The Writer’s Toolbox (ii)

In last month’s blog, I looked at Scrivener, the primary tool I use for writing and publishing. This month I want to look at another tool, which is relatively new– Plottr.

Plottr, is essentially a time line planning tool. It allows you to quickly map out a story’s timeline with scene cards. It also allows you to see the same timeline through an outline format.

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So why would you need Plottr? I asked myself the same question. I’ve got Scrivener, which can switch between cork board, outline, and text modes. And I already have Plot Control, a sophisticated screenwriting tool, which does the same thing over a 3-Act Structure. So why do I need Plottr? Well, the answer is I saw a demonstration and was immediately hooked.  What impressed me was how easy it was to create scenes and plot lines, insert new scenes and chapters, and move them around with drag and drop. And scrolling along the time lines is so easy. There is also a vertical format, if you prefer, with a simple click.

You can create as many plot lines as you like. In my current novel, I am using three lines: The Main Plot Line, The Internal Plot Line, and The Antagonists Plot Line, so I can see how each develops over the course of the story. But you can have as many as you like. If you prefer you could have a plot line for each main character. Or you can see different units to mark out the time line other than chapters. For example, Acts or sequences. It’s up to you how you want to work.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 14.34.21

And it also has sections for Notes, Characters and Places to identify with the scenes, with standard templates if you want to use them. As you can see from the screenshot. I don’t map out a lot of detail for the characters. In my current project I already know my characters well and have written a considerable amount of the text. So I’ve been using Plottr primarily as a tool to analyse the different plot lines and scene structure. It’s been helpful.

Overall, Plottr is clever tool for doing what ifs in story development and exploring different ideas before committing further effort to writing. And it has the ability to export a .docx file, which means you can  can import into Scrivener the chapter and scene structure. As an initial planning tool it gets my vote.

Eliminating the saggy middle

Choosing a topic for this month’s blog was a difficult choice. During the month I finally managed to see the Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker and commenting on the unbelievable bizarre ending could easily fill at least one blog post on story design. But I don’t like to give negative reviews and there are more than enough from the Star Wars fanbase already. So I decided to focus of something a little different and much less high profile to illustrate some story design points.

salvationSalvation is a 26 episode (two season) sci-fi drama on Netflix, which I recently binge watched. The critics of Wrotten Tomatoes rated it only 44%. The audience score was higher at 88%. IMDB gave it 7/10. One critic described it as “40% romantic drama with 30% sci-fi, 30% political thriller and expect 5/10 from all three genres, you will not go crazy and may even enjoy the fast ride.”  I can understand the criticism. It is an almost comic-book plot line. But if you’re prepared to suspend disbelief and put up with a little melodrama, it is a rip-roaring ride. And as a writer it’s an object lesson in how to write tension and suspense.

The log line for the drama is innocent enough: “An MIT student and a tech superstar bring a low level Pentagon official a staggering discovery — that an asteroid is just six months away from colliding with Earth.”

Now, if you were developing a story from this premise for a novel, where would you go? There is clearly a protagonist Darius Tanzanites (an Elon Musk-like tech superstar) and his protege MIT student (Liam Cole), who discover the problem.  And then there is an obvious antagonist (the asteroid) but what next?

Well, the two have to convince those around the president of the problem and then devise a plan to deal with it. But in this case, the Secretary of Defence already knows about the problem, and they have a plan to deal with it. At his point I would most certainly struggle with the story. The first Act of the story is easy — introduce the characters and the problem they face. Act Three is also relatively easy — write the climax and resolution of the story. But what happens in the long Act 2? This is where most writers find the greatest difficulty. How do you stop the storyline sagging in the middle?

With this story premise I would struggle in the second act of a novel. But writing a 26 episode series would be a massive challenge. So what did the writers do to maintain the story tension?

The answer lies in a plethora of sub-plots (or perhaps more precisely parallel plots) and an array of new antagonists to frustrate the protagonist. So here is a list of some of the sub-plots the writer’s used to give you a clue.

First there are the romantic conflict sub plots.

  • Darius’s romantic interest is with Grace Barrows –the Pentagon  press secretary– who is also romantically involved with Harris Edwards (Assistant Secretary of Defence).
  • Liam’s romantic interest is with  Jillian Hays — a sci-fi writer later who is later employed by Darius. But he is also later involved with Alycia Vrettou (who works for the terrorist hackers organisation RE/SYS)
  • Grace ‘s daughter and Harris’s son.

There are some parental-child conflict sub plots

  • Harris and his son (who belongs to RE/SYS, a terrorist hacker group)
  • Grace and her daughter (Who belongs to Cope, a suicide cult).

But the most intriguing subplots are the political ones:

  • A coup to poison the the president President and replace her with the Vice President.
  • A plot by the coup group to destroy the USA’s enemies (Russia and China) by redirecting fragments of the astroid towards them using stolen Tanz Industries technology.
  • Another plot to shoot the President.
  • A Russian plot to steal Darius’s em drive to be used to move the Astroid off course.
  • A plot by terrorist hackers RE/SDYS to start a nuclear war and take over control of Russian nuclear missiles to threaten the USA.
  • A plot by Darius’ uncle to take over his company and Darius’s pet Salvation project.
  • A plot by a suicide cult called Cope to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • A plot by Darius/Grace to steal uranium from the US Government for his Salvation space ship backup plan (a rocket to take 160 people to survive the Earth’s demise).

We also have a long list of new antagonists to frustrate the storyline:

  • Malcolm Croft, Liam’s professor at MIT who is also a Russian agent.
  • Claire Rayburn, Senior Advisor to the White House Chief of Staff, who in cahoots with Vice President to poison the president.
  • Monroe Bennet — Vice President who leads a coup against the the incumbent president and later seeks to blow up the Supreme Court judges.
  • Nicholas Tanz — Darius’s uncle who plots to get Darius’s company and the Salvation rocket in cahoots with Bass Shepherd.
  • Bass Shepherd— the leader of a suicide cult, Cope, who plots to destroy Darius’s rail gun.
  • Dylan Edwards (Harris Edwards’ son) who  is involved with the terrorist group RE/SYS and while naive and well intentioned is prepared to destroy New York to get the US government to obey their demands.
  • Amanda Neel — an investigative reporter that concentrates on collusion between Tanz industries and the government withholding information.

And we have some characters that act as both helpers and antagonists at different time  as the plot enfolds. These I call changelings:

  • Alonzo Carter — a D.C . Police Officer who seeks revenge for his sister’s death (Claire Rayburn who is shot by Grace Barrows), but later turns good guy to help Grace.
  • Alycia Vrettou — Darius’s former protege that turned against him to work for a terrorist group RE/SYS, but who eventually helps Darius.
  • Jillian Hayes –Liam’s romantic interest that is caught into the Cope suicide cult, who steals the Rail Gun plans for the cult, but who eventually comes to her senses.
  • Liam Cole— who for a time he abandons Darius to work with RE/SYS to save the planet. But eventually realises that Darius is the only one that can save the world.

For those of you who haven’t seen the series the list of sub-plots and antagonists above must sound pretty crazy. The political aspects alone could have made a good thriller on their own. The sci-if in some respects were largely incidental. And of course there is a wonderful twist ending to the series, which I won’t reveal here.

So if you’re a writer like me that struggles in the long second act to keep the tension going, then the most interesting tool in your writer’s toolbox is to introduce new antagonists with their own sub plots to freshen up the story line. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. In many action adventure stories you have one ‘Big Bad’ villain character and maybe a henchman or two. Think Emperor Palpatine and Dark Vader. But if you look more closely at these stories there are other antagonists that frustrate and deflect the path of the hero’s journey. Not all antagonists are villainous and some are changelings. But they are needed in the storyline to complete the picture.

Tell me, do you suffer from saggy middles? And if so, would another antagonist help to complete your story?

Finding a story from chaos

collieOne of the tasks I have been putting off for some time is a limited re-edit of my debut novel, Collision. After its release in 2012, I noticed some irritating typos had crept into the final proof. Well, as you can see it’s taken me quite some time to get around to doing it. But now it’s done.

One of the great advantages of using Amazon and Kindle is that it is possible to re-upload the text files and make corrections like this. So for the past few days I been re-reading and re-editing my original work and uploaded the revision to Amazon today. The process has been illuminating for me in many ways.

Let me explain some of the background to my novel. I had written books before Collision, but they were all dry technical accounting texts, which I suspect no one reading this would ever want to read unless they suffered from insomnia. Writing fiction was going to be a huge challenge for me and I had no idea whether I could do it.

I had snippets of a story in my head. A man is jogging alone along a beach at night when a UFO flies over his head and crashes further up the beach. It was going to be  a love story. That’s about as much as I had of the story at the start of the project. Twenty months later I published the novel on Kindle. In between, I learnt a huge amount about the world of writing and story telling. And if I had known at the beginning what I know now, I would have probably gone about it in an entirely different way.

What struck me on re-reading the novel so many years later was just how good the storyline turned out. I did some limited planning at the start, but the final story was far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset. And it wasn’t something I could have planned in that level of detail. Instead, it emerged by itself out of constant rewrites, revisions and incremental changes. As a writer, I’m a planner/plotter at heart rather than a ‘pantser’. But like one famous general once said ‘no plan survives engagement with the enemy’. I plan, but if something doesn’t work, I replan. And so the Collision story is very much the product of a somewhat chaotic trial an error process of finding the story.

Since Collision I have written two further sci-fi novels: “Alien Hothouse” and “AndroDigm Park 2067”. Both these novels were the result of painstaking planning and certainly didn’t take as long to write as Collision. But neither has been as successful as Collision or attracted the same quality of reviews. Maybe this is partly because the stories are very different and attract different tastes. But I suspect it might be something else.

For a good story to emerge from a writing project you need to challenge it, revise it, test it until the story works. It’s a painful process of destruction and creation that isn’t easy. Writer’s are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ during the editing process. To be successful the killing has to get bloody. Maybe the reason Collision was good was because so many scenes were cut, or revised or replaced by new ones. And maybe it was because I wouldn’t publish until I was absolutely sure I had a story that worked emotionally.

I’m sure every writer is attached emotionally to their debut novel. If I wrote Collision again today I’m sure I could improve on the execution of the writing. But writing isn’t just about technique. Readers don’t have favourite writers based on how they construct their grammar. They relate to the emotional content of their writing. And that depends on how they connect to the main character and the emotional journey that character takes during the story.

If you are a writer, let me know whether you feel the same way about your debut novel. And if you’re still in the process of writing your first novel, let me know how well you really understood the story before starting.

 

Editing — How fiction differs from other forms of writing

edit manuscriptIn the previous blog I discussed some of the important lessons I learnt from editors in the field of business publications many years ago. In this blog I want to look at how I needed to adapt to the world of fiction. As we shall see, it’s not just about spellchecking and grammar checking. Fiction has it’s own needs, conventions, and style.

With fiction, the writer is seeking to create an emotional response in the reader, by making the reader identify with the main character and submerge themselves in an imaginary story world. It’s all about the story and how it makes the reader feel. This is very different from business books that are intended to convey information or advocate a point of view.

There are three different levels of editing to consider in fiction writing:

  • Development edit — does the story work and evoke an emotional response in the reader? And how can the characters, story world and story be improved?
  • Copy/line edit — is the text free of errors, superfluous wording and inconsistencies?
  • Proof reading — is the final proof error free and formatted according to publishers style.

It is also important to understand that all fiction is written from a point of view. A writer will need to choose a point of view and a tense to write in and apply them consistently. The choice of point of view is usually between:

  • First person POV‘I wondered why I was here. Did Harry betrayed me?’
  • Third person limited POV ‘He wondered why he was here. Had Harry betrayed him? But equally the following works too: ‘He wondered why he was there. Did Harry betray me?’
  • Third person omniscient POV‘John wondered why he was there. Harry had betrayed him.”

There is also a second person point of view (‘you’), but it is rarely used in fiction writing.

First person point of view and present tense is often used in YA novels. The difficulty with first person is that the reader only sees what the main character sees. So you can’t write a scene in which the main character is not present.  The advantage of first person POV is the intimacy it creates between the reader and the main character.

Third person omniscient is very much the author’s point of view telling the story to the reader knowing everything that is happening in the story. In the example above, the author knows that Harry betrayed him and is telling the reader this information. Third person omniscient POV creates a distance between the reader and the main character and is therefore less intimate than first person. That isn’t to say that some very successful writer have used this omniscient POV, such a JK Rowling.

Third person limited is my preferred approach for the type of books I write. Like first person, the point of view character in a scene can only see what he/she sees in that scene. But the advantage is that you can have a different point of view character for different scenes. Third person limited is often used in complex plots where the reader needs to know what other characters are doing when the main character is not present in the scene. Third person limited is usually written in the past tense.

Another difference between fiction writing and business writing is that in fiction you can break some of those so-called rules you learned at school. For example, you can:

  • Use sentence fragments. Even one word sentences.
  • Use contractions (Can’t, Won’t etc..)
  • Ignore dialogue tags where it is obvious who is speaking.  For example, after an action beat by a character. And by using paragraph breaks to show a change of speaker.
  • Ignore some grammar rules where it is gives a more natural vocal style. For example starting sentences with a conjunction, splitting infinitives (‘to boldly go..), or ending sentences with a preposition.

Fiction editors also dislike the overuse of adverbs and adjectives, and many dislike the use of semi-colons and exclamation marks. Here are some important quotes from famous writers about adverbs:

The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.
— Stephen King

Overuse at best is needless chatter, at worst it creates the impression that characters are overacting, emoting like silent film stars. Still, an adverb can be exactly what a sentence needs. They can add important intonations to dialogue, or subtly convey information.
–Howard Mittlemark

Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. … It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously.
–Anton checkhov

And on the the subject of exclamation marks and semi-colons:

Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
― Kurt Vonnegut

So as we can see from the above there is a lot to the subject of editing fiction other than just correcting typos and inconsistencies. In the next blog I’ll look at some of the tools and techniques I’ve used to help me through the editing process.