Outlining/ Drafting: Developing Plot and Character Arcs

The more I write, the more I think of a novel as requiring the perfect balance of hundreds of different ingredients, revised and edited countless times (with external feedback!!!) to make it quality fiction. In finding resources to help you on that journey, lets start at the beginning. If you don’t have a creative writing degree, plotting a novel and developing characters can be VERY DIFFICULT without referring to resources. If you dislike planning and develop your characters and plot by drafting in full (if you’re a pantser) structuring your novel is likely to be EVEN MORE difficult. There are lots of helpful resources on plot and character development, but I’ve included the three I found most useful below.

Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character

My early drafts were too focused on scenes, themes and plot. I wasn’t clear on each step in the character arc of a novel, or how exactly it related to the external plot arc. Intuitive understandings from reading books and watching movies only took me so far. I like Plot Versus Character because it outlines the steps of a character’s arc throughout a novel, explains the plot arc and gives advice on how to connect them in yours. Whether you lean towards plot-focused, or having fully developed characters with little plot to embark on, I recommend this text and any like it to help you develop characters a reader feels for and an eventful plot that builds to a satisfying ending.    

KM Weilan’s Plot Database & Character Arc Guide

If you’re unsure how to structure your external plot, KM Weilan’s Story Database is full of popular films and books for which she’s outlined major plot points. I recommend looking at her outlines of films you know well to clarify your understanding of the key stages in a plot arc. For me, outlining plot points helped remove scenes that became irrelevant as I revised. Outlining your plot arc is a good way to keep your first draft focused if you plan first (plotter) or revision focused (if you’re a pantser).
If you’re unsure how to develop a character arc, KM Weiland has a 15+ part Character Arc Guide (with links to Scene & Story Guides). Aside from great beta readers/ critique partners and my editor, this was the single most helpful resource informing my final round of structural edits for my first novel. (There are other great resources on her site.)

Revision, Free Feedback & Links

Revising, Structural Editing and Getting Feedback

You’ve written your novel. You’ve revised it multiple times. Now you know it so well that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Your mind can fill gaps, plot and character arc holes big enough to park cars (or at least bicycles;) in. Your subconscious is re-wording convoluted sentences that would tie poor reader up in knots and your authorial bias is skipping over sentences/ paragraphs/ entire scenes which may put readers to sleep. Now you NEED critical reader feedback! Ideally from writers with different strengths and experience to yours, to help develop your knowledge and hone your writing craft. If you can’t afford an editor, critical reader feedback is also your best chance of avoiding premature querying (nearly 40/100 writers in my Premature Querying Poll found with hindsight that their ‘ready to query manuscript’ needed another structural edit). So where do you find effective critical readers?

Four Free Feedback Options

At this point I stumbled across a list of links to websites that provide free writing critiques on Christopher Fielden’s blog and saw the online critique communities Scribophile and Critique Circle.

I joined Scribophile, where writer’s earn karma points for critiquing other writer’s work. When you have enough points; you can post your own work. Critiquing other writer’s work at a sentence and chapter level made me more conscious of aspects of my own writing to improve on. I also received detailed critiques. If you join, be aware that some writers post rough draft chapters which take hours to critique properly, so read ahead before you invest time critiquing.

Alternately, you may like to join your local writers group. I received constructive feedback from mine, but unfortunately some can be inherently negative and counterproductive -bail if you find yourself in one of those!

If you want autonomy over what you send to who for feedback, try tweeting for beta readers, critique partners or creating a critique group in Twitter’s #WritingCommunity. I’ve created groups for trading query letter and synopsis feedback via Group DM’s (Direct Messages) and have been very happy with it.

 For more details, see @LombardEmma‘s Finding & Using Beta Readers.  

Paid Feedback & Editing Tips

Paid Critique

If you can afford a ($45 US) fee for your opening chapters to be marked on a rubric covering characters, setting, pace, plot, stakes -the works, by editors or writers with writing degrees, I highly recommend entering Ink & Insights (open March to June). I entered 2 different manuscripts on 3 occasions, and received 4 pages of helpful comments (one from each judge) each time, with a detailed rubric to help me pin-point areas my revision needed to focus on. If you decide to enter, I suggest doing so before sending your manuscript to beta readers. Then competition feedback can guide your next edit and which aspects of your novel you’d particularly like beta readers to comment on and your betas can help check you have thoroughly addressed the Ink & Insights feedback. With a novel or a query, I have found its best to always seek feedback after making slightly more than minor revisions to spot things missed, or unintentionally made worse when you loose sight of one thing as your edit focuses on another. To Find Beta Readers, see my previous post.

Sensitivity Readers

If your wip features characters from marginalized groups to which you do not belong and touches on issues affecting those groups, it may be appropriate for you to hire a sensitivity reader. Ideally, you have done your homework on the marginalized group(s) in question, but a sensitivity reader may pick up on issues which neither your lived experience nor Google can tell you. If you’d like to know more about sensitivity readers and whether or not you may need one to read your wip, this article may help.

How Do You Know You’ve Finished Editing and Do You Need an Editor?

Identifying when you have finished editing can be a huge challenge, especially with a first novel. Despite how helpful my Ink & Insights comments and feedback from four critique partners were -my revisions only targeted the symptoms of a some underlying problems. After my first round of beta informed edits, instinct told me some aspects still weren’t up to scratch, but I wasn’t aware of all the issues or how to ‘fix’ the ones I knew. I sent my novel to another beta reader and edited again, but the final solutions to pacing issues and fully developing my point of view characters (the forth of whom I wrote into the novel at her suggestion) came from my editor @AmeliaWiens. After two developmental edit passes with her, I am finally confident I’m ready to query. It is normal to have doubts, especially in the uncharted waters of editing a first novel, but I suggest trusting your instincts and your toughest constructive critics when judging if you’ve finished editing. As there’s only so much time and energy unpaid beta readers can put into their feedback, and as its hard to identify gaps in your knowledge of writing craft or your application of craft to your novel, I suggest budgeting for an editor if you’re planning to traditionally publish your first novel or to self publish.

Have you rectified issues which could get your MS rejected by a literary agent? Even if you intend to self publish, I suggest looking at resources where literary agents state reasons they tend to pass on submissions -like this one by Meg Latore where 7 agents give 3 reasons for rejecting an MS- and at resources on why literary agents may reject your MS because of its opening pages. Again, this one is by Meg Latore.

A Final Test of Editing Being Finished

Can you pitch your novel? Can you, in Query Sharks ‘sweet spot’ of 250-350 words;
Introduce your Main Character (+ their want/ goal if you like)
Introduce their inciting event, the central conflict & stakes
Mention a major complication to MC ability to resolve conflict, including increased stakes (if applicable)
Mention character growth that must occur for the MC to resolve the conflict and avoid the stakes/ the impossible choice the MC must make?

For my first few Pitmad’s, I had trouble defining my MC’s goal and character growth they needed to undertake to reconcile the external conflict. There were still gaps and ambiguity in my main characters arc (the one’s my editor helped with). Everyone finds querying (exceptionally) difficult. It takes ages. You need to read great advice (see the article below for excellent links to that!) and to GET FEEDBACK FROM AS MANY WRITERS ON YOUR PITCH AS YOU CAN! But if, after that, you still struggle to nail down any pitch ingredients above, its probably because there’s a hole in your character/ external plot arc. I suggest using resources on plot & character development (for example this one by Susan Dennard) to identify gaps in your character/ plot arc and plan another structural edit.

For more Writer’s Resource Links to help you through Querying & Publishing, see my next post.



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