Recently, I’ve been thinking about plot strategies.

A "plot strategy" is the technique a writer uses to come up with a plot. Most writers have one, and there are writers who use the same one over and over and over: cozy mysteries series, routine romances, and low-rent space opera serials all seem to have the same strategy, using the same beat sheet over and over.

As I just finished a novel, I’ve been looking at my cache of unfinished stories and ideas, and wondering what I should write next. I have a few things in the pot:

  • A new story set in the Aimee series, about Barraminum’s colonial masters, a young princess, and a tragic story a century in the past that continues to color the present.
  • The Angels story, a kind of sexy, anime-esque take on one of my favorite short stories, "Hell is the Absence of God."
  • Command Line, a contemporary about sex robots.
  • Boomer, a straightforward cyberpunk thriller.
  • Thorn, a take on the "generic fantasy setting" a’la Warcraft, only coded for Homeric Greek values rather than traditional Western Fantasy values, which explores the Biblical meaning of porneia through a relationship with a male prostitute and a gods-cursed Arima (a variant of the Cyclopses, and an easy stand-in for westernized Orcs).
  • Small Wars and Falling Star, two stories set in an STL trans-humanist setting. These were both "Trying to be Iain Banks and saying something" stories. Falling Star was also a Superman commentary, and Small Wars was inspired by the phrase "Battle Angel Lolita," so, yeah, just so you know.
  • Semithree, a story set in the Bastet universe about a woman who discovers something else has survived the magic going away, and discovers her own, rather large, tentacle monster in her basement.

There’s also a bunch of unfinished stories in the Journal Entries WIP tree, including the long-suffering Robots of the Deep Versus The Vampire Girl of Fallow Five, which includes a name-drop that’s I find hilarious, even if no one else would, a couple of Sterlings stories (including a sequel for the first novel), a story exploring what really happened to the people who attacked llerkin, and one arc I’ve labeled "The Grand Army of the Republic’s schism over Order 66 spills over into The Culture, as seen by the staff and crew of the Rhabwar."

Looking through these, I’m struck by a few details. First: I kinda make up plot strategies as I go along. "Start with theme." "Start with premise." "Start with what the character wants." "Write the last chapter, showing what the character got and work backwards." "Come up with a wham line; now justify it."

Since I write serials, "When last we left our hero, he/she was feeling X. What’s the opposite of X, and how do we get them there?" Eventually, everything get assembled: there is a theme (often "love conquers much"), there’s a premise (you know by the end of the first act who’s gonna boink whom; it’s all a question of how will I torture the characters to get there), there a McKee-ian shift (Hey, this character’s opening mood is stable, how do we mess that up?). Sometimes I write the Big Battle first, sometimes I write the denouement, and then ask myself, "What are all these things they’re talking about?" Usually because my subconscious already knows, it just hasn’t told me.

I am struggling with all of the ones above. Boomer and the Aimee story are outlined, although there’s a bit of meat missing from the middle. Angels and Thorn both suffer from having no ending. Falling Star is in a similar position, but both books are heavily influenced not only by Against a Dark Background and The Algebraist, but also by a lot of the Viz books, like Usurper of the Sun and Stories of Ibis— my work has always had comics and anime and Japanese literature like Harboiled Wonderland and the End of the World in the background as heavy influences. Semithree has some fantastic sex scenes, but the only ending I’ve been able to come up with is tragic.

But I have had some recent successes:

Honest Impulses is written entirely around a Wham Line. The wham line is in Chapter 20, "Antique Notions." I came up with the wham line first, and then said, "What theme leads to this wham line?" (which, in retrospect, turned out to be kinda obvious), and that in turn led to asking the question, "What would characters have to want to get into a situation where this wham line is delivered to explicate this theme?" From there, writing the book was actually easy.

In contrast, Star Kingdom is written around a few simple premises: (1) write a story in a Napoleon-in-Space™ setting that illustrates how badly thought out the economics of such universes usually are, and (2) take two well known characters and do the usual chase-them-up-a-tree-and-set-the-tree-on-fire scenarios. Yeah, there’s a lot of troping in Star Kingdom, but I wrote it for fun. The plot is therefore easy: Two characters in a highly dynamic setting meet and develop mad infatuation for each other. The dynamic setting is the contrast between the usual Napoleon-in-Space™ setting and a more sensible hard-science, hard-economy world. It worked surprisingly well.

Recently completed Journal Entries include Freya’s Senses, which is based first around a simple conflict: Freya is a sex robot (sort-of) who’s soon to be obligated to hang around people she adores personally but is not sexually attracted to at all; how does she reconcile these different parts of herself? Size and Duration has similar theme: the heroine finds herself being romanced by, and is attracted to, a character who a role-playing game would characterize as "high wisdom, but low intelligence," and she’s not sure if she can reconcile that in her head. Dates is just a scene report, and therefore not a story so much as an anecdote. Pale Shadow is basically about someone coming to grips with the idea that he can’t and doesn’t want to be near his partner after they become disabled. A Pleasing Shape is a roman a’clef about easing into adulthood. A Sterling Wish started as plain smut, but that kinda backfired as the story got romantic and the characters did what they wanted and now I don’t have an ending.

Plot strategies, for all that, are still variants on the basic questions: "What does the character want?" "What does the character need, and how does this conflict with what she wants?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with the world?" "How does their wants or needs conflict with other characters?" "How far will the characters go to get their wants or needs met?" "How does the character change as a result of these conflicts?" "How does the character’s changes affect those around them?"

David Mamet was talking about screenwriting, but his rules for scenecraft are perfect for just about anyone:

The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot. The job of the writer is to make the audience wonder what happens next.

Just remember that, and you’ll be fine.

One of the things I appreciate most about sites like Archive of Our Own and Fan Fiction is the notes, the part after the story where the author chats about the current chapter or story, what they did and how they did it. Fanfic sites are often trying hard to teach one another the very craft of writing, so talking and reading about process gives other participants insight into how authors are thinking even as they’re writing.

Obviously, in a traditional novel, that doesn’t work. But I’ve never been a traditional novelist. I posted chapter four of Honest Impulses today, Working Together, which finally gets our two protagonists into the same room, where lots of emotional fireworks seem to be going off all at once. Poor, confused robot and her equally confused new friend. But that’s the nice thing about this story; I’ve tried to apply a lot of McKee’s Story theories to this novel, so there are lots of emotional flips where the character starts out feeling secure and ends up insecure, and then gets flipped back and forth at higher and higher intervals until something breaks.

Anyway, enjoy!

Journal Entry 180 / 3262: Honest Impulses 01: A Whole New World is the first chapter of a new novel-length series of Misuko & Linia episodes set on Hiroshi. There will be love, lust, angst, and, of course, sex.

This work is in line with a lot of what I’ve been doing recently: not every chapter will feature sex. There are a number of love scenes in the book, but there are quite a few chapters that are character or plot oriented. These are not heavily furry stories; most of the love scenes center around F/F human/robot interactions, so if that’s your thing, this is your thing.

This is something like my tenth or eleventh novel, if you consider projects where I deliberately set out to write something longer than 50,000 words and managed to make a story out of it. I’m proud of this work; it hangs together, it means something, and the last three chapters still make me cry when I read them (and there’s a lot more sex toward the end of the book, now that I think about it…), so I hope my readers get the same sensations out of it that I do.

The plan is to release a new episode every two weeks. At that rate, all 25 chapters will be done by the first week of December. This is similar to how I posted Star Kingdom.

If you can’t wait that long, I am assembling e-pub and print editions, but those will be available for a price. I expect the e-pub editions to come out for Nook and Kindle the first week of February, and the print edition to be available in mid-March. I’ll try to get them out sooner, but those are the target dates.

Journal Entry 80 / 3262: Necessary Repairs is a Misuko & Linia story set between Honest Response and Honest Question, and introduces a new minor character, a Doctor Swadjtwai, as well as establishes some important character aspects of Linia and Misuko’s relationship that will be challenged in the upcoming Honesty novel coming in January. Really. It’s that close to being done. I just did a copy-edit pass and the plot is good and solid. There are 156 typos in 232 pages (I did say it was a novel), but I’ve got a to-do list and a long weekend coming up, so… we’ll see.

Last night I wrote the two words every writer craves more than any other: THE END. A story that has been on the back-burner for more than seven years finally came together. It went through revisions, so many revisions, so many good ideas that I had to twist, warp, include or discard to get to the point where I had told the story first. For the longest time I had a mass of chapters, scenes, and even just paragraphs that didn’t add up to a single, coherent story, and now they do.

I think.

Because the next step is to re-read the entirety of it and ask myself, “Do I make promises to the reader, and do I keep them?” Because I have a motto for writing novels: The Promise of the Premise conquers The Muddle in the Middle. “The muddle in the middle” is the part of the book between your clever introductions and your brilliant climax where lots of authors get lost and muddle through, trying to put together small points that may or may not lead to the ending.

The promise of the premise is just that. In the opening chapters you make promises about the story, and by the end of the book you’ve either kept or exceeded those promises. If you break your promises, you lose the reader and they won’t come back.

I write smutty, fluffy, often romantic stories set in science fictional worlds, with occasional moments of action, political tension, philosophical intrigue, or just downright weirdness. In Chapter One I introduce the heroine, Shandy, a hormonally challenged young woman from a world that rejects AIs and robots, so the promise here is obvious: by the end of the book Shandy will fuck a robot. In Chapter Two I re-introduce my protagonists from the last book, Misuko & Linia, a monogamous human/robot couple who talk about their monogamy and desire for one another in the strongest terms, so the promise here is obvious: something will come along to challenge their monogamy, and that introduces a third promise: It’s gonna be Shandy & Linia, somehow. More promises are made as the story goes on, involving five-meter-tall construction drones, questions about how a robot-heavy culture may encourage domestic violence, and how one lives in a culture where actual, human challenges are few and far between.

The answer I’m getting back now is that, mostly, the story hangs together. There are characters with too much spotlight (they’re named and seem to have a role, but disappear before the climax without sufficient justification for their roles), and there are some smaller promises made that aren’t kept. The second-to-last love scene isn’t as strong as I’d like. (Listening to audiobooks in the car is a great way to catch up on reading, but sometimes the cadence of the voice actress later invades the fingers at the keyboard.) This story has a painfully tight timeline, so fixing/changing them may be challenging, but… at least it’s done. Now to give it time to ferment, and which point, after Nanowrimo, I’ll go back and revise it.

On to other projects!

« go backkeep looking »