Wednesday, July 15, 2009

W Is For Writing And Structure

My guest today is author Lane Robins, also known as Lyn Benedict (Sins & Shadows). I like her writing style and from what I've read of her, I love the details she is able to weave into her stories so smoothly.

Her topic today is on how to keep control of a story, both in character arcs and plot lines. Especially with deadlines looming. I've seen all sorts of visuals and story building devices to keep everything straight. Her visual is an intriguing concept.

Writing is the best job ever. It gives you the opportunity to create worlds, characters, plots. You get to play with magic, religion, history. Best of all, you get to play with the office supplies.

Call me irrevocably warped by long afternoons in my father's office, but I adore office supplies. As a writer, I get to use them whenever I want. However I want.

Every writer has their own process to creating a novel; mine involves a rainbow of sticky-notes and posterboard.

For me, novel genesis goes something like this:

I clear off the table, or at least half of it. I lay out a piece of foam core, posterboard, sheet of cardboard. I take the cats off of it. Repeatedly. Then I draw a giant W with a black permanent marker.

Most novels have reader expectations built into their frames—genre novels have perhaps more than most. In romance, someone will live happily ever after. In mystery, people will commit crimes and get caught. In fantasy, people will discover how magic can reshape the world. But all of these require twists and turns within the plot, points where the characters react and move in a different direction. The giant W makes me start with those major scenes that drive the plot forward.

So I've got a W, I've got the barest ideas of a plot, I've got a character waiting for conflict, and by god, I've got sticky-notes in scads of colors and shapes.

I start with the first point of the W: the inciting incident, where the story begins. In Kings & Assassins, that's the death of the king. It gets two notes stuck to it, one reads something pithy along the lines of Kill King Aris. The second note, a separate color, represents the main character's emotional track. I find it extraordinarily helpful to attach the character's emotional reaction to each event; it keeps me from forgetting that the characters need to feel. It's always a temptation for me to just move the characters around like little pawns, but that not only makes for an ultimately unsatisfying read, but bores me stiff while I'm writing the novel.

The second point is the first complication that spins out from that inciting incident. It always makes things worse/harder/more unpleasant for the main character. Again, it gets two post-its at a minimum. (The more complicated the story, or the more crowded the character list, the more post-its accumulate until some storyboards look like mosaics. Pretty, but a little daunting.)

The third point, the half-way point of the book is usually a new twist, a new complication, something out of left field for the character who thought they were getting a handle on the first set of problems. Also known as the "things get worse" point. Very often my brain provides a silly little dum-dum-DUM! at this moment as I stick the note on.

The fourth point: oh the fourth point is dreaded. It's the spot in the story that's always blankest to me when I'm brainstorming. I know it's the spot reserved for the character's dark night of the soul, the moment where they have doubts, feel fears, where their plans have failed, where life is bleak and bitter and probably looking like it's going to be cut brutally short. Sadly, I rarely know this point in advance—I guess my brain just likes to leave some mystery in the plot. It usually gets a place holder sticky with a few question marked ideas written on it. It may, however, have a very elaborate emotional arc lined out. After all, I know what my character dreads and fears, and I want him to feel it right there.

After that, it's a steady climb upward, the uphill battle leading to the climactic fifth point of the W, where my long-suffering character can finally triumph, though often at a steep price.

All writers are sadists. I personally blame the writing advice books which tell you to never make things easy for your protagonist, and to kill your darlings. The second advice is really about favorite scenes that don't add much, lines that are out of place, or anything that we put in that we love, but doesn't fit the rest of the story. Thing is, we're writers. We home in on "kill" and the characters suffer for it.

This is a picture of a bare bones W with the beginnings of a post-it note party that I’m putting together so I can write a narrative outline for an upcoming novel. You'll see that there are more than five points represented. The joy of the W is that it allows me to start filling in events along the lines to move my character from point to point in a driven way.

You can faintly see the black sharpie lines of the W beneath the post-its, as well as a scattering of brain food of choice (Peanut m & ms), my beloved and increasingly battered Mac, and a few post-it notes that haven't quite migrated up to the board but belong there. Eventually.

This is a single POV character arc. For multiple POVs, but only one main character—like Kings & Assassins, like Maledicte—the sticky-notes get more numerous, but the W stays static. Occasionally, an antagonist will get enough back story going that I might start a line down the side charting their past, their present, their desired future.

I've got another posterboard going for a more complicated book, a fantasy romance with two main characters whose plots will weave in and out of each others', and for that, I've put up a double W that overlaps. It's definitely ugly and crowded and makes no sense at all to the casual viewer. But to me? It's a road map to another world built out of ordinary office supplies.

Lane Robins was born in Miami, Florida, the daughter of two scientists, and grew up as the first human member of their menagerie. When it came time for a career, it was a hard choice between veterinarian and writer. It turned out to be far more fun to write about blood than to work with it. She has three books out currently, Maledicte, Kings & Assassins, and, writing as Lyn Benedict, Sins & Shadows. She currently lives in Kansas, with an ever-fluctuating number of dogs and cats. You can reach her at Lane can also be found on Facebook.

Other books by the author:


~Sia McKye~ said...

Welcome to Over Coffee Lane!

I have plenty of coffee and tea, munchables like muffins and to give you energy today and feed your brain, I have a nice crystal bowl of Peanut M & M's. :-)

So, using this W helps keep track of your story and to make sure you've hit all the conflicts and plot lines?

Dave King said...

All valid points of which we need to be reminded from time to time - and very well made. Thank you for the post. And for the blog, too. My first visit, but I shall come again.

SueO said...

Lane, I'm now intrigued to read your books.

I like the points you bring up. I write by 'feel', and although it comes together well, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the task at the beginning of the process. This takes the procedure and gives a structure for support and reassurance. I really like it.

Thank you for taking the time to post this blog and the visual to accompany it!


PS: like the new blog look, Sia!

John Philipp said...

Excellent article, Lane.
I can so identify with the office supplies. I'd go around my Dad's and take three of everything: 3 paper clips, 3 manila envelopes, 3 pieces of carbon paper, etc.

The highlight would be when instead of throwing out an old stapler, I'd get it for my home office. Didn't matter if it worked.

I like the simplicity of your system. I'll give it a try. Thanks.

Lane said...

Sia, thanks again for hosting me! Yeah, the W is a nice way to put up a "just the facts, ma'am," kind of plot structure. You can write a lot around it, but this keeps me on track!

David, glad you stopped by!

SueO, glad the W makes sense to you. I remember the first time someone told me about it; I thought it was sort of silly, and then I tried it! Instant convert, for exactly the reasons you mention

John Philipp said...


Lane's article is a perfect example of how to use a little humor to improve a piece.

Bringing up "office supplies" early on as the third, and unexpected, item in a list of three sets a comfortable tone and raises the energy level and interest of the reader.

She then used the same phrase to tie up and close her article while also reinforcing the message that this is simple, you can do it.

~Sia McKye~ said...

John, I knew she made me laugh several places epecially with the unexpected ending of offices supplies. And the cats.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Sue, I liked her system too. I like visuals. To me this is simple and effective. I'm doing some serious editing, which also means cutting things that don't actually move the story forward, and I could see where this system would be a big help in streamlining.

Great to see you Sue!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Lane, you mentioned this method keeps you on track for deadlines because everything is there visually. So this would also help with a synopsis?

Lane said...

John, thanks for the compliments! Humor is hard, and I tread very carefully in its waters, aiming mostly for "light-hearted".

Sia, I think this process works really well for synopses--maybe even better than it works as a tool for an entire novel. After all, the synopsis is just the high points of your novel in a narrative structure. If you have your key plot points and your main character's emotional arc alongside. . . you're most of the way there!

VA said...

So simple it's brilliant. I love the concept of the W Sue. I think I'll give it a try.

On the matter of office supplies, let's not tell anyone, but I horde posties, highlighters (god! thin tip, broad stroke and multihued- whoever invented these knew the addiction--bad), and page flags. I suddenly feel the need to open my desk drawer and admire them. I have mugs filled with highlighters, yes, mugs, as in multiples. After all every room should have hightlighters. You never want to be too far from one.

Your covers are great, I love the mask for "Maledicte."

Sia, another fabulous author I haven't heard of before, thank you. You are my go to gal for new read ideas. By any chance are you composing a database for referencing?

Helen Ginger said...

I really like the W idea. I tend to be visual, so having the sticky notes on a W would work for me, I think. My husband built me an 8X4 foot bulletin board in my office that'd be perfect for trying this out.

Straight From Hel

Pan Historia said...

Love the bit about all authors being sadists! How elegantly true!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Vivian, I'll work on database for referencing. I'll have to think about how to do it, but great idea.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Helen,perfect idea. I need to talk to hubs about that...make it easier. I had been thinking about using those science fair poster boards but with the critters in and out of my office, that could be probamatic, lol!

~Sia McKye~ said...

"the synopsis is just the high points of your novel in a narrative structure. If you have your key plot points and your main character's emotional arc alongside. . . you're most of the way there!"

That makes perfect sense Lane. It also reduces the chaos of how to something more simple and easier to achieve.

Boy I'm glad you are visiting today!!

VA said...

Btw, not sure why my brain wrote "Sue", sorry Lane. Oops!

Dana Fredsti said...

LOVE the W concept! How many cats to you have and isn't it nice of them to want to help you plot? :-) Mine would eat the post-it notes, but I do love the idea. It's one that actually makes sense to me in a visceral way.

I personally think writers are masochists too.

Lane said...

Dana, right now I've got five cats, so I totally agree with you about writers also encompassing masochism!

VA, glad you enjoyed the cover of Maledicte; I was thrilled when I saw it too. The artist is David Stevenson, and I believe he was nominated for an sf art award for it! And oh, highlighters. . . .

Helen, I'm deeply envious of your 8 x 4 board. I keep telling myself one of these days, I'll just cave and buy a freestanding whiteboard to play with.

Netti said...

What an interesting post!It's nice to see how it all comes together, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I like it! Interesting way to visualize the story.

Sheila Deeth said...

I feel like I have so much to learn. It seems like a neat approach.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Lane, thank you for being my guest Over Coffee. It was a pleasure.

Thank you everyone else for stopping by, I enjoyed reading through the comments. :-)