Writing – From Planning Plot to Drafting

I wanted to share a little of my writing process as I work on this short story that fits into my Empath Chronicles series. Writing a short story is a bit different to working on a full novel, and each is it’s own different art form, but there is some overlap in the way I write.

Every story starts out with an idea. The idea may be simple and need lots of work, or come with a lot of details already in place (those are the ones I like!). For this short story, I knew I wanted to explore the character Emma, and where she came from, so people know her better when she returns in the next longer instalment of the Empath Chronicles.

This short story has been a really fun challenge for myself. I haven’t written short stories since high school, and as I said, they are a different form of art to a novel. You have to condense so much into such a short space, but still make it compelling. Tough stuff! Even more challenging was the subject matter. Bullying, self worth, and the fact that as it played out in my mind, I knew this story was going to be a tragedy. I’m used to reading and writing “the hero story”, with big showdowns and victories for the main character. But Emma’s story won’t be so fortunate. So there was my challenge- to write a short story that was moving, dealt morally with the issue of bullying, dealt with a character who makes a bad decision instead of a good one leading to a non-heroic ending, and could be read by someone who hadn’t yet read Emotionally Charged. Yikes. Well, I’m going to try anyway.

As the idea forms in my mind I jot down notes. On paper, on my phone, in Word, where ever is handy. I then gather all those ideas in Word, and start getting them into order. I start breaking them down into Acts (I like to follow the three act structure), and then break them down even further into scenes, and fill out the details as I go.

Here’s an example, of the first scene of Emotionally Scarred, in it’s planning stages-

Emma walks through halls of her new school, first day. Everyone stares and she hates it. This was meant to be a new beginning. She’d convinced her parents to let her have the surgery, to change schools (and by convinced, she means got kicked out of her last school because she got in a fight with a girl who teased her and ended up breaking the other girl’s arm). It was going to be like in the books where she’d make new friends and the hottest guy there would fall for her.
She felt unattractive with a large mole on her face. Teased terribly about it, called a witch because of the mole and felt like it with her freak ability to know how people were feeling.
If I really were a witch I would make myself beautiful but my powers are different.
She could tell the way she revolted people because of her empath ability so of course never dared tell anyone about it. She finally convinced her parents to have the mole surgically removed. They couldn’t afford a good plastic surgeon and it left a scar bigger than the mole.
It was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. But the hack doctor botched it.
She made an effort to still be positive about the new school, dressed up, held her chin up, but she could still feel how people looked at her and her scar, and knew she was going to be just as bullied.
She turns to stare at a notice board to hide that she’s close to tears. The hottest guy in her year (with looks of a 50’s movie star, he knew it too, playing it up by calling girls Doll) comes up and talks to her, shows interest in her for some reason. She’s suspicious, but there is some hope as well. He asks to meet her after school at the abandoned set of a pirate movie (like Popeye’s town) so he can get to know her some more.

This story will only be three scenes long, but book two of Memory’s Wake, for example, has seventy-six scenes, varying in length, each written out in about the same level of detail. I also jot down what I call “Fragments”. Snippets of prose that have come to mind that I might like to write into the story later. I drop those into the scene outlines in a different font- like the bits in bold, above.

I like writing in Word because I use their Heading styles to keep my outline in order. Acts are set to heading level 2 and scenes (I give them all a short descriptive title) are set to heading level 3, so that when I turn on the Document map, I can glance over my entire plan easily, and use the document map to jump to whatever scene I need to work on.

As I’m planning, I’ll often pass by details that I’ll have to come back and decide later. I set these to red, so I know I have to come back to them. This outline originally read-

He asks her to meet him after school WHERE to get to know her some more.

After I have the flow of the story right, I go back through and fill in the details like that. Once I have the complete plan, I write into that outline. I normally write in order, start to finish. Even with a plan I prefer to go in order. I write following the outline, deleting the outline as I’ve written each part of the scene to replace it with.

And very quickly I have a first draft. Want to read how that scene plays out? Here’s the first draft, fresh and un-revised! I haven’t even run a spell check over this, that all comes much later.

Emotionally Scarred – Scene One – First Draft

If I really was a witch, I’d enchant myself to be beautiful, but the powers I have are different. I might not be a witch, but I’m not a good guy either. I wasn’t born to be a hero. Heroes aren’t ugly.

If only I could use my powers to stop people staring at me. The corridors of my new school were a shade of lime green that set my teeth on edge. Everyone watched me, the new girl with a target right on her face. My sneakers squeaked as I walked and I felt so completely conspicuous. Damn laminate flooring. The other students stared openly and gossiped as they pretended to poke through their lockers. A tide of emotion followed their stares, the usual mix of sympathy and disgust I was used to feeling. That was my superpower – to sense how people were feeling, so strong I felt it myself. I hated it. I hugged my laptop bag and pile of new books close to my chest

Chin up, Emma. Don’t let them get to you. You’re beautiful on the inside.

That’s what I was meant to believe, that my outer appearance wasn’t important, and that real friends would like the real me no matter how I looked. But I didn’t feel beautiful on the inside. It was as though my face had poisoned everything about me. I tried to ignore it, act like everyone else, be cheerful, friendly, dress right, talk right, do all the right things. Maybe I tried too hard.

This year was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. A fresh start, a new school, a new face. But the hack doctor botched it. It took so long to convince my parents to have the mole removed. This was no cute beauty mark (how I wish it were just a cute beauty mark), but a brown blob of ugly flesh larger than a quarter that covered the side of my chin. That’s why I was the witch of my last school. Marked by the devil, dribbling sewage, just plain gross; I heard it all.

Brother, if they knew I was reading their emotions like some kind of freak…

I’d finally convinced my parents to let me change schools. By convinced, I mean I got expelled from my old school by getting into a fight with this chick who wouldn’t leave me alone and breaking her arm. I guess I was stronger than I realised.

So I was off to a new school, and in between, I’d have the mole removed. Then it was meant to be like in books, where a group of great friends would adopt me and the hottest guy in the school would fall for me. I’d be happy. Really, I’d be happy to just not be bullied.

I was so dumb. I didn’t realize I needed a proper plastic surgeon for the work, to actually make my face look like the mole was never there. The mole was gone, but the doctor left a great pink grub of a scar in its place.

I often wonder if it weren’t for that mark, would I be comfortable with how I look? I was tall, like a supermodel (yeah, right) but that just made me easier to spot. I should have loved my bright red hair but I hated that it just made me more visible.

I came to this new school determined to be positive anyway. I dressed up, smiled, and waited for people to ask, wow, where did you get that scar? And I would tell them crazy cool tales of my heroism, saving a small child from a pitbull attack, only to have a chunk of flesh bitten off my face. I’d say it was nothing. I did what I had to do.

But everyone judged on first sight. They didn’t even talk to me. And the thickness of their hateful emotion smothered me. I knew I hadn’t escaped. It would be the same here as it was before.

My eyes stung suddenly. No way, if I cried now in the middle of the school corridors, it was all over.

I turned to face the wall and made it lucky. There was a notice board right there, covered in fluoro fliers for me to pretend to read while I got myself under control.

Just breathe.

The corridor stunk of bleach from a recent cleaning. If anyone saw my eyes damp, and asked if I was OK I’d say my eyes were sensitive to the chemicals. I had an answer for everything. If only anyone would ask.

“Since you’re new, I’ll give you some advice.” A voice, deeper than most teen boys, spoke in my ear, closer than I’m used to anyone getting. I shivered. “Don’t join the Chess Club.”

I turn around to find Rafael, who I’d already determined to be the most handsome guy ever, leaning on the wall next to me. He had one elbow against the wall and his hand played with his own sun-bleached hair. I don’t blame him; my hands would love to do that, too.

He had the looks of a 1950’s movie star and he knew it. He played it up, wearing a leather jacket with turned up collar like he was James Dean, and said things like doll, daddy-o and swell. Yeah, I’d been eavesdropping, just a bit.

He was looking at me, talking to me. What was going on?

I let what must be a dumbfounded expression stay on my face and spoke slowly. “But… the checkered boards are so pretty, and I like the little horsies.”

Rafael had the worn look of having to explain something to a poor dumb girl and I worried I’d missed my shot. I raised an eyebrow dramatically, hoping he got the point.

A moment passed, then he chuckled and I let out a massive sigh. Internally. Externally, I kept my cool and gave a flirty-yet-coy grin. I was stupidly proud of myself. Maybe I could do this. I would beautiful on the inside, and he would be the first person to see.

“I’m Raf; that’s the other important thing you need to know, new girl.”

“Emma,” I said. I extended a hand to shake his, leaving just one to hold up my books. They shifted, and I rebalanced them in a way I hoped look cute, and squish my boobs up into prominence at the same time.

“Woops!” I giggled, as though I hadn’t meant to do the whole thing. His smile in return was hungry, almost predatory. There was warmth and excitement to the emotion flowing from him, but also something dark. It gave me chills.

“Careful, you’ll need those, for, you know, learning.” He stared at the books, or maybe at me. I tried to believe it was me.

“No problem. I can shake hands and balance books. Get me a job in the circus, I have the skills.” I rolled my eyes, with just enough eyelash flutter to be cute, I hoped.

The bell rang. Too soon, I wanted this to go on forever.

I shrugged and smiled anyway. “Time to go, and you know, learn.”

“Better move. I don’t want to get you in trouble on your first day.”

Right. I’d been here a week. Well, he’s noticed me now, at least. I had to give him a reason to remember me. Dare I?

“I don’t mind getting into trouble sometimes, if it’s for a good enough reason.”

Raf bumped his shoulder into mine. “You’re a firecracker, aren’t you? Say, you want to meet up after class? Just hang out?”

Something was wrong. This was too good to be true. I hated that I doubted this. I was about to split apart, torn between hope and suspicion. I did a quick check for hidden cameras.

My lips trembled. “Sure.”

“Come to Siren’s Haven. You know it?”

The abandoned set of a failed pirate movie, still standing down by the harbor. I knew kids went there, but I’d never been game. I nodded, casually, like I went all the time.

“See you there at six, the main pirate ship. It’ll be a gas.”

He headed off down the corridor. I skipped class, went to the girl’s bathroom and did the snoopy dance.

And that’s scene one!

Once I’ve finished the whole first draft, and start revisions, I’ll share the revised version of the scene to show what changes I make. You’ll notice I also notice that some things change between the outline and draft, like it being her first day (or not). No matter how thorough the plan, things still always change.

What do you think of the story so far? Feel free to be critical, first drafts need criticism! My thoughts are telling me to possibly cut a little back story (or save it for later), add more description of the setting, and maybe a little bit more about Emma herself, who she is and what she likes, beyond her feelings about her appearance. But that’s all for the revisions stage. For now, back to drafting!

The resources that taught me how to write

I’ve been interested in writing for almost as long as I’ve been into drawing and visual art. As a kid I used to staple up wads of paper and write and illustrate my own stories in them. Exciting tales, such as Putrid Puffin (who ate peas and muffins, and wore a very fine hat), and tales of Rainbow Wings, a winged unicorn, and her sisters Sunset and Moonshine. As I got older, I started many longer stories, such as Kara and the Message Stone which made it to a full 86 pages.

Between ages 6-12 I devoured books, both Middle Grade and Adult genres, almost always fantasy though and mainly seeking out stories with strong female leads. When I hit high school, the other kids taught me that reading wasn’t cool. This is one of the saddest things that ever happened to my childhood (yes, I had an otherwise awesome upbringing). So, I almost entirely stopped reading, and writing. Thankfully, drawing didn’t have as much stigma attached, so I kept at that, and found a new love in comic books which were also deemed not-TOO-geeky. I was actually a little obsessed. I wanted to be a comic author and artist, and during this time my skills as an artist increased dramatically from the effort I put in toward that goal. I authored and illustrated five or six single issue comics of different stories, from superhero to fantasy to symbolic.

One of those comic books concepts was Memory’s Wake.

I played with character designs and page layouts, wrote and re-wrote scripts, but before I could start the actual work I hit university and ran out of time, and being close to adulthood, had to start thinking about adult things, like a career that might actually pay me. I decided I didn’t have time to illustrate it, so I took the script I created and fleshed it out into a fairly poor Novella. It then got put away while I went about being an adult. But the story never left me.

So cut to about 2009. Me and my (now) husband, David, are keen movie-goers. We love “story” in all it’s forms and we spend ages discussing the finer aspects of storytelling in the movies we’ve seen. I start reading again, after almost ten years, and Memory’s Wake starts haunting me.  I dig it up and read it and am horrified. It was full of the same sort of plot holes and lame character motivations that I love to pick apart in some other works. I almost put it away forever again, when David put me on the first step to learning how to write for reals when he pointed me to “Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert Mckee.

“Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert Mckee.

While this is a screen writing book rather than about novel format writing, at it’s heart what it is all about is “Story”. What is a story, what makes a great story, how a story can be told, what are the important parts of a story, etc. I learned about inciting incidents, darkest moments, handling exposition and creating conflict. It got me excited about storytelling, and with what I learned from it I was able to strip my story down to bare essentials and build back up a working plot line. Some characters got cut entirely, others became real people rather than background cut outs. Exciting new twists were tied together with realistic character motivations and a well developed back-story. It took me almost a year. And when in doubt, I went back to “Story”, to remind myself of how to use conflict, how to structure action in my scenes and keep the story moving. “Story” opened my eyes. I no longer just wanted to write something, I wanted to be a good writer, and I’d already taken my first learning step down that path. I then started looking for where else I could learn.

The Online Writers Workshop


Once I had my plotline structured in detail, I started writing again from scratch. The last time I’d written prose was in high school. Yikes. I started seeking articles online to help me out, and many suggested critique groups. A quick search later and I found OWW. It’s a paid group but has a free one month trial. I think I bought my yearly membership after just a week into the trail. I loved it. I posted a chapter, and learned so much within the first few critiques from peer reviewers I knew it would be worth it. There are other critique groups out there, and they all work differently (eg, www.bookcountry.com or www.critters.org). I personally prefer the way OWW works. Firstly it’s private, unlike Book Country, so only members can read your work. Critters works on a mailing list, and you have to review and review and review and wait for your turn to pop up on the list and be reviewed. OWW lets you post up to three submissions at once (normally a chapter each). You need four review points to post a submission, and you earn those points by reviewing other peoples submissions, so it encourages people to keep reviewing work. It’s an older style site, but works nicely and the people are lovely.

Online articles
The Interwebz via google

Whenever I’m stuck on a particular writing issue (how do I write good dialogue? What’s the difference between Alright and All right?), of course I turn to google. The internet is FULL of amazing articles on writing, particularly on author’s blogs. Go and check out your favourite author’s website and see if they don’t have some tips or links for writers. There are so many articles out there, and normally I don’t bookmark most as I go because I’m looking for a solution and then move on. So this is not so much a source, as a reminder that when you get stuck, just ask Google “How do I do X?” and you’ll find help. But if I must share a link, here’s a collection of about a million decent writing articles- http://socialpolitan.org/d6/articles/category/Writing

Edit Minion

Who doesn’t love minions? Still in Beta (in development), Edit Minion is a simple site where you paste in some text, and it will highlight any errors it can pick up. It’s a great way to suddenly see quite clearly a weakness in your work (So much green? Gah, I’m over-describing dialogue too much!). I also just learned about a piece of editing software available to buy called Editor at http://www.serenity-software.com/ which sounds way more advanced, which I will be adding to my toolkit soon.

More books!
Some to read, some to avoid.

“The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. This is an older text which covers basics of punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. A handy reference for authors (although, the internet and people like Grammar Girl http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ can be just as good). I did find this an interesting read, sometimes laughing out loud at the dry humour, but I’m not sure how much sunk in. I’m still no grammar guru, that’s for sure.

“On Writing” by Stephen King is a book I won’t recommend, unless you’re just really keen to read a whole lot about King’s life. He opens by telling you how he’ll keep it concise (which he seems to repeat a lot) and on topic, and then the rest of the book reads like an autobiography. There is a point to him doing this. The book is mostly a “how a writer was formed” exploration, with him as the subject. Lots of other authors recommend this book, and lots of people, obviously, read his stories, but I didn’t find anything valuable in this about actually writing.

Apart from actual instructional books, authors of course learn from reading in general, both books with the same genre and market as your own, and books as different as possible. And the bad books you read can teach you just as much as the good books.

And that’s how I learned how to write.

I can’t say I’m now a brilliant writer. Heck, I still forget how to punctuate most of the time and am not the best speller. I’ve only been teaching myself and working to better my skills for about two years now. But I’m still learning and improving, and already made a massive leap from where I started. These resources have helped me out along the way so I wanted to share them. Hopefully I’ll find some more great resources as I keep learning. Do you have any resources that have taken your knowledge and writing to a new level?