Monday, March 17, 2014

Guest Post by Chris Eboch

Chris Eboch on Perfecting Your Plot

I have opinions on the publishing business, but I’ll leave those discussions to others. My strength is writing craft. I’ve given writing workshops around the world, I’ve critiqued hundreds (possibly thousands) of manuscripts, and I’ve judged a dozen contests, so I know where writers struggle. (I’ve also written 20 traditionally-published and eight indie-published books.)

One thing people agree on when it comes to indie publishing (or traditional publishing, for that matter) is that you need a great book. But how can you tell if you have one? Frankly, most writers are not good at judging their own work. Sometimes we’re so in love with the ideas and characters that we can’t see the flaws in the manuscript. Sometimes we know what we wanted to convey, so we don’t realize we didn’t put it clearly on the page. Sometimes we’re simply not experienced enough to recognize the problems, let alone know how to fix them.

Even critique group members and beta readers can only help so much. Some critiquers are great as cheerleaders, line editors, or grammar mavens, but don’t know how to see the big picture. Some may sense problems but not know how to offer advice for fixing them. In my freelance critique business, I’ve worked with many clients who have worked through a manuscript with a critique group but still feel it needs help. They are always right.

Hiring a professional editor is a great option (visit Karen R. Sanderson’s blog, The Word Shark, for some Editor Spotlights). But before you do that, make the manuscript as strong as you can on your own. This will help you get the most from the pro’s feedback, while saving time and money. (I don’t recommend that you self publish without getting professional editorial help, but if you do, it’s even more important that you thoroughly edit on your own.)

See the Big Picture

“Big picture” revisions can include cutting or adding chapters, reordering scenes, changing your plot, and developing character arcs and themes. For this kind of revision, it’s important to see what you really have in your manuscript, not simply what you intended to do.

I developed a system for my own use which I share in my book Advanced Plotting. The goal is to first step back from the manuscript and view it as a whole, so you can see the big picture. This helps you find places where something is missing; sections that don’t make sense or don’t fit smoothly into the whole; scenes that are redundant or otherwise unnecessary; and other problems, such as chapters without enough conflict.

Once you understand the big picture problems, you can plan how to fix them. From there you can narrow your focus to the scene and paragraph level, finding and fixing smaller flaws.

If you outline before writing, you can also use this exercise to analyze your outline before you start writing. This can reduce your need for later revisions.

You can get The Plot Arc Exercise as a free Word download from my Kris Bock website (left-hand column), but here’s a brief overview:

Write a one- or two-sentence synopsis for your manuscript. What genre is it? What is it (briefly) about?

Define your goal. Do you want an action-packed page turner? A novel that explores an issue and makes people think? Keep the synopsis and goal in mind when you’re making decisions about what to add, cut, or change in the manuscript.

Outline. Don’t be intimidated by the word. You don’t need Roman numerals or subheads, just a brief description of what happens in each scene. Think of it as the equivalent of a photo album of your vacation. If you try to remember what happened on your vacation, you might get confused about what you did on each day, and you might even forget some of the highlights. A chronological photo album, with one photo per event, helps keep your thoughts organized while triggering memories of each event.

Writing an outline after you finish a draft of your novel helps you see what you did. You’re not going to edit yet, but rather analyze and make notes. You can use this outline in many ways.

Here are some things I like to do:

  • Make a note of the number of pages in each chapter. If some are unusually long, I may want to divide them. If I can’t find a good cliffhanger spot as a new chapter break, that’s a sign I may not have enough action in that chapter.
  • For each scene/chapter, list the emotions. Underline or highlight the major emotion. This helps ensure I have strong and varied emotions. If a scene only has fear for five pages, that’s not as emotionally powerful as a scene that has fear… relief… surprise… and more fear. Ups and downs are important.
  • Keep track of subplots by briefly mentioning what happens in each chapter where that subplot appears. I might use a purple pen to keep track of the romantic subplot and a green pen to track a subplot with the main character’s father. I can make sure I didn’t neglect a subplot for too long.

Find or Design Your Own Tools

You can take my Plot Arc Exercise and adapt it for your own needs. You can also find a variety of other tools to help you analyze your plot. If something doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t give up on the idea – try some other methods. Be patient with the process. It takes time, but the results are worthwhile.

Here are several sources for analyzing your plot:

  • Advanced Plotting includes a tool for analyzing your plot, plus articles on fast starts, developing middles, plot points, cliffhangers, and more advice on making your work stronger
  • The Plot Arc Exercise is available as a free Word download
  • Christopher Vogler explained how novelists can use the archetypical structure of The Hero’s Journey, and you can find many examples of those stages online
  • Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis offers another way to inventory and analyze your novel
  • Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer, has several books on plotting and structure
  • The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet lists 15 plot points. (See also his Save the Cat book)
  • Lee Wardlaw at Project Mayhem shares a simplified version of a Plot Map
  • An example of plot mapping via Caroline Starr Rose
  • Links to cool plot tools from Molly Blaisdell
  • For more story analysis, visit Doug Eboch’s Let’s Schmooze blog on Screenwriting
I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you’re interested in some of the issues that come up when self-publishing novels for children, I’ve blogged about that here.

Chris Eboch writes novels for ages nine and up. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Counterfeits starts a new series about stolen Rembrandt paintings hidden in a remote New Mexico art camp. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. In What We Found, a young woman finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.

Whispers in the Dark is on sale for $.99 through March 22.

See Chris Eboch’s books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.
See Kris Bock’s books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.


Alan Tucker said...

Chris, thank you for such an informative and helpful post! I've bookmarked this for later so I can dive down your plotting link rabbit hole :-)

Best of luck in all your endeavors!

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

Lot's of good ideas here. On the other hand, when someone has a "professional" editing business, or a "professional" other kind of book related business, and recommends that an indie publisher should use "professional" services, one must ask Cui Bono? To offer a contrarian (although not necessarily correct) opinion), if you are smart enough to write it, you are smart enough to edit it. If you can't edit it, maybe you aren't smart enough to write it. Some other advice, for what it may be worth--Write drunk, edit sober, which you can take either literally or metaphorically. Put emotional distance between the functions of creation--writing, and the functions of analysis--editing. To do that you must either put sufficient time between the two functions, or have a brain sufficiently compartmentalized not to need a large amount of time. Or you can just spend money on a "Professional." That's a guy who gets paid to do what you should be able to do for yourself for free when it comes to editing and writing.

w. adam mandelbaum esq. said...

of course if I were smart enough to edit my comment, I would have seen the extra parentheses by opinion. I guess I need professional help.

Karl El-Koura said...

Obviously this type of process works for some writers, but to me it feels so . . . cold and mechanical. No doubt one can learn a lot from dissection of one's novel, but it's never really worked for me - it feels like I'm either being a vivisectionist or forced to take all the life out of my novel first.

Walter Knight said...

I'm seeing little tiny kids playing with eReaders like toys. Children's writers have a great potential market.

Kris Bock said...

There is absolutely no reason why using analytical plotting tools has to take the life out of your novel. In fact, it should help you put more life into your novel. Identifying plot holes that you can fill – with creativity – or finding boring, repetitive scenes to remove, does not make a story mechanical. It makes it come to life for the reader.

Some indie writers may not need to hire a professional editor, especially if they have highly skilled critique partners. And a few may have a natural or learned understanding of structure that they can bring to every project, or a voice so strong that readers are willing to overlook a sloppy plot. But I have heard many, many successful authors recommend hiring a professional editor, when those authors do not do editing for money, and I'm certainly not trying to get everyone who reads this post to hire ME. It is simply not true that every good writer is also a good editor, or that everyone can see all the options for making their work stronger. The comment I hear most often from critique clients is "everything you said resonates," which suggests that the client may have suspected the problem but not known what to do about it. That's one place a professional editor can help. Of course, it has to be a good fit between writer and editor.

Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and to Joe for hosting.

Spike said...

I outline and then edit edit. But your advice takes it to another level. Thanks for the tips!

Alexander Mori said...

Thanks for the post Chris! Many helpful pieces of information that can take a project to the next level...

On Mandelbaum's point: I think it is a great idea to have someone else edit your work, especially after you (the writer) has already edited once or twice. Involving someone else is not a testament to the writer's ability to edit, but rather getting someone not emotionally invested to take a fresh look at the writing. An alternate perspective (one that is not your friend saying "Yeah, looks good...") can only improve the work.

On Karl El-Koura's point: I used to write without outlines, using feel and mood as my primary guidelines to get my story out. Obviously every writer is different, but since I have been using an outline for my stories, I have minimized the number of hours spent in front of a blinking cursor at the beginning of the day wondering where I left off, or where is my story going? Instead, I sit at my computer and at almost any point during the day can instantly get to work. And at the end, the work comes out more organized and is easier to see where the holes in the story are etc...all the things Chris mentions in her post.

Unknown said...

Thanks for a great post, Chris. This is exactly what I'm working to improve in my own writing. I've found Alexandra Sokoloff's stuff very helpful too.

Joe, if you're reading this, I've also gone back and looked at old Newbie posts about outlining, and there's a dead link to an outline of your novel Bloody Mary. I remember reading it a couple years ago and finding it helpful - any chance you could make that available again? I loved the narrative outline structure you used, and I'd like to read through the outline and then read the book to see how they fit together.

Anyway, thanks for the great tips!

Unknown said...

You need to look at the worksheets Jami Gold came up with -

They really help. I've found using Save the Cat to get your feet wet, then moving up to the Larry Brooks Story Engineering makes it all click.

As to editing, my grammar sucks. I can't do an apostrophe correct to save my life, and commas hate me. A professional copyline editor is mandatory in my life.

Unknown said...

Hi Chris, thank you for a great post.

Like James Scott Bell describes in his latest book on writing (Write your Novel from the Middle), I'm a tweener, i.e., I'm halfway between a plotter and a pantser. I don't do detailed outlines of every chapter but I know how the story starts, how it ends, who it's about, and what the main plot points are. I do keep a note of number of pages per chapter and always end a chapter on a cliffhanger.

As far as having a professional editor(s) for your work, I believe it's a must for the vast majority of, if not all, writers. I am not an editor. I am far too close to my manuscript to see its flaws. I have two editors and a proofreader (sometimes two) for every novel that I publish and they have always made the final product a much better one that I could have managed on my own.

Karl El-Koura said...

Alexander Mori said, "since I have been using an outline for my stories, I have minimized the number of hours spent in front of a blinking cursor at the beginning of the day wondering where I left off, or where is my story going?"

No disagreement here. I outline using (a simplified version of) Randy Ingermanson's snowflake method. I like having the outline as a reference point, but in almost every case I end up veering away from it as I write the novel. But I write the outline in what Dean Wesley Smith calls creative voice, and I write the novel from that same headspace. I think the danger of being overly analytical about one's novel (after it's written) is that the tendency will be to make it like everything else out there (which is what I meant by taking the life out of it).

DWS talks about creative voice vs critical voice in this blog post:

But of course, as we all keep saying, every writer is different. Just offering a counterpoint.

Elisabeth Zguta, Author said...

Thanks for your insight and helpful resources mentioned.