Where is my story going? Some thoughts about plot
A few nights ago I had a restless time in the early hours of the morning. I had been working hard on my children’s novel. I had written 400 words in the hour or so before retiring. This had drained me emotionally and mentally. I took a while to go to sleep; the mind was too active. Several hours later I more or less woke up knowing why I had been struggling with the story.
The story was going nowhere.
Sure-I had a vague idea of some of the plot. I knew the major events that I wanted to incorporate. I roughly knew where it was going and how it would finish. I just basically didn’t know how to get there.
In a flash of inspiration-despite the fog of being only half awake-I knew what the problem was. I hadn’t asked the protagonist some fundamental questions. (Hint from one of my lecturers: if you don’t know where to go next, ‘interview’ your protagonist. Thanks, Claire)
I needed to know the following:
- What does my character need or want above all else?
- What worries my main character? What is he afraid of?
- What or who is stopping my character getting what he wants?
- How will he overcome these obstacles and who can help him?
Once I had a clear understanding of the answers to these questions, plot ideas started to suggest themselves and the story became alive. The main character started to take over and I just had to take a back seat and let him drive the story. It’s exciting when that happens.
Plotters and Pantsers
Writers tend to fall into one of two camps, plotters and pantsers.
Plotters are meticulous planners. Plotters have an idea for a story and then plan, plan, plan. The read and research their theme and topic and revel in their discoveries. They draw up story boards and plan extensive character studies. They fill note books and sticky labels with all kinds of detail. For some of them, the research and planning is far more exciting and satisfying than the actual writing. I would imagine that crime writers in particular need this approach, or there will be too many loose ends at the end of the story. A very real danger in this approach, however, is drowning in a whirlpool of information.
Pantsers are almost the complete opposite. They have a great idea and rush to their keyboard and start typing, often with little regard for planning and really just writing by the seat of their pants-hence the name ‘pantsers’. Plot? What plot? Oh-that will take care of itself as I go along. The big problem with this approach is the brick wall that the writer rushes headlong into after three or four chapters. After the initial flurry of enthusiasm and inspiration, the writer suddenly comes to a screeching halt in front of that wall-what happens next? Often they have no idea where to go with the story. They don’t have a plan. There is no plot.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. I tend to be a ‘pantser’, especially with short story writing. With the shortened forms of fiction writing one can afford this luxury. With novels it is crucial to spend more time planning, researching, plotting and doing character outlines and so on. With my current novel I am trying to do more planning and plotting as I can see the benefits of doing so. It doesn’t come easily but I’m trying.
For a good discussion on the pros and cons of these two approaches see:
For more articles in this series go to Writing a Novel – a writer’s journal.
The Frustrations of the Writer’s Life
It has been a long time since my last entry in this series of articles. I have been very busy finishing off my course work for my degree. Then I had a stay in hospital followed closely by my wife having a stay in hospital too. On top of all that, I have had a very serious bout of influenza over the last three weeks with nine consecutive days in bed.
Over recent days I have managed to get back into writing my children’s novel. This will be submitted in November this year as the major part of my thesis paper. I have been getting rather stressed out by the fact that my supervising lecturer would like to see a draft copy of the manuscript by the end of July. Eeek – that’s a week away. Losing much of the last six weeks has put me way behind. I am so blessed to have a very understanding and compassionate supervisor.
Her compassion is very welcome, but the novel will not write itself. In the coming three months I will have to work very hard to get this project completed. The only way to accomplish that is to plonk myself in front of the keyboard and write, write, write. One of the additional frustrations is that I have other projects on the go. I have another two novels and four picture book texts almost ready to submit to publishers, as well as numerous short stories and poems ready to submit or enter into competitions. I need a thirty hour day and a ten day week!
One very practical solution would be to stop blogging and get back to writing the novel. It’s all a matter of application and priorities.
- Writing a novel – a writer’s journal – a series of articles outlining the process I went through in writing a novel.
Over the years I’ve had my share of rejection as a writer.
Many of these rejections were for poems, articles and stories I had submitted to magazines. Some were for children’s novels I have written. Some of the rejections were blunt; they didn’t want to publish my writing and no reasons were given. Some were polite and very brief. A few were encouraging and praised my writing. One notable rejection was a full page of suggested changes and a request to resubmit. (I’m still working on that one.)
Rejections come in many forms, but the reaction of the writer is often the same; devastation – or, at best, disappointment. Writers who give out advice about writing on web sites or at conferences or who teach writing classes glibly say, ‘Don’t take rejection personally. They are rejecting the writing – not you.’ That’s all well and good, but it is still deflating to get a rejection letter, especially something like a novel you’ve slaved over for five or more years.
I’ve also had it drummed into me that I should always work on a manuscript until it is the very best I can present. From what I have heard and read, far too many would-be authors submit shoddy writing to publishers or agents. They don’t realise how easy this makes it for the editor or agent to reject that writing very quickly, perhaps in a few seconds. It’s a very competitive field. In order to get published your writing has to rise well above the ordinary, the mundane and the truly awful.
For a longer discussion on this topic I’d like to recommend the following article. The title says it all.
I haven’t posted much here on this blog for quite a while. In fact, I haven’t posted much on all three of my blogs over the last two months.
One major reason is that I’ve been busy finishing off the course work for my Master of Arts in Creative Writing . That’s now finished and the final assignments were handed up last week. I almost had a period of grieving when that happened. That might sound a little strange but over the last 18 months my focus has been on completing the requirements of this course. That can be an all-consuming focus too. It has left precious little time for blogging and general writing.
Then over the last five weeks we both had illness to deal with. First, I was in hospital with kidney stone problems. Very painful but over that now. Then a few days later my wife also ended up in hospital and when she came out I had to care for her for about a week. She is now on the road to full recovery too. As if that wasn’t enough I ended up with a severe bout of flu which put me in bed for 9 days. I’m much better now – except for a very persistent cough that refuses to go away.
All through this trying time I was able to keep up with some reading – most of the time I couldn’t attempt much else.
Now I really much get back into the writing again. My major focus for the next few months is to get back into my novel. I’m in the middle of writing a novel for children which will be a major part of my thesis paper for the degree. I’ll keep you posted here on my blog as to progress.