Brainstorming Story Conflict

In my last post, I went over some of the issues with trying to plot an entire novel in an hour, when you don’t actually need to. That’s kind of a niche problem to face, but I help run National Novel Writing Month events in my region of Massachusetts, and we have a planning workshop with limited time. While I think the Random Rapid Plotting exercise has its uses, I didn’t want to use it for our NaNoWriMo group’s Novel Planning Workshop a second year in a row.

Last year, I created a second plotting exercise. This one has been a lot more useful to me, and went over well at our group’s Novel Planning Workshop. It also combines three of my favorite things: lists, index cards, and rolling dice. While it is designed to be done in an hour, to fit into the workshop, it’s also a good exercise to pick up during the writing phase to generate more conflict.

IMG_20130215_210058

Index cards multiply like gremlins, except that throwing water on them also makes them soggy and useless.

Our group’s twelve-hour Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon is tomorrow. I need all the conflict I can come up with to get through that, so I’m going through the exercise again in preparation.

The Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You quickly write down lists of characters, attributes, places, and events. You brainstorm them if you don’t know them already. Then you roll a die a bunch of times, and do some freewriting about potential conflicts. Some things won’t stick, but it’s still a handy way to find conflict from all areas.

This year, I found out that the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise is also good for finding where you have holes in your story. I’m rewriting my very first NaNoWriMo novel (from 2007!) because I know there’s a story I love buried under a bunch of nonsense with a useless second protagonist who had no business being in the story. Stars Fall Out is now also the backstory of a character I’ve written a lot about elsewhere. That means that the world and the antagonist both changed. Trying to write those lists in three minutes showed me where I needed to do more thought work.

If you want to try your hand at the Conflict Brainstorming Exercise, download it here.

Random Rapid Plotting

Why would I until the end of National Novel Writing Month to share a plotting exercise with you? Mostly because things happened, and I didn’t get around to it earlier. But also because there’s room for plotting and planning towards the middle and end of the month. At the beginning of NaNo, there’s always a lot of talk about planning versus pantsing: do you plan before you write, or do you write by the seat of your pants? Most of us are in between. I like to start off with solid character and setting details, and I can wing it for quite awhile before I have to stop and figure out how things come together.

DSC02698

Why this picture? Do I need a reason? Can’t we just be happy I didn’t attempt to use it to create an extended metaphor about seeing where your plot is going?

Every November is National Novel Writing Month, a time when thousands of people all over the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. If this is the first you’re hearing of it, fear not. There are twelve days left. You can take two days to stock up on index cards and candy bars, one hour to do some Random Rapid Plotting, and ten days to become a writer-hermit.

I created this plotting exercise for my local NaNoWriMo group to use at our Novel Planning Party in October. Since we also go over character and setting, there’s about an hour to do the plotting exercise. The first time we ran this event, we used Holly Lisle’s “Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure,” which is also found in Mugging the Muse. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve used it successfully for three of my favorite November novels. When I printed it out for the first time, I realized that the instructions are lengthy, which is tough with the time constraint of the planning party.

The problem with having an hour to plot a novel is that any method comprehensive enough to be good is going to take longer than an hour. And since the event is in mid-October, we all have longer than an hour to spend plotting. So while we need to have a plotting method that can be done in a hour, it’s also unnecessary in the larger scheme of things.

Two years ago was the first time I tried making my own plotting exercise, and this is what I came up with. It basically involves throwing whatever random stuff is on your mind into a chart, linking things together in a more cohesive, scene-based form, and extrapolating from there. Drawing on the chart in colored pencil to make connections was fun, as well as a nice visual change from my normal novel notes. I think it’s a decent enough exercise, and I came up with a fun plot when I did a test drive on it. It was a contemporary fantasy with an electrician-wizard tracking down a spirit in the power lines, but there were also subplots with a sinister pet groomer and delinquent teenagers, which are my favorite type of teenagers.

However, I didn’t actually use it to plot my own novel that year. The thing is that doing a one-hour plotting exercise when you actually have several weeks to work things out at a more reasonable pace feels slapdash. There’s a such thing as overplanning, but if you’re starting plotting with a few weeks before November, there’s time to let plot ideas percolate and come together naturally.

There are two things I think Random Rapid Plotting would be awesome for.

The first, and the reason I still decided to post this so late in the month, is planning middles and ends. Ends are tougher than beginnings. Everything has to come together and make sense at some point. I had interesting results when I tested this with my current work-in-progress. It helped me think of new ways to put my characters in different situations and connect seemingly unrelated events. It’s a nice way to tie in bits and pieces I came up with in the earlier part of the month.

The second is deciding, at the very last minute, that you don’t want to go into NaNoWriMo with zero planning. Maybe it’s 11:00p.m. on October 31, you’re in the middle of a horror movie, and you remember that NaNo is starting in an hour. You don’t want to fly seat-of-your pants, but if you take your time to plan, you’ll be 10,000 words in the hole by the time you start writing.

That’s what I would use it for, anyway. Last minute plotting, and fast. So I guess the name was appropriate.

Download “Random Rapid Plotting” here.

The list that isn’t a list

20141203_231955People with cats and children have it easy because they always have a fast answer to the question “What’s the one thing you’d save from a burning building?” But I’m so rotten at prioritizing and deciding that I can never come up with an answer to that question. It would be easy if I had a single, sentimental piece of jewelry from a long-dead relative that I was very close to, but I neither have such an item, nor do I actually like jewelry all that much.

One answer would be, “You’re not supposed to take anything with you when you flee a burning building.” A snarkier answer would be, “You chose your cats/children/catchildren, but that’s a plural, so pick your favorite.” But those make for crappy dinner table conversation. No one wants to talk about choosing fire safety over their waffle maker, Star Trek movies on VHS tape, or collection of Chinese food menus.

As I said in “Dungeons and Dragons and Depression” I have too many things I want to do, too many skills I want to develop, and I’m horrible at prioritizing. A few months ago, I had the idea to write up sort of an overview of the month ahead, what things were happening, and what I was prioritizing.

I wish I could say that I came up with the idea of drawing my monthly overview instead of writing it because I’m one of those adorably artistic people who fills sketchbooks with twee people-watching doodles and makes the shopping list they scribbled in the corner of the page look like a work of art because they have artsy, legible-messy handwriting rather than malformed tangles. But honestly, I have a lot of lists, and I couldn’t look at another vertical stack of shit to do.

So I drew diagonal lines, and wrote out the three most important things in the largest letters.

Then I added 13 more things, making 16 total. I told you, I’m bad at prioritizing.

Earlier this month, I made my December list.  I managed to get it down to eight things, which is still not effective prioritizing.  This time, I drew holiday orbs for each item, the biggest one being the most important.  I managed to do everything except the most important orb, which is because I severely overestimated just how bad December was going to be for completing that task (which is a rough draft of a novel).

It might not have been an overwhelming success, but it was progress.  As I think about my New Year’s resolutions and what I did and didn’t do in 2014, I’ll definitely be considering how far I need to go when it comes to prioritizing.

Locally sourced, hand drawn profanity

Because sometimes, muttering curses under your breath just isn’t enough.

Fuck this line art.

And fuck that, too.

Sometimes, I feel thirteen again and want to scribble vulgarities all over the back of my science notebook. Maybe an A for anarchy, or a doodle of an angry cow. It’s possible this is happening more lately, as I’m writing a novel about middle school outcasts thrown into an enormous nuclear disaster, but with sinister magic. Inhabiting their mind-space is kind of a mental time travel. And maybe one day, I won’t be able to come home again.

This gave me the instant gratification of pretending to draw a diagram of a mitochondria, while instead angrily writing “fuck fuck fuck” in the margins of my notebook with the kind of grip that embosses the penciled words into the paper. I always hated when teachers insisting on collecting and grading my notebooks. I nearly always had to tear out pages at the back, where I kept my secret life of comics, ranting, and doodles of demonic animals. Also, the out-of-control games of MASH I played with my best friend.

Close up of fuck this line art; "HI"

HI! Look how innocuous I am now.

And yet, the forty-five minutes of drawing it took me to do the linework mellowed me out so that I no longer felt angry about the incident. At least, I didn’t feel angry until I went home and told the story to my partner. Am I allowed to call it linework, or is that reserved for professional illustrators? Am I putting on airs by using this term?

I covertly drew this during my break at work as a number of people passed by, and felt both juvenile and powerfully defiant doing so. But to me, this is what art and writing are all about. Taking raw emotions and persistent problems, then hacking at them with rapid typing, or drawing over them in colored pencil. Juvenile it may be, but it’s also the only way I know to actually deal with my emotions rather than allowing them to drive my life until they expire and fade away.

The fact that other artists and writers exist makes me think that, maybe, I’m not the only one.

Drawing this did end up inspiring a moment in my novel, when one of my protagonists draws a similar picture, then rips it up during an assembly so her mother won’t find it later. I’ll have to draw that one next time I have something to rage about.

The Index Card-a-Day Challenge

It’s now July 4th, and despite my Mr. Freeze-level hatred of warm weather, I haven’t been having such a bad time. I’m not even dreading the rest of July too much. This is partly thanks to the Index-Card-a-Day Challenge at Daisy Yellow, which I have participated in for the last two years.

Index-Card-a-Day is a challenge which involves making some kind of art on an index card every day in June and July. It’s not about making fantastic artwork (although that can absolutely happen), but rather about having a small, cheap canvas on which to do *something.* Daisy Yellow explains this in more detail, and with better pictures.

Color pencil index card color wheel

Index card color wheel, for reference.

Last year, I used ICAD as an opportunity to learn more about color theory. As a writer, I no longer have favorite words. They all have their uses. You can’t just use the word “defenestrate” because it’s your favorite when you’re writing about something it has nothing to do with, like coffee. Or your family. When I used to make art, I would mostly use black and grey, blue and purple, seeing as they are my favorites. Now I know how to make something yellow and brown, if what I’m trying to express has nothing to do with black and grey, blue and purple. Last year, ICAD was a great, low pressure way to learn more about color hands-on. So on a given day my assignment might be to “make something orange!” but other than that, I did anything I wanted.

I also learned how to make nice mini-collages from magazine pages that I clandestinely ripped out at work. At a cookout* I went to around this time, a guy I remembered from high school as being both really nice and having an enviable biking-places-doing-art-wearing-hoodies lifestyle confirmed what I had begun to suspect: the secret to a good collage is not to think, to go by instinct, to quash any impulse towards lining things up and adjusting the everloving fuck out of cut-out lampshades and bulldogs.

Tropical fish collage with blackout poem

Blackout poetry, but with fish.

So this year, I have been doing the ICAD challenge again. June was a crappy month, and I didn’t do as much with ICAD as I wanted. Since I’ve been working on my drawing this year, I may end up using the rest of ICAD to further that learning. Soon I will probably post the index cards I have made so far on my flickr. National Novel Writing Month has always been a time for me to dedicate to writing, no matter if I’ve had a poor writing year. Now I have the Index-Card-a-Day challenge to fill the same function for my art. Instead of being the classic security guard with the magazine, when the building emptied for the night, I was the security guard with the gluestick. And as someone who is prone to depression, participating in ICAD is a great way to make myself feel better during a time of year when I tend to stay indoors and get less sunlight. Yes, I have Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. Clinically, I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I’m sure I’ve got it. So yeah, treating RSAD with ICAD.

This month is not only the 2nd half of ICAD, but also Camp NaNoWriMo. So my big dilemma for the moment, after I finish this post, is whether I should go draw something, go write something, or put off both and get some more coffee.


 

*where cookout is short hand for night time outdoor gathering with a big ass fire, and liquor.