Using Index Cards

No Plot No ProblemLast night, I finished reading No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty. (I admit there was a long break between starting the book and finishing it, because I was extremely busy.)

There’s a section at the end of the book that gives tips on rewriting your NaNo manuscript if you think it’s got potential. There are six steps to the rewrite, and in summary, they are:

  • Read your manuscript through from first word to last and make a note of each scene on the manuscript itself in any colour pen except red (red is strictly for editing). At the beginning of each scene write down who is in the scene and a brief summary of what happens in the scene.
  • Transfer these notes onto index cards (or a spreadsheet) exactly as you wrote them. Now lay the cards out in the order they appear in the manuscript, using a vertical divider (Chris recommended a pencil for this) to group the scenes into chapters.
  • Scan the cards, removing any that don’t move the story forward. Check the remaining for characters that don’t seem to do anything or are doubles of other characters. If a character doesn’t have a reason to be in the story, get rid of them. However, if the character is needed but their story arc isn’t properly represented create new cards and place them where they should go. Ensure all characters are well developed on the cards before moving on to the next step.
  • Now shuffle the cards and place them down in alternate ways to ensure you have the best storyline possible; not forgetting to ensure you have the best pace and tension too. You may find you have to slice and dice some more scenes/characters when you finally decide on the best layout, so delete and create more cards if necessary.
  • Now return to your manuscript and cut and past the document so that the scenes are in the order you decided was best with the cards. Don’t edit! Just put everything in the right order. If you have added scenes, type in a place marker by writing four or five lines of a quick description of the scene. Remove the scenes that you no longer need.
  • Rewrite (or edit) your story – slowly and line by line.

This sounds like a good plan for my chapters books. I’ve written two, but I feel they need improving and I thought I could use the index cards I’ve already prepared and see what happens when I follow the steps (starting at step 2, of course).

Today, after returning home from a lovely morning out (we went to see the latest Harry Potter movie and had lunch), I decided that I’d start. However, my index cards were nowhere to be found. I pulled my bedroom apart (that’s where I normally write), but nothing. I then went into the computer room and ended up having a spring clean in there too, but still nothing. I don’t know what happened to them, but they are missing and I have a strong feeling I will not be finding them anytime soon. You know that “safe place” everyone has, well that’s where they must be and we all know no one knows where that place is.

I guess I’ll be doing the steps from the beginning, instead of cheating and starting at step 2 now. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I just wish I knew what happened to those cards.

Making Magic Real in your Fantasy Writing

By Will Kalif

Magic is a wonderful aspect of Fantasy. It can add whole new dimensions to the world you are creating by bringing new dilemmas and new problems and challenges. It can also bring a fair amount of spicy and interesting conflicts. But magic is not a panacea. It should not be used to easily solve plot problems and difficulties that your protagonists face. It has to follow rules and you have to establish these rules.

Everything in your fantasy world follows rules. And even if these rules aren’t spoken they are implied and understood. Do your characters have to eat? Of course they do! If a character gets wounded in battle is there a price that is paid? Of course there is. Magic must also follow rules. It is a tool and a source of interesting material for your writing but it is not a panacea. And these rules must be understood by your reader.

There is room for a lot of creativity when it comes to putting magic in your writing. After all, it is magic! But you cannot use it as a crutch to easily solve the problems your characters come across. You should use it as a tool for adding richness to your world and for adding another level of problems to be overcome. The way this is done is with the simple rule that magic always brings something with it -something unexpected or unwanted. This something could be unwanted side effects or as of yet unknown implications. Here are some suggestions and guidelines for successfully using magic in your writing.

There is a price to be paid. This is a common technique for managing magic and you see it often. In order for characters to use magic they have to pay a price. This price could be as simple as body weakness and the need for sleep or as complex as the need to drain their own blood to cast spells. (The more potent the spell the more blood that is required.) This puts a limit on the magic.

The unknown consequences to come – Often times a protagonist uses magic without fully understanding the implications and early in a story he or she reaches new heights and later finds out there are dire consequences. This is a useful tool that serves as a way for the character to throttle and monitor his use of magic. This technique works very well because it helps in character growth. Early in the work the character is naive but develops a certain amount of wisdom as time passes.

Corruption of self – The use of magic is often tied very closely with the corrupting effect that power brings. As a character uses more and more magic he becomes morally tainted by it. This is a parable for the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The loss of something – Sometimes using magic means the loss of something. This could be the loss of physical abilities, loss of humanity or even the loss of the ability to get married. It could be anything and it is a great tool for a writer because it brings up conflicts where your characters have to carefully weigh the benefits and pitfalls of using magic. So how should you manage magic in your writing?

The first rule of thumb is to lay out the basic rules for the magic early in your writing. That way the reader isn’t surprised by the weak writing trick of having your protagonist solve problems by pulling out obscure and powerful spells. Your reader can also enjoy and understand the conflicts as they occur. Second of all you must always be clear on the ramifications of the use of magic. There is always some kind of price to be paid. And finally you must remember that the antagonist probably has just as much right to the magic as the protagonist. There must always be balance. It is a sign of weak writing if the good guys always get powerful spells and the bad guys just have clubs. Keeping this balance of power also makes for much more interesting stories. If you are using magic to solve your character’s problems you are cheating your reader. Good magic should bring up just as many problems as it solves.

Will Kalif is the author of two self-published epic fantasy novels. You can download free samples of his work at his personal website:
Storm The Castle – Creativity and Fantasy with an edge

Or you can visit his site devoted to fantasy on the web at:
The Webs Fantasy Guide

Note by Karen: I have included this post, written by a third party, on this website because it is something I am currently having difficulty with. If I’m having trouble with magic in fantasy, possibly other visitors to this site are too. I hope the post helps more writers get magic right in their fantasy stories.

Finding the REAL Problem

Last week I wrote about My Writing Future and a few days later I gave a Dilemma Update, and now I’m going to write about finding out what the real problem was.

For as long as I can remember I have always NOT enjoyed writing conflict/battle scenes. I tend to skip over the top of them when I read published novels, because I’m not interested in this part of the story. I suppose I want to skip over them when I’m writing too. However, I have written smaller – contained – fight scenes that don’t go on forever. I don’t particularly like them, but I manage. Where I have a problem is the conflict scenes that are on a much larger scale. You know the ones I mean – the Lord of the Rings or Magician type battles.

That narrowed things down for me a bit. It has nothing to do with genre, or what I had for breakfast, or my doubts about my writing…it has something to do with the actual battles in my stories. But what?

Then a friend asked me what magic my antagonist and protagonist could do. And then I was asked to describe that magic from a non-magical person’s point of view.

Excellent questions if he had asked someone who knew the answer. But he didn’t ask someone else, he asked me and he was referring to my story, which is something I should know ALL about. Right? Wrong!

Now we’re getting to the real problem. I don’t know anything…and I mean anything…about my world’s magical system. Is it any wonder I sit in front of the computer and play Minesweep or Pinball instead of writing? How can a writer weave their magic when they don’t know anything about magic? I’ve been writing long enough to know that it can’t be done. “Write what you know” means that if you haven’t done it personally, then research it until you can convince people you have. I’m a planner by nature, yet I completely pushed the details of this important scene to one side in the hope that it would write itself. And believe me…I waited for that to happen.

A simple question lead me to doing what I should have done before I started writing the short story…I researched magic. I built a magical system, I created attack and defence spells and I feel as if I can now tackle the scene because of it. In fact, the scene is three quarters written.

Here are some of the websites I visited in order to get me started in magic spells, systems, types, and how to put it all together. I hope you learn from them as much as I did.

The Rules of Matrin’s Magic by Holly Lisle – I think she’s talking about magic in one of her books, but it’s a good read for anyone wanting to use magic in their own story.

Tolkien, Fantasy and Magic by David Grubbs – This is talking about magic in the Tolkien series, but, again, it’s worth a read.

Spells of Dungeons & Dragons – Even though this one is written about Dungeons & Dragons, it will give you ideas about type of spells that your world might have.

How to Murder Your Muse

A muse is similar to a witch’s familiar, which is usually associated with a black cat. The cat is a companion to the witch, but it doesn’t do the work of the old hag (although it can be a pair of extra eyes, which I suppose she could find helpful). A muse on the other hand is meant to fill the writer with extraordinary ideas and help the words flow like the gushing waters over a waterfall. In other words, the muse is using the unsuspecting writer and is writing the novel through them.

I’m not sure I like that idea. When I finish my manuscripts I want to know that all that hard work is actually mine, and that I haven’t been something else’s vessel to get the work done.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in muses but if you insist you do have a muse and you really want to be rid of it, how do you murder that pesky presence?

You could try to trap the little devil, but I haven’t heard of anyone being successful in this task. Muses are adept at hiding just when you need them most. In fact, they take great delight in playing hide and seek and will often disappear for days, if not weeks, at a time.

You could fool it into believing you’re not ready to sit down and write, because a muse loves to appear at those times. It knows the writer gets frustrated and annoyed when it’s an inconvenient moment and that gives the muse a thrill. The excitement is heightened when the writer has absolutely nothing to write on too. Oh, how the muse enjoys that.

I must hang my head in shame, because I’m not able to tell you how to actually “murder” your muse. I wouldn’t want the authorities knocking on my door and accusing me of being the mastermind behind such an act. I believe the best line of attack is to go the other way – ignore it completely. Every time it shows its ugly head, push it to one side and don’t listen (and you’ll feel a certain amount of enjoyment after doing this for a while). The muse, however, will find this treatment intolerable. A word of warning, muses have a temper and it’s quite amusing to watch them stamp their feet and shout profanities so you’ll have to keep your own amusement in check. If you are strong enough to do this for a prolonged period (a couple of weeks should do it) then the blighter will pack up and leave.

You see, a muse wants everything its own way. It’s not interested in your plans (especially fast approaching deadlines) and it certainly doesn’t care about the assorted ideas you have. The muse looks down at its vessel as being inferior and…well, to put it bluntly…stupid. The writer must do as the muse directs or all Hell breaks out. It’s that simple.

However, we writer types know we are not inferior and we certainly are not stupid. If we sit down and think about it carefully, we don’t need the muse. All the muse is doing is dictating when we can write and what we write about. We have our own ideas and once we rid ourselves of the fearsome muse, we’ll be able to write whenever we want…and what’s more, we’ll be able to write in peace.

How to Plot Your Novel

I’ve been plotting novels and short stories for some years now, but that doesn’t mean I think I know everything that needs to be known on the subject. Because of this, I continually borrow books from the library, or purchase them if they are being sold at the right price, to ensure I’m not doing things the hard way, or I’m not forgetting to do something altogether.

I recently borrowed a book called How to Plot Your Novel by Jean Saunders. It’s a relatively old book, but in this case the content is still viable. I didn’t read the entire book (and rarely do with this type of book as I usually pick out the sections of interest to me), but I wanted to share – in point form – the main items I got from the book.

  • Find a theme you are passionate about.
  • Know the kind of book you want to write.
  • Keep the proposed length within publishing bounds and plot your novel to appeal to the widest audience.
  • Create good characters, who you know well, and who have real motivation and goals.
  • Learn how to ask yourself questions such as “What if…?”
  • Scenes and chapters should be linked together.
  • Throw the reader a curve now and then, without relying on coincidences.
  • Don’t allow your story to sag in the middle by sustaining pace and keeping control of your characters.
  • Dramatic scenes need their calming counterparts.
  • End your story without leaving loose ends, and leaving the reader feeling satisfied.

I believe the points outlined above are common sense, but should be reiterated often because it seems that many books being published these days are not paying attention to these important details. Hence, the quality of reading is lowered and the chance of the author becoming a best seller slim.

If you’re a writer and you can place a tick beside each of the above, then you’re off to a great start. Naturally, there are other items that could be put on the list too, but these are the essential ones, in my opinion.

Grouping Your Characters

Not all your characters are important. They cannot all have the starring role, or even the supporting role, but they should be important in their own way to the story. With this in mind, how do we sort the characters into groups in order to find out who should be there and who should not? To find out, we need to know what the different levels of significance are:

Level One:

These are the central characters – the main characters. These are the people the story is about, revolves around. There may only one main character or several – depending on the story. Usually short stories have a limit of one or two main characters, but novels can have several. However, each scene should focus on, or be from the point of view of, only one character.

Level Two:

These characters are essential to the story too. They often supply the conflict. This might be the third person in a love triangle or the detective in a mystery. These people can, and usually do, have a sub-plot of their own.

Level Three:

These characters are lesser characters who are shown throughout the story, but are in the background. They play a part in the story such as the murder victim or they might act as a catalyst which triggers events. They can create joy, sadness or tension, but they don’t remain for the duration of the story.

Lever Four:

These are the more incidental characters to the plot and only occur occasionally in the story. These people do things in the background to make the setting more realistic and descriptive. They are the drivers, the servants, the shopkeepers, etc and they don’t usually say much and don’t need a name.

A Plot Notebook

Many writers keep a notebook handy just in case a brilliant, or even a not so brilliant, idea comes to them while shopping, sitting in the doctor’s surgery, having a coffee, or while doing the chores. Ideas can pop into our heads at any moment. Some writers carry a notebook at all times. Others have one beside their bed or near the computer, or, in both places. And others…well, they don’t use a notebook…ever.

What goes into these notebooks?

Everything from phrases that won’t leave your head until you write them down, possible character names, story titles, full character profiles, snippets of scenes and, of course, story plot ideas.

However, you don’t have to limit the content to the above. You can, and should, include little things you discover in your daily wanderings. For example, you might see a certain type of flower in full bloom in April – this should be noted in the notebook so that you don’t write a story with that flower coming into bloom in November. How silly would you look for that blunder? You can also include alternative names for medieval occupations, parts of an aeroplane, important facts about history, political milestones, and much more.

Not only can great story ideas come from these snippets of information, you may also discover they can help keep your plots realistic (as shown in the example of the flower already mentioned). Do you have aliens come from a known planet which, after a description, the reader knows they couldn’t possibly survive on that planet? Do you have a journalist working for an ancient Egyptian pharaoh? It’s important to get things right or we lose our credibility.

Some writers use their notebook on a daily basis. Others only use them occasionally. But what about the writers who never use a notebook? How do they cope, I wonder.

Do you use notebooks?

Grab Your Reader With Conflict

by Lea Schizas

No, not conflict of interest…not conflict within your being…but conflict found in a story.

What exactly is conflict in a story? Simple…a problem/obstacle your main character needs to overcome by the end of the story. Think of it as your engine that drives your car forward. Without one your car remains idle, collecting dust in the driveway. Give your car a super booster engine and you’ll be coasting the streets with no worries. Well, until the police stop you.

In a story conflict moves your character through various situations he must overcome. This intrigues and pulls your reader deeper into the story, connecting with your character’s predicament. A character needs to have a hurdle tossed at them, makes for an intriguing situation to find out the outcome. Without an outcome, there is no magnetic charge with your reader.

Before writing your story and making up your character profile, ask yourself these questions:

1- What will be the main goal my character will face and need to overcome?

2- Who will be my target audience?

The second question is important because it will help to focus your words and subject matter to suit the appropriate audience. For stories aimed at children, your focus will need to adapt to a child’s view of the world around them. Most of the time the story is told through the character’s point of view aged a few years older than the intended audience. For example, if you aim your story for the 8 – 10 age group then setting a story for a twelve year old character would be best since kids always like to read and associate with kids a bit older than them.

What subject matter can you write about for this age group? Middle grade readers love mysteries, soft spooky tales ( no knife-wielding maniacs, head chopping, blood and core etc, more suspenseful and ‘goose-bumping tales like in the “Goosebumps” books), magical tales (Harry Potter), even teeny bopper stories like Baby Sitters Club or Sweet Valley High. These latter ones are suitable for the Young Adult market, too.

TYPES OF CONFLICTS:

Here are some examples of conflicts in some books:

– the almighty tried and successful ‘good against evil’ Think Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs…yes, these fairy tales were using the ‘good against evil’ method if you sit down and think about it. The wolves in both fairy tales were intent on overcoming their ‘so-they-thought’ weaker counterparts.

In the above examples, something stood in the protagonist’s way:

Harry tries to defeat Voldemort but problems and other antagonists along the way makes this quest difficult for him.

The Lord of the Rings finds Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring but evil and dark forces stand in his way, too.

Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needs to defeat the new order of evil, and he, too, faces many obstacles and characters along the way.

In each of these examples, these obstacles (new smaller conflicts against the bigger goal they are after) causes a reader to continue reading to find out if he’ll be successful, how he will outsmart them, and what change will this cause in the main character. Along with these obstacles, throwing in some inner conflicts alongside the outer emotions helps to cast them more as three-dimensional beings, for example:

Luke Skywalker deals with the knowledge he has a sister somewhere out there. His inner being and emotions help to make him more sympathetic, which eventually bonds the reader to him. The same with Frodo; his world has been thrown for a loop when he takes on the quest of the Ring…along the way he begins to doubt if he, indeed, is the best man for this job. Also, he questions his will power to avoid succumbing to the dark forces once he has tasted the Ring’s power.

Another example to show you what ‘inner conflict’ means:

Let’s assume your book is based on a police officer who mistakenly shoots a young child while pursuing a suspect. It’s dark in the building and the kid jumped out of nowhere with a toy gun. The police officer is suspended while the case is being investigated.

INNER EMOTIONS:

How he deals and is dealt by his immediate peers His struggle to remove the visions of the killing The emotional turmoil as he waits for the investigation to conclude. His dealings with the parents of the child he accidentally killed.

Throughout all of these emotions the one factor that will bind your reader to continue will be: How will he fare at the end of this book. The way you first portray this particular character in the beginning will be totally different by the end because of the various upsets he’s had to deal with. Show him as upbeat, nonchalant, no change at the end and you will lose your reader’s interest in the book and in you as an author.

Think of real life: if you had to go through a trauma as the officer in the example above, how would it change you? A writer needs to wear his character’s shoes and get inside his head to fully understand him. Write a story with a stick person and you get stale material. Write a story with powerful emotions and you have one interesting read.

THE ALMIGHTY ENDING

By the end of your book all inner and outer conflicts need to have reached a conclusion. Whether your character overcame or failed is not as important as making sure he tried to meet them head on. You cannot place a conflict (or foreshadow) without making sure by the end of the story some sort of a resolution was made. This is cheating a reader and they WILL notice, especially if one of those conflicts was the one he’s been hoping to see the outcome to.

About the Author of this post:
Lea Schizas is an award-winning author/editor and founder of 2 Writer’s Digest top writing sites since 2004. She is the author of the YA fantasy “The Rock of Realm” and the paranormal suspense/thriller “Doorman’s Creek”. http://leaschizaseditor.com