For a long time I didn’t plan my writing. You could say that I am a reformed planner. After failing to complete my last MS, despite loving my characters, I realised that what had stopped me was not knowing where my story was going to end. In a recent discussion with my writing mentor, Jenn, I realised that with my writing there is always a point, about 30-40,000 words in, where if I don’t have my plot figured out I will drift away from my story. Of course there are other factors but with writing alone I have found that having a flexible plot outline is really important for getting me to the final chapter.
This does not meant that I am neat and orderly and that my outline comes about in the form of a well referenced chapter outline with a colour code and detailed character profiles. Not even close. I know that my plot will change a lot. Chapters I have written with care and attention will get the axe, as will beloved characters. So instead I have a flowing plot outline in my mind and I create a number of plans,as I write.
I have tried to explain my process below, but my planning style changes with every piece that I write. At the moment I am working on a historical novel so I have to be sure that the dates fit, so my planning and research has taken longer this time round.
- The Idea
Every time I get a new idea I just want to write it. I don’t want to think or plan, I just want to put pen to paper and see what happens. That’s what I normally do for a chapter or two. I let inspiration run wild until I get to the point where I need more. Then I go for a half synopsis, I don’t need to know how it all ends at this point, but I do need to know where my characters are heading. Knowing what the first big plot twist will be is always helpful.
- Writing AND Researching
I don’t like to stop myself from writing while the flow is good. Instead I try to split my writing so that it’s 2/3 writing and 1/3 researching, for when I am ready to make an in-depth plot outline.
- Basic Structure
In the early stages I will try to use as few words as possible to summarise my idea and use something like the Three Act Structure to create a very short plot outline.
- What do I have so far?
The initial buzz starts to lull at about 12-15,000 words. Here I work backwards, writing chapter by chapter what I have so far, allowing one or two sentences per chapter. I then redraft and think about the pacing and tone and whether I’m happy with what I have.
Here I come up with a short synopsis, like you would send to an agent or publisher. This isn’t set in stone, it just helps me to continue writing in a focused way so that I don’t go off on any tangents.
At around the 25,000 mark I know that I’m committed to my story. This isn’t just a new idea, it’s a real work in progress. To make sure what I have so far makes sense and to prevent any future mistakes I make a timeline. I start with plot events and then add in historical events and then shift things around as I need to. While I’m working on this I am still writing, maybe thinking about conversations between characters that will happen no matter the date. Never stop writing for too long!
- Chapter by Chapter
This is where I bring everything together. At the 30-40,000 words stage my plot needs to be organised, my research should be pretty much complete. Therefore I create a chapter by chapter plan of my entire plot. This helps me in two ways.
For one, it keeps my writing focused and helps me stay motivated to keep writing even when a fresh new idea starts to call.
Secondly, I can see if any of my chapters are unnecessary or repetitive. For chapters that I have already written I add word counts for each to see if any are much shorter or longer and I think about what that does to my structure.At this point I usually find my structure goes unchanged until the redrafting process begins. Though of course, every story is different.
I hope some of these plotting tips and tricks are useful to my fellow writers. If you have any of your own please comment below!