Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Seat-Of-The-Pants Plotting

Sounds kind of like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Actually, it's a pretty good description of the way I've learned to put a manuscript together.

This is how I stumbled onto something that works for me. You will find your own way. It could be very simple--you plot. Or it could be you'll develop your own blend of things that get your from Point A to Point Z in a logical and orderly way.

For what it's worth, here's my input.

I can think an idea to death. One will come into my head with so much promise and excitement and potential. But if I push it too much by planning and plotting, I kill it. I sit around with this dead thing stinking up my office and wonder why I can't pick up a fresh scent.

Other writers can plot like crazy from the very beginning and still love their projects--and it shows in their writing.

When I first started writing seriously, I had a story idea and a few characters brewing around in my head. I planted my behind in the chair, put my hands on the keyboard and began typing away. Thank goodness it wasn't suspense--which requires clear, concise direction. My initial effort didn't have much of any of those qualities. Thanks to some gentle coaching by my critique partners, my writing improved enough to win an award, but the story left me lifeless. Like cookie crumbs in the bottom of a glass of milk. Blick.

Now what?

I took my major characters, tweaked them a bit and threw them into a suspense story that energized me and kept me interested. Phew! What a relief to be excited again.

Now what?

I began with a general idea and coaxed it along. The slightest massaging without heavy-duty plotting. I knew a couple of plot points and a twist or two. Fun. But that's all I knew. What I ended up with, for my first draft, was not much more than a fat outline--mostly dialogue and scene titles. I had created an outline without knowing it. That works for me.

Now what?

I needed clarification. Tight pacing and focus. Some . . . er . . . suspense stuff. Creating a detailed, traditional outline didn't excite me. I figured I had one I could work with--why do two? But I needed to also keep things straight. I'd played a little with 3x5 cards in the past, and they were okay, but not visually stimulating. After all, I'm a product of television and movies. Tactile is good, visual would be better. I heard about using colored sticky notes to help the plotting process. My first attempt was a mess:

It was pretty, but a mess nonetheless. I felt productive and creative while I was putting the little pieces of colored paper up, but in the end I couldn't keep them straight. Or move them around very easily.

Susan Lohrer shared the idea with me to have a little more color-coded consistency in my approach. The top photo shows my timeline in blue, different scene POV's in their own character-colors, with the plot points for each scene listed on purple. You can see a couple of little "adds" (and now there are more of those), that represent things I need to make sure and incorporate because of changes I've made elsewhere.

By jove, I think I've found something I can work with.

It's all better with friends.


  1. How cool that you found a system that works for you, Peg.

    I use tiny stickies and keep them in a file folder because I have a tiny window in my office. But I love your stained-glass effect. ☺

  2. How timely! I'm the most seat of the pants person on earth. Paper makes me crazy, and I don't have the window space. I hear the "sticky" method can be done in Excel.

    Now, do you go back through your ms and read it and make all the notes?

    I've been very vague on the passage of time b/c I'm so lost in my timeline. I am feeling like what I had was a fat outline.

    I'm glad I found your blog. Gonna RSS it.

    Oh, and I live in SW Denver, Wadsworth and Hampden. Do you know about HIS Writers? The Denver chapter of ACFW? If not, let me know and I can get info to you.

  3. Darcie, I do go back and read and make notes. Especially with a "fat outline" and the unfortunate gaps in my writing schedule.

    I'm reading a writing book by an author I enjoy. Walter Mosley writes in THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL, about the next draft: "Now read your book from first page to last. . . . It is a time of discovery. You think you know what you've written, but you find--all through the text--phrasings, words, metaphors, notions, and even evolving themes that lead you to wonder about developing these ideas further." Mosley calls these "treasures" so delight in them, embrace them, and plunge ahead. Get dirty. Make notes and don't ever be afraid to change something if it makes the story better.

    As for your timeline, there are a number of calendar sites that may help. Whether you're writing an epic or a story that takes place over a couple of days, it helps to keep thing straight if you can visually track the time.

    Thanks about the heads up on HIS. I don't make the trek up north very often. There's another group, Words For The Journey, that meets in Parker and the B&N at Park Meadows. A little closer and not too many evenings.