To Plot or Not to Plot? Find YOUR Way!

Posted at Mar 2, 2014 7:22 pm

This has been an interesting week for me in the writing department.  I’ve been working on a proposal for the second book in a series while editors are considering the first book.  I want to have the proposal ready to go as soon as possible, and have been working on it for a while.  The issue: they’ve been the toughest beginning chapters I’ve ever written.  Truthfully, in the past, the first three chapters usually came pretty easy for me…once I’ve plotted a story out.  So what’s my problem this time? 

My main challenge for this book is that is that I’m a planner…to the core.  I make lists; I check things off my list; I add things to my list just to check it off–not as crazy as you’d think since I have it on good authority that endorphins are produced when items are checked off a list :-).

I have a very specific process that I use to plot…it’s based on a workshop that I give with Laura Baker, Discovering Story Magic.  So, I have a plan…a framework if you will…but, what’s new about this book is I’ve learned some interesting things about my method–or at least what’s working.  And what’s not.

Discovering Story Magic (DSM) is all about building books from the characters out.  Even if the original idea comes from a situation or setting or concept…I immediately want to connect that element to a person.  One character begins to come to life to me immediately.  The internal growth and external plot need to connect for me.  That’s the core of my story.  That’s what I love about it.  And after over a decade of teaching DSM, the method works in a variety of forms for a lot of people.

So, when I was asked to revise the first book of this series for an editor, and adjust one of my characters, it had a lot of implications.  Change the character, I change the story.  I know that.  So, I brainstormed, worked on changing the character.  Created a new backstory.  I thought I had a pretty good plan.  And a back-up plan as well.  Then I was asked the following question:  “What’s HIS story, Robin?”

Wow.  It was a moment of epiphany.  I’d always known the first book really was the heroine’s story.  She was damaged, and her past had come back to haunt her.  She’s an amazingly strong character.  My hero needed to support her, to help her through the challenges.  He was a good character.  But not a great character.  The editor’s comment…make the hero worthy of my heroine.  Double Wow!

I had thought I’d created the perfect character to oppose my heroine.  But then that question was asked again…what’s HIS story?  The answer:  he was important to the plot, as was his daughter.  His actions bring the heroine’s past to haunt her.  He helps her uncover the big bad guy!   But what was HIS story.  The book revolved around her!  He was almost secondary, I realized.  I had some thinking to do.

In the end–and with the help of some amazing critique partners and a few long-distance phone calls to a plot goddess extraordinaire, I came up with a story for him.  The two plots dovetailed and really worked well together.  I wish I’d thought of doing it earlier, in fact.  I believe the story is a better story.  The heart of the book is intact, but there is more depth, and the layering of thematic elements is much stronger.  So…a success for book one.  What does it have to with my problem, with book 2, you ask?

The point is, when I started writing book 2 (before receiving the above feedback), I had actually created a similar problem.  The book was the heroine’s story.  The hero got lost once again.  So, I took a look at all the manuscripts I’d written.  All of them contained one character that was very strong–and a supporting second character.  Since the core of almost all of my books is a love story between the hero and heroine, that’s a problem.  I’d spent so much time working my separate internal character conflicts, my relationship conflicts and one half of the plot, that in most of my stories, my poor other character was neglected.  Not always the hero, mind you.  Sometimes the heroine.

And that leads me to my second book problem.  I’d started the story.  I’d done my planning, and my poor hero didn’t have a story.  Again.  So…I had to start over.  But what to do?  I’d already written over a chapter.  Did I toss it?  No.  I should have.  The reason…because I changed the characters, I had changed the story.

What’s a writer to do?  I didn’t want to go back and replot.  I mean, my heroine had stayed the same.  Hadn’t she?  Why not just mess with my current scenes.  Well, I have a lot of writing buddies who are pantsters–you know those amazing people who just sit down and write by the seat-of-their-pants.  I’m in awe of them.  They don’t know what’s going to happen, and then amazing stories flow onto the page.  So, they suggested I just write.  Move forward.  So I did.

Big mistake.  For me anyway.  I should have backed up, started over, and gone through my process.  I tried to ‘just write’.  I ‘just wrote’ about 55 pages.  But the story didn’t come together.  It was flat…a romantic suspense, without suspense.  After much angsting and rewriting, and delivering at least four versions of chapter one to my long-suffering critique group, and complaining to more people than I care to admit that my book was a disaster, I finally came up with a new beginning to chapter two.  A new scene…that introduced not only an altered hero, but also an altered heroine.  The core idea was there, but in this case, by changing the hero’s character, and adding more plot, my heroine changed as well.

My 55 pages weren’t for nought.  I did use a lot of those scenes (or parts of them).  But the rewriting has been painful.  I’m plucking things from here and there, as if I’m putting a jigsaw puzzle together.  It’s working much better now.

So, what’s this blog about?  Well, it’s about finding your own way.  We all have strengths and weaknesses as writers.  Sometimes we don’t know our own strengths.  If you don’t know yours, why not ask a critique partner or someone who has read your manuscripts.  I bet you know your weaknesses, though. We always tend to focus on those the most.  Unfortuntely.

Your goal in your writing should be to wield your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses…and perhaps using tools or techniques to deal with those weaknesses.  I added a tool to my toolbox as I’ve been rewriting.  I use the W-Diagram Plot Technique to focus on the external plot elements for my major characters and villains.  This forces me to think about both my hero and heroine’s ‘story’.  Do they have their own story, their own focus, and is it strong enough to generate conflict and feed the romantic conflict and suspense that I need in a romantic suspense novel.

So I wield my strengths–my character development, layering of theme, and romantic arcs–a lot of which I owe to DSM, and I use the W-diagram to help with this weakness that I’ve discovered.  It’s ‘my way’.  I also realized that I need to do enough research–for me–before I start the book.  And I’m not talking about plot research.  I’m talking about research on my characters and their relationships.  So, my next book, I’m going to do my process (and if that process changes a bit, so be-it…but it will get me to the same place).   With me having a plan.  Do I deviate from the plan as I write.  In the details, yes.  New characters come up; new scenes; new situations.  But very rarely does the core of the book change.  I need to know the core.  The major arc.  The major turning points.  If I know that, I can focus on the writing and creating a story that works.  So, what’s MY WAY?

  1. Discovering Story Magic Steps 1 and 2 (Character Grid and Major Turning Points)
  2. W-Diagram for external plot for major characters and villains
  3. Discovering Story Magic Step 3 (Story Board)
  4. Character Worksheet
  5. Synopsis

So, in the end, here’s the answer for the question, “To Plot or Not to Plot?”  Find YOUR way.  It may change over time; there is always more to learn, but don’t lose what makes YOU a special writer.  Believe in yourself.  Trust your gut and your instinct.  And know yourself as a writer.  If you do these, then your story will be your own.  And that is the most we can give.

I’d love to hear about your strengths and weaknesses and how you address them.  Or maybe you are a plotter, planner or pantster and what to give some advice or have some questions.  I’d be very interested in your perspective.  Just click the comment link below.

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