To Plan, or Not to Plan

I know, I know there is a blog post about plotting and pantsing somewhere on this blog (in fact you can find it here). But I am to the terrible middle of my novel, and I have to talk about this again!

Basically, I plotted the entiiiiiire story, in great detail. Down to who was falling in love with who at which time. Subplots, story beats, this beautiful outline had it all!

And then I forgot to look at the plot. And then my characters decided that their ideas were better than mine (glaring at you Terrence). So there I was, blithely writing along without looking at my plot. Just when I decided that I was at the midpoint I went and found my plotline and compared the two.

Cue me banging my head against my desk.

The story has meandered in and around the entire plot, sometimes missing plot points, sometimes finding them, and taking its sweet time to get to, in my plot, the second pinch point or a little bit before the midpoint.

Wut.

All that work, and I am not even at the middle yet?

Which got me thinking, is it even worth the trouble of plotting the entire story if I can’t follow it? Or won’t follow it. This plot has fallen to pieces as the story has meandered along.

There are things that I came across while I was writing that I think are better. Points that make more sense, scenes that I never would have thought up if I hadn’t written it. My story is stronger because I didn’t follow the plot. I hope so anyway.

So what the heck was the point of plotting it all out in the first place? Color coding did not guard against stray plot bunnies, bullet points did not fill in my glaring plot holes. There would be much more peace of mind, then and now, if I hadn’t created a plot that I now have to redo and wiggle around to fit where the story is going.

In this particular instance, I think it would have suited me much better if I had created a basic plot, with basic beats, that was easier to flex and wiggle when I went off the path. Now I wish I had a time machine to go back and tell myself not to bother with it.

All this to say, there is nothing like putting words on a page and figuring out what works with the characters and story the best. I didn’t know what worked for my story until I wrote it. Which I know is unthinkable to some of you. But there you go. I needed to write the story to find the plot for the story. Does it mean there will be lots (and lots and lots) of editing later? Yes, unfortunately. I will have to go track down all those plot bunnies and missing characters and put them back in place. But in the end, my story will be stronger for all that rambling and meandering.

Excessive planning did not work for this story. Perhaps it will for a different story. Maybe I will get better at following my own plot. But while I am dreaming, I would like calorie free chocolate.

Shaina Merrick

The Rebellious Writer and World Building

Conventional writing wisdom comes in many forms. What you read in articles, writing tips you find on Pinterest, and the advice you heard first hand from your writing partners. Put it all together, and you are told something like this.

‘Show, don’t tell. Unless it’s the backstory, then don’t show any bit of it. Though you have to plan the backstory, down to what your protagonists three year old self preferred for breakfast. You also need to plot out the backstory for all of your other characters down to the same excruciating detail. During this process, don’t forget to figure out the world while you are at it. Include as much history as you have time for. Typically at least five generations back.’

It goes on and on like this. ‘More is better’ is stuffed into every new writers brain. Detail is praised to the heavens, and if anyone dares to argue, a dozen authors swivel their heads around and glare at you. ‘Don’t you want to be a good writer?’ Uuuuum. Yes?

I could tell you that I have a naturally inquisitive mind, and like to consider all of my options before settling on one thing. In reality, I am rebellious. When conventional writing wisdom tells me I have to do something, I say ‘Ha!’ And go try to find my way around it.

Sometimes, I admit defeat and follow the advice. There is a reason some of it has been around for as long as it has. There is no way around those grammar rules guys. I tried, I succumbed, I am now teaching myself the secret language of grammar.

However! Story rules are not set in stone, and they are broken all the time!

For example…

There are those who say that you have to world build forever before you start writing. And by forever, I mean you have to know what has happened in your world for forever. Plan the legends, the races your characters will never see, and find out why the grass is green.

They have a point. Great epics like Lord of the Rings, and The Wheel of Time, have extensive world building. Those worlds are big enough to house multiple civilizations, and histories that are longer than ours. The hours and hours of world building I am sure they spent on their novels paid off. The world is breathtaking.

Here is the part where I raise my hand and say, ‘Wait!’

While world building is all well and good, you don’t have to do hours and hours of it to have an epic story.

Where are the legends of old in Narnia? There are some, a story here and there, but no where near the epics of the Wheel of Time.

What about the Prydain Chronicles? I don’t think the constellations are even mentioned, and as for legends. Not so much.

The world building in those two epic series is nowhere near as vast as the other series. And did the series suffer? No! Narnia is one of the classics we all study, and the Prydain Chronicles is called one of the founders of American fantasy. In fact, it is one of my favorite series ever.

They don’t have so much world building because they don’t need it. It wasn’t necessary to the story.

In The Wheel of Time, where every event is tied to the past and every character aware of the prophecies, not to have all that figured out and squared away would be silly. This series needed the lush, intricate world. Narnia did not.

More detail is not always better. If all the details given in Lord of the Rings was given in the Prydain Chronicles, the magic of those stories would have been lost.

Sure, you will always need some world building. You should decide if the grass is actually green in your world after all. But your story may not need pages upon pages of your worlds history.

You are not trying to make another Middle Earth. You are trying to build your world, where your characters will live and breath and have adventures. What does your world need?

Are your characters delving into the past to find a cure or a historic document? Then figure out your worlds history! Are your characters running for their lives in the mountains? Then by all means figure out in excruciating detail what plants grow there. After all, one of those plants might come in handy when you need to defeat the villain.

But if you are in the mountains for the whole novel, do you need to map out the eco system of the ocean? Or decide what the architecture is of the villages in the plains? No, no you don’t.

More detail is not better. Rather, the right detail is better. This isn’t going to stunt your novel, it is going to give it room to breathe.

Shaina Merrick

What do you think of world building? Do you do a lot? A little? I’m curious, am I the only one who dies inside everytime she looks at those sheets upon sheets of world building questions? (writer problems) Let me know in the comments below!

How You Should End Your Novel

Endings. How I love to hate thee. The bane of my existence, yet the reason what I read book after book. Maybe it is because I love endings so much that they scare me so much when I am writing them.

Honestly, ending anything longer than 150 words terrifies me. I long for a WIP to end even as I am avoiding thinking about it. And now you are wondering why on earth I should be writing a blog post about it.

Because I am opinionated! And where else should I air my opinions then my blog?

Well, also because I have given this a lot of thought. Especially when I read a book that leaves me unsatisfied and grumpy when I finish it. Aspiring authors, never leave your reader feeling grumpy. They may never come back.

So welcome to How You Should End Your Novel.

Step One

An end is not The End.

Endings are not just two words saying The End. If it was, no one would ever do it wrong and you would never hear anyone complaining. Since there seems to be so much complaining about book endings in the world, there must be a right way to do them and a wrong way to do them.

We will be discussing the right way to do them. At least, the right way according to me. Other opinions may vary.

Your ending will dictate the course of your entire novel. Whether your character goes right instead of left. Why your mentor says the things he does. Basically, your entire novel is foreshadowing the end. Your job is to hint to the reader how your story is going to end, and it is up to your reader to first see, and then interpret those hints accordingly. If your hints point to a completely different ending then you have planned, your readers will end up feeling jipped.

Mystery stories are the master at this. Every single detail points to the solution to the mystery, and the end of the story. Yes, there are red herrings. The flashy hints that catch the readers attention. However, if every hint you have is a red herring, the reader will end up being frustrated and may slam the book shut out of puzzlement and never pick it up again.

The best writers are weaving subtle, real hints along with their red herrings. If you have a well done plot twist, the reader will be surprised, and then look at the book and realize that the right answer was there the whole time.

Step Two

Happy ending or no happy ending?

This is not a question to take lightly. As we have established, your answer to this question will determine every step of your novel.

For sanity’s sake, please do not throw in a tragic ending just for the sake of a tragic ending. Or because of the shock value. That is a terrible way to decide which ending to have. Terrible.

I have read a story where you are rooting for the main character the whole time, and then he dies. I was left wondering what the point of the story was, and if there was a point at all.

If you have tragedy, there must be a point, a reason. If you have happiness, there must also be a point.

Let’s look at it this way. What if Hamlet had been a happy ending? He got his revenge, the girl, and everyone lived happily ever after. While that is what I was hoping for during the play, if I had gotten what I had wanted, the play would have fallen flat. The entire point of the play was to show the affect of Hamlet’s father’s murder. How one murder turns into two, then three, and on and on. How one terrible decision leads to another terrible decision. Tragedy fit the tone and point of the play.

How about Pride and Prejudice? What if everyone had died in the end? We would hate that book until our dying days for one thing. For another thing the book would have no point whatsoever. The entire story is about finding love and overcoming pride. If the characters never overcame their pride and died, well, we would get an entirely different message. The tone of the book fits the end, the end fits the book.

Choose an ending that fits your book. And don’t be afraid of happy endings.

I think many people believe that authors are afraid of tragedies. Of killing characters and making readers unhappy. Perhaps that is the way it used to be, but at the moment I see more and more authors toying with tragedies, unwilling to give their characters happy endings unless everything else has gone wrong and they have worked really hard for it. Basically a book where everyone dies except for the love interest and the MC who magically stay alive.

Meh.

No, you should not just hand out happy endings like cookies. However, it is fine for people to be happy in your books. If they have worked hard for it, they deserve a happy ending. Lots of people are happy, lots of people have happy endings in real life. Lots of people also have tragic endings in real life. Either way, your ending should be true to your book.

Step Three

Tie up thy plot threads

This is not a suggestion. Let me repeat myself, THIS IS NOT A SUGGESTION!! There is not much in a book that bugs me more than loose plot threads the writer didn’t bother to find and tie up. At the moment, we are not talking about books within a series, we are talking about stand alone’s and the end of a series. The places where you have to search for every stray character and account for them.

Remember step one? Just because you slap a The End on your novel does not mean it is finished. You should have been foreshadowing this end since chapter one. Now consider every hint you have given to be a solemn promise to the reader.

Have you foreshadowed character one and character two falling in love? They had better go on a date by the end of your novel! Did you hint that character one is going to fall off a cliff? Find a cliff and dump him off of it before finishing your novel. By the way, red herrings are tied up when they are revealed to be red herrings.

If you give a hint, a.k.a. a promise, that has not been fulfilled by the end of the story, your reader will be left feeling unsatisfied. This includes any mysteries like backstory and world building stuff. Unless you have a really good reason why not to explain something, explain it. Give your reader the satisfaction they are reading for.

Quick Rant: Wrapping things up has a subcategory called fulfilling all of your prophecies. If you have a huge prophecy at the beginning of the book that is supposed to guide the entire plot, please, please fulfill the prophecy. There are clever ways to get out of killing your character, but honestly, if you want your hero to leave, don’t prophecy his death. That red herring is so old it isn’t even red anymore. Quick Rant Over.

There you have it. A three step process to finishing your novel well. Good luck finishing all your Nano novels!

Shaina Merrick

To Begin

One of the most important bits of any story is the beginning. The part that convinces a reader to keep reading, or to shut the book and move on with their lives. The blank page that keeps writers trapped in fear. We know beginnings are important, we know they must portray character, setting, plot, and tone all without info dumping, we know that a good beginning will keep readers, a bad beginning will deter them. As writers, we are acutely aware of all of this. And that awareness keeps us frozen, staring at the empty page and waiting for the perfect words to begin our stories.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. Don’t laugh, yet. Beginnings have the possibility to be easy. Well, easier anyway. Now, I am no expert on this. On anything to be perfectly honest, but I do have an idea of what a good beginning is, and what a good beginning isn’t.

It all boils down to a couple of questions to ask yourself as you are settling down to begin your epic novel.

What is the most important part of this story?

Don’t tell me the characters. You haven’t thought about it yet. Think about it. What, in your book, is most important? Is it the plot? Is it the setting? Is it the theme? Or is it your characters? When you have answered that question, you know what to showcase in the beginning. If your setting is the most important part of your story, you will most likely want to start with a description of said setting (don’t scoff, many classic novels start out with description). If it is your plot, get that plot started right away!

Cut straight to what is important and leave out the fluff.

Is this story plot driven or character driven?

For the sake of this post, we will not be discussing the differences and potentials of each kind of story here. Suffice to say that plot driven stories rely on the plot to drive them forward, character driven stories, the characters.

If your story is going to be plot driven, you will want the plot to start off with a bang. Plop your reader in the midst of a gun fight, have the inciting event start two pages before the novel begins. However you do it, make sure events are happening from page one. This is a plot story after all, there isn’t time to be introspective.

If you have a character driven story, you will, most likely, start at more of a leisurely pace. Your inciting event can start a few pages down the road. Breath, introduce your readers to the characters they will be hanging out with for a few hundred pages. Don’t worry if things seem a little slow at first. Just worry if they stay slow when they aren’t supposed to be.

Since we are all about to being new projects, I thought it would be worthwhile chatting about beginnings. Don’t stress writers! Your beginning will be awesome. Are you guys ready for Nano yet? I am pretending that I am, also trying not to hyperventilate as November 1st looms ever closer. Eep!

Good luck everyone!

Shaina Merrick