Storybuilding: Project Management

By day, I’m a computer programmer (although technically I don’t actually “code” much any more — I do the analysis, write up the design, and hand it off to other people to code) and project management is a key tool we use on every single project.

Now when I said rather glibly yesterday that I needed to work on project management for writing, I was thinking more along the lines of managing multiple projects at the same time.  How to keep one project “in the zone” and still successfully plan or revise another at the same time.  But true Project Management from a business or programming standpoint concentrates more on a single project.  How to get THAT project done, the resources needed, and the timeline to complete it.

Great stuff we can use for Storybuilding!

Since I am trying to storybuild the next major project even while writing Victor’s story, I sat down last night and made some PM notes for the new idea.  Here are a few generic notes I generated that I think any solid storybuilding project should tackle.

Scope and Deliverables

When I sit down at work with the business area, one of the first things we define is the scope of the project.  What *is* included?  What is *not* included?  Why are we tackling this project?  What will the business area gain by doing it now, versus waiting until next year?  Some specific questions to ask yourself:

  • What genre constrictions will this project be bound by? 
  • What specific genre elements will I include or concentrate on?
  • What genre elements — particularly in cross genre stories which I adore — am I going to avoid?
  • Is this one book, or a series?
  • If it’s a series, what is the over-arcing story that ties everything together?
  • For a series, what common elements will be used to keep each book cohesive and united to the rest?
  • What length of story am I considering?
  • What market would be ideal for this story?
  • To the best of my knowledge, are the market conditions favorable for this story?  Is this the right time to pursue this project?
  • Should I target agents or is there a particular publisher I want to pursue?

The next things we iron out in PM are the Deliverables.  Obviously the final products I want are the story, synopsis, query, and submission plan.  But I’m going to focus more on the deliverables of the Storybuilding stage.  In order to position myself to successfully finish this story in a timely manner, what do I need to define?  This is a list of things I’m going to consider:

  • Define the story universe and the key elements of genre that bound it.
  • List all story lines and subplots currently known.  Continue expanding throughout the storybuilding stage.  Aside: in business PM, this can be risky and can lead to “scope creep” where too much ends up getting added to the project, compromising the delivery of the product.  So watch out!  Make sure the storylines always tie back to the Universal theme.
  • Outline the storyarc.  For a series, outline the over-arcing arc.
  • Define each culture, core beliefs, strengths and weaknesses.  Unite each culture to the series theme.
  • Define any underlying mythology.
  • Research any science or historical elements required for the story.

My next project is a Story Universe, not a story world.  I’m tying together several different story ideas I’ve had over the years and uniting them by one common theme and unique twist that they were lacking before.  I have folders and notebooks for several ideas already, so the real work this week has been weeding through those notes and making lists of what will stay, and what needs to change in order to fit into the Universe.  Since I do have quite a list of stories that fit inside the same universe, I have to

  • Prioritize.  Which one is the most likely to “sell” the Universe the best?
  • Focus.  I have a wide variety of tastes and interests.  Not all of them will fit into this Universe.  Some ideas, no matter how cool, must be cut and saved for another day.
  • Streamline.  In my mind, each story was separate until this week.  Now they’re united into the same Universe.  e.g. Antagonists can be combined and morphed into something new and more complex.  Sub-characters can cross stories and tie everything tighter.

Requirements

A key area at work where we spend the bulk of our Project Management is defining Requirements.  Now that we know what’s in scope for the project and what the individual outcomes will be, HOW do we get there.  In writing, I see this as the Storybuilding that I already do.  This includes plotting, character development, etc.  

Summary

In the end, this process’s goal is to enable me to estimate and determine a deadline.  At work, if the user area wants a project by year end, the final estimate is a hundred hours, and we have the resource(s) available,  then great!  Let’s go.  However, if the estimate is a thousand hours, then either we need to push the project off until next year, or we need more resources. 

Obviously with writing, it’s just me.  I can’t throw more bodies at my own project in order to complete it by a deadline.

For the new Story Universe, it’s massive, and so freaking cool I can’t wait to dig in.  However, I need to be realistic and smart about how I proceed.  Maybe defining the scope, deliverables, and requirements will help me get it submitted as soon as possible!

After Victor is finished with me, of course.

Story Magic

No matter how many stories I write, I’m always amazed and humbled when the Magic happens.

I know it’s there, somewhere, lurking beneath the muddy characterization and swampy plot, but it’s easy to forget.  Covered in stinky mud and slogging along, lost and confused, it’s hard to remember the wonder until I catch that magical gleam in the night.  Sometimes it’s just a tiny firefly, but still gorgeous as it bobs and flutters, gently illuminating the way.  Other times it’s an explosion so fierce I have to turn my head and shield my eyes, swearing those tears are because it’s bright, not because I’m so moved by the incredible beauty.

I was working through the kinks (har har) in Victor’s story, sweating about my lack of wordage this month and beginning to worry whether I was going to be able to pull this story off at all, when it happened.  Something shifted just a little and everything clicked into place.  The scene I’d been struggling with suddenly made perfect sense and tied back perfectly to his backstory I already knew.

It was beautiful and gave me exactly what I needed.

And yeah, I might have shed a happy tear or two.

Win it all and go home with the trophy, or lose and cry in the mud, at least he’d never been afraid to play the game.

Story Building 7: The Block

Are you sick of plotting yet?  I certainly am.  I’ve almost come to the place where I’m going to start writing, even if I don’t have all the details figured out.  I feel stuck, mired in the mud, and I need progress.  Again, we come back to “do what works for you.”  If the process becomes painful, boring, or tedious, why are you still doing it?  However, I know from past experience that if I rush too much, I’ll have more revisions to make in order to tighten the story up.  The more thinking and planning I do now, the better the first draft will be.  I don’t want to spend a year revising this story — in fact, I’d really be happy if I could submit it by the end of the year.  (That’s my unofficial goal.)

Loosely, this stage ties to the spreadsheets I showed in the last post — but they’re not quite exactly the way I was taught by the Witch.  Originally, I learned to take a story and break it into 10 chunks, called blocks since they’re the building blocks of the story.  Act 1 contains 3 blocks, Act 2 contains 5, and Act 3 contains 2.  The hero’s journey lies very nicely on top of the blocks:

  • Block 1 = Ordinary World
  • Block 3 = Accepting the Call – ending with Crossing the First Threshold into Act 2.
  • Block 4 (first block of Act II) – Confrontation, Tests, Allies
  • Block 6 = Approach Innermost Cave
  • Block 7 = Dark Moment
  • Block 8-9 = Climax, turning point into Act 3.
  • Block 9 = Climax 2
  • Block 10 = Resolution

This helps you define the structure and pacing of the story and for the most part, this really resonates with me.  Where I ran into problems (creating those spreadsheets) was with the Maya thriller, where I had three major story lines all converging in the last half/third of the book.  I needed a bit more space to keep track of what was happening — so I technically added more “blocks” to the Acts.  It was more of a spacing/usability decision than a structure decision — I couldn’t fit all the details I needed into 2 tiny columns (blocks) for Act 3!

The point I’m trying to make is that structure is well and good — but it should be fluid and flexible too.  If the story you’re writing feels like it needs 3 blocks for Act 3 instead of 2, who cares.  The important part is that you recognize Act 3 should be roughly the last 1/4 of the story and should move very, very quickly.  Act 2 should be the meatiest and encompasses roughly 50% of your story.  Exactly how many blocks that means is up to you.  So feel free to modify this process for yourself, and for each book.

With Victor’s story, I don’t need nearly as much space to write out the rough details of the Block.  I only have 2 POVs.  I have the main story line of Victor and Shiloh’s romance, wound into the premise of the story, that it takes place on a reality show.  I have a subplot about an industry spy.  And that’s it!  The real meat of the story is the relationship and the conflicts that arise because of the show — which feeds directly into the romance, because Shiloh crafted this show down to the littlest detail, for him.

One fun thing that can help you think about structure and story at the same time is to NAME the blocks something meaningful to you and the story.  I had the idea this morning that I should base the blocks on the idea of episode titles for the show.  Not all of them are show titles, but this will definitely give you an idea of what kind of story this is going to be.

Block One – The Pitch

Block Two – Try Outs

Block Three – Premiere

Block Four – Serving Your Master

Block Five – Loving Your Master

Block Six – Do You Know Your Master’s Hand?

Block Seven – At Your Master’s Pleasure…or Displeasure

Block Eight – Miss Belle’s Thanksgiving

Block Nine – Coming Out Ball

Block Ten – V’s Gift

Storybuilding 6: The Hero’s Journey

After all our brainstorming and character building fun, now it’s time to begin adding structure to your story.  This is where you weld into place  the foundation and girders that will hold up your storyscraper.

When I first began writing, I didn’t think about structure at all.  I had a story to tell, and I told it.  As I learned more about Story and the writing craft, I realized there were some things I’d done involuntarily.  These things are inherently part of storytelling — keeping the reader involved in a story, speeding up the pacing or slowing it down, throwing more rocks at your character stuck up in that tree.  But for awhile, I remember being terribly confused.  I suddenly knew why I’d done certain things, but then the how began to waiver.  If I’d done something naturally, how could I force it to happen now?

Trust the magic. It’s there.  You’ve been mixing a potion from the very start of storybuilding.  Adding a framework for the story to hang onto will not damage the magic.  On the contrary, it will give it a place to shine.

Knowing the structure of the story helps you guess the length too.  Say you have a really big “candybar scene” already in mind, but you have no idea how far into the story that scene will play out.  Is it in the first third?  The last third?  Somewhere in the middle?  Thinking about structure — and specifically the hero’s journey — will help you figure out in which “Act” the scene lies.

The level of detail you define at this point of Storybuilding is entirely up to you and the story you’re writing.  Don’t be surprised if one story wants more work than others — my process changes a little with each story I write.  I’ve known people who plotted out to great detail with pages and pages of outline and scene details.  I’ve also known people who only have a vague idea of the ending and that’s what they’re writing toward.

The whole point of this exercise is to get a story to the place where you can successfully begin writing.  By “successfully” I mean that you’re setting yourself up to FINISH THE BOOK.  In the end, that’s the only victory.  Do whatever you need to do to finish the book.  Plot a lot — plot only a little.  Write up detailed character sketches — or just a few emotional letters.  Whatever you need to.  Finish. The. Book.  You can plaster over holes, demo entire rooms or floors of the storyscraper if you need to, LATER.  You can’t see enough of the Story structure and how it fits into the skyline you envisioned until you finish the first draft. Renovation Nightmares will begin later.  :mrgreen:

If you at least know the ending of the book, then you have  a target to shoot for.  If you know the major inciting incident that sets the story in motion, then you know how to write the first 100-120 pages of the book.  If you can get a few additional key scenes or surprises laid out in your mind, then you’ve got something to write to in the middle.  How much more detail you add at this point is entirely up to you.

Personally, how much work I do depends on the length of the story.  Ironically, very short and very long pieces take about the same amount of work.  In a short story, you need to choose the scenes very, very carefully.  A good short story is still going to have a character changing in some memorable way, and the few precious words must reflect those changes quickly.  A long (e.g. 100K or more) story has a lot of Deadly Middle Ground to conquer.  If I don’t have a few key turning points already identified, I’m going to get stuck halfway over the mountain, and that’s not a good place to be.

There are a ton of great Hero’s Journey links available on the internet.  Also check out our character clinic and Left Behind & Loving It categories; my friend Jenna wrote up a great post about how she uses the hero’s journey.  I refer back to Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey constantly.

Minimally, I like to know the following journey points of a story before I begin writing (and why).  I do a lot of this brainstorming on paper, and then when I know the rough idea of the “scene,” I write out a card for it.  One card may spawn another idea, so I jot that down.  Think about reactions – you can get another card or so for each main POV character after a turning point scene.  How did Victor feel when THIS happened?  What’s he going to do now?

  • Ordinary World:  this helps me figure out how to start the book in the right place.  Note that you still have to have ACTION happening here.  Characters in the shower, waking up from a dream, etc. are boring
  • Inciting Incident:  this is the Big Bang that sets your story universe into motion.  It’s the event that sets your hero’s feet onto the yellow brick road of your journey.
  • Crossing the Threshold:  this scene helps me know that Act I is finished and I’m moving into the middle.  The first Act should be roughly 100-120 pages (in a 400 page book).  If my character takes the first step on the main journey — and I only have 50 pages — then this is going to be a very short novel.  Maybe that’s okay – or maybe I need more details.
  • Midpoint Shakeup:  Okay, I lied, this isn’t part of the hero’s journey, not exactly.  But I love to have a big major event in the midpoint of the story.  It’s the candybar I’m writing toward that helps me get the next 100-150 pages.
  • Approaching the Innermost Cave, the Dark Moment:  there comes a time when the hero believes all is lost, the journey is hopeless, the battle will never be won.  This is signaling the end of Act II.  Even though I’m on the downhill slide at this point, I always get bogged down around 275-320 pages of a book.  It’s like the bleak emotions begin to take their toll on me — and I find myself in my own dark moment.  This is where I begin to wonder if I’m going to be able to pull the story off.  This would be a really really bad time for me to read a negative review or allow any harsh words to inflict any damage on my writer’s psyche.  This is a whole other post — but protect the writing.  Protect yourself.  “Having a thick skin” does not mean that you need to shovel other people’s caca with a smile!
  • The Climax(es):  Ah, the showdown begins.  The last 100 pages–once they get rolling–should just fly.  Now your hero goes to battle.  You throw every surprise and horror at him/her that you can think of.  If you’re really doing good, you’ll write them so far into a dark dead-end alley that even YOU won’t have any idea how to get them out.  Yes, this still happens, even if you “plot” the story.  Let the magic happen.
  • Resolution and Return:  in the last 20 pages or so, tie up all loose ends, decide how your character is going to live out the rest of his life, grieve for the fallen, and soak in the victory.  I don’t always do a ton of plotting for this stage — unless there’s a book that follows.  Then I need to make sure that the elements I need to bridge into the next book are present and make sense.

Now you may feel as exhausted as your characters, but I promise, nothing, absolutely NOTHING, compares to the rush you’ll feel when you type:

The End.

P.S. If spreadsheets don’t scare the crap out of you, you may find these helpful.  These are filled out for the Maya thriller.  The character rows are the major players that I needed to track through the story, even if they didn’t have a POV.  Note that I didn’t do this much plotting before the first draft — this level of detail came during Revision Xibalba.

The Bloodgate Codex spreadsheets

If you’re interested in the blank templates, I’ll post them later — I don’t have them handy on this computer.

Storybuilding 5: Victor’s Letter

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Can’t win for losing.”  Sometimes, I think the saying should be “Can’t lose for winning.”

My name is Victor, and I always win.  I’m the victor in everything I do.  I’ll risk anything, defeat any opponent, pay any cost…to win.  Now that I’m well into my thirties, I can admit that winning has cost me more losses than I ever imagined possible.

The first time I won—and lost—I was twenty two years old and the starting quarterback at Texas A&M.  We were headed to the Cotton Bowl and the world was mine to conquer.  I had my whole life planned out: we would win the game; I would enter the draft; some big-time NFL team would pick me up—preferably the Dallas Cowboys—and my future would be assured.  Every minute of my free time I was training, lifting weights, drawing up new plays, and dreaming about the Hall of Fame and Superbowl rings.  I lived, breathed, ate, and slept football.

My team had never lost a game once I’d taken the helm as quarterback.  I certainly wasn’t going to let my team lose the championship game.

The world was at my feet and I could do no wrong.  Everyone loved me and cheered for me, especially my high-school sweetheart, Mandi.  We’d been together since our junior year in high school.  She was a beautiful girl, cheerleader captain, everything a guy like me could have wanted.  Everyone agreed we were the perfect couple.  She wanted to be a model, and once I joined an NFL team, I knew she’d have every break she could ever dream of. With my millions and arm, and her classic looks, we’d be the perfect couple of football TV too.

What few people knew was that Mandi had a problem.  She’d hid it from me pretty well, too, but I’d started to suspect once she went to college in Dallas and I headed to College Station.  Her bright cheerful ways had always had a few dark valleys, but those periods of darkness became more frequent and more shadowed.  This beautiful girl didn’t have any friends, shy and unsure and miserably depressed.  She called me often, and more frequently she was sobbing and desperate, not happy or excited about her classes.  I loved her, but her constant need for me to anchor and support her began to wear on me.

One night she called me at 3 AM, crying and hysterical.  Evidently she’d jumped in her car and began driving to College Station in the middle of the night, only to have an accident.  I rushed to her aid, naturally, only to learn she’d been drunk driving.  At least no one had been hurt, but neither of us could deny her problems any longer.

She admitted she hadn’t been to class in months and barely left her apartment.  When she begged to come live with me, I didn’t know what to say. I lived in an apartment with three other guys off campus.  We didn’t have room for her, and my Daddy would have hunted me down with a shotgun and dragged us both to the church before he’d let us live together unmarried.

Besides, I wasn’t ready for that much commitment, not yet.  I had the big game, my career, our careers, to think about.  I had to win the game to assure our future.  I drove her home to her apartment and called her parents while she slept like the dead.  They came and took her to a clinic in Houston.  I know she was terribly hurt.  She must have felt like I’d abandoned her.  But I simply didn’t know how else to help her.  She needed help, professional help, and the next time I talked to her on the phone, she sounded steadier, more alert and calmer than she’d been in months.

The game was only a week away.  I don’t remember Christmas that year.  With Mandi safe and getting treatment, I focused all my will on that game.  I would win.  She would be better.  Everything would be better.  I just had to win the game.

With my family in the stands cheering me on, I stepped out onto the field and we played one hell of a game.  Even though we were six points down at the two-minute warning, I wasn’t worried.  My coach handed me the ball and sent me out on the field with the final words, “Victor, the game’s on you.  Take us all the way, son.”

I’d done it countless times before; I knew I’d do it again.  Without any hurry at all, we steadily moved the ball down the field.  Quick toss to my receiver, and he zipped out of bounds to gain another first down.  We crossed midfield.  We entered the red zone with plenty of time left.  Even though my favorite target of the season dropped the ball and came back to the huddle with tears in his eyes, I wasn’t worried.  I told him to shake it off.

I’d simply run this one in myself.

I took the snap, did a little play action, and floated in the pocket like I was waiting for him to get open again.  He ran toward the corner of the endzone, dragging two defenders with him.  That left me a wide-open lane of green and I took it.  I sprinted forward with a hand on my lineman’s back as he plowed through like a charging bull.  Too slow, though, so I left him.  I saw the goal line gleaming, and felt a defender behind me, scrambling closer, so I launched off my feet, reaching with the ball——

And got helicoptered by surely the biggest Sooner on the bench.  I crossed the plane and held on to the ball, even though the world slipped out of focus.  I knew we’d scored.  I knew we’d won.  I didn’t care about the blackness sucking me down, until later, when I awoke in agony.  Even then, I wasn’t worried, until I saw my Daddy’s solemn face and the suspicious glitter of tears in his eyes.

My knee was a shattered, torn mess that a single surgery couldn’t fix.  They told me I’d be lucky to walk without a limp.

I’d never play the game again.

Lying there in that hospital bed, I struggled between rage and determination. Why had I been so stupid?  So what if we’d lost the game.  We’d played our hearts out.  There wouldn’t have been any shame in losing. I still would have gone high in the draft.  But I couldn’t stand to lose.  I had to win, and I paid the price.

It was my own drive, my own heart, my determination to win at any cost, that had led to the worst defeat of my entire life.

I returned home to the ranch with my family, facing endless rounds of physical therapy and surgery.  My determination renewed.  The Dallas doctors didn’t know me.  They didn’t know I was THE Victor.  I’d defeat this injury, just like I’d defeated everything else in my life.  They couldn’t know my heart and will to win. I focused that formidable will on physical therapy, determined to defeat even my blown knee.

Mandi called me from her parents’ home.  I didn’t even know she’d been released.  We talked about the game and our future.  I told her this was my last chance.  I would heal myself and by late summer, I’d be well enough to walk onto the team in Dallas and try out.

She was as supportive as ever.  “Don’t worry about me, Victor.  You can do this.  I’m fine.”

I had no idea how unfine she really was—until her parents called and told me that she’d accidentally taken too many of her prescription drugs and never woke up.  My sweet, beautiful girl was gone, and I hadn’t even gone to see her, not since that night I’d called her parents and abandoned her.

Guilt ate at me.  Everything began to unravel.  My knee hurt like a bitch.  The doctor warned me that I was pushing too hard, too fast.  I had done even more damage to my fragile knee and it had had swelled up as big as my head.  Dream after dream died, and I slunk home like a whipped dog, afraid to see the resignation on my Daddy’s face.  Instead of going into the house, I slipped into the old barn we didn’t use much any more.  Defeated, angry, and guilty, I hid from my family—and my failures.

If I’d spent more time with Mandi, if I’d been there for her, could I have helped her?  Would she have taken too many of those drugs if she hadn’t been so lonely?  Was my career worth her death?

And my career wasn’t going to happen. The harder I worked, the more I fucked up my knee.  With constant pain and a noticeable limp, I was a cripple, not a star quarterback.  I couldn’t win this game.  In fact, I’d never win another game.  I’d never play again.  I’d never see Mandi again.  Everything was over, gone, broken like my fucked up knee.

The barn smelled of decades of hay and horses.  Slants of light cut through the ramshackle roof.  Motes of dust danced around my head, making me dizzy as I paced—limped—in a tight circle.  I noticed an old leather riding crop looped on a rusty nail, so I grabbed it and slapped it absently against my thigh.  Limp, pain from my knee—slap, pain on my good thigh.  Limp, slap, back and forth.  The bad pain from my knee began to fade away beneath the burning cut of the crop.

Alone in that old barn, I punished myself.  I punished myself for my failures, for my injury I couldn’t heal with sheer determination, for my selfishness that might have cost Mandi her life.  I sliced that crop through the air with a sharp whistle that snapped against the denim and burned deep into the muscle.  It was a good pain.  It made me forget about the bad, hurting pain of my knee.  This was a cleansing pain.  Pain that helped me wash away my guilt.

All the tension and regret, doubts and rage, even my broken heart—all that emotion poured out of me. The harder I hit myself, the better I felt.  I found myself unbuttoning my jeans and stroking myself to release awkwardly with my left hand while I cut my thigh with that crop.

Afterward, I felt calm, relaxed, centered, and at peace.  I had grieved—and finally accepted—my losses.  Mandi, my first love, was gone forever.  There would be no NFL career, no Superbowl rings, no Hall of Fame. But I was still alive, my family still loved me, and I still had my Victor’s heart.

I just had to find a new game to play.

Storybuilding 4: Brainstorming – With Character

Continuing our brainstorming fun, pull out your notes from the character post.  Character IS Plot, so one of the best ways to get some plotting ideas is to take your characters in hand and put them through their paces.  For each of the three main techniques I use to develop character, I ought to be able to get some scene ideas.  If not, then I haven’t spent enough time making this character deep and compelling.  I’m going to do this for each main character, and each technique.  For blog purposes–and to keep the story fresh for the readers who might be tagging along–I won’t post every single thing here.

So pull out your index cards, paper, etc. whatever you’re using, and get crazy with those ideas!

1. Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness. There are several ways you can use this to generate plot ideas.

  • Showcase the character’s strength.  Obviously we’re writing about HEROES (female or male) and they’re heroic in some way.  That means we want to show them in a positive light.  Crossing over to some of the other techniques (Emotional Toolbox and specifically, the hero’s journey), a good place to begin is the Ordinary World with the character’s mask in place.  We know Victor is competitive and driven to win.  As a result, he’s the CEO of his company.  He’s powerful, wealthy, and respected by his employees.  I should have an opening scene to introduce him as a powerful, competitive, successful man.
  • Let the character use his strength to get into trouble.  This crosses over to the Emotional Toolbox–Trouble Traits.  This is where the character’s greatest strength begins to run amok and it’s his own damned fault.  Victor’s competitive nature is going to get him into all sorts of problems when he approves–and agrees to participate in–a reality show.  The entire external plot is driven by his own need to win, and is supported by the subplot, his need to find out who the spy is.  He thinks he’ll just play along…but he can’t sit back and let the game unfold without winning.
  • Allow other characters to use his greatest weakness against him to get him even deeper into trouble.  Shiloh knows exactly what sort of man Victor is.  In fact, she built the entire premise of the reality show around his competitive nature.  She knows he won’t be able to stand by and “watch” the game without getting dirty.  He plays to win.  Always.  She intends to be the prize.

2. The Character Letter: The whole purpose of the character letter is to explore backstory — in particular, defining moments.  What still haunts this character?  What are his regrets?  Deep down, what’s he really afraid of?  The character letter provides a wealth of angst.  Remember that you’re the God of your Story.  If you include something, a hint of the character’s past, for instance, then it should be important to the Story.  It must have some IMPACT on the plot or the character arc.  The character should have to face and overcome that old shadow before the story is over, or else why mention it at all?

These defining moments help you define the character’s arc, providing the major stumbling block(s) from his past that made him who he is today (when the story opens) — and must now overcome before he can make the Leap of Faith (Emotional Toolbox).

  • In the character letter, we’ll see how Victor won the championship game but lost because his injury ended his career.  I need him to face another equally significant win-lose scenario.  Because of the emotional trauma involved, I’m guessing this may be in the dark moment or one of the major climaxes of the story.  I’ve jotted several cards about how he’ll win — but ultimately lose.  Although I can’t share them here without spoilers, there’s a ton of emotion — and he truly realizes that this loss will kill him, unless he can fix what he’s done.  He decides the only thing he must win is Shiloh, but it may be too late.

3. The Emotional Toolbox, or the Hero’s Journey: The emotional toolbox highlights the character’s journey.  Back and forth, the character battles need vs. want until finally, I force him to make a Leap of Faith.  Hopefully you’ve noticed that the techniques above have already crossed over into this one.  They all begin to blur and meet.  That’s a good thing — everything should tie together and make sense.  The greatest strength is tied to the mask, and the trouble traits, which lead to the greatest weakness.

  • Show the character’s want.  Early in the story, I need to establish the story goal.  What does this character think he wants more than anything?  Show him going after it.  In particular, Victor wants to find out who the spy is inside VConn.
  • Show the character’s need and his fear.  What’s the secret need driving the character’s arc?  What deep fear is keeping him from becoming the complete, happy man he could be?  Victor needs to face his darkest secret, and Shiloh’s the only person who can help him.  But that’s exactly why he keeps her at arm’s length.  Each time she prods him into letting his mask slip — he must push her away and hold her at arm’s length to protect himself.
  • Show the want and the need at war.  At some point, Victor is going to realize that finding out who the spy is at his company isn’t nearly as important as how much he needs Shiloh.  But what if….she’s the spy?
  • Ultimately, he must make a choice: a Leap of Faith where he gives up the want to gain the need, or a stumble into the Dark Side because he’s unable to face his fear.

Next up, we’ll take a closer look at the hero’s journey.  The story needs STRUCTURE — a framework that defines the story layout and gives the rest of the details something to hang onto.

Storybuilding 3: Brainstorming – The What If Game

First of all, don’t get too hung up on the details.  Don’t let your mind run away in panic at the sight of index cards, or whatever you use to plot.  Treat this as a fun exercise — a different way to engage the other side of your brain.  A new way to think of your story.  You’re still going to write it YOUR way — this is just to help you get some ideas down.

Depending on your comfort level, grab some pens or pencils (I prefer colored pens), notepads, index cards, sticky notes, etc.  For me, this is bonanza time.  I love office supplies — I’ve been caught drooling in Staples — so I get to drag out all these cool supplies I’ve bought but hardly ever use.  If you want to stick to paper and pen, cool.  Personally, I can’t start right off with sticky notes — they cost too much and my brain can’t just let go and mess up.  Index cards are cheap and I don’t mind blasting through a whole pack.

At this point, don’t make the process too analytical.  This is brainstorming – fun.  Just let your mind loose and write down any idea, no matter how crazy it is.  You can always throw those wild ones out — but who knows, that may be exactly the right way to add surprise and make the story fresh.  What we’re going to do is think of your story from several different directions.  Like facets of a gem, each exercise will reveal a different layer of your story and/or characters.  Some may work better for you, or for this story, than others.  That’s cool.  Again, don’t worry if you don’t get much from this particular exercise — a different one may work better for you.

Since there are a lot of different ways to get ideas, I’m going to break this post down into pieces.  Today, we’ll play the What If Game.

All you need to begin is the original idea for your story, whether it was a character, a premise, etc.  What was your original idea for the story?  What gave you goose bumps?  What made you determined to devote months of your life to this particular story in order to write, revise, polish, submit, and endure countless rejections just because the idea was that cool?  This is definitely the place to start!

Now using all the research, character building, etc. that you’ve already completed, begin to generate ideas with the “what if” game.  Jot them down, no matter how crazy.  Expand on each idea.  Don’t be afraid to take branches or paths that seem really strange or out there.  You’re not committed to including any of this in your story.  Just have fun!

Try to explore as deeply into the story line as possible.  If you can’t see all the way to the end, that’s fine.  Skip ahead if you can.  If you’re writing a story with an antagonist, think of all the possible ways your protagonist can face them, either subtly or blatant showdown.  If you’re writing romance, think of all the ways the hero and heroine can get together, get separated, fight, make love, etc.  Some you will keep — some you won’t.  Just generate ideas.

Example:  I knew all along that Gifted is set on a rather risque cable channel “reality” show.  That was the original idea.  The more I thought about this, I got the following “ideas” that may or may not make it into the story:

  • What if Shiloh took the main role on the show?  Originally I was thinking a secondary character came up with the idea and Shiloh had a more passive role as a contestant.  What if SHE came up the idea? Why would she devise this show in particular?  ahhhhhhh.  Lots of ideas came off this one.
  • What if there’s a competing company?  Victor’s worried about ratings.
  • Ohhh, wait, not ratings — what if Victor’s worried about a leak?  A spy within his company?  This gives me a whole new subplot to carry through.
  • I know Shiloh’s mother haunts her and has affected each and every relationship Shiloh has.  What if the mother was dead, literally haunting her?  Okay, this idea got scratched.  Originally I was going to do a paranormal element to match Miss Belle in Dear Sir, I’m Yours, but the general consensus seems to be that the paranormal thread, albeit amusing at times, detracted from the main story too much.  So no ghost, I promise, unless Miss Belle and Colonel Healy show up on page.

The “What if” game is one of my favorite ways to expand the original premise.  Each time you get a new idea, jot it on the index card, or make a new bullet on your paper, whatever works for you.  Some of this will end up in the recycling bin — but that’s okay.  For now, don’t throw any idea away, no matter how stupid it seems, although you might make a pile of the “best” ideas for the other exercises.  Keep the “other” ideas handy just in case.

Next, we’ll use character to continue brainstorming.

Storybuilding 2: Characters

I’ve talked a lot about characters; just take a look at the Character Clinic and all the great articles and resources.  There are a million ways to build a character.  For me, each character comes to life in a slightly different way.  Sometimes I do loads of prework and still don’t have a good handle on the character.  Other times, I set out to write up detailed history and the voice comes through so loud and strong that I discover I’m actually writing the book (e.g. Chanda in Survive My Fire.  That’s why her sections of the book are in first person–I was actually trying to write her “character letter” below).

With Victor’s story, I cheated a bit.  As soon as I finished the first draft of Conn’s book (then called Letters), I immediately started working on his brother’s book.  I have about 10K of loose sections written out.  I didn’t do character planning, plotting, etc. — I was just writing out the ideas as I got them.  That work gave me the basic external plot.

But who was Victor?  Oh, I knew he was the CEO of VConn, an up and coming Dallas cable company.  I also knew he was a Master.  No mere dominant title will work for Victor.  But none of this gave me his heart.

There are a few crucial tools I come back to over and over as I develop a story.  If I do these things, I can usually plot the story or simply begin writing.

1. Greatest Strength/Greatest Weakness. Every character should have a strength, that can also become a weakness and be used against him.  Victor’s strength is that he never loses.  Never.  He’s so driven, so competitive, that he’ll pay any cost to win.  Sometimes he gets so caught up in the victory that he doesn’t realize what he’s lost.

Now I take that strength and come up with one word that fully describes it.  Then I come up with its opposite that reflects his weakness.  Usually one is an adjective and one is a noun, but they can be in any order.  The trick is to come up with an oxymoron for the character that encapsulates this strength and weakness.

Victor is the victorious loser.  Shiloh is the unburied treasure.  (Note: I don’t think Shiloh’s is as strong as Victor’s. I’m playing off the idea of “buried treasure” and its opposite, unburied or “found” treasure.)   They don’t mean anything to anybody but me, but they’re powerful reminders of who these characters are.  Note, too, the importance of the characters’ names.  Victor’s name IS his strength, and so is Shiloh’s, because she’s definitely a gift.  She means to gift herself to Victor, if she can convince him to unbury the need he’s hidden away in his heart.

2. The Character Letter.  So I know that Victor has this extreme drive to win.  Knowing, though, doesn’t give me the details I need.  I wanted a specific instance in his past that showed me how he’d won — but lost.  That event still haunts him.  I also needed to know how he realized he was a sadist.  How did he feel about that?

The best way for me to figure these defining moments out is, of course, to write about it.  I could always choose to write it out like backstory (and I’ve done that — like Letters, the backstory for Dear Sir, I’m Yours that’s a Free Read), but I can kill two birds with one stone by writing it in first person.  This lets me get deep into Victor’s head AND figure out his voice.  What words will he use that no other character would?  How did he FEEL?  So I sit down with him and write in his voice, his words, about these defining moments.

And yes, as my beloved sister requested, I’ll post some of that letter this week–after I edit it a bit.

Background:  that’s why there are so many letters in Dear Sir, I’m Yours.  I started them as a character-building tool for Rae, and I found them so powerful and moving that I continued to write them.  Then they became so integral to the story that I ended up writing many more.

3. The Emotional Toolbox. I love this site.  It highlights everything I love about the hero’s journey.  A moving story is all about removing the mask and revealing the character’s deepest fears.  When I’m stuck at any point in writing the story, I can always go back over the six questions and my notes.  The answer is there.

Usually I can get plot ideas just by answering the six questions.  I also figure out supporting characters I need to add in order to highlight the theme and the journey.  In particular, the most important thing I get out of the Emotional Toolbox is the fear.

Deep down in the darkest corner of Victor’s heart, he’s very, very afraid, and that’s where the magic is.

Storybuilding 1: The Vision

My major project for the fall is a follow-up novel to Dear Sir, I’m Yours for Conn’s brother, Victor Connagher.  When I begin a story, there are a few things I need to know in advance. 

Working Title:  Gifted

Target:  Samhain

Target Length:  70K

Genre:  contemporary erotic romance with elements of BDSM

Protagonist:  Victor Connagher.  Yes, I know it’s rare for the hero to “star” in a romance, but he has the most to lose in this story and the largest character arc, although the heroine has a very strong, important role.

Love Interest:  Shiloh Holmes.

Setting:  Dallas, TX

This is all basic information.  The KEY information that will decide the rest of the story is the THEME. 

The theme is the promise I’m going to make to you.  Every character in the story will prove the theme.  Every scene will illuminate the theme in some way or it will be cut.  The antagonist(s) will prove the opposite, dark side of the theme; the supporting characters will help the main characters prove the theme. 

Theme will drive every single aspect of the story.

For this story, my Beloved Sister provided the theme.  She told me every time she listened to Time is Running Out by Muse, she always thought of Shiloh.  Absolutely, Sis. 

I won’t let you bury it.  I won’t let you smother it.  I won’t let you murder it.

Or in other words, 

Victor must learn that revealing his deepest, darkest, most hidden needs to a loved one frees his heart and soul.  Burying–and denying–those needs will only murder his soul.

Next up, characters.

Storybuilding

If you heard any cursing this afternoon, I nagged begged That Man into putting up some corkboards for me in my office.  I bought some cool new animal print ones at Target the last time I picked up some Caribou Coffee, and I had a larger corkboard I bought months ago and he never put up.  The old one had itty bitty screws.  He only dropped them twice in the carpet.  The tiger print board is a little crooked, but it’s up, and I’m already putting them to use.

The vision is starting to come together, and it’s so big, I really needed a wall so I could see the connections.  These stories all started out as individual ideas, but with some give and take, and new inspiration, I think they’re all in the same connected world:  the science fiction Regency spoof, Seven Crows, and a really old untitled idea that keeps rearing its ugly head.  This time I think I finally found the right world and characters for it.

I’m still worldbuilding and figuring out the themes, main conflict, overall story arc, etc. so I don’t know what to “write” right now while I build this other world.  Oh, I have a story I could work on.  I’m just scared of it.

It’s the Fast Draft story from 2007.  I’ve done as much research for that story as the Maya one, if not more.  I’ve replotted it with three spreadsheets and have filled a three-inch binder with notes.  Yet I still haven’t been able to write it.  It’s going to be WORK.  Hard, gut-wrenching work.  Harder than Revision Xibalba.  Harder than anything I’ve done before. 

I know what needs to be done.  It’s just getting my mind in the right place to tackle the work.  It would be so much easier and more fun to tackle a bright shiny new idea…

But you know me.  I’ve never much cared for the easy path.

The first shitty draft of a short synopsis for the Maya story is done.  Copyedits on Dear Sir, I’m Yours are sent back to Angie.  Storybuilding is chugging along on a new world (or rather, galaxy).  So I guess all that remains is to drag out my binders and spreadsheets and come up with a plan for RHP.

Let RHP Revision Hell begin.