I’ve been a nonfiction writer, well, it seems like forever. I’ve worked for several newspapers, written for magazines, blogs, and I even have a published (nonfiction) book. But when it comes to fiction – that’s a different story.
My first novel was 90,000ish words of rambling. It wasn’t all bad. I even put it up on Kindle, just for fun. I wrote nearly the entire manuscript using the “pantser” method, which means sit down and write. I entered the monstrosity in a contest, and the judge’s feedback said the story was “plot-flawed.” Yikes!
There’s this big plotter vs. pantser dilemma among fiction writers. Should I just sit down and start pecking out pages, or should I outline first?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the right answer may be “both.”
Here’s my story.
After the whole “plot-flawed” fiasco, I pretty much gave up writing fiction. For years. I had plenty of other writing projects, so in my mind, it was no biggie. After a while, I got bit by the fiction bug again. So, I decided I’d better learn how to plot. I read possibly every craft book on story structure and plotting available. Seriously.
And I started plotting.
Trouble is, I didn’t ever really “write.” I just plotted.
I did start writing on some of the projects. But because I’d plotted them to death, it wasn’t fun. I’d outlined the life out of the stories. Because of that, the five novels I’d started that were in various stages of development were left to gather digital dust on my computer’s hard drive.
At one time, I went to the ACFW Conference every year. But it’s pretty expensive just to go there and hang out with friends with nothing to pitch. I made a promise that I wouldn’t attend again until I had a completed manuscript to discuss with editors and agents.
That was about four years ago.
I miss ACFW. I miss the fun, the fellowship, the learning. But I can’t justify going without a completed novel. So I haven’t gone.
This year, my daughter (who is an optometrist), said she’d pay the registration fee for me if I finished a fiction manuscript by July 15. She’s tired of me starting novels that she likes and never finishing them. She told me to pick one – any one – of the ones I’d started already, or to start a new one. It didn’t matter, but I had to have a first draft done by July 15.
So, I literally drew a title out of a hat (well, a coffee cup, actually).
That was a few weeks ago. But then I was faced with the whole plot/pants issue. The one I picked wasn’t fully plotted, but I still suffer from plot-flaw fears, so I knew I had to put some sort of structure in place.
I turned to my good friend Google and began searching for solutions to the whole plotter vs. pantser thingy. That’s when I discovered Jim Bell’s book called Super Structure. Any writing craft book by James Scott Bell is worth checking into, so I bought a Kindle copy and downloaded it.
The concept of this book is to develop a loose outline of “necessary” scenes (he calls them “sign posts”) that hold the story together in a logical sequence, but you have freedom to do what you (or your characters) want when getting from one signpost to the next.
Jim explains each of the sign posts and their significance to the story in his Super Structure book. For example, one of the sign posts, which shows up in Act III, he calls “The Q Factor.” This title is taken from the James Bond series, where James always pulls out some goodie or gadget given to him by Q early on in the story. The Q Factor sign post is set up in Act I, and it can be a special talent, object, information, etc. – something that is going to give the protagonist a voila! moment in Act III.
All in all, Jim lists 14 sign post scenes that form the bones of a well-structured story.
What I’ve done on this book is start by identifying the archetypes for my main characters and creating their back stories, goals, motivation and conflict. I’m impatient, so I use a digital voice recorder instead of writing or typing it out and just brainstorm into the mic until I figure out what each character wants and how he/she plans to get it, etc.
Once I got my main characters lined out, I worked out my sign posts. Then I started writing. My target for this story (a murder mystery) is 75,000 words, and so far I’ve reached just under 25,000, so this method seems to be working for me.
Or at least I thought it was until this morning. The sleuth is talking to her brother, who has been arrested for a murder he claims he didn’t do. She’s more concerned about a large sum of money he bummed from their mother, which she thinks was to cover his gambling debt. When she asks why he let his gambling get so out of control before asking for help, he tells her something I had no idea about. The money wasn’t to cover gambling debts. It was to pay a ransom.
So, now I get to figure that out on my way to the next sign post. 🙂