Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Mechanics of Plotting

(Huck says, "So that's how you do it!")

Someone recently said to me, “You’ve talked a lot about the theory of plotting, but not the mechanics. How do you actually sit down and PLOT?”

Warning: Long Post. I use a mulit-tiered method in plotting my books. It’s a crazy system, but I’ve found it works for me. If you’re interested, here it is:

First, I brainstorm a scattering of possible scene ideas, suspects, secrets, plot twists, etc, jotting down my ideas in a notebook because I have a lousy memory. Sometimes I do this solo, but I find it works best with someone else. When my daughter Samantha was young, I used her as a sounding board. I can still remember mulling over plot problems in THE LAST KNIGHT with her, when she was in her early teens. (Back then, I didn’t do as much in-depth advance plotting, so those plot problems appeared when I was in the middle of writing the book.) Over the last few years, my husband, Steve, has become such an important part of my plotting process that I’d now have a hard time plotting without him.

When I’m ready to focus on the book (as in, Holy Shit! The proposal is due at the beginning of January!), I’ll have a more focused brainstorming session, when I try to finalize suspects, flesh out characters and conflicts, come up with the first ten or so scenes in the book, plus a few ideas for the middle and a very rough sketch of the climax. Then I sit down at the computer with my notes and type up lists of my characters, suspects, secrets, and plot twists as they’ve developed so far (I have terrible handwriting, and if I wait too long, I can’t read my own scribbles). I come up with names for my characters because names are important, and as long as I’m still calling characters things like The Pimp and The Thief, they don’t feel like real people (although their names frequently change, often several times). I also transfer my scene ideas to 3x5 cards, one card per scene, and shuffle the cards around into what seems like a logical order. Often I’ll even color-code scenes, using different colored note cards for each suspect, with another color—say, blue—for scenes from Sebastian’s personal life. I find that the first scenes typically fall easily into place, one behind the other. Often I’ll have the last five to ten also fairly well in focus. But I always have a pile of Floating Scenes I can’t yet see how to fit together.

I then sit down and type up a list of the scenes I have arranged in order so far. These descriptions are very brief, as in, “Scene One: Hero in refuge for ex-prostitutes talking to girl who seems to be high born when killers break in and massacre everyone. Hero survives by going out the window or something. Scene Two: Sebastian in a shop looking at guns when Hero comes up to him. At her insistence, they go for a drive in her carriage. She tells him about the murders, asks for his assistance, explains why. Scene Three: Sebastian goes to talk to Lovejoy…” Invariably, I also end up with a list of questions for my Floating Scenes that I’ll need to answer before I can put them in order, such as, “How does Sebastian learn about the third girl?” or, “How do Sebastian and Hero get lured into the trap?”

This probably sounds like a lot of “make work,” and in a sense it is. At this point, I’m mainly mulling over my characters, letting the story gel in my head, looking for problems. When I’m ready, I brainstorm some more, sorting out story problems I’ve discovered in the first part of the book, progressing the plot with another ten or twenty scenes, plus some more Floating Scenes I know will go somewhere later in the book. Then I go off and make more scene cards, shuffle them around, again look for problems, pay more attention to things such as story arc, plot points, etc. I keep doing this—alternating between scene cards, typed outline, and brainstorming, until I have a typed outline of the entire story.

Most writers on contract with a publishing house sell on proposal. When I was writing historical romances for Shauna Summers at Ballantine, I’d say, “I’d like to do my next book about a Victorian travel writer in the South Seas. The hero is an Australian renegade, and they get chased by cannibals and the British Navy—a kind of AFRICAN QUEEN meets FATHER GOOSE,” and Shauna would say, “Sounds great. Go for it.” That kind of freedom is rare. I now sell my mysteries on the basis of a formal proposal, which means 3 chapters (or 30-40 pages if the chapters are short, which mine are these days) plus a synopsis. With the book outlined scene by scene, the famously dreaded synopsis is actually very easy to write. I suspect it’s the need to submit a more formal proposal that has turned me into such an advance planner. Having now seen its benefits, I don’t think I could ever go back to the looser kind of outline I used to do.

I often wonder how seat-of-the-pants writers put together a proposal. Someone like James Lee Burke could just say, “I want to do another Robicheaux book,” and his editor would say, “Great. Go for it.” But what do the rest do—write the entire first draft and then write the proposal and send it in? A dangerous thing to do, since I’ve personally known two writers—successful, award-winning authors of more than ten books—who’ve had editors reject their proposals. That’s hard enough to take when you’ve invested months plotting out a book and writing the first chapters. But if you can only write when you can’t see where you’re going, you’d have to write the entire first draft before you could pull together a proposal. Having that rejected would really hurt.

I don’t want to suggest, of course, that my way of plotting is the only way to do it. It’s just the way I do it. I’ve heard of Plotters who use sticky notes and move them around on a bulletin board. Some use timelines. Some people use only note cards; others draw up meticulous outlines that run to 50 or 100 pages. Not only do they list each scene, but they outline each scene, too, in detail. At the risk of sounding like a Pantser, that would be overkill for me. And yet I actually did that a few years ago for one book—Confessions of a Dead Romance Writer (unfortunately still in search of a publisher)—and I had more fun writing that than I’ve ever had, by far.

But however much we do or don’t outline, at some point we all need to quit planning and just sit down and start writing the damn book already. And no matter how much advance plotting I’ve done, I still find that requires a scary leap of faith. Scary, but exciting.

Over the next few days, I’m going to be taking another look at plotting, first at the idea of story arcs and plot points, then at the concept of scene and sequel. And if you’re curious, the first scene of this book—new working title: WHERE DEMONS SLEEP—should be up on my website by the end of the week.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The examples, as in "Sebastion goes out the window..." really bring it home to me. This is exactly the kind of detail that gives me a picture of the process. It's still organic, with variety left, but the scene to scene connections have been orchestrated.

Anonymous said...

Sphinx Ink likes the new title of St. Cyr Mystery No. 4--"Where Demons Sleep"--better than the old title...demons are scarier than dragons.

Anonymous said...

This posting was more helpful to me than any of the three online writing workshops I've taken. Plot is my problem - one of the instructors said I could get published if I could just find a decent story to tell. Thanks for all of that.

I looked up your website because I just read the first St. Cyr book and loved it. Really loved it. I've read so many crappy historical mysteries that I'd just about given up hope. I'm looking forward to the second one.

I was surprised to see that you're in New Orleans. I don't know blogging etiquette but I wanted to ask you about it if you're not sick of talking about it. Is this the place to do that?

We're thinking of buying some property in the French Qtr or Marigny Triangle. We're making a reconnaissance trip during the next month (from Boston). Realtors are of course telling us that things are great. We've connected with a few people down there who are a little less upbeat but still optimistic. What's your take on it?

Thanks!

Jody Manning

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