November, 2009

Plotting for Non-Plotters

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First, I want to apologize for not getting a blog posted last week. I was banging my head against my desk, trying to get a chapter out and then when I did, it started flowing like a river. Ah, the troubles of being a writer. Despite that, it’s the best darn job in the world.

Okay, so I was scratching my head on what to talk about and I decided to do something for all the other aspiring authors out there. And for those of you who decided to jump into the icy lake that is called Nanowrimo fully naked. I’m going to talk about the most dreaded word in writing; plotting.

I know a lot of you are groaning and asking why do I have to plot? The story just flows from my brain to my fingertips. And I’ll tell you that I’m not a plotter. I’m what you call an “organic writer.” Gotta love the titles everyone adds to everything.

So, now you are asking how am I going to talk about plotting when I don’t even do it myself? And the answer is simple, because it’s a good idea. In theory.

I like the surprises in my stories. I feel like I’m watching a play unfold in my head and I’m only transcribing it. So, plotting was my nemesis, but with my latest I wanted it to be something really great and it was so intricate I needed to know where it was going and why. I didn’t necessarily need to know how. It would come in time. So, I started doing a plotting I’ve just recently found out is more common than I knew. It’s called “leapfrog plotting”, but I do something different with it than most. I think. I could be wrong, of course.

Okay, so here’s what I do. I go out to Staples or Office Depot or whatever office supply store is around you and I buy the big 20 x 20 pads of post its. You know the ones they use at meetings in Corporate America. Then some smaller ones. Multi colored. Then I bought two whiteboards (I got these at a school supply store) they look like the slate boards they used in the 1800s, but they’re white boards instead. And a pack of dry-erase markers. I recommend getting the spray cleaner for ease, but soap and water work well, too (in case a chapter takes longer than expected and the marker doesn’t want to erase very well).

When the muse sits on my shoulder and whispers the idea in my ear. I sit down with a marker and a giant post-it note and tape it to the wall and then I figure out how many words I’d like the finished manuscript to be. Take Mirror. I wanted it to be between 80,000 and 90,000 words. And I knew I didn’t want more than 3, 000 words per chapter. So, I took out my handy dandy calculator and I found out I needed a minimum of twenty-six chapters.

I drew lines on my giant post it and make twenty-six blocks. And labeled them chapters 1-26. Then I wrote what I wanted to happen in the first chapter and then the last chapter. Which left me with 24 more blocks empty. Not too hard, right?

Now here’s where the leapfrog plotting happens. I can never think in more than one chapter at a time, but for Mirror I needed to interweave chapters, so what I did was I took one of my white boards and I drew four blocks and labeled them with whatever chapter I was working on, plus the three subsequent ones. Then I wrote down the main thing I want to happen in each chapter. It can be just a sentence or a whole paragraph, but it’s generally pretty open and by no means the whole thing.

For instance, in my first chapter of Mirror, I had two big things that needed to happen. So, I wrote a sentence each of the two big events. Lily had to be rescued by Jackson and then she had to see him in her mirror. So I wrote them just like that. Then I moved onto chapters two, three, and four.

Then when I knew what was going to happen for the next four chapters including the one I was working on. I took my other whiteboard and plotted that chapter out fully. Now that’s not writing the chapter. That’s just putting the highlights down so when I got stuck I could turn to it and go, “Oh, I didn’t say that yet, I need to change this so I can talk about that,” or whatever. It’s similar to a chapter synopsis. It just states the main points. Not necessarily in any particular order. And is not set in stone. I’ve changed main points a few times, because I realized a point I had put in just to add tension or conflict really needed to be explored more to understand things.

Then I type out the chapter, referring back to the white board as often as necessary. When I finish, I start all over for the next chapter, so I can always see three chapters ahead.

As you can see it is a lot of work, but you’ll find when you’re actually writing it helps to have that for a reference. That way you don’t have inconsistencies that your beta readers will point out (though from time to time I still have them, because I change certain things I don’t think are working.)

Pretty soon, you’ve finished the book and feeling pretty smug about yourself. You’ve actually plotted out a story and it works. Now, you go back and proof, proof, proof. Because no matter how much you planned some things just won’t come out right. Or aren’t needed.

Before I close today’s post let me state one more thing. It’s always a good idea to write down somewhere (I write it on my huge sticky) what your main characters look like. I didn’t do it for Mirror and my MC has three different descriptions and the hero has two because I couldn’t remember. Just a quick note is fine. Like: hero-brown hair, green eyes, scar over right eye. Heroine-black hair/green eyes, sarcastic. Something like that. J

Next week, I’m going to talk about inspiration. So, I’m leaving you with this question. What is your inspiration and why do you think it works? Until next week, Ciao!

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To Pub or Not to Pub? That is the question.

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Life is one of those mysterious entities where you think it’s one thing, but then turn a corner and it’s something completely different. When I was in high school the world seemed hard. When in reality it was probably the easiest points in my life. Where the most difficult question I had to ask myself was, “Should I go out with so and so?” and “How much study time should I devote to Chemistry so I can scrape by with a B?”

Those days are long gone (or maybe not so long if you knew my real age, but a lady never reveals that information) and now I’m making decisions for three people. And the world can’t stop because I don’t know what to do.

The laundry still needs to get done, dinner needs bought, cooked, and placed on the table, and my kids need to be played with (among other things).

So how does someone with more responsibilities than time, stop to make a decision that has the potential to change everything?

When the most difficult question of your life stands in front of you and either decision could go either way, what do you choose to do?

For me that question is whether to publish with a small press (which is brand spankin’ new) or wait and hope eventually an agent will pick it up. Option one has its plusses. I’d be published–which would get my foot in the door for other books I’m writing to find a home with an agent and subsequently one of the big five—working with an editor that can take the time to show me the ropes and teach me the things that would make me an even better writer, and my book would be available to the general public to peruse and buy (which, let’s face it, is all an author really wants in the first place. We all want recognition that our books are good, that people will enjoy reading it and the fact that we got a few bucks to do it is even better). The downside, since it’s a small press, the book may never see the inside of an actual brick and mortar bookstore. That’s not to say it won’t ever happen, but the possibility is slim.

Then we have the other option, waiting and revising Fallen as I’ve done in the past making it even better and passing on the contract to hope that maybe an agent will take a chance on an unpublished author and pick it up. The plusses? IF an agent picks it up, I have a better chance of getting it sold to the major houses, which means actual placement in the chain stores, and an advance. The negatives? It may never happen (with Fallen or any number of books I write from now on), I will lose a lot of creative control over which direction the book takes, or I may not earn out the advance meaning I’ve probably committed something close to career suicide.

So, the question remains, to pub or not to pub. I’ve sat and vacillated for hours on this and after many sleepless nights decided to turn down the first contract.

What?! I turned it down? What’s wrong with me? Right?

So, I contacted the publisher and told them I was sorry, but I just didn’t feel we were a good fit.

A few days later, I received another contract on the same book. Also from a new press, but one, when I submitted to them, I thought was a long shot. After the obligatory happy dance, reality crashed down on me again. And I went through my list. To pub or not to pub.

I read the contract hundreds of times. Sent it to friends, and lawyers, to see if there was anything that said, “Wait, cowboy, something ain’t right here.” And then, sat down in bed and thought some more. Once again, I decided to turn it down. I REALLY want the big advance and the 100,000 books in print. But something felt wrong about this decision.

With the other publisher, turning it down was neither a relief nor a “I’m doing the wrong thing.” With this, even the thought of turning it down made my stomach hurt. So, I emailed a published friend of mine and asked her would she have changed anything about working with a small press?

The answer came quickly. “No.” At first she was filled with doubts about being published so quickly from a small press, but she believes it was a great first step. It taught her many things and now her second book is going through the same small press. Someone obviously did something right.

She also mentioned that a lot of agents now are making it a policy not to represent someone who isn’t already published.

It’s also due to the computer age. Way back when, (not so long ago really) in order to contact an agent—or a publisher for that matter—one need to type a query letter and maybe a synopsis. Then they would mail it and sometimes the whole manuscript to whomever it was they wanted to represent them. Then the agent would use the SASE they sent with it to reject or accept.

As you can imagine, that cut down on a lot of what’s called “the slush.” Usually, only writers that were really confident in their work would spend the money to send out their manuscripts. However, due to the invetion of e-queries, anyone can do it and usually do. So, the slush piles that agents have to wade through are huge. In order to cut down on that they’ve done one of two things, made it a policy to only accept queries by invitation (which means you usually have had to have met them at a conference and they expressed an interest in your work) or by accepting queries from only previously published authors.

Some of you, I’m sure, are asking what’s the point of getting an agent, if you’re already published. Well, that would be the catch-22 of writing. In order to get a publisher you have to have an agent. In order to get an agent, already have to be published. So, a lot of authors skip the agents and go right to the small presses.

For some that’s a good thing. For me it’s not enough. I WANT national recognition, I want to walk down the street and see teenagers I don’t know reading my book, and I want to do it all over again. But reality is we all need to get our foot in the door and we aren’t all offered the chance of a lifetime from the big boys right off the bat. Sometimes, we have to take baby steps to get to where we want to be. Which leaves me back to my original question. To pub or not to pub?

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