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ToM: An anti-planner's concessions to plot

When I first started writing, I didn't plan at all. I sat down with a character's name and a supernatural power or situation, and I figured out little things like "conflict" and "action" as I went along. The ending was as much a surprise to me as to readers, but it often ended up foreshadowed by something that happened in the first third of the book- sometimes something that I didn't even recall happening until I read back over the draft and thought "hey, that totally ties into the ending- cool." I found this kind of writing incredibly satisfying and couldn't even entertain the idea of planning a single thing.


A lack of planning resulted in my first three or four books needing the exact same pattern of revision. Things got off to a slow start as I meandered around trying to figure out what went on and then hit warp speed about three quarters of the way through. The pacing was completely uneven, which is, you know, a problem. And while uneven pacing is easy enough to fix in revision, I'm just neurotic enough that I have trouble writing something if I *know* I'm going to have to change it later. No matter what I do in the first draft, I'm probably going to end up seriously gutting the book in revision, but I'd just as soon live (and write) under the delusion that the first draft is perfect as it is, so that I can power through on an adrenaline high. Long story short, after I'd done a couple of sets of revisions with my first editor, I became super vigilant about the patterns of weaknesses that showed up across books, and that changed the way I write.

I'm still not an outliner, but I tend to think about books a little more before I start them now, so as to circumvent having to cut out the first three to five chapters in revision. I generally know the book's premise and the major conflict around which action will be built (because, as I learned after writing a couple of drafts with strong premises, but no plot, a high concept idea does not in itself guarantee conflict). I usually know a little about the structure of the world and any fantasy elements therein, but that's something I figure out more fully as I go- as is pretty much everything else in the book, including the twists and turns of the plot, the supporting cast, any minor or internal conflicts, the setting, the voice... I don't even know how the book is going to end for at least three quarters of the first draft- maybe longer.

For the last book I wrote (a YA that I'm now revising), I knew I had two main characters, I knew that it was a love story, and I knew that I wanted the supernatural elements to be really subtle- more based in metaphysics than magic. I knew I wanted to start out by showing each of the characters in their own lives, but that I wanted them to meet in a high-stakes, huge-danger, antagonistic way within the first three chapters, since I vaguely subscribe to the idea that in YA, by the end of the third chapter, your plot should start taking off. But those few things were pretty much ALL I knew. I didn't know how things were going to unfold. I didn't know HOW the characters were going to meet, or what the progression was going to be thereafter, or what the structure of the ultimate plot was going to be, or who exactly the villain was, or what exactly the villain wanted, or how a huge variety of seemingly unsolvable issues were going to be resolved. I knew there was probably going to be a decent-sized body count, but I had no idea which of the main characters were going to live and which were going to die.

At certain points in writing, I'd call up one of my writer friends and say "I have a sinking suspicion that X and Y might die at the end of this book. Would that be bad?" And she would be all "Jen! You're writing romance! You can't kill your couple!" To which I would reply, "Well, it's not like I'm SURE they're going to die. It's just kind of seeming like at least one of them might. Guess we'll just have to wait and see." At which point, I'm probably lucky that my oh-so-wise consult didn't just hang up the phone on me.

For me, writing this way is just more fun. I like the tension of not knowing exactly what's going to happen. I like knowing that anything is possible. I like watching it unfold. But as previously mentioned, I also like operating under the delusion that my structure is in place and the plotting is relatively even, so I've developed a method that allows me this beautiful illusion. I don't plan out what's going to happen in the book, but the moment I "discover" something that's going to happen, I jot it down at the end of the document. In the beginning, this might just mean that when I end one chapter, I know how I want to start the next one, and I'll write down a couple of trigger notes to push me in the right direction the next time I write. As the book progresses, though, the list of things I've discovered grows substantially, and I start organizing it in pleasing ways. By the time I hit the last quarter or so of a book, I've discovered almost everything (except, perhaps, who lives and who dies), and lo and behold, my "notes" have turned into an outline.

There was a part of me that found this idea aversive the first time it happened, because I so strongly identified myself as someone who didn't outline- but then I realized that I'd been tracking these "what happens next" ideas all along and jotting them down had the added benefit of NOT having to write the last 15,000 words in one go.

For me, writing is always an evolving process, and the revisions and changes I make to one book almost always affect the way I sit down to write the first draft of the next. For me, the trick is balancing the kind of forward momentum I need to finish a first draft (the part of me that doesn't want to plan) with the impulse to make sure I'm doing thing like "plot" and "character" at least semi-right (which sometimes requires more planning).

-Jennifer Lynn Barnes


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 9th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
I really, really like the idea of "what happens next" notes. That seems really helpful and not at all constricting.
Apr. 9th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
I would love to be able to plot more thoroughly. But my problem is this: no matter how much I think about a book, I seldom come up with any plot ideas. At all.

Scenes, yes. Characters, yes. Plot -- not so much.

The way I get ideas for the plot is during the process of writing. It seems to be the only thing that works for me. And seeing as I have written five novels and am working on a sixth and nothing has changed, it's something that I've just had to accept.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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