Saturday, October 19, 2019

Plotter or Pantster…Planner or Not?

I often slot writers into one category or the other - as most of us tend to fall into one camp or the other. We either plot, or we don’t. We plan it, or fly by the seat of our pants. 

In my friendships and family, I am known as The Planner. Sometimes, detrimentally so. I’m not often good with being spontaneous, and I appreciate knowing what to expect and be prepared for. I tend to panic if things don’t follow a certain routine or plan. 

As a writer, and in my writing relationships, I am still often known as The Plotter. I prefer to write out where my novel is going - a roadmap of sorts. I follow along with the mile markers, knowing when I’m hitting the right spots and if I’m taking detours so I can correct myself. 

Which isn’t to say detours aren’t just thing a novel or a road trip need some days. They are often are - the roads less traveled are the ones we’d never know or see if we don’t take a turn down them. 

In my last novel, which I had not planned to be a novel, but rather a side writing project to release some pent up energy and frustration, was entirely pantsed. I told myself it didn’t matter, as it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t anything. I could just write to write. No plan. I had no roadmap, no idea where it was going. But the next thing I knew, I was leaving Short Story Ville for Novel Land. To this day, I feel it’s the best piece I’ve written, even if it isn’t going anywhere in particular at the moment. 

Detours can pay off. 

I recently moved farther away than I have ever lived from home. My new running route depressed me a little - all city and concrete. On the way up the hill, I’d often give the side eye to a slight mud trail that went up into the woods. A deer trail. One day, I followed it. And found a river trail through the woods. Had I stayed the path, I’d never have found the nature I’d been craving. That little new running route that reminds me of why I like to be alive when the seasons are changing, for better or worse, tying on my running shoes. 

Writing is much the same, and so is life, or so I’ve learned. Keep your map if you need it. But don’t be afraid to shove it aside here and there. Enjoy the ride. Enjoy the trail. Enjoy the unknown. You never know where it’ll lead you. 

Happy Reading!

A.M. Bostwick is the author of the award-winning THE GREAT CAT NAP and its sequel, THE CLAWED MONET as well as the young adult BREAK THE SPELL. She is a newspaper journalist and blog writer in the northern Midwest.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Plot, Schlmot!

Warning: this is a heretical post!

I don't consider myself to be very good at plotting. But plot is also my least favorite part of any book I treasure. When I reflect on the books I've loved best, what I tend to remember doesn't have to do with the construction of the overall story line - that urgency to keep on turning pages - but with individual scenes, individual moments, individual lines.

When Mary Lennox turns the key that opens the door to the secret garden.

When Miss Minchin asks Sara Crewe, "Don't you intend to thank me . . .For my kindness in giving you a home?" and Sara replies, "You are not kind. And it is not a home."

When Anne Shirley breaks her slate over Gilbert Blythe's head.

When Kenny Watson's big brother kisses his reflection on an icy car window and gets his lips frozen to the glass.

When Ramona asks Miss Binney how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall.

When Trotter tells Gilly Hopkins that "Life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough," and Gilly asks her, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" and Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough."

Many of my most beloved books are episodic in structure, where a character grows and changes through a cumulative series of events and experiences - you know, sort of like the way change happens in real life? When I write my own books, I think first and foremost not of overall plot, but of individual scenes - each one as a shining bead threaded onto a string. I also think of crucial bits of dialogue, where characters finally tell each other what most needs to be said. And small insights into the human condition, like those fabulous lines from the end of The Great Gilly Hopkins that I quoted above.

So, yes, let's read books on plotting and mine them for helpful strategies to strengthen a story. But I can't see myself ever making a "beat sheet" for one of my books and structuring it so rigidly - even though I have writer friends who have produced brilliant books in this way. I want to write the kind of book I love to read: books memorable above all for details that sparkle, insights that illuminate, and moments where I burst out laughing or wipe away tears.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Building a Sand Castle, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Through my years at this writing thing, I've read and heard many creative techniques for plotting. Think of a plot like a skeleton (the bones of your story), where every element has a purpose and is connected. Or, imagine an old-fashioned paper chain on a Christmas tree where each circle is a plot turn that's linked to the previous and the next ones. I like both of those.

But perhaps my personal favorite is a sand castle analogy. You have an idea of your story -- or your castle -- when you start out, and then each shovel, each bucket, each pat of sand and drizzle of water, shapes and reveals until it's whole, completed, a work of art where nothing existed before. That to me is the essence of building a plot -- bits and pieces that together, create a structure.

I remember watching my kids during beach vacations constructing sand castles. Their diligence and patience, how they paid attention to the initial plan -- exactly where each bucket should be turned over to create the ultimate castle. But what I thought was most intriguing was how the castles changed as each of my children added their own touches. One wanted super high towers. Another thought there had to be not just one moat, but two (in case of multiple invasions). The third always insisted on decorating with seashells. Did the castles turn out as originally envisioned? Probably not. But they were always beautiful.

And that's the best advice I can share when it comes to plot techniques. Have an idea of what your story is when you start writing, but allow yourself the creative freedom to shape it as it unfolds.

Your characters may do something you didn't plan for, or an unexpected event can suddenly throw everything off balance. Keep going, keep building. Put your plan aside when you need to. Your subconscious is at work, sifting through grains of sand.

The story may not turn out exactly the way you envisioned from the outset, but what you discover along the way can lead you to beautiful towers and moats and seashells.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. Her fifth novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, debuts May 26 from Penguin Random House. More at

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

It's All About the Biscuits

I’ve been enjoying our current discussion on plot. Two terms that many writers use to define their writing process include plotters and pantsers. Pantsers let the characters guide the writing, i.e. they fly by the seat of their pants. Meanwhile, plotters plan out their novel to the nth degree.

I offer that the writing process is more organic than a simple either/or choice. The reality is, the plot is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. The nuts and bolts, twists and turns, reversals, supporting a sagging middle, creating an ending that no one saw coming. That’s hard work. That requires planning. Because I tend to integrate historical and mythological aspects to my writing, I find that I need to outline to keep track.

And yet, too much of a good thing can quickly turn sour. Too much planning creates stiff characters, and a stiffer plot. Creativity becomes trapped as writers try to fit characters into pre-destined squares and circles.

Agent Donald Maass states that a story needs to "provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones... “Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.” In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s like her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters.

If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Everyone’s process is different. A pinch of pantsing, a dash of plotting. What works for one story may not work for the next. What’s important is how well you combine the ingredients to create a strong story.

Because, in the end, it’s always about the reader and if the reader engages with your character and follows her journey. Readers can’t tell whether your story was pantsied or plotted. Readers don’t see the biscuit-baking, only the biscuit.

And if the biscuit is good, they won’t care about the baking.

--Bobbi Miller

Saturday, October 12, 2019

It Came to Me in a Dream: An Unusual Plotting Technique

Usually, when it comes to plotting a novel, I struggle with getting it all to come out the way I envision. I have a strong beginning and knowledge of how I expect it to end. It's what comes in between that throws me for a loop. I'll write down possible scenes, things the character(s) need to do or potential conflicts that could arise. Most of the plot ideas that end up staying in the story are ones that I discovered after many revisions.

I expect there are many of us out there with this same kind of problem.

For my new novel in verse WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY, plotting was a totally different animal. The main character Jack spoke to me in a voice so loud and clear. He was insistent that I tell his story the way he spoke it, which turned out to be free verse. So, instead of plotting what might happen, I began to compile a list of words that would spark a conversation between Jack and me. ( The title for the story at this stage was Fish, Wish, and Other Four Letter Words...hence the list of four-letter words).

Each day I'd sit down with the list, choose a word and let Jack tell me his thoughts on it. The list expanded as we got further into the story and the final version that became the book veered from the strict four letter word format. But that list is the plot, sure and true. Every crossed out word is a poem in the story. I am so intrigued by this idea, that I am ruminating on another story in verse and have started compiling my list of words.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Skating: A Declaration by Jody Feldman

Yes, I had the old-fashioned kind.
Roller Skating Month.
So much I could write with that as inspiration. My biggest memory comes from my childhood where
it was necessary to own a pair of roller skates if you wanted to keep up with the neighborhood kids. One minute we’d be playing Red Rover or Spud or Uncle Sam, and the next, someone would race off to get her skates, causing a chain reaction.

Grand Basin, Forest Park, not skate-safe.
Or there was the winter so cold that officials deemed the lakes in Forest Park safe for skating, which is when my parents scrambled
to find ice skates I could borrow for the day.

It’s this neighborhood that’s the inspiration behind my work-in-progress. As I write the story that pays homage to the friendships and foibles and fun and fables there, I also need to be mindful of something that can be my writing downfall...

...skating by.

Don’t misunderstand. In the moment, I’m focused, doing the necessary work. I don’t intend to take the easy road or shortchange the story. It’s more that I picture the scenes and the emotions so vividly, I don’t always communicate the urgency of the situation or the deep-seated stakes of my characters. Then I’m faced with the same notes from my patient agent. And I feel, for a bit, as if I’ve skated by – or tried to – again.

Therefore, I hereby declare this October 2019, Anti-Skating Month. And furthermore, I declare forevermore and to the best of my abilities, an Anti-Skating policy. My readers deserve the most from me. I deserve the most from me. We all deserve the best from ourselves.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Supportive Plots -- by Jane Kelley

Hey, everybody! I've decided to change a name.

From this point on, I will not call them "subplots." Sub has so many unfortunate connotations. Subpar. Subhuman. Subordinate.

Labeling those plots as "less than" encouraged me to skip over them as I write. My Main Plot was, after all, my MAIN plot. As I focused on it, I ignored the wants and actions of the other characters. Then everything suffered.

The famous theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski said, "There are no small parts, there are only small actors." That sentence has been used to comfort those of us who didn't get the starring role. It has a deeper truth. For a drama to work, everyone on stage must be a complete character. The smaller part is actually a bigger challenge. Despite fewer lines and fewer moments on stage, that actor must still make the character compelling enough to hold their own against the star.

In other words, the smaller part demands more attention from the writer. Not less.

As I rewrite a novel, I asked myself why the protagonist's best friend would do what my main plot needed her to do. And when I found the answer, I had another plot. One that, as I said, I'm calling the Supportive Plot. Because it supports the other action––and enhances it.

Mary Nohl's sculptures outside her home in Fox Point, Wisconsin
Mary Nohl was an artist who created many large outdoor pieces out of concrete. Her training was not in construction, however. As she made the sculpture above, she discovered that the dinosaur was leaning. Luckily necessity was once again the mother of invention. Mary added the other fellow. The two seem quite delighted to be connected. Think how much more interesting the artwork is because of the addition.

And think how much better my novel will be because of the supportive plots!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Because Plot is a VERB

There are probably as many ways to plot a novel as there are novels. Some of the ones I've dabbled in are the 3 act structure, Hero's Journey, MICE Quotient, Blake Snyder's beat sheet, story maps, scene-sequel method, etc. – and they're all great. 

But what I've learned is that it's easy to get distracted by plot when what I really need to do is spend more time getting to know my characters... and then let plot evolve out of that. And that's hard and can take a long time and is often discouraging – because getting to know my characters is hard and can take a long time! 

Eventually, the time comes for me to remind myself of the key to it all:  

Plot is a verb. Think hatch and thicken. Plot is not an element of a story so much as an action. The goal of the writer is to plot, to create that movement. Whenever your story drags, remember it is up to you to jumpstart it, give it a shove, make it tick and tumble. 

This can be difficult, so I keep a postcard next to my desk that declares “PLOT IS A VERB.” Some days it even helps me remember. :)

Happy plotting!

IreneLatham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyds Mills & Kane, and Charlesbridge. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Bank Street College and other organizations. 

Sunday, September 29, 2019

May I Have Your Attention?

by Charlotte Bennardo

Who doesn't remember having to stand in front of the class to give a report? First it was Show and Tell, then a book report, and later, maybe reading or speaking on a subject chosen for us. For some, it's a terror, a nightmare. Some kids actually got stomach aches. My son panicked every time.

But thankfully he got through it.

I was never fond of public speaking. In fact, all through elementary and high school, I was shy. (You'd laugh if you know me now.) How did I get over the fear of public speaking? Not by parents telling me I'd do fine, or teachers telling me it's 50% of my grade, or friends saying 'Just do it.' Those are ways to confirm a child's fear of public speaking and it doesn't magically go away simply because you're an adult.

There are many strategies for conquering this fear; imagine the audience sitting there in their underwear. Focus on one or two people in the audience that look friendly. Practice in front of a mirror, then your family and friends. Take a public speaking class.

Photo courtesy of ICSA, Pexels

I've done them all. Didn't like any of them. Wouldn't recommend any of them. To overcome my fear, I had to start from within.

1- Not knowing the subject well enough to talk off the top of my head like I can do now was the biggest step. If I'm speaking about writing, the publishing process, or prepping for NaNoWriMo, I'm an expert and can speaking confidently about them. When you know your subject that well, you don't stumble to find your words or next thought. A simple list on a note card keeps me talking as long as I need. Preparation is the biggest key to successful public speaking. Audiences can pick out bluster and cow flops.

2- Whenever you're asked to speak, do it if you can. Keeping in practice is important. You can get 'rusty' because when you haven't it done it in a while, you start to doubt yourself, even if you know your material. Athletes always practice; they don't simply show up for a race or competition or game. You need to practice as well.

3- Update your presentation. New facts and figures, more advanced technology, maybe a new joke, will keep your talk fresh and you from being bored. Also, sometimes word gets out about your talk and if you constantly give the same one, without being current, you won't be seen as an expert (unless it's on your personal life) and you'll be dismissed as yesterday's news.

4- Be comfortable. Okay, so those heels are killer- but they're also a killer on your feet. Look presentable but be comfy. Nothing's worse than too tight clothing or pants that keep falling down. There may be lights blazing down on you, so layers that you can peel off make sense. A professional but fun style that's comfortable will keep you focused on your talk and not your fashion mistake. This comfort rule also applies to food. Don't eat gassy foods.... Or drink so much you're desperate to use the bathroom. Keep food light, and if you're hungry, maybe a power bar or such about 15 minutes before so your stomach doesn't twist and rumble.

5- As you're walking up to the front of the class, or the podium, or the microphone, take slow, deep breaths. Make them measured and even to calm down a racing heart, and keep you from hyperventilating. A count of 4 seconds to inhale, 4 seconds to exhale is a good general rule.

You won't be an expert public speaker overnight (well, maybe!) but these steps will help you conquer that uneasy, queasy feeling enough to give your presentation and survive.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Well-Behaved Children Seldom Sell Books (or Win Pageants)

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” --Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

As I was thinking about Kids' Good Manners Month, this quote sprang to mind. If you apply it to protagonists in middle grade literature, we might say, “Well-behaved children seldom make good protagonists.”

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. Children who do as they are told rarely get into trouble. Therefore, well-behaved children won’t do much to move a plot forward.

Of course, that’s not to say that troublemaking children can’t have good manners, but a bit of mischief is required for a strong, feisty main character. (Personally, I love how Junie B. Jones combines mischief and manners when she turns on the charm upon getting caught: “Hello, how are you today? I am fine, only….”)

When I was about five or six years old, my parents entered me in a beauty contest (I’m still incredulous). Part of the process involved an interview session with judges. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember going into a room with a partner, another little girl in the pageant. When the adults spoke to me, I replied with “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” and did not fidget. My partner, however, bounced around in her chair, giggled, and talked out of turn. I remember thinking that she would probably be in big trouble with her parents for acting so bold and familiar with adults. She was not a “speak only when spoken to” child.

And guess what?

She won the pageant.

She also would’ve won the “who’s the better protagonist?” contest.

If I were writing the story of a little girl in a beauty pageant, I wouldn’t tell you about Ginger, the well-behaved, timid girl who minded her manners—unless she were there to serve as a foil to the main character. I’d tell you about Little Miss Personality, who had so much to say she was bubbling over, and so much energy that sitting still was not an option.

Or maybe a little girl who resented the whole thing and wasn’t afraid to engage in some interesting sabotage. Now there’s a premise.

I’ve often said that I hope my own life is too boring for a book. Trouble is fun only when it happens to fictional characters....

And beauty pageants are not for the faint of heart!

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Don't Ask Me (Holly Schindler)

In a way, I feel like I’m the absolute worst person to give public speaking advice. In the first place, I was the shyest kid on the planet growing up. I used to cry at the thought of talking to other kids when my parents took me to the playground. 

I have always been more introverted, and I will never, never, never relish public speaking. I will, for the most part, always dread it. 

And it’s not just the shyness. I think most writers are actually revisionists by nature. I happen to love the revision process far more than the drafting—but even if you do love the drafting more, there’s just something wonderful (or at least comforting) about the non-permanence of a draft. Of knowing that you have a chance to get in there and tinker with it. 

I think that’s what makes so many authors cringe at the idea of a public performance. There’s no delete key for it. You can’t tinker with it. 

In many ways, it really does feel like hanging a rough draft out for public consumption. 

And it does not in any way have to be a performance in front of a large library group, either. Some of the most frightening “performances” can be the one-on-one sort. In the beginning of my writing career, I would quake in fear at the idea of a call from an agent or editor. The night before a scheduled call, I wouldn’t be able to sleep. 

But something started to happen, over time:

I found myself picking up the phone to call my agent cold, when I needed something. I suggested conference calls with editors to hash out ideas for a book in development. I started Skyping with reader groups. Tons of them—all over the country. Doing in-person and radio interviews…

It’s not Madison Square Garden by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s funny how those things I mentioned in the previous paragraph don’t even bother me anymore. Does the fear subside with exposure? Is it that you’re more likely to forget your fears when you’re going after something you really want? Do we become more confident with ourselves the longer we’re in the industry?
Maybe it’s all those things.
I do not in any way have the key to success with public speaking. I only suspect that it, like the path to publication, depends on the much of the same: persistence, persistence, persistence. And never letting a little bit of fear keep you from a great big dream.