What’s Your First Step After The First Draft?

Seriously, before you ask, yes, I’m way ahead of the game. I’ve fast-drafted Act I, but that still leaves Acts II, III, & IV to go. (Did you notice that higher math there?) And, right, Act I is shorter by far than, at least, Acts II and III. Don’t panic. I’m not worrying (too much) about what I’ll do after that first-round typing of The End. But I am getting curious about techniques for moving, effectively, from drafting to revising.

Here’s what i did last time I fast-drafted a novel. I took probably a week or so away from it, and then I sat down with the manuscript and started reading. I will tell you right here that I never finished reading that manuscript (at least not just reading). Instead, one big, huge problem jumped out at me: I had made the sidekick character way more active than the hero; the hero was (unconsciously, I think) doing a Nick Carraway and telling the story as he observed it happening, rather than as he made it happen. So I put the first draft down and started revising, pushing my hero as far to the front of every scene as I could. These were the scenes I sent to my critique group, as I wrote them. And from that point on, I was revising from my critique group feedback, as well as from my own ideas–a pretty happy state.

At this point, I feel like I’ll probably try this technique when I finish the first draft of this new MG (I have got to come up with a sharable working title). This whole fast-drafting thing is a return for me to something that actually worked once upon a time, and–since it seems to be working a second time–I’m feeling a bit tremulous about reaching out into experimentation. I know it’s a good thing in general, but last time it left me in a pretty big pit, so maybe I need to get my process base a little more solid before I slide out onto the ice again. (My apologies for the majorly mixed metaphors. And the alliteration.)

Anyway, I am curious about how other people handle this stage. I’m going to share a few links to a few other processes. Some of them I’ve played with, some look effective, some are intriguing. And then I’d love if we got this conversation going in the comments-what do YOU do?

Just the other day, David Lubar linked to a WriteOnCon post he wrote about how he deconstructs his novels. I thought his process looked really interesting and valuable; I like how he really sticks to the basics.

Martha Alderson’s Plot Planner is another wonderful tool. Martha is brilliant at nailing the holes and flaws in a plot, and her planner is a good tool for laying everything out and seeing what you have and what you don’t. I’ve used this tool with Martha and with my critique partners. What usually happens for me is I get excited about what I’m seeing (and perhaps a bit lazy), and I run back to writing. While it is good to be writing, I’m not sure I’m using the tool to its fullest strength.

The other thing I’ve heard people talk about doing is writing a synopsis. I know people hate synopses, and maybe the only reason I don’t is that I’ve only done them at the extreme ends of the writing process–as a conference assignment when I’d barely started a story and as a required submission piece when I had a completed manuscript. (When I have written them, I’ve used Hélène Boudreau’s very doable synopsis steps.) I’m assuming people use them at other stages to identify holes and weak spots, but I’m not sure how exactly that works.

So those are my thoughts and my pointings to other thoughts. What about you? What do you do with that first draft manuscript once it’s done, and what processes have helped you bridge from that stage into second draft revision? Thanks in advance for your ideas and tips!

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Planning a Plot Planner

I know, really? THAT organized. Well, no…more like a way to get past (around?) my fears about this kind of organization.

I have been lucky enough to know Martha Alderson, author of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, for many years. Lucky enough to have lived in the same town, to have shared a critique group with her, to have attended several workshops and plot-planning sessions with her. And I can tell you this–if you haven’t already figured it out for yourself: Martha knows her stuff. I have been amazed over and over, as I show Martha the work I’ve done on a story plot so far, only to watch her get a questioning look on her face, point her finger at a very specific spot, and say, “But what about X?” Bingo! Martha’s ability to spot the gaps, to zero in on what is missing or what goes off in the wrong direction, is fantastic.

But here comes my confession. The Plot Planner intimidates me. I’m not quite sure why–I have worked happily, many times, with the other big structural piece of Martha’s program–The Scene Tracker. Possibly, that clicks with my brain more because it’s linear: scene by scene by scene. I’m linear, in many ways. As a reader, no; I can jump around and make connections and tell you where an event was seeded, where the layers come in, how it builds to its own particular crisis–just try me. But as a writer…scene by scene by scene makes me happy. I’ve always felt a little bad that the Plot Planner and my brain didn’t synch up better.

Until I was reading through The Plot Whisperer book the other night and came across these words: …if [when you see a plot planner,] you scowl and fold your arms across your chest, sense yourself turning pale, or feel as if your eyes are popping out of your head, you are probably a right-brained, character-driven writer.”

Hey, I don’t think I’ve ever actually folded my arms across my chest. Okay, well, maybe. But I do panic a bit at trying to figure out which scenes  go where, how I can write neatly enough on a little sticky note to get my scene point across in just a few words, how I don’t end up with all my notes indicating passive, contemplative moments below the line.  Once again, Martha gets it. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how much I love plot, adore structure, crave the little buckets into which to pour the words. BUT…I’m pretty sure that’s because plot does not come naturally to me, and because–consequently–I’ve spent too much time rambling around all that happy character stuff without getting anywhere. I don’t like not getting anywhere. As a reader, I’ve gotten more needy of plot, but for decades, you could hand me a pretty storyless book and I’d lose myself contentedly in all the character stuff. It’s why I can read a mystery novel for the third time and still not remember whodunnit. Russian novels? Read them for almost a decade, because…character. My favorite scene in The Secret Garden? Mary’s massive tantrum at Colin. Character. *Insert a few measures of Barbra Streisand’s People*

Anyway, what am I going to do about this? Well, I’m already doing it. A week or so ago, on Facebook, Catherine Meyer and Cheri Williams were posting photos of their plot-planning session. A session they did TOGETHER! My brain said…WOW! Plot-planning with friends! With other writers who know your pain story. With other writers who– when you lag–will give you a hug, a piece of chocolate, a few good brainstorming questions, and then kick you in the butt to keep going. ALL. HAPPY. DAY.

I ran it by my critique group. Unanimous YEAH. We’ve got a date set up. We know we might not get through our entire stories in that day, but we’re committed to working focused and long, and to scheduling another session if we need to get through to The End. We know things will change from what we write onto our Plot Planner: early plots are flexible and fluctuating (aha! Perhaps another root of my fear?). But we’re getting together, and we’re getting started.

And I’m not quite so intimidated.

Some Explanation: Why I Love Structure

I’ve been going on here for a bit about plotting and having a structure for my novel and figuring out what happens, technically, at various points in a scene. And I think sometimes I may sound like I’m looking for a quick fix for something that is just a long process.

Quick?! Do you know how long I’ve been working on this book?!

That’s not really it.

Martha Alderson, author of Blockbuster Plots and The Plot Whisperer probably says it best, although I’m paraphrasing here: We need a bucket for the inspiration to flow into. (Okay, she probably didn’t end her sentence with a preposition!)

I think I need a sturdier bucket than some other people do.

When I write, I have an image in my head–not a visual, but a sort of flavor–about how I want this book to feel. With my first book, a mystery, I knew I wanted light and funny, and I wanted some good action–arguments, sneaking around, a good chase scene. (Oh, I had fun writing that chase scene!). I know what all those things feel like when I read, and I think I hold that feeling out somewhere in front of me, as a goal to reach. I’m not trying, obviously, to copy the voice or writing of another author, but I know when pacing–for example–feels right on. I know what it’s like to read a book where the character layering is perfect–not too heavy, not too flat. And I want to achieve those things in my own writing.

What I don’t always (often?!) know is the how of that achievement. I do, however, believe there are techniques–ways of structuring a sentence, a paragraph, a scene–that are part of that how. I know, because it’s what I do when I critique–make suggestions about how to tighten a sentence, how to layer movement into dialogue, how to trim words that slow down action. I know it, too, because when I sit down and analyze a book, really look at what the author’s doing, I can see their buckets. I don’t know if they actually went out and built their buckets–if they picked and chose the right metal, a cool handle, welded everything up themselves–or if they are so good they basically waved their magic writing wand and just made the bucket appear.

I just know I’m pretty much out here cutting the metal, rolling it up and putting in rivets (rivets?), somehow getting a nice solid bottom into it, and making sure that handle doesn’t come off when I fill that bucket and pick it up.

Luckily, as I do the work, I can feel the inspiration bubbling. I get ideas that I send myself in an email (hey, it’s a long way from the couch workshop to the computer!), and I start to see the layout of the book. I start to know what has to happen when, who needs to make it happen, and where I’ll need to be rearranging plot points and character arcs. For me, the bucket is a necessity. And I have to believe that, if I do the work, someday that bucket will look a lot like this.

THE PLOT WHISPERER Blog Tour: Lacey Picks the Winners. Kind of.

This post is dedicated to Trixie, Debbi Michiko Florence’s dog. I’ve met Trixie, and she’s a sweetie. She’s also amazing–I’m always impressed at how clever she is when she helps Debbi pick a winner in one of their giveaways. You can see Debbi and Trixie together, at Jama Kim Rattigan’s celebration of National Dog Day. You can also watch Trixie here, as she picks ME to win a copy of Gabrielle Zevin’s All These Things I’ve Done.

I was curious. Would my cat, Lacey, be at all interested in helping out the way Trixie does? I was pretty sure she wouldn’t actually carry the winner’s names over to me, but I thought maybe she would bat around the paper with the winner’s name. Or at least sniff at it. She does a lot of sniffing.

I decided to try an experiment, following Debbi & Trixie’s steps as closely as possible, with the entries for Martha Alderson’s new writing book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. I have to admit, I was a little tremulous–Lacey would have to clearly pick out two pieces of paper, without knocking them all under the bookshelf or something, where I’d never get to them and never know who had won.

Really, I needn’t have worried.

First, I put all the names on a piece of paper, folded those, and set them in a circle. I was working on the idea that maybe we’d go with the first two names Lacey batted out of the circle.

My son went to check if the cat was ready. You can see she was raring to go.

To get the full sarcasm of that last statement, go back and look at Trixie on Debbi’s blog, waiting so eagerly for Debbi to let her pick, then do the comparison. Yeah.

Basically, it was Kitty-Drawing fail. Lacey was so uninterested that she jump right out of the circle, over the pieces of the paper. You got it. Without picking one. So quickly that we were unable to get a photo.

Plan B.

First I needed to get the pieces of paper into a smaller space. A reachable-by-paw-while-being-held space.

I had reached the obvious conclusion that Lacey, unlike Trixie, needed a little help. (Note: No kitties were harmed in the making of this blog, only a small amount of kitty pride.) So, together, neither of us knowing which name was written on which piece of paper, we chose two winners.

Lacey and I (and my son, the photographer) say congratulations to:

Jennifer Fosberry and Suzanne Morrone, send me an email at beckylevine at ymail dot com, with your snail-mail addresses, and I’ll get your copies of The Plot Whisperer out to you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask Lacey to drive them to the post office!

Everybody else, you’ve got lots more chances to win. Martha has posted the schedule for the rest of her blog tour here, and there are more giveaways to come! And, Debbi, if Trixie has any tips for Lacey on doing this drawing-thing right, feel free to share.

Martha Alderson: The Plot Whisperer Blog Tour, Day 3

I count myself lucky in many ways. A big one of those ways is all the amazing people that my writing has brought into my life. And one of those people is Martha Alderson.

You probably know her better as The Plot Whisperer.

Martha and I met over ten years ago, in the first critique group I joined when I moved up to the Bay Area. If you’d asked either of us back then if we thought we’d write books about writing, I think we would have laughed pretty hard. I don’t know, though–one of the things I love the most about Martha is that she always dreams…and dreams big. So the fact that she has just published her second book on writing–or to be more specific–on plot, should be no surprise. And if you’ve followed her tweets at @plotwhisperer, you’re not surprised either. In fact, you probably can’t wait to read the book!

Well, you’ve come to the right place. (Okay, you’ve come to one of the right places. Tomorrow, the blog tour stops at Not an Editor, where Mary Baader Kaley is also having a giveaway. And check out Martha’s blog for a complete list of her blog tour stops and other chances to win a copy.) I’ve got TWO copies of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master to give away. I usually run my contests for a while, but I’m keeping this one short so you’ll have time to enter all the other contests, too.  I’ll draw the winners Thursday night and announce them Friday morning. Make sure to stop back!

Let me tell you a little bit about Martha. Yes, she dreams, but she does more than that. She continuously shares that dream with others. Martha understand plot, but–as she’ll tell you–it’s an understanding she worked to reach, so she absolutely gets how those of who are not so good at plotting feel.  Because of this, her advice is always sympathetic and supportive, but it’s also strong. One of the best things about having had Martha as a critique partner is that she never gets lost in the words, in the stuff that fills in and layers around the plot points. Every time Martha has read a piece I’ve written, or done a plot planner for one of my stories, she has zeroed right in on the big pieces of the plot. Sometimes, it’s the lack of those pieces, but one of the best things Martha ever said to me was, “This has too many plots. It’s too crowded.”

Guess what? She was right.

Martha believes in plot. She recognizes that there are many writers who worry that, by plotting, they’ll make their story stiff or formulaic. She recognizes and respects that fear, but she also reassures us–rightly, I think–that the plot is the container, the structure, that holds all the magic we could ever want to write. And she coaches us through all the steps of creating that plot.

I bought Martha’s first book, Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple, when it came out. And last night, I drove over the hill to attend Martha’s launch party at Capitola Book Cafe and buy her new book. I talked earlier about this week how I’m struggling with plot on this WIP. I’m thinking it’s pretty nice of Martha to publish The Plot Whisperer just when I need it.

That’s just how she is!

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I know a lot of you are. You’ve still got time to do a little pre-plotting and, even as you write as speedily as possible, you can be thinking about story. If you haven’t checked out Martha’s YouTube series on plot, do so now. And leave a comment for this post to enter my giveaway copy of The Plot Whisperer. (If your comment ID doesn’t include an email, please leave that in the comment as well, so I can let you know if you’re the winner!)

Good luck!

Surprise!

I talk often to other writers about plotting. And not-plotting. And how much we do. And whether it’s an outline or a chart. And so on and so on…

If you read my blog at all, this probably isn’t news to you, but I’ll put it out here anyway. Hi, I’m Becky, and I’m a plotter.

I plot a lot–from the overall story arc to what’s going to happen in any individual scene. I don’t tackle a revision without looking at my existing plot and seeing where I need to make changes. And then I do it all over again as I revise each scene.

Yes, it’s about control. I need some sense of where I’m going, before I start trying to get there. I’m sure that I need a stronger sense of that than a lot of writers.

BUT…

I truly believe that understanding is what helps me loosen up as I write and let in the surprises.

And, oh, the surprises come. I’ve got a plan for my hero to argue, and instead she goes stone-cold silent with anger. I figure out which character is going to create an obstacle, and suddenly that character is all support and friendship, while someone else steps up to punch my hero in the gut. I pick a setting for its peacefulness and calm, and suddenly all hellamundo is breaking loose.

Yes, there are surprises that aren’t so wonderful: characters I forget to weave into the story who stand there like cold statues, doing nothing. Gaps where I realize I’ve leapt way too far ahead, without building to my hero’s choice or action. And of course, those moments where I realize–oh, BLEEP!–that history doesn’t support the storyline I’ve got going.

Those surprises, I believe, are the cost of leaving room for the others. If it were even possible for me to plot so tightly that I wouldn’t run into any dead-ends, or twisty mazes, I don’t think my characters would have room to step in and take charge. I don’t think they’d be able to shout loud enough to get my attention.

I’m not going to get her wording right, I’m sure, but Martha Alderson talks about plot as the vessel that exists to catch your inspiration. Yes, my plot-box probably has more sections than yours.

Maybe your plot has a beginning, a great crisis, and three bad things across the middle. Maybe you’re one of those writers I so envy who create a seriously strong one-sentence premise and write from that. Maybe your container looks more like this:

 Whatever we use, however much we plot, I really believe it’s all good. Whatever you have that gives you the freedom to let the words come, keep using it. And enjoy the surprises!

Monday Mentions

A quick post today, just a few reminders of things you might want to know about.

1. If you haven’t heard yet, Lisa Wolfson, known by her author name of L.K. Madigan, died last week from pancreatic cancer. Lisa was the author of Flash Burnout and The Mermaid’s Mirror, and was deeply loved in the kidlit world. There have been tributes all over the blogosphere. I didn’t know Lisa personally, but she was helpful and generous when I interviewed her for an article about online critique groups. Every tweet, every Facebook update, every blog post I’ve looked at this week, about Lisa, has reminded me how hard life can be, how bravely people face it, and how much love is out here on the Internet.

I want to just put up the address for a trust that has been set up to help Lisa’s son, Nate, go to college. If you are interested, you can donate to the trust by sending a check to:

Becker Capital Management, Inc.
Attn: Sharon Gueck/John Becker
1211 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2185
Portland, OR 97204

Lisa’s husband has posted about this on her blog.

2. On a lighter note, I am still running my contest for a copy of Megg Jensen’s Anathema. Leave a comment at the contest post, and I’ll draw a winner this coming Wednesday.

3. Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer, is on Step 22 (The Beginning of the End) of her YouTube Plot Series. There are a few more steps to come, but I thought I’d link you to Step 1 in case you haven’t heard of the series & want to get started. Plus, for those of you still stuck in the cold of winter, Martha’s background of Santa Cruz, California, will give you hopes for spring.  To see Martha’s series from the beginning, go here.

4. Whether you’re a picture-book writer or not, you shouldn’t miss this Has Your Picture Book Already Been Published? flow chart that Tara Lazar posted at her blog. Warning: Many roads lead to “Yes.”  🙂

5. If you know (or are!) a teen writer, don’t forget about Capital City Young Writers’ literary journal. The journal is in its first year, and submissions are open for another two weeks–until March 15. The theme is “the undiscovered,” and teens can submit in many genres–all listed here.