Last week, we talked about How We’d Spend A Day With One of Our Characters, but this week’s entry in our How I Write series, takes a closer look at our planning process. So, since we’re all writers, we’re focusing on plotting, which inevitably leads to the question: Plotter vs Pantser or some weird mix?
Plotting Via Spreadsheets
Hi. My name is Kristen and I’m a spreadsheet addict.
There. I said it. Now, I love me some colored index cards and other office supplies, too. They have their uses, but they also get scattered and lost. I’ve also been known to scribble mind-maps and notes on loose paper, but I do much better if when I’m satisfied with the basics, I transfer everything into Word or Excel. Sometimes both.
I also have a love of puzzles that captured my attention in my college economics courses and led me to double major in it alongside business administration. You probably think I LOVED my accounting classes too, but you’d be wrong. There’s a huge gap between intriguing puzzles and busy work. I see plots more as complex puzzles that I haven’t quite worked out the rules behind.
I’ve looked at many different plotting methods to build my outlines, Snowflake Method, 3-Act Structure, Save The Cat, The Blob, Hero’s Journey, Emotional Structure, Billy Mernit’s 7 Steps of Romantic Comedy. You name it, I’ve probably tried it. Even on the same manuscript.
You see, I also have another problem. I over think things. Yes, I can admit it, but that’s easier than avoiding doing so. I like to look at things from different angles. I want to make sure what I’m building will make sense when it’s complete. I like looking at things through different lenses and not just for photography. This is why I don’t think I could pants a story to save my life. It only takes me so far and I’ve lost sight of where I was going and end up circling in confusion and walk away from it.
With spreadsheets, you can keep all your thoughts and notes in one place. Using different worksheets in the same file or even different columns on the same one, you can apply different lenses (plotting methods) to the same plot outline. Is it effective? I don’t know. I think it works for me in the long run. I think of and see different things as I approach the problem from different angles. Does it help keep me on track and get the project finished? Probably not, but it does help me explore and think about the story and the characters so I know them before I sit down to work.
Linear vs Non-Linear Writing
If you’ve read any of my previous posts on writing or plotting, you know I strongly believe I need a road map to get from the beginning of a story through to “The End”. I may sound like an extreme plotter who plans everything down to the most miniscule detail, but I really do enjoy having my characters surprise me along the way.
I could never write out of order because of that though. Things change wildly enough sometimes without jumbling things out of order and requiring major surgery to stitch everything into place before it can be considered done.
One of the methods I found and liked, but which drives my DH insane when I mention it, is called a Phase Outline. It’s a very detailed outline, where you describe what needs to happen on each page in a line or two. “Why write the story twice,” he asks. It doesn’t feel that way to me. I try to leave it lose enough that the characters can move outside the confines of the box and become who they need to be, but it’s still structured enough that I’m comfortable in knowing where we’re all going, and that we’ll get there on the right page.
Escape From the Box
So, you probably now have an image of me as a control freak. You wouldn’t be wrong.
You might also picture me as indecisive, insecure and unable to commit to a single method and stick with it. I prefer to think of it as thorough, but you might have something there.
So, how do I know when I have a plot that I can work with? Gooooood question. Sometimes it takes working through it and see if the pieces fit together.
Wait?! Didn’t I just say that was the exact opposite of how I saw my self working? Probably, but I’ve found that when my characters surprise me by doing something that’s not planned, it’s better for the story. I know a lot of pantsers say they run everything through in their head several times before committing it to paper. I suspect many hardcore plotters do the same thing, they just commit all their iterations to paper along the way.
As far as knowing when something’s ready to go out into the world? It should resemble the working outline, but doens’t have to exactly. The highlights of the journey must be hit, and I often can’t see that for all the details along the way. Once I have a draft or two on a manuscript, it has to be sent to a couple of readers to see if I managed to get the story in my head onto the page.
I’ve only reached that point with one manuscript and only sent that to one agent because my confidence having done that isn’t as high as I’d like it to be. That’s definitely one of my goals for next year. Deconstructing the puzzle and putting it back together again. Each iteration gets better, but I fear I’ve left a string of characters still trapped in their boxes along the way.
I’m determined not to sit complacently with them though, I will find my way out of this self-made maze.
When I first conceived of this post, I had the idea of a mime trapped in a box, which was really a cell in an excel file. But this morning as I got thinking about taking my laptop with me on a field trip to the car dealership, I was thinking how similar it was to the portable writing desks people carried (lugged?) with them during the Regency Era. So, as a special treat, here’s a photo of one. I think I’ll keep my laptop with Word and Excel for everyday use, but one of these to go with my antique lady’s secretary would be nice too.
A Regency Tunbridgeware mahogany and inlaid writing box by Dunnett's of London, circa 1810. The cover inset with a painted panel of Venus and Cupid, the border of chequered form, the compartmented interior with green paper lining and label inscribed 'Dunnetts Toy & Tunbridge Ware REPOSITORY No.3 Cheapside, London' 14 in. (36 cm.) wide
YOUR TURN: Are you a macro or micro manager? Do you plan everything down to the most minute details or do you get a vague idea in your head and take off running? Do unfinished projects haunt you? How do you know when your project is complete?
And if you’d like to read about deal with plotting and knowing when a manuscript is ready to go out, you can find their blogs here:
* Alexia Reed * Kimberly Farris *
* Danie Ford * Emma G. Delaney * Angeleque Ford *