Thursday, August 23, 2012

Plot wrestling

I can't believe it! I looked back and it's over a year since I last posted about the Writer's Toolkit.

After all my posts about different kinds of tools to help in different situations, there I was this summer trying to wrestle a plot to the ground, and casting around for the right tools to help me out.

What helped me get moving again was the use of two tools, and, true to the central theme in the Writer's Toolkit series, both of them got modified to suit my immediate purpose.

First, the challenge...

Tiamat's Nest is a web of causal connections. There's a lot of things happening that affects what people know at any given moment, and how they act subsequently. Lots of "X knows this because of Y, but Z doesn't know that yet..."

And there's four major individuals or groups of characters, plus several other minor players, each playing out their own independent story. And these different threads criss-cross and connect to each other.

That's a lot to keep track of and to weave into a single story, and at the point where I got stuck I hadn't fathomed half of it out yet. It felt a bit like wrestling an octopus. The challenge for me was to depict the web in a way that allowed me to see the big picture, and flesh out the details without getting bogged down by them.

The solution...

Tool Number One was inspired by Randy Ingermanson. In a recent newsletter, he talked about story threads and writing character synopses, where you examine each main character in turn and write a brief synopsis of their part in the story.

In Randy's technique, each successive synopsis builds on the previous one and takes you further into the story as a whole. I modified this slightly so that they didn't run together into a linear whole, but essentially told the story from that character's point of view so I had several parallel synopses.

The benefit of this is that it got me closer to the characters, and allowed me to advance the story based on each character's perspective. This was great for ensuring consistency. It also persuaded me to choose a focus character where I previously had a group. The other members of the group are still there, but I now have a much crisper view of the action and a more personal perspective.

Tool Number Two was a modification of something I've used before - a timeline with swimlanes for each main character.

I had tried this originally, because the tool worked very well for me in Ghosts...
...but this is where I very quickly got bogged down in the extra mess of detail present in Tiamat's Nest.

The modification that helped me out was to forget the time aspect for now, and to focus on the key events that cross threads. Instead of each row in the table representing a block of time, each row now introduces a key event in the story. Where the row crosses columns for the main characters, I describe the character's part in that event, plus subsequent actions along that character's story thread for as long as they stay confined to that particular thread.
In this way, I can map out the major highlights of the story and keep the detail under control. This way of arranging information also helps with ensuring that each character's story remains consistent.

Now, you may have noticed that both of these approaches duplicate a lot of information. This is not a good thing. Duplication is wasteful at best. At worst, it gives ample opportunity for introducing contradictions, because keeping duplicate sets of information in step through the inevitable modifications is tricky and error-prone.

I am still working through the plotting, but the way I see it, the character synopses were a great way to get me into my characters' heads. I doubt if I'll flesh out the entire story in this way. Now I've got started on the tabular format, and transferred relevant data over from the synopses, I see this is my main vehicle for the rest of the plot. I will also need to overlay my timeline back onto it eventually, but for now I'm more concerned with the order of events and connections between them.

So, how about you? Do you have any favorite techniques for wrestling a troublesome plot to the ground? Do you use any structured tools? Do you take what you've seen other people do and stick to "the rules", or do you like to innovate to suit your purpose?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Writing update

Vacations imposed something of a blogging absence, which was no bad thing. It marked a new chapter in my writing journey.

After two years under the surgeon's knife, Ghosts of Innocence is back out in Queryland. Hoping for more positive responses this time around. We'll see how that goes.

And, ever since my first round of queries, I've been dithering between several projects to take on after Ghosts. See the Words and pictures tab.

I took stock, and decided to revive Electrons' Breath.

I re-read the scenes I'd written two-and-a-half years ago, and I fell in love with them all over again. I know I've been here before, I felt like this after setting it aside for a few months but then ran dry again almost immediately.

The first challenge for me was to get my mind back into the actual plot. I remember now that this was a sticking point before. The plot as a whole is quite simple, but there's a lot of detailed events that have to dovetail together - different threads of "who sees what and when" to be woven together into a coherent whole. I had the first part mapped out, then it all gets rather vague.

I left myself lots of notes on little plot points, and I got lost trying to find concise ways to capture it all so the important elements were clear without getting bogged down in detail. There were lots of "Aha!" moments as I revisited years-old lines of thought.

As a result, I haven't yet added many new words, and I am still struggling to find ways into the many scenes yet to be written. I find that I need to establish a very clear image of the scene in my mind before I can start writing it.

But that's all rationalization. Something was still holding me back from actual writing.

The turning point for me came on vacation. I lay awake one morning, feeling lazy and not quite ready to get up, and ideas started flowing. I could see much better how to tie the plot together, some scenes started to crystallize in my mind, and the characters came into sharper focus.

At last, I discovered that the group of students my MC supervises were far more important to progress than I'd given them credit for. As soon as I started picturing them as individuals, and settling on their unique flaws and characteristics, I was able to picture their part in the flow of events. Scenes that I'd been unable to complete suddenly came to life, and some of the later plot started to emerge from the murk.

Things are moving again, and I've provisionally renamed this WIP to Tiamat's Nest.

Oh, yes, and we now have another hedgehog!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Back from vacation

We've just returned home from our customary long vacation at Pacific Playgrounds - our fourth year in a row, and the most times we've ever been back to the same spot. It feels like a home from home.

This time last year, I posted on how the setting has stayed the same, but how the things we do have gradually changed over the years.

The campground itself is unchanged. The pool, the river, the beach. The generous helpings of delicious ice-cream at the little shop.

We meet a lot of familiar faces, too. Some folks have been coming here since the parents were children themselves, which says a lot for this place as a family getaway.

We spent more time fishing this year, and a lot more time swimming in the river rather than just floating down on tubes. The adrenalin-inducing rope swing into a deep sinkhole has gone. Maybe removed for safety, or maybe the rope finally broke - I don't know how many years it was there.

We've been staying longer and longer each time. At the end of last year's trip, the kids didn't want to leave. As an experiment, we booked in for three full weeks this time. I can't afford to use up that much vacation, so we all drove up on the first Saturday to set up camp. I then returned home on Sunday to go to work for a week. That felt strange, having the house to myself, but it was wonderful to be able to hop in the car Friday afternoon at work and head straight up the highway. A three-hour drive and I was there by tea time, and launched straight into my vacation without all the usual packing/towing/setting-up hassle.

Sad news to report. We lost our little hedgehog while we were away. Luckily we took him with us (the dog always comes too, the cats stay home fed by a neighbor, and the other small animals go to a friend to stay). He's not been well, unable to stand upright, and we learned that he had Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome - a well-known degenerative disease with no cure. For a few days, he seemed to improve, and we hoped it might just be an infection affecting his balance, but then he went rapidly downhill and we had to face reality.

Apart from that, it was an enjoyable break from routine. And please accept my apologies for a deficit of photographs. We simply didn't get the camera out once during the whole time!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

CREEPed out and totally FREAKed

I got to read CREEP largely by accident.

It's not the kind of book I'd be likely to go out and buy. For starters, it's in a section of the bookstore that I never frequent, so it's going to have a hard time attracting my attention. More specifically, it's about a serial killer stalking and kidnapping. These are not topics I do well with, emotionally.

Ali is the one into suspense and murder. I'm happy with shows like CSI, NCIS, and Bones, because it's easy to detach myself from the victims. They tend to enter the scene after they are safely dead. I struggle more with Criminal Minds, and I never want to read or see Misery. As soon as we get into kidnapping and hostage situations of ordinary people, I usually have to leave the room. It feels way too real for me to cope with, and stops being entertainment.

But I had to read CREEP. The fabulous Jennifer Hillier sent me a copy of both CREEP and FREAK for winning a contest on her blog, so I was out of excuses!

Nevertheless, because it is so far out of my comfort zone, I approached it with some anxiety.

I'm happy to report that I survived.

And I enjoyed it.

It helped, I think, that the protagonist, Sheila Tao, is strong and resourceful, even in the middle of her ordeal. Even faced with a chilling sociopath in the form of Ethan Wolfe, a cold-blooded planner and expert manipulator, she manages to retain a small measure of control. I struggle the most when the MC is entirely helpless and falls into the role of passive victim.

It helped even more that the writing is strong and clean, and shot through with sparks of deliciously inappropriate humor.

So I turned to the sequel, FREAK with a real sense of anticipation, and I was not disappointed.

If Ethan Wolfe was chilling as a villain, the manipulative Abby Maddox in FREAK could liquify helium with her human warmth and compassion.

For me, FREAK was a more natural fit for my preferences, as it involved a more evenly-matched cat-and-mouse game between people who were mostly operating in familiar territory. I was kept guessing the whole time what Abby's plan was, and who she'd enlisted to help her. The twist at the end was delightful.

If you are into suspense and psychological thrillers, I would recommend both CREEP and FREAK.

FREAK is out in bookstores on August 7.
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