Sunday, December 14, 2014

Using a story outline...or not

Yesterday I finished my NaNoWriMo novel. The working title is still REVOLUTION, but that's really a description of the setting rather than the action. It takes place during the American Revolution but the conflict is really between two people who each have their own agenda and secretly conspire to use the other as a cover for illicit activities.

I'm a pantser. I've confessed to that many times (here and here, for details). One of the things I learned during this intensive month and a half of writing is that, perhaps because I'm a pantser, I do not write in a linear fashion. I write, think of a scene or part of a scene I want to insert to set up the current scene I'm working on and go do that, then come back and move forward again. Sometimes I even write a scene totally out of context and then write "bridge" scenes to get the characters to that point.

But I don't write in a straight line, and that's something the NaNoWriMo focus on getting the story out promotes. Write the entire novel, in thirty days' time, from start to finish. I'll tell you, it was an interesting experiment.

What I found, in writing that way, was that I'd leave myself a lot more notes in the margins ("Insert Comment" became my best friend in Microsoft Word) about: 1) things I needed to look up because its a historical and I didn't want to stop the flow of writing to remember a street name; or, more often, 2) scenes I'd need to insert later or a loose end I'd have to deal with once the first draft was done. Now that the draft is finished (YAY!), I have those notes to deal with.

But I also found I started to lose the characters partway through. Not that they changed a lot, just that I gave them feelings/thoughts/ideas, that I hadn't set up in any way. Traits and sometimes words that came out of the blue. Not so much for me, because I knew what they meant. But the reader would look at that speech and say, "What? Where did THAT come from?" By the time I got near the climax, I found myself just writing stuff down to get finished so I could go back and fix all those notes. They were hanging around in the back of my conciousness, pestering, asking when I would get to them. "Fix me! Fix me now!" they would scream at me until, sometimes, I ignored them so long I totally forgot what needed fixing.

And so, late last night I started a story plot. The voices in my head kept me awake until I gave in, got up, and started it. If you're a writer, you'll understand. If you're not, you probably think I should be committed by this point.

Now, I've never done a full story plot for any of my books. I have notes on scrap paper, doodles to myself to remind me of something, but no full, honest-to-goodness, story plot. Axl Rose developed one he shared at Romanticon 2014 and, since it was in Excel and I'm good with that program, I decided to give his a shot. I didn't use all the pages he developed, only the Timeline By Chapter. He broke the timeline down into several categories, including a synopsis of the chapter, the character conflict, the story conflict and a line for a subplot.

After plotting out four chapters last night, I realized I needed another row: Main plot (romance). The sub-plot was the revolution and their secret activities. I also added a row for characters that were introduced in that chapter, more as a reference point than anything else. I tried to add a page numbers row, but Excel gave me fits at that point and kept changing my numbers to dates no matter what I did to clear the formatting of the cell, so I added those afterward by hand (more on that in a bit).

To plot out the entire 75K word story, took me about five hours. An hour last night, followed by four this morning. And what did I learn by doing this activity? Plenty.

I learned I changed the names of some of the minor characters (there's a servant who goes from Tom to Bobby to Billy. I like Bobby and will edit to fix that).

I learned I introduced characters and then let them drop without another reference. Likewise, I had characters show up out of no where who need more of a set-up.

I learned I have a bit of a timeline problem right near the end. It's clear on my calendar (yes, I downloaded a calendar from 1777 and have kept track of the action on it to keep it straight), but I don't think it's as clear in the story as to what happened to a pair of days. They didn't just disappear. Honest.

I learned that, by taking the time to go back and look at story and character arcs, I can tell where I need work on smoothing them out. Something I teach but don't always practice (slaps own hand).

I learned that I didn't write even chapters. Usually my chapters are between 10-14 pages. This book the chapters are between 6-18 pages. A little out of balance for my tastes. Will look and see if some re-dividing is necessary.

I learned that I stayed pretty even between action regarding the romantic plot and the political plot, but I do have some parts that are solely focused on one or the other. Will revisit those chapters to determine if I need to beef up one plot or the other in that area.

And I learned that, despite all the holes I found that need fixing, the story is in much better shape and is far more consistent than I thought it was. A positive! When I write without stopping, I CAN still keep most of the story in my head and stay true to characters.

Overall, this is a tool for revising more than editing. I know I tend to use those terms interchangeably, but editing is more about keeping the same character name, the same hair color, the right spelling, punctuation and grammar. Revising is more about character and plot arcs, about the organization of the story, and the balance of the action (i.e, the chapter length). While this did alert me to some editing that's needed, it really has shone a light on the revising I have to do.

So, a full, 75,000 word novel in six weeks for the first draft. I'd say that was a good use of time. I'm expecting to take about a month with the revision/editing process and then it'll be ready for my beta readers. As to the publishing? Still haven't made decisions, but I thank those of you who sent me ideas. Keep 'em coming! This is NOT an erotic romance, so EC is not the right venue. Self-pubbing is an option, but I'd like to hit a wider audience with this. Keeping an open mind!

I'll post more about using a story outline/ story board, as I go through the revisions. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot just by creating it!

Play safe,

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