Plot Part 6 – Endings

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We’ve talked about the inciting incident, and the climax in our plotting process. Now it’s time to consider the ending.

Endings can be tricky. Endings should be gratifying and fulfilling for your reader. After all, the reader has invested their time into reading your ENTIRE book and unhappy readers are not good for writers. Make your readers happy. Think about your ending.

Endings also should:

  • Make sense when considered with the beginning chapter and the climax chapter.
  • Evoke emotions for the reader
  • Bring the main character to the expected destination according to their goals and motivations set forth at the beginning
  • Highlight the character arc (how the character changed over the course of the book)
  • Resolve the conflict that your character has been dealing with
  • Wrap up all the loose ends

Don’t be surprised if after you write the ending, you find that you need to go back and revise the beginning, and/or the climax. Each of these parts (beginning, climax, ending) should work together cohesively. If you work these out before you do any other writing, you help to ensure that your book makes sense according to the genre of the book.

It might help to read your beginning, climax, and ending one after the other and ask yourself some questions:

  • Do these all work well together?
  • Do they feel cohesive?
  • Does it seem like something is missing or out of place?
  • Does the ending resolve what was started at the beginning?
  • What could I add to ensure that the reader has an emotional response when they read the ending?

Once you know your beginning, climax, and ending, it will help you write the remainder of the book (more on that next time) because you will know exactly where your story is going and you won’t waste any time writing chapters and tangents trying to figure out how to end your book.

Another thing to remember about endings is that nothing follows the end. Even if you are writing a series, each book should have its own beginning, middle, and ending. There may be an overarching plot element that is carried through multiple books, but THIS book, this one book that you are plotting right now, needs to stand on its own as a complete story.

Should You Use a Pen Name?

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I digress this week from the regularly scheduled post on plot and structure. I was asked about using a pen name, or not using a pen name. So I reached out to the fabulous and most spectacular Carol Berg to talk about her experience. If you are considering using a pen name vs your real name, consider this information. If you are an author published under both a pen name and your real name, or multiple pen names, please reach out to me. I’d love to interview you about your experience.

Carol Berg Interview

Thanks for taking the time to let me interview you about your pen name/real name situation. Since you may be new to some of our readers, why don’t you go ahead and tell us about you, the fabulous and wonderful Carol Berg!

I am a former software engineer and longtime reader who was hooked into writing as a hobby. I then discovered that it was the career passion I had always been looking for. Though I enjoy reading every genre of fiction, writing fantasy is my first love. As Ursula Leguin once said, “Fantasy is the great canvas upon which every human story can be told.” Since my first novel was published in 2000, I have also discovered a love for teaching writing at writers conferences, speaking on panels and meeting readers at fantasy/science-fiction conventions, and spending multiple week-sized chunks of time per year with other writers on mountain writing retreats. My books have won a number of awards, including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and multiple Colorado Book Awards. I live in Colorado with my Exceptional Spouse and have three sons who are now putting together exceptional lives for themselves.

What made you start writing fiction and how long have you been at it?

I started writing fiction on the prompt of a friend from the software engineering lab where I worked. We shared a lot of books and talked about them over lunch. One day she confessed to me that she had always wanted to be a writer and coerced me into exchanging email letters “in character”. It was So Much Fun. After a year, we had each written thirty-two long letters (including dialogue and dramatization, of course) and had a complete story. The writing was pretty awful, but I was entirely hooked.

Over the next eight years, while working full time and raising three kids, I wrote seven manuscripts—only for myself. I couldn’t imagine anyone else would ever want to read them. Every once in a while, I would read an article about writing and go back and revise all my stories, using what I learned, but I didn’t know anything about writers conferences, conventions, or the publishing business, so I never submitted anything to anyone – for which I am very grateful! It was during those years that I learned how to write.

How long did it take you to get traditionally published (I am assuming you haven’t done any self-pub at this point but—at least none that I have seen–if so please address that)?

That eighth manuscript was a new story, and I immediately felt a difference in what I was writing–like I “got it.” My friend read the few chapters I’d written and agreed. We found out about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and signed up; that was in April 1998. One year later, that manuscript (Song of the Beast) won the Pikes Peak contest. At that same conference, I read the opening of yet another a new story for an editor from Penguin. It was called Transformation. She requested a full. I spoke to an agent there who read Song of the Beast and took me on while I finished Transformation. Five days after I sent the finished manuscript to my agent, that editor bought both of those books and also the unwritten sequel to Transformation.  So one could say it took me only five days after submitting the novel.  Or one year and three months from my first foray into the professional world. Or one could say I experienced an eight-year self-directed writing class from my first attempts at writing and then sold three books.

Nope, no self-pub. Transformation was published in 2000, and sixteen more have followed since.  All of my books are traditionally published with Penguin Random House or Tor/Forge, a MacMillan imprint.

How many books have you published under your real name? 

Fifteen. All with Penguin Random House. All epic fantasy in five different series.

Why did you decide to publish under a pen name? (I assume it was your decision, but if it was your publisher’s decision, please address that and also how you felt about it—it seems to me that it would double the time it takes to market but maybe not.)

After my fifteenth book came out in December of 2015, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next. My mom was in her late nineties and in a steep decline. My last release had been rocky due to a dispute between Penguin and Amazon which resulted in the book being unavailable for two of its first three weeks. And I was a bit burnt from delivering fifteen books in sixteen years. I took some time off and wrote some short fiction for several anthologies – a new thing for me. Then I had a smattering of an idea for a new series.

Rather than a large over-arching story broken into several volumes, this would be an episodic series of fantasy “heist” adventures with strong mythic foundation and an ensemble cast of characters. I noodled over it for about a year and wrote a first adventure. It was really short compared to my earlier work. I decided I ought to write a second episode, just to prove I could. In November 2017 my agent got after me and told me to send her the first manuscript. I did. She loved it. Told me to write up a proposal. I did. She did a broad submission in January, and Tor (the fantasy/sf imprint of MacMIllan) jumped immediately. Before I knew it I had a three book deal.

On my first call with my new editor – after the contract was signed – she asked if I would consider an open pseudonym. She felt like my series would get more attention as  a Tor debut, than as an epic fantasy author moving to a new publisher with a new kind of series. It would open up some marketing programs and expand my audience, while still allowing my current readers to know that it was new work from me. I knew other writers who had done this kind of thing. I talked to my agent, and she agreed that it could be a good thing. Actually, the publishing cycle was not longer. The book came out  one year after I delivered the finished manuscript. Sixteen months from after signing the contract to publication.

How many books have you published under your pen name?

Two. An Illusion of Thieves came out in May 2019. A Conjuring of Assassins comes out in February 2020. The third is in development.

How did you come up with your pen name?

I asked my agent for advice and she said she had only three rules. Make it:

  1. Easily pronounceable
  2. Short enough to fit easily on the book spine
  3. Reasonably high in the alphabet

That made sense to me. So I looked at family names first. My mother’s family name is Glass – and I thought that had a great fantasy vibe, plus it met all of the agent’s criteria. Then I went looking for a first name that would sound good with it. I considered initials or an androgynous name as there is certainly a history of gender issues in the speculative fiction realm, ie. women writers not being taken seriously. But I decided not to bow to that. And the situation is improving.  Thus, Cate Glass.

How does having a pen name affect any marketing you do?

Truly Tor has been great about providing marketing outlets. My main difficulty is deciding whether to appear at a conference as one or the other. I haven’t gotten past the notion that more people will show up at a panel or presentation for Carol Berg than for Cate Glass.  I don’t know when my mind might switch gears.

Do you market the same with both names? How does that work?

For the most part. So far I tend to keep the Cate Glass social media closely related to the books. Carol is both personal and professional.

What are the pros of using a pen name?

The jury is still out. I hope it will result a wider audience, both in capturing readers who assume that all of Carol Berg’s writing is in a certain style, and drawing in those who more commonly read shorter, more episodic subgenres of fantasy fiction. I know that it has been very successful for writers like Robin Hobb. As Megan Lindholm, she wrote well-reviewed and beloved fantasy.

But after taking on the pen name, the work became fabulously successful. But of course, it all depends on the books themselves—not the name. No one can tell me, as yet, why one book from an author comes and goes, while another from the same author finds the wider audience and commercial as well as artistic success.

Cons?

Managing two social media platforms. I’m not great or consistent at one platform, two feels burdensome. Deciding what Cate should say or Carol say. How to differentiate, or even whether to differentiate. Do I maintain two newsletter lists? Send different newsletters—I’ve heard that I should..  A closed pseudonym, where there is no public knowledge that Cate and Carol are the same, would drive me bonkers. I would not have agreed to it.

If you could do it all over again would you do it differently? How and why?

I would have streamlined more from the beginning. I started out by creating non-integrated web pages, non-integrated social media platforms. I only do Facebook and Twitter to begin with, but even that became burdensome when I am deep in the middle of a book – which is like all the time.  Gradually I have integrated the websites, each acknowledging the other identity. I want readers to be able to find Cate and learn what they want to know, and then discover the path to Carol and her books. And visa versa, of course. I spent way too much time at first trying to do two Twitter streams. Oof. I would consult with more pseudo’d authors to see what they found effective. In my case, the books sold so quickly and I was immersed in the revision/release/writing the next so immediately, that I never got time to say, “OK, this is how I’m going to manage it.” That is, I would make a better plan.

Thanks Carol!

Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University, in part so she wouldn’t have to write papers. But while earning her mathematics degree, she took every English course that listed novels on the syllabus, just so she would have time to keep reading.

Somewhere in the midst of teaching math, raising three sons, earning a second degree in computer science at the University of Colorado, and a software engineering career, another friend teased her into exchanging letters written “in character.” Once Carol started writing fiction, she couldn’t stop.

Carol’s fifteen epic fantasy novels have earned national and international acclaim, including the Geffen Award, the Prism Award, multiple Colorado Book Awards, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She has been twice voted the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year.

Carol’s newest work, written as her alter ego Cate Glass, is a fantasy adventure series called Chimera about a rag-tag quartet of sorcerers who take on missions of deception and intrigue in a world where magic earns the death penalty. The first book, An Illusion of Thieves, will be released in May 2019 by Tor Books. Carol lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her Exceptional Spouse.

Writing as Cate Glass, author of An Illusion of Thieves, first novel of the Chimera,

from Tor Books, and A Conjuring of Assassins, forthcoming Feb 2020.  <www.categlass.com>

Award-winning author of the Books of the Rai-kirah, The Lighthouse Duet,

The Sanctuary Duet, the Novels of the Collegia Magica… <www.carolberg.com>

 

Happy Holidays

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I am taking the month of December off from posting and most social media. Let’s just call it a holiday gift to myself. See you in the new year! Keep working on plot and structure.

S

 

Plot Part 5 – The Climax

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Last time, we talked about the inciting incident— a great place to start thinking about the plot of your novel. This time I’d like you to think about the climax, which is the next plot point I think you should consider.

The climax is that point in the narrative where the conflict or tension reaches the penultimate moment. It is sometimes called the crisis point. It is the decisive moment or turning point in the storyline where all the conflict reaches its peak.

Everything that has come before in the story explodes at this plot point. The climax will help readers understand the significance of all the previously rising action and prepares them for the resolution of the conflict.

If you have already figured out your inciting incident, think about your climax next. What happens in this scene or chapter that brings your character to this climactic life or death moment? In a quest story or fantasy this may be the battle scene where your character must fight to win the prize. In a romance this is the moment where your lovers get together. In a thriller this is where the world is saved. This is the scene or chapter where the whole kit and kaboodle comes together. In many stories this is typically where the story’s hero finally confronts (or does battle with) the villain.

Now, think about how your inciting incident relates to your climax. Does it make sense that your inciting incident which forced your character into the story and the other (intended) action of the story culminates into this climax moment? If not, should you revise your inciting incident? Or should you revise what happens in your climax moment? Keep in mind that plotting your story will allow you to revise both big picture and little picture ideas before they are written. You can and should revise and edit as you go. Just because you write a few paragraphs about your climax doesn’t mean that you can’t change them. You are the creator.

Keep in mind that the climax should coincide with the big story question hinted at in the inciting incident, and so this is why it is important that you consider the relationship between the inciting incident and the climax. The climax will bring all the story’s action to an end with a bang and it shifts the story problem to the story resolution and releases the reader’s pent-up suspense.

Think of Star Wars. The climax is where Luke finally uses The Force to make the shot that blows up the Death Star. (I recommend that you watch the movie Star Wars and look for the inciting incident, and the climax, and all the rising action points because the movie has a clear, easy to understand structure which makes it easy to use and reference when discussing plot and structure in fiction—I will probably reference it often).

As you begin to think of your plot as a series of relationship steps, it may help you ensure that your novel is successful (i.e. readers will like it because it will make sense as a whole). You can also ensure that your plot meets reader expectations for the genre. Plotting your novel before you write it also help you see plot holes and make fixes before you spend days, months, years, writing your story. Work smarter not harder.

Plot Part 4: The Inciting Incident

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When you think of your story’s plot, it is helpful to think of a story’s parts to help you see the big picture and help you to begin to work out your story’s plot. All stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. They also have inciting incidents, midpoints, and climaxes.

Regardless of the genre of book you are writing, your story must have an inciting incident

The inciting incident is that thing that happens which kicks off your story. It is the single event that sets your story into motion. The inciting incident launches the main action of the story. It is something that happens that is out of the ordinary for your main character. Something happens that upsets the balance of the world. The inciting incident can be positive or negative, but it must change your character’s life either for better for worse. The inciting incident happens to the protagonist or it can be caused by the protagonist. The key in all the above repetitive description is that something must happen. If nothing happens at the beginning of your story, then you don’t have an inciting incident and you should re-evaluate your story plot and structure.

What the inciting incident does:

  • It disturbs your main character out of their day-to-day life and propels them forward
  • It kicks off the story problem (that thing that your main character must now solve-remember that stories are about characters solving their problems)
  • It awakens secret/hidden/unknown desires in the character
  • It forces your character to react
  • It starts the story conflict
  • It is urgent on some level and creates urgency in your character
  • It sets the tone for your novel
  • It hints at the story’s ending

Example of inciting incidents:

  • Star Wars: Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s ship
  • The Sixth Sense: Vincent shoots Malcolm
  • Saving Private Ryan: The general learns of the death of the three Ryan brothers
  • Monsters Inc.: Randall leaves the closet door open on the scream factory floor.
  • Jaws: Naked swimmer is eaten by a shark
  • Tangled: A strange man shows up and Rapunzel doesn’t know how to handle his arrival
  • The Martian: Mark Watney goes missing during a storm on Mars and is believed to be dead
  • Shane: Starrett insist that Shane leave

What the inciting incident is not:

  • It’s not necessarily the hook.
  • It’s not necessarily the first thing to happen in the novel (thought it should be close to the beginning of the story and it definitely should be in the first quarter of the story)
  • It’s not the next episode of someone’s regular day-to-day life
  • It is not backstory
  • It is not something from your character’s past

Some Examples of Inciting incidents by Genre:

  • In a murder mystery, there’s a murder
  • In a romance, two single people meet
  • In fantasy, the main character discovers they are the chosen one
  • In science fiction, someone travels back in time to change the world
  • In a thriller, the character learns of a plot to end the world and must race to save it

These are just examples from genre tropes. If you are unclear what your inciting incident might be, take some time to think about the genre of book you are writing, and research plot and structure for that genre. Read books in that genre. This will help you to be become familiar with what readers expect, and then do your best to meet that expectation.

To write your inciting incident, think about your story in parts because they are related

  1. Inciting incident
  2. Climax
  3. Resolution/Ending

If you know what your climax will be (we will cover the other plot parts in subsequent posts) and how you expect your story to end, it may help you to figure out what your inciting incident should be.

Plot Part 3

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As mentioned last time, plot is the significant events and incidents that happen in a story and how these events relate to each other.

But how do you create a plot?

Can’t you just string some events together for your character to muddle through? You could do that, but that story structure generally results in episodic writing. An episodic story is one where there may not be a story question driving the plot (Story question example: Will banished Thor regain his family status and get his hammer back to save Asgard? The story question implies the beginning, middle, and ending of a story). Episodic stories are like soap operas. They don’t have a particular beginning, middle, or ending. They just roll on and on in little dramatic episodes which usually express some theme (Luke Spencer has loved Laura Webber on General Hospital since 1978 or thereabouts…).

So how do you create a plot?

Let me ask you—what kind of book are you writing? I ask this because plot requirements vary by genre.  Think about it this way. Crime fiction needs a crime. Romance needs a meeting between love interests. And the plots of those two genres focus on different things. If you are writing crime fiction and there is no crime, the reader won’t be particularly happy. If you are writing a romance, and the focus is on the WWII rather than the love relationship, the reader won’t be particularly happy.

Now, you can totally have a WWII story that has romantic elements and includes crime fiction elements, but how you work out the plot will dictate the focus of the story and the kind of book it will be. It’s the genre that will dictate the kind of reader you will reach (I am assuming that you are writing a story for someone else to buy and read).

There are different processes and techniques you can use to help you work out your story’s plot and structure. Moving forward, we will focus on those processes and techniques.

Meanwhile, give some deep thought to the kind of book that you want to write. If you want to write a genre story, realize that each genre has specific plot requirements which readers expect. Realize that even non-fiction books take their readers through information in a particular way in order to meet reader expectations.

Know the kind of book you are writing before you write it. That may seem obvious. Unfortunately. for too many beginning writers, it’s not.

Plot Part 3

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As mentioned last time, plot is the significant events and incidents that happen in a story and how these events relate to each other.

But how do you create a plot?

Can’t you just string some events together for your character to muddle through? You could do that, but that story structure generally results in episodic writing. An episodic story is one where there may not be a story question driving the plot (Story question example: Will banished Thor regain his family status and get his hammer back to save Asgard? The story question implies the beginning, middle, and ending of a story). Episodic stories are like soap operas. They don’t have a particular beginning, middle, or ending. They just roll on and on in little dramatic episodes which usually express some theme (Luke Spencer has loved Laura Webber on General Hospital since 1978 or thereabouts…).

So how do you create a plot?

Let me ask you—what kind of book are you writing? I ask this because plot requirements vary by genre.  Think about it this way. Crime fiction needs a crime. Romance needs a meeting between love interests. And the plots of those two genres focus on different things. If you are writing crime fiction and there is no crime, the reader won’t be particularly happy. If you are writing a romance, and the focus is on the WWII rather than the love relationship, the reader won’t be particularly happy.

Now, you can totally have a WWII story that has romantic elements and includes crime fiction elements, but how you work out the plot will dictate the focus of the story and the kind of book it will be. It’s the genre that will dictate the kind of reader you will reach (I am assuming that you are writing a story for someone else to buy and read).

There are different processes and techniques you can use to help you work out your story’s plot and structure. Moving forward, we will focus on those processes and techniques.

Meanwhile, give some deep thought to the kind of book that you want to write. If you want to write a genre story, realize that each genre has specific plot requirements which readers expect. Realize that even non-fiction books take their readers through information in a particular way in order to meet reader expectations.

Know the kind of book you are writing before you write it. That may seem obvious. Unfortunately. for too many beginning writers, it’s not.

Plot Part 2

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What is plot?

Plot is what happens in your story. Plot is the way you organize the events that occur in the novel. Plot is your story line. Plot is the direction of a story’s main events and incidents and how they relate to one another.

Let’s start with thinking about plot as a simple sentence: The world’s heroes must learn to work as a team in order to battle their enemies (Super-basic plot of “The Avengers” movie).

Every action/scene/chapter that shows the heroes having to learn to work together and/or battling the enemy is part of the plot.

Example: Loki steals the Tesseract. Natasha retrieves Bruce Banner. Nick Fury recruits Captain America.

All these events move the story forward and are necessary to get to “The End.”

Let’s think about what’s not plot.

Example: Loki eats a sandwich and takes a shower and has a nap and then goes to the store to buy ice cream.

If Loki does things which don’t impact the outcome of the story in any way, and these actions don’t provide any information about character or anything else, and they don’t move the story forward, then they are not part of the plot.

(Of course, it is totally possible that Loki eating a sandwich could be part of the plot, provided the sandwich was perhaps the only thing that would bring Hulk to Nick Fury…but that’s a whole different show.)

So, what do you call that scene or chapter where Loki eats a sandwich which has no impact anywhere else in the story? It’s Schmerfoople (made up word—Thanks, Angie Hodapp). It’s sloppy scene craft, first-draft writing, loose writing, zero-tension writing, boring, tangential…

It’s bad.

Delete it.

Or better yet, stop yourself from writing it before you spend days, weeks, years working on it.

If “The Avengers” actually had 15 minutes of Loki eating a sandwich, movie watchers would walk out of the theater because it is bad story telling. If you write 15 pages of your character eating a sandwich, readers will throw your book in the trash because It is bad story telling.

Make sense?

Plot is the things that characters do, or feel, or say, or think, that make a difference later in the story.  If you are going to spend your time writing, make sure what you are writing has a plot so that it is not a pointless waist of time. Having a plot makes you a better storyteller. Be a better storyteller.

Plot

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I was recently at Colorado Gold, which is a conference geared toward writers wanting to improve their craft and writing skill. It was a great conference attended by 300+ writers. While there, I chatted with people and I noticed that for some of them, the concept of plot seemed to be an afterthought.

These were generally newer writers.

The conversations when something like this:

“What have you written?” I ask.

“I am writing a story about {fill in the blank}.”

“How’s that going?”

“Well, {long pause} I was really excited when I started writing it after I got the idea. It sounded like such a great story, but it’s kind of bogged down, and I’m stuck.”

I then began asking questions about the story, and the characters, and the author’s intention. Many questions usually resulted with shrugs. I don’t ask these questions to be mean. I ask them to help the writers figure out what the story problems are so they can be fixed.

Usually, I find these issues are plot problems. See…most newer writers begin writing with an idea. They write with gusts of great enthusiasm. A fair number of them will begin writing without the general story line worked out. There is nothing wrong with writing this way. It can be a great exercise in discovery—which all writing is, even when the story is fully plotted—but it can lead to frustration when the writer discovers that what they thought would be a great story, isn’t actually great. Especially when they don’t know what should happen next. Or how to get the character from point A to point B. Or if they don’t know why their character is going off on random tangents.

Consequently, I am starting a series of posts on the various aspects of plot. Over the next several weeks, I hope you will find something that helps you—if you are one of these writers in need of a plot boot camp—figure out why your story has fizzled, or why your story is stuck.

 

 

Writing and the Mid-Year Evaluation

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It’s summer which is a reminder for me to evaluate my writing progress.

While I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of the year, I do make a list of goals. I never achieve them perfectly, but I do move closer to achieving them over time, and I do the work step-by-step to get me where I want to be. Eventually.

This year I have not written nearly as much as I listed on my goal. My word count is abysmal. But I am writing, slowly, progressing toward the end of my newest novel. I may not finish by the end of the year and I am okay with that.  I keep writing. I keep working toward my goal regardless of completion by the self-imposed deadline or not. It’s the journey, right?

I expect some of you made some goals this year too, along the lines of writing, or writing more, or writing every day. Good for you! I hope you’ve had much success on whatever that goal was. And I hope you have confidence that you are making progress as you evaluate your goals mid-year even if you haven’t been perfect, or even great, or even good at doing the work you need to do to get what you want. If you re-visit your goals regularly, that will help you achieve them.

And as you evaluate your writing goals this year, how does reality look compared to the goals you made six months ago? Are you meeting your goals? Exceeding your goals? Have you actually started writing yet? There is no judgement here if  you haven’t started. Just remember that you can start right now. Evaluate your plan, adapt, adjust, and start now. There is no reason to be discouraged.

It’s never too late to begin. It’s all about adapting the plan.

You can do this.