I have always been a planner. And I’m not usually over the top–although I can be–but some amount of planning goes into every one of my stories. It’s usually just a rudimentary outline (see 7-point story structure) and a rough idea of setting, conflict, and characters. Most of the time, that’s enough to keep me on track.
However, as I’ve been diving into Book 2 of my series with ACHILLEA, I’m trying to crack down on a lot of what I know my weaknesses are. Chronology and seasons, how much time does my book actually cover, little hints and breadcrumbs, military details, where I put Rauden’s scars, etc. As my books have evolved, I’ve added a lot of minor characters and I have apparently drifted slightly from where my main characters were. For example, I looked back over my notes on Lyda, Sielle, and Naniha, a group of three friends and Achillea’s first recruits. In my mind now, they’re older than I originally intended. Fun thought experiment, I asked my friends at the Dead Pete Society how old they thought my characters were, and I got a range of reactions:
Kathi said 17-20. Jori said 16-18. Frankie said 20-26. I had them written down as 18-22, and in my mind, they’d become somewhere between 20-24.
Then I asked who they thought was oldest, and who was youngest.
Kathi and Jori agreed Naniha was the oldest, Lyda the youngest. Frankie thought Naniha was the youngest, and Lyda the oldest. Originally, Lyda was the youngest, but now my brain thinks she is the oldest. I find it interesting…Kathi and Jori have a closer handle on where I originally placed my characters, but Frankie seems to share my now-brain.
I clearly had some work to do.
I have character sheets for all of my characters in Scrivener, but as each of my books has its own file, this became a bit of a pain. And yeah, I know I can export/import from one book to another, but even that became a pain as I added and subtracted characters because I had to make sure it was consistent across all of my books.
And since I plan to take the series into at least seven books with a set of spin-offs, I knew I had to be more organized this time. You can’t just race off into the sunset and chase a series without being completely, one hundred percent in control of your setting and your characters. If people fall in love with my series as I hope they will, they’re going to catch on. I need to know this world and these people better than anyone.
So I made another book. A physical one. I have a weakness for office supplies, and that most certainly includes blank journals and notebooks. So I repurposed a journal that my friend got me for Christmas into a character reference. Every character gets a page, even if I only put them in the book to kill them off later. If I need to, I’ll start another journal, but so far this one has everyone in it with about half the pages to spare.
I gave each character the following details:
- Name, with pronunciation and applicable nicknames
- Age at the founding of Vaethrre (my city), including birthday (because I might need that) based on what I think their astrological symbol is. (Okay, look…I don’t REALLY ascribe to this belief…but there are people who read this that might). For example, Lyda sounds like a Virgo, so I put her birthday in that range. This will help me keep their ages straight as the books progress, provided I can keep my damned timeline straight (this is the challenge).
- The top of each page has their D&D alignment (Lyda is Lawful Good), their Meyers-Briggs personality type indicator (Lyda is an INFP), and who I think would be a good actor/actress for them (right now Lyda is marked as Natalie Dormer…her inability to properly smile because she always smirks is a shoe in, and Natalie looks badass with short hair)
- Physical appearance, especially important if someone changes theirs later (like Heike does, or when Lyda gets new tattoos).
- Personality; this is their concrete personality, what is less likely to change. PTSD or character shifts are added in later to the Notes section. Sielle hates apologies and refuses to apologize herself. This won’t change. But her extreme bitterness to the point of potential self-destruction is an added change and will go into the Notes section. That’s something that may eventually be undone. I haven’t decided that yet. For her to suddenly appreciate apologies would be out-of-character, however.
- Family connections
- Motivations; What are they trying to achieve? Everyone is motivated by something, even if their ultimate goal is just to be left alone.
- Conflicts; what adverse forces are working against the character? Lyda takes issue with cruelty, and she steps in when she believes those around her are acting unfair or vindictive.
- Love interest(s), including whether or not they have an ‘aya’, the equivalent of a True Love in my stories (in ACHILLEA, ‘true love’ is a very real thing. Kind of.).
- Their opinion of the Warden (more or less ‘God’), if they have one.
- Secrets; Lyda is a very private person and she keeps a lot of her own desires to herself.
- Fears; Myen is afraid of heights and horses
- Dislikes; Heike hates cheese
- Likes; Kirae has a fondness for conversation and company
- Weaponry; Heike has 54 different bladed weapons. At some point, I intend to list them all, but I don’t want to accidentally end up with 58 in case anyone is counting.
- Notes; I left a big blank space here for most of the characters depending on how long I intend to keep them around. Myen and Heike get several pages each, but cameo characters like Carme (who works at the hospital) only get a page.
Then I put a Table of Contents at the front, and voila! I’m good to go! Now I can use this handy dandy notebook for all of my books. And hopefully, I’ll never get lost again!
S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print) and short fantasy A SHINY FOR TRICK (forever free for your entertainment!).
Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!
This is now part four of a series about how I write stories. You can find previous posts here:
In this one, we’re going to discuss a few tips for how to strengthen your work. This one kind of assumes you know what you’re working on and what you want to achieve.
Remember, this is just a discussion of things that I do. You should pursue your own way. My way is not the only way nor is even perhaps correct.
Embrace Your Style
The way that I write is character-driven. In this style of writing, the focus is on character development and relationships between them more than anything. I’m not out to create a generic, lovable, relatable hero to attain glory in a magnificent plot. I’m not attempting to pursue a classic tale of good vs. evil. I’m not particularly poetic. I’m no good at spinning a mystery. I don’t have the patience for sweeping setting and excruciating detail.
When I write, I want you to know the people I write about. I want you to feel for them. I want them to hurt you, and I want you to get excited, bite your fingertips, throw the book in frustration, and cry.
For me, the plot is a vehicle.
There will likely be plenty of writers who don’t like the way that I write or say that I don’t know what I’m talking about…and that’s fine with me. I write because I like it, and because my readers like what I do. This is my distinct style.
“Great chapter, each one makes me feel so many different emotions and is sooo addicting.” -Reader, on one of my fanfics
Could I improve? Of course. I always aim to do so. But I don’t believe my style will change because so far, it hasn’t. Every piece I write is strong in character emotion and not overly focused on worldbuilding (this, I am working on). I know my strengths and weaknesses and I have areas I am working to improve.
But for this blog entry, I’m going to try to tell you how to do what I’ve just described. How do you hurt a reader?
For starters, you make your characters real. Make them human. Give them flaws and aspirations, fears and secrets. I could go on for months about character creation alone, but to pull off a character your readers can never forget, you have to make them unique and possessing of a powerful personality–not an overbearing one…just deep and complex.
Real people fuck up. Kind of a lot, actually. Characters shouldn’t always have a full understanding of every situation and how their words and actions are going to affect those around them.
Real people can be wrong. Characters that always know exactly what is going on or exactly what a person meant by what they said are boring.
Real people don’t miraculously have the answers. Knowing exactly what to do in every single situation is simply not feasible.
People don’t all talk with the same cadence. Everyone has their own style, whether they’re loud and boisterous, unable to keep their mouths shut, shy and quiet, formal, or crass.
Make your characters interesting and readers will be drawn to them for different reasons. Don’t aim to make every character likable. I don’t like everybody, for example. You probably don’t either. Hell, I don’t even like half the people I meet. If someone is completely irritated by one of your characters, so be it. So your character is annoying. At least your reader feels something for them, even if they are just counting pages until he or she dies.
Prepare for Death
Character death is marvelously fun. But in order for a death to be meaningful, you have to prepare your reader for it.
And I don’t mean prepare as in, let’s soften the blow so the reader is ready for this.
I mean quite the opposite. Let’s make this really hurt. And to do that, it takes a little bit of lead up. Don’t kill a character right away (unless that’s how your story starts, of course). Spend some time developing that character. Give the reader time to get to know them, to love them, to care about them.
And then off the character.
Better yet, leave that character’s story slightly incomplete. Like, maybe they were on their way to fulfill their life’s dream and now will never get to, like telling someone they were sorry or that he or she loved that person.
Make it slow. Don’t kill them off too suddenly. Give it time to sink into the reader so they have time to freak out properly, wondering if you are really doing this to them.
Make it resonate. Refer back to the character or bring up things that remind people of them for a long time to come. Break your other characters with this death. Make this death count. Let chaos reign.
Complete the cycle. Let the grieving happen. The anger. And the healing.
Rhythm & Pacing
Certain types of scenery will have a certain ‘feel.’ I try to capture this with the word choice and rhythm. Sometimes, I use longer, flowing sentences (word people will tell you that long sentences are bad). Sometimes, I go shorter. There are occasions when the sentence calls for angry, clamoring words like crash, slam, and crunch. When the situation is softer, use softer words like whisper, brush, and press.
Certain scenes also need a certain pace. When we’re in the middle of the action, we should get to the point. This isn’t an anime. We can’t take time out to rehash a backstory. Actions are often rushed, chaotic, confusing, and high-intensity. By contrast, a seduction would take more time. The pacing should be more drawn out, slow, and rife with sensations.
You should always consider the reader. Is what you have written and the way you have written it going to be an invitation to skim the words? Or do you have them riveted?
I am also a huge fan of the one-line sentence. This would be a sentence that is given its own paragraph to stand out and have more impact. This is about as close as I get to poetry.
The months slid past, a continuous cycle of the same old shit. Fighting, planning, predicting, being wrong, patching up wounds and moving on. In time, she almost had herself convinced she’d dreamed it up, sliding back and forth between both opinions as often as the sun set in the west and rose again in the east. He either kissed her or hadn’t. He either loved her or didn’t. She either dreamed it, or it was gorgeously real.
Of course, she couldn’t just ask. What if it wasn’t real?
What if it was?
Chapters should be as long or as short as required to complete the concept. A good rule of thumb is for a chapter to be the proper length to finish in a single sitting. I shoot for between 1500-5000 words per chapter, which is 6-20 pages in a paperback novel.
Every chapter should be like a mini book, with its own conflict, climax, and resolution. It should feel like a satisfying endpoint that wraps up the chapter.
If possible, you should try to leave it on a cliffhanger. If you can get the reader to convince themselves that they have to read one more chapter, you’ve succeeded.
One of the hardest things is detaching yourself from a fragile ego. Somewhere along the way you start to question your own writing.
- What if this offends someone?
- What will people think of me if I write this?
- What if my family/friends read this?
- Can I really let anyone read this?
- Is this too dark?
- Should I shy away from this fucked up thing?
- Is this too bold?
Forget all of that.
Now, let’s walk that back a little bit. Because you don’t want to be completely offensive. But if your character is offensive because your character is an asshole, let that go. If your character is offensive because you secretly wish to offend someone and you’re living vicariously through a character, you have a different problem entirely.
But don’t shy away from what the book needs, even if it takes you down dark and twisted rabbit holes. You don’t have to publish it if you’re concerned…but if your book has a direction it’s pulling, you should at least indulge it just to see.
I once wrote an erotica fan fiction (yes, me.). It was a bit on the darker side and a bit on the controversial side, and when I mentioned it in conversation on the internet one day, I got shredded by a troll on Tumblr. I almost trashed it. A couple months later I got brave and just posted the whole fucking thing.
I wrote up a big ol’ disclaimer. 5000 words of explaining myself. And then I trashed the disclaimer and instead wrote this:
Got ripped apart on Tumblr by a vicious troll while I was writing this and got cold feet. I wrote it in October and am only posting it now.
I wrote a 5000 word disclaimer, then discarded it.
My final verdict on me writing this: there was a story in my heart that needed to be told. I told it. You don’t have to read it, but I DID have to write it.
Flames will be deleted and I won’t respond to them.
Any questions, feel free to ask them.
That said: excessive trigger warnings… you’ve been warned.
If they hate it, they hate it! I had to write it!
And it quickly soared to my number 2 story, only a runner up because the #1 story is 3 years older than it is and had a lot of time to rack up views. I get the best, most heartfelt, fervent feedback from it.
Because there are things we don’t talk about…but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to.
Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!
This is a continuation in a series of posts I’ll be doing about my own writing process. If you’re just coming into the conversation, please read this first. I don’t want anyone to feel daunted by my process. As NaNoWriMo forums are fond of describing, there are Planners and Pantsers. By that, they mean there are writers who prefer to write with a plan, and there are writers who prefer to wing it and fly by the seat of their pants.
I am a planner.
If you’re a pantser, planning can be intimidating. That’s why I would prefer if you read my previous #WriteTip post, which seeks to convince you that your own style is superior to mine because it is your style and you’ll get to know it best. I present my own methodology for two reasons:
- People sometimes ask about it, and
- It might help someone else find their way.
Planners, in General
There are multiple ways a writer can go about planning their work. The first thing you need, obviously, is a kick-ass idea. From there, there are multiple tasks you can do, such as:
- Drawing maps or sketches of characters, settings, clothes, creatures, etc.
- Filling out character sheets that add detail and personality to your characters
- Build a world, like making a character sheet for your setting
- Browse the internet for images, people, maps, etc. that inspire you relative to this story
- Outlining/plot mapping
- Talking with a friend
Any and all ideas are fine. I even change up my method from story to story, but there are similar elements no matter which story I write, so I’ll go into them here.
How I Start: Index!
The very first thing I do is whip up a Google Sheet (Microsoft Excel for Google Drive). I make a skeleton outline for chapter number, chapter name, and chapter description. Sometimes, if I am feeling especially plantastic, I’ll also put a ‘last edit’ date, a timeline marker, estimated percent completion, a section for other notes, and whose perspective I am following if I am writing more than one.
I can do this in Scrivener as well, but I’m still rocking this part of my process old school. In Scrivener, you can make a new page for each chapter, and each chapter has an ‘index card.’ It essentially works the same way, I just don’t love it. I have always been a fan of spreadsheets. They’re simple, easy to use, easy to organize, and easy to modify.
For the chapter description, I just keep it really simple. What am I hoping to accomplish in the chapter? For THE BLOOD OF NERYS (whose master document this is), Chapter one says:
The opening scene is Wex dying of the disease. Berge brings in an ONEG and they bleed him for a transfusion. Wex lives. The donor, who was already close to death, goes into shock and dies, prompting Berge to need to go out and get a new one.
Now see…in the book, ONEGs are called “Primes.” I didn’t want to use modern terminology because I hate that in alternative worlds, so I renamed all of the blood types. For my brain to wrap around it, though, I used the terminology I know best.
From this point, I CAN plan out my entire story. However, that’s not what I do next. I only do the skeleton first…I’m too excited not to plan, but not clear enough on what goes in this document. The next thing I have to do is know my plot.
I then make a very rough outline of the plot. I use a technique I previously described called The Seven Point Story Structure. Basically, it’s just a physical representation of your beginning, middle, end, and the major events that happen along the way to move the story between them. Very, very simple. Piece of cake really. And it looks like actual, in-depth planning, which feels awesome.
That’s my whole book. A 7-point skeleton and an empty index of chapters. Want to guess what comes next?
I also affectionately refer to this as plot mapping. Frankie likes to use her tables and storyboards. This is basically the same thing but I don’t like to put all the time in to make it pretty. I just slap the words down and go.
I go back to my spreadsheet and I start filling it in. In my mind, I move through the plot quickly as if I am writing the book in less than an hour. My brain sounds a lot like this:
Example story: THE BLOOD OF NERYS
First, Berge carries Wex miles while he’s bleeding all over, dying. Then, he drops Wex on the lab floor, which pisses off Zanje (who’s his hot boss). They get in an argument about why the hell he dropped a dying man in her immaculate laboratory. Wex doesn’t die, but Berge has to go off to regather some supplies, leaving Wex with Zanje. Wex asks for his dog. Zanje hates animals because she thinks they’re dirty. Wex drags his own ass out of bed to go get his dog…
That bit spans about three chapters.
Each section in the outline spreadsheet will get 1-5 sentences maximum with what the chapter is about. It’s just a tiny little bookmark reminder of “Hey, this is what you were going to write here.”
I usually shoot for about 20-40 chapters. My chapters tend to be 1500-5000 words, so that gives me a 30,000-200,000 word range. I would usually aim for about 90,000, which is a moderately sized novel. I don’t limit how long a story will be, but I might try to separate the tale into several books if it grows too big. But word count isn’t a concern yet, so I won’t care until later.
So at this point, I have a plot map, and outline, and a rough sketch of the trajectory of my story.
At this stage in planning, my characters aren’t much. I know their role and their general personality. I don’t really know them as people yet. To give you an idea, at this point in THE BLOOD OF NERYS, I had this:
- Wex is similar to my roommate. He talks a lot, loves machines and gadgets, is socially awkward, and has a dog. He starts the book by almost dying, and is saved by Berge. He is employed by Berge and Zanje. Generally thinks that what they’re doing is excusable because more lives are saved than lost. His job is to deliver products.
- Berge is based on my husband. He’s a nihilistic self-serving scumbag who values nothing he can’t enjoy right now. He works for Zanje because he’s good at it and he occasionally is allowed to sleep with her. He has a pet blind weasel named Ashes who is the only living creature he cares about at all. His job is to acquire blood.
- Zanje is based on me. She’s a sophisticated, cold-hearted, merciless bitch who wants to watch the world burn. She’s also a religious zealot who disdains humanity. She cares about no one at all except for herself. She has a shifty secret agenda that not even Berge knows about. She’s a brilliant mage and blood scientist, and she is the boss. She also has all the money and all the resources, so she’s definitely the boss.
- Nerys is unbreakable and pure. She is placed in a horrible situation that she adapts to, turning what most would see as a death sentence into an opportunity to leave a positive impact on society. Her capture is the catalyst for the events of the book.
At this point, I was impatiently waiting for NaNoWriMo to begin and I wanted to write, so I learned a new trick. I wrote a mini-fic for each character. For Wex, I wrote a scene between him and his dad. For Berge, I wrote this tiny fragment of his past when he was just starting to run errands for Zanje. For Zanje, I wrote an inner monologue of how disgusting humankind is to her and how much she hates everybody. They were only 2000-4000 words each, but in doing so I got a good feel for the characters before I put them through the novel. Of course, these tiny ficlets are not included in the novel. They were just practice for me.
I also need a details page for my characters. In the details page I flesh out the following:
- Height, weight, build
- Hair/eye color, hairstyle if applicable
- Typical dress
- Family connections, friend connections, lover(s)
- Their ‘role’ in the story (ie, major antagonist, voice of reason, comic relief, antihero)
- Brief history/background of the before-plot time
- Personality quirks such as rudeness, being quiet/shy, compulsive liar, paranoia
- Tics, like chewing a lip or biting nails, fidgeting
- Likes/dislikes, hobbies
- Aspirations, goals
- Secrets they may be keeping (and who from)
- Lies they may be telling (and to whom)
- Misconceptions they believe, communication errors, mistakes
- Motivation: what is their major reason for existing?
- Thoughts/feelings regarding specific, major plot points like character death or political shift
- Alignment (ie, Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil)
- Bloodline/culture/ethnicity, if it applies
- Species, if it applies
There are plenty of resources for character creation scattered all across the Internet. One thing I will say…you can never have a character that you know too much about. The more real a character becomes, the easier they are to write. You can fling them at any situation and know exactly how they will react.
- Wex: “Let him be. He’s not hurting anybody.”
- Berge: *STOMPS*
- Zanje: *ignores completely*
Additional Planning Tools
Depending on the length and scope of the story I am working on, I might need to be even more prepared and organized. To give you an example, one of the largest fan fiction projects I ever took on was meant to be more than 500,000 words when it was complete. For that story, my cowriter and I had:
- A map
- A timeline
- An outline of war progression and position
- A character tab
- A chapter index
- An index of ‘plot threads,’ which were plot arcs that would carry throughout the novel, and how long they would last.
- a soundtrack to get inspired
- fan art to get inspired
- Several pages of ‘real-time’ conversation between our two characters to cut pieces from for certain scenes
And that’s it!
Planning usually takes me no more than a day or two. I get really excited and just pour it all out. However, I do tweak the plan and add to it as the story becomes clear. The plan changes, sometimes, too. The characters might evolve differently than I intended, or I might come up with something I like better than what I had originally.
The general idea of having a plan is just so I have a better idea of what I expect of the story as a whole without charging forward blindly.
(Actually, I used to be a total pantser. I HATED outlines. The problem with that method is you write yourself up against a wall with no plan to get out. It can be fun…you might solve the problem in new and interesting ways. However, I’ve ultimately rejected that method because it isn’t very productive. I don’t finish anything.)
I also use the plan as a means of tracking details I might otherwise forget. I write down the names of towns and villages I make up on the fly, or all of the tiny nobody characters that walk in and walk out again. I never used to do that…I got frustrated one too many times trying to remember those names, and now I avoid that.
Let me know if you have any questions, or if this was helpful at all. Anything I can do to help, I am absolutely at your service. Who knows…maybe it will end up as another blog post!
Check out the #WriteTip category for more writing advice and tools from Frankie and Sam!