The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…

Tricks for Editing Your Novel

I’m currently in the throes of revising my YA novel DRAWN, and, wow, working with a 300+ page manuscript really presents some challenges.  Editing on the hard copy has a nice safe feel to it, but it quickly gets messy, and, let’s face it, eventually you have to go to the computer copy anyway.  But make those changes on your computer copy and they feel done.  What if you change your mind? What if you mess everything up? Gah.

Of course this is where the computer serves us all so well. I truly feel for those poor old sods back in the day who had to write in long-hand by candlelight.  Get too close to a flame, and there goes a year or two worth of writing.  So we have some definite advantages.

With this set of revisions, I’ve been targeting specific characters in my novel, and specific threads of plotline that need tightening.  So the first thing I did was to use “save as” and rename the manuscript as something like: “DRAWN – new mother scenes.”  Then by opening the newly saved file and working in that instead of in the original file, I knew that if I royally screw up everything, it was still there saved for me safe and sound.

Next I tracked my changes in the manuscript.  If you’ve never done this, you’re in for a treat.  Just click on “Tools” then “Track Changes,” and select “Highlight Changes” and check off “Track Changes While Editing.”  Now every single change you make here will show up.  I LOVE this option while editing.  It helps me see where I’ve altered things, and I can go back to these sections and easily change my mind, or even revert back to what I had there by highlighting the change, and going through TOOLS and using “Accept or Reject Changes.”  With a huge manuscript, it’s so important to see the changes in process, and to be consistent. Using the “Edit” and “Find” tabs, I can quickly find a key phrase I’m looking for, or a character’s name, and edit from there.

If your changes are major, your manuscript’s tracked edits may end up being more confusing than helpful.  What Im doing with DRAWN, since my revisions revolve around a few very different issues, is I tackle one type of revision at a time. Here’s how it has been going…First I create a copy of the manuscript labeled for that issue. Next I track the edits for that issue in that copy. When I’m satisfied with those edits, I then go into the original manuscript and make the changes in that…if there are a lot of edits, I’ll print out a copy of the edited version and use the highlighted changes there to guide me. I save the revised original version, and back it up, including emailing a copy of it to myself.  And that’s one issue tackled…on to the next.

I know, it’s a bit clunky. And I could just say “accept all changes” on my revised copy, but I’m still not sure if I’m keeping them all yet (that’s why I track the changes in my original manuscript too…until all my revisions are done, then I’ll keep ’em). If anyone has a better idea, I’d love to hear it.  Personally, I feel there is a clarity to dealing with one plot thread or character change at a time. You’re sure to follow through the whole manuscript and thoroughly complete the change everywhere it’s needed.  And it’s truly helpful to then check that revision off the mental to-do list.

Sometimes there is a particular scene that tortures me. I like so much of what I have, yet I know it isn’t working just yet.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “kill your darlings.”  When we fall in love with our writing, we are in very dangerous territory. Writers must be ruthless with their words, cutting, slashing, sacrificing all for the sake of the story.  When I come across the fateful torturous scene, even a copy of it within the context of the story paralyzes me. How can I possibly change it? It seems to BELONG. Here’s what I’ve discovered: if I just copy that scene and put it into another file, I’m much more willing to butcher it to save the story. Remember, the original is safely saved, so no real risk, right?

So yesterday I did that with a scene, and it helped a little. But I was still getting tangled up in what was there.  The only solution was a blank page. The old-fashioned rewrite it from scratch. And when the computer screen bedeviled me, I turned to a sheet of paper, and a pen.  All that was missing was the candlestick.

All technology aside, story is about ideas, and words, and creativity.

One final thought…when I finish my first draft of a novel, I set it aside for a while, and then I use Donald Maass’ WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK to help me edit the draft. The exercises in there ask the big questions about plot lines, tension, character development, etc. Great stuff.  Check it out.