I’m warning you! Don’t plot like I do.
I’ve been working on the plot of a new novel for about six weeks and I’m still stumbling around. I’ll describe the messy process here and hope that you manage to shortcut your own process.
It started last year with an idea and a short story that gave backstory on the longer story. I’ve wanted to write a sf for a while and this idea has been germinating for a long time. Besides the problem of other projects, there’s the question of audience. I had to grapple with taking creative risks.
Take Creative Risks
One creative risk was the type of story I would tell. Would it be a character story or an action/adventure story?
I plotted out something, but my left brain kicked in and compared the plot to the 29 Plot Templates Regardless of which plot structure I looked at, there were so many holes in the story.
I got advice from Optimus Prime. Hey, I take help where I find it and Optimus was obviously handing out advice on plotting.
By now, though, I was getting bogged down. What was the purpose of all this plotting? I had to remind myself that I was telling a story.
The next disappointment was the worry about how slowly the work progressed.
Listen. I know a lot about novel structure, characterization, plotting, setting and many other topics about novels. I teach this stuff. But when I write, I struggle through the writing process. One of my strengths, though, is that I am open to switching strategies. It’s also my weakness, but while I’m in the throes of plotting, I feel like I am jumping from this method, to that paradigm, to yet another novel structure. In reality, I’m just checking out my story from multiple POVs.
A Sixth Grade Aside
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she wrote an essay. The teacher asked my daughter to write an evaluation essay about writing the essay. Write down the process you went through to write this essay, the teacher advised.
And I shook my head in despair.
No, there isn’t just ONE path through the writing process. It’s cyclical, curving back on itself to ask you to repeat this task or that task. Or perhaps describing it as a maze is a better metaphor. I follow false trails until they dead end. I get lost in the middle and can’t fight my way out. I start at the beginning one time and the next time, I start at the end. Somehow, though, the writing gets done. There are strategies, ways of approaching a draft, working habits, and so on. But for any given piece of writing, the process will vary and vary widely.
Messy Writing Process
This time, I’m doing well with trying to go from general to specific.
That got me to an eight-page outline. But the 29 Plot Templates revealed major holes. I realized that I needed to concentrate on sub-plots and figure those out before I returned to the main plot. I focused on the villain as the hero of his own story: why did he want revenge? I re-read articles about writing a revenge story and one comment struck me: “Killing him would be too easy.”
Of course! Revenge isn’t just about hurting or killing the person; it’s about making them suffer as the victim has suffered. I asked myself, “What would make my character hurt/suffer the most?” Of course, that is what I MUST make happen. Voila! A new plot twist grabbed me and I was off and running with the complications from that twist.
10 page outline. But still lots of plot holes.
Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at other subplots and milking them for all the conflict that I can. Will there be a romantic subplot? After an initial attraction, there needs to be deep reasons why they must stay apart. What reason is sitting there in my story already, just waiting for me to exploit it? It’s there. I just need an Aha! Moment to recognize it. I’m jumping all around, reading odd articles, re-reading the 10-page outline and looking for the right way to approach this.
I feel like I am being asked to carve a huge statue with a bobby pin.
I have at least three more subplots to work through and slot into the main plot. I’m sure there will still be plot holes then, but I expect there will be fewer.
Should I copy this process the next time I plot? No!
Each time, the writing process creates it’s own maze and demands a different path to story. I’m just trusting that the process will eventually spit out a viable story. I know that I’ll have to decide something about the audience and tone, and spend a while on characters and their back story. I know that some personal issues are likely to complicate the timing of the writing. I know I’ll make multiple starts before I really get going.
Don’t follow my writing process. It’s messy and ugly. Besides—it wouldn’t work for you. You must find your own way through the maze of words to find the story that only you can tell.