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Plotting Your Way Through Your Story

I wrote the original version of the below a few years back when I was Writer in Residence for the Toronto Branch of the Canadian Authors’ Association. With a few updates, which I have now made, it is still relevant for us authors. So here goes. 

 

Plotting Your Way Through Your Story

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. — Kurt Vonnegut, science fiction writer

Vonnegut describes the fiction writer perched at the computer. The writer is ready to roll with the plot. Sometimes he soars, but sometimes his wings get clipped.

Let’s look at some baddies in fiction plotting.

A literary magazine editor once scrawled on one of my short stories, “This is not a short story. This is an incident.”

A novel that I evaluated contained quirky characters. However, they solved everything too easily and their relationships, including the love relationship, had no problems.

In another novel, the author tried to carry most of the plot with dialogue. Dialogue is good for showing the reader rather than overdoing the narration. But you can overkill with dialogue too.

In another novel, the author had created a certain atmosphere from the setting and characters. Unfortunately, the plot resembled those 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that you finally toss out in a garage sale.

Kurt Vonneget describes plot as

I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. … And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other.

The characteristics of a good plot are:

  1. A protagonist or main character with a conflict to resolve. The characters drive the plot. Let them struggle to get there. Life may be a bowl of cherries, but the characters need to experience the pits.

  2. The plot moves forward, usually chronologically, although some flashbacks can work. If you get lost, use Doug Lawson’s rule, i.e., figuring out where the characters would rather not go.

  3. Events must be connected, not random and they must link from one event to another with some purpose.

  4. The plot must be believable, whether commercial or literary fiction. Your story line may seem unbelievable, but you make it believable by suspending the reader’s disbelief. Think “X Files.”

  5. Their must be a climax, whether it’s a moral one in the protagonist’s mind or the opposite extreme, such as a sword fight. Think protagonist and antagonist together at the edge of a cliff – for an analogy.

  6. The plot must have some resolution in the end. With series mystery novels, something, perhaps in the main characters’ personal lives, is often left hanging for the next novel. But the main plot must be resolved or you cheat the reader.

 

And the usual, if you click on the Beyond Faith book cover at the beginning, you go to a link with more info including a bit about its twisted plot.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

 

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Catching story ideas on the fly

 

I’m a writer as rarely as possible, when forced by an idea too lovely to let die unwritten.

– Richard Bach

Our story ideas may not be as esoteric as Richard Bach’s – he wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  Where can we get story ideas and when we get them, what do we do with them?

Story ideas often pop into our heads when we are busy doing something else or more likely when our mind hits a lull. Or we are reading an article in the daily newspaper or the classifieds (online or in print) and our right brain, the creative side, suddenly wakes up. A conversation overheard on a bus, especially those cell-phone monologues, conversations overheard in restaurants can suggest several story ideas, often of the criminal intent. Brochures on community groups, art shows, and even the supermarket flyers can inspire. Take the old (former) Dominion supermarket slogan, “We’re fresh obsessed,” and try to look at a story angle that is fresh. Taking a shower or bath is also guaranteed to fill you with more than water. The Internet is full of potential story ideas. Don’t underestimate the power of dreams. Drugs and alcohol are not recommended as you will see from the following example.

Late one night a photographer friend once thought he had a brilliant idea. He scribbled it down on a piece of paper before he crashed for the night. When he woke the next morning, he looked at the paper. On it he had written, “I am very drunk.”

Another moral from this story is look at photographs. A picture is worth a thousand words, but before the words come the ideas.

What do you do when an idea hits? Grab it before it disappears into the nether area of your mind. Write it down. Keep a notebook (electronic or paper) handy. If you think faster than you type or scrawl, use a recorder for dictating your ideas. If the source is the Internet, bookmark it under the heading “Story ideas.”

Then let the idea rest for at least a few days. The idea will simmer in your subconscious and when you sit down at your computer, the act of starting to write will draw out these ideas. On rare occasions, a simmering story suddenly bubbles and you are compelled to write it right now. Do so – if you don’t you might not only lose the momentum, but the idea as well. Nothing, except maybe a blank screen, is worse than an idea gone stale because it was left in storage beyond its best date.

Follow the advice of Martin Woods, who said,

“Write great ideas down as soon…”

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery novels – whose ideas came from all of the above.

And if you click on the Beyond Faith cover icon at the top, it will take you to the one of the online places the novel is available – as well as more details about the novel itself.

 

 

 

 

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Sneaking in writing when you have no time

Gearing up to write

I’m back after a two-week break, some of it ostensibly to do some writing. But I had to spend a lot of it dealing with house and property issues related to all the snow and cold weather. But – yes, another but… I did start my next Beyond mystery novel. Just had to get something down with all the ideas swirling around in my mind. And i am glad the ideas were coming.

Which gave me an idea to spread around to those of having difficulty finding time to sit down and just write.

First of all, who says you have to be sitting down at your laptop? You write from your soul, from your whole being. And as I just proved, from what swirls around in your head. So why not write while you are busy doing other things? Things like vacuuming, standing in line at the grocery store (unless you have all your groceries delivered), waiting for that bus or subway or actually travelling on that busy or subway, waiting in line to gas up the car, and yes, even shovelling snow. Basically doing tasks that don’t involve major calculations and the like from your brain.

Let your mind go (no, not crazy), Don’t even try to think about what you could write. But it does help to give your brain a quick nudge that you want a story idea and voila, as you push that snow or go for that walk, ideas will start to come into your mind. Think I’m nuts. Earlier this morning  an idea for a new short story started going through my mind. I told myself that was all very well, but I needed an idea for this blog post one right away popped into my brain. And so here it is.

While I am making time to write this – it is my day of the week for this- you might not be in a position to do so. Well, keep the idea alive in your head although you will probably find you don’t have to push it. The story idea will stay there to develop – even if you have to concentrate on something else, like pay for your groceries. The idea will return and may keep haunting you until you do something about it. That is how my new Beyond novel got started.

So, you will have to find time eventually to sit down and get writing. But in the meantime, let the story evolve and run around in your brain. It is certainly more pleasant than shovelling snow  and complaing about it.

Cheers

Sharon A, Crawford

Below is the cover of my latest Beyond book – Beyond Faith. Click on it and it should take you to Amazon and a book review.

 

 

 

 

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Plan some novel writing time during holidays

Sharon’s latest Beyond mystery.

When you are overstuffed with turkey and Christmas cake; when you have had it with family cheer; when you are…well…bored with all the Christmas songs, sales, and noises, just write.

Shut yourself in your room, the rec room, your office – somewhere away from everybody, and start writing that short story, that novella, that novel, that personal essay, that memoir, that poem, that play, that… Well, you get the idea.

And speaking of ideas, maybe you have a story idea – plot or characters or both running around in your head, but you just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because you have been buried in Christmas paraphernalia. Once the hoopla of Christmas is over with and before you get into New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and all those new resolutions, get a head start.

That last paragraph describes me. Instead of visions of sugarplums dancing through my head, the next Beyond mystery novel is swirling around. I have an idea for a plot premise and new characters (and old ones, too  this is a series, after all). Each time I think of it, more ideas run through my mind. However, unlike my other Beyond books, I can’t seem to come up with a beginning – what to start with and where to start it. Considering the ending for Beyond Faith (and you’ll  have to read it to find out. No spoilers here), it is no wonder this is happening.

So, I’m going to get at it between Christmas and New Year’s. Not even going to wait for Boxing Day to pass. I hate crowds so don’t do Boxing Day (or week) Sales. And while I’ll get some things online, clothes aren’t part of that. I have to try things on first. So during that time I will  start by getting some of these ideas in a Word file and maybe even do a rough outline. Maybe even get at least an idea of the beginning. I know some of the remnants from Beyond Faith will require some research, so I might also do that.

Sounds ambitious? I’ll let you in on something.

Starting tomorrow, December 19, I’m taking two weeks holidays (staycation or is that stayvacation?) but the first few days will be spent finishing Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, and spending Christmas Day with my son and his girlfriend. I am also hoping to get together with a few friends outside of Christmas Day.

What I am not planning to do is working on client projects, volunteer work, and answering any related email. Strong emphasis on the latter. My days seem to include too much time replying to email that is not from friends and family. And one of my new year’s resolutions will be to have set times to do emails and if they don’t get done that day, they sit in the pending file. I mean, even my client work time was suffering because of dealing with emails.

Just as long as the email accounts are working – there has been a bit of some accounts not working in the past month.

I’ll let you know January 4, 2018 how it went, because this is my last author post here for 2017. I am still posting to my personal blog next week and the next – because that’s personal. In case you are interested in reading those posts, here is the link. Not too much about writing, except memoir writing, goes in there, but…. I will still post to Facebook (my main account) and my author Facebook page, and Goodreads. I better post to Goodreads. I am still updating the list of books I have read this year and doing book reviews for some of them. Finally got off to a good start a couple of weeks ago and then got side-lined by…you guessed it…email. Well, also shovelling snow.

Meantime, have a happy and health holiday. And write.

Oh, yes, if you click on the Beyond Faith book above, it will take you to one of the online places where it is available. There is a New Year’s Eve scene in it and PI Dana Bowman, the main character, isn’t spending that time making new year’s resolutions.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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Just Write

How I feel some days lately

Tuesday I decided I had had enough of trying to get all the client and other not-my-writing work done. I was behind in it all and not keeping to schedule anyway. So I played hooky that afternoon

And sat in front of the desktop PC, just daring it to blue screen on me. (It didn’t then) and dived into rewriting my memoir. It had stewed in its file for a few years. It was time to return to it. I did have a deadline of sorts – submit the first 10 pages to the Writer in Residence at the Toronto Reference Library – in January. That’s when the submission time frame opens.

It was on my schedule to get back to the memoir during the two weeks I’m taking off from client work (and all the other madness – book PR, etc.) Instead,  there I sat Tuesday afternoon reading some of my memoir’s beginning, did some rewriting, did some deciding what needs changing or deleting, did some deleting. It was wonderful to be able to just write, even though it was rewriting. It was my creative stuff.

I am back to the other stuff in my business – client work, book promo, trying to get writing teaching gigs ,etc.. But I have discovered what the big time stealer is and yes, some is related to clients or wannabee clients.

E-mail. All the frigging email I get. I still want my email programs and accounts to work, but I don’t want to spend so much time on it answering everybody’s queries, doing this and that for everybody (“everybody” is a generic term here). So, I’ve started giving my notice – during those two weeks, December 19 to January 2, I’m going off the work grid. I’ll answer family and friends email, do my blogs, and Facebook and Goodreads.

But work stuff – emails related to that arriving while I’m taking my break – they will sit in the pending folder until after January 2. And after that it will depend on who is emailing – the clients whose work I’m getting back to –  any querries for book promo and teaching writing – those will get priority.

But for those two weeks, I will do what I haven’t been doing too much of – read, see family and friends.

And Write!

A writer has to get her priorities straight.

And for those who might be wondering – yes there will be a fourth Beyond book – ideas and plots and characters are running round in my mind. So, some of that will have to get on the computer soon.

Maybe I will wish that my main Beyond character PI Dana Bowman was actually doing some of the writing.

How do you deal with all the other stuff in your life getting in the way of your writing?

Comments, please.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

The real me

 

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Keeping track of fiction queries and submissions

Sharon’s latest Beyond mystery.

We writers spend a lot of time writing – short stories, novels, novellas. We hone our story; we revise; we get feedback; we get it edited by a professional editor – all or some of those.

Then we send it out to a magazine to a publisher with a cover email or letter.

And then we hope, forget about it and move on to the next story.

Not quite. Something is missing. We need to put on our administrator hat and keep track of where we are sending our stories. If we don’t, we can easily forget when and maybe even where. This was brought up at the meeting of my East End Writers’ Group meeting last evening. We were talking about marketing and our newest member, a guy in his thirties talked about using spreadsheets to keep track where he sent out his writing. That reminded me of how I used to do it – not just for short stories but when I freelanced as a journalist, article ideas I pitched. Except I used tables in Word. Excel and I don’t get along too well.

There are several good reasons for doing this type of what we used to call “paperwork.” One biggie is called follow-up. If you don’t keep records of where you send what, it will suddenly dawn on you that you haven’t heard back from… and now where did I send it….(maybe the latter) about so-and-so story. So you decide to follow-up. Presuming you do remember where you sent it, you probably won’t remember when. Writing a follow-up email (or letter – there are still a few print magazines that don’t accept electronic submissions) saying something like “I’m following up on my “so-and-so” short story which I sent you sometime a few months ago…”

Sound svery professional doesn’t it? We writers have to be professional, not just in our actual writing, but in our dealings with publications and their editors. Keeping track of our stories and queries is one way to be professional. You may not want to get into Excel spreadsheets or even Word tables, and there is probably a software program for this function, but just doing a list in Word can be sufficient. Just the title of the short story, where sent (publication, editor’s name and contact info), the outcome (which could include if you have to do a followup, or the publication’s yes or no).

It also wouldn’t hurt to do what I do – I list other possibilities for sending the story, in case the first one says “no.” And as I find more info, I add it to the list.

So take some time to do this. Set it up and as soon as you send/email in a story or query, record the details.

Meantime, I’m doing something totally non-administrative early this evening. Doing a public reading from Beyond Faith, my latest Beyond mystery novel.

If you are in the Greater Toronto, Ontario, Canada area you might like to drop in to the Urban Folk Art Salon. It’s not just me, but also my colleague Michael Robert Dyet whose book Hunting Muskie Blue Denim Press launched the same time as my Beyond Faith. Plus four other performers/presenters including two folksingers  Brian Gladstone and Glen Hornblast  It’s at a public library and is free. Check it out on my Beyond Faith page – scroll down – it’s there – at least until after the event is over.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

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When in doubt kill the character off?

 

Dana Bowman from the Beyond mystery series. Still alive.

In last week’s fall finale of The Blacklist, Tom, one of the major characters was killed off in a very brutal way. Those following the British series Inspector Banks were jolted in one episode where a major character DI Annie Cabbot was killed. Blue Bloods killed (off screen/between seasons) a minor, but important to the series character, Linda, Detective Danny Reagan’s wife.

Near the end of last season, NCIS Los Angeles killed off Michelle, the wife of NCIS Agent Sam. Michelle’s roll wasn’t even as a regular, but as a recurring guest. But in a twist, the actor who played Grainger – Miguel Ferrier – a regular –  died in real life. Instead of following suit, the writers and producers had Grainger quit NCIS and go off to some faraway place.

 

 

Perhaps the weirdest one is the actor who played the original Morse on the old Inspector Morse series. Yes, the producers had Morse die of a heart attack when they were killing the series. But not long after the segment aired, John Thaw, the actor who played Morse died  also, but from throat cancer.

Lately, TV series seem to be in a killing mood. Want to delete a character from the series. Kill him. Actors playing the characters want more money than the new contract will offer. Kill off their characters.

So what does this have to do with fiction characters in novels? Maybe something as some of those series originated from books.

To me, killing off a character just to get them out of the TV series, out of the novel series, or even just out of a novel is a poor way to do it.  If you are going to kill a character there must be a reason within the story itself, something with the character and his other relationship with another character or characters.  Even in murder mysteries, characters are bumped off for some reason – maybe they were going to reveal something bad about the murderer, maybe they stood in the way for the murderer to inherit money, maybe revenge and yes even the so-called random killing spree where the killer kills for no apparent reason. there is always some reason even if just in the killer’s mind.

If a character in your novel dies from natural causes,  it has to be worked into the plot. Let’s look at a scenario from Beyond Faith, my latest Beyond mystery. There are two brothers – Gerrard Olsen and Larry Olsen. Near the beginning one of them gets killed. Without giving any spoilers, I had to think which brother and why and of course, who killed the brother and what led up to the killer doing so. That doesn’t come out right at the beginning, but PI Dana Bowman and her fraternal twin brother PI Bast Overture, and Det. Sgt. Fielding are trying to find out. Like most of my mystery novels and short stories, it is not straightforward. It all rises from the characters – who they are – what they have gone through and are going through in life and would they cross that line to kill? That latter is very important for an author to consider. Some characters are such bad assess in what they do that killing is believable. Other bad ass characters commit a lot of crime and/or are mean and ill-treat the people in their lives, but draw the line at killing them. Then there is the so-called good character who is pushed beyond his limits to the point where they kill.

Iit really all boils down to the character and the plot – and the two go hand in hand and drive each other. If you want one of your novel’s major characters to exit the novel, killing them may not be the only answer. That often comes across as lazy writing. Tthat can happen in mystery novels too, although when you get to the end and the good guy confronts the bad guy (or gal – guys don’t have the monopoly on being bad asses), the author has to “get rid” of the bad guy, but shooting her dead is not always the best way. The author has to consider who the good guy/gal is and how she would deal with it. Would she arrest the bad one? Or shoot him? Torture him? Push him into the lake and let him either swim or drown? Having said that, sometimes the good guy (or gal) isn’t the trigger-happy person, but is forced into a situation where it is ether the bad guy’s life or his. Then he might have to shoot – but not always to kill. Be creative. Many authors are. They have killers disappear during one novel only to return in a later novel. Chances are with this type of scenario, the novel’s protagonist probably has had some kind of a relationship with the baddie – so he will have to deal with the before and after. Unless you are a sociopath, you will be scarred  by the death of someone close to you. You will have to grieve.

Back to Inspector Banks and the killing of Annie. That does not happen in the books by Peter Robinson the British series is based on. And to me that is a disrespect for the original author. True, TV series don’t follow the novels they come from and often go off the novel’s track, often for a good reason. They can’t get all the novel contents in a movie or limited TV program. And series have to expand beyond the novel’s plot.

Killing a character on TV or in a novel shouldn’t be done just to eliminate him. There has to be a reason – beyond the character just being bad or leaving the TV series. Haven’t these producers heard of just getting another actor to play the part? It was done years ago with the comedy series Bewitched when the actor playing the husband died. And it was done recently with the British series Jack Taylor. A different actress now plays the part of Kate. Both work.

What are your thoughts and ideas on killing off characters in books and TV. Do you kill of any of your fiction characters? Why or why not?

Comments, please.

Cheers.

Sharon.

Sharon’s latest Beyond mystery links to Amazon

 

 

 

 

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