Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How I Plot My Novels

A friend requested I do a blog post outlining how I plot my novels and write synopsises. This is not a ‘how to’, rather just an explanation of what I do, which may or may not be practical for everyone else.

First, I should note, I have two slightly different processes, depending on if it is a co-authored novel or a solo novel. I will outline my solo novel process first, then explain how I plan co-authored novels second, as the latter is the more nonsensical, confusing method of the two. As co-authoring requires a lot of organic development of plot and characters, whereas when I work solo I prefer logic and structure.


Solo Book Plotting:

Firstly, I come up with the very barebone plot idea. One or two sentences that encompass the story in the broadest sense. For example, Lifesphere: Acquisition was something like: ‘People bond with a creature/monster and compete in an arena.’

Usually, mentally, I will have a much greater idea of what I want to do, who the characters are and what will happen. I don’t normally start writing anything until the idea is mature in my mind. However sometimes idea come to me in an instant—an entire world, all the characters and the entire plot, in a few minutes. They hit hard and fast and often leave me with a blinding headache, during which I try and write as much down about it as I can. More often, ideas form and build slowly, developing over weeks and months until I decide they are formed enough to start working on.

After I have the basic premise written down, I write the genre, target audience and an estimated word count goal, alone with the number of chapters I want and how long I want those chapters to be. This is just a guideline, but it’s a guideline I like to have in place, as it helps with the development of the plot.

If you know how long the book is and how many chapters it will have, you can get a rough idea of how many scenes you will need. For Lifesphere, I had 1-2 scenes per chapter and 4-7 plot points per chapter, so I could see that everything was moving along at a nice pace and there weren’t any areas the story lagged.

Once I have the basic premise and the word and chapter count, I make a note of the major character roles. In Lifesphere, it was Eli, Squall, both of their meka, Aquillis, Kalex and Aeryn. They didn’t have names yet, just roles. Main character, villain, etc. I made some notes about them, such as that Eli lived in a shanty on a rubbish tip and Squall was in a wheelchair. I gave them all things they wanted most in the world, things they were willing to fight and die for. I usually name them at this stage, though often the names are placeholder names.

Then I write out a list of things and scenes that I want to happen in no particular order. All the possible scenes I have in my head, good, bad, confusing. I just write them all in bullet points. I keep going until I have no more ideas for scenes, however often writing one will lead to ideas for more. So, I may end up with between 20-50 scene ideas at this stage.

I then start looking for a logical order to the scenes and form them into a narrative arc. Some will be cut at this stage, as not all of them will fit. By the end of this, I should have a rough skeleton of a plot.

Usually then I go back to the character profiles and add a lot more detail and any new characters I need. I make sure everyone has descriptions so they stay consistent, last names, first names and I name their family members so I don’t have to try and think of a name while I am writing.

This is also when I tend to do world building, though when I am writing my own novels, world building might happen randomly at any stage in the process. Worlds come to me very easily and quickly and stay with me a lot longer than other elements. Because I have SO MUCH world building in my brain, it actually rarely makes it to the page. For example, I can’t remember the names of any of the characters from the first novel I ever wrote (I, Aratika), but I do remember extensive details of how they farmed quails and how male and female quails were used in separate dishes and what those dishes were and when it was appropriate to eat them. That information never even made it into the book.

Once I am happy with the character profiles, I go back to the bullet point plot. I make headings for every chapter number in a new file (or page on scrivener) and I start placing my plot points in chapters. I write in where I want cliff-hanger chapter endings and flesh out the plot and add any bridging scenes as I go. I am pretty good at estimating how many words each scene will need to be, so it’s easy for me to space the scenes between the chapters and end up with a reasonably consistent word count.

I then spend a few days fleshing out the plot, so that there is as much detail in each chapter as possible and I know everything I need to know. Then I can start writing.


Plotting Co-authored Books:

If my solo plotting method is painting with a fine brush on a canvas, my co-authored plotting method is firing paint at a wall with a cannon.

Somethings are the same. Firstly, there is a premise. EG: ‘A figure skater and an ice hockey player fall in love and they’re TOTES GAY AS BALLS.’ Which I then have to convince my co-author to write with me. However, I usually find the words ‘gay as balls’ will entice her to write almost anything.

Secondly, I work out the character roles.

Thirdly, the character roles are assigned to myself or my co-author.

Fourth step is me plotting the first section of the book—usually the first third—with bullet points for the major scenes.

Fifth, world building. Buckets of it. If you’re going to play in the same world, you need to know what that world is like. Sometimes part of this is done verbally and with comparisons to other settings. Usually there are floating islands. I love floating islands.

That is pretty much all we do before we start writing. Which means I must do a lot of tracking and adjusting as we go. Because of the way we write, the plot course can change dramatically, so I usually reassess when we finish the first third of the plot points, then write the next third—another 20 bullet points or so—then depending how they play out, I plot the end.

Our co-authored ideas need be a lot more flexible in terms to structure and direction. Which often means a lot more editing when they’re done. However, given they only take a month or so to write and they’re usually over 100k, the extra editing time still makes them time efficient. They’re also a lot of fun to write, because we’re both constantly being surprised by the twists as we write, even though there is planning and structure in place.


So, there it is. The two, slightly insane methods I used to plot novels. Maybe this was helpful or insightful. Maybe I just look slightly crazier in your eyes now. Either way, is fine with me.

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