Steal this Plot

That’s the name of a book I checked out from the library today.

Good artists borrow. Great artists steal. Or so the saying goes. True art and writing don’t share a whole lot in common. That philosophy however, applies to a many many great things. I’ve been bouncing a few ideas off the wall for a while now on some book ideas. I’ve always liked the idea of a story on the road, the great trans-continental trip filled with self discovery and many different events in many different locales. Shakespeare’s plays all take place in one city typically, with a very tight plot in which each character is very specifically linked to every other character. That doesn’t really work with my story ideas.

Most of my story ideas involve, surprise surprise, going through the midwest, or travel by train. They all occur in the 1850s-1920s, sort of a steam or diesel punk era, but less stylized. An orphan traveling from the east coast to live a life on the west coast. A pair of hooligans as bank robbers in Colorado. A man fleeing his life to begin again in Mexico.

I really like making things modular. I wrote a two page article on making modular maps for TF2. If you can make 3D spaces that people move through modular, you can make a book modular as well. Surprisingly, for as much writing as there is on the internet, there is not a lot of good (and free) advice on how to write books. I have been able to glean a few truly good bits here and there by doing quite a bit of googling on the subject. There seems to be two camps when it comes to writing fiction: those who plan it out, and those who freestyle the entire thing. Those who plan it out tend to be lauded for excellent plot and an engaging storyline. Those who wing it (and are successful) tend to be lauded for their storytelling abilities. The two compliments tend to rarely cross-pollinate.

Well, I am not a particularly good storyteller, so I am going to have to lean on an engaging and complex plot to write a good book. There are three ways to organize the plot; come up with a good plot on your own, borrow (steal) someone else’s plot, or build one out of note cards — sort of a combination of the first two. I pieced together a few ways of creating an outline for my book; this is what I am currently up to. First I decided what kind of novel to write. An epic novel seems like a good way to start off learning to write books. Why not.  Second I found synopsizes of every epic story I could find, and picked the most interesting parts of them, and pasted them roughly in the order that would make the most sense. If you’re going to rip off someone’s plot, you might as well steal from the best. Look at how O Brother, Where Art Thou? worked out at the box office. Can’t argue with success. This gave me a wide variety of scenes to start off with and shuffle about as I saw fit. I knew how the structure of The Aeneid worked, with nested stories inside one another. I also realized that Dante’s Divine Comedy created an excellent structure to place my scenes in. For a 100,000 word book, I’d need about 50 scenes of 2,000 words each. No problem, I told myself. I’ll just pull all my favorite scenes from each story and string them together in a plausible order.

Hopefully I’ll have picked quality scenes that will make for en engaging book. Some of the things I have read suggest that many scenes can be told in any order; only a few key scenes need to be specifically placed. We’ll see how true that is. Also, that is what the second draft is for — building up scenes, stringing secondary plot lines through them, adding/deleting characters and generally cleaning up the storyline. Fixing the first draft is much easier than writing it.

But back to modular story telling. In an epic story, many of your characters will not cross paths for a very long time. This means individual actions won’t have an effect on the other plot lines directly, or at least not immediately, allowing you to place the characters into interesting or unusual situations without disturbing the overall plot. So you have an idea of who your main character is, and where they are headed, but you have a lot of empty space in between. That’s good! Pick and choose your favorite scenes from your favorite stories, and plug them in the gaps. Each scene should be around 2,000 words, giving you 4-8 pages of content. String enough of them together and you end up with a book. This is where the note cards come in. Having individual scenes written on each card makes it very easy to figure out what order things will go in. You can also place the note card on your keyboard and give you something to focus on while you pump out 2,000 words on the subject.

Besides interesting scenes that build your plot, you need interesting characters. I ran across a book that does a good job of describing great, interesting characters, but that is the only one. People online don’t like to share their generic characters that they build theirs from for some reason. Then I ran cross this book, “45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters” by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Luckily, my local library had a copy and I swung down there the next day. Little did I realize (it’s obvious now in retrospect) that the library had two whole shelves devoted to writing, plot tips, how to write novels, how to sell your novel, and most importantly, how to build interesting characters. I also picked up the book “Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archtypes” by Cowden, Lafever, and Viders.

Now that I’ve plotted out my major plot points, the scenes associated with them, I made lists of all the characters I needed to flesh out for the story. I have a few character cards with names on them, but now I need to go back and determine which personality and motivation fits which character. At that point, I can start writing the book. Not counting the months I’ve spent collecting scenes, plot and character ideas, I’ve spent about 8-10 hours rearranging the plot and getting everything to fit. I’ll probably spend another 20 hours tweaking it as I start writing. November National Writing Month wants you to pump out 40,000 words in 30 days *(1300 words a day), I am looking at writing one 2,000 word scene a night to ultimately write 100,000 words in 50 days. Considering the prepwork I’ve done, I don’t anticipate it to be much of a problem… That’s what they all say of course. We’ll see.

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