Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Plotting 101 by Rachel Vincent

After spending hours plotting my newest WIP over the past couple days, I became curious as to how others plot. Do they use sticky notes? Is there an outline? Or do other authors wing it and let the story tell itself. My previous method was just to write down names I wanted to use, a theme, then roll with it. What happened was A LOT of rewriting! Thus the new route of plotting.

I came across this blog by Rachel Vincent at I suggest heading over there sometime...she has a lot of useful, as well as fun information. Without further ado and tommyfoolerin, here's Ms. Vincent's blog.....

This is Why I Plot....

(Blog title is stuck in my head, being chanted to the tune of "This Is Why I'm Hot." Someone please kill the earworm!)

Yesterday, I mentioned on Twitter that my white board was covered in sticky notes, and several people asked me to either post pictures or explain how I used the board and stickies. Last year, I did a post covering this topic, so if you'd like to read that original post, click here. Or, you can scroll down and I'll explain it again in this post, referencing the novel I'm now outlining.

I have about a zillion things due in the next three months. A short story. A novella. The fifth Soul Screamers novel (IF I DIE). And the synopsis for the first book in my new adult series. (Before people start asking--again--no, I can't talk about the new series in detail yet. Not until I have permission from my editor. All I can say now is that it's paranormal (of course) and that it's currently scheduled for fall of 2011, though that could change.) And this synopsis is the most pressing of my deadlines. It's Yesterday. Pronto.

But here's the thing about first books in a series: they're hard. Not that any book is really ever easy to write, but it's always harder for me with the first book in the series, because you're starting everything from scratch. The world is new, and I don't really know it. The characters are new, and I don't really know them. The conflicts are new, and I don't really know them either. Which means that at the beginning of the process (which is where I am now), I'm flying blind.

Yesterday, after weeks of brainstorming on a couple of basic ideas, world building concepts, and vague character sketches, I sat down and actually plotted the novel. This is very hard work. It requires copious amounts of caffeine and Zen-like concentration.

[Craft word, as defined by Rachel: plotting - coming up with and organizing the actual events of the novel, including the main story line, the romance arc, and the relevant bits of the series arc. This is where I do the point-by-point, linear outline. By the end, I know all the major events and motivations which will propel the story.]

What I had when I started actually plotting:

•A list of characters and their relationships

•A list of important world-building facts--the rules of the world

•A big, blank white board

•Sticky notes, in three different colors, one for each plot thread

•A fine point black pen

•Notes, taken on my laptop, my iPad, and jotted on actual paper from my white board, before I erased it.

•Coffee. Never underestimate the power of caffeine. Seriously.

[Disclaimer: The following is how Rachel plots a book. This method usually works for her, but that is no guarantee that it will work for anyone else. Nor is this post a criticism or condemnation of anyone else's plotting method.]

Step one: Assign colors to your plot threads. For this book, the green notes are the main plot thread, the pink ones are the romance plot thread (I know, it's cliche, but it's easy to remember) and yellow is the series arc. I actually am not fond of the color yellow, but that's all I had left. ;-)

Step two: write down every single event/transition/turning point you've thought of so far, each on a separate sticky note, doing your best to assign them to the proper color. (You can always re write them on a different color later, if it turns out you got that part wrong.) I always begin this part certain that I only know a few things about the book. The plot must be introduced. The characters must be introduced. Girl must meet boy, or girl #2, or whatever (or be reintroduced to boy, or girl #2, or whatever), even if your novel isn't actually a romance. If it has a romance thread, at some point, the romantic leads must meet.

But as usual, once I started jotting down all my ideas, I realized I knew a lot more than I thought I did. Some of it is backstory, which must be carefully spread out and sprinkled in small doses, only where and when it's necessary. Even more were events crucial to the central mystery, which must have been bouncing around in the back of my mind, even though I hadn't consciously agonized over them.

Regardless, by the time I'd written down everything I could think of, there were more than fifty sticky notes on my board.

(Content has been blurred to protect the innocent--which probably wasn't necessary, considering how sloppy my handwriting is.)

Step 3: Clean it up. Go through the notes and make sure that everything concerning the romance is on a pink note (or whatever color you've chosen). This is not a perfect science. Some things would fit on multiple colors, so just go with what you feel. Or your first instinct. Or whatever.

Step 4: Insert logic here. Start with the logical beginning and begin putting the notes in the order that makes most sense. This is the part where you love me for making you use notes, instead of just writing it all down on your white board. Like this, you can rearrange things until you like the story they're starting to show, without having to constantly erase and rewrite things.

At this stage, I sometimes have to trash and rewrite/rephrase some notes, to make everything fits. The notes to the side in the above picture are those that didn't make it into the plot.

Step 5: Fill in the blanks with more sticky notes. Sometimes these blanks are transitions. Sometimes they're plot elements I didn't even know I was missing until I saw gaps in my plot (literal gaping holes in my string of stickies). Sometimes the blanks are more back story elements that provide motivation or complicate relationships. And sometimes... (This part's awesome!) they're snippets of true inspiration--a Eureka! moment--formed when bits of the story fit together in ways I didn't anticipate.

Note: it's okay to leave a few gaps, or stickies that read something like, "the heroine saves the day through an amazing feat of bravery and invention, and the world falls to her feet to celebrate her." Because some details just won't come until you're actually writing the book. And I think that's a good thing. It keeps the author/book relationship alive. Preserves the chemistry, if that makes any sense.

Step 6: Write it all down. Open up a word document and begin writing down what happens in the book, going from one sticky note to the next. This is the skeletal beginnings of your synopsis. Once you flesh it out, layering in any motivation or character development you may have missed, you'll have a completely outlined novel, just waiting to be written.

This last step is what I'm working on today. The book is completely outlined, the characters, motivations, and conflicts are in place. Now I just have to write it all down and make it pretty.

Wish me luck!

I also use sticky notes, or Post-Its but I don't use a white board. I just utilized two mirrors, instead. It started out as one, but my notes and chicken scratches flowed over to my dressing mirror.
Thanks for the great info, Rachel. You're an unbelievable writer!