Pre-NaNoWriMo Plotting Thoughts

To plot or not to plot? (Yes, I’ve spent too much time at the Shakespeare theater down the street.)

Since it’s almost NaNo season, I figured I’d toss out my thoughts on plotting, since they’ve evolved some over the years. I’ve gone through a lot of iterations on this over the years, but my current โ€” and fairly successful โ€” approach is a hybrid.

I start with the key moment, which I shorthand as the HWYS moment. It’s a nod to Jesse Stern, who explained on the S7 NCIS DVDs that he had the line before the Act 3 phoof in Truth or Consequences in mind from the beginning, and then built the story in the first three acts to give the line its necessary impact. It’s an approach I took unconsciously in Razor’s Edge, when I knew I wanted to get to the point where Abby realizes McGee isn’t her geek anymore. Of course, I originally thought that was going to be chapter 4 or 5 out of eight, not chapter 49 of 50. ๐Ÿ™‚ Along the way, the story took a lot of twists and turns I hadn’t expected, in part because good, rich characters tend to react to events as they happen, not follow the path you lay out for them.

Three stories since then have been long enough to need a plotting approach: Living By the Rules, Steal My Breath Away and Life Is Made. Each one played out differently, writing-wise, but also have some things in common. And I’m going to try to do this without spoiling it for people who haven’t read any of them. Differences first:

In Rules, the point was choosing between two options that each seem right for different reasons. It’s the one longer story I’ve written where I didn’t know what was going to happen going in. Part of that was deliberate; I didn’t want to write one possibility weaker than the other because I was colored by what would happen in the end. And part was because I really couldn’t figure it out. I think I considered every possible ending before finally setting on the one that seemed most true to the characters. It was an experiment, and I think it worked, though the ending seemed to only satisfy most people in a theoretical sense โ€” almost everybody either thought McGee should have chosen the other option, or liked the one he chose, but didn’t like his reasoning.

Breath is the only true case fic I’ve written, in part because that type of plotting is the one I have the most trouble with. It’s also the only multi-chapter story that was basically done before I started posting, and the only one that I did detailed plotting on before writing. Both were mostly to avoid backing myself into a corner case-wise, which I did in one of the RE cases. Kyrie and I actually hashed everything out before I wrote any of it, which isn’t typical for us. (She’s seen what happens when I try to write mysteries before and knew it wouldn’t be pretty unless we worked it out first.) The story also basically didn’t change as I went along, at least not in the major plot points, which also isn’t typical. For something like a case fic, where there are puzzle pieces that have to fit together, I think detailed plotting is almost essential.

Life is the first story I’ve written since watching Jesse Stern’s HWYS bit, so it’s the first one I actively chose to write that way. I had set some wheels in motion in Breath, and Life is all about taking those shifting priorities and setting the team on their slightly different paths because of the Breath outcome. There was a gap between finishing Breath and starting Life because I had a few chapters of a future fic I needed to write while those plot bunnies were chomping at the bit. During that time, Kyrie and I hashed out some of the things I wanted to happen in Life. It wasn’t until I was driving back from a weekend at her place that I had the idea for the plot thread that became the source of the HWYS moment. Once I had that, a lot of things started falling into place, because, as JS said, I had to build the first two-thirds of the story to get to that moment. Fairly early on, I drafted out a couple of the key chapters leading into the HWYS moment so I had that road map of where I was going. To get the timing right on all the plot threads (a dozen, at last count), I figured out key elements and where they had to go to have everything weave into the right pattern, but I wouldn’t call it detailed plotting. More like 3-5 bullet points for each chapter โ€” less for some of the later ones. As I’ve gone along, some of those points have shifted or vanished; lots of other scenes that weren’t on the list have popped up. It’s less step-by-step directions and more a list of possible sights along the way. ๐Ÿ™‚


For all of them, I’ve had a theme of sorts. Because I write best with music, I’ve kept my eyes out for songs that speak to the themes involved, as they help my brain process the possibilities. Some songs on my writing playlist are story themes: Where I Stood for RE; Change for Life. Some are themes for particular storylines or scenes, like Listen to Your Heart for the Jimmy/Abby thread in Life. And some are general themes that can relate to any number of scenarios: Fear and Off I Go. And my fallback music since I was a rookie reporter writing on deadline is The Boxer because the rhythm gets my brain into super-productive mode. (My sister’s right – I’m so Asperger’s about stuff.)

Also, I try to let the story evolve naturally, even when it’s a plotted case-fic. If I have strong, rich characters with lots of facets and human flaws, they don’t need to be moved around like chess pieces. They’ll act on their own. I joke that there are times I’m not writing; I’m transcribing on the characters’ behalf. I’m actually mostly serious. Also, one of the benefits of writing a series like I’ve done with Breathe, is that it builds in even more backstory. Ch. 8 of Life had Abby reflecting on something using the same analogy she used in Dares to Stand, and that same analogy led to the title of my deslashed Jimmy/Abby story going up Sunday. A story I wrote on a whim to get into Ziva’s character a bit more (Heart of the Matter) had some bits that have shown up in Life. A moment in Faith & Family became a key point in a critical conversation in Life. Etc., etc. It works within stories, too. I wrote DTS early on thinking it would be part of RE. A key object in that then-chapter spawned three earlier scenes, plus a fairly big aspect of one of my original characters in terms of his motivation/personality. That then spawned a few other scenes going forward in other stories in the universe. And if you had ever told me it would start with a picture frame, I would have laughed.

Finally, the biggest thing I do is let Kyrie watch as I go along. Because we’ve been working together as writer and editor for 10 years across two fandoms, plus my novel, we’ve decided we now share a brain. She’s really good at knowing when I’m just BSing without thinking stuff through and making me stop and explain a character’s motivation until she’s satisfied I’ve got the understanding I need to write it well. Had we had the ability to do that virtually eight years ago, my novel might actually have been publishable.

Fanfic writing thoughts

Since I’m on a writing roll, here are some thoughts from earlier yesterday I originally posted at the NFA forums. I’m hoping to come back to a couple of these later today to expand on them.

On original characters:ย 

This is something I always struggle with – mostly with what it takes to make the OC (either in fanfic or my original fic) internally consistent. If it’s just somebody for a case, I don’t put lots of effort into it unless I’m writing a case fic. Also – and I’m *really* bad about this – I don’t spend as much time thinking of physical characteristics. I’m more concerned with motivation and reasoning. If I can’t get that figured out, the character’s not going to work because of the types of stories I write. I’m actually really lucky because my friend/editor extraordinaire Kyrie has been reading my stuff long enough to know that’s where I get tripped up, so she’s always pushing me in chat to explain it to her – why this person, what about them, etc. There are times she asks a question and I feel like saying “because I said so,” but after a little foot-stomping, I usually manage to dig into my brain and come up with answers. That might be the one suggestion I’d make is to find somebody who will play devil’s advocate and ask the hard questions, because I often find that when I have to scramble for answers to those questions, I have more of them than I thought but having to explain them makes it better.

On challenging yourself as a writer:ย 

Interesting discussion! I actually started writing Razor’s Edge because I couldn’t get started on an original story that’s been simmering in my head for two years. MW interview comments and Guilty Pleasure spoilers got my plot bunnies hopping, and I finally decided writing the story clamoring to be written was better than not writing the one I wanted to write. Almost 300K words later…

So I’ve been using my stories as a chance to get training wheels for my writing muscles. Razor’s Edge was about just getting back into the groove after not writing fiction for four or five years. Plotting case fics has always been a weak point, so that was a big part of why I pushed myself to write Steal My Breath Away. Creating original characters who have the depth and complexity to just react to events and start telling their own story the way the team members do is another challenge, so I’ve really been focusing on that in Life Is Made.

On a plot perspective, rather than a writing skills perspective, Living By the Rules was something I challenged myself to do after watching Borderland and wondering what would have happened if Abby and Tony both said something to McGee about dating at the same time, since there were hints of both with the hotel room discussion and the observation “Why would you make me fall in love…?” discussion. That was a huge challenge for me because I didn’t let myself decide the ending until I got to that chapter. And part of the reason I didn’t let myself decide was that I wanted to make sure I was letting each character make the strongest possible case because I honestly can see either pairing. I actually ended up with an ending the exact opposite of how I had originally thought it would play out, though with the same reasoning.

I have a future story I’m working on that delves into BDSM and some of the psychology behind it, which I was intrigued by. But I don’t choose to write anything explicit, so it was a challenge to figure out how to set up and tell the story to get into it โ€” trying to show, not tell, on a topic I didn’t feel comfortable showing. (Note: Not a knock on BDSM fics – comfortable in the sense of “don’t write well/mom and too many co-workers know I write NCIS fic.”) I think that was the biggest push outside my comfort zone so far. We’ll see if it worked if I ever get Life finished so I can move on to this one.

On whether to change stories that receive criticism:

I’ll go back and change typos, because they bug the heck out of my inner copy editor (occupational hazard). But if somebody complains about something that’s AP style, which is my default, I’ll just leave it. I won’t go back and change substantive stuff, though I often will allow that to influence future chapters or stories. And I always respond to reviews, unless a reviewer has PMing disabled, so sometimes I will get into a discussion with folks. The only time I’ve ever really gotten bothered by criticism was when a couple of people – on different stories – attacked a character that they don’t like and I do. (Same character.)

I’m blessed to have a fabulous editor who really cracks the whip on me with my stories until she’s convinced they’re as good as I can make them, so I usually feel really good about them by the time I post. Because of that, I have a few times included author’s notes if I think something’s out there on the edge, either in substance or in style, and it’s mostly worked. People still disagree, but respectfully, and I think it forestalls some of the arms-crossed, foot-stomping impression. I had one fic with an ambiguous ending (Living By the Rules) and I put a note at the bottom. At least a couple of people said that after reading the note, they thought about the story and realized that they might not have agreed with Tim’s decision, but they understood why he made the one he did.

NaNoWriMo and just writing

So another NCIS fanfic writer was asking about NaNo on Twitter earlier today. I chimed in because NaNo changed the way I write fiction back when I first did it in 2003-ish. Which got me thinking, which led to me writing. (rambling?)

For those who don’t know, my FT job is a newspaper editor, and I’ve been a reporter/editor for about 10-15 years. One thing you learn pretty quickly in newspaper journalism is how to write quickly on deadline. I think my record was an 8-inch competition cheerleading story in less than 8 minutes because I got to the office at 11:20 and the last page had to be sent at 11:30. ๐Ÿ™‚

But until NaNo, I had never taken that “just write” approach to my fiction. In order to produce 50K words in 30 days, you pretty muchย haveย to just write. It’s obviously not as simple as that – sometimes “just writing” leads to some not-great writing. In the newsroom, that’s when your editor says “there’s another paper tomorrow.”

So from 2003-2005-ish, my writing was “just writing” and getting it out and fixing later. Well, I also spent a lot of time on a mystery that went so far off the rails it wasn’t salvageable. I ended up stopping writing until my NCIS plot bunnies hit earlier this year. Fortunately, technology had evolved to solve part of my problem with the advent of cloud computing – aka Google Docs.

Kyrie โ€” my wonderful, amazing editor โ€” is really good about helping me improve what I’ve written, but if I’m too far along, it’s too little, too late. So now that Google Docs exist, she has access to my writing file. I write, she reads. She asks questions, or makes comments, and I can tweak what I’m doing going forward to reflect a better understanding of a character’s motivation or a scene that would help flesh something out. She comes back behind me and edits or makes suggestions. The end result is rabid plot bunnies on Caf-Pow and 102K words in 37 days. ๐Ÿ™‚

The other reason “just writing” works for me is it allows the story to grow organically. A couple of people have heard me say that in Life, the chapters in the 30s are like Gibbs’ rules in the 40s – something unspeakably bad is going down. So fairly early on, I drafted out a couple of those chapters just to figure out where I was going. I’ve gone back a couple times to add more to that section. Now, because of the way the story’s evolved, those initial drafts are going to needmajorย revision. If I’d spent a lot of time perfecting them, I’d fight it kicking and screaming. (I know – this is why my mystery novel clunked and I stopped writing for a while.) By just writing and letting them be, knowing revision was coming later, it’s like “Oh, OK. Need to fix X and Y and Z and K and J and…”

And I would ramble more, but it’s past my bedtime… ๐Ÿ™‚