How to Plot a Novel


In 2007 I attended the annual Florida Writer’s Association conference to accept the “Book of the Year” award from the Royal Palms Literary Awards for my book, Sell Your Book on Amazon.

While I was there, I gave a seminar titled “How to Plot a Novel” and it proved to be so popular that I’ve since given that same presentation many times to writing groups and conferences around the country. And I am using the basis of that presentation to plot the novel I will be writing in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month.

So, for those of you that I am mentoring from NaNoWriMo, or those of you in general who are writing a novel (that means you’re writing a fiction book since non-fiction books are not called novels, although, confusingly enough, you ARE allowed to write non-fiction even during National Novel Writing Month), I’ve condensed the content of that hour-long presentation into one easily digestible blog posting.

I will use my novel, Idle Hands, as the example for this posting and you will get an inside, behind-the-scenes glimpse of how I’m preparing my book. Sorry for the horrible penmanship.  Then, tomorrow we will discuss the mathematical logistics required to actually, physically WRITE 50,000 words within 30 days.  Don’t worry, it’s not as boring (or as scary) as it sounds. But first, the plot!

The basic concept of my How To Plot a Novel presentation is creating a visual outline comprised of 9 “blocks” which is my own personal continuation of a standard “three-act structure.”  So if you wish to play along, get an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and fill it with a Tic-Tac-Toe grid (or pound sign symbol, if you prefer).  Then enclose the lines with an outside box and you are left with 9 blank squares (see below if you want to see the boxes, although in my example, there’s lots of notes).

For the purposes of sharing this information in an orderly fashion, number the boxes from 1 – to 9 starting at the top left corner and going from left-to-right on each row.

Here’s mine, along with copious (barely legible) notes, some of which have been obscured and all of which are difficult to read, since I don’t want to reveal too much of the twists and turns of my plot. But for the purposes of this blog/presentation, I’ve left in the important elements to discuss below:


The easiest box to read is right smack in the middle in box #5: Fen kills Jacob on the cruise ship

Novels are about characters and relationships, but plots are about something that happens. When using my 9-block visual plotting device, you put the single major incident that happens in the center square, box number 5.  And since everything that occurs in a novel should somehow be connected to that one major event, this blocking scheme will help you place (and pace) appropriate characters, events, and twists in the appropriate parts of the story.  Boxes 1 -4 (the beginning portions of the novel) all must lead up to that major event.  Boxes 6-9 (the ending portions of the novel) involve the fall-0ut, climax, and resolution from that event.

Box #1 in the upper left hand corner is titled “Brad & Grace” for my book, Idle Hands.  This is where the protagonist (Brad) is introduced, along with auxiliary characters.  Each box doesn’t necessarily HAVE to involve a separate chapter, but it could.   Above Box #1 I have written “3 Days, 7000 words, 10 pages” and in the bottom of box #1 I have written “November 1, November 2, November 3.”  Those involve my personal milestone goals for WRITING the story in 30 days, and I will discuss those logistic notes in tomorrow’s blog posting, so ignore them for the time being.

Box #2 in the middle of the top row is titled “Brad & Fen”. This is were the antagonist (Fenderson, aka Fender or Fen) is introduced, along with other auxiliary characters.  You will also notice that since Block #2 is directly touching Block #5 directly below it (in the center, where the major plot event takes place), that Fenderson takes a lead role in both Blocks 2 and Blocks 5. In fact, he also takes a lead role in Block 8, directly below 5, although I neglected to title that block and should have. It would have also been titled “Brad & Fen”.

Box # 3 in the upper right is titled “Brad & Melody”. This is where the third major character and major love interest in this love triangle is introduced.  And speaking of plot connections, you will notice that Melody is also a key character in Blocks #6 and 9 directly below Block 3 in a column.

In fact, let’s discuss the columns and rows as a whole for a moment before moving on to the second row.

Idle Hands is a character study disguised as a dark comedy/thriller within the conventions of a love triangle.   The three major characters are Brad, Fenderson, and Melody, and you will notice, not coincidentally, that each major character “owns” their own column.  Brad owns the left-most column (Blocks 1, 4, and 7) with squares titled “Brad & Grace”, “Brad & Fen”, and “Brad & Melody & Grace”, respectively.  Fenderson “owns” the middle column (Blocks 2, 5, and 8) with squares titled “Brad & Fen”, “Fen kills Jacob” (the major event), and “Brad & Fen”, respectively.  And finally, Melody “owns” the right-most column (Blocks 3, 6, and 9) with squares titled “Brad & Melody”, “Fen & Melody”, and “Brad & Melody” respectively. Block 3 is also where the first major turning point of a novel should take place. For Idle Hands, this is where Brad meets Melody.

Okay, okay, Brad plays major roles in the majority of all these blocks, but that stands to reason since he is the protagonist.

It could be argued that the center column (Fen’s column) is actually the most important, because that is the column where the major event takes place in Block #5.  Part of the point of this 9-block device is to ensure a book is properly paced, with sufficient build-up (ie, motivation), and sufficient fall-out, and all the emotional highs and lows that result.   But it would be a mistake to assume that just because the major event is in Block 5 that nothing happens until half way through the book.  The opposite is true.  Something notable must happen in EVERY single square (otherwise, why write about it?).  I’ve happened to title my squares around characters, but you could just as easily title your squares around events that occur, all of them connected to their adjacent squares, and all leading toward (or coming from) the Major Event in Block 5.  In fact, more traditional, plot-oriented novels would probably do exactly that.

Now let’s discuss the rows. The top row involves the beginning of the novel, and if you’re a 3-act structure traditionalist, you would say Row 1 is Act 1 (and Row 2 is Act 2 and Row 3 is Act 3). In row 1 you introduce your characters (Brad, Fen, and Melody, in my case), and lay the ground work and emotional motivations for everything that takes place in Row 2.  The plot-outline-blocks of this 9-Block device can help you determine where in the story each character should be introduced based upon that specific character’s involvement with the plot.  The middle row is arguably the most important (for the same reason column 2 is the most important) because it involves the major event of the story.  This is different from a turning point or “twist” (which I will discuss below).  Block 5 is really the answer to the question, “What happens in your book?”  You wouldn’t reveal the plot twists or turns when answering that question would you?  And finally, the bottom row (Act 3) involves the character’s lowest point, the turning point, and the dénouement (the final resolution), respectively.

Now back to the individual blocks…

Block #4 in the middle-left square is titled “Brad & Fen on the cruise ship”.  Since Block #5 tells us that “Fen kills Jacob on the cruise ship”, we can see that Block 4 involves specific build-up and motivations to that Major plot event.

Block #5 is the centerpiece of your plot. For Idle Hands, that is when the antagonist, Fenderson Quinn kills Jacob Hardy.  Block 5 is also the one square among all of them that is connected to the most adjacent squares, so important characters or events leading up to this plot must be present in Block #2 and Block #4, while important consequences must be present in Blocks #6 and #8.

Block #6 in the middle-right is titled “Fen & Melody”. This is where another major turning point of your novel should take place, which is further complicated (and motivated/caused) by the major event that just took place in Block 5. In the case of Idle Hands, this major turning point is when Brad discovers that Melody and Fen are actually husband & wife.

That turning point in Block 6 should lead to the “emotional low” of your novel, when everything is at their darkest in Block #7, which I have titled “Brad & Melody & Grace” for Idle Hands. A character driven to his (or her) lowest point is sometimes driven to drastic measures and this is where events and characters introduced in Blocks 1 and Blocks 4 make another appearance, thus fulfilling requirements of foreshadowing, and demonstrating you are well in control of your craft as a novelist.

Typically a major twist leads to an epiphany and is what motivates the final climax (often some sort of emotional or physical confrontation), and this all occurs in Block 8. Given its direct proximity below Block 5, it’s probably no surprise that the epiphany or twist, as well as the climax, are all directly related to the event that takes place in Block 5.

The final block #9  in the lower right hand corner is where the dénouement begins and all the plot points are resolved, not out of the blue, but by connecting dots left in adjoining Blocks 6 (the second major turning point) and 8 (the results of the climax). Characters and/or events introduced in Block 3 must also play a major role in this resolution as well.  Resolutions cannot occur without the proper foundation.

Now that we’ve discussed pacing and plotting a novel, tomorrow we will discuss the pacing of writing a novel… in 30 days.

The query letter process – part 1

One of the most important elements of writing a query letter is addressing it to the proper publisher.  Your query letter must demonstrate that you understand their business and that you’re going to be not just professional, but an absolute JOY to work with.   I feel my next book will be a good candidate for Wiley & Sons, for a number of reasons.  One of their imprints is the “For Dummies” series of books, and while my book doesn’t necessarily fall into that niche, it is of a similar-level reference type. 

If you’re in the mood to write a query letter, the first step is finding the appropriate publisher for your book.  Amazon can help you do this.  Locate a book that is of similar subject matter. Look up the book on Amazon.  Find where it lists the publisher — in the product information section.  Next, go to the sub-menu bar at the top and click Advanced Search.  Enter that publisher’s name into the “publisher” field, and choose “bestselling” from the criteria drop-down.  Your search results will then show all the books from that publisher in order of their sales, top to bottom.   Not only does this give you the power to discuss other books this publisher has published from a knowledgeable position, but it prevents you from drawing comparisons to poor selling titles. You want to draw similarities between your book and other books by that publisher that have sold well!

If you don’t like the title selections from this publisher, locate another book and start the process over again.  The point is that you are able to reference titles by name in your query letter, and comment intelligently on those title’s sales numbers, at least as Amazon is concerned.  In general, you can assume that if a traditionally published book is selling well on Amazon, it is probably selling relatively well offline also.

Best of December promotion

Last December Outskirts Press ran a promotion looking for the “Best Manuscript of December” where the winning author will receive not only a full credit of their publishing package cost, but an additional 10% as well.

According to our manuscript evaluation department and author services team (the front-end folks), it was very successful and resulted in a LOT of manuscript submissions. I always say a discount or a promotion is never the ONLY reason to use a company, but it can sometimes help those “on the fence” take action. The idea, of course, is to combine the benefits of your business or company, overall, with the urgency of the promotion.

Our manuscript evaluation team then narrowed down ALL the manuscripts we received in December from authors who began their publishing package during the promotion dates and from that list provided me with 12 very high-quality manuscripts to review.  Yes, from ALL the manuscripts that were submitted, 12 made it to the second round, and let me tell you, these were 12 excellent manuscripts!

The idea of this process was not only to identify and reward a very talented author, but to also imitate the selection process of traditional publishers, as harsh as it is.  These 12 manuscripts from among all the submissions represents a much larger “statistical likelihood” than an unsolicited manuscript finding success with being sent to a traditional publisher or agent.

The next step was very closely reviewing these 12 manuscripts to narrow them down even further.  The 12 “second round” manuscripts literally came from all four corners of America — ranging from California to Connecticut, New York to Texas — and the globe.

It was challenging narrowing down the 12 to a more manageable 6.  They were all very, very good.  Now we have arrived at 6 “finalists.” 

3 fiction and 3 non-fiction.

Since they were all submitted in December, some of them are already published, but until all 6 finalists are published, we cannot move forward with the judging. Here’s why…  While there’s no doubt the strength of the writing is very important, other factors contribute to an overall successful book — not the least of which is being a professional author who has a “platform” on which to jump-start marketing efforts after publication.   But we also want to view the published book “as a whole” including its cover, the back copy text, the author’s webpage, marketing tactics being put forth, etc.

This also imitates the process of a conventional publishing process, where the publisher or agent is almost always as equally interested in the author as the manuscript. “How easy is this author going to be to work with? How professional is she?  How much marketing muscle can he bring to the table?”  Etc.

Once all 6 books are published, I’ll touch upon this again.

Am I a best-selling author? Part 3

I’ve said in the past that I use my own books as “guinea pigs” for the self publishing services we offer to authors.  If I am successful doing something, it is reasonable to think that someone else can be successful, also. If something I do doesn’t have the positive impact I was hoping for, I adjust and try again.  And if something fails, well then we know to either avoid suggesting it or to make an effort to advise our authors against it.

Such was one of the blog postings I made in 2005 on my old blog about Kirkus Discoveries, and it was one of the blog postings that led to an interview with the New York Times.   At the time I believe Kirkus Discoveries was charging $350 for a “review” of self-published books. Recently they charged $400 or more, and very recently, I hear the future of Kirkus Discoveries seems to be in jeopardy entirely.

However, at the time in 2005,  I had seen several of these Kirkus Discoveries reviews, courtesy of our authors, and came away with the feeling that this was not serving the best interests of self-publishing authors, in general.  So I said in my blog this was something I wouldn’t recommend to our authors. And our Marketing COACH suggested our authors think twice about doing it.

Anyway, back to the story — another experiment I tried with one of my books was the so-called “Amazon Bestseller Campaign.” There are people out there charging thousands of dollars for this concept, but here it is for free: Contact as many people as you can (suggestions range from 500,000 to one million people) via email.  Get as many people as you can to buy your book on Amazon all on the same day. Provide them with incentive to buy your book by offering them other products or services that have a value much greater than the cost of your book itself. 

Conducting this campaign has its pros and cons. It also has its share of people firmly entrenched in the “this is good” camp and others firmly entrenched in the “this is evil” camp.   All the “downsides” to this campaign contribute to the reasons we don’t currently offer it as a “service” for our authors — because a lot of our authors inquire about it.

Furthermore, pulling this off is easier said than done. Who knows 500,000 people they can email? Nowadays there are companies that charge thousands of dollars to implement this sort of campaign on behalf of the author. 

Personally, I didn’t need to pay anyone to do it for me because I had access to lists, and I knew other industry professionals who would support my campaign. But it did take a lot of my time orchestrating, and in retrospect, it may have actually been more cost-effective and efficient — and perhaps even effective — for me to just buy it as a “package” from someone else.  But, nevertheless, when Sell Your Book on Amazon was published, I conducted by own “bestseller” campaign as a test.

And it worked.  My book reached #29 on the overall Amazon Sales Rank on March 27th, 2007. Below is a chart of my book’s Amazon sales rank that day. Notice that I have to change the SCALE of the chart 3 times in order to keep the chart from being 10 feet tall. Also notice that the ranking starts at 15,000.  It would have done the same exact thing if it had started at 150,000 or 1,500,000.  The initial ranking is important though, because it implies Amazon’s “true” valuation of the book. Which means after the “campaign” is over, your book will mostly likely return to roughly the level it started at. But in the meantime, you may have acquired a few more reviews, a few more tags, and a little more activity around your book — and that helps support your longer term marketing tactics on Amazon.

Click for a larger view (opens in a new window)

Was that an exciting day? You bet. Did I become a millionaire overnight? Of course not. I didn’t even reach #1. In fact, I didn’t even reach #1 in my category, which is the whole point of the campaign. I reached #2 in my category, because some HUGE best seller was #1, and I couldn’t knock it off.

As I mentioned in a previous post, best sellers are more a product of marketing than sales, just like Oscar winners are often more a product of marketing than quality.

Am I a best-selling author? Part 2

Let’s all conduct an experiment together. Go find a copy of Stephanie Meyer’s Eclipse paperback and look at the back cover. If you cannot find at least one copy lying around the house you either a) are not a woman or b) don’t know any women. This book is amazingly pervasive. Every woman I know has either read the Twilight Saga or is reading it (again).

On the back of the paperback edition of Eclipse it says:

The #1 New York Times Bestseller
The #1 USA Today Bestseller
The #1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller

Hmm, I guess Little, Brown — the publisher of Eclipse — prefers the single-word lexicon “bestseller” rather than the two-worded version preferred by Webster. But that’s not the point. The point is that there are multiple “best seller” lists. Eclipse promotes being the #1 best seller on 3 different lists from 3 different newspapers. Granted, in this case, these are highly respected lists.

But the fact is, nearly every major metropolitan newspaper has a “best seller” list, and most major booksellers or chains have their own best seller lists, too. The cynic inside me assumes that when a book promotes itself as being the “#1 bestseller” without specifying a list, it is because the best-selling list on which the book appeared #1 is NOT the New York Times, USA Today, or the Wall St. Journal.   But book marketing is book marketing and those publicists and marketers are doing whatever they can to draw attention to that book and that author in a very competitive environment. And the fact is, that book DID appear on some best-selling list, somewhere.

“Best-selling” status becomes even more questionable when you realize how the lists are compiled.  Are booksellers really pouring over weeks and months of data, comparing sales receipts against sales returns, and arriving upon a list of books that truly reflect higher sales compared against all other books?  Or, is a sales manager hastily completing a survey every week/month that rewards top-of-mind recall more than actual data?  This would make marketing and promotion the true factor involved, rather than actual sales, just as marketing and promotion is the true factor involved in the Oscar race, rather than performance/quality.

Am I questioning whether Eclipse is a #1 bestseller? Absolutely not!  I’m sure it is. As I mentioned, every woman I know owns a copy (and bought two more as gifts for other people last Christmas).   But I am saying that acquiring “best-selling” status is easier than it might appear and in many cases, might not even relate to actual sales volume.   And, there’s the rub; the moment something becomes “easier” to do, it receives less respect.  That’s one of the issues we face today with self-publishing.

But everything has a range of difficulty.  It’s easier to not write a book than it is to write one. So, right there, people who write a book deserve some level of respect.  Of course it’s easier to self-publish a book than it is to get a book traditionally accepted and published. But it’s even easier to not publish a book at all. Doing nothing is always easier than doing something.

And so it goes: writing a bad book is easier than writing a good one.  Writing a book that does not appear on any best seller lists is easier than writing a book that does appear on one or more best selling lists. Writing a book that does not earn a million dollar advance is easier than writing a book that does.   But are these black and white classifications?  Is a book only respectable IF it earns a million dollar advance, earns best seller status on the New York Times, and is published traditionally?

Certainly those accomplishments are worthy of admiration, but so are other accomplishments. Does someone choose not to respect Eli Manning because he’s not Peyton Manning? Even though publishing a book is becoming “easier” and becoming a “best selling” author is becoming “easier,” accomplishing these feats is still “hard” in the overall scheme of things. Any published book and any bestselling status is worthy of some level of kudos. 

If you are thinking about writing a book, don’t let anyone stop you. And if you are thinking about publishing a book, don’t let anyone stop you.

And with that prelude, the question remains: Am I a best-selling — or is it bestselling, or best selling– author?  Let’s examine that question further in an upcoming post…

Writers and entrepreneurs

Why, you might ask, am I spending so much time writing about choosing a theme for the blog? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about entrepreneurs, CEOs, writing, self-publishing? You know, interesting things? Yes, and it is…

Here’s one reason for the details: When I have less time to devote to the minutiae, I often advise a self-published writer or a CEO to simply “create your platform.”

And when they ask “How?” I answer “Start a blog.”

That’s short and to the point. WordPress even makes it easy. But for many people, that advice is not very helpful in its generality. Just because something is easy for one person doesn’t mean it is easy for other people and it certainly doesn’t mean they will do it “right.”   And that’s a good thing, because if everyone else knew what you knew and could do what you can do, you wouldn’t have anything of value to offer or sell.  The trick is taking your knowledge, infusing it with necessity, and then packaging it, and offering it to others, either for “free” as in the case of a blog, or for some amount of money as in the case of your book, product, service, or company.

When starting a blog and creating a platform, doing it “right” means taking into consideration all of the things I’ve been pontificating about for the past few posts, like branding, SEO, and here’s another one — consistent content. Blogging is like the antithesis of writing a book, which is perhaps one of the things that has always bothered me about blogging — blogs are not supposed to be succinct. If your blog is too succinct, you run out of things to say, and then your blog only lasts 5 months, like my last one did in 2005.

Although I should mention that any blog effort you make could always have a positive effect. Early in 2009 I received a call from a reporter from the New York Times who was writing an article about Kirkus Discoveries, and saw one of my blog postings about that very topic. He referred to it 4 years after I had written it, so the first few minutes of our phone conversation were interesting because, to him, I had just written it because he had just read it. Yet, for me, that posting was 4 years old in my mind. I barely remembered what he was talking about. Nevertheless, it led to an interview with the New York Times. Can’t beat that with a stick…

And that’s just one of many reasons why entrepreneurs and writers should have a blog. In fact, by and large, I’ll probably use the word “entrepreneur” and “writer” somewhat interchangeably. All self-publishing writers are, in essence, entrepreneurs. And, even though all entrepreneurs may not consider themselves authors, they should consider themselves writers. So even though I’m devoting a large portion of the beginning of this blog about inane details revolving around the selection of a blog theme, the AUDIENCE of this blog is entrepreneurs, self-publishing writers, CEOs, CMOs and other marketers (both b-2-b and b-2-c), people involved in any kind of start-up, and anyone else who would find value in improving their sales platform.

Platform. Is that a term I’ve used on this blog yet? It’s going to be a recurring topic. The cornerstone of nearly every speech and presentation I make involves creating and maintaining ones “platform” – the foundation upon which you build your career, whether you are a writer, a doctor, a speaker, or an entrepreneur. You need a platform and it needs to be branded.

And that takes us full-circle back to choosing a theme for this blog. I think I “spoke” too early with my last posting, because for some reason I though the “thinner” column of the “Contempt” theme was on the left-hand side, when in reality, it appears on the right-hand side. So far, it’s still the best theme (after Blix) that I’ve seen on WordPress, so I’ll add a few more widgets to the column and see how it holds up…

Adding books to the blog

I’ve made a commitment to myself to invest approximately 1 hour a day to social networking enterprises–involving myself more in social networking is on my New Year’s Resolutions list– although I admit I already haven’t been doing a very good job of maintaining that average when there are so many other things that require my attention.

I try to prioritize my time based upon accomplishing goals that benefit the greatest number of our authors (or future authors) as possible, and by that benchmark, it is difficult to justify spending much time on this blog.  How does THIS blog help an Outskirts Press author?  It probably doesn’t, or at least it doesn’t as much as offering the Espresso Book Machine editions, which we just announced today. 

Getting that option set-up for our authors took a lot of my time, but it benefits a lot of our authors (current and future authors), so in my mind, that is time well-spent.   So, in the dark recesses of my mind, all I can hope is that our authors find some kernels of marketing insights from this blog and can apply concepts I introduce here to their writing, publishing, and marketing efforts in the name of making them more successful.    I am a writer first, and a CEO second, so my commitment is always to our current and future authors.  I’ll talk more about that soon.

Anyway, back to the story: adding books to the blog.  By the time I’m writing this posting, I had already added “Self Publishing Simplified” and “Sell Your Book on Amazon” to my blog, but today I added one of my remaining books, “Adventures in Publishing.”  It’s a cute little children’s book about how to publish a children’s book, with full-color illustrations and rhyming verse.  It’s meant to serve as an example of what is possible at Outskirts Press while also helping potential children’s book authors with the “how to” steps required to actually get their story illustrated and published.

I have another book, “Publishing Gems” which I may or may not add.  Honestly, I’m not as proud of it as I am of the other three… it was my first non-fiction book and my main goal with writing and publishing it was to simply “get it out there into the world” as quickly as possible.  Our self-publishing services certainly help people accomplish that goal.  And by taking that baby step, I was able to take a breath, step back, and work on something of a higher caliber, like “Sell Your Book on Amazon.”    Does that make “Publishing Gems” a poor book?  Maybe — but perhaps its goal wasn’t to be “good.” Maybe its goal was to help me overcome something within myself to allow me to focus on “Sell Your Book on Amazon.”  So does that make “Publishing Gems” a successful book because it accomplished its goal? Absolutely.

Different authors have different goals, and only the author knows what those goals are.  Readers who project their own goals, or qualifications for success, onto the book and then announce them “successes” or “failures” are not giving enough credit to the author.  Self publishing companies like Outskirts Press help authors realize a wide variety of goals, because as a writer myself, I realize that writers write for a variety of reasons.