Tag Archives: plotting

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Guest Author Tina LeCount Myers on Writing a Series

Today I welcome to the blog my dear friend, Tina LeCount Myers. Tina and I met at a World Fantasy Convention a few years back and immediately fell into an easy friendship. I have since read her work and discovered without surprise that she is, in addition to being smart and funny and kind, a talented and skilled a storyteller. Please welcome her to the blog!


Tina LeCount MyersWhen I finished writing the first draft of The Song of All, I was convinced of two things:

1.) The Song of All was a stand-alone book.

2.) I was not a fantasy writer.

Over dinner, defeated, I confessed these two realizations to my husband. He, in his over-the-years-learned wisdom, asked me some insightful questions but let my definitive pronouncement stand. I was done.

At least I thought I was done. That very night, I went to bed and dreamed about what would become the next two novels in The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy. Luckily, somewhere around 3 AM, I realized what was happening. For the next 2 hours, I wrote by hand, by candlelight, trying to stay within my dream. By 5 AM, I had a rough plot outline and several key themes. It wasn’t pretty, but clearly this story had more to say.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount MyersOver the next several months, as I edited The Song of All and honed my query letter, I felt confident saying, “The Song of All is a stand-alone epic fantasy novel with series potential.” After all, I had an outline, a roster of characters, and some heartfelt themes. I knew where the story was going and where it would end up. But when the series sold based on the first book and I began to write the second book, I soon realized that, while I had read tons of books in series, I had little or no idea of how to write one. In my giddy state as a writer with a book contract, I didn’t let this fact stop me. I continued to write the story, knowing that I would need to rewrite it many times, confident that I would learn how to write a series.

I did learn how to write a series, it was a long, hard road—one that I wish I’d had more guidance for and one that continues. Overall, my take-away from writing a series is that this is not a place for “pantsing” (going by the seat of your pants). Rather, “plotting” is a de facto reality. That is not to say that your books will be all planned without any spontaneity, but an outline of the series should lean toward filling in as much as possible while leaving some blank places to surprise you as the author. I called The Legacy of Heavens a trilogy but who knows, maybe the series will go on from here, and the Muse and my publisher willing, I’ll have another series to work on in the near future. Until then, I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors be they stand-alone or with series potential.

Here are 5 things I wish I had done when I first started on my series:

Dreams of the Dark Sky, by Tina LeCount Myers1. Fully explore and flesh out the world-building. For some writers of science fiction and fantasy this might be obvious because world-building is their jam, but for other writers, who are more interested in themes or characters or plot, digging deep into world building might not be their first choice. Nevertheless, the better your understanding of how your world works (geography, socio-economic and political structures, cultural and legal norms, clothing, food, relationships, architecture, magic, etc) the easier it will be to see how the plot will unfold, where the themes might manifest, and how the characters will react.

2. Maps. Whether you love them or hate them, create them. This might be considered part of world-building, but it’s also about logistics and plotting. Even if you don’t plan to include maps in the books, make them for yourself and start right from the beginning, even if they’re rough. You will need to know the geography of your world. Where are the mountains, rivers, oceans, volcanoe   s, towns, and cities? What planets, asteroids, and galaxies exist in your world? To keep your characters moving you need to know the paths and the obstacles. Moreover, if you have a number of characters in movement, map it out so that when you are on book 5 of your series, referring to a military campaign that happened in book 2 of your series, you’ll know who’s where and doing what without going back and rereading book 2.

3. Detailed character lists. Sometimes characters come to us fully formed and that’s awesome, take advantage of that gift and make sure you write down all those details (physical traits, psychological quirks, emotional needs, etc) so that you can refer back to them as the plot continues. Sometimes, however, characters take shape or evolve the more you write about them. Here too, keeping detailed notes helps not only with character development but also continuity. Like world-building, the more you know about your characters, the more effectively you can use them.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount Myers4. Upping the stakes without jumping the shark. What keeps someone reading a series? Characters we love (so develop those characters) and the situations they find themselves in. As a reader, I fall in love with characters and want to know what happens to them as they face challenges, but if they face the same challenges over and over it can get boring​. I want them to learn and grow from their obstacles. As a writer, creating new challenges for growth can run the risk of going over the top. Killing off everyone that a character loves over a series definitely ups the stakes. But where does it leave your character? And where does it leave your reader? It is a balance between tension and emotional exhaustion, and something which I am still working on.

5. On a practical note, when working on a series try to set realistic timelines for publication. Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, having a clear understanding of the work involved is important. A 120K word book written in a year works out to 10K words a month, so 333 words a day or 500 words a day with weekends off. Sounds totally doable. And maybe not. Factor in life (work outside of writing, family, vacations, health, etc) and add in revisions, probably a couple, maybe creating and maintaining a website, writing blog posts, and marketing your work through a newsletter or social media. Suddenly, writing a book every 3 months or 6 or 9 or 12 might be too much. When you can, be realistic and kind to yourself when you set your deadlines for a series.

*****

Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, surfer, and gluestick artist. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina is the author of The Song of All, Dreams of the Dark Sky, and Breath of Gods (Books 1-3 of The Legacy of the Heavens series). Her work has also appeared in Literary Hub and Tor.com.

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Writing Tip Wednesday: The Nature of Conflict

When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.

One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.

Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.

I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.

And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.

Right? Right.

Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.

And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.

Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.

The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”

No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.

Keep writing!

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Music and Writing

I usually write with a good deal of structure in my process, and so I thrive on relatively unstructured music to inspire my creative process. So, I thought, what if with this project, to which I’ve taken a relatively unstructured approach, I listen to classical music and use that high level of musical structure to impose some order on my writing?

My apologies for this going up so late. I’m on the road and didn’t have access to the internet for much of the day. But today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words is now up and ready for viewing. It’s about a couple of lessons I learned last week while attending a phenomenal concert. One concerns sharing works-in-progress with audiences. The other focuses on the ways in which the music we listen to as we write can influence our creative process. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!!

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday!!

The first step is to remember that despite the way the “Plotter v. Pantser” debate is usually framed, we don’t have to approach this decision as an either-or proposition. I know people who don’t outline at all; I know people who don’t feel comfortable writing a novel with anything less than a fifteen to twenty page outline. I usually work somewhere between these two extremes. As most people do. Again, it’s not either-or; rather it’s a choice that exists along a continuum.

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday, and in today’s post over at Magical Words I take on the Plotter v. Pantser debate, with what I think might be a third way. This post is personal for me this time around, because I’m dealing with the issue in my own writing. I hope you enjoy the post and find it helpful. You can read it here.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Plotting Versus Pantsing Update

Last week at the Magical Words blogsite, which I helped found so many years ago with Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, and C.E Murphy, I posted about plotting versus pantsing. For those not in the writing profession, plotting refers to setting out an outline at the beginning of a project and allowing that outline to guide us through the process of crafting our novels. Pantsing — as in flying by the seat of one’s pants — refers to winging it, essentially writing a novel without having a clear idea of where it’s going.

I am have been, throughout much of my career, a dedicated plotter. But with the third book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I was unable to come up with a decent outline, and so I dove in and just wrote the darn thing. That’s what the post was about (you can read it here).

Well, as I always do with a book, upon finishing the first draft, I put it away with the intention of coming back to it several weeks later in order to revise and polish before submitting it to my editor at Baen. Today, five weeks after completing the book, I began to read through the manuscript, unsure of what I would find.

I’m a little more than a third of the way through the novel. I’ve found some things that needed changing, and I’ve refined my wording here and there. But so far, overall, I like the book very much. In this case, it seems, pantsing was the write approach. We’ll see if I still feel that way when I’m finished reading it.

Plotting Versus Pantsing, at Magical Words

Today’s installment in the continuing, unofficial Winter 2014-15 Spell Blind Blog Tour (which is way too much of a mouthful) can be found at the Magical Words blog site. The post is about plotting and pantsing — the age-old tension between wanting to outline our stories before we write them so as to keep our narratives clear and coherent, and wanting to let our narratives flow “organically” in the moment of creation. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.