Friday, May 29

Be Flexible When Plotting (and Writing) Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's an event in my novel, Darkfall, that's key to the whole story. It's something the entire series builds toward, and it cranks up the stakes and starts a (hopefully) white-knuckle thrill to the end of the book. However, when writing the novel, I had no idea where this event was going to occur.

I knew from my outline that it would happen, and I had several places where I thought it could happen, but the story kept evolving and I wasn’t sure where this pivotal event was going to go or how I was going to do it.

While the outliner in me wanted to freak out over this, I kept writing, trusting that my protagonist, Nya, would get there when she got there and everything would work out fine.

I understood pantsers a little better after this experience, because not knowing how things would work out had a certain thrill that was a whole lot of fun. It was also a good reminder that even though I enjoy a level of spontaneity in my writing, I need structure to guide me. Most of all, it was important to be flexible when writing.

Flexibility is something I think every writer can benefit from, no matter what kind of writer you are, be it an outliner or a pantser. Writing is an organic process and when we allow ourselves to let that process happen, we can tap into our subconscious and piece together ideas we’ve never consciously thought about before. I believe inspiration and those exciting “Ah-ha!” moments come from letting ideas churn in the backgrounds of our brains.

I'm a structure gal, but I try not to let my outline bind me. If I go off script, I let it run and see where it takes me, because I never know what my subconscious mind is going to come up with, and it’s usually much better than what I originally planned.

Having stories suddenly head off in new directions can be scary. You can feel like you don't have control over your story, that you don't know where you're going, even that you aren't a "real" writer because you're not following some perfect format or expectation in your mind. And getting scared is a good way to block yourself from writing at all—and who wants that?

Don’t stress over it.

Take a deep breath and look at what's happening on the page. Even when your characters get out of control, you still are in control of them. The trick is knowing when to let them run and when to buckle down and break out the whip. For that, trust your instincts and give yourself the freedom to explore a little if it feels right. Ask yourself:

1. Does this new direction feel like something real developing, or just something you need to work out?

Sometimes we have backstory or world building we need to figure out and it shows up in our draft. We need to write the scene and see how it works or to see what floats up from our subconscious. If the idea doesn’t work, we usually know fairly quickly as we run into walls or start tripping over additional problems. But when it does work, the writing clicks along and the words pour off our fingers, and we solve problems that have been stumping us for days or even weeks.

(Here's more on making backstory work for you)

2. Is it leading you astray or leading toward a clever revelation?

This can be a tough question to answer, as we don’t always know if a tangent is a good or bad idea. If you’re not sure, sometimes it’s worth taking the time to summarize where the idea might go and work out the details before you spend time writing the actual scene.

(Here's more on subplots leading you astray)

3. Do you enjoy where this unexpected direction is taking you?

If you’re having fun, write away and decide what to do with it after. Maybe it’ll be exactly what you need for the story, maybe it won’t, or maybe it’ll seem all wrong and then connect to something you stumble over later. Fun writing is never wasted, and more times than not it turns out to be the best parts of the novel.

(Here's more on stories taking unexpected turns)

Your gut is a pretty good compass. If it feels wrong, chances are it is, but if it feels right, then trust yourself and go with it. Be flexible and let your story reach for the heights you may not have realized yet it has.

How flexible are you when plotting or writing your novel? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. Great post! I just hit a point in my WIP last night where I realized I have about 50K words to write and I don't know what to say. I know where I'm going, but I haven't figured out how to get there yet and still maintain a solid pacing. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Most welcome. Thanks for giving me a post idea! What to do when you hit a wall and don't know where to go :)

  3. That need for flexibility is why I can't make conventional outlines. As soon as I have an ordered outline, I'm mentally married to it and can't conceive of anything else even if it's obviously flunking.

    A bulleted list therefore works better, but what works best for me depends on the medium. I've found that if I'm working by hand, 3x5 cards with 1 scene listed per card works for me. (It also helps me when I can't figure out how to get somewhere, JEM.) But if I'm working on my computer, I work better in Scrivener's Outliner function than its notecards--maybe because you can easily save a file that lists your original outline, then drag and drop and delete and fill in whatever strikes you.

    Even so, I've also learned the hard way that trying to completely wing the entire book produces a) huge messes that take several revisions to make coherent, and b) situations that make more sense emotionally than they do logically.

  4. "And often, my subconscious is closer to my characters than I am." Ain't that the truth.

    I've found that listening to your characters can lead you off in directions that can both confound and delight. We spend such a lot of time breathing life in to these characters, it would be foolish not to listen to what they have to say.

  5. Indeed, Wen. I like the way you say that.

    Carradee, I used to use the index cards myself. That's a great tool.

  6. It is reassuring to know that you wrote 250K words for Shifter 2. During my current rewrite, I have found letting go of my end-goal word count has helped my peace of mind. I don't recall who this inspiring quote should be attributed to, but it went something like this, "If you don't write everything, how will you know what to cut?"

  7. Indeed. In my case it was writing the book 5 times, but I needed to explore a lot of things before I found the core of the story. Sometimes you just need to write it out.

  8. Why is it that every new post here addresses the very problem I'm having? You must be a seer.

    But seriously, this is a very helpful post. I've made outlines for my various WIP, but when I get the full story outlined, I suddenly feel bored or uninterested, and I keep forcing myself to just stick to what I've already defined. Now I can sigh in relief, lol.

    Thanks, Janice!

    1. I have gremlins who spy for me :) They're very good.

      Sigh away, if outlining steals your interest in the story, toss it and do what keeps your attention. This is very common among pantsers, and maybe you're one of them.