My Current Take on Plotting a Novel

I’ve had a pretty wide range of approaches to plotting over the years. Back when I was first starting out, I avoided plots almost completely. I’d start off a new book with a general idea of what I wanted it to be about, almost no concept of the main characters at all, and I’d just discovery write my way through the entire novel. I felt like this kept the feeling of spontaneity for me. One of the main motivators I still have while writing is to find out what happens next. You’d think, as the author, I would already know, but I almost never did for the first 8 or 9 books I wrote.

On the one hand, this method got 8 or 9 books written, so it was successful in that measure. On the other, it meant that I had to revise those final books a whole ton to get them in any sort of shape where they were ready for other people to read them. VODNIK went through something like six or seven huge revisions, for example. Not that I mind the revision process (I actually think it’s one of my strengths, taking what’s already there and making it better), but that’s still a very inefficient way to write.

These days, I’ve come around on plots a great deal, to the point that I almost always write a general outline before I dive into the book. I try to have a better idea of who my characters are, what the main conflicts are, and what the shape of the book is going to be before I start the real writing. It’s a very broad description, however. Then, I’ve been treating each chapter like a new discovery writing exercise. I’ll sit down to write the chapter and check my notes to see what was supposed to happen in the chapter. Then I’ll free write about that, trying to figure out where it should happen, what else is going on in the background, who’s there, potential conflicts with what I’ve already written, etc. That usually ends up being about 2,000 words or so, and can take a day or two. Once I’ve got that in place, then I write the chapter itself and move onto the next one.

Is it perfect? No. In my latest book (I’m 54,000 words into THE AXEMAN at the moment), I’ve gotten to the point where what I had plotted out ahead of time no longer feels right to me. (Hard to describe that feeling. I just know that if I were to continue to stick to the plot, then I wouldn’t be happy with it. The characters don’t want to do that. It feels too contrived, etc.) So I’m free writing my way out of it. The good news is that I have a much better idea of the plot and the characters by now, so it’s much easier to know what the general ruleset is that I have to follow. (A plot, in the end, is the solution to a problem, constrained by restrictions put in place by the novel itself. It’s a puzzle: coming up with a satisfactory conclusion taking into account everything that’s come before. Thankfully, you can cheat. You just go back and fix things earlier in the book to make the ending match the beginning . .)

Anyway. That’s my general approach for now, and I’m happy with it. It still lets me feel like I’m discovering new things along the way, and it’s cut down on the number of revisions I (typically) have to make. Any of you writers out there want to share your own approaches? I’m always interested to hear everyone’s current takes.


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