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Peanut Butter Plus Chocolate Equals Better Writing

https://flic.kr/p/gVAP4D [1]
Photo by Brian Legate

When it comes to fiction writing, I am the original Poky Little Puppy. I tend to spend a long time thinking about my stories before I write them, scribbling a key line here, a paragraph there, then erasing them when they aren’t perfect and starting again.

In other words, I take too damn long to finish the book.

Some of my pokiness could originally be attributed to lifestyle: When I wrote my first book, I was a new mom and had little kids. I could barely carve out 15 seconds, let alone 15 minutes to write. So I’d jot down a few sentences here and there and see what stuck.

Some of it was rebellion: As a freelance writer, I’m used to working with an outline and on deadline.  Fiction, I’d decided, should be fun — and fun meant freewheeling the whole way.

Still, the time had come for a change. The ‘babies’ who took so much time when I started writing are now taller than me and require much less attention that I’d like to admit.  And laboring over the same book for years was becoming less fun and more like … work.

But how to morph from Poky Little Puppy to Speed Racer?  I had no idea where to begin. Until … drumroll please … the last UnCon, where two separate workshops collided in my head. Much like the candy commercials of old, the two ingredients combined to make something even better — a way to speed up my writing and improve the quality of my first draft.

What were these miraculous sessions?  The first was a one-on-one with author and writing coach extraordinaire Cathy Yardley. I’d heard other WU peeps sing her praises before — most notably our own Vaughn Roycroft — but I had no idea what Cathy actually does. [2] At the conference, her assistant passed the word around that Cathy would be holding a few free plot sessions if anyone was interested. I’d never done one, had no idea what one was, but in keeping with my philosophy of trying whatever fate threw my way at the UnCon, I signed up.

A plot session, it turns out, is where Cathy patiently pulls your incoherent story idea out of you, word by word, like a magician pulling scarves out of a hat. Only at the end of the session, you have something like a perfectly folded origami version of the Sistine Chapel, neatly tied up in red ribbon, with a legible roadmap on how to get to the real landmark, and possibly snacks as well.

Okay, maybe not quite like that, but that’s how it felt. I told Cathy my idea and she repeated it back to me, only in actual English words that made sense. She asked leading questions that led to a plot point, and then another, and somehow, from there to a climax and resolution.

Readers, I wrote these things down and wound up with something akin to a unicorn for a pantser such as myself — a coherent plot and outline.

The conference could have ended there and I would have been happy. (Well, not really, since we all want the UnCon to go on forever, but you get the idea.) And yet the next day, author and WU contributor Anne Greenwood Brown was teaching a workshop on beat sheets, to which I also trundled off, having no idea what a beat sheet was.

And BOOM, my happy little outline (the map) met beat sheets (turn by turn directions). Peanut butter, meet chocolate. Writing deliciousness!

Beat sheets essentially break down the action in a story. How many steps or beats do you need to get from point A to point D?  What happens to get you there? How many words should it take you?

Brown’s workshop (which she recreated here [3]) even shared a rough formula for how many words each section ought to be, depending on your genre.

I left the conference with an exact idea of how to write my next book. I had the plot (the general map), I had the approximate word count, and I had every major beat I needed to hit (the turn by turns).

And guess what? It has been almost exactly a year since the Writer Unboxed Conference, and I have just finished a fairly solid first draft that is within 5,000 words of what I estimated. For someone whose last book took four years to write and was 20,000 words over, it’s like a miracle.

Is it a good draft? I certainly hope so. But even if it isn’t, guess what?  I actually have it written down, so I can tinker with it and fix it.

Have I become a slave to an outline, crossed over to the land of plotters? Not exactly. But sort of. I still daydream about my story, still go off on tangents while writing — but thanks to my roadmap, I always find my way back. I can’t get lost, because when I do, I just look at my beat sheets, which spell out the plot I Cathy helped me develop.  And on days when I am not sure what to write, I simply look at my beat sheets and ask myself how to make the next plot point happen.

So how can you replicate this magic without going back in time to the UnConference 2016?

Consider talking about your book before you write it. I’ve always kept my story ideas close, fearing that if I talked about them I’d lose my enthusiasm for writing them, but my session with Cathy worked so well it has completely changed my mind.  I’ve also always been of the mindset that as a writer, I need to work this stuff out myself.  But my session with Cathy showed me how foolish I was being.

If plot session isn’t in your budget, consider brainstorming with a trusted friend. Try telling your story, in your own words, and having your friend write down what they hear you saying. Sometimes just the act of verbalizing can set you free.

Use your beat sheets. Find out what the word count is in your genre (there are many articles on this topic, or check how many words your favorite novels in this genre contain) and then apply Anne’s formula to figure out approximately where you should be hitting each beat. For example, I knew I wanted my book to be about 85,000 words. Using that as a guide, I knew my ‘inciting incident’ — the event that drives the story — had to take place at about 12,000 words. My ‘all is lost’ moment needed to come halfway, or about 42,000 words into the story, and my final crisis around 63,000.

Write down the different beats and their word counts in your story, then attach a short summary — one to three sentences — to each one. The summaries should be based off your plot session. Break it down as much as you want — include the smaller incidents, or ‘pinch points’ that Brown refers to — and when you are done, you have your roadmap.

Now, get writing.

Your turn — have you ever radically changed how you write? If so, how and why?

About Liz Michalski [4]

Liz Michalski's (she/her) first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.