Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As with all things chased with dogged persistence, the middle of my first book, Divided Elements, is growing larger and larger as it comes within reach. Not the general middle of the second act, but the specific middle – the actual halfway point. With the WIP at just over 42,000 words, first plot point reactions and repercussions are a distant memory and it’s time that the fun and games of the first part of Act II give way to the business end of the story.

Which brings me, and therefore us, to the Midpoint.

For me, the Midpoint has two definitions – a functional one and an allegorical one – both of which are equally important; as it should be with something called a midpoint.

The functional definition articulates the Midpoint as the middle point (shock! who saw that coming?) – The point of your story that separates the first half from the second half; the mathematical halfway point that acts like a signpost, directing you 45,000 words that way to the start of your story and 45,000 words this way to the end of your story.

In contrast, the allegorical definition is, obviously, more interesting. Many authors, readers and writing mentors identify the midpoint as the point at which everything changes. I don’t agree. Everything can’t change – that would mean that we are reading a completely different story; and there is a very big difference between a new direction and a new story.

And so, for me, the midpoint is not just a distance marker set to the middle. It is a fulcrum. And the definition of a fulcrum is so much more interesting than the definition of a mere middle point:

A fulcrum is the “point or support about which a lever pivots” (wikipedia), the “thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation” (oxford dictionary), or “any of various structures in an animal serving as a hinge or support” (free dictionary) – and yes, my story is an animal; sometimes all wet licks and puppy yelps of excitement and sometimes a netherworld beast determined to wreak havoc…

So, the midpoint is the point on which the story shifts its balance – the centrepoint of the see-saw that facilitates the shift from a) the safety of being down on the ground, legs crouched and ready to spring, to b) the wild abandon and panic of being airborne with legs dangling and gravity resisting.

And that point, in any story, is the realisation that something needs to change – that Plan A isn’t working or isn’t sufficient or isn’t right anymore and that a Plan B is needed.

 

Developing your Plan B

Plan A is the first part of the second act – the plan that is borne of the shock of the first plot point; borne of reactions and naiveté and resistance and ignorance and general hubris of the protagonist who finds themselves in a new world they didn’t want, but nonetheless got. But the reveal of the midpoint lifts the veil and forces consideration, development and implementation of a Plan B.

For me, Plan B comes back to triple loop learning – with the protagonist deciding that either the HOW (actions), the WHAT (strategy) or the WHY (motivation) is sabotaging their goal.

When the second part of the second act is driven by a “HOW” Plan B, the Protagonist is shown to change how they achieve their goals. Consider the following storyline – A girl has lost her lucky charm and she decides (in Act II, Part 1) to  try to find the all-powerful magus who will be able to restore it to her. In this first part of Act II, the girl attempts to find the all-powerful magus by teaming up with a private detective. At the midpoint, she discovers that the private detective is just another hack and comes up with a new plan – Plan B – to find the magus. Her actions change.

In a “WHAT” Plan B, it’s not the how that is holding the Protagonist back, it is the what. For this type of midpoint, the private detective is the real deal and working with him is the right way to find the magus, but the problem is that the magus is just a myth – a bad Wizard of Oz fake. So the girl and the detective come up with a new plan to find her lucky charm. Her strategy changes.

And then there is the “WHY” Plan B, the nuclear game changer. What the protagonist is doing is keeping her on the right path to her goals, and she is doing all of the necessary actions perfectly. The magus is the real deal (definitely all-powerful and fully capable of restoring the girl’s lucky charm) and the detective is brilliant at finding him. But somewhere along the way, the protagonist realises that what she really needs to do is let go of her lucky charm. Her motivation changes and her new Plan B is to let go of the charm and create her own luck.

And it is the midpoint that kicks off this Plan B. In the “How” scenario, the midpoint could be an amateur mistake made by the detective – causing the protagonist to question his credentials and decide to go it alone. In the “What” scenario, the midpoint could be the detective tripping over his own shoelaces and falling into the tech haven of the nerd behind the magus illusion. In the “Why” scenario, the midpoint could be the culmination of lessons learned along the path of Act II, Part 1, teaching the protagonist that luck is earned and not gifted.

And so, to craft the midpoint, all you need to do is ask yourself, “What will tip the balance?”

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Tipping the Balance – How to find Plan B and write your Midpoint

Supporting Indie Authors

Indie authors don’t have the benefit of corporate machines behind them to generate awareness and excitement about their works, which is why reviews and recommendations from readers are so important for generating the kind of exposure that can lead to sales.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of community for indie authors and self-publishers. To practice what I preach and engage more fully within this community, I recently set up an account with Booklikes. 

Booklikes is pretty much the blog version of Goodreads – a place where you can discuss the books you love and hate in detail.

My Booklikes blog – pen, ink and pixels – is dedicated to reviewing the indie and self-published books that inspire, engage and challenge me. It is part karma-generator (giving back to the indie community that I love and that supports me) and part journal of discovery (a commitment to proactively seeking out indie books to read and enjoy).

I’ve just posted my first review – discussing my reaction to eden Hudson’s “How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town” – a book with great characters and a light, youth-with-attitude touch (despite the ominous title). Every seven reviews, I’ll post a summary here on my [w]rite of passage blog in celebration of the joys of reading great fiction.

I hope it inspires and encourages you to seek out your own indie masterpieces and share the love by writing your own review or recommendation…

Supporting Indie Authors

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Ah, ‘the middle’ – bemoaned the world over. Middle child syndrome causing siblings to feel overlooked and resentful; middle of the road thrown out in conversations to denote something boring and unoriginal; middle sections tortured by never-ending diets and exercise regimes. Even the adjective – middling – is a disaster, sending otherwise attractive nouns (like income, skill and appeal) into mediocrity.

I’m at that stage in my WIP where I am revising, fleshing-out and drafting my novel’s middle. The occasional euphoria at seeing that mandarin/sunrise orange of my Scrivener progress bar is always subject to the unease about the expectations of a great middle. Recently, I blogged about how I’ve discovered a range of business tools and techniques that are assisting me to tackle the challenge of writing a great middle – from triple-loop learning to gap analysis. Today I want to talk about SWOT analysis.

The common culprit behind many writing problems is a distinct lack of conflict. For problematic middles, poor or non-existent conflict is a killer. When you consider that the first plot point is the transition from the set-up of conflict in your first act to the realisation and consequences of that conflict in the second act, the importance of infusing well-developed and attention-grabbing conflict into your story’s middle is a no-brainer.

The easiest way to generate conflict in your book is to delegate it to your antagonist. Often, as authors, we are so caught up in the plight of our protagonists that we place too much a burden on them to carry the story for the entire novel. Middles are a great opportunity to give our protagonists a break and let the antagonists carry the story for a bit. In order to ensure our antagonists’ shoulders are broad enough to carry the load, we need to build them up. Developed, well-rounded and authentic characters are critical for generating solid conflict and a great technique for writing these characters is to put them through a SWOT analysis.


SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis is a business analysis technique, which, despite some debate about its ongoing relevance in the business world, still offers useful application in the business of fiction writing and character development.

SWOT analysis comprises the identification, discussion and evaluation of an entity’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – hence the acronym. Implicit in these terms is the potential for all sorts of conflict and tension – on an internal and an external level.

SWOT Analysis-Character Development-Internal and External Conflict
Generating internal and external conflict with SWOT Analysis

As indicated by the graphic above, STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES evaluate the characteristics internal to the character (in this case the antagonist), whereas OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS articulate the circumstances external to the character. Let’s look at each one in turn.

S is for STRENGTH

Strengths are the advantages an antagonist carries with them into the battle against the protagonist. Like greatness, some antagonists are born with their strength, others achieve their strength and others have their strength thrust upon them. Strengths can be skills, attitudes, knowledge, superpowers or positions of authority. Moby Dick was born with his ferocity, strength and size in Melville’s classic, whereas X-man Magneto had his ability to manipulate metals thrust upon him at an age of manifestation. Misery’s Annie Wilkes achieved her physical dominance over Paul Sheldon due to his misfortunate accident, whereas Fahrenheit 451’s Captain Beatty worked his way up to the position of Fire Chief.

Developing or intensifying your antagonist’s strengths will help to further your story’s tension and conflict. 

W is for WEAKNESS

Weaknesses are the vulnerabilities in our antagonists’ armour. Sometimes the weakness can be a a less-than-concrete commitment to the cause – e.g. an antagonist that ends up falling in love with the protagonist or an antagonist that is thrust into a family feud but has no direct, personal cause in it. Other times the weakness can be time-limited -e.g. a storm that cannot go on forever, or a superpower that can only be used for a period of time, beyond which the antagonist is severely exhausted. Weaknesses can be physical flaws or intellectual deficiencies, emotional connections (or disconnections) or problematic attitudes  (e.g. over-inflated egos, delusions, misperceptions).

Exposing and testing your antagonist’s weaknesses will bolster hopes for an eventual protagonist win.

O is for OPPORTUNITY

Opportunities are the events and circumstances that are generated external to your antagonist and often beyond your antagonist’s control – A corrupt official that allows your antagonist the opportunity to get fraudulently elected; a once-in-a-hundred-year storm that provides the conditions for advantageous genetic mutation; the arrival of an exotic stranger that allows the antagonist to cast suspicion away from themselves; a painful rejection that allows the inner antagonist to question the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. Opportunities are not borne of the character, but antagonists can catalyse or facilitate them (by nudging a character here, or manipulating a circumstance there) and will almost always capitalise on them.

Giving your antagonist the means to capitalise on opportunity will help drive action, tension and conflict. 

T is for THREAT

Threats are the events and circumstances generated by external entities that, if realised, will undermine your antagonist and possibly exacerbate their weaknesses or mitigate the advantages of their strengths. The most obvious threat to an antagonist is the developing strength and advantageous opportunities of your protagonist, but there are other, more creative, threats to consider. Distractions can offer viable threats to your antagonist – in much the same way as putting out multiple spot fires can take its toll on the ability to fight a firestorm. Threats can also come from the inside – a minion who dreams of a coup d’etat or a corrupt official who is willing to be bought by the highest bidder.

Plaguing your antagonist with a range of threats not only helps out the protagonist, but also gives you the opportunity to craft a story of two sides on the foundation of two fully-realised main characters. 

How does your antagonist  shape up after a SWOT analysis? 

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters

Breaking the Patriarchy

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Did you know that Bilbo Baggins was a girl?

Neither did I, but it appears that Michelle Nijhuis’ daughter insists on it. In Michelle’s great post, she at first resists her daughter’s remonstrations before finally capitulating…and the result surprises her:

What the hell, it’s just a pronoun. My daughter wants Bilbo to be a girl, so a girl she will be.

And you know what? The switch was easy. Bilbo, it turns out, makes a terrific heroine. She’s tough, resourceful, humble, funny, and uses her wits to make off with a spectacular piece of jewelry. Perhaps most importantly, she never makes an issue of her gender—and neither does anyone else.

The post goes on to explain that female characters are still under-represented in children’s literature, a situation reflected in other story media such as cinema, in which studies have shown a gender imbalance of 2.5 males to 1 female in speaking parts across 500 of the top grossing fictional films of the last decade.

Some might argue that the gender imbalance isn’t as important if the story presents the female character as lead and protagonist. But isn’t there an issue if a female exists isolated in a story, surrounded by males and demonstrating her agency only within a male-dominated world?

This issue is somewhat considered in the Bechdel Test, which gives a movie a pass or fail depending on whether it contains at least two female characters AND those female characters have a conversation amongst themselves AND the  conversation is on a subject other than men.

The Bechdel Test aims to identify stories where female characters are simply token gestures or, worse, simple props for the development of their male counterparts. If the Bechdel Test can go some way into identifying the problem, then I think the simplified Bilbo Baggins gender reversal (replacing the male pronoun with the female) is part of the solution. I love this technique, because it enables me to uncover and consider gender assumptions and bias in both reading AND writing. I also like that it effectively deals with the issue of the “strong female” character.

Sophia McDougall caused quite a stir with her insightful article on why she hates  strong female characters – it appears she is not alone. There is some great thinking and great responses out there on the internet that a simple google search will uncover (my favourite is from the Librarian who doesn’t say shhh!) and most of them agree with a simple premise – A character who is only strong is still a one-dimensional character.

Female characters and, more particularly, female protagonists, are capable of character traits beyond “strength” (Laura Bogart does a great job of identifying and discussing this in her article on Stephen King’s Carrie). They can be vulnerable, arrogant, undecided, quick-tempered, loyal, exasperating and ambitious. They can be tough, resourceful, humble, funny and wise – just like our female Bilbo Baggins.

WIth all of this in mind, I am setting three tests for the development of my Elementals novel:

1. Is there a realistic gender balance?

2. Does it pass the Bechdel Test?

3. Are ALL of my main characters multi-dimensional and free from gender assumptions and bias?

Breaking the Patriarchy

Failing NaNoWriMo

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I had the best plans to really put some stream of consciousness writing down on my Elementals novel during NaNoWriMo. Instead, I found myself doing more thinking than writing. About a quarter of the way through November, I realised that I was falling into the same trap I had with other (unfinished, half-loved) novels that I had started before.

I love my novel concept and I think I will love my characters (once I give myself a chance to fully develop them and get to know them), but I found that I didn’t love the canvas on which I was presenting these two components.

As with other novels I have attempted to write, I was getting the feeling of 0.99c mediocrity (you know, that feeling that just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write well or a write a great novel – despite almost unlimited opportunity to draft, publish and sell your novel at the perfect ‘let’s just have a look’ price point of 0.99c. Almost a literary version of Idol – you have a nice voice and can belt out a tune in the shower or in front of appreciative family and friends, but can you captivate an audience with a song that will transform their experience? Should you really be putting it out there on the international stage with just a ‘yeah, I can sing’ mentality? The number of 99c ebooks I have bought that suffer from this kind of purple prose, poor development and suffocating superficiality… A kind of paint by numbers approach – that’s what I mean by 0.99c mediocrity).

Now, I know this screams of that self-doubt that I have written about before – and flies in the face of the wisdom that advises one to just get the words on a page and refine later. But I think this is deeper. This is about ensuring you work with the best materials to begin with – akin to “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” or “poor data in, means poor analysis out” or “prepare your canvas!“.

So, as indicated above, I spent the rest of NaNoWriMo learning about good writing – rather than indulging in bad writing. I learned from the masters – both classic and contemporary – by reading good books and watching good television. I fed myself with great stories and, in digesting them, came to a new (albeit, still undeveloped) understanding about what makes them good.

As part of the November reading challenge for Goodreads Group, Dystopia Land, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. Helpfully, Ray Bradbury himself tells us what makes his novel a great novel. In a discussion on the quality of books, Faber tells Montag:

This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are…The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Life is hard, tough, overwhelming, underwhelming, transformative, unforgiving, challenging, redeeming, responsive, sublime. To capture this on a page or a collection of pages – that is to write a good book. It is not enough to have an interesting premise and great characters – these two components must be drawn together in a way that tells the story of life. That is what distinguishes between a novel and a fairytale. The relentless push of reality versus the saccharine musings of a dreamer.

Failing NaNoWriMo

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I want to write a great novel. To craft worlds of complexity, develop engaging characters and tell stories that captivate, engage and inspire. I want my first page to grab you in a way that changes your reality and creates a connection that you wouldn’t want to sever, even if you could.

We’ve all heard that the first page is critical. If they read the first page, they’ll read the first scene. If they read the first scene, they’ll read the first chapter. And (if you keep that momentum up), the rest is (successful) history.

No pressure, hey?

Recently I was stuck on writing the first few paragraphs of my new novel, Elementals. Normally, I start my writing process by whatever first line pops into my head and just sort of carry it on from there. But that was always my problem – I would have an awesome premise, great opening scene, but nowhere to go after that. No plan, no roadmap. And, consequently, I have amassed a large file of started (but never finished) novels.

So this time, it was different. I pulled together a cohesive and interesting novel outline full of promise. And then sweated on what opening words would do this story justice; would capture its essence, would capture the voice and tone of this tale that, for now, only exists in my head and on a few index cards in Scrivener.

Again, no pressure, right?

My problem isn’t writer’s block – I have a thousand and one potential opening scenes that flit through my brain. My problem is that I’m looking for the soul mate of opening scenes. The one. The opening scene that you will love and that will slay you simultaneously.

I test all of the potentials out, but they never seem to live up to my ideals – they’re flawed, meh, cliched, juvenile, unoriginal, meaningless, afraid of commitment.

So where do you find ‘the one’? I went where I found all of my fictional true loves – my favourite novels. Revisiting the opening pages of these old friends and classics was (beyond being a no-brainer), a call to arms. Yes, I was inspired, but I was also challenged – in a very real “bring it on” sort of way.

Nietzsche wrote, “One repays a teacher badly, if one always remains nothing but a pupil”. Daniel San lived up to the legacy of Mr Miyagi, Luke became a Jedi Master, Simba became the Lion King, and I want to see my name, like Dostoyevsky, on one of those Penguin Classic books.

So, I checked out some of the best opening lines of literature ever, and responded to the call. It may not go down as the best opening line, but it is a much better one than those that came before.

 

‘Mr Miyagi’ your opening scene

Fiction & Fashion

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Recently I was browsing through pinterest, looking for images that would help to crystallise my ideas for my main characters and the elemental world they inhabit. About half an hour into this exercise, I realised that I was increasingly drawn to fashion pins – and that got me thinking, how important is fashion to a fictional identity?
In more visual media – television, film, games – fashion is a very distinct and defining feature; think Dean Winchester, Queen Amidala or Lara Croft…. (I really hope you all came back to finish reading this post after feasting on all of that eye candy…) 🙂
But books? How does fashion help to define a character? Aren’t their thoughts and actions and relationships better vehicles for understanding and relating to them?
It may seem easy to pass off fashion as frivolous, but think about how you and your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues dress. Fashion – from the clothes we wear, the jewellery that adorns us and the tattoos that are inked into us – is our primary statement about how we want the world to see us. In any given day, we may speak to a handful of people, we will share our innermost thoughts with even less – but with our fashion choices we speak to everyone who sees us.  Our choices scream our individuality (or lack thereof), our confidence levels, our mood, our personality.
Romance novelists understand this (either that, or just love to express their own fashion fetishes) – and many use it to emphasise particular character elements or create another personality layer. But fashion references (subtle or otherwise) need not be exclusive to one genre – I think it has a lot to offer speculative fiction as well.
Yes, steampunk and cyberpunk come already with their fashion milieu, but utopian and dystopian fiction can also utilise the power of fashion. Both utopian and dystopian worlds are strongly visual in their narrative – particularly in an architectural sense – and I think this opens up an opportunity to extend this design element to fashion. Like landscape description – strategic placement and relevance is key – but done well, fashion could provide another avenue through which we come to know our most loved (and hated) characters…
Fiction & Fashion