Plotting is one of those aspects of novel writing that looks a lot simpler from the outside. New writersWhere I got the book: borrowed from a friend.
Plotting is one of those aspects of novel writing that looks a lot simpler from the outside. New writers (and sometimes not so new) can find they have a great story in their head, have solid writing skills, a good command of dialogue, and a knack for description, but once they transfer their story to paper it just isn’t working. The middle’s saggy or the ending lacks pizzazz or the beginning is overloaded with backstory—if you hang around writing groups for a while, you soon begin to spot the problems with everyone else’s writing, and eventually you begin to see it in your own.
I don’t think a grasp of plotting should be confined only to novelists, either. Non-fiction writers, particularly those attempting a memoir, need to understand story-telling skills just as much as fiction writers do. Any story needs a structure.
Of course there are those people called pantsers who just sit down and write, and tell you that they never do any plotting. I would argue that successful pantsers are just people who are very good at holding a plot structure in their heads, but I’d also advise keen plotters to sit down occasionally and try to write a story entirely without plotting it, just to see what happens. I’ve been trying that myself lately, and a couple of stories have emerged that will serve as concepts or foundations for novels, once rewritten in a slightly more orderly way.
But enough about me. The Plot Whisperer struck me as a good place to begin as I started work on plotting a new novel (me again) and indeed, it proved to be of value. For copyright reasons I can’t show you the mind map I made using Alderson’s suggestions, but it’s pretty extensive—given that I threw a new item onto the mind map every time something Alderson wrote struck me as useful and the resulting mind map is huge, I would say that there is much of use to be found in this 233-page book.
Alderson starts out describing the difference between left-brained and right-brained writers—I found that thought-provoking. Right-brained writers, as you’d expect, see the big picture of a story, while left-brainers have a more sequential approach and are good at writing out a story scene by scene. Interestingly, looking at my mind map I can see that Alderson is predominantly right-brained—she’s excellent at providing the reader with all the elements of a good story, less skilled in explaining how you go about the process of building a good plot step by step.
Alderson does provide the reader with a visual representation of plot in her plot planner, which looks a bit like a sales graph. If you want to see this and other plotting visuals, visit my Pinterest board on the subject. Because there are other ways of visualizing plotting out there, any or all of which could be useful for your particular book, and maybe it’s Alderson’s that’ll resonate with you. I think if I look at all the story elements she talks about in the course of the book and map them onto the plot planner diagram she provides, I might see her method more clearly—but to actually embark on plotting out your own story via her diagram, you need something like a six-foot-long sheet of paper and a place to lay it out while you place sticky notes on it, which doesn’t work so well for me. She also provides a scene tracker chart example that could be easily replicated in any spreadsheet program and that’s good, but again my own brain doesn’t do too well with spreadsheets when it comes to novels. It’s too, well, spreadsheety (whereas, for example, I’m an Excel GODDESS when it comes to logging my word counts and analyzing how well I’m doing compared to my writing goals).
What I mean by “the process of building a good plot step by step” is that whole business of how you get a story out of your brain and into decent shape on the page, preferably without having to rewrite too much (although Alderson is clearly a fan of rewriting, as she often refers to the (many?) rewrites you’re going to be doing as you craft your novel. Which is awesome for writers who either write VERY FAST or have a lot of time for writing, but for those under contract or obliged to sandwich their writing time in with other responsibilities, getting your plot structure/story right first time, most of the time is a valuable skill.) Most of us start with the bare bones of a story—how it begins, a few key scenes, and how it ends—and then we have to build flesh onto the bones by coming up with secondary characters, subplots and world-building. Having done this a few times, I can take Alderson’s plot elements and possibly map them onto her plot planner diagram as my own plot elements, but I’m not sure how clear that process would be for someone trying out plotting in the early stages of a writing career.
The Plot Whisperer also suffered a bit from a tendency of all writing books, which is to veer off into tangents about what is and isn’t good writing. I think Alderson is right when she claims there’s such a thing as a Universal Story (which differs from one genre to another,) but there’s no such thing as a universal book or universal writing. Reading is an incredibly subjective exercise—how many of us are open-mouthed with disbelief because THAT book or THAT book are bestsellers and loved by millions, and we just KNOW they’re badly written? Are we gifted with some kind of superior discernment? For example, Alderson at one point introduces the notion of Constantly Escalating Tension, a concept that’s led to more bad Doctor Who episodes than I can count. Sometimes, and in some genres, the tension needs to be subtle and subterranean, a wander through a dark wood rather than a series of ever-greater perils with lots of shouting (and, in the case of Doctor Who, running). At times, I felt like I was being told how to write my book rather than how to plot it, and I want to hear about mechanics rather than specifics so such advice doesn’t work for me.
I also had a bit of trouble with the ‘Writer’s Way’ sidebars, in which Alderson explains all the angst you, the writer, are going to experience as you hit point A or point B in your story. Really? Well, Alderson runs plotting workshops, so maybe her generalizations are the result of experience, but I’ve never suffered in these ways. She makes writers sound like a pretty neurotic lot—well, some of us are, but many of us aren’t.
Final verdict—worth buying because it’s more thorough and less egotistical than many books about writing tend to be, but still not my Ideal Plotting Book. I’m beginning to think such a thing doesn’t exist....more
With knowledgeable editors rarer than purple elephants and increasing numbers of wannabe historical fictionWhere I got the book: purchased on Kindle.
With knowledgeable editors rarer than purple elephants and increasing numbers of wannabe historical fiction writers self-publishing, the chance of really good historical blunders is high. I've reviewed quite a few novels with hysterical howlers; many of them were ARCs so I couldn't point out the mistakes in my reviews, but some were published, presumably edited, novels from major publishing houses. Two that jump to mind were the prim and proper young lady climbing out of a carriage window in front of the hero in what would have been CROTCHLESS UNDERWEAR, and the accident at a London stoplight around 14 years before the first traffic signals made their appearance in England. That last author is, in fact, singled out by Alleyn for one of her other books, as a how-not-to-do-it example, which tickled me no end.
Most of the book, though, isn't attacks on authors. Most of the book is an idiosyncratic but very entertaining look at some of the most common traps in historical fiction, written to amuse but also (hopefully) to provoke wannabe historical fiction writers into doing the most basic research at the very least. There are always, ALWAYS, however much you research, going to be readers who think you're wrong, from the Ph.D. whose thesis was on EXACTLY the period you've covered to the general reader who doesn't think people said "bump" to refer to a pregnant woman's belly in the 19th century (that's from a review of a book I wrote, and maybe she's right...) But the point is to avoid making too many errors that provoke an OH COME ON and a little book-throwing from the general reader; my Kindle narrowly escaped damage when one self-pubber had someone perform a Heimlich maneuver in 1912 (look it up).
Alleyn's basic message is: do some background research before you start writing and look things up as you go along, if only on Wikipedia. Don't get your ideas about history from other people's fiction or from movies or TV, which are often wrong. If you're dealing with the aristocracy, for gawd's sake gain a basic understanding about how titles work. And if a character's undergarments are showing, make sure they're correct for the period and that people actually wore undergarments back then (hint: often, they didn't.)
In among all the amusing advice are some very helpful chapters; the one on titles is pretty thorough and should be required reading for all American authors and many Brits. There is an excellent list of resource books at the end, which alone is worth the price of the download.
The only things I take issue with are the screamingly horrible cover (is it ironic?)* and Alleyn using her own fiction as a how-to-do-it example, especially as she uses the term "teenage" in a period well before the idea of a teenager was invented. Those are minor quibbles given the amount of entertainment I got from a book that can be read by both writers and readers of historical fiction. Heartily recommended.
Where I got the book: an author-friend bought it for me at a conference. She said she learned a great deal from the author (who is, of course, also aWhere I got the book: an author-friend bought it for me at a conference. She said she learned a great deal from the author (who is, of course, also a speaker on the conference circuit because that sells books like nothing else) about what she should expect from a publishing company.
And she's right, in a sense. Some of the points covered in this book could be enlightening to a writer who's hoping to sign with a small press, for example, because even though said press is not actually charging you, Dear Writer, a monetary price for its services, you are paying the considerable price of giving up your rights to your work POSSIBLY TO THE END OF YOUR LIFE AND BEYOND. So this helpful illustration of how you, the writer, are the piece of meat in the grinder of the publishing world may serve as a cautionary tale for the wiser wannabes out there.
The title of this book should probably be "The Fine Print of Assisted Self-Publishing, because that's what we're talking about here. Let me explain the distinction.
- Self-publishing proper = you, the author, make every single decision about your book. You may contract with designers, formatters, editors and so on to ensure the quality you want, or you may do everything yourself. You buy the ISBNs, you upload the books, you keep track of sales and income. You decide how much you're going to spend on these third party contractors.
- Assisted self-publishing = you, the author, sign a contract with a "self-publishing" company and pay it a fee, for which it will perform the services stipulated in the contract. These definitely include publishing your book--often through printer/distributor Lightning Source--and usually but not always include the provision of an ISBN, cover and interior design, and some kind of marketing. The "self-publishing" company, in addition to its fee, takes a printing markup and often some other kind of chunk out of the profit from the book, and pays you, Dear Author, what's left as a "royalty".
Mark Levine sketches out this distinction very briefly, but comes down heavily in favor of assisted self-publishing. "The micromanagement," he declares, of the self-publishing process "can be daunting and impractical...Unless you have the time to self-manage the entire publishing process, you'll probably be sorry once it starts. Like most people, I have a full-time job. I could never spend the amount of time it would take me to manage the publication of each new edition of this book. There are simply too many moving parts, and all of them need to be in sync with each other."
Wow, self-publishing sounds pretty daunting, huh? Especially if you have a full time job. I flip to the back cover and see that Mark Levine's full time job is as CEO of Hillcrest Media Group in Minneapolis, MN, which "provides book publishing, ebook design, printing..." I note that the book is published by Bascom Hill Publishing Group. I google them. Oh lookie, they're a division of Hillcrest Media Group and based in Minneapolis, MN. I turn to the book's Introduction to find exactly which self-publisher Levine uses and find the name of Mill City Press, which by his own admission is owned by Hillcrest. And based at the same address as Bascom Hill. Levine says he doesn't review Mill City in his book "not only because it would be completely unfair, but because Mill City's model is unlike almost all I review here." And he goes on to give a plug, albeit an oblique one, for Mill City. Which may be an absolutely awesome assisted self-publishing company, for all I know. But you'd have to buy another book that reviews Mill City as well as the ones in this book to find out how it compares...
Are you beginning to see how you're the piece of meat, Dear Author? Or perhaps we should think of you as the juicy bone. Now you may have absolutely no writing talent at all, or you may be the next [insert famous name here]. Or you may not be a great writer, but you've produced something that tickles the reading public's interest - there's one almost every year. On the writing spectrum, there's an end where you can pretty sure the book won't sell (and even then there are so-bad-they're-good exceptions) and an end where a book has more than a 50% chance of doing great (celebrity biographies, for example); in between there's a vast sea of risk, where almost any book could, through some mysterious alchemy that no publisher has ever been able to completely understand, make the bestseller charts. These are the juicy bones that may just yield a really good meal.
So who takes the risk? This is where the whole assisted self-publishing industry gets really interesting.
In traditional publishing, the publisher bears all the costs and may even pay the writer an advance. It's a considerable risk per book, and justifies--to some extent--the transfer of rights. Publishers survive and even thrive (seriously, New York offices and expense accounts? It has to be a winning proposition somewhere) because they make enough good bets to keep going, but the risk is all theirs and not the author's.
In self-publishing proper, the risk is all the author's. Every truly self-published author runs the risk of not recouping the cost of producing the book.
In assisted self-publishing, the risk is also all the author's. The self-publishing company must charge a high enough fee to cover costs, or they wouldn't be in business. If the book doesn't sell, they probably just about break even; if it sells (and an author who's paid out money to publish a book generally markets like crazy to make sure it DOES sell) they make a profit. That's just my guess, of course, but somehow I imagine assisted self-publishing companies are not in it as a pro bono exercise.
Back to this book, in which Mark Levine reviews a number of assisted self-published companies that, he asserts, are NOT vanity publishers because "the author is publishing a book in a strategic, well-thought-out, and well-informed way," in other words she's marketing her book. Huh? I've read that section (starting on page 2) several times and I still can't see a difference between the companies reviewed in Levine's book and vanity publishers. In both cases the author pays a fee and receives publication services of varying extent and quality in return.
That aside, Levine IS REVIEWING HIS COMPETITORS. He does it pretty well; by the time you've plowed through his list of outstanding, pretty good, just okay, to-avoid and Worst of the Worst (a chapter that covers just one company which at one point was involved in a lawsuit against Levine - think about it), you'll have a fairly comprehensive idea of what to look out for IF you decide to hand over money for someone else to do your work for you. And plenty of writers do; they're scared they're not smart enough to figure out how to self-publish, they're too lazy to do the work of learning how to self-publish, or they figure that any publishing company that's not them is somehow more prestigious because they can legitimately talk about "my publisher."
All I could think about while I was reading this book was "why in the name of Virginia Woolf" (a self-publisher) "would anybody, after reading this, want to go the assisted route?" The fees! Oh ye gods, the fees! Anything from a few hundred to tens of thousands of $$$ to do something you could project-manage yourself and earn way, way more in royalties. IT ISN'T THAT HARD. Every day more and more writers are successfully self-published all by their widdle selves, without "help" from any kind of company whatsoever. There are endless internet resources to help you.
Oops, sorry, this is a review, isn't it?
Anyway, look. If you're really convinced that you, Dear Juicy Bone Writer, are unfit and incapable of handling the self-publishing process by yourself, this book could be of value. At least you can look up the company whose website you're on and see if it compares well to, say, Mill City, which Mark Levine has been very careful not to review but to which he has carefully drawn your attention. And I think it's great, GREAT, that someone is comparing and rating these companies. Although I would prefer that it not be a competitor. ...more
Where I got the book: I won a bunch of stuff from a blog a couple of years back and this was in it.
If you're a writer, you probably know just how probWhere I got the book: I won a bunch of stuff from a blog a couple of years back and this was in it.
If you're a writer, you probably know just how problematical it is to stick your backside in a chair and write. Other creative endeavors are dogged by the same undermining factors of fear and avoidance, which Pressfield calls Resistance. I picked up this book because like many writers, I'm struggling to become the writer I want to be. Not in terms of writing quality, although that's always important and no good writer ever stops thinking about HOW they write; but in terms of being consistent, persistent, professional and organized about my work.
Pressfield was in that difficult place, he says, when he finally decided to get serious. He shares his thoughts about Resistance and how to overcome it in 160 or so pages which mostly contain just one paragraph, sometimes even just two or three lines. You could, I suppose, use the rest of the page to add your own notes, but if you're looking for a whole bunch of words to inspire you, you're not going to be happy about the amount of blank space.
On the other hand, there are nuggets. I like the idea of the forces stacked against the writer being summed up in the word Resistance. Pressfield covers the symptoms of Resistance, spends some time analyzing what professionals do to overcome Resistance, and then meanders to rather a mish-mashy, New Agey finish by talking about angels, Kabbalah, the Muse and so on. Once we start straying into people's personal philosophy of life, you usually lose me.
I probably wouldn't recommend this as a buy, but if your library has it, go ahead. I've seen worse books about getting going with writing....more