Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

October 23, 2012

MRP Day 22 – Plotting

Filed under: the month of relentless positivity,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:48 pm

Relax. Today I’m not linking to any gems of writing advice I’ve inadvisedly plucked out of the internet. Instead I’m going to coopt the Day 22 entry for the Month of Relentless Positivity to mumble to myself about plotting.

It has been said that there are two types of fiction writers. There are those plotters who plan everything out before they get started, so that they have a clear destination in mind and a road map for getting there. Then there are the pantsers (referring to their tendency to write by the seat of their pants, who might be more politely referred to as discovery writers), who start from some compelling characters or inciting event and keep writing until a story emerges.

I’m more naturally inclined to pantsing it, just making stuff up as I amble along, content to nut out the next idea or two and not to worry about what comes after that until it arrives. I tend to find that when it’s working, it makes writing fun and even thrilling. The desire – compulsion, even – to know what happens next is a powerful motivation for continuing to write.

It’s an approach that seems well suited to an activity like National Novel Writing Month, which is an exercise in blurting out one idea after the other over a sustained period without a lot of thought about how it all fits together. When I wrote my first novel [1] there was simply no time to work out what was going on. The day to day planning for each evening’s writing stint basically consisted of coming up with a scene setting and a couple of characters to occupy it, and then typing to see what happened, filtered through a lens of the story’s “vibe” (tone, language and subconscious stuff like motifs and probably theme).

In the end I had something that I suppose was a more or less coherent story, albeit one in need of a brutal edit. I don’t know that it was a very satisfying one though – a lot of things happened around the nominal protagonist, but he himself was poorly conceived as a central character. He didn’t drive the plot with his desires, nor did he change much or discover any great revelations as a result of his adventures. A lot of stuff went down in the story, but arguably not much happens for any interesting reason.

I mention all that not because I am disappointed in that story or recriminating with myself nearly a decade after the fact. It’s just that with my current novel project I’ve tried to go the other way and attempt to plot it out. Now in a sense I’ve already failed at that because I’ve already written a draft of the story, which was part plotted and part made up as I typed. And the first draft is not bad, although there are major continuity problems (like when I killed a secondary character off and then decided that I’d done it at the wrong time so he was alive again in the next chapter, or when I changed one of the POV character’s name, profession and plot motivation about four chapters into a subplot that I realised was going nowhere).

But it’s a good story, I think, and I want to get it right, so I’m having another go. This time, I’m trying to impose some self-discipline and working out the major plot points and story turns and characters arcs and backstory and supernatural effects beforehand, so that I have at least the outlining equivalent of a good mudmap with coherent instructions and useful landmarks identified.

Tonight I hammered out 500 words on how the story is supposed to end. I’ve *never* done that before. That was definitely what was missing in the first draft. I had no sense of where I was going with the story. As a result, it meandered as it went and it stumbled at the climax. The ending I wrote was nonsensical and almost shorthand in places, because I knew it was disconnected from what I’d been intending with the rest of the story.

This time around I am working on putting together a clear picture – in my head at least, if not on paper – of where I am heading, and what needs to happen in order for the characters to get there.

If you’re wondering where the Relentless Positivity is in all of this, it’s here – I intend to finish this story, and I intend to tell it as well as I can. I don’t know if it will be a story that anyone else will want to read, but I do know that it’s a story I want to write.

And it’s time I got started with the writing, I think.[2]

[1] Still findable on the internet if you have great mastery of google fu.

[2] As a long aside, I have been prepping this outline with the notion in mind that I would make this my National Novel Writing Month project in November. I still might, but I’m leaning away from the idea at the moment. Realistically, I don’t have time to physically type 2000 words on more than about two to three nights a week, so I know that I’m going to be spending a lot of those nights feeling an extra pressure to catch up on NaNo’s notorious ever-advancing minimum word count. I have a feeling that placing that extra pressure on myself on top of the expectations I have to”do the story right” this time would be a bad idea. In this instance I think I’m better off setting myself a more modest target and then enjoying beating that goal than trying to maintain an artificially fast pace and burning out from shame and lack of sleep.


  1. I don’t know if it will be a story that anyone else will want to read, but I do know that it’s a story I want to write.

    I want to read it!*

    * – Except for any characters that might remind me of my Year 8 Maths teacher, and any occurrences of the pseudo-word ‘whilst’. Is it possible to produce an expurgated Clam edition?

    Comment by Dr Clam — October 24, 2012 @ 10:40 am

  2. I don’t recall your Year 8 maths teacher, but there are no teachers in the story (that I know about, although there are a couple of characters whose jobs I haven’t thought about so never say never).

    ‘Whilst’ will make no appearances as long as I stop writing before 1 am. This is definitely not a whilst story. (I feel like that last sentence should have ended in a pun, but I don’t really do those)

    Comment by lexifab — October 24, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  3. Also: I am woefully behind on critting your novel. Sorry. I am trying to give it some attention but I am terrible at time management these days. I will get there!

    Comment by lexifab — October 24, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  4. (1) Whew! ‘Whilst’ is something I practically never encountered until I moved to NSW and suddenly people were using it everywhere. I checked various dictionaries and apparently people had conned them all into accepting it as a valid word, but I remain dubious.

    (2) I am a purist and consider that ‘critting’, as a verb, should apply only to the phenomenon of rolling a natural 20 (or equivalent) in simulated combat.

    (3) I was going to cavil at the word ‘novel’ as well, but I see that Pale Fire counts as a novel, so I guess I won’t…

    Comment by Dr Clam — October 24, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  5. 1) I am also dubious. Really? In a *dictionary*? Ugh

    2) You assume that I am not metaphorically using the word in that sense? πŸ˜‰

    3) Bloody near anything counts as a novel these days, as long as you stay away from oft-clunky reductions like novella and novellete. It employs whole sentences that form a coherent sequence. That’ll do me πŸ™‚

    Comment by lexifab — October 24, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  6. There’s plenty of shades of grey between “discovery” and “outliner”. I usually don’t know how a book is going to end when I start it, but I usually have a damn good idea of the major landmarks and likely ending by the time I’m three chapters in. I don’t write it down in an outline, but I certainly do plan things ahead.

    There’s no need to choose one or the other option. πŸ™‚

    Comment by Andrea — October 24, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  7. Bah, I shouldn’t have written this when I was tired because that was more or less the point I started out to make. I started out writing this novel exactly as you described and I think fully expected to get the same or similar result, but when it came down to it I kept moving towards an ending that made no sense and didn’t really fit the rest of the book. It was perhaps two-thirds of a reasonably satisying story but it didn’t stick the landing.

    So in the rewriting – which will be more or less a full rewrite, give or take a few passages that worked fine the first time around – I have decided to start with the ending in mind and the major landmarks circled at least. I note that most of my landmarks are things that occur reasonably early in the story, so I’m obviously still leaving myself room to explore.

    So I am a pantser by inclination, but circumstances in this case are forcing some preproduction effort. I don’t think that’s necessarily the technique that fits me best, but it’s what I need in this case. Next time might be totally different.

    Comment by Lexifab — October 24, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

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