The many faces of plotting.

At the moment I’m between books. That is to say, I know the book that is coming next, but I’m in that between-book funk where I don’t know enough about it to start writing yet. I have a basic plot, but the first quarter of the book, (for me, always the hardest to write), is a hazy collection of images and character ideas that I have to sort out before I can get going. It’s like looking through a heavy fog. You can see bits and pieces of your surroundings – a character here, a scene there—but how it all connects together is frustratingly obscured.

So what I thought I’d do is show how I get from this stage to the point of actually writing the book. A caveat, though: I’m very disorganized. So the process I go through might not work for you. (But if you can take anything away to apply to your own planning, then that’s great.)

First off, I know the basic premise for my next book. (The Twilight Court.) It’s the third book in The Invisible Order series, so I know which characters are supposed to be in the story. I’m pretty comfortable with them by now, and I know how they relate to each other. (Although I may want to shake that up a bit. Make sure things don’t get stale.) I also know what the basic plot is. Actually, that sounds too definitive. I don’t know the plot. I know what the plot will revolve around. Big difference, with lots of off-shoots and sub-plots to sort out and trim. Also, because this is the last book in the trilogy, I’ve set up certain things in books one and two that have to pay off in this one.

That’s where I am right now. A few ideas that are constantly changing, a few events that are set in stone because of what has gone before, and my characters. Much as I’d like to simply start writing, I know from past experience that this is a bad idea. I’ve tried, and it never turns out well. (And usually involves much rewriting.) All I can do is keep the book in my head as much and possible and wait for my subconscious to click on an idea and send it bubbling to the surface.

This is the ‘muddling’ stage of writing a book. And although I don’t want to force anything at this point, I can help my subconscious along by doing research. In this case that means reading everything I can about Victorian London and faerie lore. I also spend this time watching movies, playing computer games, going for walks. Just generally filling my mind with as much stuff as possible. It all goes into the melting pot, gets swirled around a few thousand times, and if I’m lucky turns into something useful.

During this time, I’ll be jotting down ideas and snippets of research material I think relevant. I have a hardcover, spiral-bound A4 book, plus an A5 moleskin notebook for when I need to get out the house. The notebook gets filled with hundreds of scribbled notes. I’ll probably only use a fifth of the ideas I write down, but I still need to get them out of my head.

When I think I have enough to work with, I take a blank page of my A4 notebook and number the lines 1 to 30. Next to number 1, I write in a brief description of the opening. Next to number 30, I write in a brief description of the ending. If I know the turning point in the middle of the book, I write that in as well. Then I go through my notes and add in any other events where I think they should happen. I like using this technique at the beginning stages of planning because I have to keep everything brief, and I can see the whole book on one page.

After I’ve filled in enough of these lines and feel like I want to break it down more, I’ll open up a file in my mind mapping software. (I use Mindmap Pro but there are lots of free programs out there .) I write the central premise in the center of the page, then on the right side I add in character names and locations, and any loose ideas that I don’t have a place for yet. At this stage I can unpack these one-line ideas into a lot more detail, and again, because of the visual nature of the mind map, I can see my whole book right there in front of me. This is what it looks like:

Once I’ve done that I create chapter topics on the left side of the screen and fill these out with what I’ve written down on the A4 page, adding sub-topics for character growth or character conflicts. (It’s hard to do this on a laptop screen by the way. The mind map soon grows so big that you need a larger screen to keep everything in view.) This is sort of what it looks like, although this is an early stages screen shot. As you can see, I’ve only planned out the first five chapters. (Please excuse the blur. Didn’t want any spoilers for The Fire King.)

Now, however much I wish I was a meticulous planner, I’m not. I’ve tried planning out an entire book before and it before and it didn’t work. I spent months working on an outline that ended up getting scrapped halfway through the book. So what I tend to do is get the first ten chapters pinned down, then start writing. My paranoid side usually starts screaming at me at this point, because even though it didn’t work in the past, he still wants the whole book planned out in minute detail before starting. But that’s just the insecurity talking, worrying that I won’t have anything beyond chapter ten. I’ve learned to ignore that voice, because I know that as I write, events and characters will define the course of the story as it unfolds. For instance, in The Fire King, book two of the series, I had done all of the above steps, started writing, and then in chapter one a supposedly minor character developed into one of the most pivotal characters of the plot. This wasn’t something I’d planned in my outline, but something that happened during the actual writing. And it gave me a lot of answers for the blank spaces beyond chapter ten, (and gave me a new, much more exciting ending for the story as well). If I’d waited till I’d planned out the whole book before starting to write, that idea might never have occurred to me.

So as you can see, my process is a bit of a mess. It’s an uneven cross between planning as much as I can, then simply writing and frantically praying that the ideas will come as I progress. With every book I have the same fears that the ideas won’t come, but so far I’ve always been proven wrong.

It’s certainly not the best method of writing books. In fact, on re-reading this post I briefly considered deleting it because I don’t know if there’s anything helpful here. But the process works for me, so maybe it will for someone else.


9 Responses to “The many faces of plotting.”

  1. February 25, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    I love mindmapping. Like all organizational tools, it would be useful if I did it more often.

    My current process seems to be: envision the basic setup, main characters and beginning.
    Start writing.
    Get 30-40k in, figure out how the whole book goes together. Realize that most of the beginning must be rewritten.
    Attempt to reorganize everything.
    Get frustrated and quit.

    Or rather, that’s the previous process. This time round I may possibly have overcome that last step.

  2. February 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    My ‘Muddling’ stage is very much like yours, Paul. I like seeing everything at a glance as well. Must check out this mindmapping program! 🙂

  3. February 26, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Oh, I forgot to mention: FreeMind is a very useful mindmapping tool, and is both free and multi-platform (Mac, Linux, Windows, and files transfer from one to another perfectly).

  4. February 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Phiala: It sounds like we work much the same. I could spend forever rewriting the beginning, but there comes a point where I have to just leave it for the moment and tell myself I can go back once the whole book is finished. It seems to work better that way.

    Re: Freemind. Thanks! I was trying to remember the name of the free program and that’s the one.

  5. February 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Kelly: If you like seeing everything in one go, mindmapping software is perfect. I highly recommend it.

  6. February 27, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    I’ve never been a fan of software. It looks very pretty, but it’s never seemed to help me much. Because, really, I have the most powerful software of all, my brain. The memory might be a little sketchy (which is why I take notes), but you can’t beat the processing speed or the utility.

    Anyway, my muddling stage seems prett similar to what the post describes as well.

  7. 7 Deloneva
    April 25, 2014 at 10:33 am

    When will the third book come out? My son and I have just finished the second and are worried that it has been four years and counting between books!

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