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.

Pumpkin Goblins–Coming Fall 2015

There’s been a glaring omission on my part. Though, it’s not so much glaring as it is a one thousand dollar fireworks display that some guy sets off in his yard at midnight. The omission is a book, one that I’m revising and trying my hardest to publish this fall. I’ve mentioned to it, and alluded to it, and even wrote the blog post “Halloween Profanity—for Children!” about a process I’ve been using in the revision.

I announced it on my mailing list. But I didn’t announce it here, on my blog, as one is supposed to do in this situation.

Pumpkin Goblins is a middle grade chapter book in which a Halloween-deprived child and a squad of pumpkin goblins work to generate Halloween spirit when a mysterious source of summer magic threatens to destroy Halloween for good.

Check out the Pumpkin Goblins page for the full summary.

Scribbled-on manuscript.

My revision manuscript, a survivor of the Traumatizing Coffee Spill of 2015 and also the horrible, disfiguring plague known as My Handwriting.

I’ll be honest. It feels nice to say, “Coming Fall 2015,” but the fact is that I set my deadline for September 20th, and “Coming Fall 2015” is a cheery way to obscure my deadline. September 20th may be slipping out of my grasp. I’m worried that Fall 2015 could slip away as well. But I’m trying. I’ve cut some bad habits as I work to find the remaining revision time I need. Even better, my TV actually broke.

Unfortunately, I can’t quite kick the habit of “having a full time job.” I’ll be cutting my hours in September and October so I can take a course. That’ll net me some Pumpkin Goblins time as well.

Despite all that, I’m ridiculously happy with how the revision is coming along. Every aspect of the story is becoming a story I want to read myself. It’s funnier, scarier, and more goblinish, with stronger characters and better descriptions.

Every now and then, I mention my writing to people. They often say something like, “So, you enjoy writing, huh?” And sometimes, when this happens, it’s a frustrating writing day and I’m irritated with a draft. I’ll shrug and say, “Yeah, I guess,” because at that moment, I can’t muster the enthusiasm.

I think if anyone ever asked, “So, you like revision huh?” my answer would be more excitement than they want to deal with. Like the fireworks of my glaring omission. And that’s how I feel about the Pumpkin Goblins revision: fireworks and excitement, fall leaves and that chill in the wind that makes you feel alive.

Here’s an excerpt of some dialogue I like:

“What’s your name?” asked the first goblin.
“Amber.”
“Ember?”
“We like embers,” said another.
“Because we like fires,” said the third, all of them talking so fast that Amber could hardly tell which one was speaking.
“No, Amber. Like dead bugs that were fossilized a million years ago.”
“Oh.”
“Amber.”
“Like dead bugs.”
“That’s a lovely name for a girl.”

The really cool part is that a friend of mine is doing some illustrations for the cover and the chapter headers.  I’ve improved my drawing a lot in the past few years, and the process no longer seems mystical to me.  But I still can’t do figures well, and I’m always impressed by his characters.  They have an awesome cartoon style, and they really look like they’re moving around on the page.  I’ll definitely post some sketches if he lets me.

Why Tarot Cards are Awesome

For someone who’s decidedly not into New Age* things, or into spending money on anything, ever, I own a lot of freakin’ tarot cards. Three-hundred and twelve, to be exact. Four decks. Why do I own so many tarot cards? Because they are awesome. Here’s why.

Tarot cards are like a right-brain pro-con list!

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Well, tarot cards, when you put it like that, I am NOT sorry for what I did, and I will NEVER apologize for eating the last of the chips.

Usually if I need to make a decision about something, I will make a pro-con list. And I don’t mean just for big decisions like: “should we take that apartment?” and “is it worth the money to buy a new computer?” and “face tattoo?” No, I will even make pro-con lists for things like: “brownies or cookies?” and “play KOTOR or read a Star Wars novel?” and  “draw sketch of face tattoo, or excise the thought from my mind?”

Usually, the pro-con list works for me. When things come out a little too even, sometimes tarot cards can help me make the decision. By throwing out a bunch of cards, all the different images and meanings can give me a new angle on whatever I’m mulling over. It’s like talking to a friend to get a new perspective, only you don’t need to have a friend.

In the same way, if I’m stuck on a piece of writing, tarot cards can throw some new angles into the mix.

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Three interpretations, one card. These are the Two of Swords from the Archeon Tarot, the Steampunk Tarot, and the Dragon Tarot.

A deck of tarot cards contains 78 miniatures pieces of artwork.

I like artwork, and also can’t afford artwork, aside from whatever I’m able to make myself. What fascinates me about collecting different decks is that every deck has the same cards, so it’s interesting to compare different artists’ interpretations. Or even multiple interpretations by the same artist.

Tarot cards are mystical!

Finally, on a good day, I can trick myself into thinking that tarot cards are actually mystical occult tools rather than mass-produced pieces of card stock. I’m a skeptic, but would rather live in a world where ghosts are real, and the mysterious forces of the universe can communicate with me though rectangles of tree pulp.

For maximum tricking, make sure to conduct all your tarot activities atop occult fabric.

 

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It’s ok if your “occult fabric” is actually just some scarf you bought at Target one time. Again, the Steampunk tarot.


 

*In  editing this post, I noticed the typo “Sew Age.”  If you are so inclined, I think this would make an appropriate title for a fanatical magazine on sewing, one that takes the view that the apocalypse is nigh and the age of sewing all our own clothes is upon us.  Features could include the column “Notions on Notions” which discusses the best way to stockpile zippers, and whether two-hole buttons or four-hole buttons are likely to become a valued currency.

Halloween Profanity–For Children!

What if you’re writing a book for children, but you want a character to swear profusely?

In my upcoming middle grade chapter book, Pumpkin Goblins, I have a goblin character fond of “swearing.” Like so:

“Right, right.” Hobkit clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll join you. Could use a break from all this chaos and malarkey, batdarnit.”

Hobkit has a bigger role in the revision than he did in the rough draft, and the more he speaks, the more time I spend trying to think up creative new phrases…

“Dagnabbit. Of all the bat-plagued, magic-cursed rotten timing!”

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Pumpkin, pumpkin, pumpkin.

…because using “bat” and “pumpkin” repeatedly was getting tiring. I wanted to come up with a bunch of options at once. So, inspired by The Terribleminds Profanity Generator, I made my own word lists to generate Halloweeny, child-safe invectives. Actually, I drew a lot of my own words from his lists, but I needed a certain number of Halloween words thrown in there also.

So get out your d20 (or your Online Dice Roller, for those that don’t have twenty-sided dice on them at the moment) and join me in some long-form, clean profanity. Which can be easily dirtied!

Noun list one:
  1. Geist
  2. Donkey
  3. Turnip
  4. Radish
  5. Rat
  6. Bucket
  7. Bag
  8. Wizard
  9. Witch
  10. Fruit
  11. Squirrel
  12. Ghoul
  13. Trowel
  14. Vampire
  15. Lackey
  16. Monster
  17. Ghost
  18. Bat
  19. Pumpkin
  20. Spook
Noun list two:
  1. Scum
  2. Barf
  3. Vulture
  4. Mold
  5. Mildew
  6. Elf
  7. Corn
  8. Human
  9. Crumb
  10. Gourd
  11. Jelly
  12. Soup
  13. Biscuit
  14. Thorn
  15. Widget
  16. Badger
  17. Grave
  18. Owl
  19. Broom
  20. Twig
Verbs, -ing
  1. Cursing
  2. Plaguing
  3. Gargling
  4. Nobbling
  5. Crying
  6. Chomping
  7. Crunching
  8. Roasting
  9. Creeping
  10. Beeping
  11. Snatching
  12. Cavorting
  13. Spooking
  14. Haunting
  15. Licking
  16. Rocking
  17. Boiling
  18. Clipping
  19. Mapping
  20. Gumming
Verbs, -ed
  1. Buried
  2. Tossed
  3. Nobbled
  4.  Kicked
  5. Tumbled
  6. Dangled
  7. Cursed
  8. Smacked
  9. Spackled
  10. Crackled
  11. Rustled
  12. Plagued
  13. Smoked
  14. Blighted
  15. Scrabbled
  16. Creeped
  17. Haunted
  18. Spooked
  19. Snatched
  20. Trotted

Using the formula (Noun list 1) + (Verb, -ing), (Noun list 2) + (Verb, -ed) I got:

Elf plaguing, twig-smacked

And

Turnip gumming, jelly-haunted

My goblin character tends to curse in adjective form, already having specific things in mind to rant about. Things like other goblins, wizards, elves, and pumpkin cars.

“You turnip gumming, jelly-haunted wizard! Are you trying to destroy Halloween?”

I could also do something like:

(Noun from either list) + (Verb, -ed) – ed

To create the compound expletive wizardspackle.

“Wizardspackle! Are you trying to kill us all?”

On the one hand, I’ve now saved time on curse creation.

On the other hand, I’m now likely to waste revision time by doing this. Gourdrustle!

The Storytime Blog Hop

bloghopIn a little over a month, on August 26th, the Storytime Blog Hop is coming.

What manner of Internet nonsense is a blog hop? I can hear you ask. Because I’m in your thoughts, thanks to the dark magic of internet cookies.

Remember the web rings of old? If not, pretend I never mentioned them. A blog hop kind of reminds me of that. Except, it’s also like a pub crawl, without the irritation of leaving your house. And without the alcohol, unless you provide that yourself.

What happens is that, on August 26th, I will post a short story, along with links to stories from other writers in the blog hop. None of them will be very long; some will even be flash fiction.

All the stories will be somewhere in the genre of speculative fiction—fantasy, sci fi, horror, or any crazy cocktail of those three. We could have anything from woodsprites to lasers, clockwork dragons to genetically engineered tentacle beasts. All of the above, even.  Stories in the blog hop will be somewhere in the realm of PG-rated.  No graphic sex or violence.

My own story will be about a powerless noble in the frigid city of Yauglesk, a place where an uneasy two-hundred year occupation is beginning to falter.

So, stay tuned for that. And also for the potpourri of upcoming blog posts, about things like pudding, typefaces, artwork, and monsters.