The Bag of Tricks

Originally posted at the Stiletto Gang on 4/27/16

On my last blog I discussed how I keep the fictional worlds of my books organized (answer: spreadsheets and lists!), but recently I gave a talk on writing to a local high-school and they wanted to know the more nitty-gritty details. Since they are at the start of their writer journey they have yet to discover that many of the struggles of writing are shared by all writers. What’s that? You have two great scenes, but you’re not sure how to connect them? You have half a novel written, but you don’t know who the bad guy is yet? You really need the hot guy to land in the heroine’s life, but you don’t know how he gets there? These are all questions with many possible answers, and like common core math, many possible ways of getting to the answer.

I thought Kimberly Jayne’s recent post about Mindful Daydreaming was a great way to answer many writing questions. And yesterday’s post from Sally Berneathy’s post about “pantsing” vs. plotting a novel showed how she dives and discovers her book as she goes along. I have discovered that being a plotter is usually a faster more efficient way for me to write. When I have all the answers before I start writing, I can write even when I’m not feeling very creative or if I only have five minutes. But recently, I found myself stuck on the outline. I stared. I hammered. I picked. I ignored it. Nothing happened. And at some point I decided to start writing because you know what happens when you don’t write? Nothing. So I wrote all the way to where I had outlined and I was just as stuck as I was on the outline. I was back to being a high-schooler – how do I connect those two scenes? How do I get the hero from point A to point B? Dear God, what happens nexxxxxxxt????
Which is when I decided to take my own advice. I grabbed a notebook and a pen.

Changing the medium can sometimes change my perspective. I wrote a synopsis of the story from the villain’s point of view. I wrote a synopsis from the love interests view point. I drew little diagrams about how the storylines connect. I wrote a few paragraphs about the villain’s history and motivation, really diving into what he thinks about the events of the story. It’s an old saying that each of us is the hero in our own story, and that goes for villains too (see the great post from Jennae Phillippe about A Villain’s Voice). How does a villain think that his actions are justified? As I answered that question, I discovered more and more about how my story moved forward. Which is when I put down the pen and typed up my scrawling notes.

Organizing a novel isn’t just about filing systems; it’s about herding all your characters and ideas into a coherent plot and making sure that everyone gets to the end (or the right end if they happen to be the designated dead body) in a satisfying manner. But sometimes a writer needs to reach into her bag of tricks and try more than one technique to get the job done. As I told my room full of high-schoolers, when in doubt… try, try something else.

A Mascara Massacre

When I received the usual fistful of useless bits of dead tree along with my receipt from Walgreen’s I almost chucked the entire lot in the trash, but decided to do the environmentally responsible thing and chuck them in the recycling at home.  Imagine my surprise when, once home, I realized that one of the coupons actually had value to me. That never happens. It’s always twenty coupons for spam and baby food or spam baby food. I read and re-read the coupon, checked the fine print – it really was a coupon for a FREE mascara.  But, but, but… I love FREE.  And mascara – I love mascara!  This can’t be right.  I read the coupon again.  Yes, it definitely said free mascara.

The next week, I trotted in, picked up my mascara, handed in my coupon and waited for the other shoe to drop. Nope, still free.  I walked out with a tube of Revlon Ultimate All-in-One mascara and floating on a cloud of euphoria that can only be generated by free make-up products.

A week later that cloud had evaporated under the wilting heat of real life testing. This mascara is possibly the worst mascara I have ever used. At first glance it looks OK, the formula seems a little thick, but hardly unsual.  But two hours after applying I look like the member of Our Gang known as Freckles.  The mascara leaves a nuclear dust cloud of black particles strewn across my face and clothes. I would have less mess on my face if I simply threw the mascara brush at myself.  This more than any other product I have ever owned has caused people, including strangers, to say, “Um… you’ve got a little… something?” while tapping awkwardly at their face.

Conclusion: Yes, I got free mascara, but I got what I paid for. Definitely NOT Carrie Mae approved.


Organizing My World(s)

An author’s job is not just to tell a story, but to decide how a story should be told. Is it better in first or third person? Is it told in one long march of words or are their chapters? We have to decide genre, tone and feeling. And once those decisions have been made an author must create and track the main plot of the story – the one that we struggle to capture in the blurb text on the back cover – as well as the sub-plots, underlying themes, and finally, the characters themselves.  All of those pieces require not just the ability to write, but also the ability to track information. Because, as any serious reader will tell you (sometimes at great length), consistency and details matter greatly to a well written book, and while we can rely on an editor for some items, they are only human and can only catch so much.  It is in an author’s best interest to provide the cleanest manuscript possible.

I’m currently working on two vastly different stories: the fourth Carrie Mae Mystery Glossed Cause and a Romance Horror novella Wild Waters.  Each story comes with an array of characters, research and plot twists that to be perfectly honest I can’t hold in my brain.  Possibly pre-production of a toddler I could have kept hold of all the details, but no longer. Now, to keep all my worlds organized, I must rely on a system of notes, plot outlines and spreadsheets.

CM-characterlistFor the Carrie Mae books I track characters with a spread sheet that notes who they are (name, basic role, job or company) and also what book they have appeared in or if they have been deleted or omitted from a book.  I also have a rather extensive style sheet that helps me keep track of how certain things, such as chapter headings are formatted and whether or not I’m consistently formatting things like “AK-47” and “INTERPOL” the same way over multiple books.

plot graphFor Wild Waters I’m writing in two different time periods – WWII and Vietnam ­– and they each use distinctive slang that I organize in a couple of basic lists.  There are also multiple character points of view and it is important to keep track of what characters know and when they know it, so that each plot point is revealed at the correct time. Tracking character arcs are more difficult and sometimes require multiple ways of visualizing.  I will frequently write out the plot from each characters point of view or I will graph it out on a virtual whiteboard, utilizing the main plot points.

There is no perfect system of course, and each author must work the way that works for them. But when examining a well-written book, I am frequently in awe, not just of the beautifully constructed words or strong turn of phrase, but the underlying construction of a book.  Sometimes, I find it amazing that any books get written at all.