Whenever I speak to other writers, one of the things I’m always endlessly curious about is whether they plot out every stage of their novel, or simply start writing and see where the book takes them. I’m definitely in the latter camp, although I did try to plot as much as I could for my second book (which I’ve just handed in to my agent – yay!) I find it very interesting that different authors approach writing in totally different ways – and I don’t personally believe that one way is better than the other, if the end result is still a good read.
When I started writing The Doll House, I basically just started writing and the story formed in my head as I went. I jotted down little notes about my characters, and I had a sense of the main crux of the book, but I didn’t know how each scene would go and I certainly didn’t know how all the elements would tie together (frankly, it’s still a bit of a miracle to me that they did!) But I found that as I wrote, the story sort of came to life and plot issues began to resolve themselves. I think if you can let your imagination run wild a bit and listen to your instincts, often plot problems will work themselves out – it’s when you start stressing out about them that they seem to grow worse and worse.
A couple of my writer friends say that they plan their books out very methodically, and I think this is a very impressive way of doing things too, but only if it works for you. Whenever I have tried to sit down and plot things out, I find I sort of freeze up and feel less and less creative, because my mind is panicking at the thought of the planning process. I’m not really a huge planner in my personal life either, and I think this might have something to do with it. Something about the idea of sitting down to plot out a novel reminds me of school, and for some reason, it just doesn’t work for me.
That’s not to say that it can’t work for you though. Of my writer friends who do plot, one says: ‘I make an excel spreadsheet for each scene in my book and colour -code it according to characters and themes. It does take a while, but once the majority of this stage is done, it feels as though the hard work is over and I can then concentrate on the fun elements of writing – filling in the descriptions, developing my characters and adding dialogue, safe in the knowledge that there’ll be no knotty plot problems along the way.’ She did admit, however, that sometimes things do change as she goes, and that if a story takes an unexpected turn, you have to be prepared to throw the excel document out of the window.
I think this idea of flexibility is very important. If you are writing seriously and you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, you do need to be ready for the fact that your agent and your editor will probably ask you to make alterations to your book along the way, so it’s good to be able to listen to different ideas about your work and take them on board. That’s not to say you have to agree with everything your editor suggests, but you should be prepared to consider it and try it. If you’ve been flexible with your plotting process, it hopefully means you won’t be too wedded to it and will be able to make large or small changes if you need to bring your book more in line with the market or iron out any issues which may be confusing to a reader. When I was writing The Doll House, I changed the opening in particular so many times – I ended up moving a scene which was in the middle of the book right to the front and cutting about 40,000 words in the process! Although that might sound scary, in actual fact it was very liberating when it came to it. It felt as though my plot was a big jigsaw puzzle, and I was moving the pieces about in order to ensure they were in the best possible order.
Another friend of mine says she is also a ‘pant-ser’ (e.g. writing by the seat of your pants). She says: ‘I find it really exciting not knowing exactly where my story is going. When I’ve been writing for a while, the characters begin to take on a life of their own, and make decisions independently from me! That’s when I know they’re starting to feel real, and I can feel my story starting to take shape, even if it might be a different shape to what I’d originally expected.’
It’s important to emphasise that there is no ‘wrong’ way to approach plotting. I work with lots of amazing authors in my day job as a commissioning editor, and I’ve bought books which have been intricately plotted on post-it notes and books that have just flowed onto the page and been rearranged later. I also don’t think that when a book is finished you can tell whether an author has plotted first or not – as I said, if the end result is tight and without holes, then it really doesn’t matter how you got there! Focus on the fact that you did get there, and that you have a book to show for it!
So are you a plotter, or do you wing it? Let me know in the comments!
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