Friday, March 21, 2014

Übermädchen: Plotting

An Alchemist in his Workshop - David the Younger Teniers
...because plotting is also about synthesis and creation. Also, it is difficult, as the following sagacious quote attests:
Every time I have to plot something new I think, 'damn, I’ve forgotten how to do this.' And then I realize that I never knew…
If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I'm working on a story called Ubermadchen (UM), and that I've been plotting it for most of the year thus far. Nearing the end, and just about ready to write!

Most of the time, plotting doesn't come as easily as prose to me. Maybe my method of plotting is suboptimal: I just open up my word document and write down in general terms what I think is going to happen next, and then ask questions about why this and not that, and what needs to be in place to make certain choices plausible, doing research on the side and distracting myself with my friends' Tumblrs.

(That last part is almost certainly sub-optimal.)

Having said that, it's natural to offer plotting methods of other writers. Here you go.

A guiding philosophy from PCWrede:
"if you are going to spend time on this kind of pre-writing and planning, aim it in a direction that is likely to be useful to you. There is no other reason or purpose for doing it. No editor is going to ask to see your detailed diagrams of the furniture layout in the hero’s sitting room (and if you offer them, the editor will likely groan); no publisher is going to want a look at your character questionnaires or early scenes or plot diagrams. And nobody is going to ask whether the final manuscript follows the plot outline you started with (well, except maybe some grad student looking for something to write a thesis on, but even then it isn’t usual). And if all you need is a list of place-names that sound right, you do not have to laboriously work through a detailed plot-plan or setting list or character questionnaire. Just do the parts that you find helpful.

Because the only reason to do any of this work is if it helps you perform some aspect of the storytelling more easily and effectively. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a waste of time. If doing any of this gets in the way of your writing, if it’s counterproductive, stop immediately and throw it all away. Ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not create the most detailed database of background notes ever made."

A model of plotting that I tried and then didn't follow through on: Plot a Novel in Five Steps, by Rachel Aaron. I may complete the pieces in Step 4, they seem useful:
Step 4: Building a Firm Foundation

This was the point where I used to just go ahead and dive into the novel, but now that I'm writing faster, I've discovered that taking a day to do one extra step of refinement can save you weeks of trouble down the line. At this stage I've got my plot, I know my characters, my world has its history, rules, and feel, so now it's time to start pouring the concrete details that will support my novel through the writing and edits to come.

In this step, I always:

  • Make a timeline. I didn't have time lines for the first 4 Eli novels and OMG did it bite me in the ass. Lesson finally learned, I now make timelines not just for the events of the novel itself, but the history before it as well. I especially make sure to note relative ages and how long everyone's known everyone else. Yes, it's annoying and nitpicky, but timelines have saved my bacon many, many times over, and I very, very much recommend making one. Trust me, you are not nearly as good at keeping track of things in your head as you think you are.
  • Draw a map. Actually, I usually end up doing this back in step 2, but if I don't have a detailed map by now, I'll make one, usually several, of the world at large as well as all my important locations. I also write out short descriptions of each place. This helps me describe things consistently and removes the burden of making this shit up as I go along.
  • Write out who knows what, when. This is usually just a paragraph where I look over the plot and jot down who discovers what when. This is to make sure I don't have Protagonist A making an argument (or worse, a plot decision) using information they wouldn't actually know yet. This is less of a resource and more of a double check on my plot.
  • Make sure I memorize everyone's particulars. I need to know name spelling, physical description, motivations, and relative ages for all my major cast by heart. Can't have anyone's name dropping vowels or eyes changing color, can we?
  • Write out a scene list This is where I take that plot I wrote out at the end of step three and break it into scenes and chapters. I've talked about what makes a scene before, so, using that criteria, I slice my plot into scenes and list them in a bulleted list. Once I have a list of scenes, I group them into chapters to make a nice little list. In my experience, a chapter usually consists of three scenes, though I've done as few as two and as many as five before. Chapter breaks should also take into account dramatic tension, so I try to take that into accout as well. For example, the first chapter of The Spirit Thief would look like this:
    • Chapter 1
      • Eli charms his way out of prison
      • The king of Mellinor discovers Eli has escaped, is moved to safer quarters
      • Eli and Josef take advantage of the confusion and kidnap the king.
  • Word Count estimation: Now that I've got a rough idea of my chapters, it's time to do an even rougher estimation of how long this book is going to be. I know from personal experience that my chapters tend to run between 5000 and 6000 words long. I don't know why, that's just what feels like a chapter to me, I guess. But this regularity is very handy when it comes time to estimate! By looking at the number of chapters I've cut my scenes into and multiplying that by my average chapter length, I know that a book with 15 chapters will most likely run 75k - 90k words long, or right smack dab in the sweet spot of publishable book length. Of course, this is just an estimation, but doing a check like this is also a really good early warning signal. If, for example, I've lined up all my scenes and found that I have 30 chapters worth of plot, then I know I probably need to cut something to avoid ending up with an 180k unpublishable monster. Trust me, it is SO MUCH EASIER to cut scenes at this stage than to cut them after you've written them. Even if you don't know your average chapter length yet, chances are your chapters won't be shorter than 5k. Counting them up and multiplying to get an idea of how big your book is is a great way to avoid painful cutting later down the line.
  • Do a boredom check. Once I've broken my novel into scenes and chapters (and cut and reworked the plot if the book was too long), it's time for the final and most important plot test: the boredom check. What I do here is I think through my plot, imagining the story in my head as thought it were a movie. There's no sound, no dialogue, I just go through the story scene by scene in my head, testing the story's flow. All the while, I'm on the look out for slow spots. Does the action lag anywhere? Are there any sections I can't visualize or scenes I skip over? If so, I go back to those points and figure out why. See, when you cruise through your plot like this, you're seeing your story with your reader mind and not your writer mind. Your writer mind might consider a scene necessary for plot reasons, but if your reader mind is bored you'll skip right over it and move on to the good stuff. This is BAD. I don't want my readers to be bored by or skip over anything I write. Plus, I don't want to waste my time writing boring crap, no matter how nicely it fits into the plot. This is all part of "be excited about everything you write." If a scene is boring, I rip it out and redo it. Ripping up a finished plot can feel really scary, but just remember: there's always more than one way to solve any problem, and a boring scene can always be replaced by an interesting one, usually by raising the stakes or upping the tension. This step may seem unnecessary, especially since you've been over your plot 10000 times by now, but take thirty minutes and do it anyway. A boredom check is your final defense against having to rewrite stupid scenes later. If you take the time and make sure every scene is golden right from the start, you'll save yourself wasted work and heartache later.

Indeed, I am doing something sort of like the boredom check right now, though I'm calling it, alternately, debugging or the gut/sanity/structural check. Functionally, it's somewhat different, because this is taking a step back and looking at the entire plot schematic instead of going through it as a reader.

How I'm proceeding: first thing was a plot diagram. Since UM involves traveling through Europe, I did a modified geographic map, ish, by which I mean I laid out events in geographic space but it was definitely not to scale and the connections were arrows saying what caused the characters to have to progress from one place to another. At each bubble (location), spikes coming out of it told what happened.

On my first day of sanity check, I noticed that the first half of the story is much more modular/structured/event-heavy than the second half, which is not the goal since the second half is where the bulk of the character development takes place. Diagrams = very useful. As I continue, maps and such help. Post-its with short scene descriptions to mix around...especially useful when you have two parallel storylines and scenes that could go with either.

We'll see how the work progresses. I see a trend of greater and greater pre-writing/preparation in successive works, and I hope--though it's obviously too soon to tell--that this results in better stories, by which I mean stories with structural integrity (i.e. not idiot plots).

Last and most: Holly Lisle has tons of fantastic resources on her site for writers. How to Finish a Novel and Notecarding: Plotting Under Pressure are my favorites. I can see myself paying for her big writing courses when I have disposable income generated through my own work.

Happy plotting and have a good weekend.

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