Ask Questions to Nail Down Your Plot

I’ve got a pair of goals that I need to achieve by the end of March, a couple of main projects I’ve been working on this past month. First is my entry for the Writers of the Future Contest, a short story that I would love to finish in time to enter this quarter. I’ll do my best with that one, and if it isn’t quite polished enough by the time March 31st rolls around, there’s always next quarter.

My other project is the next big novel attempt. In an effort to push myself to write when I’d much rather pretend I’m a Snorlax, I signed up for Camp Nanowrimo this April. It’s just about the same thing as November Nano, but in a different month. And with more flexible word count goals and content rules. Pressing deadlines like that really get me moving through what is, for me, the worst part of writing so far – trudging through that first draft. I have a tendency to overthink my draft, sabotaging myself before the novel even gets a chance to bloom. So Nano deadlines = good. I have to finish my planning and outlining for this novel before April 1st. This goal is the more important one, as Writers of the Future is a contuous thing, but the next Camp Nano won’t be until … June? July? Something like that. And I’ll probably end up joining that one, too. (Have I mentioned I love Nano? ^o^)

This time around, I’ve been digging deep to get to the heart of my story. I’m insanely excited about this one. It’s a romantic fantasy, and will end up being young adult as well due to a lifespan issue with one of the main characters (his particular power doesn’t allow one to live much past the age of 20, if that). So, he’s 17.

I started by coming up with a brief synopsis, and as I read through and tweaked that synopsis I realized there were so many questions that I wanted to make sure I answered about this world and story – whether those answers be for myself, the reader, or both. Normally, I would just file these questions away in my brain and try to get to them when I could. I tried something different this time, something that really helped me sift through the nonsense and find the core of my story, the heart of my characters. Sounds so simple, I can’t believe it’s not something I’ve done before. 

I wrote the questions down. Went through the synopsis and wrote the questions down one by one as they came to me. What did I do then?

I answered them.

Yep. That’s it. Wrote down every possible question I could think of pertaining to my novel as a whole. Things I didn’t think ran together smoothly. Things I thought readers might notice or want the answer to. All the things that needed to be wrapped up (or cleverly not wrapped up) by the end of the book. As I answered these questions (which was really fun, by the way), more questions popped up. Wrote those down, too. 

I began to realize that as the story clarified, the synopsis needed fixing. So I went back and made the necessary changes and came up with new questions. And I’m going to continue to do this until I feel I have a good grasp on my plot and all the necessary elements of my story. Each time I’ve sat down to do this, I got to know my characters and story a little bit better. I’m bad at plotting and planning. Bad. So far, this is the method that has been the most fun for me. And once the process is done, I have no doubt that I will be able to sit down and churn out a beautiful, well planned outline.

I also have no doubt that the characters will betray my outline later, but hey. Characters are characters, right?

I’m going to give you an example using my current work in progress, just to give you an idea of where my brain went with these questions. This is the novel I’ll be writing for Camp Nanowrimo this April.

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Stormtamer Synopsis

(Version 1 – The synopsis has evolved a little since working with the plot.)

My story takes place in Cro-ath, a world laden with lightning-infused magic that has always been wild and unpredictable with a mind of its own. When a storm charged with this lightning sweeps across the land, it tears a rift into another world. The magic of the other world seeps through and proves to be incompatible with the magic of Cro-ath, tainting it with malicious intent. Strange, hostile creatures begin to traverse the rift, and it would appear that the leader of the other world has taken an interest in Cro-ath.

The world has a champion set aside for such a dark time. It falls upon the shoulders of a young hunter named Grayson to find and awaken this champion – the Stormtamer, the only one with the power to control the wild lightning of Cro-ath.

Unfortunately, someone has already attempted to awaken the Stormtamer, taking the enchanted book that will activate the power within him… as well as his memories. Without that book, Cro-ath’s champion is nothing but a hollow shell of a man stumbling blankly through a world that has gone hostile.

Grayson must retrieve this book, or find a way to awaken the Stormtamer without it. If he fails, Cro-ath may very well fall to the hands of the dark being on the other side of the rift.

* * *

Short and simple, gets to the point.

Using the above synopsis, here is the first list of questions I came up with. Verbatim, copied straight from my notebook… so please excuse any bad language ;)

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Questions: Stormtamer

  • How did the magic of Cro-ath work before story start?
  • Are these rifts to other worlds common? Why or why not?
  • How long ago was this rift created?
  • How is the new magic incompatible?
  • Compare “wild and unpredictable” with “malicious intent,” as far as the magic is concerned.
  • What are these “strange, hostile creatures?”
  • What kind of interest does the leader of this other world have in Cro-ath?
  • Now, how exactly do you “set aside” a champion?
  • Why does it fall to Grayson to wake the champion? What makes him so damned special?
  • Who is the Stormtamer? How did he come to be? Is he mortal?
  • Who attempted to awaken the ST? Why? And why/how did they only take his instruction manual?
  • What’s the purpose of locking away the ST’s power and memories? Particularly, why into a book? If it’s so important that the ST have this power and his memories, why the fuck would they be put into an item as potentially flimsy as a book?
  • The world has “gone hostile.” How so?
  • First, it falls to Grayson to wake the ST. Now, he’s the one who has to find the ST book. Again, what makes him so damned special? Why him and not someone more powerful?
  • Can the ST be awakened without the book?
  • If Grayson fails and the ST remains an empty husk, what will happen? How, and on what sort of timeline?
  • Who’s this “dark being” on the other side of the rift? Why does he want Cro-ath? What will happen if he gets Cro-ath?
  • Are there any other main characters?
  • Are there any subplots, and if so how do they enhance my main plot?

* * *

Not a very long list, but I felt these questions asked about all of the vital points I needed to make sure I paid attention to. Don’t be afraid to really challenge your ideas with these questions. I’ve already gone through this list and discovered what I needed to know about the Stormtamer as a character, not as a champion. I’ve made notes on how to revise the synopsis, and I’m making another question sweep this evening. I even gave the synopsis to my husband and asked him to go through it from a reader’s point of view, passing on to me any questions a reader might want to know the answer to as they journeyed through my novel.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because it was fun for me to get myself to think this way about my novel, and it helped a lot. I simply can’t plan my stories trying to keep the important questions organized in my head anymore. I have trouble with structure and plotting, so if you’re anything like me this might help you to stay focused. The nature of a question gets my mind working critically to find the answer, and so far it’s been a lot more effective than anything else I’ve tried.

And that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Experimenting with different methods to discover your very own planning and writing style.

Until next time!



Mental Illness and How it Affects my Writing Life

Recently, the authors of put up a podcast episode with Robison Wells as a guest speaker. The ‘cast was entitled Writing and Personal Health, and in listening to it I learned that Mr. Wells is an author whose writing has often been affected by mental illness. He is extremely open about this aspect of his life, and there was something so honest and genuine about him and the fact that he’s willing to talk about it freely that I myself felt like a coward. Robison Wells has identified his mental illnesses, and though he has said they’ve affected his writing, he hasn’t let them get in the way of his dream. In fact, he has said that having personal experience with mental illness can ultimately help your writing, as you have a constant source from which to pull authentic emotions and inner conflicts that can serve to enhance your characters.

My thanks to Robison Wells for being so open on the subject. If he has affected me – one single writer – this much, then certainly I should pass on the information. If you suffer from mental illness that affects your writing life, I encourage you to listen to this podcast ~ Writing and Personal Health. Twenty minutes that might help change the way you view mental illness, like it did for me.

Because of Robison Wells and this podcast, I was inspired to be more open about my own mental and emotional issues – not only open to those around me, but to myself as well. There is no doubt that these things interrupt my writing quite often. Sometimes I get the urge to blame them for my “off” writing days and my lack of progress. But that’s not fair. In truth, I can find ways of working around – or with – my issues to become the author I want to be. Many other authors have done it, have conquered that obstacle and turned it into something useful. Mental illness has become a readily available scapegoat that I have used far too often. But no more.

For the record, I’ve been diagnosed with a cyclic mood disorder that is similar to bipolar disorder. This makes it extremely hard for me to stick with one project at a time, as my moods, tastes, motivations, and even personality jump around, sometimes even day to day. Along with this, I deal with good old fashioned depression and anxiety. It seems I am doomed to be depressed for life, as it always comes creeping back after attempting to treat it. Not that I’m the most compliant patient, though.

Most often I try to ignore these things, try to fight them and do things the way I want to regardless of how futile that battle might be. But maybe it’s not about ignoring them and fighting them. Maybe it’s about working with them to develop a writing plan and style that’s right for me, mental illness and all. Rejecting and refusing to acknowledge these issues is, in essence, rejecting a part of who I am. Not necessarily a part I enjoy, but it is nevertheless a part I must learn to accept. If it means having multiple projects available for me to choose from that allow me to ride – and utilize – the waves of my ever-changing moods, then that’s what I should do.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those types that gets angry about being on psych medication and I tend to stop them without consulting my doctor. Terrible, yes. But that’s something I’ll have to change, because so far medication has been the only thing that will even scratch the surface of my depression. Anxiety comes and goes, and if I notice it ramping up I back off on the caffeine, give myself some alone time, and I’m good in an hour or so.

Life is hard enough without fighting myself over something that seems like it will always be an integral part of who I am. It’s funny, but I’ve always been a huge advocate of being yourself and not being afraid to show the world who you are regardless of what anyone else says or thinks. With that in mind, it seems a little backwards for me to deny my mental illnesses simply because I don’t want them to be there. It’s not about wishing you were different, it’s about accepting who you are, flaws and all.