Friday, May 11, 2012

Flying by the Seat of My Plot


Photo by laffy4k; available for reuse under
 this Creative Commons license
I’ve heard writers say it, even some writers who pen complex, twisty, clues-riddled mystery plots: “I never outline. I just write and see where it takes me.”

That’s not me.

It sounds so free, though--more fun, more spontaneous, more creative, more writerly than forcing your characters to inhabit a mechanical outline like reluctant actors in some mad dictator’s play. Somehow, being a plotter feels less cool.

Still, I am what I am.

I write scared most of the time, and one of the best ways I know to prevent writer’s block is to plot ahead. Then again, if I’ve plotted so meticulously that there's nothing left to do but connect the dots, my right brain is going to get all sulky and leave the party. So the key to being a good plotter is twofold:

1. Don’t overdo it.
2. Be flexible.

In other words, give your right brain some room to play. I start by scribbling in a notebook, letting my creative side play around with my characters and premise. Eventually I see where I’m going to start, and then I sketch in very general plot points, like “Jane is ostracized on her first day of school” or “Eric finds a centipede.”

When I’ve got a solid beginning and I know what ending to head for, I start writing. I don’t worry much about the middle. I get a few chapters under my belt and then return to outlining. I plan a few more big plot points ahead, without going into much detail. In other words, I want a map, not a guided tour.

At some point, a new character may show up, or my plans go awry. That’s fine. I just adjust my outline. I trust that those bursts of creativity are worth exploring.

By the end of the book, I’ve gone back and filled in details in my outline. Then I use it in the revision stage.  I can see my story in condensed form and weave in subplots, drop clues, or see what parts need strengthening or cutting. By going back and forth between my outline and manuscript, I keep both sides of my brain happy.

And if that doesn’t work, I find both brains are soothed by copious amounts of chocolate.


Claire M. Caterer lives and writes in the suburbs of Kansas City. Her debut novel for middle-grade readers, The Key and the Flame, is a fantasy adventure filled with outlawed magic, a tyrant king, an arrogant prince, a whiny little brother, and some good old-fashioned girl power. Look for it in April 2013 from Margaret K. McElderry Books. 

You can connect with Claire on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

10 comments:

  1. Your mode sounds very similar to mine, Claire! Maybe slightly more focus on pantsing, and replace chocolate with tea, and we're basically the same.

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    1. Coffee and/or tea are always on my desk. I try to save the chocolate for emergencies ...

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  2. Chocolate is always the answer, especially when a new character shows up!

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    1. That makes me so nervous! Hello, where did you come from? And do you want a candy bar?

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  3. Every writer should buy stock in chocolate companies. :)

    I always seem to know my beginnings and ends. It's the dang middle. If I outline too much, I go into a kind of paralysis. Better to just write (Yes, I'm a pantser).

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    1. Middles are killers! I know what you mean--if you plot to the last detail, there's nothing left to find out. That can kill the muse, I think.

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  4. Your process sounds a lot like mine!

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    1. It often seems kind of haphazard--like lately--but it works in the long run. I'm just hoping my current run isn't TOO long.

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  5. I also "write scared" most of the time, Claire. Nice way of putting it.

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    1. If I could write with my eyes shut, I probably would.

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