Plotting Your Next Novel: Part 0

Or, Publishing Your Second Novel... Prologue. I don't know if I'll start blogging about the second novel yet. Or if this will be my second novel (I'm writing it on spec). Or if I'm going make tomorrow a cheat day on my diet. Really, the future is a giant blank slate.

But it's time to start plotting a sequel to Death by Cliché. Partially this is because I looked at the size of the current novel I'm working on and realized that I won't finish it in time to write this book, so I need to move it up. Partly because I've run out of material on my main blogging topic. Partly because: screw you, I don't need a reason.

So I thought I'd start blogging the process here. It involves, I don't know, four stages? It's in flux. I'll know when we're done. It's in flux because of a project I did with James Wymore. Now there are three things you need to know about Wymore. He's written the Actuator series, which is a damn fun playground to visit, I've seen him tear the food from the mouth of a baby eagle with his teeth and punch babies for looking at him funny, and he knows where I live and pretty much all of my contact info.

So when he offered me a spot in his upcoming anthology, I jumped at the chance. Actually, it goes back to a late night pizza after an evening of Life the Universe and Everything (a local academic symposium). I was completely stoned on fatigue poisons, decompressing from the day, and I drunkenly suggested that his next anthology needed a story that was "Sailor Moon meets Godzilla."

Sailor Moon and Godzilla are both trademarks of companies I haven't bothered to look up.

Anyway, months later he said to me, "Remember that Sailor Moon meets Godzilla story you pitched? I totally want you to write that." To which I said, "I pitched what now?"

So fast forward to me plotting a story I never intended to write. It's times like this (and by this I mean times when you don't know what you're doing) that you engage in the great American passtime. You procrastinate.

In this case my procrastination took the form of starting with the last step first. Because all I had was a list of characters I stole from an anime archetype webpage and the begining of that last step is just about me bullshitting for three hours. Win/win, right?

So, this last-now-first step involved going into a program called Dramatica and answering some questions. As I answered those questions, a story started to gel in my mind. It was as if a program designed to help you plot better actually started out by helping you plot better. Holy crap. I'd discovered paydirt. Also, I was a genius. Throw a parade.

So if you've read one of my posts about this before or seen me talk about it at a con, you may notice some differences.

Now I'm going to go into some boring disclaimers. Bear with me. I'll start being clever in three, four blogs tops.

My System


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Plot

Phase 0 (Pre-plotting Prep):

Poe said to write the climax before you write anything else. Burgess, on the other hand, says he starts at the beginning writes through to the end, then stops. So there are a lot of different ways to approach this, even among experts. I’m not saying this is the best, merely that it’s the best for me.

I'm also not saying that you shouldn't discovery write. (Discovery writing is a method where you just start at the beginning and figure out what you're doing as you go exploring the characters and situations as you go). I'm just saying that there's a word for novels where I discovery write. That word is "failure."

Tolstoy (or however you spell it) said something about fiction that I’ve followed for years, he just said it better. He said, in essence, that good vs. evil is boring. Real literature comes from good vs. good. Because of this, I like to make villains or villain henchmen that readers want to see win. Shakespeare did this well, but for a modern example, see The Rock. The genius of that movie is that Ed Harris’ motivation to hold San Francisco hostage is so noble that you can’t really root against him. You want both sides to win. To hell with character conflict. Reader conflict is the heart of good fiction.

And a final note before I start. Ronald Tobias says that a plot is not a skeleton of a story, and I agree with him. Skeletons are too rigid. I use this process because it works for me, but if you adopt any part of it, don’t let it get in the way of good plotting. If you’re driving home from work one day when you’re halfway done writing the book and you suddenly realize, "Oh my God! The talking plum should really be the reincarnation of his father!" Go home and change the plot. It’s not set in stone until the book is set in print (and maybe not even then...ask Tolkien).

So here’s my method:

First a couple premises. I use the Dramatica theory of the Grand Argument Story. I swear by it. I like Ronald Tobias too, but I don’t like his theory of character triangles. The GAT (Grand Argument Theory) is set up with dynamic pairs that work well for me, and usually triangles arise out of it anyway.

Tobias does talk about Forza and Forda, from Dante’s Inferno. He takes this into plotting by saying there are two basic plots. Forza, which is external conflict, and Forda, which is internal. I think you need to include both types in a story, and richly.

The basic character pairs from the GAT are something like:

Protagonist (Good guy) -- Antagonist (Bad Guy)

Guardian (supports) -- Contagonist (Distracts)

Sidekick (Faith) -- Skeptic (Doubt)

Reason (Thought) -- Emotion (Feeling)

You can get MUCH more complex than that, but those are the general archetypes.

You have a MC (Main Character) and an IC (Impact Character). The IC tries to convince the MC to take a different path and all GTA stories revolve around this conflict and its outcome. Luke wants to join the empire and be a pilot (He did. Really.) Obi Wan wants him to become a Jedi, and screw those imperial bastards. We think, at the beginning, that Obi Wan’s point has won, but it doesn’t really win the argument until Luke turns off his targeting computer at the end of the movie and does not just what Obi Wan wants, but how.

I’m trying to give enough information that you can understand where I’m coming from without diluting the value of buying these products, BTW. Also I link to their web version of the theory later on.

Goal: Your main goal here is to make an outline with two qualities. One, it should be specific enough that you always know what to write next. Two, it should be general enough for you to indulge your creative whims. If you can do both these things, you can never use writer’s block as an excuse. :)

So that’s a general idea of where I’m starting from.

Let's begin.

Death by Cliche 2. We'll title it Deathier and Clichéier. Because if I give it an unpronounceable working title, that title can't possibly stick. I'm not contracted for this novel, but I've had people asking for it long enough that I should probably get around to actually writing it.

I have two things to think about in my preliminary work. The obvious one is the general shape of the novel. The other one is what I'm going to do with the chapter quotes. In Death by Cliché, the chapter quotes are a running meta-joke about bad writing, where I quote myself laying down writing rules and then play off them in some way in the chapter. It worked great. People seemed to like it. Unfortunately, those same people would stone me to death if I did the same thing in a second novel. It's a joke who's lifespan can't possibly extend beyond a single book. It had probably outstayed it's welcome by the end of the first one.

So those are my goals. I think about the chapter quotes and I have a lot of ideas, and they are all mostly one-book ideas. How about a book where every quote is a complete non-sequitur, like US presidents saying things the sound dirty out of context, or incredibly poignant statements from Miss America pageants. I don't know, but I am getting the feel that every book is probably going to have its own chapter quote running joke.  It's also clear to me that this might not be sustainable, so every book there will be at least one comment about how I might continue doing quotes in future books. I'll never forget Robert Asprin saying that coming up with a funny quote for every chapter in the first Myth book was a fun game, but by book seven it was just an awful chore.

But first I need to know where I'm going. I know where Damico ended at the finish of Death by Cliché. Now I need to start him from there. I ask myself is he happy where he is, or is he welcoming the inevitable adventure? How about the other characters, lockstep or at odds? What about new characters?

Death by Cliché has an interesting structure because I have characters who's POV's I can never enter. They aren't free willed creatures as manifested in the world. They controlled from the outside. So while it might be interesting to give Arithian a sidekick of sorts, and I probably will, my hands are tied by the fact that I can't tell those jokes from Aritihian's POV. I have to choose Damico or the sidekick himself.

I pick my villain. I'm going to play on a religious theme, since religion is so inherently borked in this setting. So far the gods listed in the world are very few. Ralph the Porcelain God for instance (because everyone worships at the porcelain altar at some point in their lives.) I did a thesaurus search on Prophet, came up with "Weatherman" as a replacement and my plot started falling together.

In Dramatica I start filling out he questions. It asks me some leading essay questions to get general ideas down. It asks me one-sided questions where my answer determines the answer for another character. For instance Dramatica has the Main Character and the Impact Character. One of them is always a do-er. One of them is always a be-er. That way they complement each other. Questions about if it's a happy ending. By the end of that I have some general ideas what this book is about.

It has me create my characters. I've done this before so I know I'm using archetypes and I make sure I have each of the archetypes covered. It asks me some questions about the Main Character and the Impact Character (in this case the Impact Character will be the Weatherman).

Then it has me make some choices on the MC, followed by the book's theme. As I'm answer questions, other answers are being filled out. What I decide for the MC also answers questions about the IC. I don't see the implications of all these yet. The program knows I'm not ready for it yet. It also asks me some basic plot questions.

To make a long story short, Dramatica asks more and more questions, drawing ideas out of me, until I'm at the point where I'm ready to start working out actual scenes. That's when I print out reports from Dramatica on all the things I've decided so far and sit down to do Phase 1 of my actual plotting system.

One thing did come up out of this. I realized that the MacGuffin in this story was a little too much like the artifacts in the last novel. I think that they'll read different enough by the end to justify the plot (I take it to a different place in this book, where the MacGuffin is closer to a true MacGuffin and not the tools used in the final climatic battle), but still, I fear readers will rebel early on. So I have my chapter quotes. I'm going to comedically deal with all the similarities between this book and the last one in a long, running commentary with my self throughout the quotes.

So that's one more book they've survived.

Now you might ask yourself why this is stage zero? Because all of you don't use Dramatica. You can handle all the brain storming and the themes yourself, although I'd recommend reading their Grand Argument Theory. That link will get you started.

But you can plot without Dramatica. You can even use the Grand Argument Theory without Dramatica. Dramatica just tracks it all for you.

That was a long stage, but the real core of my system, I regularly go through in my Plot a Story in an Hour panels at local cons. So you can do those in an hour. Obviously. Now, those are pretty crappy plots, but that should give you an idea about how things can move once the juices are flowing.

Another long post. I'll see you next week for Phase One.