Monday, June 20, 2011

Liz's Lair: A Series Diary Even Pantsers Can Love

Most of you know I have been in Ohio for a family reunion and am getting on a plane back to Texas today. I knew I wouldn't have a chance to write a new blog, so I looked back in my archives and came up with this one. Since I'm ready to start on book 3, MURDER FOR THE HALIBUT, I thought it was appropriate.

For some reason, I spent a lot of time either listening to the way other people plot or telling them how I plot. So, I decided today’s blog should be about that.

I recently went to successful writer and workshop teacher, Randy Ingermanson’s Workshop The SnowFlake Method. He starts with a twenty-five word or less blurb and builds it into a workable synopsis. On Saturday, the talented, Lori Wilde spoke at my chapter meeting about themes and plots. She has over 50 books out there, so she’s doing something right. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong way. You have to do what works for you.

Even true-blue pantsers are finding they are doing more plotting nowadays than they used to, especially if they’re writing mysteries or selling on proposal. Die-hard plotters have been doing this all our writer lives. So, I decided I wanted to know how everyone else does it. I’ll start with my own writing and my latest wip.

I went to a “gathering” of a few writer friends a while back, and the question came up about plotting. I confessed I only had a blurb for my second book, BEEF STOLEN-OFF. Here it is:

Jordan finds herself smack in the middle of a cattle theft ring where the “steaks” are high and the cowboys are not what they seem.

Since my series title was about casseroles (or it was before my editor changed it to Clueless Cook, which actually fits better.) I had what I thought was a catchy title following that theme and an idea what it would be about.

That’s it. I had no clue where I was going with it, other than cattle rustling was involved. With the help of my friends, we threw out some “what ifs?” and I came home with a pageful of ideas.

The next thing I did was sleep on this for a week or so. That’s where I do my best plotting, and this time was no exception. Since I write long-hand, I list what I call plot points on a piece of paper.
Things like :

Jordan goes to Cattleman’s Ball so she can write a review and her escort dies in her arms.

Jordan goes to his funeral and his aphasic mother mouths “help me” to her.

I usually have a page and a half to two pages, and these eventually end up as scene hooks and/or red herring candidates. When I have this all on paper, I start my research. In this case, I needed to know something about cattle rustling, ways I could poison someone without it showing up in their blood, and Texas barbecue. These printed research sheets are the things I study when I’m in the doctor’s office or on an airplane, and my imagination goes wild. My plot points get changed so often, I have to write them in pencil. The same goes for my character profiles.

Now it’s time for me to meet my characters. I have developed my own character profile sheet that I use for every single character in my book. It has important things like their GMCs, their backstory, etc, but it also has not so important tidbits like what kind of perfume they wear, what kind of music they listen to, what kind of clothes they wear. Since I am taking my first shot at a series, I can’t tell you how helpful this has been with my second book.

There’s nothing that ticks me off more than when I’m reading a book in a series, and I notice some minor detail that is different, like all of a sudden a secondary character is wearing jeans and tee shirts instead of moo moo’s. Kind of extreme, but you get the point.

Since my series involves a small town, I have given that its own character sheet as well – where the Pizza House is, how far does she have to drive to get to work. Things like that will appear in all the books of the series and trust me, they’d better be accurate. I’m on a loop with mystery readers, and those gals are educated and know what turns them off...and have no problem talking about them. God forbid if Aunt Suzie's hair changes from blond to brunette.

I once heard the wonderful Roxanne St. Clair talk at Nationals about keeping a diary, especially if you are writing a series. Said the fans get really bent out of sharp if you get something wrong in your own book. She didn’t do this and ended up paying big bucks for someone else to do it for her. ..after the first few books.

Thank you, Rocky, as that one thing stuck in my head and forced me to take the time while I was writing Book One. Number one – I don’t have big bucks and number two- it has really helped me know my story. I use my character sheets for my diary. It was great pulling out the original ones from LIVER LET DIE to use when I started on

Of course, there are different characters in BSO since I killed off a lot in LLD. Oh well, what’s a few more sheets?

I wanted to add that I did the exact same thing with MURDER FOR THE HALIBUT. I went with a blurb:

When Jordan and her friends find themselves on a cruise where she is judging a culinary competition, things get "fishy" when the front-running chef is found face first in his signature Halibut dish.

From there we fleshed out a beginning plot that I have built on. We now call ourselves the Plotting Princesses.

So, let’s hear it. How do you plot? Inquiring minds want to know. If you’re brave enough to throw out your blurb so we can tear it apart – just kidding- go for it. I will respond to all of them tonight when I get home. Feel free to rip mine a new one on this glorious Monday in Texas where we’re still celebrating the fact that our Texas Rangers went to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, and our Mavericks are the NBA Champions for the first time ever.

Now if only the Cowboys would win more than 6 games this year.


Kari Lee Townsend said...

Great post Liz. I just thought of another idea for your cover...a scene inside the cattleman's ball ballroom :-)

Anyway, as far as plotting, I also start with a blurb. Then I too come up with some main plot points that I know I want to happen and I write them on idex cards. I pin them to a board I use to show which act they go in. I move them around as I go, and add more as I write.

Once I have it the way I think I want it, I write it down in pencil on a medium size poster board I can fold in half and take with me. Then I keep an actual outline in a notebook that I write the actual scenes I wrote after I finish each chapter so I know what I actually did instead of what I planned to do.

I too have a list of characters and places for the series so I remember what each one looks like and where I placed it in the town.

A lot of work initially but a real time saver down the road.

Donna Cummings said...

Liz, this is really great. Even though I'm a pantser, I do a lot of the same stuff you mention, with the brainstorming and plot points, and character details. I have so many Word docs with this info in it, so it's ready to go when I'm drafting and/or revising.

I hadn't really thought of creating the character sheets though. I may start doing that now while there's time and energy for it. :)

Barbie Jo Mahoney said...

First things first: Maybe this will be the year for the Cowboys...IF we have an NFL season, that is! But you know me..Big Blue all the way! ;-)

This is a great post, and you're right. You really have to do what works for you as the author. I have always considered myself a tried and true pantser. I have the idea, I know the beginning and the end - and hell, I can even write them! It's everything in the middle that somehow miraculously writes itself. Until recently.

I'm finding myself plotting more and more and I think that has stemmed from the current market being so tight. I really need all of my ducks in a row, so to speak becaue now a days you only get one shot. I think gone are the "have her revise and send it back" days. So that great, unique idea can't just be a great idea. It has to be a perfectly orchestrated piece of work!

I've tried to use spreadsheets, and I tend to have a million notebooks all over my house. But in true pantser fashion...I can't get "overly" organized or it stops the creativity (at least for me). I have fallen in love with index cards and using my Huge poster board grid to see where I have holes. But other than that, I'm learning that I can't plot too much or write too many scenes in detail.

Just the basics, works for me right now. And while I have a couple series ideas...I really need to go through and write those setting and character details down as I go. I have a feeling it's going to come back and bite me.

Lindsay said...

with writing two series at the same time I definitely need to keep track of the characters look, dress and act like. And like you Liz I've got a simple form I use. And since I have characters going from one series to another it can get confusing as to what they look like.
I've even found I've made a mistake or two in decsribing a character and had to refer back to my cheat sheet.

Anita Clenney said...

I love learning how other writers do things. It can open up some great ideas. With this secret warrior series, I already know the heroes and the villains. The heroines are the ones we haven't met from previous books.

I have an idea where the story is going. I brainstorm, with myself, with my CP, and I make notes. Lots of notes. Problem is I put them in different notebooks. I always have one notebook to use for a story but it ends up in my purse. A great idea hits and I grab another notebook (I have LOTS). Before I know it, I have notes in three or four places.

Then, I sort of refine my written notes on the computer. So I have a doc called "Ideas" or something like that. I've even used tables at times, creating my own calendar to show the plot point timeline. On the computer it's easy to shift the scenes around.

I tried character sheets once, but ended up not using them again. I really have the characters in my head, and haven't had a real problem yet. I also find pictures of the houses and similar characters and have a file with them saved.

I think I'm still learning what works for me.

Great post Liz. And I LOVE your blurbs.

Anita Clenney said...

I have the Snowflake method and the W Plot but don't haven't really used them. The W Plot was cool, and simple, but I just don't do well with charts and things. I've seen great excel spreadsheets from authors who outline scenes, characters in the scenes, page length, etc, and it's so wonderful, but I would spend more time putting it together than writing.

Liz Lipperman said...

I'm back. I had a great time at my family reunion, and that will be next Monday's blog.

Kari, it sounds like your way is similar to mine even though I know you are a pantser. We have discussed many times how mystery writing turns every one of us into a plotster or a pantter. It takes a little of both.

I say whatever works for you.

Liz Lipperman said...

Again, I am similar to a pantser. It just goes to show that none of us are really 100% one way or the other.

And, Donna, I'll send you the character profile sheet if you want.

Liz Lipperman said...

Barbie, I have tried so hard to use collages and boards, but I truly suck at it. I love my character sheets and my plot points.

And you know if your boys in blue do good, that means my boys in blue won't. Dallas, the Giant killer of the 2011 season.

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow, I don't know how you're keeping up with all that, Lindsay. I have two series going but the characters aren't the same. Let me know how that turns out.

Liz Lipperman said...

Again, it's what works for you, and it sounds like you have your method down pat, Anita. I keep a binder with pockets for every book. It holds the character profiles, all my research and notes, the synopsis etc. It's my bible when I'm writing.

Lindsay said...

Actually, it's at the point with both that I only work one one a day. I'd tried working on both the same day but it got confusing so now I alternate. One day the full the next the short. That seems to be working much better.