Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Plotter

by Laura Bickle

I confess. I'm a plotter.

Part of it's out of preference, part out of necessity. Anymore, when I turn in a manuscript, editors want an outline. Or they want an outline as a part of my contractual obligations, even before I set a word to paper. They want to know the hell I'm cooking up, so that there will be no surprises. That's the necessity.

As far as preference goes...I dislike staring at a blank page. It's intimidating. I want to have some idea of where I'm going and how I'm gonna get there.

I begin with a high-level outline. A skeleton or scaffolding. As I work through the manuscript, it becomes more detailed. Flesh gets added to the bones. There are ideas that need to be reiterated, loops that need to be closed, threads to tie up. It eventually breaks into a scene-by-scene outline.

The scene-by-scene outline allows me to easily create a timeline (another frequent editorial request). I find that I'm less tempted to try to pack a superhuman number of events into my heroine's day if I have a visual representation of how much stuff I'm trying to cram between sunrise and sunset.

Breaking a story into scenes helps me to control chapter lengths. If I scribble down the gist of one scene POV, and the number of pages on a notecard. I can mix 'em up and put them together in many configurations. Keeps me from getting too wedded to a certain order and keeps me questioning breaks and POV shifts. I also try to write down on the notecard the purpose of the scene. If I can't come up with at least three, it goes into the trash bin.

As you may have guessed, my outline starts out small. At the outset of a project, it may be only three or four pages. But, as the project grows, I faithfully record what I'm doing on paper and cards. When I'm done, I have a detailed outline that I can analyze for pacing issues, logic gaps, and general WTFckery.

That's not to say that I have no serendipities, no flow. I do chase ideas down rabbit holes and find my own little synchronicities. The outline is not sacred - it's meant to be torn apart and reconstructed.

But I like having a light in the darkness to show me where I'm going.

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

14 comments:

  1. Oh, man. I am so screwed if/when my editor ever asks me for an outline. I'm sure I could churn one out if my feet were held to the fire, but I have serious doubts as to whether I'd be able to follow it.

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  2. I don't mind them so much. The prelim outlines I've been asked for are usually more like synopses...three pages or so.

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  3. My new plan, Linda? I'm going to secretly write the book *ahead* of time, then write the outline or synopsis. Win!

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  4. "I also try to write down on the notecard the purpose of the scene. If I can't come up with at least three, it goes into the trash bin."

    Yes! Forcing myself to answer "what is the purpose of this scene" has led to many, many, many scenes being ripped from the story and stored in a "tales that will never be told" file. There are some great (if I do say so myself) bits in there, and more than a few that truly pained me to delete, but for the sake of the flow and word-count had to come out.

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  5. @Linda - I feel your pain. I'm definitely a panster as well, so when my editor does ask for a nice 10 page outline write up, I cringe. But, I come up with the basics and pretty much understand that for my purposes it's merely a guideline, and the finished product may be quite different.

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  7. I love hearing about how other folks work...I think that it's very cool that there's so much diversity and freedom in how we go about putting a manuscript together.

    I think that's because very few folks see what happens behind the scenes...and that we're no longer being told that there is one right way to do it, like in Comp 101. :-)

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  8. I'm with Linda...if I'm asked for an outline...I'm in trouble. :)

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  9. Wow, that is so organised. I bow down to your greatness in being able to plan so strictly and get an awesome story as a result! If I had to do it that way it would never get written.

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  10. I don't know that it's terribly organized, Sullivan, but thanks for the compliment. The outline is often in flux...and is often an utter mess! ;-)

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  11. Outlines. Wow. I think I'd rather stab my eyes out. I blame high school English for that, though.

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  12. Just reading your post tied my innards in a knot. Oi. I could probably drum up a ten page outline under duress, but if I had to come up with a system like yours - which is awesome, don't get me wrong - I'd probably have to give up writing. And then I'd die, sad and alone in the rain somewhere -

    I do like the idea that each scene has to prove it's reason to be. Maybe I'll start a Scene Court - with prosecutor and defense and everything.

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  13. I agree with that "defending the scene" concept to a point, but I also think that some scenes and characters serve purposes that can't always be logically defended The story doesn't only feed our conscious minds. When we critique, we tend to use that filter and it might not always be the right one.

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  14. I may not know the purpose of the scene at the time. But when I make a pass through it and am staring the scene fully in the face, it needs to pipe up and tell me why it's there. :-)

    Kerry, I love the idea of scene court! LOL

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