My Two Bits on Plotting

Some people claim to be Pantsers while others are Plotters. Most published authors are a mix of the two because it’s necessary to use both types of processes. Like a tourist, you need to know where you’re going but you still want the joy of discovery.

I started writing as a full fledged, card carrying Pantser. I loved to wander into a sory with no idea what would happen. It seemed fun at the start but you can’t build a house without a plan. To save time, let’s agree, for the purpose of this blog post, that plotting is going to happen as part of the writing process for your manuscript.

I’ve read and listened to several writers explain their process for plotting. The best podcast that I’ve heard on the subject has been Katy Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors , but I use a slightly different approach for outlining than she does.

Most writers use Scrivener to write with. This software gives you most of the tools and all of the ease of working on every stage of your project that you are going to need. But, in my more complex works, I tend to have more than one story line and I rely on visuals to see the key points in the plot including the crossover stages where the storylines meet or overlap. To do this (no groaning, please) I use Excel. It provides me with an infinite legth of columns and the ability to colour code my sections, insert, delete and move bocks of storyline easily and , by extending the notes for the individual scenes to the right of the plot point (cell), I can add scenes and notes

Remember, you’re establishing the key plot points in teh story and then the scenes that make up each stage in the plot. This is the advantage of Excel. I know there are lots of programs available to do this but I’ve been using Microsoft Office since the early 90s and it’s fairly natural for me to use these programs. I’ll even edit blocks of text in Word si I can drop them into Scivener wasily.

It’s important in your plotting stage to think in terms of the big picture. Without too much fine detail, these are the actions that will affect the direction of the storyline. The individual scenes are the subplot actions, the boxes to the right of the main ones, that help you put words on the story. It’s similar to putting skin on a constructed sketaton.

The single best advantage of plotting using Excel is the ability to see how long the different sections of the story are and how much space you are allotting for character development - especially at the beginning - and how quickly you move from the climax to the solution to the end of the story. You’ll be able to visualize how much of the story is taken up introducing characters versus moving the action.

K. M. Wailand (I’m using her proper name here) recommends using Scrivener for plotting. I tried it and also the complimentary program called Scapple, but I found the process easier on Excel. Then, by transferring the individual blocks in Excel to Scrivener using the cork board option, I can create the whole story complete with scenes and notes ready to start writing.

Every writer has their system and you do not need to follow someone else’s process. But it’s very useful to know what works for others so you, as a writer, can develop one that works for you. I know of many authors who use Excel but they weren’t the reason I ended up using it. I wasn’t able to find a program that worked for me as easily as Excel. That’s the whole reason for my choice.

The only advice I will give you is this:, if you are planning to write a good book, even if you have already writen one in first draft, take the story apart and plot it out before you commit to writing the final draft.

There you go. Two bits worth.

Are You an Innie or an Outie?

Most professional authors, agents, etc. will advise you to cut your first draft by about 10%, so you can whittle out the fat and make it clean, lean and entertaining. That advice never worked for me as I always wrote my first drafts far too short. My first draft of my (eventually) published book was so short they told me to add 20,000 words to bring it to standard length.

My background in writing started in media, print and television and eventually the web. Words counts in those areas is ridiculously short but the trick there is to be punchy, get to the point and tell the story as thoroughly as you can in the space allowed. That’s what I did.

That training is ingrained in my writing. I get to the point then have to go back and fill in the details I left out.

I am an innie.

Other people I know write first drafts that can be double the appropriate word count for a specific type of book. 500,000 words makes a really good epic fantasy or a trilogy but a novel of that size is likely to be returned, unopened, postage collect.

This is something you need to recognize in yourself. Just say it: I’m an outie. I write long first drafts so I know that I will be cutting and tightening, using better words to say what takes a sentence or two, when I edit the thing. Don’t worry about it initially, just do it long.

For me, and my ilk, we know we need to look for places to expand, to fill in the descriptions of people and places and actions for our readers. So don’t worry if your first draft ends up at 50,000 words. You’ll put them in later. Just be an innie.

Why Write?

Let’s say there are two fictional friends who are talking: Nancy and Terry. Terry’s the writer and Nancy is the friend/confidante. 

Nancy,”Why do you insist on doing the one thing that upsets you the most? Why do you continue trying to succeed at something when you never feel it’s good enough? You’re tired and unhappy most of the time because you can’t sleep trying to find the perfect words to write and, when your stories get rejected or get bad reviews, you get depressed. If writing makes you so unhappy and stresses you out so much, why do you write?”

Terry: Cries. That’s all he can do. 

The question, why write, is a good one, especially for anyone who is not a writer trying to understand the addictive nature and single-mindedness of an author. This is an obvious question without an answer because there is no answer. It’s also a hard question for a writer to understand. You should ask why breathe, why live? If you are a wolf, why do you hunt and kill? If you are an eagle, why soar, why mate for life? There is no answer, except: because, that’s what you are.

Writers regard ideas, inspired by real life or imagined from the ether, with the same passion as pro-lifers regard unborn fetuses. Ideas gestate in the imagination, they gradually become real, they take form and demand attention. Sometimes they die but, with luck and time, they can be born as fully thought out stories with great potential. Inexperienced mothers (authors) are usually filled with self-doubt about their ability to raise their offspring but full of hope, while seasoned veterans have a better handle on how it’s done, how much the stories will bounce if they are dropped and when to worry about them not coming home on time. 

I use the childbirth analogy because it is apt. It starts as an inspiration, a need and starts to grow. The fact of its existence excites us, makes us want to feed it, protect it, love it and help it grow. Then it becomes all too real and interrupts our lives, makes us lose sleep and get moody and cry and worry and “oh my God, what if it’s not good”, and then – it is born. The pain, the crying, the fear, then surrendering and letting the fledgling fly and see how it does. 

But that is the reason why we write. It should hurt. Writing should sap all the energy, the emotion, the strength, and the will to live out of you before it enters the world as a fully formed story. It is as much a part of you as a baby, actually more so because there was no other genetics involved. 

“Oh, it’s so beautiful, it’s perfect. You should be so proud.”

Then, of course, the post-partum sets in and you fear maybe it won’t do well, it won’t find an audience and it will stay at home for your whole life. That fear and self-doubt never really goes, even if the book sells. This is why so many of the inspirational, uplifting quotes on writing we see posted online are by people who ultimately killed themselves. Writing hurts, but every author, no matter how withdrawn and unhappy they seem, will tell an aspiring author to write. Write often, write everything. 

Just like that child who may or not become a doctor or lawyer, or an actress or rock star, the story is a part of you, something that will outlive you and become part of the world. 

And creating it is pure joy