Solving the 50%-75% Blues

I have been really struggling with this story…

The next time, I’m going to do my outlining on draft / iteration 0, rather than on draft / iteration 3 which is what I’m trying to do currently…

I wrote the draft 0 of this book (book 1) for NaNoWriMo back in November of 2009. In the first six months of 2010, I took it through iterations 1 and 2 (see this blog post), for 2/3 of the story, but the last third was left in summary for the large part. I just didn’t have the skill to take it further back then.

Starting in (December? 2012) I started reverse engineering the plot, and trying to find out how to polish this into publishable format… And I found most of the first half solid. I detailed here about finding the total lack of a concrete goal for my story, but since I now have that, I’d hoped that it would have been relatively plain sailing.

Not so.

I just couldn’t work out what happened between what I’m currently expecting will be the 50% mark, Middle of Act II, and the event that triggers the 75% move into Act III (in my book, a volcanic explosion and the disappearance of a very significant character respectively). I had my Main Character dicking around with potential conspiracies, and poisonings, and more training runs (she does a LOT of training which I’m very much afraid is BORING!), and it wasn’t working. Until I had another discussion with my Strategic Planning Consultant (aka my mother) and she pointed out to me that I had several ‘arcs’ running through the story that I hadn’t even realised I had, and that making sure they all had satisfying endings might be a good idea.

So we identified the arcs, and found 3 that had movement, and 2 that were staples:

  • MC’s status in the Paliten society – which incorporates the various battles she participates in and how the Paliten’s and other slaves treat her
  • MC’s relationship with the Female antagonist (the Princess Heth)
  • MC’s relationship with the Male antagonist (the mage Agawin) – which incorporates a broader issue of the mages in this society and how they interact with the warriors
  • MC’s relationship with the cats
  • MC’s relationship with the other slaves

Then the light bulb lit, and again it was the characters GOAL that was wishy-washy, and without a goal, there was no direction for the plot.

So, what was my MC’s goal in this section? She wants to Help the Princess escape from the Paliten’s. What does she need to be able to accomplish this? To keep the princess alive, to avoid the Mage Agawin, to find a device to free them and to keep the cats alive so they can get free.  How can I make sure she DOESN’T accomplish these? Well, I take my MC away from the princess, so she can’t protect her, I place Agawin right near her every day, I make sure she can’t get access to the device, and I find a way to make the cats inaccessible – probably through poisoning them!

The story has now written itself.

(The 2009 draft 0 of book 1 also included half a draft 0 of book 2. In 2012 I expanded the draft 0 of book 2 into 3/4 of a draft 0 for book 2, for which I’m now in the process of reverse engineering the outline. I have the 10% and 25% goals already set in my mind for that one, so fingers crossed it will help me plot it properly this time!)

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My Process – A First Iteration

This is a post which I imagine will evolve as my writing process evolves. I’m going to try to describe the writing process I went through to arrive at Coeurmorph 1 (CM1) – the book what inspired me to start this blog don’t-cha-know!

I have no idea who said it, or if it’s just from my head, but I have arrived at the conclusion from somewhere that unless you understand how and why you do something, you can’t hope to change or improve on it. So this is my attempt to analyse how I write, and to therefore (hopefully) improve the process by getting a little more systematic about it. Or if I can’t arrive at systematic, then to be at least sympathetic of myself when I go into a particular writing huddle, because I’ll know that “this is what I need to do to write”.

So, how I start…

Iteration 0: Creation.

Interestingly, I can’t seem to whip up anything when I’m staring at a black computer screen. It appears that I almost always have to write the ideas for a story down long hand, with an actual pen and paper. I prefer those four-colour pens to write with because they’re nice and fat, and so easy to grip for long periods (and I can end up writing for hours when I get going) and I tend to write in an A5 spiral notebook.

Generally what I would call the draft 0 of my story arrives in the notebook in present tense summary format – ie, he did this and then she did that and then a volcano explodes. This is sporadically interspersed with a kind of script writing version of scenes, in dialogue, which is all but tag-less. Person 1: Hay you! Person 2: Who me? All of which gets typed into a computer. This is generally the state of any of my stories at the end of a NaNoWriMo.

Iteration 1: Making it English.

Next, I take all that gobbledy-gook and expand it into past tense, third-person, actual English scenes with dialogue punctuated appropriately and action beats. “Do you come here often?” She flicked her hair over her shoulder. Everything I’ve so-far written (six 50k plus NaNo-novels) has ended up in third-person past. Large chunks might still be in summary format, but they get re-tensed to the past, turned into semi-English, and then highlighted in bright red to remind me to fix them later. These chunks also usually get expanded in this run through, as new ideas or refined ideas of what a scene should contain pop into my head.

Iteration 2: Adding Description.

Description for me feels like pulling teeth. I keep having to remind myself to do it. Describe the environment, describe the climate, describe the people, describe the setting, describe the food – see, hear, sense, smell, touch and taste! But in enough detail so the reader can understand what’s going on without overloading them with too much detail – it sure is a fine line! Oh and through SHOWING not TELLING. Gah! I like not. So on this pass, I end up with mostly readable scenes that usually make sense… at least internally. The story itself… well, that was another matter entirely.

Anyway, this was the stage I got CM1 to in about June 2010. At that time, it really was all I could do. Come around July 2012, and I’d learnt a lot more, so decided to try to take this story and make it publishable… and discovered that it was quite a lot worse than I remembered it.

So on to…

Iteration 3: Fixing The Plot.

Well, for CM1 this was where I actually addressed the plot. Believe me, I’ll be moving this up to be Iteration 1 in the next book. The whole ‘to outline or not to outline’ is a post for another day, but essentially I had two-thirds of a story, which had some great ideas in it, and some really nice plot twists, but no real direction, and no real substantial Act II climax or anything thereafter. I had an ending! But couldn’t get there.

So I spent a good six months reverse engineering an outline of the story, so I could see it on only a few pieces of paper and get a sense of what was going on, and then started mucking around with many various versions of how it could work. I was still stuck on the bit between the 50% and the 75% mark until the 21st of this month, so a year after I first started working on it. But the bits I did work out before gave me some direction, so it was on to…

Iteration 4: The editing.

This sort of went on simultaneously with iteration 3, but in the process of starting to fix this story, I learnt a hell of a lot about how to edit properly. A year ago, I joined the Online Writing Workshop (OWW), and through the invaluable process of critiquing and receiving critiques, I learnt how to polish description, reduce wordiness, tag properly (that’s another post for another day – who’d a thought that tags were difficult?), make sure my cart didn’t get before my horse (repeat after me: Motivating Stimulus leads to Character Reaction), come up with a list of homonyms’ I confuse (a LOT), punctuate dialogue properly and a shed load besides.

But still, there was something missing. Everyone on OWW was telling me they had no idea where the story was going. So I did some research on structure – and this was a real head-desk moment for me – I discovered I hadn’t actually provided my character with a concrete GOAL for this story. Sheesh!! The MC was wandering around doing stuff, with a vague idea of redeeming herself, but no actual plan to achieve this. I knew what she wanted to do, but I didn’t have that set out on the paper. So next came…

Iteration 5: Enriching the story.

I went back and identified what the 10% goal should be (the thing that the inciting incident makes her want to do – in CM1 it’s to look after a new arrival at the death camp), and then her 25% goal (the end of Act 1 turning point that sends her in a different direction – in CM1 this is to escape the camp). And then I could finally see where the plot was really lacking. So I set about strengthening the story. Adding foreshadowing and links backwards and forwards, making sure all the Chekhov’s guns went off, polishing the character interactions to make them arc, finding all the arcs and making sure they were all attended to…And that’s where I’m up to (and what I’m currently doing) now.

Fingers crossed this will be the last iteration!

As you might have inferred, not all parts of the draft arrive at the same iteration at the same time. I have parts of my current MS that are still (yes, still! Only two left now, but still!!!) at Iteration 0, whereas others are past 5 now.

However, essentially, that is my process. I will be undoubtedly be making many revisions to it, but now that I have it down in English, I can describe it and plot it and edit it and strengthen it… 🙂

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Elevator Pitches

I read a lot of blogs from writers, for inspiration, for help, for tips, for troubles shared. This writing life is rather lonely. A writer lives pretty much in their heads and hunched over their computers and unless you’re friends with another writer, it’s exceedingly difficult to explain what your current issues are to anyone.

So, I read.

One I read regularly is Kate Elliot’s, and recently I read this post, which is all about a new YA book she’s going to be publishing, tentatively titled MASK.

Firstly; YAY! I really enjoy reading Ms Elliot, and have been a fan ever since she wrote Jaran.

Secondly; WOW! She listed both her industry announcement and her pitch line in her blog post, and they were (for me) seriously inspiring!

The Industry Announcement:

A girl’s skill at a forbidden sport shakes the foundations of a rigid aristocracy.

Her Pitch:

Little Women meets the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.

Both very catchy, succinct and give you a great visual of what the book will be about.

So why my excitement? Well, because this is the first time I could actually see how to pitch my book.

According to this site and many others, when you’re ready to sell your book, and in approaching an agent or editor, you need to be prepared with three things:

Firstly, a one-page sysnopsis of your novel – no backstory, no subplots, no frills rendition of what happens in what order. This happens and then that and this is how it ends.

Secondly, a one-paragraph pitch that will usually go into a query letter – a kind of mini-synopsis but a punchy, catchy, exciting version of the story. Can our hero from this amazingly strange and interesting situation, win/solve/live to see another day?

Thirdly, an elevator pitch – a.k.a. a log-line, a one-sentence summation of the essence of your story that will hook an editor or an agent trapped in the elevator with you to say those immortal words “Tell me more.” Both of which lines from Ms Elliot above do.

So, my first attempts? Maybe not so successful, but this is what I have currently…

The Story Pitch:

A disgraced warrior finds her path to redemption through the daughter of the king she betrayed.

OR

A disgraced warrior, now a slave, finds her path to redemption lies in escaping an inescapable prison.

The Comparrison Pitch:

Gladiator meets the Dragonriders of Pern in a fantasy setting inspired by pre-columbian South America and Viking Age Europe.

They need work, but it’s getting somewhere! One step closer…

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On Balance…

I’ve been stressing a lot about where in the story my major events fall.

The major plot points of any novel have a kind of balance to them, if you follow the three-act structure. There’s the inciting incident which occurs at about the 10% mark, the first plot point at 25%, the mid-point at 50%, the second plot point at 75% and the climax at the 90% mark. This structure is sometimes known as the Hollywood formula, as it’s so prevalent in US film-making. But it also has a lot of applicability to fiction writing, especially as a skeleton to hang things on.

I knew the parts of my story weren’t balanced right – everyone who read the first part of the book was telling me that they didn’t know where it was going until chapter 9 (of only 20), so I was doing something wrong.

I frantically searched for books on structure, and ended up listening to an audio book by Michael Hauge and Christopher VoglerThe hero’s 2 journeys’ that finally lit the light-bulb for me (more precisely, Michael’s discussion on the outer journey).

I discovered that I had my 25% plot point occurring at the 40% mark, and my 50% mid-point happening at about the 65% mark… both far too late to keep my readers interested. And also, and probably a lot more importantly, I hadn’t given my heroine a concrete visible goal, which was why my readers couldn’t see where the story was going.

Well, since figuring this out at the beginning of June, I’ve been madly spinning in circles trying to get the events to fall closer to their intended marks, stressing about how to make the story compelling and balanced and therefore satisfying.

Until today, when I ended up hitting my head on the desk several times (metaphorically).

How can I possibly judge the balance of the piece until it’s finished? I won’t know how many chapters or words it will have until I can write ‘the end’ on the damn thing, so why am I worrying about plot points coming late? What if there’s another 60% of the story still to be written? (Gods, I hope not!).

So, while discovering the lack of motivation was a damn good thing, and has utterly refocused me on aiming this story, I’m going to have to relax my grip on the stress of not having the plot points right at the moment. Because it’s rather stupid to do so.

How can I worry about the balance of the piece until I’ve finished the damn thing?

So, now? I’m off to write more!

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Introducing Me

I have been writing on and off for my entire life. Until the last five years, it’s been much more off than on though.

Once I learnt to write, I stole A3 sheets of cartridge paper from school that I’d scribble across, writing my own version of ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’, or perhaps it was ‘The Magic Faraway Tree.’ I think I remember two or three children who took a railway journey to an old house and were going to have adventures… only I don’t think I ever wrote them. I lost those pages in a house move, and to this day, I am devastated about that. I so wish I could see how silly I was… never mind.

I remember co-authoring my first book with a school friend, Isla. We were aged 10 or 11, and it was about a fairy called Poppy. All I remember about that episode was that I learnt how to write my s’s and t’s slightly differently, thanks to Isla. Oh, and it had pictures! I learnt to draw poppies and lilacs, very badly!

Then a hiatus until high-school, where our English Teacher, Miss Fisher, got our class to start writing a journal in year 8 or 9, and I found a true calling. My journal became my best friend, my confidant, my therapist. In year 10 I won second place in a poetry competition for a poem about the life of my grandfather. And I lost the paper for a much better poem about the death of my grandfather, because I was so scared of the emotions it contained – another catastrophic regret.

Then another hiatus for university and my first job and getting to know how to deal with real life. I always wrote though. A poem here, a scene there, a character sketch, a vignette, a vague plot… but I never finished anything.

And then, in 2008, I decided that my life needed upheaval, so I moved to the UK. I started writing a blog (not this one) which got me into the habit of writing regularly. My mantra for the move was to ‘Say Yes’ to new things, so when I saw a mention somewhere for NaNoWriMo, I said ‘Yes’. And my first novel was born. To date, it isn’t complete, and I can’t even begin to start editing it, for it’s so much of a mess, but it got me hooked. Now, six years later, I have six half-finished books thanks to NaNo, and have learnt so much along the way, I can hardly believe I’m the same person. But I have yet to finish one.

Hence this blog.

I have a story that is 90% there. I want to finish it, polish it, and send it out. I need to Say Yes to kicking this baby out the door and into a few slush piles. But first I have to finish it.

So here is my invitation to the world: Please, kick me, until it’s done!

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Hello World!

The line is used by many, but meets the needs of all!

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