The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?

 

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Creating Plots

I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.

Happy PeopleHere are some of the highlights from the session on creating plots.

One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.

What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.

Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:

  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stayquestion marks man in circle-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
  • Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What stands in the way of achieving it?

Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.

The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.

Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.

We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.

In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.

StrivingWe also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.

The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.

The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.

Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.

Puppies, Unicorns and Dolphin-Shaped Balloons

notes-md

Have you heard of the term bait-and-switch? Yep. This is one of them, and for good cause. If the title had read “3 Reasons to Outline,” would you seriously have stayed tuned? Not only is the topic of outlining boring, it often causes big hivey welts to break out on some people. So if you need to slug back a few gulps of Benadryl, go for it, and let’s move forward with…

3 REASONS TO OUTLINE

1. To keep from crashing head first into the lack of confidence wall.

Yes, you can write an entire novel without drafting an outline, but the chances of losing steam and curling into the fetal position about midway through are pretty high. What you thought was a plot screeches to a halt. Characters wander around like zombies on steroids. Your narrative is a flaming train wreck of twisted words. Reaching this state of mind has a way of sucking all the confidence marrow from your bones. This is where an outline comes in handy. Think of it as a safety net and/or anti-zombie mega-gun. When you hit midway in your story, you can reach out and grab the outline rope to pull yourself up to the grand summit of a finale.

2. So you know where you’re going.

I’m not a huge map fan. I can’t fold the dang things. I know. I know. There’s this great new invention called MapQuest. Yeah. That’d be great if I had a smart phone—which I don’t. Even so, there have been a few family vacations where I’ve been awfully thankful for a map. That’s what your outline is. Writing a story is a lot like going on a road trip. Sure you can throw your bags in the car and hope for the best, but what happens when you hit construction? Or worse…road closed? That’s when a map is your best friend. Same thing with a meandering story. An outline will keep you on track to end up where you wanted to go.

3. It works out the kinks.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing an outline is not a magic pill that takes you to happy writer land (but if you could market that, you’d make scads of money.) Planning out the major scenes ahead of time, thinking through all the what-if-that-happens scenarios, straightens out your plot so you’ll be less likely to have to rewrite unnecessary chapters.

Convinced yet that outlining is the greatest thing ever? I wouldn’t be, either. Outlining sounds about as much fun as scrubbing the toilet—outlining as in Roman Numerals and sub-points and all that analytical falderal. I say it’s time to start thinking outside that no-fun box and reinvent the outline.

Newsflash: there’s no law that says you have to write a text-on-screen outline.

Maybe you’re a Pinterest type of person who creates story boards. That counts. Perhaps you love the smell of dry erase markers and get off on mind mapping a tale on a large whiteboard. Shoot, I even know some writers who adore 3M sticky notes and plan out a novel by decorating a wall with their scenes. Go ahead and get creative. That’s what fiction is about, folks.

One parting thought to shoot down the scare factor of outlining. You have my permission to outline only chunks at a time. If scribbling down the entire story totally freaks you out, just do the first third, then take a break and write the first chapter. Before you end the first third, however, you should plan the next third. Savvy?

Outlining does not have to steal the joy from your writing. Turn it around to enhance the joy of your writing…and keep from having a nervous breakdown halfway through.

What about you? Are you fans of the outline or more pantsers types?

How to Plot by the Numbers

Plotting By the NumbersShow, don’t tell. Watch your participial phrases. Don’t head hop. Whatever you do, stay within manuscript length recommendations. For a writer scrambling to keep up with all the dos and don’ts, the writing profession can seem full of arbitrary rules. And when someone breaks said rules and goes on to win awards, it’s tempting to follow suit. One standard you shouldn’t buck, however, is a publishing house’s word-length requirements.
Why? Shouldn’t you let your story tell itself without regard for its length?

If you will be the one footing the bill, you’re free to make your manuscript whatever length you prefer.  But if you hope a publisher will pay to produce your book, it’s important to understand that additional pages cost extra money, and not just in terms of paper and ink. It takes several editors (who are on the payroll) to review and guide you in polishing a manuscript. Proofreaders don’t work for free either. If your last name is Tolstoy or Michener you might get away with submitting a beefy manuscript. The rest of us need to keep the bottom line in mind.

Book stores base the number of copies of a particular title to order on standard widths. If a publisher fails to adhere to these widths, it throws off a bookstore’s shelving efforts. Besides this, writing your novel shorter or longer than genre readers expect can negatively influence their buying decisions.

Aren’t these considerations crass? What about your inner artist?

Your inner artist will recover, and you’ll even grow as a writer from keeping to practical guidelines.

But how on earth can you tell how long a novel will be until you’ve written it?

You can’t know entirely, but I’ve developed a method that helps me write to a specific length. Even if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer and allergic to plotting, my technique may help you. Here’s a screen shot of one of my working calendars. CS stands for my current novel, and the number represents the scene I’ll write that day. (I number them in my plot outline.) I find it helps to include upcoming deadlines and events as well. The DS represents DawnSinger, the first novel in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven. The Renewal mentioned was a conference I attended.

Sample Scene Calendar

1. Estimate your desired word count. If you don’t know what that might be, read publishers’ submission guidelines at their sites. As a starting point, here’s an agent-maintained list of word count guidelines. Find the happy middle ground in a given range. That way you can guard against running too-short or too-long.

EXAMPLE: A publisher gives the range of 80,000-100,000 words for a historical romance. The middle ground to aim for is 90,000 words.

2. If you already know the average number of words you write per scene, use that figure. If you don’t know this number, write the first 50 pages of your book, then estimate the average number of words per scene. You can also base your figures on 1,500 words per scene, but eventually, you’ll want to check your own average against this figure and make adjustments as needed. It’s okay to round your numbers.

EXAMPLE: Approximately 12,500 / about 8 scenes = 1,500 words per scene

3. Divide your average words per scene into your desired total word count. The answer is the number of scenes to brainstorm.

EXAMPLE: 90,000 / 1,500 = 60 SCENES

4. Develop your plot to include the number of scenes you should write for your desired total word count. Write just a few sentences to describe each scene. This keeps you from bogging down while plotting and gives you a flexible guideline you can easily adjust as you write.

What’s next?

To learn more about my system of plotting, read How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts at my Live Write Breathe site.

Are you more of a plotter or a seat-of-the pants writer?