Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Plot Thickens...If Not, You Need a Plan

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Aren't you tired of people asking you that? And yet we keep talking about it, because--face it--writing is hard work and sometimes painful and often confusing. Like the magic diet pill that will painlessly melt away pounds, we all want the magic novel-writing pill that will spill golden unicorns and bunny ears from our keyboards to the page.

Ain't gonna happen.

I'm a plot person, no secret there. I envy pantsers in some ways, because writing thrives on imagination and spontaneity and what's more spontaneous than sitting down and letting the words flow? I wrote my first two novels pantser style, because I hadn't figured out how to do it otherwise. They needed a lot of revisions. I mean a LOT of revisions. 

Then came book three. It was an ambitious project. I wanted to write a romance, which I hadn't done before; I wanted to write in multiple shifting POVs (seven, to be exact), also which I hadn't done before; and I wanted to craft a story that stepped outside the usual paranormal romance tropes to incorporate a strong external, post-apocalyptic-style plot. 

What a freaking mess. It took two months to write and more than a year to tear it apart and put it back together. 

In the process of tearing that novel down into its smallest components, I stumbled across a plotting method that worked for me, and that I used on the next three books, going on four. It might not work for you, because your mind might process differently. Then again, it might. I call it a "relationship arc" style of plotting, and, yeah, this is a cheap shill for the "Patchworking the Perfect Plot" online class I'll be offering through Southern Magic in June. 

But the first question to ask yourself is not whether this plotting system might work for you, but whether you need a plotting system at all. Is what you're doing working? Then don't sweat it. Why mess with a good thing?

If you're a pantser who never suffers from writer's block, you might not need it. If you never wander blindly through what author Jim Butcher calls the "great swampy middle" of a story, you're probably okay. If you've never gotten three-quarters of the way through your novel and realized you don't have a freaking clue what's motivating your heroine (because you've lavished all your attention on the hero), you're doing fine.

Me? I did all those things in that third novel. 

Here's what finding a plotting system that works for you can do (and it doesn't have to be mine--there are a lot of good ones out there).

--Help you write faster. This is a big one for me. If you're writing to contract, or if you've been insane enough to agree to write a serial novel, for example, it's a necessity. I'm on pace for three-to-four novels per year with a full-time day job. I couldn't pants it. 

--Keep your story on track. I had major chunks of those first three books that had to come out because I got so carried away with my own cleverness and ability to amuse myself that I kinda lost track of the story and went wandering off in three directions. (This is that "great swampy middle" syndrome.)

--Keep your word count climbing. It's easy to massage one chapter for a month, especially if it avoids writing the next one. A plotting system will tell you what needs to come next--not in such detail that it stifles creativity, but at least it moves you in the right direction.

--Spot your plot weaknesses. Too many subplots, or not enough? Cardboard secondary characters? Ill-defined motivations? Too many characters? 

What's your system? Let's talk shop. I'll choose one commenter at the end of the week for a spot in the Patchworking a Perfect Plot class or, if you prefer, a copy of that troublesome third novel. Ironically, it was eventually titled Redemption


miki said...

i can see why it can be needed ^^;; i've a tendency to let my imagination run wild so if i were to wrote more than fanfics i think i would need a system or perhaps i already had mine with the numerous post it i had with things to include, modify etc ^^

in any case what i can say is that teh system seem to be working quite well for you know because each work become better than teh last^^

Cari Hislop said...

It took me three or four books to realize I'm a full blown pantser. As soon as I consciously assume a story will unfold a certain way the story convulses in rage and I get slapped by characters who refuse to share the plot-wheel. My characters pick me up in a limo. They tell me it's because I'm important, but really they're just making sure I stay in the backseat. I can out for the pretty unicorn, but they might run over it anyway. Characters!

One of my pet hates is pointless subplots. You know they're pointless when you can skip them and it doesn't damage the story. I recently skipped half a romance and I didn't care that I might have missed something because the subplot was about a character who was so boring and pointlessly perverted (the reader was expected to spend large amounts of time in his head) reading it made me feel slimed. The author had great word flow, a brilliant premise, decent dialogue and several captivating characters, but they were swamped by the subplot about a boring pervert. It's like the subplot and the main plot were at war.

My main plots tend to be simple solid foundations that support complex character development. I usually end up having one or more minor characters weaving a subplot, but the subplots are like mirrors reflecting and illuminating the main characters.

There are of course some readers and writers whose first love is plot and that's why they read, but I suspect even they want the plot to flow and make sense (presumably).

I'd love to win your book. :)

cari at the hislops dot co dot uk

bn100 said...

Sounds like it would be helpful for authors/writers

bn100candg at hotmail dot com

June M. said...

I think that if I had the talent to write (which unfortunately I do not), I think I would probably have to at least plot the story/series major points.
manning_J2004 at yahoo dot com

Anise Rae said...

I love dreaming up new stories, but I wish I could write while I did it. In other words, I wish I was a pantser too! My current plotting method involves staring off into space while trying to come up with a GMC for the heroine, hero, and villain. Once that's done, I break out the index cards. I weave the 3 key characters' stories into each other as I break down the story into scenes. I really wish I could skip using the cards. There's something about using index cards that feels so cheesy to me. But it's key to my story brain for some reason. I think it's because it's as close as I can come to touching the story and getting a feel for it. It's like adding another sense into the process. And I guess I need that. After that, I put the cards away for good and write the story.

Toni Lesatz said...

Well, I've started writing several books, but have never finished -- maybe because I'm a pantser, not a plotter. I would like to be a plotter.

lindalou said...

I'm not a writer but when I was in school and needed to write a paper, I always wrote an outline 1st. If I didn't, my paper would be all over the place. It must have worked, as I always got As on my papers. :-)))

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Miki...Thanks! Yes, a system definitely helps me keep things straight.

@Cari--LOL on your hijacking characters. Mine do that too. I'm bad to have secondary characters (hear that, Mirren Kincaid and Jean Lafitte?) who threaten to take over the books.

@bn100...Every writer eventually figures out what works for them, but sometimes it can take a while!

@June...I never thought I'd be a plotter; in school, I was one of those people who NEVER did outlines (even when they were assigned-LOL).

@Anise...I know other writers who use an index card system. I've tried it and my brain doesn't seem to work that way. I can't tell you how many index cards and post-its I've thrown away!

@Toni...Maybe so. I'm definitely a plotter, but I also have to leave enough wiggle room to let my characters do something spontaneous that I was NOT expecting. The last time that happened, it involved a branding iron. You know what I mean.

@lindalou...Sounds like you'd be a plotter, then. Novels are like reeeeeeallly long term papers:-)

Liz S. said...

Your class sounds great. If I ever were to have an idea for a story, I would definitely have to be a plotter. My doctor training would never allow the concept of being a pantser!

Louisa Cornell said...

I've written three novels as a pantser for the most part. That doesn't mean I didn't plot at all. There were always times I had to sit down and plan out sections of the book - scenes on index cards, etc. I have been taking classes on plotting methods because I feel like plotting an entire book from the beginning will help to up my daily word count exponentially. Looking forward to taking your class!

Lisa Richards/alterlisa said...

If I was a writer I'd definitely have to plot the story otherwise I'd end up down the endless rabbit hole

Suzanne Johnson said...

Thanks, Louisa--the class will be fun (and hard work)! I think most people who consider themselves pantsers DO have an idea where they want their story to go, at least a few chapters ahead if not all the way to the end. It's just not made as specific as doing an outline or using a plotting system. The trick with plotting, for me, is not to make it SO detailed that you stifle the ability to let your characters act spontaneously.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Liz....Oh yes, if you have medical training I can see how you'd be totally uncomfortable as a "seat of the pants" writer. I sure wouldn't want a "seat of the pants' doctor! LOL.

Suzanne Johnson said...

@Lisa...Ha! Yes, I ended up in a few of those rabbit holes with my first three books, pre-plotting. Although I still hate that I had to cut Napoleon Bonaparte's appearance in Royal Street just because it didn't advance the plot... :-)

Lexi said...

I'm a plotser: have a loose idea what the story is about, and go from there. But, like Louisa, I plot as I go, and it's always roiling around in the back of my head. I'm sure plotting would increase my word count!

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