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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Writing as a Battle Strategy

It’s no secret I’m a planner while many of my crit partners are pansters, and while I’m not the most organized person in the world, inside my little world of writing...I am. When I take on a new project, I have several strategies in mind before I even write the first word.

And yes, I’m just weird enough to think of writing as a battle plan. The first thing I want to do is organize my troops and battle plans. I set out to get to know my characters with questionnaires, and I insert a basic outline. I utilize, create, and procure all kinds of maps: maps of the state or country, maps of the town. Then I get down to the nitty gritty and draw my own maps of the lay of the land and the setting where a majority of the story takes place. I use a dry, erase board to plot and index cards to outline. I don’t do anything more than write a basic sentence for each index cards. I want my outline as loose as I can get it, because at this point I know it will change. Several times.

I’ve always felt that knowledge is power and I can’t see myself going into battle without first preparing myself. But once I get most of the paperwork out of the way, I feel like I need to write the first chapter (or three), or at least what I perceive as the first chapter, because it often changes and gets tossed out. But it allows me to get a feel for the story, set the tone, and it introduces me to my main characters. The first goal I have is to strategically set my reader up in my world with as little words as possible.

Once I’ve done this, I need to set my battle plan into motion by invoking change in my character’s world. This, as you may know, is your first plot point. Your point of change where you characters' world gets thrown into chaos. They need to react to the change and begin to build their own strategies.

If you’re using the three act structure, this is the point of your battle plan where your characters attempt to fix everything and fail. Several times in fact. This is the slow, steady climb to the black moment. And this is where I often stall out, stray from my outline, or just get plain bored. So in order to get myself back on track, my strategy often includes a re-outline. More than likely, this is where I will include a more detailed outline. I can insert characterization hints into scenes and know exactly when the hero reveals to the heroine that he loves her because I insert the many stages of the love affair into my outline. By the end of a finished product I’ll often have at least three outlines. The current WIP, The Devil’s Defiance, has three and we’re only on chapter nine. I have half the book to go. Lucky me.

Once I’ve re-outlined, then I realize that I need up the stakes and increase the conflict until I reached the black moment. By this time, the tension should be wound so tight the reader can’t bear to take a single breath for fear of missing something. Not only should my outer conflict be moving along nicely, my characters have usually pinpointed and attempted to face their inner conflict at least once without success. It’s an intricate woven web of inner and outer conflict that makes a story work. It’s hard to determine which moves the story along more because they’re so intertwined. And THAT, my friends, makes good storytelling.

Setting up my black moment can often take me several days. I can often see this set of scenes in my head but getting them on paper takes work. My battle strategy is to get my outline down on paper where I can see, more than likely I’ll use index cards. I’ve been known to switch scenes, take them out, put more in and completely re-do the last half of my story before. But I can see the finish line from here so it usually isn’t that difficult to completely rewrite my outline here.

I also bring out my maps. I have a very detailed battle scene in a story that will be released next year called The Valkyrie’s Vengeance. It’s an epic battle and probably the largest in-scale scene I’ve ever written. It was very difficult just to see it all played out in my mind, much less put in on paper. So I broke out my maps. I drew map after map, and many of them looked like the scribbling of a football play. This guy runs over here, this guy catches the ball lol. It was a unique learning experience, to say the least, but it also taught me my biggest lesson in writing. Because I am so disorganized in real life, I needed to be organized in my writing life. Otherwise I had no clue how to get where I was going. So drawing these sketches, maps and outlines through my writing process helps me organize my thoughts into something I could see. Apparently, I am a very visual person, and this is what helps me get the words on paper.

So my writing process sounds very complicated but it works for me. It took me fifteen years to come up with and then perfect my writing battle strategy. I know many of you are pantsers, but do you do anything before you write the story or do you just sit down and write? What is your process and how complicated does it get?    


  1. Suzie, I love that you draw your your battle maps and whatnot. This is a great way of looking at it. Like you, I'm one of the rare plotters in these parts. Funny enough, I wrote my most recent project without an outline at all. It refused to fit into one. So for one short project, I was a pantser and not a plotter... I was shocked that I couldn't even sit down and do my character charts and whatnot ahead of time. I discovered who my characters were as I wrote, apart from a few very basic details that I settled upon before I wrote.

    Much like you, I'm supremely disorganized in real life, and I don't write well that way (usually). So I start a project out by getting to know who my characters are with very detailed charts and maybe an interview or two. These can go on for pages and pages for my two main characters. Then, once I have a pretty good idea of who they are and what makes them tick, I sit down with a stack of note cards. I write scenes on them, and then try to settle those scenes into a basic order. I try to keep the note cards limited to only 2 or 3 sentences, so I've got plenty of wiggle room. And then as I write, I often discover that certain scenes need to be reordered, or that there need to be some in-between scenes to flesh things out a bit more.

    Since I started using that method, I haven't had any major rewrites, where I've had to completely re-envision the plot in certain places or where I've had to flip around the order of things within the manuscripts to make it work the way it should. It seems to flow well for me.

    And now, I guess I can't really call myself either a plotter or a pantser, since I've successfully done both. LOL.

  2. Mindy I find that fascinating that you can go back to being a panster so easily. I think I'd drown in my own words. lol.

    I was once a panster through the first two maybe three ms's and I rarely ever finished a ms or I would write myself into a corner. But shortly after I joined this crit group I found a website detailing plotting. I tried it out. That was it, I figured out what made it work for me. After three years of using this method, I've cranked out more ms's than ever before and each time I'm getting them done a little faster. It's great. I truly believe trying new things as writers can help us figure out our own method -- even if you fail doing it, you'll know that's not the right method for you.

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your process. I am in total envy of your ability to do both!

  3. I'm like you, I need to be able to see parts to keep it going straight.

  4. Sooo .... when I thought I was a planner I really wasn't. LOL. I never got that detailed before and I'm actually glad I didn't. I probably wouldnt get any story written to the end. LOL The surprises are nice. I dont think I'd write as fast as I if I was planning that many details. But I'm reading research material all the time so maybe that helps too. Thanks for sharing your process.

  5. So glad I'm not the only visual person, Aileen. And Heather, I probably do spend entirely too much time on prewriting which is probably why it takes me six months or more to write a full novel. But it helps me get it all straight.

    So glad you both stopped by! Thanks!

  6. You mention a plotting website? Do you happen to have the link? I'm beginning to realize I might need to make the pants to plot switch, because I have three manuscripts I've managed to do just what you said - wrote myself into a corner and now it's a huge job to fix it. I find myself going back and having to change something in chapter 5, which makes over 100 pages useless.

  7. Lorenda, yes I have it and it's wonderful. Here's the link to the website: http://storyfix.com/

    Here's one that specifically helped me out. Then follow the all the story structure posts. I even bought his book on Story Engineering. I highly recommend Larry Brooks for those who want to try plotting. But go slow and only incorporate one step at a time. If you've never plotted before, then first try a basic outline. If that helps then start to add more plotting details. But go slow. http://storyfix.com/story-structure-just-possibly-the-holy-grail-of-storytelling

  8. Thanks. I ran across the snowflake method, but lost interest when I was supposed to write down every tiny thing about my characters' appearances, and I never went back. Maybe my loss, I'll never know.

    I'll take a look and see how it works for me.