Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Process and the Plot

By Annette Dashofy

Last night at a Pennwriters meeting, our discussion topic was “process.” As in how we write. I found it interesting that every single person had their own way of doing things. Some outlined. Some wrote by the seat of their pants. Some outlined in their heads, but not externally.

Considering that my brain is on sticky notes all over my house, is there any doubt that I would be an outliner?

I did try the seat-of-the-pants method when I wrote that last short story. The 4,000 word one that ended up being 9,000 words. If you expand that to novel proportions…well, you get the idea. Life is too short.

For my current work-in-progress, I’m trying a different kind of outline. In my office, I have a set of cabinets from Ikea. They have three, white, unadorned doors. Three doors: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. I bought large, multi-colored sticky notes. One each sticky note, I jot down a sentence or two (occasionally more) about each scene. And I stick them on the door corresponding to the appropriate act.

Here’s a picture.

Yes, Act Three is a little bare at the moment. The pink note is the climax. The yellow note is a list of clues I need to remember. I’ll fill in the gaps before I get there.

The notes are color coded. (Don’t tell me I’m anal. I already know that.)

Blue notes signify scenes told from Pete’s POV. Purple indicate Zoe’s POV. Pink notes are scenes with both Pete and Zoe in them, so POV needs to be determined. The green ones at the beginning of Act One simply indicate character introductions. The yellow one in the middle of Act Two is the MAJOR PLOT POINT (AKA the second body drops). I have little flags attached. Those have something to do with red herrings and suspects.

It made perfect sense when I devised the whole thing.

The colors let me see if Zoe’s getting too much time front and center. The red herring flags let me know if I’ve gone too long without mentioning a suspect.

I can yank a note off and move it somewhere else if need be.

And the sticky notes don’t fall off! Amazing. (I tried this on poster board once and all the notes curled up and fell off. Not good.)

I’ve heard of people doing similar things using their dining room table. I don’t have a dining room table. The only table I have, we use for meals. And it’s not big enough anyway.

With this set-up in my office, anytime I suffer brain freeze, I can get up and study my sticky note outline. It usually helps get me back on track.

No, I am not suggesting that you all switch to my method of outlining. Heck, I’m not even sure I’ll use it for the next book. But I might. (Especially if this one finds a publisher!) I’m curious to hear about YOUR plot process. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Or a little of both? Do you have any weird methods of pseudo-storyboarding like I do? Time to share.


Joyce said...

Interesting method, Annette. I kind of like the color coding.

I'm a little of both. I usually have a very simple outline to begin with. All it consists of is the very basic plot--somebody has to figure out who killed somebody else. Then I come up with a few characters, etc.

I don't like to get too detailed because the story changes so much as I go along. Nine times out of ten, the murderer ends up to be someone different than I planned when I started writing.

I keep an Excel sheet with a separate tab for each chapter, one for characters, and one for general notes. Each tab contains what happens in that particular chapter, the day and time, clues, etc. Although I fill in most things as I write, anything that MUST occur in the course of the story is entered right away so I don't forget it.

Joyce said...

Hey, maybe I can color code my Excel sheet...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Wow, Annette. You need to write one of those books about writing a book.

I'm embarrassed to say that collectively between my first book, my second, almost complete MS and my 3rd work of the future, I have exactly two paragraphs of notes about plot.

I guess I write like I present. When I do a talk or a class or a presentation, I have a script that goes completely out the window as soon as I open my mouth. I remember and cover the important parts, but I just try to let the words flow.

Annette said...

Joyce, I like the Excel spreadsheet idea, too. I have some plotting software that I also use to keep track of names, what color eyes each character has, etc.

Will, first you tell us you have no crappy manuscript stashed away never to see the light of day, that your very first novel got published and NOW you tell us your words just flow? We're really going to start disliking you intensely if you keep this up. ;-)

Jennie Bentley said...

Wow. Have you ever met PJ Parrish, Annette? Either one of them? They do the color coded sticky notes, too.

I'm a pantser. I start out with an idea and write until I'm stuck. That's usually around page 100. Sometimes a little before, sometimes a little after. It's happened as early as page 50 and as late as page 150, but there's always a point where I don't know where to go. That's when I sit down and start an outline of what I've already written. It's more of a timeline, really, to make sure everything hangs together. Usually, while I do that, something occurs to me for what needs to happen next, and I'm off and running again. I usually have a single sheet of copy paper next to me that I jot things down on as they occur to me, but often those notes refer back to something I've already written that I need to go back and change, since I wrote something new that now requires that which has already happened not to have happened. What can I say... it makes sense to me.

I admire people who are as organized as you, and it does make perfect sense that it would work, but I could never do it. I subscribe to the Stephen King school of writing: the story is already there, beginning, middle and end. My job is to brush the sand away from it to see which shape it has. :-)

Carol Silvis said...

Wow! You really have a great way of getting organized and staying that way. I enjoyed reading your post.

I let ideas roll around in my head and then transfer them to notecards. The cards are easy to rearrange into scenes.

Dana King said...

I'm an outliner. I start with a white board (for relationships, to allow amorphous thoughtsto coalesce over time as I walk past them every day), then to index cards for sequence. After that, it's a Word table to show chapter, POV character (if not a first person story), location, and what happens.

I tried to write the current WIP by the seat of my pants (the major points were in my head, but little was definite), and would up with such a mess I had to go back and do an outline, even though I was already almos 20 chapters in.

Annette said...

I've come to the conclusion that if you're a natural born pantser, great. But if you're a natural born outliner, no way can you work without one. Not efficiently anyway.

Here's a thought I shared at the meeting last night and I don't remember who said it, so I can't give credit. But when you write by the seat of your pants, the end result requires much more revision than one done by outline. Therefore, the first draft BECOMES the outline for the rewrite.

What do you think?

Jennie Bentley said...

"But when you write by the seat of your pants, the end result requires much more revision than one done by outline. Therefore, the first draft BECOMES the outline for the rewrite."

Ouchie. I'm not sure I'd go quite this far, but pantsing requires more rewriting for sure. I'd rather do it that way, though; if I know everything that's going to happen, I can't work up much enthusiasm for writing the book itself. But that's just me. Diff'rent strokes.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Annette, I disagree. My rewrites normally involve changing words, adding discriptors, maybe adding a subplot. But my rewrites really don't affect the storyline (the stuff that you outline) much.

I merely think it's a different process. I live at the very back of a large cul-de-sac with a landscaped island in the middle. I pull out of the driveway and go counter-clockwise. my wife pulls out of the same driveway and goes clockwise.

Our brains work differently.

By the way, I don't consider how I write as flying by the seat of my pants. I have a very solid outline in my head. I see a logical progression as I write.

By the way, I'm pretty good at doing math in my head also. Not that that means anything at all.

Joyce said...

I think it all comes down to the fact that each writer has to discover what process works best for them.

Revisions are similar--each writer has to do what works for them. Some writers can go ahead and write a draft without revising anything until they're finished. That would drive me nuts. I revise a lot as I go along, so I have less to do when I'm finished.

Jennie Bentley said...

To each their own, absolutely, and I don't think there's a right or wrong, either. We all get there in the end. It's interesting to hear how other people work, though!

Annette said...

Like I said, I was repeating something someone else had said (wish I could remember who, so they could take the credit/blame).

Anyway, yes, everyone's brains definitely work differently. The one time I tried writing a novel without an outline, it crashed and burned by chapter three.

I get what you mean about having it worked out in your head, Will. I'm just jealous.

Here's another question for our "panel." Last one, I promise. How many times to you revise your first chapter? And do you keep going back to revise it all along or do you wait until the first draft is done?

I'm trying to hold off rewriting it even though so much has happened to make it different than I first envisioned. But I swear I could rewrite the darned first chapter every other day if I don't control myself.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

My natural writing process is, when I sit down, I reread the last chapter I wrote and move forward with the next.

Most times, I mark up the previous chapter as I reread it and go back at the end of the writing day (hour, minutes) and make revisions.

As far as first chapters go, I believe if it's not flawless, you'll never get an agent or publisher. That goes for the first three chapters. That's what agents and editors are going to initially judge your work on. So, they should be workshopped to death... the words should flow off your tongue as you read them out loud.

Annette, I get the distinct immpression that you may be trying too hard on the process and mechanics. I'm at my best when I read my last chapter, pop my earbuds in, turn my iPod to some mindless music and walk. My mind needs something, so I begin wo think about that last chapter and the plot moves forward as well as dialogs. Then I plop my ass in a chair and write while it's fresh.

But that works for me. I stumbled on that. If I were to force myself into any other system, I'd start thinking about the system and not the story. Same with my golf game. I'm at my best when I'm not thinking about my swing mechanics.

If it feels uncomfortable for you not to revise as you go...screw it...revise as you go.

Joyce said...

I try to resist the urge to edit the first chapter too much. I'll go back a few times to fix things before the book is done, but I save anything major until the end. I'm afraid of editing the life out of it. And things could change even more before the book is done.

Jennie Bentley said...

I can happily tweak the first chapter on a daily basis, but I don't, A) because I won't ever go forward if I only work on the first chapter, and B) honestly, what I write at first is often best. If I've second-guessed myself and changed something, when I read it again later, I'll often change it back to what it was originally. I find that first instinct is often right, and there's such a thing as working something to death. Kind of goes along with what Joyce and Will are saying. That's tweaking for sentence structure and language, of course; I'll go back and change things all the time if the plot goes off in a direction I didn't anticipate, and I have to plant clues earlier.

Annette said...

Thanks, guys, for sharing your own processes. This has been a great discussion. It definitely shows that everyone has to find their own way.

I'm done throwing questions out there. But if anyone else wants to pop in with a comment or question, feel free.

Sherry said...

A comment, Annette. I've heard it said that when writers gather one of the big topics for discussion is: How do you write? And I've found that true. I think we all look for that magical solution that will work everytime.

I'm a proud panster, usually, but now that I'm writing a mystery and need to follow my own clues I need to plot more consistently! Thanks for offering an alternative.

queenofmean said...

I am definitely an outliner. Like you, Annette, I'm way too anal to do it any other way. I like your post-it note system, esp the part about how it shows if one POV is dominating. Only thing I can say I would do different is: Zoe would be pink & when they were in the scenes together, it would be purple (Pete's blue mixed with Zoe's pink). Yep, that's how my brain works.

Annette said...

Sherry, I don't know if it's a magical answer so much as trying to pick out a tidbit to add your own arsenal. I never want to completely adopt another writer's methods, but some small thing almost always jumps out at me as do-able for me.

Queen, you are absolutely right about the color scheme being mixed up. Next book...