Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How I Became a Plotter

In his book, "On Writing," Stephen King poo-poos the idea of writers creating and using outlines before writing their novels. He considers it anathema to the creative process, stifling the natural unfolding of the story in the writer's mind.

Which is great if that works for you.

I used to be that way, too. I thought outlines and any kind of prep work other than historical research meant my story wouldn't flow right out of me, like a river of poetry onto the page.

The result was twelve years to write my first novel, including a nearly five-year period in which I wrote nothing at all.

From 2001 to 2006 I worked as a data processor for a major auction house. This meant I spent eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer typing. The last thing I wanted to do in my spare time was...sit in front of a computer and type. Well-meaning individuals suggested I dictate my novel to a tape recorder (back when those were still things) or write long-hand. The problem with the latter was that I am a slow hand-writer, and, at over 75 words per minute, my typing skills are only just fast enough to keep up with my brain. The problem with the former was that I had no idea what I was going to say until it came out of me.

In both cases, an outline with a well-thought-out plot and fully-fleshed characters would have helped me. Since I didn't already know each major story point, I couldn't possibly tell the story out loud to a machine, or write it by hand. At least when I type into a word processor I can go back and delete entire chunks at a time. Or, as was the case with BLOODSISTERS, go back and start over from scratch.

When I finally did write BLOODSISTERS after my first child was born, it was, again, without an outline. I just let the story flow, feeling very writerly and creative about it.

When even my good friends read it and responded with, "Um...OK..." I knew it was bad.

I had to become a plotter. If I wanted to take myself seriously as a writer, if I wanted to get my stories under control and make them readable, I had to learn to outline. It took several tries and several methods, but I managed to do it. The resulting version of BLOODSISTERS is something I'm actually quite proud of, even if it never sees the publishing light of day.

And, because I learned the hard way with BLOODSISTERS, I knew how to avoid the same mistakes with my current work in progress, THE HOLLOW QUEEN. I outlined first and keep making notes as I go along. This time around, rather than scrapping the entire first draft and starting from page 1, again, when I get to revisions, the process will go a lot smoother (I hope).

Are you a plotter or a "pantser" (fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants)? If you plot, how much do you do? How do you know when to stop plotting and start writing?


  1. I'm a huge fan of outlining - partly because it would be impossible for me to sit down and write, but also because outlining allows a much higher degree of conscious control and complexity that makes it to the first draft. For me, outlining is about front loading the work, so the first draft is likely to need less revision ("less" meaning still plenty!).

    1. Exactly! "Front-loading." I'm still making notes as I go along, of things I want to make sure I address in the first round of revisions, but otherwise, using the outline I made has made a first draft *much* easier - and probably much better.