Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Victory and a Book Review

I've finished a workable version of the outline.

Full outline first draft

Everything from the previous version is now on the right side of the mindmap, all folded up. The stuff on the left is the outline: a prologue and three acts, divided into about 35 "chapters" (though we'll see if these end up being the final chapter divisions), and a paragraph about each chapter.

All of this has come together in just about three days, which surprised me. I had a major breakthrough, which was precipitated by a simple piece of good fortune: I read the right book. This book is Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. I have another book by Bell, The Art of War for Writers. I like the style of that book, but felt that it was lacking in concrete technical advice. Plot and Structure definitely fills that gap. Within hours of opening it, I could feel everything starting to click into place. What's more, I felt energized--reading this book showed me that I had almost all the right elements in place, if I could only get them arranged. Then the book provided concrete, actionable advice about how achieve this, and I could hardly wait to sit down and work! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone working on a novel.

Perhaps the most useful section of the book is the part that covers common "plot patterns" such as a revenge, love, the quest, adventure, and so on. I knew my story had some of these elements, but this section had great tips about how these kinds of plots actually move. Also, it solved a problem I was struggling with: one of my characters just didn't want to be part of the action. I knew I needed all my characters to have strong desires in order to drive the plot--could this reclusiveness count as a desire, and if so, how could it provide enough energy to drive any action? As it turns out, there is a classic plot known as "one apart". I've certainly read this type of story, but could never quite "get" what was going on. Now I get it: the loner wants to do his own thing. In act two, circumstances conspire to draw him into action against his will. At the end, he must choose whether to act. Then he either re-engages with society, or retreats forever. Aha! I don't know why this wasn't obvious. I knew the question of whether to "engage" would be a driving conflict, but seeing it laid out in print let me know that I really could use this structure--it gave me permission. And there is more than enough action in his friends' parts of the story tempt my poor little introverted mystic into getting involved.

Another good piece of advice in Bell's book is to create a "stakes outline". Ask yourself, what bad things can happen to my lead character? Make a list of these, and then order them from bad to worst. Now you can look to this list as you work on generating rising conflict in Act 2: as the story goes on, the mishaps get closer and closer to the character's worst nightmares. I found this surprisingly fun to do. Imagining how my characters would react to the worst case scenario taught me what they're really made of, what they care about, and where they have hidden reserves of strength. It also gave me great ideas about where conflict could come from.

The last thing this book prompted me to do was to abandon my multi-threaded outline (that scheme for filling out subplots that I detailed in my last post). I'm still glad I did that to the level of laying out the subplots, but breaking it down to "scenes" was too much. Putting everything together into a single act-by-act chronological outline let me see that many points I had thought would need a whole scene could actually be covered in brief, as short beats in the main action scenes. It all seemed to fall magically together. My next step is to write!

ETA: Just noticed that I quit my job one year ago today.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting Specific

Here's what I'm currently doing to create the outline for The Other Novel (this novel is really starting to need a title, isn't it?).

I've listed all of the stories within the overarching story: there's a romance, a mystery, two competing succession plots, and some other stuff. For each of these, I've then outlined the general story arc for that plot: how it begins, develops, and resolves. Up to this point I have completed my first attempt. I'm now in the midst of the penultimate step: specifying the actual scenes that are needed for each of these story-chunks to take place. This is the right-most branch of the outline, and when I say specific, I mean specific. Each item contains complete instructions for writing the scene: where it takes place, who is in it, what happens and how.

I am still using Freemind to lay out the outline visually. Here's a picture. (I know the text itself isn't visible; this is just to give you an idea of how it's organized.)

Novel Outline Large

The uppermost first-level node on the right is the sub-plots node. The bluish nodes in the far upper right are the actual scenes that I have worked out in detail, and the outline will be finished when all of the branches of the sub-plots node terminate in at lease one scene (or as many as needed). In addition to this outline, this diagram includes various pieces of brainstorming, notes about the setting, and color-coded notes about the purpose of different scenes, extra details, unanswered questions, etc.

Each level of this process has required a different way of thinking about the story. As I listed out the sub-plots, I found that I had to think hard about the over-arching themes of the story. As I then filled in the story for each sub-plot, I noticed areas where there was not going to be sufficient suspense or interest, meaning that other sub-plots had to be added or further elaborated to fill in the gaps. Now that I'm working on the individual scenes, I have to get into the guts of things. I'm working out details of the setting, supporting characters, and the nitty-gritty specifics of how the characters carry out their schemes.

The very last step will be to put the scenes in order, making explicit the interleaving of all the subplots.

Is this how pros do it? Probably not. Obviously, I'm still figuring out what method of plotting a novel works for me. If this method seems overly technical or hyper-analytical...well, maybe I find that comforting. I don't think I could do this at all without breaking it down into smaller and smaller questions.

Friday, June 11, 2010


I am outlining. Oh boy, I am outlining so hard. I've done a lot, but there's a lot more to do.

I must keep myself going with the thought of my reward, which will be Fast Writing.

Outlining. I am doing it.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Oh my. February was a long time ago. The intervening months have included a lot of distractions and a huge dip in my motivation. I keep plotting and re-plotting and finding new things to be dissatisfied with. I keep shuffling nodes around in Freemind, which is a balm to my guilty conscience, but doesn't result in any real work getting done.

For a while I even toyed with the idea of skipping the coming-of-age part of my story and moving straight into the more interesting sequel. I find myself constantly comparing my work to other books, and I get really hung up on trying to avoid stepping into what I see as other people's territory. A coming of age story involving magic? Watch out for Harry Potter cliches! A story where religious authority is the enemy of intellectual freedom? Don't rehash The Golden Compass! An urban setting peopled by decadent nobles? Watch out, you might write Sword's Point! And like a shadow over all hangs The Name of the Wind.

So I'm working through all that.

In personal news, this summer brings a change of setting. DM and I have abandoned Long Island for the moment, and are subletting an apartment in Berkeley until early August. It's so wonderful to be around our friends again, and to be able to eat the food we like! I've been taking pictures of the food, in fact. Here are some examples.

Pizza at the Cheeseboard!

2010-05-18 14.59.49

Delicious fresh vegetables!

2010-05-19 09.45.28

Mexican food at Cancun!!

2010-05-20 11.55.16

Cupcakes at Love at First Bite!

2010-05-20 16.23.28

Samosas at Vik's!

Samosa at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley

Mysterious candied fruit Vik's!

Sweets at Vik's Chaat in Berkeley

OK GO! at Maker Faire! (Ok, I know, this isn't food. But still!)

OK GO! singer in a tank

And this doesn't even include Gregoire, or when my mom took us to lunch at Chez Panisse. Oh dang. I love this place.