The Importance of Plotting

Resolutions blog seriesWelcome to my second post of writing tips to help you turn your New Year’s resolution of writing a novel into an attainable goal. Today I’m going to talk about plotting, and before all the pansters start protesting, let me say that there are several ways to approach this.

You can plot

  • the whole book
  • chapter by chapter
  • in reverse, by writing a summary of the scene you just wrote

I think of plot outlines as roadmaps: they help keep you from trundling down a washed-out road and crashing into a ditch. One reason I hear that people are resistant to plotting is it takes all the surprises out of writing. If you were to plan everything out in minute detail like a blueprint, then I would agree. But the thing about a looser roadmap is detours can come up. Plot twists can surprise you, without destroying the foundation you carefully laid out leading up to it.

So how does one go about plotting? There are dozens of organizational methods one could use, and it really depends on how you work best. I prefer pen and paper for brainstorming. Other people like to use the computer. Some write narrative summaries while others follow formal outlines with I. A. 1. a. Some people use notecards for scenes and tack them to walls or story boards that they can shuffle around like puzzle pieces. Try them all if you want to find what works best for your creative process.

Now, you can plot the entire book. But just like with writing a skeleton draft, such an outline will most likely start with the bare minimum of a storyline. Once you get to writing out those scenes in detail, you’ll find opportunities to expand chapters with character growth and plot development. Skeleton plots are like guidelines to keep you on track, but don’t be afraid to change direction if inspiration strikes you down the road.

Chapter by chapter plotting means you sit down and write out a summary or outline for the next chapter before you write it. This helps focus your thoughts so when you sit down to start writing, you don’t stare at a blank page wondering where to go next.

Sometimes what you write in your chapter plan isn’t what you end up writing. The muse takes over and you whip out several thousand words that had nothing to do with what you planned. Or you sit down without a game plan and just write a scene or chapter. However you got there, once you’re done with a chapter, you might want to write down a summary of what just happened in the book so you don’t accidentally leave out important developments in future chapters or forget to wrap up loose ends.

The great thing about the three approaches to plotting above is you can use just one, or all three in consecutive order as you go. Being organized in your creative process doesn’t have to be restricting. When you have a roadmap, whether it’s looking down the line to future developments, or tracking the progress you already made, it will be easier to not only spot potential plot holes, but know exactly where to go back in order to fix them.

So what about you? What plotting methods have you used in your writing?

Be sure to come back next week for our final writing tip on character depth.


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Writing Skeleton Drafts

Resolutions blog seriesThe arrival of the new year ushers in a long-standing tradition of New Year’s Resolutions. Some of you have decided this will be the year you finally write that book. But, as I’m well familiar with, resolutions are hard to keep past a few weeks, so for the rest of January I’ve decided to write a short blog series on writing tips to help you turn that resolution into a sustainable habit.

The first thing I’m going to talk about is writing a skeleton draft. As in, a draft so poorly executed that it doesn’t even deserve to be called a first. Any writing expert will tell you that the most important thing is to get something down. It’s much easier to edit and refine a sludge pile of words than a blank page.

At this stage when you’re first starting on a story, don’t worry about sentence variety, decent description, or even witty dialogue. If your characters sound like sock puppets in a soap opera, go with it. In fact, I would encourage you not to edit anything in a chapter until at least a day after you’ve written it. If you realize you need to change something, make a note to do it later. Just focus on finishing that skeleton draft of that scene or chapter—and give yourself permission to suck! I’m serious. Nobody ever said the definition of a good writer is someone who can type up gold on the first pass. A good writer can weave words into something beautiful and moving, and by the way, what does a woven basket look like before it’s formed? A pile of reeds! That sometimes gets tangled.

Doing the above isn’t easy. Many writers feel anxiety over not writing well enough. They’ll sit and stare at a sentence or paragraph until it’s perfect, but that usually means they don’t get very far into the story. Fear of failing can hold us back from ever trying. I just finished writing my 11th book and I still experience what I like to call First Draft Syndrome. For those first several chapters, I had a hard time concentrating and putting actual words down because what I wrote felt pathetic compared to the quality of work I’d published in the past. It took some effort for me to push those insecurities aside and write however poorly I needed to just to get the story going. And eventually I got on a roll. I also have to look back at previous books’ early drafts to remind myself that it is possible to go from word muck to a pristine novel. So can you. Just don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Remember, a finished novel is a diamond, but gemstones don’t just pop out of the earth like magic. It takes extraordinary amounts of pressure, sweat, and probably some tears. Embrace the rough stage as part of the process, and you’ll make it through.

Do you experience First Draft Syndrome? Is it hard to give yourself permission to suck at something, even in the effort to get better at it?

Next week I’ll be talking about a strategy to reduce some road blocks and pitfalls: plotting. Hope to see you then!


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Write Like an Onion

No, I do not mean your writing should smell bad.  Rather, writing a book is like growing an onion–it happens layer by layer.  One doesn’t typically bust out a perfect best-seller in the first draft.  (And if you do, well then kudos, but most of us aren’t gods.)

Writers are told the most important thing in writing is to just get something on paper (or Word, since most of us are computer trained by now).  A messed up paragraph is easier to fix than a blank page.  I, for one, enjoy watching my novel transform from superficial first draft to detailed final product.  There are so many aspects that make up a good book–plot, description, characterization, emotional investment, grammar.  (It’s amazing how much that last one comes up in book reviews.)

I don’t know about most of you, but I’m guessing that like me, you can’t keep all those aspects at the forefront of your brain at the same time.  Maybe you’ve got one down really well, but it takes a few rounds to nail another.  That’s okay because it’s all part of the process of writing/growing a novel.

Everyone’s process is different too.  My first drafts are all about plot and pacing.  That comes easiest to me.  Then I have to go back and work on adding subtle characterization to make my characters really pop.  Grammar is not an issue, but there are some technical aspects that I need to focus on one at a time, like passive voice (“was”) clusters.  In the revision process, I go over each chapter again and again, each time with a different focus, adding another layer.

When it’s over, I’m exhausted.  But seeing how my novel changed and grew makes all that work worthwhile.

What’s your growing process like?  Do you know which layers you tend to apply first?  Last?  Do you struggle with this concept, pushing yourself to write down the first words perfectly? 

Take a look at this video of flowers.  Notice how the first petals push out, and then later how more petals emerge and fill in the center.  Like a fully bloomed flower, a great novel is full of rich complexities–and they didn’t come together all at once!


Phoenix Feather is on SALE now on Amazon for $.99!  A sweet romance with a slight supernatural flair.