Monday 11 July 2011

To Plot or Not

I often get involved in online discussions (Facebook, Authonomy, UK Kindle Users Forum, wherever) about the merits of plotting a novel. Or not, as the case may be. I read posts where people detail the level at which they plan their writing – in notes, in synopses, on index cards, post-it notes, wallpaper above the desk. They outline their characters: What would Joe eat for breakfast? What sandwich does Sally prefer? If Wizard Beerbelly went to the Auld Tavern, what would he order to drink?

I am so jealous. I would love to be that organised – so in control of what I am doing. Or would I? I once wrote that one of my characters was scared. I had absolutely no idea why he was scared, but I knew it was important. So I wrote it in. Ten chapters or so later, I realised what it was he was scared of, and everything fell into place. I became aware of it when the character did. Lazy plotting or inspired genius? Maybe I won’t answer that one! But the point I am making is that I can’t actually write if I know too far in advance what is going to happen. I might have an idea of a scene coming up, or that somebody will discover something important, but generally the plot is unfolding as the characters live it. If I know what is going to happen, then the magic is gone and it all becomes a chore.

This doesn’t make life easy. I have written myself into more corners than I can remember and so I have lots of pieces of work on the go:
  • Young adult contemporary fantasy – Edge of Dreams – book 1 of a trilogy. No elves, wizards, demons or vampires. It’s finished but requires a light edit. This nearly got accepted by a one of the big guys once upon a time, but got bounced at an acquisitions meeting. It was then e-published by a small press a few years ago, but I now have the rights back and want to put it up on kindle.
  • Another YA fantasy – Flashpoint – book 2 of the trilogy which is nearly completed.
  • An as-yet-untitled follow-on novel to my kindled thriller Hamelin’s Child. About 18,000 words in.
  • Blue Flamingo – another dark thriller with a touch more of the supernatural and a touch less of the sex (so far, anyway). I’ve only written 3 chapters of this, despite some nagging by people who’ve read it, and have no idea of where it is going.
  • An adult fantasy Blood Ties, which I started writing about 20 years ago, under the mentoring of an editor from Orion. Of course, she left the company, I moved up North, real life happened etc etc. It’s 70,000 words done and is pretty damn good, but I just can’t summon up any enthusiasm to finish it!

So what should I do? I have ideas for other projects, snippets of scenes and characters, but I feel compelled to tidy up some of my loose ends before I unravel some more. And yet in the rest of my life I am structured and planned to the point of OCD. I make lists of my lists, I tick things off, I finish everything I start and on deadline. Why can’t I apply this mentality to my writing? I need to be orderly, organised, finish all these outstanding bits and pieces and not leave my poor characters in a limbo lasting decades! But I don't want to lose the sheer excitement of writing-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, of discovering the story with my characters, having them whisper in my ear and tell me things they've just found out. So do I go with my thriller branding or go back to my fantasy roots? Both ways I can gain – either way I will lose something.

All suggestions welcome!


Stuart Land said...

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. Unfortunately, it hard to tell an adult that they don't have basic writing skills down and that they're making every mistake a freshman in high school makes with his first writing assignment.

On your post, I'm with you 100% about letting the characters tell their story. However, strictly going by what you mention in this post, I can see why you're having so much trouble completing your stories. You don't seem to know what your main character's need is.

Without a need, there is no story. The character doesn't have to know right away what the need is, but the author does. When I began writing, I did all those things you mentioned about detailing every last bit of info. Now, after 25 years, it's intuitive. I generally know my basic story through line before starting. Then I let the characters act out their own stories.

In my writing workshops I tell my student that, in general, you need to know that your initial idea is go to Grandmother's house through the woods. There are many paths through the woods. They may be paved or dirt. The woods maybe narrow or wide. You may meet many characters on your way through the woods that alters your story. And grandmother may have moved once you get there! But the point being is that you had a need (go to grandma's) and you had a destination (grandma's).

What makes the writing fun is that everything can and will change as you move along because stories are about characters; their actions and reactions. Every story is based on a character reaction. You can't wait until you're halfway through your book to discover what they are reacting to. The characters can, but the author can't.

Except for writing exercises, I don't think it's a good idea to try to write a novel by just starting with no idea in mind and hope something comes of it. That's how rooms get made with no window and doors.

As an example in the interview I just gave, I started my novel, Shadow House with one short declarative line. From the line, I had to spend the rest of the book proving it. The story changed a lot as I wrote it, but that first line never changed.

I hope this helps in some small way. I might even use this as part of a blog.

Debbie Bennett said...

Thanks, Stuart. I know you're right of course. It's just that my best work is always the unplanned stuff. And I'm just at such a crossroads right now...

Feel free to use what you like in a blog. I don't mind being Stupid Woman I Met Once Online Who Thought She Could Write :-)

Stuart Land said...

Hi Deb,

Just want to clarify that the first paragraph of my comment referred to my blog post and not you.

You are NOT the "Stupid Woman I Met Once Online Who Thought She Could Write." My advice was to show a way to use a little bit of planning in allowing you to write in an unplanned way.

When referring to using this for a blog, I meant just what I was writing to you, not anything about you or what you said. I've seen over the years that many people have this problem. Writing a novel is a huge task and I'm happy to help if I can.

Debbie Bennett said...

Don't worry. I was attempting to be witty... :-) But you can seriously quote from my blog post if you like - it'd be interesting to see what you make of it and I don't mind being the guinea pig! Say what you like about my (complete lack of) organisational skills when it comes to writing. I'm pretty hard to offend.

Actually I did something very similar to you with an opening hard-hitting line which set the tone for the whole book and never changed. Opinions are split probably 75/25 on love it/hate it, but I think it works!