He Has Come to Solve Your Plot Problems

by James Scott Bell

Click to enlarge. You’ll be glad you did.

Long, long ago, on the planet Plotto, there lived a king named Story and a queen named Structure. So deep was their love that they knew neither of them alone could rule the planet justly. They needed each other. So did the people.

Thus, together, King Story and Queen Structure ushered Plotto into its golden age.

Naturally, they were thrilled when a royal baby was born.

But alas, an evil villain, Vektor Formless, hatched a plan to blow up the planet. The plan was discovered, but not in time to stop the Formless Doomsday Machine countdown.

With tears in their eyes, King Story and Queen Structure lovingly placed their baby into a little rocket ship and sent him to a distant blue planet.

The rocket came to rest in a field in Kansas. An elderly couple, the Essbees, found the baby and decided to raise him as their own. They named him Jay.

As Jay Essbee grew, he began to understand that his mother was a frustrated writer. She had been working on a novel for years, and it was now being rejected by publishers in the east.

This made his mother sad, and Jay Essbee wanted her to be happy.

One day he went into the study and found his mother’s manuscript. He read it all the way through in an hour.

When his mother came in and saw Jay sitting in a chair with her pages on his lap, she was astonished.

“What are you doing with my book, Jay?” she asked.

“I read it, Mother,” Jay said.

“But you’re only eight years old!”

“And yet I read it and understood it.”

Mother Essbee trembled into a chair. “What … did you think?”

“I think there is a germ of a great plot, Mother. But the first act drags, and the main character is not forced through a doorway into a great conflict. Some of the scenes lack tension. The plot meanders in places. There is some definite sagging in the middle.”

For a long moment Mother Essbee sat frozen, staring at the boy. Then she cried out, “Father!”

Father Essbee came running into the room.

“Our son,” Mother Essbee said, “is a book critic!”

“Not a critic,” Jay said. “I can help you fix these things.”

“But how?” said Mother Essbee.

“It must be he has powers from his own planet,” Father Essbee said.

Over the next few weeks, Jay Essbee worked with his mother on her manuscript. When they were finished, Mother Essbee sent it to an agent in New York. The book sold at auction for a million dollars and then to the movies for another million.

After the movie premiere, Mother and Father Essbee took Jay out for ice cream. Mother Essbee said to her son, “We cannot keep your wonderful gift to ourselves. You must take it to the world. Henceforth, you shall be known as Plotman.”

She produced a little costume with a large P on the front, and a cape with the same P. No one seems to know how the costume grew right along with Jay and still fit him when he was an adult.

But we do know this: Plotman has sworn to uphold plot, story, and the bestselling way!

JSB: Thanks for indulging a little whimsy. All this is to introduce my new writing book, PLOTMAN TO THE RESCUE: A TROUBLESHOOTING GUIDE TO FIXING YOUR TOUGHEST PLOT PROBLEMS. The ebook is available here:




And just a note, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, this book will be a perfect companion for the days when you sit down and go, “Now what?” or “What the heck is this?” Plotman, along with his faithful sidekick Subplot Boy, will appear to help you faster than a speeding bullet … or at least as fast as you can click to a chapter.

Happy writing!


Reaching Out to New Writers


Debbie Burke



Columbia Falls Junior High NaNoWriMo students

It’s Tuesday morning at Columbia Falls Junior High School in northwest Montana. Approximately 75 eighth graders troop into the library where a massive glass wall faces Glacier National Park, shrouded in clouds that promise early snow. The students are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) led by English teachers Rubianna Masa and Cecilia Byrd-Rinck.

Since 2012, Rubianna has shepherded her students through the November writing marathon. “I will not lie,” she says. “Some of my students are excited to write while others think this is the craziest and worst thing a teacher has ever made them endeavor.”

Prior to the challenge this year, she invites two local authors to talk to the kids.

The lucky guest authors? Memoirist Susan Purvis (Go Find: The Journey to Find the Lost and Myself) and yours truly.

As students trail into the library, I chat briefly with Brookann who tells me she uses her dreams to inspire her writing. We discuss harnessing the power of the subconscious to find answers to story problems. I’m instantly impressed.

Sue kicks off the talk. “It all starts with a promise. I promised to train my Lab puppy to be a search dog that never leaves anyone behind. And I promised to write a book about it. That was my dream.” She draws parallels between her true-life story and fiction the kids will write, starting with an inciting incident, the roller coaster of setbacks, finally building to the climax, then the resolution.

Since Sue’s book is set in high mountains, she asks the kids, “What’s your Everest? What is your goal or dream?” followed by the question, “What’s standing in your way?”

Aspen answers: “Be an artist. But I have to do schoolwork instead of draw.”

Emma answers: “To love somebody. But society is in the way.”

Sue then describes the story problem in her memoir: “Why is it easier for me to jump out of helicopter with my search dog onto a 13,000-foot mountaintop to recover a dead body than to talk to my husband about our marriage?”

Tristan answers: “Because your dog doesn’t judge.”

Sue and I stare at each other, blown away by his insight.

When I ask the kids who are the antagonists in Sue’s story, they shoot off more great answers:

“Her dog that didn’t want to be trained.”

“The other search guys who didn’t want a woman around.”

“Her husband.” 

This is one smart crowd.

Next we focus on their stories and ask:

Who’s your main character? What do they want? Who opposes them? What’s at stake if they fail?

And the toughest question of all: How do you distill your entire novel into a 30-word elevator pitch?

They take a few minutes to write their answers. Then several read their summaries to the group.

Hailey: “My main character is a 14-year-old boy who wants his mom to stop using drugs. If he fails, she will get sicker and sicker.”

Sarah: “My story is about a girl and her best friend who want to change the world by getting rid of trash. Then the best friend is killed in a school shooting and my main character falls apart. Her new mission is to stop future attacks.”

Whoa. Serious writers with serious themes.

We invite them to meetings of our local group, the Authors of the Flathead, whose motto is writers helping writers.

I talk about how brainstorming with others can get you out of a corner; how it’s hard to judge your own work because you’re too close to it; how asking others read your story gives you honest assessments, even if they’re painful.

I encourage them to grasp unexpected opportunities that may divert from the original plan yet lead to greater rewards.

Sue and I arrive with the intention of helping young writers but we receive an unexpected gift in return. We are co-writing an adventure book for young readers and ask if they’ll give us feedback on our synopsis. They enthusiastically agree and proceed to shoot off penetrating questions like:

“Are you going to use alternating points of view?” That has not occurred to us until Jasmin brings it up! And we’ll certainly consider it.

Other comments: “Tell us more adventures in the mountains.”

“What happens to people in avalanches?”  

“I want to hear about the science of how dogs smell lost people.”

We’re on it, guys!

We ask if they’ll be our focus group to offer suggestions and opinions as we write the book. “Sure!”

Ninety minutes have flown by and the bell rings for their next classes. Off they go, hopefully with a few new tools to help them survive NaNoWriMo.

Novelist/screenwriter Dennis Foley mentored Sue, Rubianna, and me (see earlier post here). He always urges us to “pass it on.”

As so often happens in life, you set out to help others and instead wind up being the one who’s helped.

Sue and I leave Columbia Falls Junior High School with full hearts and two notes from students.

Brookann writes to me (with a follow-up email that afternoon, condensed here): Goal is to be a writer of anime books. Elisbeth wants to save the human race and defeat the villains to make a better world…I am writing this story because I love anime and I am basing it off multiple scenes from different anime series, to make the perfect character for the perfect book. I hope this book will succeed in the way I want it to. I hope you can help me progress and succeed with this book. Thank you.

This eighth grader understands more about researching her market and making her book stand out in the crowd than most adult authors! 


Terrance writes to Sue: “My dream is to be like ski patrol, like Susan Purvis. I want to change the world by saving lives. I want to become an Avalanche Rescuer. My writing is going to be like Susan Purvis.”


It’s a good day to be an author.




TKZers: What’s your favorite way to pass it on? 




You can find Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas on Amazon.

Use NaNoWriMo to Repo Your Mojo

by James Scott Bell

Yes, it’s almost here, November—which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This singular event challenges writers all over the world to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel in only one month.

I’ve participated a few times in the past and produced a couple of published books out of it. (Not, I quickly note, without a lot of revision work!) While that is all well and good, there is perhaps a better reason for jumping in—to recapture the joy of writing.

I love the NaNo vibe. Writers writing. Newbies trying. Keyboards clacking. Coffee brewing. Possibilities awakening. It’s a major accomplishment to finish a novel. To do it in one month is astounding.

Of course, it’ll only be a first and very rough draft. But it will exist. You can let it sit for a month and then figure out what to do with it. One likely outcome is that you’ll use it as a “discovery draft” that now allows you to structure a re-write. Another is that the novel never sees the light of day. That’s fine, so long as you get some writing lessons out of it. Analyze the draft. Judge your craft. Make a plan to strengthen your skills.

At the very least you will have proved something to yourself. Unless you’re a full-time writer, averaging 1667 words a day is hard. Doing so for a month stretches you. When you get back to your normal rate of production, try to up it by 10% now that you’ve gone through NaNo.

Here are three other NaNo tips:


NaNoWriMo is catnip for pantsers. But a little planning (starting today) can make all the difference in your final product.

First, take a day to do some free-form journaling on your idea. Who it’s about, why it matters, why anybody should care. Jot down scene ideas that come to mind, in random order.

Second, take one day to define your concept with a three sentence “elevator pitch.” This will be your plumb line, what keeps you from getting too far away from the essence of your story. Even if you go down rabbit trails, you can use this to get yourself back on the main track. (On the form of an elevator pitch, see my TKZ post here.)

Finally, brainstorm a tentative “mirror moment” for your main character. This beacon of light will help you find your way if you get stuck in the dark.


Check out my 10 tips for powering through NaNoWriMo.

Try to get a “nifty 350” words done the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you get the coffee going … hey, maybe invest in a coffee maker with a timer!)

Don’t edit your work except for a quick review of your daily pages. If you can do that review right before hitting the sack, so much the better. Your “boys in the basement” will work through the night and you can dive into writing the next morning.

Take Part

Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free, and will give you access to “pep talks” and local groups of participants.

Even if you’re not going for a NaNoWriMo “win,” you can still use November to re-charge your writing batteries. Cheer others on via social media and get excited about their progress. Use that positive energy in your own writing. Set a November goal. Try upping your quota for the month. Or complete the development of a new project.

But whatever you do, do it with a sort of wild abandon. Be a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind,” as Kerouac put it. Repossess your writing mojo. Then spread that out for a year, when you’ll come up to November again!

Anyone planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year? How about your past experience with it? Any tips for those who are about to try?

Add A Character, Up Your Word Count!

by James Scott Bell

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-7-27-53-amSo it’s NaNoWriMo time again. Every November writers all over the world clack away at their kekyboards to complete the first draft of a 50k word novel in one month.

Are you in?

How do you feel? Excited? Afraid? Wondering how you can possibly average 1667 words a day?

All of the above?

Good. Because writing should give you the stomach flutters. That’s how you know you’re engaged and connected. The really good stuff only bubbles up when you are writing out on a limb. You want to push yourself forward, reach for heights you haven’t reached before.

NaNoWriMo is that reaching up on steroids. It’s fun and always a great discipline, even if you come up short of the 50k mark.

Now, just as in the normal writing world there are those who like to wing it with practically no planning at all, and those who want to have at least a roadmap before starting the journey. The great thing about NaNo is it’s for any style of writer.

Today, I want to offer a couple of tips for that fearful moment when you’re 10 – 20k in and you have absolutely no idea what to write next.

One tip was in my recent post about asking what the bad guy’s doing. If you’re stuck in the middle, take half an hour to think about what your antagonist is up to off stage. Have him planning his next few moves. Then go back to your protagonist who will feel the permutations of those moves.


Raymond Chandler

The other tip I have for you when you get stuck is to do a variation of Raymond Chandler’s advice about bringing in a guy with a gun.

Yep, introduce a new character.

But what character? How do you choose?

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. Open up a dictionary at random. Find a noun. What kind of person pops into your head who you would associate with that noun?
  1. Spin the Writer Igniter. You can also use this cool app to choose a scene, a prop, or a situation.

Now you’ve got a new character ready to enter the fray. Before he or she does, ask yourself how this character will complicate the lead character’s life. Hopefully, you know enough about writing a novel that your Lead is facing a matter that feels like life and death–– physically or professionally or psychologically.

This new character will be the carrier of a subplot. A subplot needs to intersect with the main plot in some significant way––and a way that complicates matters for the Lead.

A new character like this is good for another 5k words at least

Bada-bing! You’ve added to your NaNo word count.

But what if you’re in the final act of your book? The hard part, where you have to figure out how to tie up the loose ends?

Add another character! A loose-ends tier-upper!

But won’t that seem out of the blue? A Deus ex machina?

Not if you go back to Act 1, or the first part of Act 2, and introduce the character there. You’re the writer, remember? You can go back in time in your own book!

This exercise works for NaNo, but also for any novel where you feel that long middle is starting to sag.

Introducing one complicating character gives you lots of plot possibilities. And I love plot possibilities.

So are you planning to NaNo this year? Have you got your idea yet? Or are you going to just wing it that first day?


knockoutlogolgAnd just in time for NaNoWriMo, my interactive coaching program, Knockout Novel, is $10 off through November…and you own it for life. You can use it to help you plot all your novels (as our recent bestselling guest attests).

Embrace Your Weirdness

NaNoLogoIt’s day one of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2015, and all over the world writers are clacking away in an initial rush of writing joy. The journey has begun. The climb up the mountain is on. Yes, there will need to be some oxygen intake along the way, but right now everybody’s yodeling.

To me, that’s the great benefit of NaNo. For one month there’s a community of writers engaged in the same pursuit—completing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. Life sometimes intrudes (it tends to do that). But those who keep on producing the words will feel an exhilaration that proves at least one thing: they are not chairs. They are writers full of passion and ideas and fervors and dreams. Some people never get to feel that way about anything.

That’s why you, writer, need to appreciate the gift you’ve been given, the gift of being slightly weird.

Yes, writers are weird. We’re weird because we do things like this: A friend has been in a terrible accident. We rush to the hospital. We enter the room. The friend is hooked up and bandaged. We go to him and take his hand. “I’m here for you,” we say.

At the same time, half our brain is thinking, This would make a pretty good scene. I wonder what they call that machine over there? Maybe I can ask a doctor some research questions before I leave. Maybe—

“What’s that? Oh, yes, yes, I’m here for you!”

And we wouldn’t have it any other way! I mean, who wants to walk through life in the tight shoes of the ordinary? We lie for fun and profit! Remember that great line from A Knight’s Tale, uttered by Chaucer: “Yes, I lied. I’m a writer. I give the truth scope!”

There’s nothing more joyful than giving the truth scope.

Let’s see it in your pages! In my recent book, VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing, I include a clip from John Fante’s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust. Here it is, and can’t you just feel what it’s like to want to be a writer?

Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town. A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf. Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, not much that Arnold Bennett, but I’d be there to sort of bolster up the B’s, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.” (Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing)

So whether you’re NaNoing or not (this year I have to transfer my gusto for NaNo to a project with an end-of-November deadline) make this month one where you surrender yourself to the joy of being that strange bird, a writer. You get to create fabulous worlds, unforgettable characters, blistering dialogue, scenes full of tension and conflict. You can write about zombies or lawyers (though some people think there is little difference between them). You can write about great loves and losses, go to Mars or New York.

And if perchance you are in one of those places in your mind, with a glassy stare on your face as your characters begin improvising––or maybe your lips are moving as you make up the dialogue––and someone happens to mention that you’re acting a little weird, simply say, “Thank you!”

Carpe Typem everyone. Have a wild and wonderful November.


Lessons Learned in NaNoWriMo 2014

James Scott Bell

And so ends another November and the keyboard-clacking madness that is NaNoWriMo. It seems like each time I get a little something different out of it.

This time I worked on the third book in a series (the books will be published close together next year). I did some pre-planning along the lines I’ve suggested before. I killed that first day, hitting 3k words. And I was off to the races.

Only this race had some hurdles.

I did make the 50k mark on the last day, but barely. I lost at least four full writing days due to Bouchercon and a family matter that had me driving a car for about 16 hours over two days. But that’s part of the NaNo experience and a good lesson for writers who want to do this professionally—life often intrudes, but you find a way to write through it. 

The book is not finished, BTW. Since I’m aiming for 70-80k it’s still in production. I’m trying to keep the NaNo MoJo working, though. Which leads me to the following lessons I pass along to you.

1. Deadlines work

Remember what Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once said? “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Every writer who has written under contract knows what he means. 

The “pressure” of NaNo is good for a writer. If you fall too far behind you’re cooked. So you do whatever it takes to keep to a daily word count. You adjust your goals to make up for lost time. 

Out of NaNo, I’m sticking to a SID — self-imposed deadline. Writing down the date you want to finish and putting it where you can see it daily helps.

2. Scrivener rocks

Scrivener was a big help this year. I made heavy use of the Outline View. Scrivener lets you color-code your scenes and then view them in an outline format. You can customize this view. I show my scene titles, the scene synopsis (which you can generate AFTER you’ve written the scene. Scrivener will even auto-generate a scene synopsis with one click), and my own added timeline, which is of tremendous importance. Thus, I can see at a glance what I’ve done and on what day and time the scenes take place. 

I found this to be valuable as I began the writing day. I did my Grafton journal notes (see my post on that), then looked over the outline which showed what I’d already written, as well as  future scene ideas. In this outline view you can instantly add a scene you think needs to go in between other scenes.

3. Trust but verify

In NaNo there are times when you have to be willing to try something risky, or follow an idea that pops into your head. Pure pantsers love that. No problemo, they say.

But there is a problemo. Unlike what some may advocate, not every spark of inspiration or tangent is good just because it’s new. Indeed, one of these could take you to a bog where your story drowns, and a good deal of NaNo is wasted.

The answer, I found, is to take ten minutes of breathing time when something totally unexpected pops up. Journal about it. Write some notes. (Here again Scrivener comes in handy. Each scene in your story has its own “Document Notes” section. You can record your ideas and thinking there, work things out).

4. Nothing beats full immersion in a story

All writers know the feeling of getting away from a WIP for awhile, then coming back to it and finding it hard to get into the story again. NaNo keeps you immersed in your story. This is good for you and for your novel. Not necessarily good for your spouse. When Mrs. B asked me in October if I was going to do NaNo again, I nodded. And she did not look pleased. So I tried to stick to the final lesson:

5. Don’t forget the important people in your life

I was intentional about trying to carve out evening time with my wife. But she knows me well after 34 years together. I get that faraway look as she’s talking…I have to ask her to repeat things…I nod my head at the wrong time….I excuse myself to go write something….I forget to pick up the milk at the store.

Once I got out of the shower thinking about my story. I went to the sink as usual, thinking, thinking, and put some gel in my hair, brushed it, then got ready to shave. And realized I had put shaving gel on my head and was about to lather my face with hair gel. 

Most writers are like this. We’re strange creatures, rare birds, a little funny in the head. Our loved ones have to put up with this. So be kind! Take them out to dinner and try to forget, for a couple of hours, that you’re a writer.

Unless, of course, you see a particularly interesting character over at the bar…

So anybody got a major lesson or two they’ve learned this year on the writing of fiction? 

How to Put The Boys in the Basement to Work


Wow, it’s already time to look back on this year’s NaNoWriMo frenzy. I finished my novel, which of course means it’s due for a heavy edit and re-writes. But the process worked its magic. Even though I had a rough outline, things happened in the story that were a complete surprise to me.  Good surprises. A couple of great ones.
Where did they come from, these wonderful ideas, these twists? From the basement, of course.
I believe in the writer’s subconscious mind. Stephen King calls it “The Boys in the Basement.” There they are, down below, unseen and unheard but hard at work.
You have to treat them with respect, and also find ways to encourage their creativity.
I’ve come up with a system that I tried out during NaNoWriMo. It was inspired by something my agent and teaching colleague, Donald Maass, did at the Story Masters conference this year. Before the students wrote anything, Don had them do some deep breathing and relaxation, wanting them just to be in the moment, feel what they felt, not force anything. Only after several minutes of this did he go into his famous prompts. Cool things started bubbling up.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, had a similar notion. For her it happened during sleep, and the first thing she would do upon waking is write, write, write without thinking, letting whatever was beneath the surface come to the top. That would be the material she’d work with.
Ray Bradbury did the same thing. He used to say he’d wake up and step on a land mine, words exploding, then he’d spend the rest of the day picking up the pieces–meaning, finding the story trying to get out.
That’s what NaNoWriMo feels like for most people. And even though I’d done my planning, I still wanted to take full advantage of the boys. So I started doing the following, and it saw me through the completion of my novel in a fresh and pleasing way.
1. Start with that breathing
I get comfortable, close my eyes, and breathe in and out, counting down from 20 to 0. I see the numbers as if on a lighted scoreboard. 20 – 19 – 18 and so on. If my thoughts start to wander to other things, I stop and start over from 20. The key is to get to 0  with a quiet mind
2. Keep your eyes closed and step into your story
Pretend you are magically able to walk into a movie screen and be in the movie of your novel. What do you see? What is your Lead character doing? Watch for awhile. Let the images happen without controlling them.
3. Take notes with pen and paper
For me, there’s something freer about using paper and pen to record what I’ve seen. Don’t write in complete sentences. Make a “mind map” of connections. Below are some notes I made on my WIP after doing this “movie in the mind” exercise. They won’t make any sense to you, and you can’t read my scrawl, but you’ll get the idea.


4. Think about the next scene you’re going to write
Now you can be a little more directed. What scene are you working on? I have a structure for scenes I call the “3 Os”–Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.
What is your POV character’s objective in the scene? If there isn’t one, you’re not ready to write. What obstacles will get in the way (conflict!)? What will be the outcome? (It should usually be a setback of some kind).
Then I like to use SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. Let your boys send up some suggestions, write them down, even the strangest ones (these often turn out to be the best).
Do this until you get so excited about the scene you simply have to start writing.
5. Overtime
I want the boys working at night. So just before I nod off, I think about the story. I see the last scene I wrote. I ask, “What should happen next?”
In the morning, as fast as I can get to it, I jot some notes in my journal (this is an e-document I keep in Scrivener). I just write down what I’m thinking, maybe ask myself a question or two. Then I’m ready to dive in for the day.
And that’s my gamset system. So far not one of the boys has complained. I’m betting they never will.

Does this sound like something you want to try? Drive it around the block a few times. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. Just be sure to send down some donuts from time to time. 

Supercharge your NaNoWriMo Novel With One, Simple Exercise

NaNoWriMo is in the air! The crisp bite of the breeze, the

vibrations of leaves in trees, the upward tick in sales of books about how to write a novel in a month—can the sound of keyboards clacking like Flamenco dancers on Red Bull be far behind?

Yes, it’s time once again for National Novel Writing Month. Each November, writers around the world commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in one month (an average of 1,666.6667 words a day). It’s a blast, a communal expression of the love of writing fiction. And a kick in the pants to produce the words and not sit around Starbucks all day talking about writing a novel someday.
I’ve written before on how to get ready for NaNoWriMo. Today, I want to offer a simple exercise that will keep you from merely producing scenes without any coherence, which is the big challenge in this hard-charging contest. (I also commend to you an excellent post by Lisa Cron over at Writer Unboxed).
I call this exercise “Because…”
It has two parts. First, you hone your basic plot into a single sentence. Then, you add a “because” clause which explains what’s at stake.
Your plot sentence consists of an adjective, a noun and a verb clause (the action). Thus:
Gone With the Wind is about a Southern belle who has to fight to save her home during the Civil War.
Die Hardis about a New York cop who has to save a building full of people from a gang of ruthless terrorists.
Casablancais about an American cafe owner in French occupied territory during WWII, who has to battle Nazis and lost love and a corrupt police captain.
Every plot can be rendered in this fashion, and it’s important that you know this much about yours.
Now, once you have that, add a “because” sentence that explains what the stakes are. Don’t worry about the form of the sentence, just pack into it the reasons the Lead character in your novel has to succeed. Turn it into a paragraph if you want to. It’s all for you.
Gone With the Wind is about a southern belle who has to fight to save her home during the Civil War….because if she loses it, she’ll be dependent on others for her existence and will never be a woman of strength or substance.
Die Hard is about a New York cop who has to save a building full of people from a gang of ruthless terrorists….because if he loses, his ex-wife will die along with the other hostages, and he will have failed in his most essential cop duty, saving people from bad guys.
Casablancais about an American cafe owner in French occupied territory during WWII, who has to battle Nazis and lost love and a corrupt police captain….because if he loses, the war effort will be harmed (the Nazis will win) and he’ll have destroyed the lives of several people around him. And also if he loses, he’ll have become a wretched individual with no concern about others, sadly drinking himself to death, having lost whatever ideals he once held.
Believe me, this little exercise is going to pay big dividends for you. During NaNo, if you start to feel lost, simply go back to this controlling premise and think up fresh scenes for the Lead character, which scenes involve him taking steps to solve the main problem.
Let’s say we’ve started writing Casablanca and we come to the point where Rick sees Ilsa in his cafe for the first time. What a great scene we’ve written! They look at each other, and Rick’s heart pounds with a mix of love and hate, desire and the pain of betrayal. Now what?
We brainstorm some scenes. What could happen next?
– Rick punches Ilsa’s husband, Victor Laszlo, in the face, and a big fight ensues
– Rick throws a drink in Ilsa’s face, and Laszlo socks Rick
– Ilsa runs out into the night and Rick chases after her
– Rick gets drunk and waits for her to show up
After some reflection, we decide on the last one. Gives us an opportunity for Rick to remember what happened in Paris. Then Ilsa comes in. We envision Ilsa falling into Rick’s arms….no, not enough conflict….how about she tries to explain what happened in Paris and Rick basically calls her a whore….ooh, that sounds right, because our premise tells us the novel is partly about whether Rick will end up as a wretched human being….
And so on throughout the month of November.
So who’s up for NaNoWriMo 2013?

In honor of NaNoWriMo, my Knockout Novel program is being offered at a special price ($10 off). I highly recommend Knockout for both planning and editing, so it’s perfect pre- and post-NaNo…and on any project at any stage. I use it in tandem with Scrivener for my own books. 

The Ghost of Writing Yet to Come

James Scott Bell

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently, approached. When it came near him, Ebenezer Scribe bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
 “I am in the presence of the Ghost of Writing Yet To Come?” said Scribe.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scribe pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
Scribe feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover. It was something out of a Stephen King novel. Scribe, in his youth, had once wished to be “another Stephen King.”
“Ghost of the Future!” Scribe exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another writer from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company. Will you not speak to me?”
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them. The Spirit guided him onward.
Presently, it stopped beside one little knot of writers at a local Starbucks. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scribe advanced to listen to their talk.
“No,” said a great fat man with a monstrous chin, “I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.”
“When did he die?” inquired another.
“Last night, I believe.”
“Why, what was the matter with him?” asked a third, breaking off a vast chunk of zucchini muffin and stuffing his cheek.
“God knows,” said the first, with a yawn.
“How many books did he actually write?” asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.
“Not many,” said the man with the large chin, yawning again. “He quit writing some time ago. Didn’t think he was good enough. At least, not as good as we!”
This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.
“It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” said the same speaker; “for he did not make any money self-publishing.”
“Because he did not think of it as a business,” said the red-faced man. “Nor did he keep producing new work.”
“Which is what we should be doing,” said the one with the muffin.
“Oh shut up,” said the large-chinned man.
The Spirit beckoned Scribe to follow, and soon they were in an obscure part of the town, where Scribe had never penetrated before, although he recognized its situation, and its bad repute.
Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.
Scribe and the Phantom came into the presence of this man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. She opened the bundle before him and exposed three books.
“Here it is, Joe,” the woman said, laughing. “All the writing books he owned, poor soul.”
The old man removed his pipe and took each book up, one at a time. “Why, none of these books is highlighted,” he said with contempt.
“I was his housekeeper, I was,” the woman said, “and I never saw him study a single book. He always said writing couldn’t be learned, you know, and these books was gifts to ‘im, but I don’t see as how they did ‘im any good that way.”
“None at all,” Joe agreed. “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, the Good Book says, and if he fancied himself a writer he shouldn’t’ve listened to the likes of the naysayers.”
“He didn’t even have a word quota, more’s the pity.”
“And would I be in my exalted position if I did not practice industry daily?” Joe said. “Here, a sixpence for the lot and not a farthing more. I’ll sell ‘em to a young writer who actually has the moxie to write and never quit.”
“Spirit!” Scribe said. “This is a fearful place. Let us go!”
The Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger toward the books.
“Yes, I know I must study the craft,” Scribe returned, “and I know I must write to a quota, and I would do it if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power!”
The Spirit tweaked Scribe on the head with a bony finger. Thwack!
“Ouch!” Scribe said. “Okay! I get it! Hear me! I am not the writer I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by a disciplined writing life!”
The kind hand now made the Okay sign.
“I will honor writing in my heart, and try to keep at it all the year! I will develop ideas and write novels and actually finish them! I will not shut out the lessons you teach!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
A bedpost Scribe was clutching with his hands.
He was back! In his own bed!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. “What’s to-day!” cried Scribe, calling downward to a boy.
“Eh?” returned the boy.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Scribe.
“To-day!” replied the boy. “Why, it’s the start of NaNoWriMo!”
“NaNoWriMo!” said Scribe to himself. “Then I haven’t missed it!” And then to the boy: “Hallo, my fine fellow, do you know the grocers, in the next street but one, at the corner?”
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Scribe. “A remarkable boy! Run and fetch me as many packages of ground French Roast as this’ll buy!” He threw two twenties out the window to the boy. “Come back with the coffee in ten minutes and I’ll give you a shilling!”
“What’s a shilling?”
“Come back in less than ten minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown!”
“Whatever,” said the lad, and ran away.
Scribe ran to his computer. He turned it on and opened a blank Word document and wrote “Chapter One” and skipped down two spaces. “In all the time I have left on this earth,” he said to himself, “I am going to write. I am never going to stop. I’m going to set a word goal for every week, and I’m going to study those books I have, and buy more! I am determined to get better with each project! And I’m going to develop more than one idea at a time! For I am a writer! That’s what the Spirits wanted me to know! And I can only be stopped if I give up!”
Scribe was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more. He completed his NaNoWriMo novel, self-edited it, got feedback from beta readers, edited it again, and had it edited by a professional. He became as disciplined a writer as the old city knew, or any other old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. His own heart laughed, for he was a true writer now, and that was quite enough for him. For he knew that the writing game favors those who produce and risk and sometime fail, but always come back bravely to the page to risk and write again.
May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, God bless us, every one!