Posts tagged plotting

The thot plickens…

I’m up to my armpits in plotting at the moment.

Some writers adopt the headlight approach to their novels. American author EL Doctorow is credited with saying, ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

I’m sure that’s comforting for some.

I need to know where I am at every stage of my journey. So I take the obsessive military planner approach to my books. That is, I need high-res satellite imaging of every inch of the way and don’t bore me with diverting side trips to that picturesque lake back at the turnoff. My troops are massed and they have a plan to follow. The logistics are in place; the supply line is organised. We march at dawn!

I plot. A lot.

It always starts the same way. With a 240 page A4 spiral-bound notebook, and my lucky mechanical pencil (a LAMY scribble Druckbleistift that I picked up at a stationers in Auckland about ten years ago, if you must know.) I’ve used that pencil for all my books and would be lost without it.

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I always have a firm idea of where the story is going to go before I begin. I crack open the notebook and start, very simply, with the prologue. And I write. In pencil. For about three months. I average about three chapters a week. So over twelve weeks I can complete an 80,000 word novel. At least, the first draft of that novel. Once I’m done, if I have the luxury of time, I put it away for a month or so and let it fester in its own juices. Then I crank up the laptop and start the task of typing it up, embellishing and polishing as I go. At this stage some characters blossom and others wither. Various plot twists are crinked and action scenes are choreographed in minute detail. I can often be found prancing around the house, trying to recreate a chase sequence or a fight scene, just to make sure it’s feasible. It will take about six weeks to complete that second draft. Then the editing kicks in. I’ll go through the manuscript at least a half dozen times, making it perfect, before I submit I to my editor, who will then show me just how far from perfect it actually is. By the time the manuscript is ready to be typeset it will be on its tenth draft. The whole process — from notebook to bookshop — takes about a year.

Then I start again.

I’m up to Chapter 27 of my next book. There’s about six chapters to go. It’s a fairly involved mystery and it has taken a long time to set the dominos in place. I’m just about to push the first one, and it will be action all the way to the finish line.

And I know exactly where that finish line is — I have a satellite image of it seared into my brain.

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Tips on plots

A good plot makes for a satisfying story. Good plots have good beginnings, good middles and good ends. They usually start with a problem (or an event that creates a problem) for the main character(s) to solve and  we follow the plot along as the character(s) try to solve the problem or take the steps necessary to solving it, until they sort everything out at the end.

I don’t plan my stories out in great detail before I get started but I have a good idea of how I want the story to go and what my ending looks like. Just like the reader, I enjoy being surprised by the story as it develops, but knowing where I am heading makes the it easier for me to get the story to work. For me, knowing who the main character is helps me write the story. If I know the kind of person they are it is easier to figure out what they are going to do in certain circumstances. And knowing what ‘kind’ of story I am telling helps as well. If its horror I know they will maybe be facing some fierce scary monsters in the dark, at night. If its suspense then I don’t know what the monster looks like but they make a lot of loud noises, throw a big shadow and make my character sweat and tremble. If its action then I want my character running, jumping, and maybe fighting. If its fantasy then I get to imagine special powers and special creatures and decide whether they are good or evil. Knowing all this makes it easier to write a good middle. So before you start writing you need to know

1) What the ending (solution to the problem) is

2) What kind of person your main character is

3) What kind of story you are going to write

The best endings are the ones where we have all the information/clues to work it out for ourselves but we are still surprised. It doesn’t work so well if your ending relies on new information not already in the story.  And just like our main character(s), our plot needs a personality. Is it gutsy with a sense of humour? Or serious and athletic? Or is it chatty and relaxed? Nervous and worried? This is the story’s voice and if we can have the same voice all the way through, despite the ups and downs of the characters adventures, no matter how dark or dreadful things get, then the reader has something to rely on as they follow the story through to the end. Writers have to be surprising and reliable all at once!

Next time I’ll talk about creating great characters

Happy writing  !

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