“The beginning of a plot is the prompting of desire.”
Christopher Lehmann-haupt (American journalist, critic & novelist)
To plot or not to plot? If you want to set the cat among the pigeons, just ask this question to any bunch of writers, then stand back and watch the fur fly. It’s a biggie. Bigger than ‘Does the definitive scone in the archetypal British cream tea have cream on top of jam or jam on top of cream?’ or ‘Is there intelligent life on other planets?’ or even that hot potato, ‘Is Donald Trump a real person?’
“Plot is essential!” yells John Irving who famously spends months drawing up outlines for his novels before beginning the actual writing process, while John Grisham writes chapter summaries listing key events that serve as the scaffolding for the story he’s going to tell. Other structure-junkies are James Ellroy who lays out a 200-300 page synopsis for every book he writes, and Robert Ludlum whose pre-book outlines run to 100-150 pages! For PD James plotting is an essential part of the writing process, “By the time I begin writing, the plot is there and there’s a chart which shows in which order the things come so that the structure is right.”
But the opposite camp is no less passionate about its stance. “Plot sucks!” counter-attacks Stephen King. For these more organic writers, plotting stunts or even kills creativity. Stephen King takes no prisoners with his straight-down-the-line, full-strike assertion: “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” Ian Rankin is another writer who chooses to go with the flow: “I’m really not in control of what I’m writing. It’s almost as though before I start writing there’s a shape sitting there that I’ve not seen yet, and when I start to write the novel the shape will reveal itself to me, the novel will decide which way it wants to go.”
So there you have it – the jury is famously out, and which side you come down on is probably down to your personality as much as anything, but there are a whole bunch of interesting ideas out there that might just clinch which side you decide to bat for – here are a few to inspire you.
The Snowflake Method
Committing yourself to writing a novel can seem terrifying, but the Snowflake Method pioneered by award-winning novelist and physicist Randy Ingermanson helps manage that fear. Using this gentle method you start small and gradually build up, not looking too far ahead, constructing one snowflake after another until finally you end up with a snowstorm or a snowman or, in this case, a story! Simple but effective…
Spreadsheets & Grids
One for the organised among you. Spreadsheets are great for giving you an overview of the storyline at a glance so you can see everything that’s going on and how it links together. Tried and tested advice is to use one line for each scene and create your own column headings, e.g. Location, POV- whose viewpoint a scene is viewed from – and Action – what happens in the scene. A spreadsheet is also very flexible so ideal for moving scenes around if you decide to change direction. Grids work in a very similar way, e.g. Joseph Heller used a complex incredibly detailed grid for his groundbreaking novel Catch-22.
Super-creative, these are great fun but can also throw up some really interesting options that you might not otherwise have thought of. The world’s your oyster here – why not create a mind-map for each character or each chapter or the overall arc of the book? Great for freeing the imagination as one thing just seems to lead to another – and another – and another…
Is that a yawn I hear? Don’t underestimate them! Best-selling author Michael Crichton used index cards to plot his stories while still at Harvard Medical School. He’d pop them into his pocket and if an idea came to him he’d jot it down. Each day he’d take a fresh supply of blank cards, storing the completed ones in an old shoebox until it was full when he’d get all the cards out and shuffle them until he had his plot. So, no more excuses for lack of time. Go index!
Whiteboard & Walls
A whiteboard will grab your attention the minute you walk into a room so use one to keep your focus on your story. Coloured markers and headlines create a sense of urgency – you are so going to nail this whole writing thing! Excellent for mind-maps too. Or you could take it to the next stage by using the whole wall. William Faulkner did just that in his office with the outline of his Pulitzer prize-winning story A Fable. It certainly worked for him!
No safety net, no tramlines to stick between, just you and your imagination slugging it out on the empty page. Start writing, and then keep on keeping on. Let that initial glimmer of an idea lead you down unexpected paths and don’t worry if it feels just a little bit crazy – trust your instinct and let your creativity flower.
Illustration: Chessboard © ahmedelballal (pixabay.com)
#Carry on the thriftiness
No thriftiness this month – finally, a new PC to replace my prehistoric old one with surely the slowest boot start-up time in the universe!
#Edit my book, write more short stories & get article commissions
Short story, tick, article, tick – both sold! Working on a longer story now – a period crime piece that’s a bit of an experiment. Fascinating to research the period detail though… Watch this space!
#House projects (on a shoestring budget!)
On hold for the holidays… Pimms anyone?