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how to plot your novel - prepping and pre-writing for pantsers and plotters

How to Plot Your Novel (the fun way)

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Well, my friend. That time is upon is: it’s National Novel Writing Month in just a couple weeks. I’ll be honest. I have mixed feelings about this whole adventure. Do I personally think writers can benefit from a month-long challenge to write their book? Or do I think it’s a perfectionist’s nightmare that will only serve to frustrate you?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes to both – depending on who you are.

Because of this, there is no one-size fits all advice to offer. Par for the course, for creatives, am I right? But, there are a few things I'd like to mention before we dive deep with some craft advice next week.

Let's get into it.

You may have heard the terms pantser and plotter. The first likes to dive into the writing process and “discover the draft” as they go, often meandering and finding gems of plots, scenes, and substance along the way. Plotters, on the other hand, like to outline their book from the start (at various levels of ‘doneness’), and use that as a way into the draft, often bouncing around different scenes, since they have a general view of where they’re headed.

On the spectrum of pantsers to plotters, I am firmly lodged at the tippy-tip end of the plotter side. I plot everything. I construct subplots and plots, build my emotional arcs and characterizations beforehand, and only leave just enough space to allow for stuff to surprise me when I want it to. I don’t want to be surprised about what happens, I want to be surprised at how it can happen.

I’ve used this method to plot most of my novels in about a month, and this is my perfect mix of knowing “I can reliably finish this story in a timely manner”, and “I can keep it fresh and exciting” enough for myself and my readers. This wasn’t a mystical, creative choice for me either: it was a choice I made because I was quite literally in a place with book contracts where I knew I would need a good draft after about a month, in order to keep my schedule in order! I had to develop a way to write novels that was efficient, because I wanted to keep doing my job well. And (to be honest), I’m a science nerd at heart, so all experiments are failures to me if I can’t repeat them! I wanted a way to write books that would work every time.

For example, in my book Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray, I knew that I wanted a scene where Nikki and her friends have to escape a foreign country as they run from police. So in my plotting, I wrote something like “Nikki and the crew brainstorm how to escape, then find the perfect, exciting solution!”

In the actual book, you’ll notice that the solution they found is to hijack a jet and fly it out of there. Having exciting and surprising moments to execute like “let’s steal a plane!” kept me happy and ensured my writing was fresh, but I wasn’t wasting my time wondering “what happens next?!” at this point in the plot. I created a structure (or a formula, even), and within that, I found freedom to really play around.

So, as we dive into the initial process for NaNoWriMo, I think it’s smart to be very honest with yourself. You will not enjoy this process at all if you’re frustrated the entire time, so let’s open with a chance to give yourself what you need.

Are you drawn to plotting? Or are you drawn to diving in and experimenting as you go? Or, are you a combination of the two of these options?

If you’re a plotter at heart, I highly recommend you give yourself some time to flesh out some plot options. I’ll include a list of my favorite plotting/craft books here for you! I also want to direct your attention to this set of blog posts by Robin LaFevers, who has written extensively on the subject of ‘prewriting’. I found this extremely helpful when I was first starting to plot! In particular, this post is worth noting:

So where do begin? What's the first step I take when actually starting to plot a book? The answer is, I start with the non-negotiables. And by that, I mean I start with the things I actually want to include that make me feel really excited and eager to actually begin writing. I remind myself: I'm writing this book and I want to jam-pack it with as much stuff that makes me happy... because I can!

With that in mind, the most important question I ask myself before any book is this:

What are the ‘set pieces’ I’m actually excited to write about?

This is an oddball question. I’ve actually never heard other authors suggest this one to start a book, and it’s likely because it can take you away from the deeper emotional threads of your novel. But there's no point in creating a beautiful tapestry of emotion on a scaffold of events that you don't excite you, right?

That’s where my set pieces come in!

Set pieces are ‘popcorn moments’ — you know, those exciting bits of the story that will instantly grab someone, and they’re typically included in movie trailers. It’s Tom Cruise hanging off a plane with his bare hands. It’s Bella Swan nearly getting smushed by a van, only to be saved by a hot vampire. It’s Hagrid’s “You’re a wizard, ‘Arry!” All of these are popcorn moments, because they’re fun, exciting, and make you eager to learn more about the story. They can be catalysts to the story, but not necessarily. Mainly, they're just the really awesome scenes that you're actually looking forward to writing. 

The beauty behind starting with set pieces is that you create a huge collection of scenes that you're already stoked to write about -- and once you get rolling, you'll be surprised at how easily you can adapt these moments to work emotionally. In fact, once you begin to look at your list of set pieces, you'll often find that some jump out at you, demanding to be placed early or later in the story. 

If you are excited to write about something, chances are higher your audiences will be excited reading it. To ensure that I’m as eager as possible, I brainstorm a huge selection popcorn moments ahead of time, so I have tons to pull from when the time arises!

Another example: in Nikki Tesla, I had set pieces jotted down like:

  • The team steals a motorcycle and escapes Interpol
  • Nikki has to steal the crown jewels
  • Prince Harry makes a cameo
  • Nikki has to skydive to save the day
  • Rob a bank? Let’s rob a bank!
  • Nikki must escape MI6 while handcuffed and guarded (how?!)

These are just scenes I thought would be great fun to write, but I had no real idea where they would fit into the story. But here's the cool part -- fleshing them out is where common sense and chronology literally begins to write your story for you!

Here's what I mean: if I know I want to write a scene where Nikki escapes from MI6 while wearing handcuffs, that means I need to actually get her arrested. That's a plot point, right there -- and another one I'm excited to write about! Now, I'd ask myself: would that arrest mean the most happening early on in the story? Or later? Is there a way to make that arrest scene a set piece that I'm really excited about? Is there a way to make the arrest even worse for Nikki, emotionally? Can I play with some wound she has? Once she is arrested, how on Earth will I get her out of those handcuffs? How does she get out of the building itself? Should I plant something earlier -- a key? a bobby pin to pick the lock? a secret agent ally who will help her escape? 

The beautiful thing about one great set piece is that it will prompt many other plants that you need to add to your plot. This not only fills up your plot, but it creates a fresh, twisty story that keeps pages turning. You just need to allow the logic to create its path, and tweak the emotions as you go -- asking at every turn "where would this point be most powerful?" and "what sounds like the most fun for me?"

Already, my head is spinning, because from this one set piece of "Nikki breaks free from MI6", I'm thinking I'll need to plot:

  • a scene where Nikki is running from those who want to arrest her (that sounds fun -- how about a police chase? Maybe this is a good spot to add that motorcycle chase I had on my list above!)
  • a scene where she's thinking she's in the clear and outwitted the police (because to me, that feels fun and raises the stakes even more)
  • a scene where she's actually caught and arrested, (let's imagine she's betrayed by a friend and set up)
  • a scene or two earlier in the book to establish trust between this friend, so when Nikki is betrayed, it feels extra terrible for her
  • a scene or plant where I give Nikki the tools to actually escape the arrest -- after she's handcuffed and brought into custody (again, this is where I'd ask myself "what's the most fun?") -- in the case of of this particular example, you'll see in the book that I opted to give her a hair clip to pick her handcuffs, and a vial of liquid to make her sick, so she was given a free pass to the less secure bathroom in the building!
  •  a scene of how the heck she's going to exit the building itself after escaping her handcuffs

Phew!

You can see, when I start with a list of set pieces that excite me, I'm still dictating the plot, but allowing it to happen in a way that logically makes sense, but also surprises me and keeps things fresh -- because every set piece involves a lot of scenes, moments, and plants to make it cohesive and logical.

Those scenes you build around your set pieces aren't filler, they're necessary, perfect moments to continue fleshing out your character! In my experience, many people have problems plotting because they straight up don't know what should come next. With set pieces, you've always got options, and it's a matter of tweaking, shifting, and pondering what has the most oomph to you. And as a bonus, because they are scenes that already excite you to write, you'll keep that enthusiasm while working.

But it all starts with a list of random stuff you have an inkling might be fun to write.

Of the big list above, all but one of these set pieces has found their way into my NIKKI TESLA series so far, but they also gave me really handy ‘go tos’ to move toward that kept me really interested. Because my novels are action/adventure, I can pack a lot of these moments in, and the biggest lifting then becomes tying them to the emotional arcs of each character.

No matter what genre or category you write, this process of starting with set pieces works to help you stay centered on what excites you, so you can build a plot that is 100% you, and provides you with plenty of clay to sculpt your story. 

But how do you begin building those emotional blocks we mentioned? This could be a whole other post, but thankfully, I do have a list of things I brainstorm to help me while I'm beginning to noodle around with my set pieces.

To summarize a lot of plot advice into a tiny space, I always like to know the following before I create a book. 

Tip: try looking at these questions with the concept of set pieces in mind!

  • Who is my main character at the beginning of the story? Who will she be at the end? (Stories are transformation machines, so there should be some change here! If you’ve got an ensemble cast, the main character is the one who changes the most!)
  • What do they want, both internally and externally?
  • What do they actually need, internally and externally? (Note: this will likely differ from the last question!)
  • Who, or what, is standing in their way, in both of these cases?
  • Are there any 'must have' scenes and popcorn moments I know I want to include? Where might they be best served in the story?

Note: if this is way too much for you at this early stage of writing, you are likely a pantser!

In the end, writing a novel is a head game. It's exceptionally difficult for most people to write a novel in 30 days, but with practice, a good sense of honesty, and the tools in place to allow yourself to actually work how you tend to work best, it's totally possible to do it! 

Take home message:

My best advice for plotting (and writing, in general) is to go easy on yourself. Treat it like practice, and learn as you go. When in doubt, remember the why behind your writing. Why do you want to write this book? What's your big dream? 

In my next post, I'll cover a few mindset tricks to help you on your drafting journey. In the meantime, start brain-dumping some set pieces and get ready to tell your story!

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