Sunday, October 25, 2015

How I Plot My Novels (Part I of I Don't Know How Many)

Although technically I haven't written any novels under this pen name yet, I have written novels. Lots of them. Some of them bad, some of them not so bad. Some might even see the light of day sometime. Bryce and I, writer BFFs that we are, were talking about The Prince of Cups, as I had given him my first draft to look over when he expressed interest. It's at around 24-25K words right now, and he read it over and gave me one of the best compliments I've ever gotten. Conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, so you thought it was good?
Bryce: Yeah, that would be an understatement.
Me: lol Told you I only barely started touching the main plot.
Bryce: *bows before you*
Me: lol I think you're overselling me.
Bryce: My plotting is so simple.
Me: I worry I plot too much!
Bryce: Mine is just kill and fuck!
Me: But that's ok too!
Basically, the compliment was that my plot was complex for it, which is awesome! We went on to talk about it, and how I have a whole metaplot in mind for the Villainess series (like I do with Delilah as well), and that I have the first six or so books lined up. The further away from where I am now the more vague they are, but I still have the plot in mind, and a goal I'm working towards. Whether it stays the same or not over time, we'll see.

Then I said I was thinking of making a blog post about how I wrote stuff like that, and he said he'd be interested. :P I was going to write it anyway, but Bryce, this is for you. :D

First things first: you gotta have an idea. It can be as simple as "I want to write about a bad ass villain", which is kinda the basis of Villainess. Once you have the idea, figure out what appeals to you about it. I'm going to use Queen of Swords as my main example here, so if you haven't read it yet, there are spoilers in this post for the book. You've been warned.

Next, figure out your characters. I almost always start with the enemy first, the antagonist. In the case of a series here, obviously Caprice will always be the protagonist, and she'll face off against different enemies. When creating Queen of Swords, I knew EXACTLY who I wanted as an enemy, which ultimately was Harry, the deceiver. I also knew I wanted to have a couple of side characters that interested me, and to sort of expand the universe without explaining about it. It's always better to show rather than tell, and exposition is something you should try to avoid. Now, I used exposition to describe Caprice, since she's our narrator, but that was written for me to get a lock on the character. I will often write scenes or dialogues with the main protagonists so I can get into their heads, and in this case I thought I'd just leave it in, as it explained the world and the character, even if it was a bit long.

So, with Harry, I wanted him to come off as being a relatively nice guy, someone who's cute and funny, kinda dangerous but not really. Towards the end, it would be revealed that he was just manipulating her in order to get a bigger payday. Made a mistake and got screwed. Literally. Literally in a couple ways. >.>

Right away now I have an idea that they are going to somehow meet up or do something together, then he'll betray her, and because she's a bad ass villain, she'll have her revenge. Right there is the basic outline for Queen of Swords:

  1. Introduction -- introducing Caprice and the world
  2. Set-up -- her and Harry "do something" together, since they're villains it's probably going to be stealing or killing.
  3. Betrayal -- the "twist" as it is, which leads into...
  4. Her Revenge -- the climax
Every book has three main acts. Every story has three main acts. Those parts have to be addressed in order to have a satisfying story. Once I get the gist (see above) of what's going on, then I start to fill in each act on its own, in order.

The First Act: Exposition, Character Introductions, Inciting Incident

 The first act for Queen of Swords is basically Caprice getting a job from Harry to steal a gizmo. Since I'd written some words in Caprice's voice, and I had gotten to know her as a character, I started to think, "Where would she be?" Well, she'd be where she would get a contact or a job. Thus I had to start thinking about setting more. Now, in this case, I am blatantly stealing ideas and twisting them for my own purposes from City of Heroes/Villains. Yes, a video game. Because there had to be some way for criminals to get in touch with each other, and I myself am not a criminal and don't know these things, I thought about what would make the most sense. Well, like an underground network, right? Makes sense?

Taking the idea of something underground, below the radar, I stole the idea of a huge dance club for meta humans from City of Heroes: Pocket D. There are references which CoH players may get in there, and Virtueites in particular... such as not going in the bathrooms. Ew. In that game, Pocket D was an interdimensional night club that both sides could access. For a long time, that was the only way you could interact with a villain if you were a hero, and vice versa.

Now that idea didn't work for me, in the slightest. I wanted this place to be much darker, and bigger, like no one knows how big it is. No one except Malech knows, and he changes it. It is still interdimensional, but people don't' know that. They just think it's underground, which is where I got the name from: The Underground. It's not just a double entendre, but a triple one. Underground because of the criminal element which dominates, the entrances go underground in the real world... and it's actually his layer of hell, which one could consider the spiritual underground. There are private rooms for people to conduct business or fuck in. There are dance parties and dance floors and shit. There are a ton of bars. In the second book, Prince of Cups, it's actually shown the warping capabilities Malech has in his domain, as Caprice climbs up a bunch of stairs, says fuck it and turns around, and the door is there. Is it him warping space? Or warping her mind? Who knows? I haven't decided yet.

At this point I stopped and thought about the mood of the piece. I wanted it dark and sexy. Caprice is psycho, and she loves killing. She loves fucking. Along with mood, we need a theme. To go with the mood, I chose the themes of "You can't trust anyone" and "Nothing is ever free.". Without exception, everyone in the book Caprice meets or interacts with wants something from her, and may or may not be willing to go to violence to get it. Taking our examples, Michael/Nosferatu wants to fuck her (or kill her, maybe both), and fights her for dominance. When he's "trapped" in the apartment building underground, Nosferatu wants her blood in order to replenish himself. They end up brokering a deal, sort of a favor for a favor. She doesn't trust him to respect her boundaries, not that she has many other than "don't kill me".

Alistair, the mage, basically withholds his services unless she gives him her services.

Harry, of course, is the betrayer. While he hires her straight up for a job (nothing is free), he ends up arranging to turn her in to some strangers who are hunting her (can't trust anyone). After Emily runs into her (where the theme is repeated but on Emily's side... Emily was ALSO betrayed in this), then Caprice becomes a form of the betrayer in taking her revenge. She could have given him a chance to fight, but why? She does what he intended to do to her: seduce him, and then kill him.

When you figure out your theme, the more you can repeat it subtly through the book, the stronger it will be. But subtly. Don't hammer it over people's heads all the time.

Now, having some settings and ideas about the mood/theme, I concentrated on supporting characters. Caprice was introduced, and we would get to Harry by the end of the intro, but that wasn't enough. To this end, I introduced Nosferatu. I like Nos. He's one of my favorites (and may be based loosely on a friend I used to know, a long time ago). I wanted to add someone else who was a bad ass in there, on the same level or more powerful than Caprice, but who didn't care so much about money. His motivation for being a villain is completely different than hers. He's also technically two characters in one, his human host being Michael, and the vampire spirit/ghost Nosferatu. Even though it wasn't expressed explicitly, they also reflect the theme. When Michael comes back into control after Nosferatu feeds on Caprice, he states that she shouldn't have done that. When she asks why, he says that Nos can find her anywhere now. A mini-betrayal, as Nosferatu didn't tell her that. This will set up complications for later books.

I also wanted someone else, a contact for her to find information. This lead me to make Alistair, which I'll go into in the next post (as this one is getting too long). I couldn't think of anything else offhand, so I went ahead and started writing.

Much of my process is in my head. I keep track of very long plot lines and hooks because I keep telling myself the story and changing things as I see fit. Some people may find it easier to write down notes. I do this occasionally as well, but they are generally brief. However, because it's in my head, sometimes it seems easy or non-complicated until I see it all written down and go, "Yeah, this isn't going to work." Be watchful of that, and pay attention to opportunities to complicate things for your characters. The whole idea of the complication is what led me to use Alistair later on, and why I chose three things. But again, that's next post.

At this point, while I was writing, I got Nosferatu's and Harry's characteristics down. I changed some stuff as I needed while I wrote and went into the job. The question of why the job in the first place when Harry could just turn her in bothered me, so I created the reason he needed the item: he's a "meta" too, or actually, someone using super science to augment himself. Since he's a criminal, I had him steal it. But since it wasn't installed properly, he needed some widgit to fix it. Thus, when the opportunity came for a payday, he saw another opportunity to get something he wanted first by using a couple of talented individuals as well as himself to break into Titan.

By creating that reason, I created a complication for Harry. Now, it may not be important for Caprice's story since he ends up killed, but stuff like that is what I mean by creating complications. Even if it touches on a side character, how that character then acts will be changed, which may in turn affect your plot or your protagonist.

I cannot stress how important this two minute video is. It encapsulates the idea of complications and how they affect the story. Watch it. Then watch it again. Watch it over and over again and memorize this: The importance of "Therefore" and "But". Everything is either a consequence or a complication.

Using their pretty simple system, what we have for Queen of Swords actually starts with Harry, believe it or not. Harry gets an offer to turn in Caprice, BUT he needs some widget to fix himself THEREFORE he hires Caprice and Nosferatu to steal it with him BUT during a fight the trio are separated and Caprice loses her sword THEREFORE she goes to Alistair to find it BUT finds out she has "lost" other things... and so on and so on.

The end of the first act is actually where the motivation focus goes from Harry's motivation (betray Caprice/get his widget) to Caprice's motivation (find her lost sword). If you look at it in this way, the first act has three separate beats itself: Getting hired, the fight, the aftermath/sexy times/denouement in Harry's apartment. I could have stopped the story there. And for a long time I did. I wrote this in fits and spurts, and when I came to the end of the sexy times, I wasn't sure where to go with it. At this point, I didn't know Harry was going to betray Caprice, not ... like he did. I knew something else had to happen, but I wasn't sure what. So, I shelved the story and worked on other things while I figured it out.

When it hit me that "Hey, she's the lead, so she's special, right? How special IS she? Are the other people looking for her? And if so, who are they?" caused me to go back and revisit the story. This is more for the next section, but I wanted to mention that because as soon as I thought of the idea, I went back and rewrote sections of the Harry's apartment scene. Originally, it was furnished. Not well, but furnished. And dirty, as if he hadn't been there in a while. I changed it up so that it was clean and not really furnished at all, which gives the audience to think that maybe something isn't right here, yet be subtle enough people might not catch it. And again, this adds a complication for Caprice down the line, in future books.

A last thing, and this goes to editing. Everything you write should either go to character development, plot development, or theme/mood development. If a word you write doesn't add to any of those? Cut it. Some writers would say to cut the mood or theme too, as those would tie into the plot, but that's not necessarily true. I recently read a book which the plot was... not awesome, but the mood of the book was dark, and I really enjoyed that. If the author hadn't spent time building the mood, I would have put it down. I find it's more important to build mood for tragedies, horror, and romances than it is for other genres, but each have their own beats and moods to learn.


  1. You're right, that "therefore/but" video was probably one of the most important things I've ever seen!

    1. :D That particular theory of writing has been stated before in much longer and bigger words, but that was the most approachable and easiest to understand example I've ever come across.