How We Write Wednesdays: Plot THIS…

Jenni’s talking process this month, as we teach a blog series on plot. I sharing details from a critique she did for my soon-to-be-released Secret Legacy. She did the narrative structure  tap dance last Wednesday. Today, let’s get into what I did when her “I am a plotting maniac” analysis assured me that I had no plot at all…

plotting maniac

I just gave a workshop on the importance of planning. For those who are new to HoWW  because you heard my lecture last weekend and thought you’d pop over and see what all the fuss was about, let me fess up. I began writing Secret Legacy before a medical crisis, stopped a month in (for several months) while I dealt with surgery and the fall out, then took up the drafting again mid-recovery (when in fact my health was getting worse, not better). Which is my excuse for having NO PLAN (other than my intuitive understanding of of characters I’d written in Dark Legacy and the overall series and story arc I wanted to tell). I was drafting blind, which is how I know for certain, when I teach, that my students don’t ever want to be where I was when I asked Jenni to read the ugly first draft because I knew it was way off. 

I knew my characters and everything about what I wanted them to feel. I was feeling everything with them. I had 300 pages of feeling that was the best, most accessible emotion I’ve ever put on the page (did I mention I was a mess when I wrote the first draft???). I’d written, I kid you not, the dead-on, most amazing ending I’ve every pulled together, that resolved issues I’d written about for two books, leaving the door open for a sprawling series I hope to be writing into for years to come.

But, as Jenni pointed out last spring and in her last post, I had absolutely no plot reason for my principle characters to be emoting all over the reader or each other in key places in the book. Which I knew. But my solutions alone were running toward quitting writing all together, because what was the point anymore, blah, blah blah… Which is a good sign it’s time to bring in the heavy artillery and own up to your misery with your critique partner.

Sarah Temple and Richard Metting were battling waking nightmares, participating in dangerous reconnaissance missions, experiencing mental breakdowns, and there was lots of yummy relationship drama, plus infighting within the brotherhood of watchers trying to stop a league of government scientists weaponizing daydreams… Great stuff!

But according to Jenni, all these people were, more often than not, wandering around aimlessly with no over-arcing purpose for doing the things they were doing from one scene to the next. And she was right. My story was missing chunks of its external spine.

My book was exactly as I’d envisioned it to that point–all emotion and imagery and not much else. Until Jenni’s critique, my brain had been too full of what I’d just been through personally to focus on much else.

My characters where being shortchanged in each scene by my indecision about plot. I was missing the turning points that would convince readers that my characters’ behavior and decisions SHOULD spin in the new directions I’d crafted into into key parts of the book. In short, I had my WHY, but I my HOW was way underdeveloped.

I added several very specific changes, all external, that brought these confusing scenes to life for Jenni, my agent and editor, and hopefully the readers that buy Secret Legacy. I’m not giving away any spoilers, but let me try to summarize what I did and why.

Keep in mind that this was a total manuscript rewrite, not a quick fix–so when I suggest to you the next time we’re in a workshop that you be brave enough to do the same when necessary, you’ll know I feel your pain ;o) :

  • I added a tangible choice to Sarah’s midpoint that propelled her into the next series of scenes, where she and Richard Metting unite as a true team for the first time. I’d missed giving her the specific set up and choice that forces her to own everything she’s learned up to the middle of the story, and sets her up to achieve her goal in the second half–or she’ll be unable to succeed when faced with the final challenge at the black moment.
    Without this “tent pole” to hold up the middle, everything I’d driven into the momentum of the story before this point doesn’t get its pay off. And what takes over beyond the midpoint is either too similar to the earlier scenes, or seems totally out of place (which was Jenni’s concern).
    In short, I’d forgotten that a character must chose to be who she’s going to be in the second half of the book, or she’ll fail on her overall story goal (OR, she never had a real conflict to begin with). And, at the midpoint, she must still be ill-equipped to become the person she chooses to become. The second half of the book is her journey in a new (more clear) direction, taking the breathless reader to the final external conflict that shows all of us that the character has finally, irrevocably, changed.
  • I firmed up an overriding need for Richard’s story arc, one that could be visibly illustrated by choices he was already making, that at the midpoint and the second turning point in the book becomes the make or break decision he has to make, or he’ll not only lose his relationship with Sarah, but he’ll lose her for good.
    The relationship between the two, as it stood, was growing. But the conflict wasn’t there. It felt forced. And it didn’t feel intrinsic to the ending of the story. In other words, I needed another tent pole, this one forcing my two lead characters to actually, consciously, accept their relationship. To own how much they needed each other, and how well matched they were despite their differences, or neither would achieve their story goals.
    I had to firm up that their relationship itself was a central conflict to both their stories. Otherwise, the ensuing drama, as Jenni pointed out, didn’t have much point once you looked at it closely.
  • I FINALLY locked down the resolution of the black moment. Like I said above, not only did Richard need a more solid relationship arc for his story, it turned out to be essential to Sarah’s journey as well.
    Unless they both learn how to accept and trust another person as deeply as they eventually do each other, Sarah won’t be able to understand the final step she must take at the end of the story–when her true Legacy is revealed and she must take charge of her gifts and integrate her darkest secret into her world. Unless she’s fully bonded with someone else for the first time before this point (Richard), she won’t have the skills to complete her journey and all hope will be lost.

Like I said, some of this might seem cryptic because I don’t want to give away too much for my readers out there.

But I hope you can still follow the key plot changes that came out of Jenni’s read for me. I wanted to show you how good plot choices, even after characters are fully drawn, can save a story that’s driving you crazy with it’s suckiness (as I assure you Secret Legacy once was with me). Like I said, this was a total rewrite. I got to keep a lot of good stuff, but a lot, and I mean A LOT had to be tossed or rewritten or re-crafted in ways that allowed Secret Legacy to thrive.

Jenni and I started this blog series to share How We Write  and critique together. We wanted to illustrate how difficult the creative journey into and through and back out of a full novel can be. It can be tempting to think this is easy stuff for the veterans, or that a simple laundry list of “this is how to write a character…this is how to write the PERFECT plot” is all you need to make a story work. But we know from experience that it’s not until you’re in the midst of the ugliest draft you’ve ever written, that you’ll fully understand just how little the lists and the quick advice gurus help you.

Crafting story and creativity into a novel that transports readers to a new world they don’t want to leave, one they’ll return to again and again, is hard work at the best of times. In the darker times, with a more complicated story like Secret Legacy, it can take pass after pass and rewrite after rewrite and the eyes of a skilled critique partner to get it right. And you owe it to your story to always work as hard as you have to, to get it right.

Check back with HoWW next Wednesday, when I suspect Jenni’s going to whip out a nifty thing called a conflict box and REALLY make my brain cramp as I read her post and remember yet another story and how she helped me plot my way out of my obsession with character…

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10 Responses to “How We Write Wednesdays: Plot THIS…”

  1. Victoria says:

    Fantastic post! I think you’re such a great teacher, and you’re willingness to let others see how you had to come back to the drawing board is refreshing. Can’t wait to apply your lesson to my own work. Thanks.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks so much, Victoria.

      I told workshop attendees at last weekend’s DFWCon that I see teaching as one of the perks of my writing career. I love it, have taught various things in adult education for years, and I’ve missed it over the last year when I could travel. Hence the online teaching series Jenni and I are doing out here. It’s a way to connect and build a learning community without having to be away from the things keeping us at home so much more these days.

      Good luck with your writing–let us know how it’s going!

  2. Amber says:

    I have always wanted to write a novel, but kept doubting myself and procrastinating my way out of it. Thanks to some very helpful and generous writers on Twitter I have finally started the process. Your post and others like it have become my teachers and class setting. It’s been a few years since my college days, but I am always looking to further my education on the craft.
    Thank you so much for the advice and knowledge you bring into this profession, and o course your willingness to share it. I know that I will always be learning about writing, no matter how much time goes by.

    • Anna says:

      Congrats, Amber, on taking the leap!

      The most important thing to remember about your first novel is that, at some point, you have to throw all the rules and lessons you’ve been taught out the window. You HAVE to write and finish that book. So many people give up before they do. Don’t be one of them. We’ll support you here and on Twitter any way we can, but that determination has to come from within.

      Once you have a draft, it can always be revised. What can’t be reworked into something better, what you can’t learn anything but frustration from, is a blank page.

      Write on!!!

      • Anna’s right about tossing the rules out the window. One of the best things I learned I learned from Anna–Let yourself write the ugly. Sometimes you just have to write and then go back and figure it out later.

  3. First, great post. This really helped me clarify a lot of what we discussed this past weekend at the conference. I have put my drafting on hold while I rework my plot and character arc–it is hard work but I am really excited about the outcome!

    Second, YAY on the conflict box! She mentioned it a week ago or so and I have been wondering what the heck it is! I am so totally loving this series. Thank you again for doing it :-)

    It was a pleasure meeting the both of you this past weekend.

  4. PW Creighton says:

    It really sounds like my overhaul of my beloved series. I had an EMO time of the characters but I missed the external components that would cause the shift that drives the arc forward. That and I needed to have a kick in the pants to ditch Lovecraftian descriptions.

  5. Great post, Anna!

    I have a novel that needs some rewrites, but I haven’t been sure how to proceed. This will help a lot.


  6. Mary Preston says:

    This is why I read, not write.

  7. Writing isn’t always easy, nor is it pretty. Even me, the planner, plotter, outliner, mad woman has to step back and take a good look at what my writing is trying to tell me. Sometimes I can’t see it because I’ve been living the plot…or in Anna’s case, living the imagery and feelings. Because we are the master of our book worlds, we almost know too much and that sometimes can be a dangerous place.

    What is important is how do we find what is buried in our subconscious? We turn to writers who can help us and it isn’t always the same person and we don’t always follow the same path. Anna may not have planned this book in the same way she had others, and that’s okay. The key was she knew something wasn’t working and she kept at it until she found what she was looking for.

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