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.

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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.

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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.

Paper robots

The internet failed me.

This was back in the Fall of 2013.  I co-organize events for my local NaNoWriMo region, and our group often hands out mini-mascots at our events, things like toy ninjas, army men, and pom-pom bunnies.  That year, I wanted it to be paper robots.  I didn’t think I’d have any trouble finding instructions for such a thing on the internet, but nothing came close to what I had in mind.  Everything was either too flimsy, too labor-intensive, or kind of ugly.  Or, all three.

While these appear to be the most awesome paper robots on the internet, making twenty of them was out of the question.

What I wanted was a cute paper robot that could survive a knock from a gift bag granola bar, one that would take me less than an hour to make.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m sure I was visualizing the little robot from Machinarium.

So, because the internet failed me, I devised my own means of creating a paper robot.  I went through a couple prototypes, then got what I wanted on the third try.

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Cookiebot doesn’t give a crap about the steel cut oats. Mostly, the container serves him as sort of a missile silo.

Cookiebot has an electroshock arm that extents from his body and zaps anyone who tries to steal the cookies*.  Including me, and they’re my cookies.  It’s kind of like in Super Ducktales when Bulldozertron or whatever it’s called guards Scrooge’s money bin, and no one can get into the money bin until Gizmoduck defeats him.  Only, I don’t have a Gizmoduck in my life, unless you count throwing Cookiebot on the floor and stepping on him.  But I wouldn’t do that, because he’d probably crawl away in a squashed bundle of spider limbs and have his revenge while I sleep.

Which is all to say, I made a pdf guide explaining how to make the robot.  It’s light on pictures, so I hope the text suffices.  The robot takes about 30 minutes.

You, too, can have a Cookiebot in your life.


 

*Not really.  If I knew how to make something like that out of paper, I would be leading a very different life.

NaNoWriMo Retrospective

This November had so many issues that if it were a person, it would be waist-deep in therapy, hopped up on dubious psych meds, and answering a lot of kind-yet-probing questions from well-meaning-yet-irritating family and friends.  Despite this, I managed to pull out a National Novel Writing Month win by writing 12,000 words this past weekend while also finishing moving out of my old apartment.

Here are some of my NaNoWriMo highlights:

Accidentally naming a character “Feta.”

Yes, like the cheese. This came of fiddling around with random syllables to name characters in my fantasy world. It worked out in my favor because writing her name “Feta” eventually made something click in my head and I thought, “Ooh, what if she isn’t using her real name?” Thus, a sinister plotline was born.

BTW, in 2010, I accidentally named a character Sean Astin. Yes, like the actor.

Successfully writing a jump rope rhyme

Poetry ain’t my thing. Saying “ain’t” ain’t my thing either, because that felt awkward and self-conscious. I’ve always envied fantasy with Tolkien-esque rhymes and songs, so penning a creepy little jump rope rhyme for my fantasy world was a milestone for me.

The Coffee Crawl and Writing Marathon

Not only do I participate in the online aspect of NaNoWriMo, I also co-run events for my local region. This was our 4th annual writing marathon, a 12-hour event that we spend hopping between coffee shops and writing all the way in a state of gleeful, caffeinated madness.

Writing in my new office

November was also the month I moved to a bigger apartment. I now have an office, which was probably meant to be a mud room.

Soap opera conflict

For all the faults of soap operas, I can’t help but enjoy gloriously convoluted soap opera plots. Like: Stanley is marrying Nancy but he slept with her twin sister Valerie, only it was actually Nancy pretending to be Valerie because Sasha blackmailed her and meanwhile Dirk is embezzling money from Stanley’s brother, Cal, who has a secret in his lake house that Dr. Van Shrubbery discovers when he pays a house call to Nancy who only called him to make sure he wasn’t home so Barbette could search his files for evidence of Sasha’s secret younger brother who was adopted by a family in France and is looking for money but only so he can use it for revenge on Valerie, who went to France once and broke his heart.

I didn’t manage anywhere close to that level of soap opera conflict, but the much smaller dose I added to my novel was a lot of fun.

Adventures in speech recognition

QWERTY-Dvorak keyboard

A keyboard set to Dvorak is a great way to mess with people using your computer. Cy jab anor x. a p.annf ocmln. .bjpflycrb ofoy.mv

The other night I found myself with a bit of wrist tendonitis. It was the final day of Camp NaNoWriMo. I had 3500 words to go, and seven hours to write them in. Not really an insurmountable obstacle, until my wrist flared up. I had a lot of trouble with wrist tendonitis about five years ago, and after doing some research, I decided to switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout, which is supposed to be easier on the wrists. It was designed to be faster for typing the English language, with vowels on the left side of the home row, and the most commonly used consonants on the right side of the home row. The least frequently used letters, including J, my own personal Scrabble-bane, are all along the bottom, the most difficult row to reach.

I’ve never been sure how much the Dvorak layout helps alleviate wrist problems. Soon after switching over, I discovered that the source of my problem was all the Plants vs Zombies I’d been playing. The constant clicking was tough on my mouse hand. I stuck with Dvorak anyway. Though it took me awhile to adjust to it, I’m now a faster typist.  104 wpm, according to the typing test I took a minute ago.  Better than my QWERTY high of 86.

The other night, my wrist flare-up was from drawing right-handed. My rule is that if I have even the slightest hint of tendonitis, I don’t type. Maybe Dvorak is better than QWERTY, maybe not, but either way it can still irritate an already-aching wrist. Most days, protecting my wrists from worse problems (I’m a wimp. I’m not going down the carpal tunnel.) is more important to me than getting another 1000 words. But most days aren’t the last seven hours of Camp NaNoWriMo. I wanted to hit 29,998 words, and I was willing to do the unthinkable.

I was going to shut down Linux Mint, and boot into Windows 8 for a purpose other than playing games that I didn’t feel like configuring through Wine. I was going to try transcription software. Dragon Naturally Speaking was out of the question, because I’m poor. So by transcription software, I mean the default speech recognition application that comes with windows, used not with any kind of decent microphone, but with my computer’s built-in mic.

It quickly became obvious that I would need to go through the software training to tune the software to my voice. The software training involves orally reading a lot of dull facts about the software, with an awkward amount of enunciation. 

In order to make it understand what I was saying, I needed to use the same strategy that Avatar Aang used against Koh the Face-stealer.  “Show no fear. Show no emotion at all. Show no hint of a Massachusetts accent, and for fuck’s sake don’t speak as fast as a Rhode Islander.”

In between repetitive suggestions that I speak like a newscaster and improve my diction, a few of the sentences set off warning bells.

Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

Mitth’raw’nuruodo, before he was Grand Admiral Thrawn. Similar to how my laptop is a nascent tactical wizard.

The training says that if you correct a mistake the software made, it’s “unlikely to make the same mistake again.” In other words, the speech recognition software is not only sentient, it’s better at life than the vast majority of all humans. Including myself.  It also says that the spelling dialogue, used for correcting words, is “very efficient and powerful.” Like a wizard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn.  When speech recognition software turns my laptop into a bona fide lifeform, this is going to be an inconvenient personality for it to have.  This is what file backups are for.

Although the software training appeared to go badly (and I also didn’t do all of it), I decided to attempt writing fiction with it. After all, I only had six hours left at this point, and I hadn’t shaved off any of those 3500 words.  I could go on at length about how stupid it looks when your dialog is surrounded by the words “quotation marks” instead of the real deal, or the many variations I had to go through for every single word. But I won’t do that. You can probably get the gist. It was like the longest game of telephone ever, where everyone playing is also on speed.

Still, the real reason I don’t want to persevere with transcription software (besides the fact that my wrist is now just fine), is the same reason I never tried it before now. Writing well is easier than speaking well. Why would I demote my writing down to the level of my speech?  With careful typing and a lot of rest, I was able to write most of the 3500 words.

Reach for the stars?

DSC02326Setting goals always involves a strategic game of self-manipulation. This is difficult to do, since I know I’m doing it, and I can predict my every move and counter-move.

I have a bad history with setting writing goals. While I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month for seven Novembers in a row, and reached 50,000 words for six of them, I never seem to do well with writing goals outside of NaNoWrimo. What happens is that I fall short of my goal, get depressed, set a smaller goal for next time, fall short of that goal also, get depressed, and then repeat the whole cycle until I’m at the point where I’m telling myself, “This’ll be a good writing month if I can just get a period at the end of that sentence I wrote a couple months back.”

July is Camp NaNoWriMo, the free and loose version of the main event in November. On the website, I set my goal as 60,000 words for this month. A goal, as it happens, that I had no intention of actually reaching. If I set 30,000 words as my actual goal, I would likely fail and only reach 14,000. Then get depressed, and shoot for 7,000 next time. See above. So this month, I aimed for 60,000 words, hoping to fail and land at 30,000 instead. Until now, I had even managed to trick myself into thinking this was my actual goal. I had charts and lists to show how much work I would need to do in a day to reach my false goal, and so I believed it was real. Like the Velveteen rabbit. Or not. Pinocchio? Lt. Commander Data?

Anyway, my goal of 60,000 words was alive to me. I believed in it.

That’s the kind of mental chicanery I need to pull with my pessimist’s brain.

Orange Marshmallow Apocalypse is my novel-in-progress about outcast middle schoolers trying to stop the bizarre and devastating effects of a nuclear bomb detonated in upstate new york, in an alternate world where said detonation is activated by magic. Right now, it’s a little shy of 40,000 words, 10,000 of which I wrote this month. I’m still wrestling with how I want them to find out that they may be able to reverse some of the magical effects of the detonation, though not the most tragic ones.

I’m also working on a children’s story about a girl who helps a trio of goblins save Halloween. This one is going better at the moment, although I know I’m going to be way off my word count. I have to choose between a smaller, simpler story that fits the picture book model I agreed on with my friend, the illustrator, or a larger, spookier, awesomer story that will probably be twice as long.

Camp NaNoWriMo has eight more days, counting today. I have 13,000 words left to fail at my official goal by 29,998 words but meet my actual goal, which I am pretending is not my goal.