Almost a year ago, I wrote a guest post for Book Country called The Five-Line Outline with some advice for pantsers* hoping to prepare for NaNoWriMo. (* A “pantser” is someone who writes by the seat of their pants as opposed to doing detailed plotting/outlining in advance). If I knew then what I know now, I might have offered some different advice.
I wrote three novels using this “pantser” method and although two of them are good stories (let’s not mention the first one, which will be locked in a trunk forevermore), I knew something was missing. Agents consistently complimented of my concepts, my voice, and my writing, but ultimately passed on representing my work.
CPs started giving me feedback along the lines of needing to get to the action sooner, keeping the plot moving forward, and building tension. At some point this summer, I realized what my problem was: structure. And I started reading: The Plot Whisperer, Save the Cat, endless blog posts. Then, with the recommendation of my amazing Pitch Wars mentor, Juliana Brandt, I started in on Story Engineering.
Before you Begin
The first step is to find a methodology that makes sense to you. Although I think Larry Brooks’ lengthy diatribe against pantsers in the introduction to the book is off-putting to much of his target audience, once you get past that, Story Engineering is a great master class on story structure.
But if you’ve already got a completed manuscript, as I did, how do you go back and fix structure problems? It’s not easy, but it can be done.
First, read these articles, which have great information on story structure:
Ultimately, each writer will have a different approach to preparing to write and/or revising. The key here is coming to understand story structure and the tight link between plot and character that will allow you to write an emotionally satisfying story, no matter how much prep work you do in advance.
Step One – Identifying the Four Parts of Your Story
Story Engineering suggests that each story has 4 parts that are about 25% each–with only Part 1 having the potential to be a bit shorter. This structure is based on the 3-act structure used by screenwriters (featured in Save the Cat, among others), but with Act 2 broken into two parts.
It’s really easy to get bogged down creating an outline or filling out a beat sheet when you’ve got 60 or so chapters like I did, so the first thing I did was just to try to divide the book into the four parts from Story Engineering.
My favorite part of this methodology is the way the character arc (orphan-wanderer-warrior-martyr) ties to each of the four parts of the story’s plot. It gives you a no-nonense guide for how character arcs progress in a way that makes the arc stuff contribute to the plot tension, which in turn makes the ultimate resolution more satisfying and pretty much guarantees that the internal and external conflict resolve at the same time. Pretty cool.
So before I outlined, I created a Scrivener label for each of the four parts of the story and color-coded my chapters. This helped me look quickly at the word count for each of the parts and also gave me a visual reminder of what was supposed to happen in that section. Mine were called Part 1 – Setup/Orphan, Part 2 – Response/Wanderer, Part 3 – Attack/Warrior, and Part 4 – Resolution/Martyr. Those key words are the names of the parts, followed by the names of the stages of character arc evolution.
Step Two – The Beat Sheet
The main piece of advice I’d give pantsers who are looking for a little more structure in their stories is to at least understand and complete a beat sheet before you start writing. I found the Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheet to be the most useful, but there are lots out there. Filling out a beat sheet means you’ve identified the major plot points (things like Inciting Incident, First Plot Point/ Catalyst, The Midpoint, and The Second Plot Point/Eureka Moment) in your story and it gives you a fairly structured guideline of where those plot points should fall in the arc of your story.
Step Three – The Dreaded Outline
Once I had a firm grasp of what my story needed to look like, outlining was slightly less painful. I used the beat sheet I filled out in Step Two as the template for my outline and started plugging in all the chapters–one Excel spreadsheet line per chapter. Here’s where I started to identify where my plot points were happening in the wrong place or where I needed to make cuts. I figured out pretty quickly that I needed to get to the action A LOT faster and that my first plot point needed a better introduction to the antagonist, so I started shifting stuff around.
Keep in mind that I had done all of this without touching a word in the manuscript. As hard as it was to not jump in and start shaking things up, I outlined for three solid days before I started the revision.
I highlighted the word count column any place where I deviated a great deal from the suggested word count and I highlighted chapter that I thought should be cut in a different color. I used a third color for chapters that I moved and used a 2-3 word reminder in ( ) after the chapter name if I knew I had a big change (like “cut Ukko” or “add more mythology” or “make Joukahainen creepier”).
Step Four – Write it!
With an outline in place and a solid idea of what needed to happen, I dove into the manuscript. I cut whole chapters, removed a beloved character, and moved things around until I had things in roughly the order I wanted them to be in.
As I worked, I realized I needed more details than what the spreadsheet would allow, so I made notecards too. The notecards used the same color-coding as the Scrivener labels (see those cute little Sharpies in the picture above?) and included chapter title, POV character, a list of “functions” or purposes for that particular chapter, a note about where we we were in story time (because I moved so many plot points around that I needed to keep everything straight), and a note about what the “hook” is that’s going to pull the reader in to the next chapter.
I only did a few notecards at a time and I gave myself permission to update that outline as many times as I needed to until I had it just right. For me, that meant I was adding and moving and changing right up until the last chapter of the story, and that I only worked a few notecards ahead of where I was in the revisions so that I knew where I was headed, but wasn’t locked into anything.
Step Five – Think About Structure In Advance Next Time
With the Pitch Wars Agent Round fast-approaching, I didn’t have time to beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t look at story structure in more detail before I wrote seven drafts of QUEST FOR THE KALEVALA (and many more drafts of FINDING GIB, which will be getting a structure-related revision next!). I just had to get on with it and you should too. Although I doubt I will ever create a detailed outline before I begin drafting (I am, after all, a pantser at heart), I will definitely make sure I know all my major beats and understand how the character will move through his or her arc as the story progresses, before I write a word.
What other resources do you find helpful when thinking about story structure?
Check out Lisa Lewis Tyre’s post on word count as part of her Writer Wednesday blog party!
I am deep into revising Quest for the Kalevala, but I wanted to pop in and tell you about three kid lit books that came out in the past week that I’ve been really looking forward to. There’s something for everyone here, because one’s a spooky picture book, one’s for middle-grade (ages 8-12) readers, and one is for young adults. But who are we kidding? They’re all really for me, me, me (and you, you, you)!
I love retellings that turn the original story on their head, and Neverland is ripe with possibilities. So I can’t wait to read Never Never by Brianna Shrum, a young-adult novel that tells the story not of Peter, but of Hook.
Lily and I loved Hook’s Revenge, so we were excited to see book two come out this month. A hilariously-wry narrator, a daughter bent on revenging the death of her father, Captain Hook, and the amazing setting of Neverland make this one a hit for ages 8+.
Just in time for Halloween comes a book about a zombie that eats books instead of brains. Will the children be able to save the school library before the little zombie goes on a real book binge? A fun and not-too-scary zombie book for young (pre)readers.
Around this time last year, at the tender age of 39, I had to admit defeat in my battle against gray hair. I was at the point where even coloring my hair every 5-6 weeks wasn’t enough to keep me from having the dreaded silver stripe down my part. For a while, a little voice had been whispering “go natural, go natural,” but it’s surprising how many louder voices drowned it out for a while. It will age you. People will think your kids are your grandkids. What will your husband think? Color isn’t as toxic as it used to be. Just keep doing it.
But I’m sort of stubborn, and so is that little voice. So I talked to my stylist and came up with a plan. For a few dying cycles, he did progressively lighter shades of my natural brown to see if that would help with the white stripe at my part & although it did, it was still bugging me.
I knew we were moving back to the states in December, but to a place where I didn’t know anyone. I was never going to have a better time to transition. So I chopped my hair off in late September and stopped dying it soon thereafter.
By February, I had enough root growth to cut the rest of the color off into an ultra-shot pixie. The lady in the chair next to me at the salon, who was more than ten years older than I am, made sure to comment on how brave I was, while mentioning that she could never do it herself in the same breath.
I’d like to say that I don’t know what the big deal is. But I do. Women are still judged so much for how they look, how they “keep themselves up” and I think deep down there is a belief that looking older might somehow make you feel older too. Well, it doesn’t. I’m 40 and I have gray hair. Big deal. I still want to be Peter Pan when I (never) grow up. I still write kids books, color in coloring books, and make mud pies in the garden. I still act like the child that I am on the inside. Just ask my kids. And my husband hasn’t left me for a 25-year-old (or a 40-year-old trying to look like a 25-year-old). Probably because he knows I’d put a hex on him if he did.
The good news is that I can just pretend I’m on the cutting edge of fashion as starlets the world over embrace gray hair. Before you get too excited about us making progress toward stamping out this little bit of ageism in the fashion world, though, the trend is called “the granny look.” Well, I guess I always wanted to be Granny Weatherwax anyway.
Anyhow, my Mom, new hairdresser, & bff loved the pixie. I didn’t, so I’ve been letting it grow ever since. Almost a year later, the curls I had to chop off are coming back and my hair is just barely long enough to tuck behind my ears. And it’s as silver as the summer day is long, with only a hint of brown left along my neckline.
I don’t think it makes me look older. Or maybe I just don’t care any more.
Last spring, my daughter came home sad because her friend had been called out of class to learn she’d lost her grandma. I remember that feeling, both as the friend watching someone I cared about getting the bad news and as the child, stepping out in the hallway to hear news that will change her life forever. My trip to the hallway came in sixth grade when my mother’s mother passed away after a long illness. It was sad, but expected. We were prepared, but it still hurt. It was still scary.
Watching others go through loss is the only preparation we get for the loss. If we’re lucky, we start off small with the loss of a pet, or the grief that comes when a friend moves away. Most of us lose a grandparent in grade school. It is sad, but familiar, territory.
But the unexpected losses hit us the hardest. The loss of friends, taken too young. Of family, departing before their time. Nine years ago this month, the loss of my Dad to a freak accident struck me with a pain I thought for several years I might never escape. A few years later, sitting beside my best friend as she said goodbye to her infant son, I realized I had passed through all the expected losses in my life and into the unexpected ones. The ones that shock, that take us to our knees. The loss of a spouse, of a brother, of a child.
Today, my beloved cousins are experiencing this devastating loss. Early this morning, they said goodbye to their father, my Uncle Chuck. We called him Uncle Chuckles when I was a kid and the name fit–he had a smile and a joke for every occasion. My aunt is experiencing the unimaginable loss of a spouse after many decades of happy marriage. A loss that I watched my own mother go through after my father died, and one that I would wish on no one, even as I realize its inevitability.
All of this is on my mind as I write this morning. I’m thousands of miles away, but I still feel like that little girl watching her friend getting called into the hallway to get the devastating news. My heart is tender this morning for my family as they suffer through and for myself, because each loss carries with it the memory of those that came before.
When I spent my days languishing in cube-land impersonating Tina the Tech Writer, I often dreamed of what it would be like to sit down at my computer every day to write creatively. Five years ago, when an international move gave me just that kind of opportunity, I envisioned everything cast in gold-tinged light, with bird song, and possibly unicorns.
The reality was much different. Most of the first year and a half was spent shepherding my family through culture shock. Then, when I finally sat down to write, I realized that an international move and spawning two tiny children meant I was quite literally a decade behind on my reading. So I read, and read, and read, and blogged, and slowly eased in to a creative lifestyle. I still expected the unicorns to show up any minute, though, because it was sort of cold and dark in Finland and I was kind of lonely.
When I finally started writing, I tried, and failed, to participate in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. I say failed because the story I started utterly sucked. Utterly. Almost as much as the trunk novel I wrote in my 20s. Yeah, that bad. But then a few months later, I sat in the passenger seat of a rental car as we navigated the desolate backroads of Andalusia, Spain, and an idea that did not suck popped into my head. I pondered it for four months and then sat down in November 2013 and wrote Finding Gib.
I edited, tinkered, sent it off for review, even queried it (too early, one of many newbie mistakes I’ve made since I entered the query trenches). Then I stumbled upon a group of fellow writers I met at various conferences over the summer of 2014. Their friendship and support over the last year has more than made up for the lack of unicorns 😉
And in September of 2014, I started writing another book that does not suck, Quest for the Kalevala. I drafted it over twelve weeks instead of four, and leveraged everything I’d learned from writing Finding Gib. The funny thing about writing, though, is that the more you learn, the more fixes/changes/tweaks you find on your way to getting something ready for agent/editor eyes. So I spent the next six months revising, sending it to my new amazing beta-reading critique partners for feedback, and revising again.
So now I’m in my third year of fully embracing the writing life, and although I swear I catch a glimpse of a flowing mane or the shiny tip of a unicorn horn when I’m in the midst of writerly flow, most of the magic that I’m going to experience is of my own making, on the pages of my stories.
I still don’t have an answer to the question I’m most often asked when I say I’m an author: “When is your book coming out?” But I do know that even with all the hard work, the rejection, and uncertainties, I’d choose creative writing over technical writing every single time.
I spent my young life sneaking into wardrobes hoping to make it to Narnia. Now that I’m a bit older, people think that’s sort of creepy, so I became a middle-grade author instead.
In all seriousness, every job I’ve had from my first work-study job as an editor in DePauw’s Writing Center, to working the children’s section of a small independent bookstore, to writing instructions for computer software, involved writing. And I’ve been an obsessive reader since I fell in love with The Fantastic Mr. Fox in first grade (My titilating review of said book still exists on wide-ruled paper. Just ask my mama).
So when our relocation to Helsinki, Finland in 2010 meant that staying at home with our two young children made more sense than me trying to work, I picked up the proverbial pen. This time, instead of blog posts, overly-emo poems, and half-baked attempts at short stories, I wrote Finding Gib, a novel about a twelve-year-old boy and his struggle to survive in post-apocalyptic Spain, as part of NaNoWriMo 2013.
A year later, I wrote another one, this one set in Finland and based on Kalevala, the country’s obscure, if magical, epic poem. Now I’m back in the United States and hoping to find an agent for my work. Although the limited agent/contest feedback I’ve received over the past couple of months on Quest for the Kalevala has been positive, I know the story’s missing something. Something that I truly believe a Pitch Wars mentor could help me identify and correct.
That doesn’t mean I’m looking for a magic bullet. I’m prepared to do the hard work necessary to get my writing to the next level of awesomesauce. But I would love a mentor to guide me.
I’m involved in this amazing writing community, which teaches me something new every single day. I blog for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. I founded and help run a critique group for MG/YA authors (shout out to Fellowship of the Pen!). I’m an active SCBWI member. I just put Finding Gib through its paces in the intense and amazing Speculative Fiction summer critique marathon over on Agent-Query-Connect. I attend several conferences and workshops every year to hone my craft and read countless books, articles, and blog posts on writing.
As you can probably tell from the above, I work at a frenetic pace. I can get a lot done in Pitch Wars’ two-month window (caffeine helps, as does a supportive family and insomniac work habits).
I am motivated, dedicated to craft, and in love with all things middle-grade. If you pick me, I promise to work my tail off to revise Quest for the Kalevala and to do so with a positive attitude, a sense of humility, and tremendous appreciation for all the hours that go into being a mentor. A special shout-out to Brenda Drake, who puts in countless hours to make this amazing event possible. Thank you!
Now for the fun stuff: I’m a Ravenclaw with Gryffindor aspirations. I’m one of the fangirls squeeing over the Firefly reboot. I cry when Thorin Oakenshield dies every time I read The Hobbit. I have read the Silmarillion more than once. I will write a novel-in-verse version of The Hobbit told from Smaug’s perspective before I die, even if copyright law prevents it from ever being published. I consume every Sherlock Holmes-related book, movie, or show I can get my hands on. I hugged my daughter’s signed copy of Flora & Ulysses when I finished reading it.
When I’m not geeking out over stories, I like to travel, go wine-tasting, garden, cook, cycle, run, play soccer, and hike. I’ve lived in England, France, Finland, and the United States, and suspect I’ll add to that list before I’m through. In another life, I was a Native Plant Master and Master Gardener in Colorado and wrote gardening-related articles for The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News (may it RIP), and the Boulder Daily Camera. I’m loud, often inappropriate, and am prone to gesticulating wildly or breaking into song when excited.
My kids think I’m utterly weird and are constantly annoyed with me for beating them at Just Dance 2015, playing with their toys, stealing their books, answering their questions in song, and making up nutty stories about how eating their broccoli will give them superpowers, among other tragically-unhip parental flaws.
Don’t forget to read about the other amazing writers participating in Pitch Wars on the #pimpmybio blog hop.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of my stay in what many writers like to call the query trenches. As the name implies, it can be a dark, dirty, scary place, and I often like to use the word “languishing” when I describe my time there.
But it doesn’t have to be utter torture. Here are my tips for surviving the query trenches.
Don’t Query Too Soon
Everyone says this (because it’s TRUE) and yet almost every writer I’ve talked to has queried before their manuscript was ready. I know how the thought process goes. It’s almost ready. I might be able to finish it before a mentor/agent/contestjudge requests more. I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. Nope. Nope. Nope. DO NOT DO THIS.
Remember that first pitch I mentioned? All I hoped to get was a little feedback on my ideas. I walked away with two requests for something that I’m actually still revising a year later. Yeah, it was that rough. I was halfway through rewriting my story from 3rd person past to 1st person present, a change that ultimately led to that glorious moment when I finally felt like I’d found my voice. I was excited. The unexpected requests at the conference filled me with confidence. I entered Pitch Wars. I was almost done with the revision.
I got a full request from a Pitch Wars mentor for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. I wasted his time (mea culpa), I wasted my own time doing all the research that went into selecting mentors. And that time should have been spent on finishing the revision.
Thankfully, no one reached through my computer to affix a cone of shame around my neck. But they should have. And you can bet my Pitch Wars entry this year (a different manuscript) is polished to a high shine.
Get Critique Partner Eyes on Your Manuscript
One of the amazing things about writing conferences & contests is the opportunity to make writing friends and find potential critique partners. When I walked in to my first-ever conference in June last year, I didn’t have a single writing buddy. When I walked out of that conference five days later, I had two amazing critique partners and a wonderful mentor whose help and guidance has been worth ten times the cost of the conference.
If no one but you, your mother, and your spouse has read your work, do not query it. Do not enter it into something like Pitch Wars. Just wait. Put yourself out there on the Twitter feed for #PitchWars or #amwriting or one of the many genre-specific hashtags that are out there. You’ll make writing friends that can help you get to the next level and who will keep your spirits up when it truly is time to enter the query trenches.
If you can’t find a group, create one. At this time last year, I was living in Finland and struggling to find any English-speaking writers to swap manuscripts. So I attended WriteOnCon and started begging inviting folks to a group that is now 24 amazing writers strong and has become my writing life-line.
Moderate Social Media
The writing community is amazing both on social media and off. Twitter is full of writing support and resources. And I love chatting with my writing pals, especially when I’m burned out, depressed by a rejection letter, or stuck on a tricky scene. But social media can be a real time suck, and two hours on Twitter does not translate to two hours spent honing your craft. So moderate your social media usage and focus that energy into writing the words. Check in daily. Even four times daily if you must. But also have social-media free hours where your focus can be on your manuscript. Oh yeah, and on your family/friends and, you know, life.
Do Your Homework
This is true whether you’re picking a Pitch Wars mentor, choosing a writing group or class, or selecting an agent to query. I love Janet Reid with all my heart (even more so after meeting her in person this summer at Midwest Writers Workshop), but she doesn’t rep middle grade. And that’s OK because I’ve already learned everything I know about query writing from her amazing blog, Query Shark. Knowing your genre, reading in your age group, paying attention to which agents are selling which type of books–all of these things will help you find the best home for your work.
Don’t You Dare Give Up
If writing is what is in your heart and you’re willing to put in the hard work, you can do this. You can survive the query trenches and emerge with an agent, a book deal, or a path toward self-publishing that fits your needs, personality, and skills. Giving up is not an option. So you’ve sent 152 queries on your first manuscript. Write another one (I’m on my third manuscript and have two more in the planning stages!). So your dream agent rejected the manuscript. Revise and send it to someone else. That itch to write isn’t going to go away, no matter how many rejections you get. So wear them like a badge of honor and write on, my friends.
I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged, but, you know, international move, holidays, new school for the kids. I’ve had my reasons. Life is slowly returning to normal and one sign of that is that I’m back at the writing desk (or actually I don’t have a desk yet, so it’s the writing couch at the moment). Check out my post over at From the Mixed-Up Files before Friday for a chance to win a copy of Model Undercover: New York, a middle grade detective story with a very fashion forward protagonist.
My kids love a good muffin. That means that muffins are my go-to when I need to bring a snack to school, or friends come over for a play date, or really just about any time I need food for any reason. But several of my son’s friends are either gluten or dairy intolerant (or both), so I wanted to find the best gluten-free muffin recipe.
Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I made things that were so nasty that even loads of chocolate chips or cream-cheese frosting couldn’t make them palatable. I made ones that were just OK warm, but turned to rocks when they cooled. I made some that tasted too much like the almond or coconut or whatever they were made with in place of the gluten. I despaired. I gave up for a while and just went back to my old stand-by muffin recipe and made something else if his GF friends were here.
Then I tried to make up my own recipe. And…success! I had to use a Wikimedia Commons picture of a muffin because by the time I figured out that this recipe was a success, a plague of hungry locusts my kids and their friends had eaten every last one of these delicious, moist, perfect gluten-free muffins.
So here it is, my Best Gluten-Free Muffin recipe:
Best Gluten-Free Muffin Recipe
makes 24 muffins
1/3 c coconut oil (olive oil would also work)
1 t vanilla
1/2 cup almond milk or other milk alternative
1/3 c sweetener (date sugar, honey, brown sugar, whatever you fancy. Note that some sweeteners are sweeter than others and adjust as necessary)
2 c grated or mashed fruits/veggies (carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, apple, banana, dates)
1 1/2 c gluten-free pastry flour (the one I use is a fine-ground corn-based flour)
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 T cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t ginger
1/2 c slivered almonds
1/2 c chocolate chips (make sure the ones you have are dairy-free–many aren’t)
Preheat oven to 180C or 350F.
Mix the first six ingredients in a large bowl. If using something chunky like bananas or dates, I use an immersion blender until the mixture is smooth.
Add flour, baking soda & powder, spices, and slivered almonds and mix just until combined.
Fold in chocolate chips.
Fill muffin cups 2/3 full and bake for 16 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Cool just enough to prevent injury and devour at will.
This go-round, I made these with coconut oil, date syrup, almond milk, and a mix of 1 c pumpkin, 3/4 c banana and 1/4 c dates. But apples, zucchinis, and carrots would also be delicious, coconut milk would absolutely work, and I often use olive oil in baking when I don’t have coconut oil on hand. And raisins can be substituted for the chocolate chips, although I definitely prefer the chocolate!
Easy and delicious. What’s your favorite gluten-free recipe?