Decisions, Decisions

I got the idea for this post from a book-talk video about The Lightning Thief. The booktuber was talking about a plot-twist she suspected after the prophecy from the Oracle. (I’m trying so hard not to spoil things for you.) It got me thinking about the world of cliche and predictable fiction.

As writers, especially YA writers, it’s extremely difficult to work on a story without making at least one plot element very similar to that of another book’s. Like, there’s no way to avoid similarities. We struggle to cut out over-used tropes and slam our heads against the desk when nothing ever works.

Question time: Why waste your time trying to make things unpredictable when you can make something frustratingly predictable so that your character grows?

I write this with complete understanding of the feeling of, “[Character], why the heck did you think that was a logical option? I’m telling your mother” that readers often get while immersed in a book. Sometimes I’m tempted or even actually put a book down because I’m so, so tired of the bland and boring “twists”.

Don’t worry about your readers right now. At this point, your story just needs to get put on paper. Or in a Microsoft Word document. Or into Pages. Or Scrivener. Or whatever else you like to use. Just focus on the story for now.

Okay, so what if what your character needs most is an opportunity to make a poor decision? Your character could have limited options and happens to choose one that isn’t exactly great. Why does s/he do this? What motive does s/he have? Is s/he that desperate? If you’re going with a classically cliche option, at least have a reason for it, besides “boo hoo, there’s nothing original left to choose from”.

Think about it! You made the decision to write a book. Hey, maybe that’s a good decision and maybe that’s a terrible one. Either way, it will help you grow. Starting to catch on or have I bored you beyond belief?

Every decision has a consequence.

You choose the chocolate ice cream over the vanilla. Decision.

You need a glass of water. Consequence.

You read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instead of National Velvet. Decision.

You cry because feeeeeeeeeeeeels. Consequence.

(Pssst. I love National Velvet.)

Whether you take the continually used and predictable highway or the new and terrifying mountain path, you have to make the consequences have an effect on the characters. Stories are about decisions and consequences, pushes and pulls. Books are more than super awesome subplots about John Billy George’s Aunt Mikaela’s step-father’s cousin’s wife’s granddaughter’s brother’s goldfish, Goldie the VII. Stories are about what happens, where it happens, when it happens, who it happens to, how it happens, and most significantly, why it happens.

Keep the five W’s and the H in mind as you write. Make stuff happen. Explain it. Write.

(Finishes typing all about writing and crawls back into cocoon of blankets to not-write.)

Au revoir, mes amis!

– Natalie

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Aaaaand, SCENE!

I’ve never been good at plotting. I get most of my story ideas out of thin air or during brainstorm sessions with my sister or best friend. Throughout most of my writing “career,” I have struggled with plots. When I want to write something new, I use an idea that I have in my head and just start writing.

Some people call this method “writing by the seat of one’s pants” or “pantsing.” Do successful writers “pants”? Yeah, some do write this way successfully. Do some people struggle to write in the moment? Yeah, they do. I do.

Recently, I decided to rework the entire plot – or at least most of it – of my novel, Absolution. Well, I’m thinking of changing the title but for frequent readers’ sakes, I’ll keep calling it that. Anyway, I had only written about 14,000 words. I was a few chapters in and I had no idea how to write multiple point of view. My characters kept changing their personalities and storylines and relationships and it was a mess. I had to do something about it.

I did a bunch of research on plotting. “How to plot a novel” was probably my most frequent web search besides Pinterest and Nameberry…and YouTube, not going to lie. I love PolandBananasBooks (A/N: Watch her writing chronicles! They inspired me to write and keep going even though my story is garbage). The final conclusion I came to was that I needed to start from scratch and make a scene list.

Scene lists seem like they’re just for screenwriting and movie shoots. You know, “lights, camera, action” and then “CUT!” or “SCENE!” and the whole lot of it. Having scenes in a novel is so important. I’ve known that for a while now, but I never put it into correct practice.

What I’ve been doing the past week or so is putting scene information into an Excel or Google Sheets document. I have a color-coded column for Point of View, a column of information pertaining to the scene, a goal word count, and a first draft word count. The first draft WC obviously isn’t filled in yet because I’m not done plotting and haven’t even thought about starting to write.

Making a scene list has taught that I am definitely a plotter. If I don’t know where my story is going, my inspiration will either wither and die or my characters and plotlines will run wild.

I’ve also gotten to understand and plan out more detailed subplots and my characters are becoming themselves without even writing them.

A warning, however! Using a scene list does not guarantee that your story is going to exactly go to plan. Be flexible in your plotting and take notes. I have pages and pages of notes on the scenes I’ve created. Also, know that making a scene list will not eliminate writer’s block. While it helps work through the plot holes, you still will struggle with finding inspiration and ideas. The good part about struggling now, though, is then later, even when it’s hard, you’ll know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.  

Here are some statistics for scenes:

  • Assuming your scenes are about 500 – 2000 words, you should have around 2-5 scenes in a chapter.

If you aren’t splitting your book into chapters until after the first draft, that’s fine! Write in scenes, though.

  • Only write a scene if it: A. Moves the main conflict/plot, B. Shows character(s) development, or C. Is crucial to foreshadowing.

Happy plotting,

Natalie

Write For You

We can talk as much as we want about writer’s block – dare I say it aloud? – and how it is holding us back. I can try to give you plans for fixing your plot holes or coming up with a better villain. I can tell you that your writing is important and that we need your story or poem in the world.

As nice as those things are, I can’t fix your problems. Guys, I can’t figure out how to fix my problems sometimes. Not the technical ones anyway. Technical problems are the ones you can only learn to fix after you’ve already pushed through the rough patch. At some point, you’ll look back at the work you did; you’ll stare at your blood, sweat and tears in the mirror; you’ll finally realize how you got through it all. The truth is, every writer is different. We each have different writing styles and voices, strengths and weaknesses, ideas and opinions, and lights and darknesses.

The one thought I’ve always held onto when I can’t write one more word is this:

I know who I’m writing for. I know I’m writing because I want to write. Not because somebody is telling me that I have “talent” or “potential” or “a good idea”. No, no, and nope. I’m choosing to sit at that computer and pour my soul onto a page. I’m writing for me, myself, and…okay, my writing bucket list every once in a while. 

I’m not a pep-talker or a cheerleader or even an optimist, for that matter. I don’t know if my writing will take off or get me anywhere. Ultimately, that’s not what matters most. Believe me, I would be so happy if an idea or novel of mine gets turned into a TV show or movie. I would love to have my own book signing and hold a copy of my brain-child (do people still use that word?) in my hand. After all that, I’m not writing for you, and I’m not writing for your second cousin’s sister’s boyfriend’s fish.

The best piece of advice I can give to you is to just keep plugging along. Care a little less about your word count and your page count and your reads/votes on Wattpad. If you don’t finish your story, how is it ever going to get turned into a TV show? I have to remind myself of this every time I sit down to write.

Your writing matters. Remember that.

– Natalie

 

Wait, Motives Actually Matter?

Sometimes writing realistically is the hardest thing in the world. Who am I kidding? Writing realistically IS the hardest thing in the world. Have you ever read a novel/novella/short story where the whole time you were just laughing at how ridiculous the situations came about? Do you ever hate it when everything happens to the characters and not because of the characters? Does your protagonist lack a driving motive?

Motives create everything. You’re writing your story because of (fill in the blank with your motive for this specific story). You chose your protagonist because of ___. Your antagonist hates the protagonist because of ___. Even if having a motive for the protagonist confuses you, there needs to be something driving his or her actions.

An easy way to recognize strong motive is to analyze your antagonist situation. Since antagonists can be anything, opposing motives can take any form against the protagonist. If you’re writing a romance novel, maybe there are just too many secrets between the protagonist and the love interest for there to be a successful relationship. In that case, the antagonist could either be secrets or perhaps the characters’ minds working against them. This scenario is a bit difficult to analyze because secrets don’t really have a motive. Secrets do always create problems; that’s just a natural thing. If your antagonist is just the universe working against your protagonist, that’s okay! You don’t necessarily need a dragon or a lawsuit to cause tension in your story.

When you have an antagonist in human or group form, there are some other motives to think about. People get jealous. People get angry or scared. People get nervous or feel threatened by someone else. If your antagonist (Joe) is working against the protagonist (Hannah) because he’s scared of her psychic abilities, you have a strong motive. Not every antagonist’s motive has to be ‘oh my gosh, I just really, really wanna take over the world’. Voldemort wants a nose – I mean, Voldemort wants to live forever/kill Harry. Kronos wants to rise from Tartarus. Queen Levana wants to marry Kai/kill him. President Snow is just a pain in the neck in every respect.

Now that you’ve identified your antagonist’s motive, take a look at your protagonist. If you’re flipping or scrolling through your story and getting bored/rolling your eyes at everything, you might have one or all of five main problems:

  1. Your plot is dull
  2. Your characters are flat
  3. Your basic story has been written a million times
  4. Your antagonist/protagonist is ridiculous
  5. You’re just tired of thinking about your story

I see these problems every time I open my documents or notebooks. I have these problems today. I’ll have them tomorrow. They are never going to go away. That’s okay, though, because I know the basics of fixing them. Now I can’t help you fix letter E. That one is all up to you to work on. One of my biggest problems is either A or D. This post is talking mainly about letter D.

Many times, your story is flat or dull or ridiculous because your protagonist isn’t moving. Yeah, maybe terrible things are happening to her. Yeah, maybe the antagonist is pushing all her buttons. But what is she doing? Why is she fighting against the antagonist? Is she tired or scared or protecting someone? Is she actually super evil and trying to take over the world while the antagonist tries to stop her? Before you can tweak the dialogue or add in those commas, think long and hard about why your protagonist is doing whatever she’s doing.

Stories are about lives. Sometimes these lives are completely out-of-this-world. Literally. Like Luke Skywalker. In life, everyone is a protagonist in a different story than the next person. Good stories aren’t about the protagonist who decided to accept her fate as a punching bag for the antagonist. She can’t just wait for an anvil to fall onto her enemy. I mean, she could technically do that, but she’d just be wasting time. Good stories are about what the protagonist decides to do about something. It can be saving the world, destroying the world, buying a cat, or getting the number of the guy next door.

Your characters are supposed to drive your story. Don’t just make things happen. Coincidences don’t make up a good plotline. Have your protagonist make a bad decision every once in awhile. What are the consequences? How do they set her back from her goals? How do they benefit the antagonist? Do these consequences just add fuel to the antagonist’s bonfire?

Look over your story. Figure out your motives if you haven’t already. Remember that you’re telling a story and not just torturing your protagonist. I know it’s fun. Keep in mind that what drives your character will develop as you write. Maybe her motive will bring about an interesting backstory or subplot. Your story will benefit so much from just having a motive for each major character.

Thanks for reading this all-over-the-place post! 

Until next time,

Natalie