but not always.
- Sometimes multiple scenes are necessary within a chapter to let multiple characters have their say.
- Switching from one POV to another can be a reason to start a new scene.
But how do you know how many scenes you should have in a story? And what if your story has 3 characters? How many scenes should each of them have?
I had the same problem when I was just starting out with novel writing. Luckily I found Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, and the Marshall Plan Workbook.
Marshall doesn’t work with scenes or chapters. Instead, he works with what he calls SECTIONS, which if you ask me, are very similar to scenes.
Handout 6: The Novelmaster
Handout 7: Section Sheets
The Marshall Plan is a great technique to follow if you have no idea how to even begin plotting out those scenes. It teaches you how to go from one point to another step by step, even showing you where you should insert Obstacles 1, 2 & 3 within your story.
If you are just starting your first novel ever, or starting out with a new story and looking for an organized, step by step way of doing scenes, I strongly encourage you to buy The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing or its companion book the Marshall Plan Workbook.
The Marshall Plan is a whole other topic for another day, but in the meantime you can use the Novel Master as a guide to how many scenes you should have in your story, and the section sheets as a way of describing each scene you’ll have.
Torrance Children’s Book Writers, photo by Janet Merrigan
*As you’ve seen from our session today, Deborah Halverson’s Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies is a great source of information. It’s one of the best books I’ve seen out there, that guides you step by step on how to write great young adult fiction, but all of Deborah Halverson’s techniques apply to writing any kind of fiction. I encourage you all to get a copy of this book , as well as The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.
Thank you all for joining me today. Let’s discuss whatever questions you may have about today’s discussions.
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