The Character-Driven Plot


Here’s a baby turtle for the heck of it.

I began writing Song of Swans several months ago and was determined that it would be more character-driven than my other works. I wanted to get into the depths of my characters, to follow them and find out what happens via their actions.


This means that my outline has been smacked around quite a lot. I am currently on chapter five, but the things happening in it are things I meant to have in chapter three.

There are some people who would say that if it is truly character driven then I wouldn’t need an outline at all, I would just discovery write (aka – go by the seat of my pants) but I have found that I need an outline in order to get to the finish of a book.


For those of you fellow Outliner’s who might be reading this … I learned a trick that I thought I would share.

You see, once I finish writing the chapter – the actual chapter, not the outline – then I go through and I highlight all the things that have happened to my character and make a note of it in the margin. Then I go through everything that’s happened and I write down in my OUTLINE for the next chapter the things that still need to be addressed.

Example …

Cassy steals something in chapter 1. She isn’t a thief so there was already a debate about taking said item, but in the end her curiosity and hunger won out. MARGIN NOTE: Item has not been fully investigated yet.

Chapter 2 has her on the run, trying to get someplace safe before she opens said item and

And some baby geese, too.

sees her loot. Unfortunately, she gets caught. MARGIN NOTE: Cassy got knocked on the head pretty good and likely has a mild concussion. ITEM STILL NOT INVESTIGATED.


Basically, anything highlighted in the margins of the previous chapter needs to be addressed in some fashion during the next chapter. Even if I don’t want to answer it yet, I have to at least mention it somewhere in the narrative.

This has had an unexpected benefit. While I might moan about the fact that I’m two full chapters longer than anticipated at this point, the flow is remarkable. I had always meant for the characters to get to where they are now – currently huddled in a cave, suffering from shellshock – but what is happening on the page is far deeper and makes more sense than what I had originally outlined.

Another thing I’ve had to do is take a step back, breathe, and really put myself in the room with my characters, to let them lead and show me what happens next.

As an author with several published novels under my belt, it seems strange that I would only just now be coming to this point in my writing, but it’s true. And the difference is undeniable.

Writing Rituals – Round Robin

The alarm goes off at 5AM every morning.

I have it strategically placed several feet away from the couch, where I have collapsed to

Nuisance – Don’t let him fool you. 

sleep some six to seven hours before. Dodging Nuisance (the kitten), I stumble my way across the room to turn the alarm off and stand there for several minutes in the dark, teetering on my feet because at this point I’m still trying to remember why exactly my alarm has gone off at such an hour.

Eventually I remember that it is a weekday and it is time to write.

Making what can only be described as a zombie-like shamble through my dark apartment, I locate the coffee machine and set it to brewing and stand for several more minutes, staring at the coffee level as it rises.

At this point I may actually be sleeping while standing up. It’s really kind of a mystery.

Camp NaNoWriMo mug in hand – full of coffee, thank heavens – I make a somewhat less zombie-like shamble to the computer and power it on. The trick, I have found, is to drink at least half a mug of coffee before I open the manuscript and begin to review what was written the day before. This means that I have approximately fifteen minutes to check email, Facebook, Google+, and possibly Twitter (really, I know everyone loves Twitter but all the hashtags make little sense to me, especially at 5AM).

Once the coffee hits the midway point of the mug I am sufficiently awake enough to really comprehend yesterday’s work. Now then, depending on the time of year, I am either in the middle of editing or I’m in the middle of creating.

296311_500604823329356_837081728_nThe first five to six months of the year are dedicated to editing. January through the end of May I can get through two major hauls on two different novels. This work consists of multiple colored pens and a printed manuscript and, if I’m doing it right, I can get five chapters done in a week.

My pens are color coded for each book. Different colors for different character arcs and development, a color for typos (normally red), a color for plot issues (often purple), and a color for graphic detail (green – which tends to be the heaviest color on the page.)

Monday through Friday I work on a chapter a day. Saturday I transfer all handwritten changes onto the computer. Sunday … I nap. Or play Star Wars.

June through December are my “creation” months. This is when I write new novels. I can do approximately two chapters a week while in “create-mode”. Sometimes more.

At present, I am in “create-mode” so after my first cup of coffee has been consumed I have gone over the previous day’s writing (and hated it, I always hate it at first) I begin working.

I pause for more coffee.

And then I pause again to hold my crystal ball.

Because yes, I have a crystal ball. It feels good in my hands, large and cool to the touch, and it helps me concentrate.

By 8AM I have gone through my second cup of coffee and must save all content to multiple places because I am obsessive-compulsive about making sure all copies in all virtual hidey-holes have been updated.

At random intervals I will have had to pause to pet Nuisance and Pest (the grumpy older


cat) and informed them both that they are detrimental to the creation process, but neither of them seem to care.

Nevertheless, it is now 8AM and I must wake the child up and prepare him for school. At 8:25AM we are in the car and heading out for the day (because we are freaking awesome at that). For the rest of the day my writing rituals include keeping the outline of the novel on hand for note-taking and 3×5 cards for any scenes that must be written down before they are forgotten.

Check out what some of my fellow authors do for their writing rituals in this month’s Round Robin Discussion!

Skye Taylor
A.J. Maguire (YOU ARE HERE)
Beverley Bateman
Dr. Bob Rich
Rachael Kosinski
Anne Stenhouse
Connie Vines
Helena Fairfax
Victoria Chatham
Margaret Fieland
Rhobin Courtright


Gutter Space – Chili’s Edition

My characters all met at Chili’s last night, crowding around booths in their respective groups, sometimes mingling with characters from books or series outside of their own, and generally causing mayhem to my REM cycle.

At this point in my career I have 6 books out for sale, 6 books on my desktop in various states of incomplete, and several trunk novels that will never see the light of day. That made for a terribly large Chili’s reunion in my head and, since it amused me and I don’t mind sharing my crazy from time to time, I’ve opted to detail (and elaborate) on the dream.

First off, I don’t know why Chili’s was chosen. I rarely go there. Sedition-WEB

Trenna and Nelek (Sedition series) were at the bar, eyeing me with varying degrees of contempt since their third book is still being edited. I avoided them as much as possible since I’m fairly certain Trenna would have kicked my butt if I’d come close enough.

Also at the bar stood Rachel, Jared, Cal and a gruesome witiko (Residual ajmaguire-ResidualHaunting-ARTONLYHaunting), which was awkward in its own right since the witiko is a nasty beast of a creature that should not have been allowed in the building. They seemed to be avoiding me since I’m pretty sure they’re all a little scared of how that story is going to end.

I sat at a booth with Megan, Sam, and Gunter (Persona) since that’s the book I’m currently focused on at present. I won’t tell you how they were treating me since it might be a dead giveaway as to the ending of that novel, but the booth across from us was full of Jorry, Seach, and Devon (Tapped series) and they were mostlyAJMaguire-PersonaCover-1280h laughing amongst themselves.

I think that’s because I have them written into my writing schedule to begin work on Dead Weight in January.

Behind Jorry and Seach sat Alex Huntley (The Abolitionist) in all her Civil War Era glory. She had several people surrounding her but I couldn’t make them all out, which I attribute to the fact that I haven’t begun working on her story yet and don’t quite know who they are.

Deviation-510On the peripheries of the restaurant were tables full of characters from my completed novels and stories; Deviation, Witch-Born Series, Medusa and the like. Most of them looked satisfied and amused with all the tension going on in the center of the room.

There was one big table full of dead characters, which was sad and I thought about going over to visit with them but … I mean, if Trenna would have kicked my butt just for not being done with her third book yet, imagine what those guys would have done to me.

And then there were the tables full of vague shapes, almost apparitions, and at first glance I thought they might be more of my casualty count but after a bit I realized that these were the stories my subconscious was still working on, stories I hadn’t even considered yet. Percy Pru and Ashton Bainbridge (Primal) were somewhere in there and I may feel guilty about that because I keep meaning to sit down and write that noire/dragon/mystery.

Weirdly, the confusion of tables and characters actually made sense to me. I can see what’s coming deadmagic-510next on my writing schedule (or what needs to come next) standing at the bar. I imagine once I’ve set Persona aside and started shopping it around, Trenna and Nelek will come to my booth and someone will take their place at the bar.

So … that’s my subconscious organizing my writing schedule in my sleep.

Using Chili’s.

I know I’m crazy, but hey … it works.

Missed Deadlines and Fighting the Muse

I know there are a lot of writers out there that just go with the flow, throwing out however many words a week at sporadic intervals, relying on their Muse to get them through.

Wait, you actually thought you'd be writing today?
Wait, you actually thought you’d be writing today?

I envy these people. I imagine their Muse sitting right beside them, nagging them at all hours of the day to get their work done because there’s sooooo much more to be done.

My Muse …

My Muse is that fat, lazy cat licking herself in the corner. She really couldn’t be arsed to move herself, let alone nag me about anything. If I relied solely on her, I would never get anything done.

So I have to make deadlines. Deadlines motivate me, force me to go to the corner and pick up the lackadaisical Muse and pester her until something resembling a plot starts to show up. This is why first drafts take me so long and why editing has become my favorite thing ever, because editing relies more on style and craft than it does on my capricious Muse.

This is also why a missed deadline drives me to hiding in a make-shift couch fort, gorging myself on chocolate.

Now then, I have missed several deadlines for Persona. At first this was because of the Great Avocado Incident of 2014 wherein I managed to stab myself through the hand.

Yes, I really did that. Yes, I lost feeling in three of my fingers on my left hand and the Doctor’s weren’t sure if I’d ever get it back. It was awful, I tell you; awful.

However, it is now nine months into 2015, I have full functionality with my left hand (hurray!) and I have still managed to miss nearly every deadline I’ve given myself with Persona.


Several reasons …

  1. Because I missed the first deadline.
  3. Because life happens sometimes and there were family issues I needed to attend to.
  5. Because this is the single hardest piece I have ever written.

I think you get the point. While there were other elements that got involved here, the main problem is that I let that first deadline slip away from me. I lost my momentum, my drive, and it took forever to get it back.

So if you’re like me and your Muse is a fat orange cat whose back is constantly turned to you, make deadlines.

And then KEEP those deadlines. Your couch fort and chocolate will only sustain you for so long.