PLOT & STRUCTURE, James Scott Bell

I find this writing book pretty useful. It reminds me of basics and has a ton of ideas to help give me a kick in the pants. This post is less of a “review” and more of a summary. Here are my favourite takeaways. If you want to write a book, I’ll move from Bell’s ideas from the most general to the more specific for how to come up with one.

LOCK – Bell’s LOCK system is the core idea in the book. It stands for Lead, Objective, Conflict and Knockout (Ending). It’s super basic, but a good reminder. Keep your Lead interesting. Make sure they have internal and external conflicts and motivations. Give them an Objective, not just in the book but in each scene. What are they trying to achieve? Why does it matter? What Conflict stands in their way? What are the antagonist’s motivations and goals? How are they in direct opposition to the Lead’s? The more locked-in you can make your Lead and villain, the better. Motivation and asking Why are better for this than external circumstances.

Lastly, how will you stick the landing? You could write the best book ever but if your ending is flat, that’s what will be remembered. The way to stick your landing is to make it RESONATE. Draw on the motivation and internal character arc to make sure that how the Conflict gets resolved matters to the reader. If you can throw in a twist, even better. If you can figure out who your lead is, what their goal is, how they’re being opposed, and how the story ends, you’re way ahead of the game.

Disturbance and 2 Doorways. This is a summary of structure. You’ve got your Lead, their goal, and their opposition, and you know where they all end up, right? How do you get them there? First, you create a disturbance. This is the inciting incident that jars your hero out of their regular life. A letter arrives, they meet an old friend, someone is murdered. They can still walk away from the story, but something is different now. This is all act one, it’s setting up the things you need in motion: who your lead is, what the objective is, why it matters, and how he’ll be opposed.

The first doorway is the doorway from act one into act two, and it’s where your Lead must commit to the story. They can’t go back to the way things were now, it’s impossible. This is where it gets personal, usually. Now they have to try to resolve the Conflict and reach their Objective. They’ll probably fail, but this is what act two is all about.

The second doorway of course leads to act three. This doorway is the event/moment that sets your Lead and Conflict on a direct collision course; the climax is inevitable and the Lead has no choice but to see it through. Often this is where your Dark Moment will come in, where everything seems lost. You’re on your way to that knock-out ending you envisioned!

ARM – action, reaction, more action. Okay, so now you’ve got your general ideas sorted, you have a structure, it’s time to write your scenes, the building block of the novel! Right!? Right. Here’s what you need to know to do that: ARM. A scene is a unit of change, which sounds great, but what does that mean? With that basic but vague definition, you can end up with a lot of navel-gazing “scenes” and vignettes that don’t actually do anything. ARM gets a bit more specific. As noted, it stands for Action, Reaction, More Action. And that’s it! A scene should have those three elements. Something happens (preferably caused by your Lead), they must react to it, which sets them up for the next Action. Scene and sequel, according to Jim Butcher. Don’t get too bogged down in the reaction, but it’s a great place for realizations and character arc.

There you have it. You can write a novel with these basics and the plot might not suck. I suggest reading the whole of Bell’s book to get into more detail, of course, but this is a decent overview. The last two sections are tools and exercises Bell shares for improving your Plot game.

Deconstruction! You’ve probably heard of this one but never done it. Take a handful of your favourite books, particularly in the genre you’re writing, and go through and actually deconstruct them. Yes, write out the goal, the conflict, the outcome of *each scene*. Make a massive scene list. Bell has steps for doing this, and it’s daunting, but you can see how it would really up your own game to see what works. I plan on doing it… eventually…

Novel Notebook. We all do this already in some way, but something about Bell’s discussion resonated for me. Have a specific notebook or massive Google Doc or whatever to act as your story bible for each project. Have sections for character notes, plot, research, anything and everything you can think of to stick in one place. Maps! Collage! You name it. It’s a great inspiration tool as much as an organizational one.

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Wellness For Writers

I know the blog has been slow but it’s because I’ve been focused on one of my other passions, wellness. I’d like to combine the topics for today’s post. I’ll be blogging about health, fitness, wellness and nutrition in general as time goes on, too. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve done a TON of research on all of these topics along my disability journey and want to share what I’ve learned. There are three main topics I want to discuss about health and writers: making sure you move, watching how you eat, and biomechanics. But first: these things are important for overall well-being, not because you should lose weight or go on a diet. Life is short. Take care of yourself and be happy, whatever that looks like. And of course, disability is a real thing, chronic illness is a real thing, and these discussions are meant to be general.

As writers, or anyone with a desk job, we know the importance of moving our bodies to counteract all our time sitting. But as creatives, we often don’t think of ourselves as athletic. I know I’ve made jokes about how exercise just isn’t for me. Except it’s for everyone. And *especially* if you have a desk job.

There are countless ways to incorporate movement into your everyday. Rule number one is to take breaks. You know you need them for your concentration and mental acuity, but if you use your break time to stretch or do a bit of cardio, even better. Walk around the block, do jumping jacks, and even meditate for a couple minutes before sitting back down. If none of those sound up your alley, at least make sure you’re doing stretches to counter the effects of repetitive strain. Stand up and touch your toes, arch your back, roll your shoulders out, and bend your hands. Every hour is probably ideal, but do what you can. If it’s possible to add actual workouts into your free time away from the desk, even better, but it’s not always an option.

What about snacking? We all have our writing (or editing) foods, and if we’re being honest, they’re usually junk food! Swap that out! You are not doing yourself or your long-term health any favours with those M&M’s. (Yes, treats are great, but keep them as that, treats, not regular snacks.) Think of it this way: junk food is processed, yes? It’s primarily empty calories in the form of carbs. What are carbs designed to do? Give you immediate energy! They’re great before workouts when you need access to that fuel. But if you’re about to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting at a desk, that energy isn’t going to be used. So it’ll be stored… and you know what that means, fat. Not only that but empty calories don’t give you a feeling satiety meaning you’ll snack more than you need to. Aim for protein, fiber, and/or healthy fats to fill you up. Some easy favourites are air-popped popcorn (hold the butter and salt), cucumber and hummus, plain nonfat Greek yoghurt and berries, or an apple with peanut butter.

To be honest, I’m terrible with snacks because I don’t eat them! I’ll talk more about this in another post, but I prefer to eat three filling meals, though sometimes I’ll split my lunch into two smaller meals. Some evidence suggests having 5-6 smaller meals has health benefits, but I find healthy eating and exercise is about finding what works for you. In general, any reasonable exercise and diet plan will keep you on track as long as you’re consistent, so the trick is making sure you’ll stick with whatever you’re doing. An easy way to do that is to make small changes that you don’t even notice, like adding in those stretch breaks. Not a big deal, but impactful. Set a timer if you need to! Or make sure you’re eating a good breakfast with protein, fiber, and healthy fat. Start with that and eventually all your meals will be healthier.

The last thing I want to mention is biomechanics. This probably isn’t a subject you’re very familiar with unless you have a reason, but I think it’s paramount to general wellbeing. Yes, I mean posture! Since my hypermobility diagnosis this is a topic I’ve had to get more into. In addition to my hypermobility I have a very significant swayback. Both of these things mean my biomechanics are totally out of whack. It’s no wonder my knees constantly hurt when I constantly lock them, putting more work on my quads to boot. Or my back hurts because I’m constantly slouched over! You’d be amazed at the ways repetitive strain on various joints and muscles can add up to health problems. If you spend all day at a desk, this is a HUGE concern. Make sure your desk is set up as ergonomically as possible! Many workplaces offer assessments through HR. If not, it’s a Google search away! A very easy mantra/rule of thumb I swear by is “chest up, shoulders down.” If you lift your chest and drop your shoulders not only will your posture improve, you’ll start to engage your abs/core more by default, always a good thing. Just becoming more aware of where and how your body is in space can make a big difference for the better!

I hope this post has given you some food for thought about three major areas of concerns for desk workers. What tips or tricks do you have to deal with all that sitting?

Clean Out Your Writing Closet

My husband and I aren’t exactly minimalists, but close to it. Our bookish friends shake their head in wonder that we have only three book cases (and they aren’t all books!) and that I routinely CULL THEM. Due to my autism, I can’t stand visual noise or clutter, though, and I’m not a rereader so it doesn’t make sense to me to have a ton of books hanging around, taking up space, when I’m not even going to read them again. I buy my favourites and keep those, and even those might get rotated out after several years.

We do this with every part of our lives. Not as often with, say, our kitchen or storage, but definitely books and closets. They have a way of accumulating without notice. So this week I did my biannual closet purge. This has been a painful endeavour for me the past few times due to my health issues. I’ve gained weight and had to get rid of some of my favourite clothes because they didn’t fit anymore. I don’t have room to hang on to “what if I can wear it again someday?” clothing, especially not when I need that space for clothes that fit me NOW. Eh? Also, as a rule, my style has shifted in the past few years, and I’m working toward something of a capsule wardrobe with a specific palette. That means getting rid of clothes I enjoy but that don’t fit my new style anymore, just as much as clothes that don’t fit my body.

But if I wear them, why? Doesn’t that mean they’re part of my style? Not necessarily. We do what’s familiar, right? If I have the same clothes, I’ll wear the same clothes. If I want to shift toward a more natural, neutral, feminine/girly style from a bold, modern sexy one, I have to make an intentional shift in the clothes I wear. It’d be super easy to just wear what I’ve always worn, or not think about a style at all. So even though it pains me, some of those cutesy brightly coloured print tees gotta go.

I made the decision this spring to take a break from writing SFF. I want to focus on historical fiction. It was a hard decision, but as with my wardrobe, I can’t get where I want to go if I don’t take action to move. As writers we have more ideas than we can get to, so which are you cultivating? I wrote previously about how to pick your next project, but this is more than that. This is about intentionality within your whole writing career, and about freeing up your mental spaces.

We know never to throw anything out, right? You have a hard drive full of old half-finished stories, right? Mentally, how does that make you feel? Organize your files just as often as you would organize your closet. You don’t have to get rid of them, but maybe transfer them to an external hard drive, or hide them in an “Old Files” folder. Having a ton of writing clutter can drain you. You may feel guilt, or seeing those old files, say all of them are SFF, it may make it harder for you to realize you actually want to write historical fiction. Clean them out and see what grows instead!

REVIEW: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I am late to the party on this one but better late than never in this case. I can absolutely see why this stayed on the bestseller lists. It is a wonderful book.

To start: I LOVE mysteries. My favourite books as a kid were Nancy Drew and throughout HS and university I read a ton of crime fiction: Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Gardner, etc. I can be picky about my contemporary reads, but I’m typically sold if there’s a good mystery or a serious emotional issue. LYING has both.

This will be tricky because I’m going to minimise spoilers as best as I can.

First, the mystery. It is very well designed! I honestly kept guessing the entire time. I was never convinced it had to be X, thinking each character in turn was just as likely to end up actually the killer–though I didn’t want any of them to be! I did guess one side aspect early on but that’s it. If you want to read it just for a great page-turner, you will not be disappointed. I devoured it within 24 hours. I will say that if this were adult, the police investigation would probably not have been so abysmally handled (various things that never would have stood up in court), but it wasn’t the point of the story so it gets a pass.

Next, the characters. Honestly, they’re the heart of the story! Mysteries are usually plot focused, and while the plot doesn’t disappoint, the characters are unexpected gold. (Well, actually, not unexpected: this is YA and we do character relationships like we breathe.) The way the “Bayview Four” interact as the novel goes on is presented so well, as well as each individual character’s personal relationships outside the investigation. This was frankly my favourite part. There’s a bit of romance but it’s done smartly and in a healthy way. People don’t fall in instalove, they don’t end up together Because Romance, and one character even decides to remain single, which is absolutely the best decision for them, and I LOVED seeing it. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite character from this book if you pushed me.

I always get nervous when mental illness is introduced into a narrative, but it was well handled here. It was neither the scapegoat for bad behaviour nor an excuse for avoiding accountability.

Frankly, I overall loved this book, would recommend it wholeheartedly, and am glad I only have to wait roughly six months for McManus’s next book. 5/5

How to Pick a Project

Something I don’t see talked about much is how you decide what to write. I obsess over it, but then, I obsess over everything. If you’re like most writers, you have at least a half dozen ideas competing for your attention at any given moment, or maybe you just need to pick between two. If you’re agented, your agent will have advice for a long-term career trajectory, but if you’re not agented, or you self-pub, how do you decide?

If you’re writing a series, this question answers itself, right? Not exactly. If you’re self-pubbing, yes. If you’re querying, no. Agents often caution against writing the second book in a trilogy immediately in case the first book doesn’t sell–or in case you don’t get an agent for the first book, you can’t exactly shop a second book on its own. I think this is excellent advice. So what do you write instead? (Or, if you aren’t a series writer.)

Before all the series writers scream, “But my babies!” I have a suggestion: write a proposal for book two. A synopsis that shows what you expect to happen in the book with the ending spelled out, a blurb, and about 50 polished pages. That should scratch the itch, feel like you have something to show, but not tie your hands.

Then what? Many writers like to write across genres, and that is totally okay. If this is you, and you want to just write whichever direction the wind takes you, check out someone like Tess Sharpe who pulls this off with finesse. Her organizational skills amaze me, and I believe there are few things that can’t be made better with spreadsheets. If you’re not that person, or if you’re willing to strategize (not that writing multigenre doesn’t require strategy–it requires buttloads) here’s what you can do instead.

Pick the project that is most similar in style and audience to the one you’re querying. If you snag an agent, this gives them a “back pocket” book to try to sell along with your first book in a two-book deal (if it’s not a series). If the first book doesn’t sell, you’ll have a fresh manuscript to query, and if it does, you potentially have a second book ready to go. If the first book is a series and the series sells, you then have a new project reserve for when you’re in series burnout or that can be sold to keep your name on the market if you can work that fast. It’s basically a win-win-win.

This might seem super obvious, but when one idea is screaming at you and it’s completely different from what you otherwise write, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.

#YYC Eats – Some Calgary Restaurant Faves

I love to eat. It’s no secret; it’s even in my bio that I love food! I don’t eat out much partly due to budget and partly because my husband I enjoy cooking, but I wanted to put together a list of some of my favourite restaurants and dishes in the city. I was surprised–I never really think of Calgary as a foodie city, unless you want Alberta Beef, but we’ve got some really good gems, and I don’t just mean the hipster joints in the RED (Restaurant and Entertainment District, AKA 17th Ave). Here are some favourites, in no particular order.

Breakfast/Brunch:

  1. Phil’s – OK, this is a classic diner, nothing fancy, but I lived in New Jersey which is known for only two things, its shore and its diners, so I get nostalgic. Their shredded breakfast potatoes are how hash browns SHOULD be.
  2. Heart’s Choices – this vegan staple makes The Best chik’n and waffles, but be prepared to wait; they’re super popular.
  3. La Boulangerie – whenever I miss for Paris I go here and grab an almond croissant or a dark-chocolate and orange brioche, but everything is delicious.

Lunch/Dinner

  1. Ox Tapas – their patatas bravas are out of this world, and you need to have the chocolate torte with olive oil and almond crust at least once in your life.
  2. Cardinale – go for the homemade pasta. Seriously. My friends also think the After 8 1/2 cocktail and the panna cotta should not be missed, but I cannot vouch personally.
  3. Los Cholitos – NACHOS NACHOS NACHOS NACHOS NACHO
  4. Jinya Ramen – not the trendiest ramen joint in town, but their classic chicken ramen is just perfect on a cold Calgary winter night.
  5. Himalayan – literally everything on their menu is amazing. My personal favourite is the lamb Himalayan style.
  6. Chimac – this new Korean restaurant has beaten out my favourite Korean standby due to its amazing homemade kimchi. If you think you don’t like kimchi, try theirs. It’s so refreshing! Their ramyun is amazing and so is their traditional Korean fried chicken.
  7. Tamarind – another vegan staple, sometimes I just get a craving for their paradise rolls (summer rolls) and their tofu bun. Great portions too.
  8. Sho – my favourite sushi in the city, try the dynamite roll and the fire dragon roll.
  9. Buchanan’s – go during Happy Hour and their burger is only $12. They grind the meat in-house so you can order it rare! Yay!
  10. Logos Bakery – to be fair, I have not had many other places to compare to, but I love the variety of stuffed buns you can get at this Asian bakery.

To be fair, there are still so many places I want to try and haven’t. I’m still looking for my favourite tacos, steak, pad see ew, and dim sum, for instance. If you’re local and you’ve got any leads on these, let me know! Also, there are several YYC staples that I have eaten at that don’t make this list (The Coup, Anejo, Mercato). They just didn’t cut it for me, but if you love them, cool!

The list will evolve, of course, but I wanted to record it for posterity and anyone who might see it and be visiting.

 

Character Agency

Who’s driving your plot? Does your plot move forward when things happen to your protagonist, or when they do something?

The difference might seem minimal, but it’s the difference between engaged readers and someone putting down the book. Consider active and passive voice, which is more engaging: ‘I wrote the book’ or ‘the book was written by me.’ (There’s a time for passive voice, but it’s beyond the scope of today’s post.) So it is with your characters. What I’m talking about here is agency. Agency is your character’s ability to impact her life and her world. If a character lacks agency, they seem dehumanized, an object. And it makes for a dull read when a character never actually “does” anything.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to figure out if your manuscript has this problem. The two questions at the top are all you need to diagnose a lack of agency. I find that the easiest way to fix it isn’t just to start making your character do things but to dig deep into yourself as a writer and determine why you’ve been sheltering your character! Are you afraid to make them make bad decisions or be wrong? The thing about actions is they have consequences, but reactions feel justified based on what they’re responding to somehow. What seems like such a little thing, who does what, is actually a major craft issue because from it flows not only the plot but often theme (what are you saying with your characters’ decisions) and motivation (why they’re doing it). A character who makes decisions and acts on them will have an arc based on their motivations and what the consequences of those decisions are. A character who just reacts to things that happen will not grow.

Once you figure out why you haven’t been letting your characters act, you can address it: it might be your own fears as a writer, it might be that you just need a stronger plot, or it might be that you’re too close to your character/material and need to separate yourself from them or cool off somehow. Whatever the reason, there’s a solution. When you’ve done that, THEN you can sit down and start reworking your plot for agency.

I’ll note that most often it’s female characters who lack agency so if your book has any, consider what they’re doing–even if they aren’t the main character.