Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Best of Seekerville from the Archives and First Five Pages Critique

Another 'Lightbulb' Moment by Cara Lynn James.

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 save 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?

This post first appeared in Seekerville August 28, 2008.

Cara Lynn James writes historical romances set during the Gilded Age. Her Ladies of Summerhill series is set in Newport, Rhode Island, the country's premier resort in the nineteenth century. She lives in northwest Florida with her husband, daughter, grandson and Papillon.

You can find Cara at

Don't forget...

Today is the last day to be considered for our weekly critique.
More info here.


  1. My light bulb for the moment is that it's bedtime ;).

    I've got breakfast all set out waiting on Helen's coffee. Pastries galore.

    I'll see what kind of light bulb I can come up with in the morning.

    I'd love a critique :).

    carol at carolmoncado dot com

  2. Coffee's ready.

    Light bulb moments come in different sizes. Sometimes it's a big burst. Others times it's just a glimmer of a solution or idea that has to be digested and developed.

    The post is as meaningful second time around, maybe more so because of learning and skills acquired in the interim.


  3. I don't know really. It's been 28 dog years since I stepped out on this journey. :)

    The one that comes to mind, if it counts, is to rewrite it in first dog. This was per Sandra's strong suggestion. It made a huge difference for me and hopefully the story.

    I've barely begun #2 so I'm interested in any and all ideas related to the same character appearing in a sequel.

    Thx to y'all for continuing to post topics relevant to my needs. You are a blessing!

    Yum on the coffee and pastry. I've already indulged!

  4. Cara, even for us pantsers, some kind of plotting has to go on or how would we plan books two and three, right?

    I love this light bulb moment. And 'birdwalking'. What a perfect word!!!

    I will probably steal it, use it and forget to give you credit.

    HELEN!!! COFFEE!!! YES!!!

    And Carol, thanks for food.

    Helen, I agree. Isn't it funny how things grow in importance and/or merit as our skills improve? Great point.

  5. I think my most recent light bulb moment was when I realized I had to make time to write - it wasn't going to just happen. I have to schedule it, schedule other things around it, and not let anything - short of a natural disaster...or moving - keep me from it.

    I'm still working on cleaning out the freezer in preparation for our move (!) in 9 days (!!!). So blueberry muffins for breakfast this morning.

  6. I forgot! Please enter me for the first five pages critique!


  7. Morning Seekerville. Birds are chirping, coffee is brewing.


    My light bulb moment was that every scene has to be relevant to the hero and heroine. No it can't just shed light on them, it has be relevant to them.

  8. How about a last five pages critique?

    Good Morning Seekerville!
    April is an awesome month.

    a sagging middle improves with a lot of exercise. okay, well both kinds of sagging middles.
    I often wonder if other people can hear that DING that goes off when a good idea pops in my head? Most of the time they come when I'm doing something physical and not sitting in front of this monitor.

  9. I think my biggest lightbulb moment so far is that I need to head to Seekerville every day ;).

    Actually, I don't know that I've had any of those big lightbulb moments yet. Except that I need to keep writing. Over and over. New stuff. So that when 'the call' comes I have a butt-zillion MSs in the drawer...

    I'm watching for everyone else's light bulb moments to see if I can steal them.

    Headed to Panera this afternoon. I 'came out' to a friend whose hubby is the police chief of a small town near here. He thinks my plot sounds interesting and wants to help =D. Now to figure out how many questions to email him without making him run for the hills ;).

  10. My light bulb moment came late last summer as I was returning to my writing after having my spinal surgeries. I realized that I wrote much better if I at least had a general outline of my entire story--nothing detailed, just a general overview. Up until then, I'd strictly been a seat-of-the-pants writer, and loved just sitting down and WRITING! (However, I'd realized that it was easy to forget "where I was going" in a story--especially after 22 hours of anesthesia,LOL). ~ Thanks so much for this post, Cara! ~ Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

  11. My light bulb moment was realizing that bunny trails don't entertain anyone but me. That scene where the vet had to come help birth a calf? Axed.

    I'd love a five-page critique.

    salt96 at charter dot net

  12. I don't know that plot or characters come first for me-- a scene will usually pop into my head, often from the middle of the story, complete with dialogue, expressions, etc. But it's just a short snippet usually. From that, a story creates itself! Of course, it's not that easy, but that's it in a nutshell.


  13. I'm with CarolM - my lightbulb moment is visiting seekerville each day. Alas -- a gnarly life has made that impossible this week and have I been writing? Nope. :-(

  14. I find that my "light bulb moments" come at night. My mind works on solving my dilemma while I sleep. Sometimes it evens wakes me to announce its solution to the problem.

    Thanks for all your interesting posts.

    I'd love to be included in the drawing for a critique.


  15. I've been AWOL this morning, but I have a good reason! My grandson Jace(second grandbaby) was born yesterday. The birth was difficult, but mother and son are both fine. Even my son Justin, the baby's daddy, has survived!

    I think Justin and I and everyone in the family had a lightbulb moment--we realized how much this little person means to us. Yes, Jace was already important to each of us, but for the few minutes we were afraid we might lose him, we understood how special human life really is.

    We're off to the hospital again, but I'll be back later.

  16. Congratulations! What an exciting way to start your day (and so happy Jace is all right)!

  17. Congratulations, CARA!! What a heroic name...JACE.

    Okay, I called it first.

  18. LOL only in Seekerville would congratulations on the birth of a baby be heralded with dibs on the name for a future book hero. LOL.

    Congratulations, Cara!

  19. Cara, I know I need to do at least MORE plotting. I'm trying.




  20. Hi Cara:

    Congrats on the Grandson! I'll be looking for a picture ASAP!

    About your post: I couldn’t agree with you more! : )


    I recently read Sandra’s Byrd’s “Don’t Kiss Him Good-bye,” and discovered that an entire book could be written in AE’s (anticipatory events).

    “Don’t Kiss Him Good-bye,” is a YA book with very short chapters and no ‘sagging' anythings. Almost everything that happens to the lead character, Savvy, is either an “AE” or the resolution of an “AE”. Amazing!

    I would not even have thought it was possible to write a book this way! Pantsers might enjoy reading this book for examples on how to create ‘page-turning’ chapters without having to be constantly increasing the tension. AE's might eliminate 'sagging middles'.

    “Don’t Kiss Him Good-bye,” is going to change how I write and plot books in the future. I have a detailed review in the works for my web site but I have not been able to tear myself away from Debby Giusti’s, “The Officer’s Secret”, long enough to write anything but this post!

    Already I like “The Officer’s Secret” better than NCIS. It’s Army and all the military details will delight military suspense fans.


    Please put me in for a 5-page critique – vmres (at) swbell (dot) net.

  21. Obviously I can't wait to read "The Officer's Secret" now, Vince!

    I love military romance from the first Penny Parrish (Janet Lambert) book I read centuries ago.

    CARA!!!! Since Tina grabbed the name (didn't someone, was it you, VINCE???) mention romance names and how so many of them are rare in the general population (I think Rafe and Jace were on the list) but are a high percentage in romance novels.

    I think I'm going to come up with a Vince in a novel. Just because Vince Mooney rocks.

    So there all you "Jace" grabbers!

  22. I have a Vince in a novel...

    He doesn't look anything like Vince though...

    I had lunch with Andrea Strong and her daughter today. While she was in line, her daughter and I looked some stuff up online. We looked at zorses. We wondered if even Mary could work a zorse in somewhere...

    Zorses are cool. Zonkeys are too. Her daughter was fascinated.

    Did some work for Pentalk [anyone wanna guest blog?]. Now I'm supposed to be writing...



    Gotta do some of that...

  23. Thanks 'read my mind' to speak. I am mostly a panster, but had a 'light bulb' moment a couple of months back when my husband started asking me questions about my story. He suggested putting each of the scene ideas on small sticky notes and putting them on the wall. So now there are approx. 55 scenes...which helps me as I move from scene to scene:) He's also working on a children's book...and a bit of a panster himself:)
    Anyway, thanks so much for your insights Cara...totally helpful!

    Congrats on your new grandson...exciting!

    lornafaith at gmail dot com

  24. As for plotting, I divide and conquer.

    In a 86-90K book, I plan for 28-32 chapters, 80-100 scenes.

    I come up with a beginning, and an ending, and then I start dividing...

    What needs to happen at the 1/2 way point, or around 45K words? I figure this is the middle peak in Karen Doctor's W workshop even though I haven't seen it.

    32 chapters divided by 4 is 8 sections. So, every 3-4 chapters (or ever 30-40 pages), I make sure I have an explosion, major turning point, revelation, or unexpected twist.

    Yes, we want stuff like this at the end of EVERY chapter, and every scene, but some of these points end up having more punch than others.

  25. I just read Pammer's comment.

    And I'm rubbing throbbing temples.

    And wondering if there is really a time difference between doing all that ahead of time (a plotter-type) and pantsing a novel then revising or re-writing what needs to be smoothed.

    I bet in the end it's not much different. But the plotting way requires thought and follow through.

    Pam, your way obviously works. Good. Solid. Lovely. I'M JUST WAITING AND PRAYING FOR THAT PHONE CALL, DARLING!!!!

  26. Ruthy, I knew that comment would make your beautifully styled hair stand up on end! lol

    It doesn't matter if the "light bulb" moments come before, during, or after the rough draft is written. It doesn't matter if it's plotted or panstered.

    It only matters if it's all in ther by the time the READER gets ahold of the book.

    But...for me, I've found that I can get WAY off track if I don't have a semblance of a road map.

    Come to think about that, I like using road maps for physical trips too.

    I guess I just like knowing where I'm going.

  27. Hi...I hope I can get this in before time is up! I would love to be considered for the critique. I don't think I've entered for this week : ). Thanks!
    travelingstacey at bellsouth dot net

  28. Congratulations on the new grandson, Cara!

    I'm glad to hear everyone is doing well