Plotting Along

I didn’t write a plot outline when I wrote my novel because, quite frankly, I didn’t know what was going to happen. If I were to do it again—and in fact, I am doing it again, as I begin a new project—I would take the time to write an outline. Why?

 

It’s become clear that I need one. I’ve gotten feedback from my agent on my big, bad revision, and while there are a lot of things that—thank God!—are working, there are a couple of plot points that need more urgency, more oomph behind them. It’s not the first time that I’ve been told I need to “raise the stakes.” I hope this time I can raise them high enough. There are some good ideas brewing, and I’m hopeful.

 

Still, I wonder now if this is something I could have avoided, had I plotted things out more completely at the start. Eventually, I created a chapter-by-chapter chronology to analyze the pace of the story, but by then, I was already invested in certain portions that had been written. I moved them around plenty, and I am willing to cut what doesn’t serve the whole, but I think I probably got stuck more often than I needed to with this approach.

 

It’s also become clear that I need to outline more than the plot. I need to outline the emotional trajectories of my characters as well. I heard too often in critiques that there wasn’t enough of a change in my protagonist from start to finish. My next project deals a lot with grief, and it will be important to show how the main character is different at the end than she is at the beginning.

 

I have a couple of strategies in mind, but, as always, I’ll be learning as I go. One thought is to print out a “hero’s journey” diagram and make notes on it as to how my protagonist will develop along the way. I looked for an app that tracks this, but couldn’t find one. (Suggestions, anyone?)

 

Another idea, and one I’m a little more excited about, is a variation on the research projects I did in middle and high school. Then, we had to write out the information we found from various sources on color-coded index cards. Once we had enough information, we’d organize them into a narrative and use them as an outline. I have a lot of ideas for scenes and exchanges in this project that I could organize in a similar way. Perhaps doing so will help me to see where the tension rises and falls, and help me to make the most of each moment—and to easily eliminate those that don’t fit in.

 

Having worked on this first novel, I have a stronger handle on what works with dialogue, how much exposition fits, and how to shape an environment. But plot is still a tricky thing for me. I want to write realistic stories, but those that are interesting are those with drama. How do I strike the balance?

 

This time around, I’m starting with a skeleton (there’s your Halloween reference!) and “fleshing it out” from there. It’s possible that every novel will require a different approach. But it might also be that, step by step, I’m finding my way to what works best for me as a novelist.

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Bucket List

Senior year of high school, my English teacher had our classes make a list of at least twenty-five things we wished to accomplish in our lives. In looking for an old poem, I found this list on my computer tonight.

 

Some of the things I have happily accomplished, like getting married and having children. Others I still hope to do, like eating a salad made entirely of foods I’d grown in my own garden.

 

I should have known it would be on the list, but I was still surprised to see what claimed the number one spot: writing a novel.

 

Check!

 

As I’ve taken time away from this blog and my other one to revise my manuscript, and now that I’m eagerly launching into a new novel project, I’m proving to myself that I really do write because I love it. Do I think I might have something to say? Yes. Would it be really cool to be published? Of course. But I write because I have to. I came back from my hiatus itching to get words down, edited, organized, and posted. Writing is part of who I am—when I’m joyful, grieving, or trying to figure it all out.

 

And writing a novel is one of the best things I ever did.

Reason #355 Why Having a Writers’ Group Is Invaluable

On the heels of my novel revision, I’ve been thinking and thinking about a new project. I’ve had the idea for a few months, and have some notes here and there. Many of them conflict with one another, as I’m figuring out who’s who and

what’s going to happen. After finishing my first project, committing some of this more definitively to paper hadn’t made the to-do list, which was already so full of house, family, and work obligations.

 

This last week, though, it was finally my turn to submit to my writers’ group again. Not having feedback from my agent yet, I didn’t want to send in chapters from my revision. I considered digging up something I wrote five years ago for another writers’ group, or even starting something totally new, just for fun. But I knew the old piece was unfinished—I’d never incorporated the notes I got on it. And my brain wasn’t up to the task of creating something new out of thin air.

 

With limited time to submit my pages (I might have procrastinated just a little . . .), eventually it was time to sit down and pull my thoughts together.

 

And thank goodness I did. I don’t have many pages, but I wrote more than I expected in a short time and found that I’m really enjoying an idea I thought might have already gone stale.

 

A writers’ group is invaluable for so many reasons—encouragement, honest critique, networking, the opportunity to improve your editing skills, accountability. This week, mine gave me the kick I needed to start the next thing.

Finishing and Starting

A few weeks ago, I finally finished my novel revision and sent it to my agent for her review. This revision had been in progress for five months, and it felt just wonderful to have it done. I’m sure the manuscript is not perfect yet, but I do think it’s better than it was before. I know I am a better writer and editor for having made it through yet another revision.

 

A couple of things I learned along the way:

 

– I need a couple of weeks to digest editorial notes before I can make good use of them. I might want to dive right in, but I know I’ll end up stuck if I don’t let my mind work on them under the surface for long enough.

 

– Once I’m ready to revise, I do better with a couple of days of intense work than taking little—even two-hour—chunks here and there. I am of little use to my family on those days, but I’m also of little use when I know what I need to do and can only find bits and pieces of time to try to make it happen.

 

– I need to outline better on future projects—and that doesn’t just mean plot. There’s another post on this coming soon.

 

– Good dialogue can be the key to making a novel readable. I wrote a lot of dialogue earlier on, while I was trying to get to know my characters. I rewrote a good deal of it this time around, once I had a stronger idea of my characters, and I think—I hope!—it’s less stilted and more natural.

 

– Humor written in a first draft that is not still funny in a sixth draft needs to go.

 

– If good dialogue is the key to making a novel readable, then back story is the key to making a novel drag. Having edited this novel for a year and a half, most of what I wanted to say in exposition now also exits in characters’ words and actions, which is proof that the exposition needed to get booted. The delete key and I got very close in this round.

 

This draft may or may not be ready to go out on submission. If it does go out, there’s no guarantee it will be published. I can honestly say that either way, it has been worthwhile. I had such fun fitting the pieces together, solving problems, and creating this story.

 

If you’re going to spend the time it takes to write and edit a novel, you’d better enjoy it, I think. And I certainly did!