Plot, Story, Story Arc, Structure, Writing Process

How to know when your book is finished?

Even though this will drive you all crazy, I will have to say it anyway: a story should only be as long as it needs to be. That’s it. The end, see you next time…ah but wait! Didn’t I say this post was about how you know when a story is finished? Well, I suppose, every writer sooner or later comes to a point in their story where they have to ask themselves: to end or not to end?…THAT is the question!

And it’s not always obvious…even to the most seasoned of writers! For one, anybody here ever read The Green Mile by Stephen King? No? Then you better get on it! It’s a great book…apart from the lengthy waffle at the end of the book that goes well past where I felt it should have ended. No obligation for anybody here to agree with me, but if you have read it, I would be curious if you came away with the same feeling…that the book could have come to a close much sooner than it did.

So, every time I write a story, I try to start with the end in mind…even if I only have a vague idea. Because at least it will help me not to overshoot my goal. Easy to say if you’re a plotter (which I am). Although, I think that even for the pantsers among us at least a grain of an idea as to where the story should end could be of benefit.

My flash fiction writing (although I only started this recently) is already paying off in this arena. First of all, I am getting to finish a lot more stories which means that I am getting some practice recognising the natural finish point. And secondly, I am learning to fit my story into a specific word count (I try to keep my flash fiction around 300 words). So when I write longer, I can better gauge how many words I need to write to finish the story.

If I reach the word count for my story and my planned ending hasn’t happened yet, I know I have too much waffle and too little action in my story. If my planned ending happens far from the planned word count, I have a good indicator that my story lacks detail and might be too jumpy or sudden and I can go back and insert more scenes to give the reader more information about the characters and the world.

My writing style is very action driven and I sometimes lack the patience to describe much of the world, places, and characters in my story. Writing long is a real challenge for me but getting to a pacey first draft and then revising to make sure I have enough material for the story I want to write is a good strategy for me.

See ya next time πŸ˜‰

If you recognise any of your own issues in this post, have trouble finishing a story in time for your planned ending, have a good reason not to want to plan the ending of your stories, or are so good at ending your stories perfectly that your books are a shining beacon of hope to the rest of us, please share your views in the comments below.

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Story, Structure, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Can you ‘doodle’ your story in 4 simple steps?

We have already discussed the pros and cons of having an outline (or map) to help with closing plot holes, ensuring you have the right number of characters for your story, and that there are enough scenes to tell a satisfying story.

What we haven’t talked about is how to start the outline. I know how intimidating a blank page can be when your story is nothing but a vague series of snippets in your head.

To help overcome this initial anxiety, some people like morning pages. Others keep a notebook and write down bit over time until there is enough material to pull it all together. Unfortunately, neither of these methods has ever been of much help to me.

If you have had similar experiences, you might want to try the doodle method. And it goes like this:

1. Start with a blank sheet of paper (I did mine with the doodle feature in Evernote but you don’t have to be fancy). Take any pen and write ‘story doodle’ at the top of the paper.

2. That’s a good way to cheapen it up a little and reduce anxiety of ruining the page. Expect it to look terrible. Don’t pressure yourself to make this pretty! That’s very important.

3. The put the working title (if you have one) of your novel onto the centre of your paper and draw a bubble around it. Then identify the main themes of your story and write them spaced out around the centre bubble. Draw bubbles around each of these too and connect them to the centre bubble. I like to include a bubble for ‘characters’ but this can be done separately if you prefer.

4. Now start filling in information around each bubble and connect your notes with relevant bubbles (connect notes to several bubbles if applicable.

When you finish you should have something like this:

Story Doodle for the fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ by Josie Cole (@WimpyWriter)

Tadaa! Your first draft outline is complete. This one took about 20 minutes, so perfect if you don’t have much time for your writing. I use my story doodle as a point of reference to help with populating my story grid and character profiles…and when I’m stuck.

See you next time πŸ˜‰

If you try a story doodle or have a similar (or maybe even better) method to get a story outline started, please share your experience in the comments section below this post. I would love to hear from you.

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Plot, Scenes, Structure, Writing Process

Is it OK to stray from your outline?

A prime question among writers! If you are a dedicated plotter (like me), you will appreciate the many upsides to having a detailed outline for your novel, short-story, work of non-fiction (or whatever else you are writing). You will know the feeling of sitting down to write with a good idea of what events, characters, scenery, etc. you need to put on the page and therefore be able give the finger (or two) to any #creativeblock that may be waiting in the wings to derail your progress – most days.

Then there are those writers (and if you are one of these, I am profusely jealous) who like to fly by the seat of their pants, discovering the story, characters, events, and scenery as they go. ‘Pantsers’ hate outlining and I get why. If you are not a plotter this post is not for you. This is for the writers who struggle to write without a map – welcome friends!

Eight scenes into my #NaNoWriMo project (Fearful Magic), I am not surprised to find that the scenes I have down so far are not the same eight scenes that fill spaces one to eight on my story grid outline. Creativity just works it’s magic that way. Once my fingers start flying over the keyboard, the unexpected happens and I let it…gladly.

First draft writing is not science. It’s a dark art. It’s perfectly fine to stray from your outline, especially during the writing of the first draft which is really about finding the right tone for the work and building the framework upon which to improve upon later. The only important thing is to make sure that you meet the key milestones of your story. So, a lose following of your outline is absolutely OK. I would say, it’s essential to ensure that you don’t get fed up with your story before it’s written.

There is always more to discover and you will never be able to come up with all the scenes up front. Does this mean outlining is a waste of time. NO! Of course not! The outline is there to get you writing. Once the writing is happening, do as you will. Once you don your editor hat you can amend your outline where necessary, then re-read, revise, re-think all aspects of your first draft…until your vision comes to life.

See ya next time πŸ˜‰

If you have trouble following your outline, get frustrated with your creativity taking you down unexpected paths and alleys, or haven’t cracked this outlining thing at all, leave a reply in the comments below and share your experience.

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Structure, Writing Process

How do you choose which scenes to write?

It’s fun to come up with scenes – isn’t it? I don’t know how you feel about this statement but I would have vehemently started shaking my head if anybody had said this to me a few months ago. Working out what should happen in each scene and deciding which scenes to write and which scenes to cut from my outline used to be my kryptonite!

Luckily this changed recently when I discovered the story grid by Shawn Coyne (a tool for editing books that can also be used to help writers – provided they like to plan ahead). If this has piqued your interested, I have good news: Shawn lets you download the spreadsheet template for free from his website!

Whilst the template is really helpful for working out much of the plot and how it spreads across your scenes, including values, objectives, characters, the passing of time in your story (and much more), In my opinion there is a crucial bit missing – the why!

I found it really hard to populate a detailed template without having first understood what the function of each scene needs to be to make the story make sense (and keep things interesting). So, I made a little modification to the template as per the following excerpt which shows the first two scenes in my #NaNoWriMo 2020 story/ debut novel ‘Fearful Magic’ (yay! title-reveal!) as they currently appear on my #preptober story grid.

SCENEWORD COUNTSCENE PURPOSESTORY EVENT
1tbcIntroduce the protagonist and make the reader care for her.Elaine is going about her daily chores when she senses a bird being shot with an arrow. She goes outside to see the bird fall into the back garden of the house she calls home. Her ‘mother’ witnesses this event and flies into a wild panic. She urges Elaine to leave but Elaine refuses to go anywhere without an explanation. She goes to hide in the root cellar under the house when they hear a knock on the door.
2tbcConfirm the danger is real and demonstrate Elaine’s magic powers, showing she is not in control of these powers.The hunters arrive at the house, looking for their bird. They become suspicious when they discover multiple footprints in the snow and discover Elaine in the root cellar. They threaten Elaine’s ‘mother’ to force Elaine to disclose the whereabouts of a mage whom the hunters are after. Elaine unwittingly unleashes her deadly powers, then blacks out.

This way, I have an overview of the function of each scene, can see if the story events (or plot points) fulfil the scenes’ purpose and tweak (or cut) scenes if they don’t live up to their purpose.

I hope this little insight into my #preptober work has wet your appetite for this brand new fantasy story. I will be excited to share more about my writing process throughout November as I will be aiming to complete my first draft during #NaNoWriMo!

See ya next time πŸ˜‰

Let me know if you are also participating in #NaNoWriMo this year (and what your #preptober prep looks like) by leaving a reply in the comments below.

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Plot, Structure, Writing Process

Write scenes – not chapters!

Before you bite my head off for the contentious title of this post – let me explain. There is actually a really important distinction between a scene and a chapter which I only recently understood and it changed my outlook on writing.

A scene is a sequence of story actions taken by characters within your story. A chapter is a collection of scenes. How many scenes go into a chapter is mostly an arbitrary decision by the writer/ editor/ publisher.

If you bear this in mind, it becomes easy to see why writing in chapters might cause problems for a writer. How can you divvy up scenes into chapters when you haven’t written those scenes first and don’t know how many words are in each of them? Chapters are there for the reader. But for a writer, scenes are your friends.

Following this logic, I am committed to writing all of my stories in scenes and it’s working wonders for coming up with the right sequence of events as it becomes easy to see where there might be gaps in the plot.

See ya next time πŸ˜‰

If you are also a fan of writing in scenes rather than chapters or if writing in chapters works better for you, leave a reply in the comments below.

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Structure

Can you write a story without a map?

Definitely! There is nothing more satisfying than writing out into the blue with inspiration dictating the way as you go. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for me. It just seems to lead me to more unfinished drafts as I eventually end up writing myself into a corner with no plausible way out.

So back to plotting it is. For this, my first ever full-length novel, I am using the story grid (a tool that was originally developed for editing books) by Shawn Coyne as an outlining device. Look out or new posts to find out how I adapt this for my own purposes – one step at a time.

See ya next time! πŸ˜‰

If you you can appreciate the joys (and horrors) of being a plotter (…or a pantser), consider leaving a comment blow.

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