Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To Plot or not to Plot?


Ok, so when I wrote my first novel (I say as if I am a seasoned multi-published author whose written thirty-five since then, which I have not) I did not plot it. I was definitively an anti-plotter. I blame my mother for pushing me to outline every paper I ever wrote (yes, Freud was right, it is always the mother’s fault – ok no not really). And then I went to my residency at SHU and someone said to me, “All writers plot, some just call it a first draft” and that got me to thinking. Did it take me two and a half years to write one full manuscript just so I could rewrite the entire thing? So I went in search for some answers. I asked multi-published seasoned authors, and those other unpublished authors like myself, and even some in between and this is what people had to say: (I cannot include all of their answers because it was seven pages worth of information, but I’ll give you the highlights).


Here’s what the plotters had to say:  
1)       Do you plot? and why/why not?
You bet. A blank screen frightens me... I like having a blueprint to follow--not that I'm wedded to every detail. ~Gayle Callen aka Julia Latham
Yes -- Because if I don't I end up going off in the wrong direction. I also  plot because it’s how I get a feel for my characters and storyline. It makes the actual draft writing process easier for me. ~ Jenni Holbrook
Every writer plots, even the pansters. You can't go to contract without a synopsis. So clearly, all writers plot. It's just the methods that differ. I used to always plot by writing a first draft. ~Maggie Shayne
Yes, I plot. In fact, I'm getting obsessed with structure and plotting. My background is short story writing, and I never plan those. I like to surprise myself… I pantsed my last book. It ended up taking me something like a year and a half and I probably wasted 100 - 120k words. I have several chapters -- not to mention requisite research, etc... -- that ended up on the cutting floor because I'd already written them before I realized they didn't fit. ~ John Dixon

2)      How do you plot?
Hmmm...There are so many ways. For me, I brainstorm with my writing buddies to come up with a workable concept, then conflicts for the characters. I write it all down as I go on index cards. Then I use Deb Dixon's Goal Motivation Conflict charts (awesome book, BTW) to come up with great contrasting goals and black moments for my characters. Usually at this point I write short character backgrounds and a 5-10 page synopsis for my editor's approval. Next I write even more index cards for scenes to explain each box of the GMC chart and the external plots for my readers. I even tip a corner with a corresponding marker (blue for his emotional journey, orange for hers, pink for romance, green for main plot, purple for subplot, etc.) so that when I lay all those cards out, I can see where I don't have enough romance, enough emotional growth revelation, etc. I usually end up with a 3-4 inch stack of cards. Then I write a long synopsis that's just for me. It's amazing when I tell the story to myself, how I can find problems, holes in the plot, etc. Then I begin the book. Sometimes the plotting takes just as long as writing the actual book. ~Gayle
This is different every time, but I look at basic narrative structure. I write down my idea and then think in terms of inciting incident, escalating conflict, dark moment, climactic scene and resolution. The one thing that never changes with each book is that I write a very rough draft of the climactic scene because everything that starts in the Inciting Incident is pushing toward that scene. ~ Jenni
Right now I'm doing more plotting on big dry erase boards and using the Sokoloff method,  (Screenwriting Tricks for Authors) and loving it. Saves me frustration if not time. It =feels= faster, but I'm not sure if it is. I used to plot a teeny bit in the synopsis, and the rest in the first draft, which was very similar to what other authors write in their long synopses. ~ Maggie
For this book, I started by looking at the thriller formula, screenplay plot points, and my notes from Tim Esaias's class. I ran through plots that interested me, narrowed it down, brainstormed on the page, worked out a plot and stuff, ran it by my best friend, got his thoughts, and wrote it out, with
thoughts, informally. Once I had a good idea of where I was going, I wrote out some character sketches, brainstormed some more, and started the book... 
I tore off a big sheet of butcher paper, put down fifty-some boxes, and plotted out every scene in the book, concentrating on big things, like conflict and how my characters' live were changed by each scene. This was the BEST. That outline
has been a tremendous help. It's saved wheel-spinning, frustration, lost time, etc...

3)      If you're a plotter, how do you plot if you don't know the ending?
But I do know the ending. Once I come up with the GMC charts, I can figure out the black moment, and then the happily-ever-after. ~ Gayle
I know what "I think" the ending is going to be. Sometimes it changes a bit. Even once the bad guy turned out to be someone else, but I have a real good idea where I writing too. If I didn't, I think I'd go crazy. ~ Jenni
If you're writing genre fiction, you always know the ending. Happily ever after, guy gets girl, bad guys lose, mystery gets solved. It's how you get there that counts. ~ Maggie
That's part of plotting. I work that out. And the good news, of course, is that if a better one occurs to me later, so be it. It can always usurp my original. ~ John

Here’s what the Pantsers had to say:
1)       Do you plot?
I don't plot in any formal way because I have an irrational fear of outlines, character charts and the like, as if they're tests I'm going to fail when I don't know the answers. I usually have an idea of an opening scene when I sit down to write and maybe a few scattered scenes throughout but I often don't know my climax or for sure how it will end, other than a HEA. Once in a while I don't even know my main character's name. ~ Cari Quinn
I'm more of a pantser. If I plot/outline too much, I get extremely bored of my story while writing it, and it takes all the fun out of it. Half the fun for me is seeing what happens when I'm actually at the keyboard typing. ~Chris Von Halle
I despise outlining… it kills the story. If I'm writing a paper, that's fine, I need that rigidity, but when I'm writing a story, I can't start with an outline. Basically, if it's in a traditional outline, it's already written, so why bother writing it again? ~ Sami Holbrook

2)      Do you find you do more revisions than other people?
I suspect yes. Much as I'm not fond of them, I tend to do a lot of revisions,
both my own and from my editors. Usually not huge ones that involve changing
aspects of the plot but more than I'd prefer. ~ Cari
I don't think so. I reread/revise my stuff all the time as I'm going through the process of writing the initial draft of the story, so I'm pretty much aware of everything that happened and that's going on in the story. Makes it more difficult to breed plot inconsistencies (though obviously they still happen sometimes). Plus, that process somewhat polishes up the draft as I go along. ~ Chris
I don't think so. I really don't revise as such much at all. Line edits,
grammar-cleanups, stuff like that, sure. But usually when I'm revising, it's not
rewriting and replanning so much as it's adding stuff-- missing scenes, expanded
scenes, occasionally a whole chapter. See, when I'm writing, I try to get it down the first time as close to how I want it to be later as possible, because I hate rewriting. See the first question-- why write it again? So I aim for damn near perfect, and then I just go through and make sure I got everything. We'll see if this works as I get really hard-core into these first three chapters. ~ Sami

3)      Do you get lost in the first draft when things are coming together?
Sometimes. It's very much a "feel your way" sort of process for me. I know the way I do things isn't the most efficient but I read the other day (I think on either Jenni or Bob's blog actually) that how you run your life will be how you plot. So true for me. I write nothing down and sort of pride myself on not needing to (even though that's wholly inaccurate, because I forget stuff all the time!) ~ Cari
The non-plotter pretty much starts writing rather than making an outline. However, even though I'm personally not a plotter, my first draft winds up being pretty polished since I take so much time to reread/rewrite what I've written as I'm going along, making sure everything holds together well. ~ Chris
Not so much. If it gets confusing, I'll start making charts and lists and extensive notes, but by the time it's coming together, everything is pretty much inevitable. It
writes itself. More often, I'll get bored because it's already all set up and done, and there's not as much to figure out. ~ Sami
So I’ve gotten responses pretty much across the board, and then at this month’s Romance Writers meeting, we had a whole discussion on plot. Kari Lee brought in her plotting board that she’d adapted from Andrea Sokoloff’s method of screen play writing techniques for novelists and I was blown away! I was just getting started on a new book. It had been mulling for a few weeks, I’d written the first three chapters, but I wasn’t really sure where things were going. So after going over plotting at the meeting, I bought a plotting board and I sat down for a few hours late that night/wee hours of the next morning and plotted with the board and the note cards and the check-off boxes. And four hours later I had plotted more than half the book. The following night, I sat down for another three hours or so and… I FINISHED plotting the book. The whole “I can’t write a book I plotted because I’ll be bored” mentality went right out the window. I’ve plotted it and while I haven’t started writing the rest of it yet, I’m excited to sit and write the book instead of bored and as if I’ve already written it. So for me, I’m now officially a plotter and I’m hoping that will help me in my future career. But for some people, they’ve been multi-published and never plotted a book! So for me, it’s plotting, but overall I guess I can say, don’t fix what ain’t broken! J

2 comments:

  1. Wow! This is an awesome post. I think it's hard for a writer to change his/her approach...you're either one way or the other. Notice I said "hard" not "impossible." I think people can learn from their experiences. Probably. :)

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  2. I need to change the way I plot. My pacing is always a tad off. I guess it's good that I recognize that problem, but recognizing it hasn't done me much good in solving it. It's always something, Jo. :)

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