Creating a World in 6 Short Weeks

I wrote five new novel manuscripts in the twelve months between November 2018 and November 2019. That’s probably not as dramatic an accomplishment as it sounds, since I have been retired from my day job for some time. Now, I have time to devote to writing, photography, and other interests.

Still, I am happy with the work, as I’ve developed quite a process for myself. I have standardized templates for plotting the books, and so, by the time I start, I know what I am going to write and how it will be organized. I find that’s critical in order to avoid penning a shitty first draft that, frankly, requires a great deal of work to repair.

Blank Novel Plotting Template

Given my stories are all character-centric, I spend more time on understanding the characters than I do any other single point. If I don’t know who the story is about, I’m not certain how I would describe their world or, god forbid, narrate using their own words, as in the case of first-person narrative. Sometimes, the character detail emerges after the first chapter, when I have a taste for the Main Character’s (MC) style. I am a visual beast, so I almost always have sketches or photos of characters before I begin.

The story background is simple here, no more than a few paragraphs for a typical 90,000 word novel. However, for more epic tales or involved plot outlines, I have expanded this section substantially, including details such as outlines for all major characters, major obstacles to be overcome and their proposed solutions, and even location details for stories where world building is a key dynamic. All of this is important, but varies from book to book.

The critical part of the outline, though, is the last section labeled “Main Plot.” The plot outline is a bulleted list comprising no more than one paragraph per bullet (number) in sequential order. Each paragraph is a chapter in the book. Thus, given I know approximately how long a chapter is, I have a pretty accurate guess as to the book’s length before I begin. Some chapters’ outline paragraphs are as long as a half-page, where I know specific plot points or dialog, but some are no more than a few sentences. Importantly, holding my outline to a paragraph per chapter keeps the book’s pace moving and ensures that I only have one thing going on at a time. Readers can jump back and forth, but they can’t do two things at once.

It took me a while to get to this outline, and I used variations before I stumbled across it. I suppose the effectiveness of any process is 1) results and 2) repeatability. I’ll have to await feedback from my primary and beta readers on the results, but repeatability is proven. Each of the first four manuscripts I wrote was finished in 6-8 weeks, with the fifth book having been completed in a mere 17 days. The long books, to my surprise, took no longer to write than the short ones. The main variance seemed to depend upon how complete the plot outline was when I started, and how tight my writing was, frankly. I wrote WIP number 2 at the slowest pace, but that was deceptive, as I rewrote each chapter after I finished it. Essentially, it was two drafts at once, and required far less editing than the others after completion.

Words per 30 days. For comparison, Nanowrimo is 50,000 (1667 words per day). I found that writing almost daily caused my productivity to remain high throughout the 12-month period.

I haven’t decided about publishing these–whether or how–but I am being encouraged to do so by my primary reader. For now, they are written in a pen name so as to differentiate them from the 10 books I’ve already published. But more about those to come. For now, I’m heavily into Science Fantasy editing mode.

These books are quite a ride. I hope you get to take one soon. Cheers.

The Sum Total of …

I’d planned to spend the entire day devoted to writing. After numerous interruptions, most of them more stressful than I’d care to relate, and a lovely evening chat with my smarter half, I finally got down to “business” around 8:30 PM. But the Washington Wizards and Miami Heat were each playing (and winning) and there went that bit of focus.

So, here it is, midnight, and the sum total of what I’ve written today is below.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 12.12.05 AM Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 12.12.19 AM

My interview with Rosie wasn’t going at all like I planned. I suppose it might have been due to the fact that I let myself like her enough that I didn’t want to rough her up emotionally. You need to stay objective, if not antagonistic toward your subject during questioning. It could also have been the fact that the girl was a lot brighter than I expected a glorified waitress to be. Mostly, however, it was the fact that the woman was playing a game she called Strip Interview, during which she removed an article of clothing each time I asked her a personal question or one she deemed to be stupid. That left me with one of two options: stop the interview or risk having a naked subject sitting across from me.

Like I’ve said before, I’m a professional. I wasn’t about to stop the interview over some half-assed, female bullying technique. Besides, I’d conducted plenty of interviews of nude subjects during my time in Afghanistan. Granted, none of those Taliban freaks looked anything like Rosie, but that was my theory. In truth, the woman was killing me. She was currently seated across from me wearing a black lace bra, matching panties, and those damned fuzzy sandals. I was sure she kept those on just to keep me noticing her feet. I may have sort of a thing for feet.

The way I saw it, I had to figure out what I  needed to know in the next two questions, or somebody was going to be in a world of hurt.

Or fun.

Oh well, at least I got my plot outlined organized better. That’ll make the writing fly by tomorrow. (Sigh)

The November Project

“Androidgynous,” the tale of a genuinely sexy robot.

I’m torn. Some of you may have heard of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. It runs for 30 days in November of each year. Well, I’ve done it a few times, and it’s no big deal at this point. In fact, it’s a little asinine in that the objective is to write a 50,000-word “novel” but most participants write neither. Even if they did, 50,000 words does not a novel make. In any case, the only real “prize” for “winning” is knowing you did it and feeling superior to the cretin who failed like the losers they are.

Ahem. Sorry.

Even so, I’ve found it a good stimulus to continue to write. I always write something in the summer and start or finish a major project in November. This year, I can’t decide what my next project should be. I’ve begun writing short stories toward my next anthology, the working title of which is Dark City Stories. I have 3 written, 1of which I really like , and a  second story is underway.

So, for November, I can either continue working on my short stories, and try to crank out 50,000 words (143 pages) worth, or I can start work on my long-delayed detective novel, Jeanne Dark. I chose the name Dark City Stories as I’ve considered starting Jeanne out as a novelette in the collection. (It would be her second story.)

For the short story collection, I already have a number of ideas:

  • “30 July 3013” – Life in the city.
  • “321 Hell Street, Apt 7” – There is a darkness in the penthouse apartment of an old building populated by a diverse group of city dwellers. Rumors are its been there forever. But now it wants to leave.
  • “A Girl Named Serenity Sea” – This is a fun and lyrical tale of a very unusual woman, and the complement to the novelette I completed named “Holy Mother of Selina Sky” (my favorite short story to date. It will be one of the first short stories ever penned that is based to a large extent on internet memes, with a real story wrapped around it.

    “If you ever feel as though you’re stuck behind the looking glass, the only logical thing to do is to build yourself an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ room”
  • “Beyonder” – A tale of a wise and worldy elephant
  • “The Girl Who Wore Shoes” – this is the tale of a young woman who wore shoes, but nothing else.
  • “The Nebula that Awoke”
  • “Umbrella Girl” – This one is a surprise … to me.

For the most part, instead of written ideas, I’m plotting the stories initially purely visually, using images as prompts. Those interested can check out my Pinterest collection. I also have some other ideas that I came up with traditionally: a sensual love story that takes place in a large city on another world, the love story of two people who discover they live in non-linear time, and an urban tale of gang life in the distant future. While writing short stories is satisfying, I find it more draining than books, because each “chapter” is a separate book. All the ideas have to be fresh.

It’s damned hard to come up with ideas. Even then, sometimes translating them into coherent stories takes real work. “Selina Sky” was the hardest thing I ever wrote.

My other choice is starting Jeanne Dark. I’ve previously written about her character, more than once. I recall writing that I cannot begin the novel until I’ve finished it in my head. I’m almost finished. I even have her car, which I’ve personalized. I’ve had her in my head since March 2012. She’s a collection of unique traits, with the skill of a Sherlock Holmes but none of the personality. She’s a synesthete, for one thing. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting on, until very recently, when I met the real-life version of my Jeanne. She’s so much like my character it’s scary.

So, I can also begin writing Jeanne, except for one thing: I have NO IDEA what mystery she needs to tackle. What’s something fresh that’s not been over-explored? Don’t know.

What do you guys think? If you were me, what would you tackle, the short stories, or begin work on Jeanne Dark? The good news with Jeanne is that I already have the cover art done. 🙂

When the Characters Whisper

MinaflareWhat does one do when the characters no longer want to obey? Are we their gods, or merely their scribes, sketching their stories as they see fit? I have been master of my universes, but these three stragglers no longer follow my script.

I have attempted to keep to my mystery, hoping for happy endings. But there are sisters now, and they love him, both, in different ways. They tug and pull, and there is a tragedy, inevitably waiting to happen. Even still, I see a hundred twists toward joy, a thousand to unquenchable sorrow. In some, the mystery is the catalyst. In others, the characters whisper to forget the main line, because there is love and passion, eroticism and magic to be had.

They wish to play, drink too much, and awaken in the nude.

“But there is the matter of the child,” I say.
“He never existed,” she says. “It was madness. You must help her accept her reality.”

It cannot be. This cannot be chimera. My lead is a simple man, with dreams of Bogart, of sleepy childhood nights under the open sky. He is not the fixer of madness. And she, the first, loves him too dearly. But does she love her sister more? Would she cut off her leg to save a sibling whose own leg had been severed?

“She would,” they whisper.

So, now I sit, confused. I see their stories in my dreams. This book, I have written entirely in my head. The scenes are acted out before me. Their lovemaking rocks me; it is indelicate and I refuse to write it down.

“These are not the stories I write,” I complain.
“They are not your stories,” she says. “They are ours. We are more than you believe.”

I must walk now and take in the sun. They have begun to twist and I do not know how to follow. A simple love story is all I wanted. But now there is another one, a sister, good and true. She is wounded; he is a rescuer.

I fear they are not pure of heart. But I am not the bearer of negativity. I do not scribe eroticism, or red weddings, or the ramblings of a dishonored brood. The people clamor for those stories … but they are too easy to write. I can sweep the table of those you love, and let the shock pass for brilliance. I can allow the hearts to break and the lives to ruin. They can twist; they can.

But how to keep them from breaking? That is the real writing. That is the genius I seek, but never master. How do I allow them to break, but never shatter?

“She needs him or I will lose them both,” says the first sister.
“Then she must have him,” I concede. “But it will ruin you.”
“Then I shall be not the tree, but the grass. I shall bend, but will not break.

I resign myself to their fate. But I feel the twists are beyond me. They do not fit on the web or in a story of this size. The words are strong and heady, and this is a vessel built for dainty drinks with pink umbrella prose.

But even still, I see her, naked, wet, demanding he watch, and promising him she will never allow him to touch her. I wonder if they know that is the magic that shall trap him, and break them both.

Some books you hate to write. Perhaps it is time to stop. I do not like this wandering; the ink is spilling all over the page and now, my hands are filthy.

Overthinking and Underthinking in Plotting

over-thinking

I often see writers debate about which is preferable, “plotting” or “pantsing.” Plotting refers to diligently lay out your story’s plot before writing in earnest, using outlining or some similar method. True plotters may create outlines so detailed that they are actually incorporated into the work during the writing phase. Evan Marshall, author of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, should be considered the patron saint of plotters.

Pantsing refers to those writers who write via “the seat of their pants,” without the benefit of a true outline, and sometimes without knowing what the story will be about in advance. Stephen King is a well-known advocate of this method (which is why some critics claimed his early works used to fall apart in the final act). *Bill raises his hand.

I won’t describe these two methods in great detail as they’ve been described a lot, and you can look them up for yourself. Instead, I want to discuss the pitfalls of each and how to find your way in between the two extremes.

Now in truth, few people probably fall into the extremes of either method, and both can be used successfully. I fully plotted my third novel, Emprise, in advance, as it was the conclusion of a trilogy, and I was determined that 100% of the plot lines would close. That is the great benefit of plotting, being able to analyze plot lines in advance, and construct your story so that it is fluid and logical.

It’s also the trap. For some, it’s too easy to start thinking of the outline as your story. The story isn’t written until you write it, and much of it will be in your head before you ever sit down to the computer. Even the most detailed outline should be considered a guide, not a prison. Rigid plotters sometimes overthink so much they are filling in their story’s blanks to the exclusion of imagination.

Pantsers, in the extreme, sit in front of the computer, and make shit up. They let the characters guide the story, moving from one scene to the next without a pre-designed flow. Often, they don’t know what the ending will be until they get there. Plotters, in contrast, often write the ending before they begin the book.

The trap here is easy to see. You can be a Stephen King, 900 pages into a (600-page) book, with no clear way of shutting down the story. (If you’re King, you’re also too big for an editor to back you down.) A less skilled (and most of us are) writer will discover s/he has painted him or herself into a corner. The result is backtracking, massive editing, and often, choppy and uneven writing. Why? Underthinking. You can’t make up a 75,000-word story on the fly and expect it to hold together. Want to know why 1st drafts suck? That’s why.

I’m not talking about wordsmanship when I say choppy writing; I’m referring to pace. I can often tell a pantser’s book because the pacing is uneven. There will be a section rife with action: one, two, three  chapters in a row of chills. And then, suddenly, we’re hit with 50 pages of backstory dialogue at a party. Why? Because the author hadn’t thought in advance how long to be in each scene. That’s the plotting part.

It also leads us to how to use bits of plotting to shore up your work without getting bogged down or ruining your flow. Let’s be scientific here for a minute. If you are a natural pantser, you will likely never shift to the plotter mode. Why? Because it’s determined by your brain and personality type. Plotters are what Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs calls Judging types, who naturally organize their environment. *Bill raises his hand again. They plot, because it helps them to manage the world. Plotters write in Word, because they knew the outline in advance. Pantsers are the Sensing type, who do precisely the opposite. They navigate the world by maximizing their flexibility. Plotting restricts and stresses them. Pantsers write using tools like Jutoh, so they can move whole chapters or sections around after they’re written, according to what feels right.

So, how do you get the benefit of both methods – to know where the story will go, and roughly how to get there, without stopping to use the bloody road map? Easy.

There is a hybrid method. I first began to merge the two in writing short stories, where there is insufficient space for a long plot. Although a natural plotter, I began to see the advantages of letting the story lead – most of all, having the plot twist all of its own accord. More on plot twists tomorrow, but suffice it to say that when you have no pre-conceived ideas for a story (or a chapter) your imagination is freer. It’s writing by brainstorming.

After a few short stories, I tried my hybrid method on a longer piece – my 400+ page science fiction novel, Hard as Roxx. Roxx was the perfect vehicle, as much of the story takes place “on the road,” with things happening to the characters that they have to deal with. As a result, the book would remain fluid even if the lack of heavy plotting bounced Roxx and her kids from episode to episode. I spent more time choreographing the fight scenes than outlining the novel.

So what did I learn from the process? That some structure is almost imperative, for any work much above 5,000 words, unless you are fine with doing a lot of moving around during editing. But too much structure limits the imagination in ways you may not have intended. At a minimum, I’d recommend the following as a hybrid, limited-plotting method.

1. Know who the main character is. This doesn’t have to be very detailed, just enough in your head that the MC is well rounded and consistent. Of course they will grow in your story, and they should, but don’t make them an introvert in chapter 1 and the life of the party in chapter 3.

2. Have some idea of the ending. You can change the details later. However, you should have a good enough idea so that you know when your story is over. (That will already put you ahead of some writers who end too soon or too late.) Sure, you can expect the ending be happy when you’re plotting and then kill all the bitches off at the end, but at least you’ll know it was the end.

3. Decide how long (in words) you want the story to be up front. DO NOT start writing until you decide. You may change (as I have) from a short story to a novelette if you’ve guessed wrong, but you’ll very quickly know your original idea wasn’t workable and be able to adjust before you build yourself walls you can’t overcome.

4. Think in terms of quarters. 1st 25% – we learn the basic story line; the main “what if” or problem is identified. Next 50% – we learn the story and stuff happens to the hero; subplots form. Last 25% – the climax and resolution of plot lines. Don’t think this is important? Watch any of your favorite 60-minute TV dramas. I bet you that the climax happens with precisely 15 minutes to go (right before the last commercial break). The formula not only works, readers come to expect it, even without realizing it.

5. If you have a fun idea, run with it. It’s your story. Not only should you not worry about changing your mind, you should be worried if you don’t. You may write a minor character who’s more interesting than your main ones, and find her taking over the book. Let her; she’s a natural star. You may add to your story, on impulse, a puppy that  a neighbor tried to give you that day, and find your readers “love” that puppy (*cough, Apache!). Give the puppy more work. *Bill raises his hand for the last time.

The point of the exercise is to discover that having some structure is positive and it needn’t get in the way of the story. My web serial is being written with no advanced plotting at all. However, the hybrid method still works, because when I get an idea, it’s easy to plan the next chapter using the method I just laid out.

Give it a try and let me know how you made out.

Don't get pantsed
Don’t get pantsed

One More Weird Idea

“Worth Enough?” by radoxist (http://radoxist.deviantart.com/art/Worth-enough-73247873

I’ve had people ask me from whence come my stories. … Okay, my dad asked me that once. Still, he was quite insistent: “Where on Earth do you get the ideas you need to write an entire book?” That’s actually a good question.

I previously wrote about the Event Wheel, which is a device that allows you to map out an event and find out what secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary events happen as a result. It is indeed a very powerful tool, and you can read about it if you like. However, most of the time, I’m just playing “what if” games, which is not very different that one-person brainstorming. Take for instance today. I was on about mile 0.5 of my 2-mile walk, when a question hit me:

Once humans master the human brainwave interface, which will allow for direct electrical interactions between computers and the human brain, will it not be long before we develop the ability to fully download what makes us human – personalities, memories, learned responses, etc. – into an artificial life? When that happens, what happens next?

These random thoughts are usually followed by a stream of follow-on thoughts:

    • If an entire human “being” is downloaded into an android, what happens to the “soul?”
      • Do the belief in the soul inhibit people’s acceptance that the droid is still the same “person” as before? Do religious people see these beings as “godless” starting a heated religious conflict?
      • Do religions like Buddhism become more popular or do people simply stop believing all together?
      • Would the downloaded droid (Indefs, as in Indefinite life expectancy) consider itself the person as before, or a newer (better) entity?
      • Would the Indefs consider themselves godly beings?
    • Other than the infirmed, who would do this first?
    • How quickly would governments step in? Surely there would be moralistic-based limits (as on cloning) to prevent this.
      • If not (or prevalent illegal trade) how does government limit the numbers eligible to do this? How do you stop the species’ evolution from stopping – only transfers after fertile years?
      • Would countries forcibly switch over their populations to save on food costs and create stronger armies? How do you prevent /combat that?
    • How would bio-based humans fight back against the appeal of this? Would this really open the door to DNA enhancement? Superman vs. Machine?
      • Would they be allied, mutually accepted, at war?
    • What about sex? Surely the Indefs would still be sexual beings. Would the culture be different – more logic-based or freer?
    • Does this create a class conflict? Rich people get downloaded but poor people just die?
      • Do the poor get downloaded with government subsidies, but in a lower class of bot?
      • Do unethical groups/governments trick the poor and only download their abilities to work – essentially creating new slaves?
    • How quickly would the Indefs push to leave Earth? Why would they stay? Could they be put in stasis indefinitely for interstellar flight?

These are just the thoughts I came up with on my 30-minute walk, and while I was typing, but I think you see the point. The power of the process is to allow one question or “what if” generate the next, and let it take you as far afield as it does. Looking at the above, I see a number of possible storylines, every thing from political dramas, to dystopian oppression, or even space opera.

The next step, however, is to me the fun step. What happens when you insert a character into the above?

It’s 2187. Let’s call our character Carmen, a 30-year-old ex-Marine, who is on a whirlwind tour after publishing her 1st novel based on her experiences in the North Asia Indef Revolt. Those Godless Bots took over their local government after a long terror campaign, supposedly “fighting for basic human rights.” Like they’re human. Ha. Then, suppose she is struck while crossing the street, leaving her paralyzed from the lips down. Wow.

So, stop and think about that for a second.

There are a lot of ways to go from there, huh? She can become a “godless” Indef, and begin to see their cause. She can infiltrate them and find their goal to be far less noble than we thought. We can stay away from the “Avatar” line completely, and have her recover some function, but end up being the first genuine mixture between fully an Indef and a bio-based human. Maybe she avoids the damn war and heads out to space with a crew of beings who are sick of war (or want to kick ass in the rest of the solar system.)

“Irontown,” by inetgrafx (http://inetgrafx.deviantart.com/art/Concept-Irontown-13880287)

Or, we can keep the character, and use some of the questions above to create new story ideas. Anyway, that’s how a five-second thought blossoms into the start of a short story or novel idea.

So here’s my question to you – where would you take the ideas above? Who would your main character be?

The Next Book, Day 1

They whisper to me, you know. Like auditory hallucinations, I can hear their breathing, inside my ear, their breathy words, their admonitions. Although they speak mostly gibberish, as if I were dreaming, it is their emotional content I recognize. She wants out, does Jeanne Dark. I begin to see the colors of her graphemes, and she screams for me to put them to paper. I can almost hear the sound the colors make, and the heady, gurgling pant of the numbers. She will never forget a number, because she can remember the color of their songs. She is insane, blindingly insane, because she manages to remain lucid in such a chimerical world. Surely, that is madness.

And dear Foss, the deep Mr. Cain, he has begun emerging in my dreams. He is more than whom I created, already. I see him in passersby. Today, at work, two African American men passed by. They were short, relatively speaking, no more than five foot seven or so. I thought of Foss, the massive six feet, four inches of him, and wondered if the men would have spoken to him were he lost in scowl-painted thought. He is bored, needs adventure, wants his turn.

Still, I keep him inside, with Dark. I can feel them clawing at me. No, it is more than that. I can feel the words; they burn, needing release. It hurts not to write them, my blue-balled determination to deny their freedom is failing. It hurts too much, and at times, I feel the need to weep. But tears would be a release. They would drip and bits of Dark’s story would come with them.

I keep her trapped, because the pain is her story. There is pain there. Perhaps she is trapped, like my imagination. Maybe that is why I will not write her. Too much of my writing is humor. My words reflect my thoughts, and I confess I see the brilliant comedy of stupidity that is the world. But Dark’s story is not humorous. She is capable of great joy – rather, causing it – but has felt little. Her world has been isolation. She hurts, but paints her face with false pleasantries. I would know none of this had I let her out.

So she will remain trapped a bit longer, until the words no longer fit inside. Perhaps it is foolishness to write so soon about writing. Maybe the ideas will be stolen. But it matters little. Dark sings only to me, and only I can write her lyrics. I begin to think there are young writers, those whom have never written a book, who would watch the process, as one would an accident laid out in super-slow motion. I will let them watch, feed their scorn, here, as I bleed on my keyboards. Already she has taken over it; I can feel her somber smile even in these few passages. Do they feel the undercurrent of her deep passion? Do they know how she yearns?

They will. I have found her cover art – the perfect photo of her shadowed self. Soon, Dark’s story will be written, the novel will be finished. …

And then, only then, it will be time to start.

Seeing the Future via Event Wheels

I was watching a poorly done movie about a viral outbreak today – I don’t even remember the title, though it ended twenty minutes ago – and as my mind wandered, I started thinking about strategic planning.

Wait, that’s not as weird as you think.

When I finished graduate school, I went to work for IBM. I hated working for IBM, which shouldn’t surprise any of my fellow writers, but their classes were incredible. One such boondoggle class was a Strategic Planning course that was administered in Santa Clara, California. That’s right, a week on the west coast, drinking my way through all the cool bars with work colleagues, and hanging out in San Francisco. The excesses of the 1980s were awesome.

In any case, the class turned out to be the most valuable thing I was ever taught, outside of algebra. (I don’t count reading or writing because I taught myself those.) The key piece to the course was a simple device called an “event wheel.” Essentially, the event wheel is a device that allows you to map out an event and find out what secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary events happen as a result. Even better, it can be done with tools as simple as a pencil and a big piece of paper.

To begin, simply map out an event – here, an outbreak of a new, highly contagious virus with a high mortality rate. The first set of rings – in green in the diagram – are the primary effects of the event. These will be easy to see, in most cases. They can be as simple as cause and effect of a routine event (accident causes injury) or, as in this case, descriptions of the event.

PowerPoint is your friend. :)
PowerPoint is your friend. 🙂

In our viral outbreak, the victim is unaware. She is on travel when she encounters the virus. Further, unlike influenza, wherein victims are contagious for one day prior to symptoms arising, our virus has a 5-day window where the victim is contagious, but shows no symptoms of the disease. This is where the power of the tool begins to show itself.

After mapping out the immediate (fewer than 10) “event attributes,” we begin to see how the primary event begins to run its course. The 5-day contagion leads to the victim infecting all those who have close contact with her for a full work week. Her lack of symptoms means she plays out her normal life, spreading the virus faster. Everyone in her life is effected, her loved ones most of all. She’s a traveler, perhaps on a business sales jaunt through Paris, Brussels, Vienna, and Rome, taking the disease with her. These are the secondary effects.

Most of these will be things you can think of without the tool. However, you may find, even here, things that would have never connected to the event. The next step is where it gets fun. Each secondary and tertiary effect is an event unto itself. A single point on the wheel could launch an entire chain of events.

For instance, given the disease spreads rapidly and mortality is high, the Government will need to step in to ensure the safety of innocents, and to prevent chaos. A sure outcome of that single step will be that those who are naturally distrustful of government become paranoid. These “Grassy Knollers” will introduce conspiracy theories to explain how things could have gone wrong so fast. And these theories are in themselves a new string of events.

As a writer, for instance, what if you decide the crazy theory – that the Government created the virus as a biological weapon – was reality? Or, perhaps the focus of your story isn’t on the virus. It’s been done to death – who cares?

But maybe you are focused on what happens – out there in the red, tertiary effects – when people realize their friend, wife, and co-worker could be sick, and they would never know right until they got sick themselves? How rapidly, and in what way does society crumble if no one can trust anyone else? What if the virus stabilizes, but it lingers, always a threat? Would society, out in the fourth wheel of your imagination, become hermits who never leave home, dealing with each other through the virtual world?

It’s fun to think of.

Now, I know there are still skeptics. You’re thinking, “Big deal, I can do that in my head.” It’s true, and with practice, you will. But would you remember it? Would you remember which events cause what effects? With the event wheel, you can.

Here’s another innocuous one.

Someone invents the most powerful computer known to man. It is linked to satellite technology that brings 3-D, virtualization right into your home. If you can imagine it, the computer can make it real. Okay, normal Sci-fi stuff, right? Sure, but what about all the stuff that goes with it? How do you do the world building you need to make the story viable?

Event Wheel.

As you lay out your wheel of effects of this “most powerful computer” one of your primary effects will be “takes a shitload of energy” or words to that effect. Ever known new technology that doesn’t run on some kind of power? Well, the event wheel’s next steps will include “society quickly runs out of power,” “electricity becomes super expensive,” and “new power sources are sought.” Or maybe you deviate into “energy becomes a tradable, black-market commodity,” or “government outlaws the technology to save a world from the mind-fuck of virtualization.”

Maybe society splits, somewhere in the third wheel, into those who spend all their money on tech and energy, and those who reject tech completely because they can no longer even afford to light their homes.

Consider the event wheel; you’ll be surprised where it leads you. After all, when the manufacturers of buggy whips saw the horseless carriage come along, none of them used this tool to predict their product line would be obsolete, did they? If they did, you’d see them manufacturing leather car seats now.

See the future. It’s as easy as seeing the past.

Getting Dark


My next book, which I will start plotting this month, stars a female Security Analyst – a female Sherlock Holmes type – who is gifted with Synesthesia. Her partner is a burly, ex-Army Ranger with what he calls a “Crazy Magnet.” Together, they stumble across a plot that threatens to unravel the uneasy thread of peace among major Superpowers. It will not be a typical crime/espionage thriller. I’m not the typical type. However, I do intend for it to appeal to readers of that genre.

My lead’s name is Jeanne D’Arc, professionally known as Dark. Her partner is Foster Cain, Foss for short (Mr. Cain if he doesn’t like you.)

The photo at top is the 1st mockup I developed for Dark. I need to decide on how she looks before I start. I’m very visual, and need to be able to “see” my characters as the story unfolds. It isn’t so much a picture of their appearance as it is an image of their attitude. I capture their “vibe” or essence, as I write. In a way, it’s much like remembering a dream. Even when I find a photo that looks like my character, it isn’t really them; instead, the photo is an actor playing the role I write. Sometimes, the image comes first. Other times, a photo resonates, and gives me the character.

Dark is the most illusive of all my leads. I can feel her, visualize her clearly – all but her face. I see her attitude – the quiet surety, her comfort with being a very square peg in a round societal hole, her gifts. But I cannot see her face; maybe it is because she does not see others’ faces the way we do. They are colored with other things. Likewise, Jeanne Dark is colored by her synesthesia and the Dark glasses.

Perhaps her appearance changes. We shall see. There are other possibilities for Dark. She will come, and even if others try to steal her from me, they cannot. What I have revealed is 1% of her. There is more to come … much, much more. And. there is Foss. he has already starred in a short story, and has agreed to narrate Dark’s. So much more to come.

Which image do you find the most intriguing as a lead?

  1. The quiet, detached, confident, dirty blonde? She shows a cool exterior; she is logical, precise, but follows no one’s lead but hers. Paths are not the way forward, but merely departure points for finding her own way.
  2. Perhaps the brunette beauty of unknown ethnicity. She knows you want to know more, is confident of her ability to intrigue you. She often looks into your eyes, and reads you from stem to stern, but you will not know she notices, unless she chooses that you know. She is smart, strong, and sexy. They are weapons, she knows, but none of those things are what she values. She only values the truth.
  3. Or maybe she is the third woman. She is ice blonde – not like you. Her world is different than yours, what she sees is a blanket that covers her, and the only way she can survive is to shield herself from it. Her eyes are her weapons. On some days, she feels like Cyclops of the X-Men – she fears if she unleashes their full power, you will be destroyed by her. Still, she is compelled to find the truth – it is an obsession, and she is locked onto you like radar. You will not know her, for she is not like you. But she will know you – better than you know yourself.

One can get a lot from a photo, no?

Outlining Short (or longer) Works

 

Getting  organized can really blow.

Typically, I don’t outline short stories. That isn’t because I don’t think I need them. Frankly, I think any story can benefit from a bit of outlining. Rather, I use short stories as stretching exercises; since I am by nature organized, I use shorter pieces to expand my extemporaneous writing style. In other words, I go all Stephen King on them (minus the hard drink).

For you more free-wheeling types, you might try the converse. Use short pieces to try your hand at structured writing. You may find you like it enough to add it to your repertoire. I think too many writers view structure as the enemy – as if somehow it will put your imagination in a corner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The right amount of structure (right for you, that is) allows for a framework that lets your mind run free. It allows you to tap into the deepest parts of your imagination without having to worry about whether your story will stay cohesive. Done correctly, it is no more confining than say, deciding you are writing a gothic romance rather than a contemporary one. How would your story unfold if you decided that you don’t need to adhere to a time setting, genre, or even a set of characters?

Your story would suck.

See, you are already using structure. Plotting structure is no more confining. In fact, it is during outlining that my mind is the most free. Outlining is the time I allow myself to engage in brainstorming. Here is where the best “what-if’s” come out. In addition, outlining allows me to chop out the dead ends before I use up too much mental energy barreling down the wrong path.

With that in mind, let me offer up a suggested approach for a short piece.

 1. Setting – Setting is not just the “where” of the story, it is the “when,” the “why,” and more. The setting, in effect, sets the backdrop upon which your story is painted. It comprises, among other things:

a. Location (where) – ______________________________________

b. Time (when) – _________________________________________

c. Historical/Political/Societal context (if relevant to the story or the readers’ understanding) ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________________________________

d. Environment – what do we see? smell? hear? feel? taste? – _______________________

________________________________________________________________________

 

e. All of which leads to Mood. What is the mood of the story (or main character), given the setting? _____________________________________________________________________

 The setting can encompass something as broad as a societal norm (e.g., a dystopian society’s set of rules) or a narrow as a place (sunrise in the Sahara). This should shape the story being built upon it.

 2. The Big Suppose – What is the main “suppose” in the story, the big idea? For example, “Suppose there was a society in which only one child could be born per woman.” The big idea of your short piece is probably a single suppose, but longer works could have several. In addition, the main idea should stimulate smaller ones, or lead you to explore what conditions are necessary for the Big Suppose to happen in the first place.

a. The Big Suppose – Suppose … _____________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________

 Try Robert Bloch’s Psycho’s Big Suppose: “Suppose there was a creepy motel owner who killed single women, but believed his mother did it?” This naturally leads the writer to start asking follow-up questions: Why would he kill? Is his mother still alive? Was she the murdering type? How do the victims get to the motel? Can I slip in a naked shower scene to pull in male readers? It gets silly, but fun, if you have the right attitude.

 3. The Major Conflict/Problem – What is the major obstacle that your protagonist will need to overcome? ___________________________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

 a. What events  make the conflict worse or builds suspense? ______________________

_______________________________________________________________________

 b. What can resolve the conflict? ____________________________________________

 c. How does the story climax? _______________________________________________

 d. Who is involved in the conflict? ____________________________________________

 Remember, this is the main conflict, but there should be secondary ones. No one wants to see a protagonist winning all the time. Neither do they want to spend a weekend reading about a gigantic tool loser. Let them win sometimes, but put them through the wringer. These are the actions that will elicit reactions. More about that later.

 4. Characters – Seems intuitive that you need to have stars of your story, and it is. However, here are some things to think about.

a. Protagonist (Hero) – This is your star. The readers will need to care about what happens to this person or nothing you write will make a bit of difference. I recommend spending time developing the traits of all your main characters, but more thought should go to this one. There are two ways of doing it – having a broad brush and letting the details naturally fall into place, or thinking about and writing them out in advance. I do the latter, not to restrict things, but so that I have something to check against later, just for consistency. I change this all the time, until about midway through the story

b. Antagonist (Villain) – This actually doesn’t have to be a bad person. In fact, it’s better if there is a little gray (or even goodness) in them. However, conflicts are more appealing if the hero struggles against not just a thing, but a who.

c. Main Secondary Characters – Love interests, BFFs, Bearers of suckage (obstacles) – Don’t try to be all-inclusive, just map out a few you can’t afford to forget. This is your playbill.

d. For Each Main Character, fill out the below:

  i. What is their background? ____________________________________________

 ii. What is their personality? Introvert/Extrovert? ____ Planner/Impulsive? ________ Logical/Emotional? ____  Organized/Free Spirit? _____  This alone will give you a big picture personality type (Myers-Briggs) that you can use to fill out your character. I can point to more info if you want (just drop in a comment).

 iii. How do they talk? Are they educated? Formal? Ghetto? Foreign? _______________

 The cool thing about using the character types like Meyers-Briggs is that you can quickly determine what types are compatible with your star, and who (and how) will grate on their nerves. Having this in mind makes dialogue flow much easier.

 4. Point of View (POV) – What POV is your story in? In general, stories are told in past tense. Pick one viewpoint per section, chapter, or even book.

a. First person past – A character is telling the story. “I went downtown …”

b. First person present – If you want to go all Hunger Games on your reader, try First Person Present – “I go downtown, and Bob is there. I hate Bob.”) Harder, but you’d be surprised how much quicker the action flows when you write like this. Be careful, however, it can get pretty hokey fast. I often write action sequences this way, and convert them to past tense later.

b. Third person – A narrator is telling the story. “Brady went downtown.”

c. Second person – Don’t. No. Bad writer. Bad.

d. Third Person Omniscient – this is where you are in everyone’s head at once. It is hard to pull off effectively, and even then it’s problematic. Amateurs often write this way, so even if you are skilled, you run the risk of having readers (agents) think you have no idea what you are doing.

 5. Action / Reaction  – According to Evan Marshall, every scene is either an action or reaction. To me, this is the key to laying out a plot. You don’t have to fill in each section in detail. In fact, you can limit it to a sentence or two that explains where in your plotting the section you are writing falls. It should include the Setting (where), Character (who), and the POV (how). The what will be determined in the scene itself. Why the action unfolds is based (at a high level) on your overall Suppose, and at a lower level by the flow of the action itself. Start with your opening, and lay out the plot in sequences as follows:

 a. Action – This is what happens. Unless it’s your 1st scene, it should relate somehow to the previous scene (or a prior scene if you have multiple plotlines weaving through the story).

  i. Character, POV,  setting, relation to prior scene _______________________________

 ii. What is the character trying to do? __________________________________________

 iii. What obstacles are in their way? ___________________________________________

 iv. How is success further complicated (arguments, fear, etc?) ______________________

     _____________________________________________________________________

 v. What does character do to try and overcome obstacles and complications?  _________

      _____________________________________________________________________

 vi. How is it resolved? Success? Failure? Things get even worse ____________________

 ________________________________________________________________________

 In summary, this is WHAT HAPPENS to character. The character does stuff, and bad things happen. Sometimes good things, but not always … please.

 b. Reaction – This is a response to the prior action. It can be a chapter, or just a brief scene within the next chapter that shows the events don’t happen in a vacuum.

 i. Character’s emotion state – in response to how Action was resolved ________________

 ii. What does character do in response (review? react? regain control of emotions? analyze?) How they respond will be determined by the severity of the action, and their personality type (which you’ve previously profiled- right?).  _____________________________

 iii. Character takes action or formulates plan ____________________________________

 In summary, this is HOW DOES CHARACTER RESPOND? Their actions should set up the next scene. Using this method, you should be able to logically follow a plot to its conclusion.

 6. Flow – I like Evan Marshall’s 3-act play flow model. It’s simple, and if you study movies and TV shows, you will find a remarkable consistency with this. Think 25%, 50%, 25%.

a. Start – this is time zero. For a 10,000-word story, this is word 0. “Once upon a time…”

b. First Failure/Surprise – 25% in. Here, at about word 2,500, our hero is hit with their first major setback. This should be the conflict wherein we the reader now understand what the story will be about.

c. Middle Half- Stuff Happens – for the next 50% of our story (5,000 words), more things happen. They follow in action/reaction sequence, building to the ultimate climax. There have been little (or major) setbacks along the way, and some victories as well.

d.Climax – At 25% from the end (7,500 words in), the MAJOR FAILURE happens. Our hero is devastated. However, they rise heroically, and spend the last 25% of the story achieving victory. (Or failing miserably, if you hate happy endings.)

 If you don’t believe me on the flow, watch a 60-minute drama. See if the big commercial break that follows the climax doesn’t happen at 15 minutes before the hour. Of course, with anything else, your mileage may vary. Feel free to adjust this as needed, or in accordance to your own personality. For short works, I don’t use action/reaction as much, but in the actual writing, I keep that sequence in mind. Let me know what worked and didn’t.