Report from Book Jail: It’s a Plot

Well, not really book jail. Book jail is when the hot breath of a deadline is upon you, and meeting the deadline is all encompassing. My Wicked Cozy Author blog mates and I talk a lot about book jail, especially since four of us have deadlines within a month of each other. May/June isn’t going to be pretty.

I read Jamie’s post from Saturday about being a pantser versus a plotter. I am a dedicated plotter. In fact, a lot of my writing time is spent actually working out my plot. I’m in phase two of the process, writing the scenes I’ve laid out. I write in Scrivener, and in order. This isn’t to say there won’t be changes along the way, but I’ve worked out the main plot, the subplots, and the red herrings. The puzzle has been worked out. Unless one of my characters goes off the rails (this has been known to happen, but we all tussled during the plotting), the roadmap is a good one.

The challenge of this phase is that it is a slog. The words in my head are perfect. The act of typing them into my computer makes them less so, but fixing that is phase three. I can’t edit a blank page, so the slog is on.

I talked about Paula Munier’s Plot Perfect in my New Year’s post. I’m going to recommend it again, highly. Paula did a great interview on Jungle Red Writers, with visuals about her sixty scene structure. It is a variation on traditional dramatic three act structure, with the middle broken into two sections.

Of course, to figure out dramatic structure, you have to have your story to guide you. Working on plotting forces you to work on details, and flesh them out. It can also make you think about whether your idea is a book, or a short story. In other words, if you’re done telling the story after 2500 words, you have a short story. Stop, polish, submit. I’ve had short stories that turned into novels. and novels turn into short stories. The story is what it needs to be.

Given that we are a bit snow bound here in New England, it is a good time to think through a plot. How to begin?

Start with an idea. Write it down on an index card. Ask yourself “and then what?” over and over. Write down each answer on a card. Now look at each card, and ask “who” and “why”, write those answers down. Some of these answers may make you fill out more cards, maybe as part of the main story, or maybe as part of a subplot. The beauty of the index cards is that you can change the order of the story as you need to. Maybe you thought you started at the beginning, but you really started in the middle, and need to fill in the front part of the story so it works. Or, and this has happened to me more than once, you start your novel too early. Backstory slows down the momentum, so you need to cut it, and sprinkle it throughout the rest of the novel.

Plotting helps you build a road map for writing your book. You may not follow the roadmap exactly, but it will move you forward.

Now, this may not work for you at all. But it may help you stick with it. Writing is a process. Plotting may help you with that process.

So, are you a plotter or a pantser? How’s your writing going on these snowy days?


J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Just Killing Time will debut in October, 2015.

24 thoughts on “Report from Book Jail: It’s a Plot

  1. Great post! As a child, I wrote stories as a pantser and continued that way through 4 published books. However, I’ve been persuaded to do more plotting. Does that make me a “plantser” or a “panlotter?” Which ever it is, it’s working better for me.

  2. I’ve been a definite pantser in the past, but I’m trying my hand at plotting to see if it can help me get over my never-finish-anything syndrome. I figure, the more details I can work out before I start plowing through the actual writing, the less likely I am to get blocked in the middle of the story. I guess that makes me a “plantser” as well.

  3. As a new writer I can’t tell you how very helpful this piece was to me! I have two books in my heart and head but am just overwhelmed with I think about actually writing it all down. This plotter advice sounds doable for me, thank you so much! I’ll give it a try.

  4. I’m half and half. I start out with an outline of what I want to say and then kind of go my own way. I know what the end is, so I work my way there. 🙂 Great post! Makes me think I need to plot more.

  5. Guilty of plotting, mostly. I carefully plotted out my current book with the sections I wanted, poem titles, where there would be prose. I didn’t get to the planning stage until I allowed myself some time to just do a bit of free writing just to see where the writing energy was. Then I sat down and mapped out a detailed plan. Hope to have the main writing done in March.

  6. Definitely a plotter, in writing as in most everything else. However, have not really worked out a way of satisfyingly working out the chronology for the action. I’ve just found myself in a mess in a novel because days and times have become inappropriate e.g. a scene I’ve written turns out to be a Sunday (when related to other scenes) though the action takes place on a normal working day – I know people work Sundays but this is in the 30s when working was more confined to weekdays. I’m happy I can correct it but wondered if you have any thoughts on how to deal with this at the plotting stage, rather than 40k words in.

    • I’ve been there–a book I worked on last year went from taking place over a week, and then I compressed it into 4 days. I have three thoughts. First, Scrivener is a great tool for writing, and it can help you tag scene cards so it is a bit easier to track. Second, keep going. Third, make a note that you need to go back and make sure your timeline makes sense. And ask a reader to keep an eye out. Unfortunately, I find that I have those mid book “ARGH” moments that I need to fix. I try and keep track on them on another document.

      • Thanks for the advice. I only just re-discovered Scrivener but a little too late to go back for this one. I’ve simply been using Excel but it is nowhere near as flexible. On my previous novel I resorted to good old filing-cards and multiple coloured felt tips.

  7. I’m a Plotter, Five chapters into a rough draft. So far, all is basically going as planned. With everything plotted out, I already know where I’m gong, just have to figure out how to present it as I hit each scene. For me, that’s the fun part.

  8. This is a great post! I started my first novel twelve years ago when I was sixteen and I was most definitely a pantser back then. By the time I got around to writing the sequel eight years later I had completely turned into a plotter! It was interesting to see how my writing differed based on each approach. Thanks for posting about this. 🙂

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