Comment on sfnovelists.com Article, “Starting to Plot”

Yesterday, I posted an article that noted how an interview on design and marketing could be useful for writers when deciding which idea you should run with. One of the tips presented was to have something more than just that original idea or spark. I asked if you had considered structure, characters, or themes. But what are some specific tips for developing that “something more”?

Today, sfnovelists.com posted their latest article in their Skill List Project (go read the entire Skill List–you will come away an improved writer). Entitled “Starting to Plot,” James Alan Gardner offers some concrete steps a writer can take to help that original spark of an idea grow. The steps are theirs. I just added some commentary based on my experiences dealing with these tasks. To avoid any plagiarism issues, I’ve tried to make the distinction clear by italicizing my comments.

Gardner’s first step is to brainstorm off that original idea. Gardner reminds us that brainstorming is done without judgment. Write down absolutely anything and everything that comes to mind. At this point, it’s quantity over quality. You can go over the list later, looking for the real gems. But wait a while. Separating the creative and editorial portions of your mind, and training yourself to call upon one, and only one, portion at a time is very useful skill (and something I am still struggling with). If I could successfully turn each one off when necessary, I would have an easier time writing my first draft and editing.

Gardner’s second step is to look at your gems and consider which will create conflict for your characters. Which ones will make things difficult for your characters? Slow them down? Scare them? Which will make your characters sacrifice something? Which might make them betray a friend? This is another crucial skill. I’m still a beginner writer. So many of my stories have my character wondering down a path, passively, while wonders happen around or to him or her. I should find more ways to make my characters struggle, to fight for what they want, and to react to their success or failure. While my stories might be charming or colorful, without that conflict and drama, they’re not very interesting, to be honest. So–conflict, challenges, obstacles. I need to find them and use them. Or I may need to put that idea aside for now.

Gardner’s third step is to think about an inner conflict. If your character has to sacrifice or betray, why? How do they make that decision? How are they affected by the consequences of that decision? My character should not be the same person he or she was at the beginning of the story. Psychological + physical conflict = a much more complete story. I need to remember that equation. Usually I leave an element out.

Gardner’s fourth and final step is to learn when you have enough of that “something more.” Recognize your writing style. If you write by the seat of your pants, you made need less “something more.” The point is to learn when you’ve cleared your threshold. Then get to writing. I like a more complete outline, so my “something more” is usually pages and pages of notes (even for a short story). I usually think about the rules of the magic or technology, and I think about back story. My goal is to help flesh out my characters and the setting. But I need to learn how to stop at the right time, so I can stop using my notes to procrastinate and instead start writing. I’m still learning that balance.

What do you think of these steps? I hope you find them as useful as I did. Once again, please visit sfnovelists.com and soak up all their great advice.