How to Plot (with analogies involving space debris, clay sculpture, and of course plants; plus an exercise program)

A Twitter friend wants me to blog about how I go about plotting a book, and since I’m in the process of doing that now (yes! writing is occurring on Book Five!) I’ll try to put it into words, though I don’t guarantee coherence.

First of all – again, series fiction is different than stand-alone fiction, because after the first book you’re working with plot elements and characters that have already been established. Since I’m writing the kind of series fiction that has multi-book plot arcs – where I may put a Chekhovian gun on the mantelpiece in one book and not fire it until a book or two later – I have to think in big sweeps and little shuffles at the same time. But each book has its own themes, and needs to have a story with build-up and some action and at least one climax and some winding-down at the end. And I think my basic process is the same no matter what I’m writing (though let’s wait till I write a stand-alone novel and then see if I change my mind).

As plants begin with seeds, plots start with some sort of seed material, which can vary greatly. Usually for me it’s a constellation of settings, characters, scenes and thematic concepts that begin to orbit each other and adhere (to change the metaphor entirely, and possibly start making planets). Time for Tea had a very odd genesis (which I may write about here someday) but early on it possessed a love triangle (just one at that point) and a scene involving anachronistic Mozart. The eighteenth-century setting pretty much evolved from that, and I discovered tea smuggling somewhere and started working with that in mind. Time and Fevers needed to be set in seventeenth-century Holland because of [spoiler], and using the tulip craze as a MacGuffin was obvious to this plant geek. Beyond that, it was driven by character motivation, research details, and dramatic literature. Time Goes By, aside from being the World War Two novel I’ve always wanted to write, pretty much spun off of several plot setups in the previous book.

Okay, so we’ve got some elements swirling around, vaguely gassy with a few solid bits (and a lot of water), but it’s not a book yet. It’s a mess of Character X Wants This, I Think Readers Should Know About That, and Look A Pretty Picture, plus random snippets of dialogue and cool historical details I’d love to tie in somehow. I try to make note of it all, despite my resistance to putting anything down in print until it makes sense. It simmers in the back of my mind, and I dig into research sources that cover subjects and time periods I want to focus on. And then I go for a walk.

Actually, I go for lots of walks during the course of plotting a book. For whatever reason, I think more clearly and logically while my legs are moving and my hands are not on a keyboard, so whenever I’ve got a problem to solve I try to get outside. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had an intractable difficulty that stops writing cold, and then is fixed before I get halfway down the block. (Horrible weather is really frustrating, of course. I can’t make this work in the middle of an exercise class or any activity I have to think about to avoid crashing into something. I did come up with George’s passenger pigeon vision during savasana in yoga class, when my mind was supposed to be blank, oops, but for meaty plotty stuff it has to be a walk in a place I know my way around and that’s not distracting.)

So, the book’s achieving more solidity now, but I still need to shape the amorphous clay into something I can sculpt finely. (There are all sorts of metaphors mixing up in this post, sorry.) For me what works is to ask a series of questions about whatever writing-element I’m most certain about. That might be a thematic through-line or a plot idea that will probably be central, or something else. For me it’s almost always the characters, so:

What has X been doing since the last book ended? (Or, if it’s the first book with X in it, what’s been happening to her recently?) What are Y’s current tasks, interests and goals? How does Z feel about X these days? etc. The intent is to work with one character at a time, but it never happens, because thoughts of one will lead to thoughts of another, and they do things together, and pretty soon there are some little plot seeds being planted, and quite possibly some scenes being written in my head.

If I’m lucky, the beginning of the book will begin to cohere at this point, because I’ve also been mulling over setting, and a scene or two will come together as images, words, and ideas. Just as I think better when I’m walking, I write better when I’m writing, so my goal is to get that first scene or chapter down as early as possible. Things happen while I’m creating prose that don’t happen while I’m making organized notes: perhaps it’s a free association effect or just a matter of having more material to work with. I’ll start to describe a place, or choose a particular image or metaphor as illustration, or decide to have a character refer to events outside the scene or quote a poem or something, and suddenly whole new lumps of plot idea will land at my feet, or a theme will clarify itself. So beginning to get the words together is really important.

Some writers outline their books, in whole or in part. I am so very much not an outliner, but sometimes I do sketch out the next few chapters as I go along, just to make sure they’ll be doing what I want them to. Things may change when I actually write them, but it’s useful to plan ahead a bit. I’m also very likely to know before I start (or just after) how the book will end and/or what the climax will be, sometimes in very specific detail and sometimes in vague mists of probability. Often there are scenes along the way that I’m pretty sure of as well.

So, let us say that just now – because, ha, that is exactly where I am – I have some of the first chapter written and more of it at the tips of my fingers ready to come out. I know kinda sorta what will happen during the climax of the book. I’ve gone over in my head what my characters have been doing and where they are with themselves and others at the start of the book, and what needs to happen to them to get the action going. And I have some cool ideas! but not much clue how they’re going to work into the plot. So here’s the next set of things to work out:

Point of view. Whose head(s) do I need to be in to gain the right perspective on the action? I know who I’m starting with, because I’ve already written that bit. Are there pieces of plot on which only one character will be able to provide a useful viewpoint? And the repeating characters who don’t get the honor of telling the story this time, how do I make them important? (Book Five is the first one in which I don’t plan to use Olivia’s point of view, which is like a whole limb going numb, but it’s not like she can’t participate in the story nonetheless.)

New characters. I won’t necessarily know this until I get more plotted out, but what new characters will I need for this book, what parts will they play, and what are they like? Can I do something particularly new and interesting with them? (I’m talking significant characters here; my books are hugely populated (I counted 70 named, speaking, or otherwise influential characters in Time Goes By, and there are not many fewer in the other books) and some people pop up as needed and then go away again shortly, never being conceived of in advance.)

Logistics. When I start fitting potential settings/plot elements together in my mind with characters, often something will pop out and I’ll know that this person has to be in this place at this time – but how do I get him there? Why the heck would he want to be there? Whose choice is it? Who doesn’t want him there? What is he going to do while he’s there? Etc.

Themes. If I’ve got a “big idea” ahead of time, some story I want to tell or concept I want to push, then it can figure into all the plot elements. Sometimes this only happens by accident, though; to my mind characters are more important than themes.

And so forth. One thing tends to build on another organically, and I find it doesn’t matter too much where I start as long as I periodically step back and look at the whole construction to make sure it holds together. I need to keep writing technique in mind – flow, pacing, balance – but usually that sort of thing works itself out if the whole structure is good. I do write linearly, in pretty much the order that the scenes will fall in the final book (Time Goes By was an exception, but even then most of the reorganizing happened to the middle of the book, not the front and back), but I don’t necessarily think linearly. Writing is not one thing after another; it can’t be everything all at once either, because brains don’t function that way, but remembering to keep all the characters and all the subplots chugging away in the back of your head is necessary, if difficult. And I believe that those glorious moments of writing serendipity, when you realize that you’ve accidentally seeded something early on that is going to bear fruit now (oh, we’re back to plants; what a surprise), come about because you’ve kept checking in on the health of all the parts of your garden. But I will keep the analogies with succession planting and integrated pest management for another post. (I have actually written quite a lot of it…)

There’s a lot of detail to work out along the way, especially at those nasty moments when I get to a part I’d planned and then realize that it makes no sense whatsoever. And then I go for a walk. Occasionally I write out timelines (especially for certain characters who insist on taking ridiculously complicated paths through time) or create charts (there was a “Who Knew What When” for TGB, much needed). Or, on a small-scale logistical level, play with Legos. (That climactic beach-and-cliff smuggling scene in Time for Tea required multiple mini-figures on chairs and tables.) I am also very fond of the switching-heads technique, where I try writing out a scene from the point of view of a different character to see how that changes things. (Or I just think it out, usually while going for a walk.)

Anyway, looking back on all this, I realize that I’m not talking about “plotting” per se so much as book-crafting in general. This is on purpose, because I firmly believe that plots are not separate from other aspects of a book; plots are driven by characters, setting, thematic ideas, and the author’s whims, and cannot exist in isolation. Subplots also cannot exist in isolation from each other, so the secret to juggling bunches of them is not to think about the plots but about the characters, who are probably thinking about those other characters over there in that subplot and vice versa (or, if they don’t know each other, they are thinking parallel thoughts that are thematically related; something like that). Keeping this in mind seems to help with writing rhythm, too; it’s easier to intuit when to end sections or chapters and switch from one subplot to another if you’ve had the absent one in mind all the time.

Hopefully this is not all too vague to gather some understanding of my process, and if you’re still reading, I hope you found it somewhat interesting! It helps me to write it out (writing about writing is hard, though!) especially as I flex my hands for the shaping of Book Five. Please, February, no ice storms; I’m going to need to take a lot of walks.


2 thoughts on “How to Plot (with analogies involving space debris, clay sculpture, and of course plants; plus an exercise program)

  1. Thank you so much for this! It’s fascinating, and very helpful, to learn about your process. I am ever in search of A Better Way of doing things, and cheered to hear that you are not, generally, a detailed outliner of plots, either. What you say about plot emerging so much from character is very true, and is a timely reminder for me.

    Excuse me, I’m going for a walk. 😉 But not before telling you that I’m loving Time Goes By just as much as the previous two. I’m trying to make it last! Learning lots about Charles and Beatrice at the moment. So glad that pondering/writing on book 5 is happening (YAY!!).


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