5 Ways to Plan Your Story

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(1) A Basic Outline:

Start with the big plot points. For example, when does your main character enter a new reality or embark upon a journey or quest? That’s the demarcation line between the old story world and the new. If you’re doing a three-act structure, this will be the beginning of Act II. It’s often a great place to start.

You’ll want to go through each Act and list your scenes. You can be as basic or as detailed as you’d like.

(2) The Reverse Outline:

Mix it up! Start at the ending and unwind from there. The kingdom is saved, but not before a final battle in which the hero is injured, but not before he has one last tryst with his true love, etc. Rewind the clock to explore how you can reach the ending.

(3) Milestone Moments:

Maybe a full outline is too intimidating. I tend to fall in this category. What I do instead is focus on the big events that I know must occur for the character to make her way from point A (beginning) to point B (midpoint) to point C (resolution).  You might have any number of these moments and it’s okay to start small.

Some writers called this the tentpole approach. These are the story events that, if they were missing, the plot would fall down.

(4) Beat Sheet:

This approach might appeal to you if you enjoy spreadsheets and getting down to the details. It involves charting each beat of the story in every scene. You don’t need to include description or dialogue, just the events and developments.

(5) Draft Zero:

If outlining and beat sheets aren’t your style, try what some refer to as a “vomit draft” (sorry!) With this approach, you’re trying to dump it all out there on the page. It’s not fancy. It might not even make sense. But you’re getting words on the page, and you can fix it later.

There’s no one right way to plan your story. Even if you find a solution that works for you now, your next project might benefit from a fresh approach.

Your Authentic Writer Self

Thanks to Page 158 for the t-shirt!

The path to creating the life you want begins with knowing who you are. Brené Brown

It’s a noisy world out there. Sometimes you might feel overwhelmed or confused when trying to decide what to write.

Market trends come and go. Chasing them can become a pointless exercise.

Some people in your life may have good advice, but it might not gel with your preferences. Your great-aunt may want you to write a murder mystery, whereas you can’t stop thinking about a high fantasy. Your agent might push for a steamy urban romance, but your imagination is swirling with images of a cozy English cottage.

Who do you listen to when it comes to your writing?

I’d like to suggest tuning out the noise and dialing in to your authentic writer self.

I define “authentic writer self” as who are you (as a writer) when nobody is looking. Nobody is peering over your shoulder. You aren’t scrolling through the latest publishing advice on social media. You’re alone with your thoughts and a blinking cursor.

Your writing voice is unique just as you are. And when you approach the page authentically, you will write with more clarity, vulnerability, and insight.

As you consider your authentic writer self, these questions might help:

  • What are your favorite books (regardless of their wider popularity)?
  • What are your non-writing hobbies?
  • What stories/articles have you bookmarked?
  • What ideas/stories are you excited to talk about or share with friends?
  • What would you write if you knew it would be your last project?

My Writing Routine

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I’m often asked about my writing routine, so I thought I’d take a minute to share.

Many writers have a favorite chair and a process that involves coffee or hot tea, perhaps meditation to get in the right mindset, maybe a cute checklist or a timer ticking away.

The truth? I don’t have a daily writing schedule or anything I would call a writing routine.

I’m a full-time lawyer and mom. My days can be pretty unpredictable. If I’m traveling for work or a golf tournament for my son, then I don’t have access to my desk or favorite chair.

Also, I can be a bit hard on myself. Even if I’m the one making up a “rule” and it’s not even a “real rule,” if I break it, then I will consider myself the Biggest Failure Ever, which can be counterproductive.

So, if I say “I’m going to write fifteen-hundred words per day, no matter what,” and then an emergency hearing pops up in one of my cases, I’m either (a) staying up half the night to get everything done, or (b) I’m a Complete Failure and might as well give up writing altogether.

From my perspective, I’ve learned by trial and error that it’s good to give myself grace, to be aspirational but not necessarily judgmental.

Know yourself, of course. If you’re a procrastinator who works best with a daily word count goal, by all means go for it.

Here’s what works for me. I carry around a spiral notebook or my laptop and I jot down ideas or sentences or character sketches as they come to me. (Not if I’m driving. But otherwise throughout the day.) If I’m working on a novel-length project, I try to spend some time with it—whatever time I can reasonably accommodate—most days. That might mean tinkering with a paragraph or moving commas around. It might mean pounding out two thousand action-packed words (ha ha, just kidding, I don’t really do action-packed…). Or staring into space as I try to figure out a character’s motivation (that, I do).

Oh, and I don’t drink coffee or tea. I’m weird that way.

I would love to hear about your writing process—seriously, feel free to share—and no matter what it is, I’m cheering you on.

Writing Prompts for Summer

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Hope your summer has been good so far and that these writing prompts might be fun to play around with. Happy writing!

What is your main character’s favorite summer tradition? Did they grow up telling ghost stories by a campfire or catching lightning bugs in a jar? Skipping stones across a pond? Riding their bike?

Write about a summer treat. This might be a dip in the lake, an ice cream cone, grabbing a book from a favorite independent bookstore, getting off work while it’s still light out, etc.

What do you consider a “beach read”? What types of books do you like to read in the summer? Are they different than the rest of the year? (I haven’t really noticed any shift for me; I tend to read the same types of stories throughout the year. I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

Write about cooling down. This might involve cooling down from an argument or stressful situation. Or literally cooling down, such as an air-conditioned movie theater or a trip to the mountains.

Does your main character have any summer vacation plans? Where are they headed and who made that decision? Are they looking forward to it? Why or why not? What are they worried about? What do they most hope will happen on the trip? What might surprise them along the way?

10 Questions to Ask Your Early Readers

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Often it’s a big help to have early readers or critique partners read your manuscript and provide you with feedback. Here are some potential questions to ensure a productive process:

  • What did you like and dislike about the first chapter?
  • Where did you get bored? [To encourage honest feedback, I feel like this is better than asking “Did you get bored at any point?”]
  • Did you like the main character or at least understand where they were coming from?
  • Did the plot make sense?
  • What was confusing or unclear?
  • Are the characters sufficiently distinct or did you lose track of who was who?
  • Did the dialogue sound realistic?
  • What pulled you out of the story?
  • Was the story too long or too short?
  • Was the ending satisfying? What would make it more satisfying?

While you may not wish to ask every reader all these questions, they provide a starting point.

You can, of course, disregard feedback that doesn’t resonate with your vision for the story. But it’s such a gift to understand how various readers are interpreting what you’ve written.

Some early readers may prefer to provide feedback in a less structured way. I’ve had some who don’t provide written feedback at all, but who are happy to chat over lunch about their big picture thoughts. Based on my experience, it’s all immensely useful.

Best of luck as you engage with your early readers — hope this has been helpful!

5 Tips to Make Your Setting Come Alive

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1. Show your character interacting with the setting. This relates to the “show don’t tell” adage. Instead of telling the reader that a storm is approaching, show your character running outside to bring in the baby’s teddy bear so it doesn’t get ruined.

2. Use setting to create tension. At times, your character should be at odds with their world, whether it’s the natural or physical world. Perhaps the roof develops a leak moments before an important visitor arrives.

3. Consider senses other than sight. How does your setting smell? If your character imagines touching the faraway mountain range, would it be smooth or rough?

4. Include unusual story-specific details. The sky isn’t simply “blue,” is it? Maybe it’s an inky blue that matches the sapphire in your character’s new engagement ring.

5. Show how the setting changes over the course of the story. If your character’s life is disintegrating, their surroundings might reflect that. The progression of the seasons is another good place to start.

You may also wish to consider why your story is set where it is. Why did you choose its particular setting? If there’s something unique, some reason the story needs to take place here, then make sure to share that with your reader to heighten their engagement.