Tag Archives: writing

Guest Post: Plotting Your Story

There are many ways to plot or plan out your story.

Photo by Heather Demetrios-Fehst

Photo by Heather Demetrios-Fehst

There are those who loathe the mere mention of the word “plan.” These writers saddle up their yak, swig down a healthy dose of goat rum and head out on the trail, determined to see where the road takes them.

Some enlist NASA to construct elaborate charts and complex calculus equations to create their entire story structure. No surprises, no room for miscalculation.

And, of course, there are a zillion in-betweens. What I’m offering, is a flexible method of looking at where your story has been and where it is going. This is not my invention, nor is it mine alone. I’m just sharing. And I call it….wait for it…..wait. for. it….


Get yourself a bunch of index cards, majority of one color with 10 of one other color. For example, I use white cards because they are easier to write on/read, and 10 blue cards.

In order to give yourself a destination, and some roadside way stations, you are going to break the story up into quartiles. Otherwise, there’s a darn good chance that you are going to steer your yak into a ditch and lose your story in a goat-rum induced delirium.

This is where you use the colored index cards. Lay them out thusly…(and what’s great with index cards is that you can lay them out on the floor, the dining room table, the deck of your yacht, your wall, your neighbor’s wall…)

Quartile 1:

  • Inciting Incident – Kicks the story off
  • First Plot Point  – The Point of No Return – Big jolt, creates the narrative journey. This is where the core of your story is.

Quartile 2:

  • Reaction to First Plot Point
  • Pinch Point – Concrete reminder of antagonistic forces at work
  • Second Plot Point – Midpoint of story; major twist

Quartile 3:

  • Reaction to Second Plot Point – Protag becomes proactive vs. reactive
  • Pinch Point
  • Third Plot Point – Twist; set up the climax

Quartile 4:

  • Climax
  • Resolution

Now…don’t panic. It is ok to NOT have these answers yet, or any idea of what that scene is going to entail. I’ll save scene dissection and understanding for another post (and I lectured on understanding the quintessence of your scene, and building your story scene by scene, for my graduate lecture at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in July). For now, just write on the card what its purpose is (so you know where it goes in the overall arc). If you have sketchy ideas, put them on the card. These are your mile markers.

Then, using your main stack of index cards, you begin to layout scenes. Each scene is a card. Whatever gets you from one “blue” card to the next, allowing cause and effect to move the story. If this, then this…Don’t feel like you have to know them all right now. Just place those scenes you do know and as you begin to write, as you begin to look at how the story is progressing, you can add or delete as needed.

That is the beauty of the index cards. You can move them around. It gives you a flexible visual layout and allows you to play with the progression.

I like to think of them as lily pads, floating on the pond that is your story.

Each scene allows your reader to walk across the surface of your story and reach the far bank. Give your readers a purposeful path.

Headshot JoeJoe McGee is a children’s book author from southern New Jersey. He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master’s Writing Program and The Vermont College of Fine Arts Master’s of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Joe is a former airborne Army officer, the father of three young boys, and a writing instructor at Rowan University. His debut picture book, PEANUT BUTTER & BRAINS is forthcoming from Abrams (2015). He is currently working on a middle-grade novel and several picture book revisions.




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Guest Post: How to be a Beta Reader

beta pic - magnifying glass (ME)If you’re a writer working seriously on a manuscript, chances are you found out pretty early on about the whole beta-reading phase of the process. Not only will we each have to go through the pain of finding good beta readers for our work, but we’re sure to be reciprocating the favor several times. People approach the beta process differently, leading to all kinds of methods and all kinds of results—some not very pretty or useful. The thing is, by the time each of us gets to the beta-reading phase, we’ve likely burned through most of our pairs of fresh eyes. There might only be one person left to give a true, unbiased test read, so why would we want that chance messed up by the process of it all?

I have thoughts about what the whole beta process should entail and these days, I’m not afraid to let my beta readers know what I expect from them. I’m going to share the M-E Beta Method with you now.

1)    Be clear on the time frame. Tell the writer when you’ll have time to read the manuscript. Don’t accept, only to have the manuscript sitting there for 6 months while you occasionally read a chapter here and there. If you said you’d beta, then beta. If you can’t follow through, tell the writer that. If the manuscript is meh and you dread picking it up, well then consider that you’re not the right person to beta, or maybe you are, and the writer needs to know your reading experience isn’t a good one.

2)    Read once, and only once. Pretend you’re a real reader. This manuscript is supposed to be ready to be tested, so test it. Don’t get wrapped up in the fear of missing things, or trying to dissect every scene. Just read, once. The writer will only have one chance with her readers, and you’re testing to see if it’s ready for that—or close to ready anyway.

3)    Read fast, or at least, read consistently. Does reading one chapter a month really make up a true reading experience? Refer to #1, and agree to beta during a set time frame, where you know you can take it on and get it done. You’re not copy-editing, so don’t sit there and strain to find those typos. If you see the missed words and bad grammar and want to point them out, then fine, but a beta is not a copy-edit and a writer shouldn’t expect you to do both.

4)    Jot everything down in the moment. This is the most important step. Every little thought is important because you’re giving the writer the one thing they don’t have: perspective. Let’s say for two paragraphs, something in the writing gave you this feeling, in other words, grabbed your attention. For example: I don’t know why, but I feel like something bad is gonna happen to the TV. It’s being mentioned so much, and the guy loves it. I don’t know. Feels like it’s setting up for something. Let’s say you don’t write this down as you’re waiting to see what happens, then six chapters later, nothing’s happened to the TV; your present self, the one who now has the insight of knowing where the story went, will rationalize that you saw something that wasn’t there. You might think it’s insignificant now that the plot progressed and a character died. Who cares about the TV, right? Except that TV thing might actually have been distracting to readers, and it served no purpose. The writer probably had no idea it had that effect, holding your attention for no reason at all. Jot everything down as you go—Ha! I laughed here, or Didn’t you say that already in the last chapter? I can’t remember… or I really don’t like the mom right now but I don’t know why. She says “honey” too much—and don’t worry about what’s important or not.

5)    Think about larger themes, and the story as a whole. When you’re done, mull the whole experience over. What are you left with? How was it? What if you were going to write a book review about it? Was the beginning sort of sluggish and made it hard for you to pick the manuscript up to continue? If you have suggestions for ways to fix issues you picked up on, mention them. Sometimes a problem might seem so huge to the writer—I gotta replot the whole thing!—when to the reader, a small change would fix all. Comment a little on voice, characterization, plot, and pacing if you can. If it’s in dire need of a copy-edit, make sure to let the writer know! If the writer is all set to start querying agents with this manuscript and you don’t think it’s ready for that, mention it. They asked for your opinion, so give it.

Just read the thing, and use your writerly insight to articulate your reading experience with a little more focus. You’re supposed to be test reading a manuscript that’s as polished and revised as the writer could manage on her own (along with the insight of critiques along the way).  Obviously, it probably wouldn’t be ready to be shelved at the book store, but it should at least be pretty enough to warrant being looked at by professionals. It should feel like a real book. Lots of writers start looking for betas just because they hit The End. That’s a waste of time for everybody, and in those cases, what I’ve done is read the first few chapters and sent notes back on the foundation, detailing the major concerns and letting the writer know why I believe there’s more revising to be done and why it’s not worth continuing on with the beta.

The beta-reading stage is about pretending this is a real book you’ve got in your hands, so be a reader and make sure your process leaves the writer with as much insight into the experience as possible, that way they can feel confident about taking their manuscript to the next level—whether that’s an agent, a traditional publisher editor, or to a professional freelance editor in preparation for self-publishing.

Headshot MEM-E Girard is a writer of contemporary fiction—mostly young adult fiction, usually queer fiction, and always about girls. She is working on her first young adult novel, whose title keeps changing. M-E was a fellow of the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in 2013. She is all over social media, and always trying to make blogging a more regular thing. She lives not too far outside of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


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Guest Post: When is the Best Time to Write a Query Letter?

by W. E. Larson

clock (Erik)Writing a query letter is hard. I did a lot of research when I made one for my first novel. I visited many a website that provided examples, and dug deep into Query Shark. Then I got to work writing and re-writing that query. In the end, I didn’t end up querying the manuscript because it wasn’t really what I wanted it to be yet. Writing the query and synopsis helped me to decide that.

During that research, I came across a query critique on Query Shark that haunted me. The query wasn’t criticized only for its content, but the underlying manuscript was criticized as well. Now that would be tough. It’s one thing to change the query, but another to need to change the manuscript significantly.

That got me thinking that maybe the best time to write a query letter isn’t after writing the manuscript, but before. I’m not talking about writing the whole query, just the most important part, i.e., the pitch that tells the agent about the manuscript.

So I got to work, taking the manuscript idea in my head and trying to write a pitch. It was still hard, but I had the luxury of not having the manuscript set in stone. I took the pitch to a few people to read over, and it didn’t go over great. The pitch didn’t pop. I went back to the drawing board, made some significant changes to the story idea, and made a new pitch that did much better.

Armed with my query pitch and the story idea, I went on to write the manuscript. In my case, that means synopsis, outline, and then the writing. When I finally finished the writing and revising, I already had most of the query letter done. A few tweaks and I was good to go. The resulting query did a great job for me, getting requests and an offer of representation.

Like almost anything in writing, there’s no right way to do things, but writing the query first sure worked great for my second novel.

Erik LarsonW.E. Larson is a life-time midwesterner living in the Kansas City area with his wife, daughter, son, and two dogs.  He earned a degree in physics from Trinity University along with minors in computer science and mathematics.  He went on to pursue a career in software engineering.  He always enjoyed telling stories and decided to finally put some to paper—especially stories that his kids might like.


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