Charts and Tables and Lists—Oh My!

plotting, techniques to Wrestle Your Plot into Submission, Sarah Sundin, wrestling, to write a story

Techniques to Wrestle Your Plot into Submission by Sarah Sundin

Plotting often feels like a smackdown wrestling match to me. Characters, scene ideas, and plot twists battle with each other. And they don’t behave themselves. Over the years, I’ve come up with techniques to wrangle these elements into submission.

Writers are as unique as our stories. We each use different techniques throughout the writing process. My methods might strike you as obsessive-compulsive and neurotic. They are. But perhaps you can sift out a nugget to help you.

As an outline-oriented “plotter” who needs a detailed road map before I venture into a new story-land, I do this wrestling before the rough draft. But if you’re a “seat-of-the-pants” writer who gets an idea and dives straight into the story (how do you do that?), these techniques might aid you in the editing process or when you get stuck.

Characters are the heart of a story, so I spend lots of time getting to know them. I fill out a character chart, a long list of questions about the character’s background and personality. I keep the master template on my computer, print it off, and fill it out by hand—I brainstorm better with pen and paper, and I can do this work on long car rides or during my son’s karate class. I use the back of the paper to free-write key moments in their lives, such as traumatic childhood incidents. As I fill in the questions, I delve deeper into the character, finding her goals and motivation, and scene ideas pop up.

My list of scenes starts to fill in at this point, so now I look at story structure, using a “hero’s journey” analysis from Christopher Vogler’s excellent book, The Writer’s Journey. Looking at the twelve stages of traditional story structure helps me plot and shows me if the characters’ story arcs are complete. I also keep this as a template on the computer and fill it out longhand.

Then I fill out a plot chart. The chart below shows the first two scenes in my newest novel, In Perfect Time, the third book in the Wings of the Nightingale series. This is a simple table that can be set up in Microsoft Word or Excel. Each row is a scene—I list the chapter number, date, a title, and what happens in that scene.

This chart helps me see if each plotline is developing appropriately. If I’ve neglected an aspect of the story, it pops out here. The chart also shows me if I have enough meat for a complete scene, or if I need to beef it up.

Sarah Sundin on plotting

There are columns for the action plotlines, spiritual journeys, and the romance. Since friendship is a major theme in the Nightingale series, I include a column for friendship.

Although I find this most useful before the rough draft, I first used it while editing one of my early novels. Breaking the story down with this chart helped me to analyze why it wasn’t working—and to fix it.

The last thing I do before the rough draft is to fill out scene lists, one page per scene. At the top I record the date, location, point-of-view character, weather, outfits/props (don’t want to lose a purse!), the character’s objective, and the scene conflict. Then I sketch a brief outline of what will happen in the chapter. Sometimes I draw maps or diagrams for tricky scenes.

Try new techniques until you find what works best for you, adapt the methods to meet your needs, and then write your story!

Sarah SundinSundin - In Perfect TimeSarah Sundin is the author of six historical novels, including In Perfect Time (Revell, August 2014). Her novel On Distant Shores was a double finalist for the 2014 Golden Scroll Awards, and Sarah received the 2011 Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. You can find her at her website or on Twitter.

Changes to TWAS

Changes to TWAS

You may have noticed some changes here at TWAS over the past few weeks. Visible changes are that my blogging has been irregular and that the free TWAS writing course has disappeared.

The reasons are two-fold.

1. I’d built the site and the course on the hope of making some money at affiliate marketing, at least enough to pay the newsletter service for the course and some pocket change. This didn’t happen. I’m apparently not a very good salesperson!

2. My newsletter service provider had several lengthy glitches in service in April just before my annual fee was due. This drew my attention to the amount I was spending on supporting the course and the hassles that occur when a service has interruptions.

I had less than 24 hours to decide what to do. Renew and hope things improved, or pull the plug on the course and focus my attention on my writing career, which was facing significant changes at the same time. Details here.

I decided I needed to pour my time and money into my (suddenly) indie career, so I compiled my lessons into one PDF, emailed it to everyone who’d signed up for the course no matter where in the lessons they were, and canceled my newsletter service.

I’ll be honest. I’m at a bit of a quandary about what to do with this site. It’s costing me very little to keep the URL, so I don’t expect to delete it any minute soon. However, without the hope of compensation, I can’t spend hours a week as I had been on the blog posts. Frankly, that’s a chapter or two a week I could be writing on my own fiction.

Currently, my plan is to blog here irregularly, when I or a guest have something to say. I’m also planning to flesh out the TWAS course somewhat, adding in some of the relevant blog posts and other material, and creating an e-book to sell through Amazon, etc. However, this is not at the top of my list. I have a detailed production schedule for the next year with fiction.

The indie mantra is that it takes Quality Plus Quantity to make a reasonable income. So that is my primary goal for the foreseeable future—which is probably a week, but I have to go on something!

I’m not looking for commiseration but, if you have anything to say, I’d love to hear it in comments. Especially if you think I should push the TWAS e-book further forward on my schedule. If you’d like to offer a guest post on any specific topic that fits the TWAS profile, please use the contact form. Let’s talk.

Oh, one more thing. Eventually, when I have time, I’ll be moving most of the @towritestory tweets to my personal profile, @valeriecomer. I’d love a follow and will follow back most who seem like real people instead of businesses or bots.

Freewheeling with Yvonne Anderson

Guest Post by Yvonne Anderson

Freewheeling, Yvonne Anderson, to write a story, valerie comer

In a world run by plotters, I’m a pantser. And proud of it.

Well, maybe not proud, exactly, but I embrace the creative style God gave me. That means I refuse to let those stuffy plotters guilt me into outlining, jotting notes, creating character sketches, or otherwise doing a whole lot of pre-writing writing that doesn’t get me anywhere but frustrated. Move aside—I have a story to tell, so don’t get in my way!

In case you’re not up on the lingo, let me back up a bit and explain. A plotter is the sort of writer who has to measure all the ingredients precisely and have them lined up on the counter before cooking a meal. A pantser (short for “fly by the seat of the pants”) doesn’t follow a recipe, but adds ingredients by a handful or a pinch as the inspiration moves her.

Sometimes the prissy plotters don’t realize that we freewheeling pantsers aren’t entirely haphazard. True, some writers start with a “what-if” scenario and run with it blindly. But most of us know from the beginning how our stories will end, even though the events that unfold along the way are as much a surprise to us as they are to our readers.

We all do things differently, of course. In my case, I’ve explored the story world in my mind for months (or years) prior to writing. Before I type the first word, I’ve gotten to know the main characters intimately. I see how they interact with one another in various situations; I note their little quirks; I learn their life stories and how past experiences have shaped their lives. But I don’t write these things down. I simply know them, like you know your child.

I do record some things, depending on the story. Before drafting The Story in the Stars, I sketched out a map of the planet Gannah with the primary features named. This helped me to visualize the story world.

Sometimes I’ll make a timeline in order to keep me anchored, particularly when two separate story lines will later converge. When writing a historical novel some years back (it’s unpublished, so don’t try to look for it), I made a timeline of actual events then inserted the fictional ones in appropriate places.

Occasionally I’ll make a list of minor characters’ names and traits to help me keep them straight. The people of Gannah have an unusual way of keeping time, so I made a colorful chart of their time delineations with a key to how their time compares to ours. In order to help with characters’ travel plans, I used that map I mentioned earlier, which is scaled at 100 km per inch. This enabled me to calculate distances between destinations and the time it would reasonably take to get from one point to another.

I don’t do much of this sort of thing prior to writing, though. Generally, I’ll only organize the information in a list, a chart, or a diagram when I find myself getting confused. And, being a dinosaur, I usually make my notes on paper. I’d much rather refer to a page in a notebook than pull something up on my computer.

All this is a matter of personal preference. Some people scribble their first drafts with pen and ink. Many authors love specialized writing software like Scrivener, because they can keep everything all in one place. But if you like putting your scenes on notecards and rearranging them to see how the story flows best, then go ahead—and don’t apologize for it.

Plotter or pantser—who’s the better cook? Honestly, once the dinner’s on the table, you can’t know which method was used, so don’t worry about it. Just dig in.

A resident of Western Maryland, Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world. Fly through the Gateway to Gannah for some serious sci-fi adventure: The first three titles, The Story in the Stars and Words in the Wind and Ransom in the Rock, are all available in both print and ebook. Watch for the launching of The Last Toqeph, the fourth and final flight in the series, in the autumn of 2014.

Spying on a Tweener Writer

tweener, plotter, pantser, patricia bradley, to write a story, valerie comer

Guest Post by Patricia Bradley

I call myself a tweener, but I’ve learned tweeners don’t all write the same way.

Before I start working on my story, I generally know how it’s going to start, and how it’s going to end. That’s the way my stories come to me. It’s what’s in between that I have to work on. And this is my process.

Some things I have to know before I start writing:
• My Story Question
• My Characters and their goals
• Setting
• The general turning points in the plot.
• Death—what kind of death will it be? All stories are about some type of death: physical, psychological or professional
• What will propel the story from Act I to Act II and from Act II to Act III.

STORY QUESTION: For my third book, the question my story will answer is: Can a by-the-book detective who has lost her confidence and a private investigator who believes rules are only suggestions team up to catch a serial killer?

Since I write Inspirational, I also need a spiritual story question which is: How do we find freedom in Christ.

CHARACTERS
Basic things I need to know about my characters:

What type personality does each character have? I like to use the Myers-Briggs personality charts to help me. I pick an occupation and then Google the type of person who would do well in it and then I see if those traits listed fit my character. Somehow they always do.

Livy’s personality is ISTJ:

  • Introverted: reserved, controlled, self-motivated, deliberate
  • Sensing: realistic, practical, detail-oriented, traditional
  • Thinking: logical, objective, pragmatic, levelheaded
  • Judging: orderly, responsible, methodical, hard-working

These traits make her a great detective.

Eric’s personality is ESTP

  • Extroverted: outgoing, friendly, engaging, energetic
  • Sensing: hands-on, practical, observant, physical
  • Thinking: logical, objective, pragmatic, outspoken
  • Perceiving: responsive, spontaneous, adaptable, adventurous

These traits also make him a good private detective. But, can you see that they might have difficulty working together? I think I’ll have a fun time with these two characters.

Dark Moment from the Past:
This is something that has happened to my characters and has influenced them in such a way that it affects the person they are when the story opens.

My heroine, Detective Livy Reynolds, killed a 17-year-old gunman six weeks before the story opens, and she has not been able to come to terms with it. The shooting has made her question her judgment, her instincts and her ability to respond in similar situations. Her story goal is to get her confidence back by solving the case of her missing cousin.

All his life, my hero, Private Investigator Eric Kincade, has been compared to his older brother and been found lacking, especially after his brother died a hero in Afghanistan. Eric has a law degree, but hasn’t taken the bar exam because he doesn’t want to be a lawyer. When the story opens, he is searching for a Texas state senator’s daughter who turns up missing in Mississippi. Solving this case will prove to his father that he is, in his own way, as good as his brother.

ACT I:

What I have talked about up until now is in Act I. It’s also where I introduce my characters and have them in their ordinary world. I set up where the story is going to take place and present the problem and what’s at stake. Act I also sets the tone: suspense, romance (if contains a romance introduce your hero-heroine either in person or have them think about the other), thriller, rom-com, women’s fiction, action.

At the end of Act I, is what James Scott Bell calls the 1st Doorway of No Return (Plot and Structure). Once your Lead goes through this door, the reader must believe she cannot go back to her ordinary world until she solves her problem.

ACT II:

This is where the Plot (the sequence of events in your story) really cranks up. Before I begin writing, I work out the Ds in my story: turning points that get progressively worse until the big one—The Black Moment.

The Ds stand for Distancing (getting the h/h further from their goal instead of closer) Disappointment (something happens that moves the h/h even further from their goal), Disaster (same thing only worse), Destruction and finally Devastation (Black Moment where everything goes wrong). I don’t describe what happens in great detail and the Ds are subject to change once I start writing, but at least I have a good idea of what I want to accomplish in Act 2.

Something has to be at stake in my story.
What is the ultimate stake? Death. There are 3 kinds of deaths in a story: physical, psychological, and professional. I’m not limited to one type of death in my story, and Livy and Eric will face both the physical and professional kinds.

The middle is the battleground of the story. And in the middle I want to keep my reader turning the page. Each D brings the lead closer to the 2nd Doorway of No Return. In this sense, disaster doesn’t always mean something bad happens to the character. At the time it happens, it can seem like a good thing.

In an example from the movie Return to Me, one of the disasters is when the hero Bob falls in love with the heroine Grace. That’s a good thing. Right? But Grace has put off telling him that she has his dead wife’s heart. And now she knows she must. And when she does, he leaves, just like she thought he would.

Act III

Which brings us to the 2nd Doorway of No Return. Once Grace tells Bob she has his wife’s heart, there is no going back and undoing it. That thrust the story into Act III where the final battle is played out—she leaves to go on her dream trip to Europe, and he realizes he needs to go after her.

Act III is where the hero/heroine overcomes all odds and wins the day, and for me that means a Happy Ever After. (HEA)

Act III is the one thing I don’t really plot out.

And that is the way I, as a tweener, plot my stories. If you have any questions, leave them in the comment box and I’ll try to answer them.

Patricia Bradley lives in North Mississippi and is a former abstinence educator, but her heart is tuned to suspense. Patricia’s mini-mysteries have been published in Woman’s World, and her debut novel, Shadows of the Past released in February. She presents workshops on writing. When she’s not writing, she likes to throw mud on a wheel and see what happens.

My Favorite WordPress Plugins

wordpress plugins, wordpress, plugins, best plugins

A couple of years ago I posted an article on my author blog with recommendations for WordPress plugins that have made my life easier. When I looked back on it the other day, I realized that my opinions have changed in some cases. Here are most of the plugins I currently use on all or most of my sites…and why.

Housekeeping

Akismet: the plugin that makes having a blog possible in this decade. Akismet is a comment spam filter that is more than 99% accurate (in my experience).
WordPress DB Backup: the plugin that emails you a backup of your site. You can set what all it backs up and how often it does so.
WP Super Cache: the plugin that optimizes your site’s loading speed, clearing cached pages.
WordPress SEO by Yoast: the plugin that makes SEO (search engine optimization) easy. It prompts you to choose keywords for each page and post then tells you, not only how well you score on the keywords, but how to improve until you score higher.
Google Analytics for WP: Access accurate analytics from your dashboard.
Ultimate Maintenance Mode: Sometimes you need to do some major work on your site and don’t want visitors poking around while you’re in the midst of it. A plugin like this one puts up a sign of your choice inviting people to return later. As a logged-in administrator, you can move around your site with everything visible to you, and disable the plugin when you’re ready to return your site to “live” position.
Redirection: If you do any rearranging or retitling of an older site, you will probably need a plugin like this. Capture the current URL and have it automatically redirect to your new one.

Simplify

Simple Social Icons: a great pack of clean media icons with a customizable hover color. See the header for this plugin in action.
Click to Tweet by Todaymade: It annoys me that this plugin is only available in visual mode, but it is so handy to be able to create quick click-to-tweets on the fly that I’m forcing myself to dip into visual to use it.
Jetpack is a terrific bundle of plugins that allows blog subscriptions, sharing buttons for posts/pages, a simple contact form you can place anywhere, allows likes, a variety of widgets, a clean commenting system, and more.

Specific Need

Blubrry Powerpress I love this one for embedding an audio player for quick clips.
Slideshow: This plugin can be configured for a bunch of different slideshows in various shapes and sizes. One example is my book widget in the sidebar.
Polldaddy Polls and Rating: Perfect for when you want to create polls for your readers.
Creative Clans Embed Script: A plugin like this is needed if you want to add javascript from a third party site. If you’ve copy/pasted script in and it seems invisible, check to see if its Java. If it is, here’s your answer.
Fast Secure Contact Form: While Jetpack comes with a fine basic contact form, you may want more. This plugin gives you programmable options and allows different forms for different uses throughout your site.
Testimonial Master: The newest addition to my site, this plugin allows a rotating “quotes” area from text you supply yourself. (A lot of random quote plugins come loaded with their own quotes, I found during my search.)
WP Calendar: This is a very clean calendar plugin if you don’t want clickable events. I use it for a group blog site, so everyone can see upcoming posting dates for each author.
My Book Table: A great plugin if you are an author but don’t want to sell books from your site, even though you know you need a page per book. This plugin allows you to set up your affiliate accounts once and have them appended to every book you add. To see it in action, check my Raspberries and Vinegar page.
Woo Commerce is great if you’re an author and DO want to sell books from your own site. It integrates a shopping cart, can be set to calculate shipping, and links up to assorted payment options.

Genesis Specific

Last week I talked about why I switched to Genesis Framework. If you’re a Genesiss convert, here are three of the many Genesis-specific plugins available.

Genesis Favicon Uploader: Yep, To Write a Story is finally rocking its own favicon. I have an aversion to FTP programs so kept putting off uploading one. This plugin made it a snap. (Don’t know what a favicon is? It’s the tiny square image that shows in the browser bar on each tab you have open. If there’s no favicon, it’s an empty box.)
Genesis Easy Columns: Sometimes you want all or parts of a page in columns. This plugin makes it simple to create 2-6 columns on any page.
Genesis Single Post Navigation: This plugin shows as the double arrows on the side of each post on this site. They allow you to arrow through the posts, including comments, without needing to return to the blog home page in between.

Group Specific

Social Author Bio: As I mentioned above, I’m webmaster for and participant in a group blog at Inspy Romance. This plugin helped make a tidy author page. Each author accesses their own bio in their profile and, when they change it there, it changes site wide. Love it!
Reveal IDs: the perfect counterpart to the above plugin, allowing the administrator to see each blogger’s identification numbers to create a page like above.
Display Authors Widget: There are dozens of ways to add a list of authors to a sidebar, but this one gave the simplest solution: a basic list that ties in with the social author bio plugin. Simple and elegant!

There you have it: my favorite WordPress plugins. What are some you feel you couldn’t live without? Maybe I’ll find some new favorites to meet needs I didn’t even know I had!