Thursday, August 28, 2008

Another 'Lightbulb' Moment

Which comes first—the characters or the plot? It’s hard to determine. In fact, I’m not sure there is a correct answer. Some writers concentrate on characters first, others gravitate toward plot. I imagine most combine elements of both as they develop their story.

The first thing that often catches my interest is an unusual situation. From there I can picture my characters with their unique personalities, strengths and flaws etc. If I’m lucky, my hero and heroine spring to life in my mind’s eye. I see their faces and hear their laughter. And then I’m off and running at least for the first few chapters. The ending suddenly appears in skeleton form, but clear enough to know the characters will eventually burst through the finish line and create their own story resolution. I can smile at this point, confident (hopeful) my idea has potential and will work.

But then I’m left with the sagging middle which stretches on and on like the Sahara Desert. I try not to panic when my mind goes blank. I try to deepen my characters by reexamining their goals, motivation and conflict. But sometimes I get overwhelmed and discouraged, so I surf the net or read a book. Still, a sagging middle doesn’t tighten itself all on its own. It takes hard work and for me, a lot of trial and error.

Tired of trudging through the barren wasteland between the beginning and the end, I recently decided to take the problem in hand and deal with it. My ‘seat of the pants approach’ to the middle doesn’t work for me. And I can’t outline because I’m wandering around the desert without an oasis in sight. But what do I do? In the past I’ve tried to follow different plotting techniques which worked for writer friends, but they only helped a little bit. Nothing clicked until I took an online plotting course using the ‘W’ plotting method by Karen Docter. It sent me from plot point to plot point which made all the difference in the world.

I can now plot! This is a giant step forward for me. Plotting will safe me hours of birdwalking. So I’m grateful I found a method to steer me in the right direction. Now I know many of you break out in hives from the very idea of plotting, so this method or any method isn’t for you.

But my point—we all have ‘light bulb’ moments that propel us ahead in our journey toward publication. What are some of yours?


  1. Hey Cara,

    I suffer from the same problem. Even though I plot out my book up until the black moment, when I actually get to the middle (or two-thirds through), I go blank. Everything stops. I can't decide what to do.

    I'd be interested to learn more about this "W" method of plotting.



  2. Hi, Cara! I'm a confirmed SOTP writer. I've tried lots of different plotting formulas but even when I manage to pull together a plot skeleton before I start writing, pretty soon I find myself (or my characters!) veering off in totally different directions. And their ideas are usually a lot better than what I came up with in the first place!

    Still, I KNOW plotting has its advantages, not the least of which is carrying you through the sagging middle. So more about this W method, please. How detailed do you have to get? How much freedom is there for serendipity along the way?

    And where is Ruthy with the goodies? The morning is nearly half gone! I'd offer up something, but the kitchen is not my best friend. The best I can offer is a bowl of snack mix and diet caffeine-free Dr Pepper. Somebody can surely do better than that!

  3. I haven't had any real problems yet with a sagging middle. The middle usually comes to me along with the beginning and end. I have the whole thing plotted in my head before I ever start writing. At least, that's how it's been with my first three books.

    I have light bulbs moments when someone explains an aspect of writing, like Show Don't Tell or Deep POV, and I suddenly get it. I may have read about it a lot and puzzled over what in the world they were talking about, but then one day Margie Lawson explains Scene and Sequel and I suddenly understand it for the first time. Or I get a critique from a judge in a contest and suddenly realize a better way to convey emotion or increase the tension.

  4. I have proven, in the past, to be resistant to learning.

    I suppose there's a syndrome name for that.

    I like it, Cara, the plotting system. Good for you. I know I need to be more aggressive about plotting before I start a book. It really is, to me, easier to write once it's plotted.

    But plotting is a lot of work and it's easy to skip it. :)

  5. I'm here, gals, and I brought fresh-baked York peppermint pattie brownies...

    With melted swirls of delicious peppermint pattie goodness across the top and buried deep within the ooey gooey wonderfulness that comprises a well made brownie.

    Hello, Weight Watchers!!!


    Cara, what a good post to reaffirm to plotters that all is well in plot world.

    Like Myra, I'm a pantser but I've taught Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake method as part of a writing workshop I've presented, and it makes perfect sense to minds that work that way. These are great tools to have at hand.

    My aha! moment...

    One of many...

    Hearing a Keith Urban song that suddenly put my hero's anger and pathos into full perspective for me, allowing me to capture his angst and eventual humor in a realistic manner.

    Another aha! moment came in a parking lot as an attendant thanked me for putting a cart away...

    I had the book plotted in my head in the twenty minute ride home from the store, based on what that attendant said and how I spun that chance meeting around in my certifiably crazy brain.

    I rarely get 'aha' moments in classes, or by reading, or in seminars. I tend to tune them out, escape into my own world, and re-write characters and/or plot points in my head rather than listening.

    I think I should do a class at RWA about tuning out classes. Now THAT would be fun. ;)

    Hey, I brought some new mocha hazelnut coffee with mudslide creamers...

    A wonderful blend if I do say so myself.

    Grab some goodies, have a seat and chat a while, ladies.

    And gents. (Or should I say 'chickens????' Come on, we KNOW you're out there, but rarely post. We like boys in Seekerville. We're romance writers, for heaven's sake...

    We like boys A LOT!...

    Maybe I should change that to 'men'...





  6. Cara, Great post. I'm left brain so love to plot it all out. Of course I'm like Myra and never follow it. So who knows. We do what works. Anyway my big aha moment was taking a weekend workshop for screenwriters. If you ever need to tighten up your writing and need help with plotting, a screenwriter class is perfect for that.

    Ruthy the brownies sound yummy. So does the coffee.

  7. Yes, the light bulb - that was it!

    With only 5 ms's under my belt, I don't have a preferred starting point. Sometimes it's the characters, sometimes the plot.

    But in book 2 of my series - I had an awful time completing it. I'd already finished book 3 and yet I couldn't complete book 2. Why?

    I knew how it was going to end, so what was holding me back?

    Well, driving into the city one day, I was dwelling on the final chapters and started playing the 'What If?' game.

    And the light bulb flashed so hard I thought I was in one of those V8 commercials where you get slapped in the head and say, 'I could've had a V8!'

    Well, of course - I had a black moment, but the protags hadn't really hit bottom - yet. They were somewhere on a ledge - no way to climb up, but not quite at the bottom yet, either.

    And then the perfect black moment came to me. I had to change the ending slightly, but it didn't matter, b/c now it had some 'ooomf' to it, ya know?

  8. Keep talking, girls, because I'm learning lots. :)

    Ruthy, those brownies have me slobbering. Is there a real recipe for those? (LoL please?)

  9. Ruthy, send some your goodies to northwest Florida--before the hurricane hits the Gulf Coast! I've gained ten pounds just thinking about brownies.

    You can learn more about the 'W' Plot system by googling Karen Docter.

    The one thing that really struck me is something I should have known before. Well, maybe I did know it, but never paid enough attention. It is: every plot point has to directly relate to the character's goal and show her progress toward that goal. And each primary character (hero and heroine) has his/her own set of plot points. And so does the romance itself. Anyway, this made me think through my story before I run out of steam and come to a screeching halt.

  10. It sounds like I need a "W" for the hero and an "W" for the heroine.

    Kinda like the back pockets on Wrangler jeans.

    On a cowboy --

    Wait! Back on topic. Plotting. Got it. OK, I think I need more coffee. I'm going to look for more mudslide creamer when I go to the store next.


  11. Ann, mudslide creamers are at our local Sam's Club from International Delight, I think....

    For $8.00 you get a whole lot of happiness. I'm just sayin'...

    Cara, now THAT makes sense to me. Explaining it that way I can visualize the sense of it. Isn't it funny how different brains work?

    Okay, on topic. Ann got me all flamboozled with those Wrangler jeans...

    My mind immediately went to Brett Favre and the commercial...

    Because he has a nice reddish Golden Retriever, no doubt.

    (big grin here...)

    I've suddenly developed a particular liking for the NY Jets.

    Be still my heart.


    SO EASY!

    I doubled up a package of Betty Crocker originals because that's what was on sale...

    Diced up about twenty of the small York Peppermint Patties....(Sams Club sells ginormous boxes of those, too.)

    Mixed them in and baked at 325 for 35-40 minutes...

    Then set another twenty little peppermint patties (unwrapped, you goofs!) on the top, let them soften, and spread them for a light, minty frosting.

    To die for.

    You can easily do the same thing with one box and an 8 x 8" pan.

    Mandy's loving them right now. I think living with me is bad for her waistline, but she's a hockey player so she manages to work it off and I have someone to experiment on.

    Besides you guys, of course, LOL!


  12. Bless you, Ruthy! This should secure my footing as the favorite aunt at the next family gathering. LoL Truly. (but I'll have to make practice batch first!!) Yummmmm! er, I mean, rats. ;)

  13. I just discovered (after RWA) Blake Snyder's books. and also his Beat Sheet. He offers the sheet free on his website. I just used that along with my regulars (Carolyn Greene's and Alicia Rasley's books).

    I think it really helped! And in his 2nd book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, it analyzes movies by showing all of the 15 beats. I loved that! Very helpful.

    Great post, Cara. I just wrote up my first ever proposal, so it's something I've got to learn to do!


  14. CARA!!! i'm a day late and a dollar short, so please forgive me, but your post really resonated with me -- a SOTP writer who is in plotting rehab!! First three books basically took ME to where the story was supposed to go, but I discovered that on my next 3-proposal, a short blurb idea wasn't going to cut it.

    Why? Because I couldn't drum up the passion needed to write them -- and nothing is deadlier than a book where even the author isn't passionate about it! So, I am a recovered SOTP ... or at least partially. I now have three VERY detailed synopses for books 4, 5 & 6, and let me tell you I am breathing a LOT easier!!!

  15. I have found a system that, for the time being (LOL!), works for me. I seem to constantly hone my methods though.

    But I started doing character charts ahead of time as well as a brief scene index from beginning to end of the book.

    This has prevented me from getting stuck in the middle.

    Great post, Cara! Sorry I'm a day late stopping by.


  16. Me too...a day late, that is. Great post, Cara!