Tag Archives: How Kim Outlines

Character Grid

As I begin work on the next Hollows book, THE RULE, I’m sharing my plotting methods.  Today, I’m at day three of my process, which is where my character grid comes into play. It’s  basically a spread sheet that lets me see the entire book at a glance and helps me organize my thoughts. It’s invaluable in a rewrite when I have to insert a snippet of information and am not sure where to logically do it.
The post below is from 2009, but it’s still 
accurate. Though a lot of my plotting methods have changed through the years, I still use and keep my character grids for future reference.

For those of you who haven’t been to the drama box in a few days, I’m taking the opportunity of NaNoWriMo and me just starting rough draft to detail out my plotting process.  Disclaimer:everyone writes differently, there’s no wrong way to do it.  This is what I’ve come up with over the last ten years or so, and what works for me.  It’s a process that’s still evolving.  Oh, and my word count is still zero.

Yesterday I rewrote my plot to take out the demon plotline and expand two others of crime and love.  It made a much more tidy story and I was able to dig deeper into the relationships instead of skimming over them.  My one page synopsis turned into a 13 page synopsis, casually broken into maybe-chapters.  Today I’m going to begin to break this up into clear chapters so I can better balance the entire work as to pacing, place, and characters.  I don’t want to spend too much time in the church, or be moving from place to place in any given chapter.  My rule is no more than one scene shift per chapter, and try not to stay in any one place for more than two consecutive chapters.  Same thing with characters.  Variety keeps the reader interested and the story moving.  So to better see the patterns that the story is taking and head off any potential problems, I have come up with a character grid.  It’s about the only piece of “software” that I use, and it’s just an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve modified to my needs.  Here’s the one I used for ODW.

Characters are down the side, the locations of the scene are on the top, and the action is at the bottom.  (this is an early version, so it might not dovetail perfectly into the published book) The color shift is an indication of a change in day (which can be seen by the dates) and the chapter numbers are under that.  The Xs are when a character is an a chapter, and sometimes I use an O to indicate that they are in the chapter by way of phone or scrying mirror.  I usually have the month and day the book takes place in across the top, and the sunrise and set and average temps at the bottom,

My character grid is how I first realized that Jenks was in almost every chapter in the earlier books, and I’ve become better at getting him out so other characters can shine.  It’s also how I know if I have a character who is needed for a crucial scene, and yet is not introduced anywhere until that scene.  Very bad.  Same thing with the bad guys.  I try to have them show up early, and then at least one more time before the end.  Another rule of thumb is don’t introduce too many characters in the same scene, even if they are returning characters.  I like to have only two at the most, and will break a chapter just to avoid this.

A character grid of some sort is also a great way to make sure that your male to female ratio isn’t wildly out of balance.  Mine usually slant to the male end of the ratio, but since Rachel is female it works out.  Oh, and when you go to rewrite and need to add something that revolves around a character, it’s really easy to go the grid, see where they are, and place your clue instead of spending an hour thumbing through the file and guessing where to put it is.

Tomorrow, after I break this monster into chapters, I’ll let you know what balance issues I encountered and nipped in the bud, but for now, I’ve not a clue as to what problems the manuscript has.  I can’t wait!



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Day Two Of The Plotting

I’m sharing my outlining process this week, thanks to just having finished outlining THE RULE, (sequel to AMERICAN DEMON, out in 2020) and a curious reader. Friday I gave you my bare bones of how I start with a list of “I wants” to do a very rough plot plan of two or three threads, as well as figure out which characters will be the most useful in reaching my goals. It takes a day for me to do this if I’m working in the Hollows. If it’s a new world, it can take a week, or even two if I’m developing all new characters, magic systems, and mythologies/species.

Below is the beginning of step two of my process. It’s a reposting of several years ago when I was working on book ten or so, but not much has changed.

Friday was the second day of my plotting out of the next Hollows book, and still no words on the screen, but I’ve plenty of notes, so all you people taking part in NaNoWriMo, be assured that you are way ahead of me.  At this rate, I will be hard pressed to meet your 175 page count by the end of the month.  And I still have a few days of plotting before I can begin.  So what am I spending my time on?

Well . . .  I took my six pages of notes from Thursday and wrote up a free-flowing, one-sentence brainstorming list of “ways to start” and a list of  “ways to end.”  I still don’t have a good way to start the book, and I won’t until I have the end, but my goal is to have in the first five pages the hint of the problem that is settled in the last so to make a full circle.  I’m more successful at this some times than others, but if you break the stories apart, it’s there.  By the way, I found the ending by the time I turned my office light off.  Damn.  This is going to be a fun one to write.  As usual, Tim helped with finding the kicker.

I then wrote out a handwritten, ten-page summary of the book, starting at the beginning and going all the way to the end, saying who died, who got jailed, and who got pregnant.  No, none of those things happened, but you get the idea.  Some might say it’s a waste of time, but I just saved myself three to six weeks of grief as I realized that my original three plots of demons, love, and crime were taking up too much page count and there were too many characters.  My solution?  Get rid of the demon story line for this book, much as I love it. (It will show up in the next book where it belongs)

After some thought, I realized that the story would work that much better with some new limitations that no-demons engenders.  Now I can expand on the other two story lines and bring in some secondary characters that I’d have had to skimp on.  I’m going to miss Al, but let’s hope it’s absence makes the heart grow fonder rather than out of sight, out of mind. . .   Today, I’ll rewrite my 10 page summary and maybe start on some more detailed chapter outlines to be sure I’ve not forgotten some bit of logic and to nail down the character lineup.


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Writing starts with “I want”

Wendee asked me if I might detail out my outline process, seeing as I’d just finished prepping THE RULE for some serious keyboard time and I was happy dancing online about it. I thought it was a great idea, so I went back into my old Wordpress files, and found where I’d already done it! Not much has changed in the last nine years as far as my process goes. I’ve trimmed some things out, and added a new tools in my toolbox. I’m just going to drop my old post here, and maybe add a few notes as to what’s changed in the preface.

I decided to detail out THE OUTLAW DEMON WAILS to help reduce spoilers, but if you’ve not read it . . . well . . . there it is.

Even now, I still start each book with a list of “I want to see,” but by this point, much of my list is things that stem from the previous books, things that rise from Rachel’s actions as she tries to make her world a better place for everyone, not just herself.

I’ll have the next step for you on Monday, but for now, here is how I begin my plotting:

So, it’s NaNoWriMo, and though I’m not taking part, I am just starting a rough draft of book ten and thought it might be cool to detail out what I do as some of you are scrambling for page count.  Mine is zero right now.  I’m way behind.  I just finished the last of my personal rewrites on book nine.  (insert wild happy author dance here) and am ready to rip into the next, so what do I do first?  (disclaimer:everyone writes differently.  I’ve been developing my writing style for over a decade, and this is what works for me.  There’s no wrong way to do it as long as you’re making progress.)

I want. . .

That’s what it’s all about at this point for me.  What do I want to see or accomplish in this 500 page monster.  So today I’ll be sitting down with about ten sheets of paper and a pencil.  No keyboard for about a week or so.  I’m going to go over what I just finished and where I want to be in about three books from now.  I try to write down the gottas for story movement, and even some fun things that make the story interesting.

Since I’m not going to share with you my want list for book ten, I scrounged up my want list for THE OUTLAW DEMON WAILS.  (Yes, I keep everything)  So don’t read if you don’t want spoilers.

Set around Halloween–cause I want to know how Inderlanders celebrate it.

Matalina dies, Rachel does black magic to save Jenks  –Obviously this didn’t happen.  The pixy just won’t die.  (laugh)

Marshal out of the books, and Pierce starts moving in.  (no sex).  —  This one I managed.

Rachel bites Ivy?  Maybe work the demons in this way with a spell or charm?  —  again, this one didn’t make the cut as it’s written, but it still might be used in a later book.  Don’t know yet.

Find out Art killed Kisten and bound Rachel.  —  Okay.  Art did kill Kisten, but it wasn’t good for the story if Rachel had been bound.  But man, it make for good character development when she realized how close she came to it.  Positive, positive.

Work in more demon culture  At least one night with Al  —  Questionable success here.  Work in progress.  Oh, and one night with Al doesn’t necessarily mean sex.  If I mean sex, it will say sex.  (grin)

Robbie comes back to Cincy to take Mom to West Coast to reduce Rachel’s strengths.  yeah.  That kind of happened.

Ford finds Pierce when trying to recover Rachel’s memory.  –That one came though pretty much intact.

Oh, and the main story line fits in there as something like, work with a new species.  Banshees?  Use them to touch on auras more.

And there it is.  Not a lot of detail on the structure or the plot, just wants

Then I wrote up a page on what’s going to limit Rachel in this book:  Winter, so Jenks is curtailed, Robbie takes mom, Trent not going to help, David on a retreat, Witches won’t sell to her.

Another page was reminders:  Trent still not trusting her, Lee-low profile, David and Weres are happy, Ivy, Cormel, and vamps not happy, FIB is worried, the IS is in with the vamps, the coven is watching her, Nick is unknown, Ceri is four months preggers, and Al knows about Pierce.

From that, I can sort of decide who is going to be in the books, but I just keep it in the back of my head at this point.

So for me, it starts with “I want” and a whole lot of time with my pencil.


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Stuff I can’t share . . . and stuff I can

That’s what I’ve been working on for the last two weeks.  Stuff I can’t share.  Despite the popular theory that I LIKE TEASING YOU, (which I sort of do) sometimes it sucks pixy dust to be working on ideas that won’t see the light of day for years.  I’m talking book thirteen here.  🙂 OMGosh, it fell into place yesterday–after two weeks of plotting and a new-to-me plotting technique.

Horrors of horrors, I’ve actually plotted this thing out in a flow chart.  I know some writers use them extensively, but it’s not much use to me yet apart from helping me organize my thoughts, but I do have a new-to-me plotting technique to share, one that I’ve been using lately to help me mesh several diverse story lines into one cohesive plot.  If you’re struggling to organize your thoughts, this might help.

After coming up with the general story line, I write each separate plot down without regard to the other stuff, sort of like mini synopsis.  The elf thread, the magic thread, the relationship thread, the vampire thread.  Each one takes up a page, maybe two.  Then I transfer those ideas (and motivations) to cards, one idea per card. (This is the new thing for me.  Cards.  Sheesh.)  So I end up with about six to fifteen cards per thread.  I work making my card piles for a few days.  Long days.  I take it slow, and do lots of revisions here since I’m still putting the main plot together.  Lots of handwriting, lots of notes.   I do this with each plot thread–several times–and then sit down with my stacks, looking at the first thought in each thread.  And start weaving.  If you do it right, one idea flows into the next, and you don’t forget anything that needs to be included.  I usually break my woven piles down into chapters and days.  The trick is to be loose and free, and don’t rush it!  It took me two weeks.  I fully expect I’ll be doing some changes as I get into the writing, but if I don’t know where I want to go when I start, I can be paralyzed by the feeling of being afraid of wasting my time.

I’ve used cards for each thread now for a couple of books.  Peri needed this kind of organization badly, but I found I liked it so well that I’ve been using it on the Hollows too.  It lets me be convoluted without asking the reader to work too hard.  The flow chart?  I don’t know.  I got to use tape and scissors . . .


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Drop back and punt-NaNo style

I’m not very good at sports analogies, but this one seemed appropriate for my progress on the new book.  I am about at page 60 or so where things should be starting to really roll, the story laid out and moving forward–and as I was looking at my three-page synopsis and writing out the day’s dialog to turn into text, I suddenly realized that my plot had evaporated due to little changes along the way.  This is not unusual.  Let me say that again.  This is not unusual.  It happens enough that I’ve learned not to panic, but just get my clipboard back out and solidify some new goals.

Sometimes, the difference between the writer who finishes a book and the one who has five manuscripts going but nothing done–is decided here.  If you’re one of the latter, take heart that this is not an uncommon issue, nor is it a reflection on your writing skills.  It just means that things have changed and you need to take a day or two and jot down a few goals and rebuild a story to address them.  In my case, I had to reassess and define the issue of the entire book, what the end goal was, and what the complication is.  I then had to go back and brainstorm five things my main character has to do in order to get there.  I also used the addition of a new character to push things into high gear, which worked out wonderfully since he complicates and involves everything wonderfully.  But the main point to this post is that plots fall apart.  The professional does not abandon them, but pushes it all back together and finds the new goal, issue, and complications, and continues on.  Today I should make some good progress and be back where I want to be by Thursday.

And, since I was at my clipboard yesterday, getting very little done on the keyboard, I took the time to change a few names.  If I have to stop and remember my main character’s name repeatedly, I know I’ve chosen the wrong one.  Taylor is out, Peri is in.  For now.  I don’t like names ending in a vowel, but there it is.

Also, the voting for the preliminaries is over at Goodreads and we are two days into the semi finals, but I don’t see any change over at the website.  If you’ve not voted for your favorite in each category, maybe it’s not too late?  Goodreads, choice award, favorite book of 2011


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Okay, now it’s Friday

Yay!  Just Yay!  I’m so glad it’s Friday.  I’m thinking of doing a little light holiday shopping this weekend, and to get me in the mood, it decided to snow.   Just a dusting, but it’s pretty to see it on the roofs.  Not all the leaves are down yet, so it feels more like spring.

Yesterday’s work went pretty good.  That tough chapter is still on my desk, but I got ten pages of dialog down, which should translate into 20 pages of text today if I don’t have a lot of interruptions.  My writing style is constantly evolving, but the “trick” of writing down dialog first to keep myself on track and stave off writer’s block is one of the first things that really helped me move my consistency from five pages a day to twelve.  It’s very much like a free-flow exercise where you open yourself up for new ideas while still keeping the backbone of the story.

Basically all I do is spend about ten minutes jotting down in that big white space at the beginning of a chapter the things I want to get done in the next 15 pages or so.  Then I drop down and spend about three paragraphs to set the scene.  After that, I stop writing in sentences and start writing what I can best describe as a very messy “play”.  Because this version of the chapter only lasts a few hours to days, I don’t even bother separating action from dialog.

T     In dark corner office.  Hears a noise, starts to move after it, use motion to describe athletic body, black clothes.
J     From desk.  Stay in my sight, Taylor.
T     grimace.  I can’t do my job from here.
J     I can’t do my job if you’re not in my sight.  I’m almost done.
T     Ten seconds.  Slips out.  Grins.  Moves through dark outer office, noting things.  See security guard.  Looks at watch.  Swears and backs up.
T     Pads over to desk.  We got an early bird.
J     monitor light glowing up on his face.  There’s more here than Sam told us.
T     Well, shut it down for a sec.  He’s checking doors.  Pad back to the door.

It goes on from there, and when I turned it into text, I got about two pages out of those 8 lines because I had to set the scene and some of the plot as well. But one of the most helpful things to come out of setting up a chapter’s action through dialog is that things can change fast, and usually they follow a more logical path than you originally planned out.  For example, yesterday’s chapter was supposed to keep my main character in the dark about what was really going on until the magic happened, whereupon she finally understood what was going on, and then the bad thing happened that the reader knew was going to happen all along.  But when I started putting down dialog, my character got smart faster, figured it out before the magic happened, yelled a lot, got excited, and reacted much more strongly when the magic happened.  The bad thing still happened, but when it did, she was expecting it, which made it even more heartbreaking, and her not stupid, just unlucky and overpowered.

So there it is.  Now I just have to turn my dialog into text, and I will be able to relax and enjoy my weekend.  There will likely still be changes, but it’s like carving a sculpture.  Chunks, to slices, to slivers, to tiny little shavings, and then the sandpaper!



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Good, solid forward movement on the NaNo book yesterday.  I’ve still not caught up to where I should be on the graph, but seeing as I don’t work on weekends and I missed the first three days.  -shrug-  I’ll be there by the end.  And I’m in no hurry.  The story flows as the story goes.

However, one of my writing-rough-draft tips saved my butt yesterday.  When I write rough draft, I make it a practice to never go back into a chapter I’ve finished, even if I want to make major changes.  What I will do is briefly open the file back up and jot down the changes I want to make in that big white space I always leave at the beginning of the chapter, and then proceed onto the next chapter as if I had made those changes.   Hey, I make things up for a living.  It’s easy to pretend.

This novel is no exception, and as I began my dialog for chapter three late yesterday, I found the few notes I penciled in the day before (for changes I wanted to make in chapter one) were now useless.  After moving forward another step, I found I needed bigger things, such as an additional character, I had to change how someone dies, and I found the way to begin the betrayal I’d already planned on, but in a much stronger, faster way.  Had I taken yesterday and worked my original, now useless, changes in, my word count for the day would have been very near zero, and all for nothing as I have since thrown them out for something better.

Even though I have practice doing this, (making notes of what I want to change and then moving on as if I’d done it) it is hard.  I very much like knowing exactly what I’m working with, especially when it comes to emotion.  But I also know that I’m going to be going over this thing three or four more times, bare minimum.  I can fix it then.  Like Anakin Skywalker’s mom says, “Never look back.”  And to that, I would add on, “Until you reach the end and start over.”  And who knows.  I might get into chapter five and discover that the new person I need in chapter one works better if she’s a woman, or someone that Taylor already knows, or should be two people, or that the one guy really didn’t have to die.  No harm, no foul.  Lots of words on the page mean lots more toys to play with.

Happy NaNoing!



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I call her, Ms. Reed.

I finally got my rewrite of book 11 done on Tuesday, and it’s ready for my editor.  That freed me up tremendously, and with nothing huge scheduled to land on my desk for a while, I can NaNoWriMo!  I’ve often played along, but never officially participated.  This year, I signed up, so if you want to be my writing buddy, I’m there under Kim Harrison with the burning bunny avatar.  I’ve got two buddies the last time I looked, and both of them are leaving me in the dust as far as word count.  I can really see how this can keep you motivated.  I’ve got to get some words down.  Someone help me here . . . do I have to search my current writing buddies out and “buddy” them as well, or is it automatic?

So if  you’ve been to NaNo and seen me there with my paltry 100 words, you will note that I’m working on something not Hollows related.  My editor was not wowed by my offerings this September in terms of possible next-series, and I came up with something new in the interim.  I can understand why she wasn’t roses and candy.  I suck at writing, I excel at rewriting, and much of what I gave her was not what I’d be writing on in the actual series in terms of characters anyway.  I gave her worlds and magic systems, and I’m character driven when it comes down to it.  My schedule has gifted me with time, so I’m dropping back and just writing a damn book–for me.  It might never see the light of day, but I’m up an hour earlier this morning, sitting at my keyboard, dying to get words on paper, so I don’t care.

I got much of my prep work done yesterday, picking out a title (which has changed already), names (most of them are weaving terms), assigning rules to the magic (because without rules you are at a severe disadvantage in what-comes-next), getting the beginnings of character profiles in my thoughts, and writing out a three-page synopsis.  I usually will take a few more days at this point and write out more detailed breakdowns of each chapter, but because it’s so new, I’m going to forgo that this time and begin writing from the synopsis.

The one thing that sticks out in my mind and makes me like this project more than the others I could be working on (besides the last Hollows book) is that my main character is happy with her life and herself.  She is productive, and good at her job, and is in love.  She is, again, the girl next door–before everything falls apart and she has to scramble to figure it out.  I know her issues, and I like her already.

I’m writing the first chapter today, and her name is Taylor, Taylor Reed.


P.S.  Pictures of the event at Nicola’s are up.  They have lots of signed HOLLOWS INSIDERS and will ship.


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NaNoWriMo? Maybe . . .

I burned through the last couple of days of my rewrite, finding out that the last chapter that I was concerned about read better than I thought, so I’m good to go and can actually start writing something new.  Seeing as it’s only the 3rd, I’m going to jump in to NaNo and play along on the sidelines.  🙂  I still have a week or so of plotting to do, but I might be able to catch up.

Today is going to be interesting as I spend most of it at my desk with a pencil and clipboard, writing out things I WANT.  Things I want to see, want to do, want to touch on.  It’s like looking at your box of toys and picking out what you want to play with.  These wants can be as simple as I want to see Jenks kill a bird to as complex as I want to see Jenks fall in love.  (Which he won’t.  We don’t have enough time to show that, but we will see healing, and that’s satisfying, too.)

I’d love to share my I WANT list, but you can understand why I don’t.  -grin-  I take my list of wants, then start tossing them into piles of where and how I can accomplish getting them on the page, which starts to naturally begin to organize everything into places and characters, which then leads to a story itself.  Ahhhh, I miss the days of writing as a pantster.  -laugh-

For those of you who like their voice to be heard, I’ve been made aware of a contest going on over at Goodreads for the best read of 2011.  If you’ve never been over to Goodreads, you seriously need to.  They are an excellent resource on the web for what is out there for your literary consumption.  Pale Demon is in the Best Paranormal Fantasy category, but until the prelims close on the 13th, you can add in your favorite, even if it’s not listed, so go take a look, scroll around, and let your voice be heard!

Goodreads prelim voting for best read of 2011-closes Nov 13

And for you readers who actually get their storytelling fix the original way (by audiobooks) I’ve just updated my website to include links to audio samples of the books that Harper produces.  I have the widgets parked at each individual page at the web site, but here is one so that you know what to look for.  I absolutely love how Ms. Gavin reads the books.  She has truly become the voice of the Hollows.


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Ten! And we have a few teaser pages!

 Tucking my hair back, I squinted at the parchment, trying to form the strange angular letters as smoothly as I could.  The ink glistened wetly, but it wasn’t red ink, it was blood—my blood—which might account for the slight tremble in my hand as I copied the awkward-looking name scripted in characters that weren’t English.  Beside me was a pile of rejects.  If I didn’t get it perfect this time, I’d be bleeding yet again.  God help me.  I was doing a black curse.  In a demon’s kitchen.  On the weekend.  How in hell had I gotten here?

More . . .

I got the all clear from my editor, and the first few pages, (not chapters, sorry) of Black Magic Sanction are up at the website at the books pages.  Enjoy!

I’m chugging along with the last two chapters of book ten, and it’s finishing well, following the path I thought it would with a few surprises.  It’s the last chapter, which I will probably get dialog done today, that will be the most surprising.  This is the one chapter that I don’t plot out until I’m ready to write it.  Because the chapter before is where the crime is solved, the puzzle finished, or the deed finally done, the last chapter is where I take the last bits that have been dangling, and somehow put it all together in a comfy, cozy, coda.  Pizza parties, solstice bonfires, baby showers, family cookouts, and coming home from vacation to find the house stale and quiet are some of my favorite “last chapters.”  Parties, especially, are good ways to get sundry characters who seldome share page space in one spot. 

Besides pulling together characters for one last time (to assure the reader that they are okay) I have to touch on the threads I’ve left dangling so the reader knows I haven’t forgotten them and will pick them up later.  It helps the reader find closure when the story clearly isn’t done.   Emotions, too, must be considered, which made the ending for FDM very hard for me to write.  I like happy endings, and eating cake and crying was the best of a bad situation.

I’m glad to say that I’m back to my happy endings, but Rachel is sort of beat up in this one.  Growing up is hard to do.  (snerk)



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