Wednesday, March 23, 2011

NOVA Exposes the Mystery of Plotting

Yesterday I was celebrating the release of my first Young Adult book – In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen) – with my niece who helped me brainstorm some of the details. We had sushi which is our “thing” and Joe Moore’s post on fish yesterday probably had something to do with that decision. We also brainstormed on a new YA paranormal series proposal I was fine tuning. Joe’s topic of beta readers got me thinking about how I come up with plots and sometimes seek help to brainstorm certain aspects, once I get a general idea of what I’d like to do.

For my adult books, many have been inspired by news headlines combined with other ongoing research I do into crime fiction. But for my YA books that often enter into the realm of “Whoo Whoo” territory with ghosts, demons, and other spooky stuff, I have been amazed how my mind works to gather a plot I want to write. (Now I know this is primarily a blog for crime fiction readers and authors, but the process of finding that initial spark of an idea that turns into a full blown plot is still similar for me when I write my adult thrillers, so bear with me.)

So what do the following things have in common?

• A NOVA Science show on venomous snakes and spiders
• Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize winning Molecular Biologist, who studies the telomere of chromosomes
• Black bears in Asia being hunted for their gall bladders
• A NOVA Science show on “Decoding Immortality”
• Hopi Indians

THE ANSWER: Absolutely nothing.

That’s what is so strange about how my mind worked to put these things together to make the plot of my next proposal. The minute I saw the start of the program on venom and snakes, my main teen boy character popped into my head. I’d also seen CNN coverage on the hunted and exploited black bears in Asia more than once and it didn’t stick (other than how sad that story was) until I realized how it related to the boy in my series, a boy who lives with a Hopi clan. Then a new disease that I’d never heard of before was mentioned in the Decoding Immortality program and that leapt into my plot too, dovetailing into Elizabeth Blackburn’s studies on telomeres and longevity that I had seen not long ago. And before I knew it, I was feverishly jotting down notes and had almost all three books in my proposed series mapped out. (I wish I could be more forthcoming with specifics, but since this is a new proposal, I’m being purposefully vague. I hope you get the idea.)

YA books have made me focus on my process for plotting, since the realm of paranormal weirdness doesn’t come naturally for me—although my mother would disagree. But the way I’ve worked the last two book concepts, I let my mind work on the pieces until something clicks and I begin taking notes. Sometimes the note taking is important for me to visually see it on paper before I can pull the parts together in a cohesive plot. I still have to write the book and make it all seem plausible and real for the characters, but the way my mind has been stretched writing YA has made me wonder if this process of weaving strange unconnected tidbits together into a story will spill over into my adult books. Not the paranormal aspects. I’m mainly talking about the way I now connect the dots between my obscure (seemingly unconnected) research and a compelling story.

But I’d like to know what triggers a story in your mind? What usually inspires you? And what are some of the strangest things that made you think of a book plot?

Jordan Dane

In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, Mar 22, 2011)
Reckoning for the Dead (Avon/HarperCollins, Oct 2011)


  1. Jordan, so you celebrated by eating sushi? I think if my body needed mercury that bad, I’d rather eat a thermometer. But seriously, this whole mystique about writers sitting in a dark room all day staring at a computer monitor and playing with imaginary friends is a true mystery for non-writers. So reading a post like yours is a great insight into how the writer’s brain works. Even for fellow writers, it’s always interesting to see how someone else approaches writing fiction.

    The things that trigger a story idea for me (and my co-author) usually come from news articles in magazines and on the Internet. Especially cutting edge science stories. I play the “what if” game all the time as I read them. Here are the news-story-inspired “what if” questions for my first four thrillers:

    THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY. What if someone used the DNA found in the Holy Grail to clone Christ?

    THE LAST SECRET. What if a 5000-year-old relic contained the secret to surviving Armageddon?

    THE HADES PROJECT. What if a quantum computer could bring down all the resources of the world and throw nations into chaos?

    THE 731 LEGACY. What if a group of state-sponsored terrorists could deliver a killer virus with something as innocent as a sneeze?

    My new thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (June 8), is based on the controversial belief that we are predisposed to turn out the way we do in life, and our personality code is written into our DNA from birth. If that’s true, what if someone is stealing the remains of the most infamous mass murderers in history and using their DNA to create a new bunch of really bad guys?

  2. I don't think I've had ideas come from anything strange (either that or I'm so strange I just don't register it) *-)

    For me it's research, news tidbits, or seeing/overhearing some conversation while out and about and thinking "What a great story idea!"

    Since my "day job" involves processing a lot of data, I see a lot of different names. Occasionally a person's name will strike me so strongly that it sets me to dreaming up a plot surrounding them.

  3. I think I'm addicted to wasabi. It's like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. You do it because it feels so good when you stop.

    It's amazing to realize all your great book ideas stemmed from what if questions, Joe. And I love science shows as idea facilitators. And I ask what if questions about aspects of my research, but I'd love for my mind to work on the whole plot like you do. Being able to describe your book in one line is a great thing I haven't mastered yet. Now you've inspired me.

  4. BK--Thanks for your comment. The name thing reminded me of how my husband used to bring me great unusual names home from work. He worked at an airline. He had a pretty good eye for memorable names that were so strong they almost screamed a story.

    And next time you create a plot, pay attention to every facet of that story to get a feel for how your mind triggers an idea. Before I was published, I didn't notice, but lately I've paid closer attention and it's been amazing fun. Understanding how and why I pick up on ideas has made me look for inspiration in different areas.

  5. My "idea" was the result of missing my grandson (we moved 1000 miles south when he was 2) & hoping that one day he could spend summers with us in St Augustine - a seaside town with a rich history & a place where paranormal investigators flock. What started out as a short story for him, 3+ years ago, turned into 2 books & another in the works. Weird huh? So nowadays, I'm "The Haunted City Writer".

    Congrats on the new release - I'll check it out. Good Luck. Dave

  6. Hey Dave---I LOVE how you launched your personal feelings into a series. That is so cool. And those feelings fit into your paranormal invesitgation. That sounds really intriquing. And I love that title - Haunted City. Once you get your head into a world, the ideas for plots can really gush forth. And it sounds like you're really making that pay off. Kudos! And best wishes to you too. I'll have to check out your series. Sounds right up my alley.

  7. Once a week I meet the ship in a field nearby, and after a couple of drinks and a quick probe, I get a golden tablet with sure-fire ideas etched into it.

  8. When I teach I sometimes do a workshop on becoming a "perpetual idea machine." I mean, they are everywhere. The problem isn't coming up with ideas. It's deciding which ones to nurture into a novel. That's the way it should feel, anyway.

    All three of my TRY books started with a news item I clipped from the paper (remember paper?)

    TRY DYING: a bizarre murder/suicide in L.A. wouldn't let go in my mind. I finally made it page 1 of the book and series.

    TRY DARKNESS: in our local legal newspaper I read of a little trick landlords of transient hotels were using to avoid tenants' rights. It had a cool name, too: the 28 Day Shuffle. This became the central legal case in the book.

    TRY FEAR: A few years ago cops pulled over a car on suspicion of drunk driving. Inside the car was a 6'4" 280 pound dude wearing, wait for it, a G-string and a Santa Claus hat. I decided this should be my Lead's next client, so the book starts with him getting the call.

  9. Miller, that reminds me of what Harlan Ellison used to tell people who would come up and breathlessly ask, "Where do you come up with your ideas?"

    He'd say, "There's a swell idea service in Schenectady, New York. Every week I send them twenty-five bucks, and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas."

    Funny thing is, many people pleaded for the address.

  10. Jim--A g-string and a Santa hat. Next Christmas will be so much more fun with that image in my head. Not sure if I should thank you.

    I had an exercise I used to teach at workshops where I took a newspaper and "Spun" the headlines into stories like a good news/bad news thing. Yes, the headline reported a homeless guy had killed someone, but the good news was that for the rest of his life, he'll have a roof over his head and three squares at the gray bar hotel.

  11. For me, plot ideas and characters come from very different places. Rarely, do I find that a great story idea lends itself to creating a great protagonist. And cliches dropped into plots that would otherwise be readable, or unique leads that are left going through the motions in a predictable arc, aren't a good recipe for strong writing. So I may come up with an awesome idea, but I will hold off on plotting it until I've got an equally awesome lead in mind.

    For example, I came up with the plot for my last book, which took some liberties with real events during the financial crisis, years before I wrote the thing, holding off because I hadn't thought of a compelling main character yet. Then, I decided to somehow address all the Anti-Muslim/Middle Eastern fervor so present in American society today in the book, too. BAM! I finished plotting and writing the first draft in six weeks.

    Once those things are in place, it usually only takes me about 10 days to storyboard and outline an entire novel.

  12. And, I think it's important to note that Joe's strategy of creating loglines-single sentence plot summaries-is an important one for new writers to learn. If you can't pitch it to someone in a sentence or two, then how are you, or an agent, going to be able to market it to a publisher, or the general public, in this instant gratification marketplace we have today?

  13. Re: Joe Moore

    Cool idea. A similar plot was used in the animated G. I. Joe series to create Serpentor. You might want to get a copy and watch it just for fun and too see if there are any similar plot elements.

    Ahh, TV shows of the 80s...but I digress.

    Jordan, my WIP is a YA, so I'm right there with you. My ideas have come from all over. My main character has a sleepy disorder inspired by a real-life student I taught. He falls unconscious for about an hour each night but cannot otherwise fall asleep. It's a kind of cross between insomnia and narcolepsy. Everything else has come from somewhere else. Most recently, I combined ideas from two real-life former abusive alcoholics to add depth to a male family member.

    I have to totally agree with Jim here. There is no shortage of ideas.

  14. I also play "What if," and then project possible consequences. It's like being a kid playing "Let's pretend that...". Then I layer in complications and characters.

  15. I write inspy historical romance. So why do I hang out here? Because I love a compelling mystery/suspense thread in what I read and in what I write. I read as many different things as I can get my hands on so I look forward to many of the books on this loop.

    Far beyond G-strings and the Santa Hat :) is, are you ready for this? The website. Now you have to understand that my day job for 30 years has been in the field of psychiatry/medicine/counseling. I have a masters degree in social work.

    I look for fascinating stories such as, Did Blood Cause Henry the VIII's Madness and Reproductive Woes? My brain immediately latches on to Blood and Madness. Makes sense doesn't it? Don't answer that. It makes sense to me.

    My very first novel coming out on May 3rd, Secrets of the Heart, is about a noblewoman who rescues a runaway from a lunatic asylum and a nobleman studying to become a physician and how what happens when their paths cross. You all run out and buy it and help me launch this baby okay?

    Anyway, I love the sound of your YA novel, Jordan. And Joe, just the thought of THE PHOENIX APOSTLES already has me so scared I think I may have to schedule a meeting with my therapist.:)

  16. Fletch--You bring up many excellent points, but the one about which comes first for an author--the character or the plot--is interesting. I've found that in my adult books, I generally have the character come to me first.

    But in my YA, I've discovered that it's more important to come up with the plot before the character IMO, because then you can fit the best character type into that story, so your protags aren't cookie cutter snarky teens.

    Thanks for your insight.

  17. Hey Daniel--Glad you're writing YA. And from the sounds of it, you can really see how strange things can meld into a YA plot. Kids are so open to quirky concepts for books and I remember that as a young reader too. Tht challenges me as a writer, to stretch my way of thinking on plotting. And so far, it's been fun.

  18. Key Kathryn--You've written YA too. And I love "what if" questions. Lately I've been brainstorming with my niece and she blows me away sometimes. i'm trying to share my insights into the process, hoping she'll write her own stories one day. She's got a great mind for storytelling. And she's an avid reader.

  19. Hey Jillian--Nice to see you hear. I have always been intimidated by historical anything. The amount of research it takes to write a historical story blows my mind. I can dig into forensics, police procedure, or futuristic weapons without flinching, but the thought of researching a historical time period would stop me cold. Kudos to you.

    And CONGRATULATIONS on your first book. Your plot sounds great. Best wishes to you on a successful launch.

  20. The ideas for my stories just seem to float to the surface. I figure they are based on something I have either experienced or seen, but thus far all of them have been sparked to life by either a mental image or an inanimate object that struck my fancy. Quite often there was boredom involved hence my mind wondering about willy-nilly.

    For instance:

    Karl's Last Flight - a man in blue coveralls and a crewcut kneels in a desert, sweat dripping from his nose

    65 Below - a man sleeps in a recliner next to a woodstove in a cabin in rural Alaska, steam rising off his body.

    Faithful Warrior - a pastor stands in the pulpit smiling, but struggling to suppress the memory of being tortured.

    Cold Summer - (current WIP) - a regular good guy character from my other works is escaping into the woods, running from the other good guys

    In each case the scene just appeared while I was working or doing something else and begged to be explained. There was one exception that came as a dream while sleeping.

    Blood of Princes: in the dream I saw a king of a small Chinese/Koryo realm in the far past (Mongolian times) who was being pushed out of his own kingdom by the larger empire. There was a white guy in his body guard.

    This one has been a twenty year WIP as I learn how to write the best I can. The dream was so vivid and alive that Blood of Princes has to come out perfectly when it is done.

    My muses are slave drivers.

  21. Hey Basil--I have a friend who constantly told me she had several muses in her head who talked to her. I used to make fun of that, but not so much anymore. LOL

    For whatever reason, I thought the way you would think about plots was similar to my way of grappling with strange tidbits, but you seem drawn to a single image that is character driven. I find that really interesting.

    With some of the fun comments you've made on TKZ, I see you as someone who is in touch with their inner child--and maybe someone who could write YA easily. You ever contemplate writing YA?

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  23. As far as YA, I am actually considering it. My wife and kids have been at me to try it, and maybe I will. Eoin Colfer and Brian Jaques impress me, so perhaps....perhaps.

  24. the way...I'm not a big boy as publishing goes yet, but those first three stories are available as free podcast audiobooks at my website if you're interested in hearing them (also on Kindle if you like to read).

  25. I just bought your kindle "65 Below." I love stories on AK.

    And I'm glad you're thinking about YA. You just struck me as someone who could write a really imaginative work. Good luck, Basil!

  26. Congrats on the release, Jordan! Always such a great day, I'm glad you took the time to treat yourself!
    My ideas tend to come in fits and starts. For example, while researching border issues for The Gatekeeper, I ran across an article on the kidnapping of a world renowned hostage negotiator by a narcocartel. The irony of that story stuck with me, and became the basis of the next book in the series.
    James Rollins apparently has a box of random clippings next to his writing desk, and when he gets stuck he sticks a hand in and draws out one of them. If possible, that idea, whether it relates to string theory or lost tribes, ends up in the MS.

  27. Hey there, blog buddy. I believe in saving weird clippings too. I've often thought it would be a fun exercise to pin some of them on a dartboard and randomly choose my next book by where the darts go. I love a challenge. HA!

  28. Thanks for the congrats, Jordan. I'm so excited. As far as your statment, "I can dig into forensics, police procedure, or futuristic weapons without flinching," compared to the historical stuff? I feel the same about what you do. Whew! I can't imagine. Fun post.

  29. I think each story has its own process and idea. I've done "what if", I read Jordan's way and laughed, I thought I was the only one who came across and spun the bizarre. I do come across stories, ideas, or items that I think "what?"...I end up putting some away for later and then some are there for I don't know what purpose yet. Like super collider, gene splicing, volcanoes, and strange matter and I'm thinking why did those things pop out and why do they matter to this story (still haven't figured them all out yet).

    I think the that you have to be open to ideas where ever they pop in from, some are golden, some are spares, and some will be flats. But you need to respect the idea.

  30. My mom laughs too, Chaco. Ain't it great?