Thursday, 14 June 2012

Nailing Down The Process...

I've hit send on four new story proposals and I'm waiting for feedback on which of these the RIVA team think are suitable to develop. (And crossing everything that at least one of them will hit the mark, it wouldn't be the first time if all four were knocked back). So I thought I'd make use of the waiting time by looking back at what I got right with this last MS that sold, as opposed to the previous stories that didn't achieve those dizzy heights.

I love reading blog posts by authors talking about their 'process'. I adore the idea that there are a list of rules which, if I follow them faithfully, the end result will be a saleable MS. This trait slops over into other areas of my life - I had a shelf full of How-To books on baby rearing. I read Gina Ford and Tracy Hogg, I am a devotee of Dr Christopher Green's Toddler Taming. I wanted to believe that if I followed a set of rules the small one would sleep through the night at six weeks. Some of the rules worked and some didn't (the small one didn't sleep through for MONTHS *grits teeth at memory*). And it's the same with my How-To books about writing. Some of it works for me and some of it doesn't. The trick is to pick out the things that do work.

I thought I'd start with planning, since that is one point that I have nailed down about myself. I am not a pantser. I am in awe of them. How do they manage? How do they know they can sustain their conflict and story for the full 50k? I need to know where I'm going at all times. 

My most recent submission that didn't make a sale was my New Voices entry, Honeymoon With A Stranger, and as I've mentioned before, that story was an example of me starting out as a pantser. I dashed off one chapter because I thought I had an interesting initial hook situation, but I had no idea where the story was going after that. None of that mattered because I didn't expect it to get anywhere in the competition. It placed well in NV because I had no choice but to do some plot development and I had Liz Fielding in the background advising me and helping me brainstorm, but the moment the competition finished and I tried to complete the MS, it got harder and harder to continue with every chapter. I floundered around, not knowing where I was heading, my conflicts weren't strong enough, and as a result the story was rejected by M&B. My characters were good, dialogue and humour worked, but the whole thing fell down because it didn't have a decent story that could sustain me through 50k.

So when I started writing Secrets of the Rich and Famous, with editorial guidance, pantsing was out and planning was most definitely in. I did detailed character interviews and I had to submit a detailed story plan to the editor before I wrote so much as a word. It was broken down into twelve stages - I knew what was going to happen in every chapter, I knew how it was going to end. And in producing this plan, I used a plotboard. I hadn't done this before, and I have to admit part of the attraction was the fiddling around with stationery and colour coding - I like all that! This is what my plotboard looked like when I started out.

Pretty bare really. I split it up into five acts, put in lines for the mid-point, turning points and the black moment, and slapped on post-its for scene ideas and roughly where I thought they would fit in.

I planned to update the board as I went along, adding new ideas as they came to me etc, but this picture is also exactly what the board looked like when I finished the story. For some reason I never got round to adding to it and I never really referred to it, it just sat in my spare room. (At one point I hung the washing too close to it on the airer and it got dripped on - hence the pink streak!) 

In conclusion therefore, I could assume that plotboarding just isn't for me. But I know deep down that setting this thing up helped. It helped a lot. It made me visualise how the story played out and it forced me to think about how and where different events and developments happened in my story. And when I actually did get stuck into the writing I didn't have any problems with sagging middles or floundering about what would happen next, like I did with Honeymoon.

So this time round, I will be doing all the five act organising and plotting all over again. I might not plotboard - maybe I will set up a spreadsheet or draw a diagram, I haven't really decided - but I will do something visual to nail the story down before I start writing.

What works for you? Do you plan or do you dive in and pants?


  1. Lovely post! I'm the same, some parts planner, the rest pantser!

    I have a board too, but I only put the very basics down, just like you I plan each scene and know what's going to happen in them, I pin them up, work out timings, etc then I leave the board and, you know, write!

    But I haven't always done it this way, it was only recently that I started it and it has helped me no end!

    Congrats again on your sale, I can't wait to read it, fabulous title also!


    1. Hello! I know what you mean, it definitely made a difference, kind of made the whole plot less muddled in my head. Thanks for reading! Xx

  2. I'm still muddling through. Each time I try to organise my writing I wonder why I'm spending so much time doing that when I could be writing the story. So the plotting gets abandoned and I continue to muddle on. However, I do find that I can't skip parts of the story that is holding me up and write the bits I know further on. I need to be able to join the dots as I go. One day I hope enlightenment of the process strikes. :-)

    Congratulations on your sale!

    1. Thanks so much! I sometimes write a scene out of chronological order, but that's something else that caused me a problem in the past. Honeymoon had a finished ending, it just had a 10k gap about 2/3 of the way through and a lot of the middle was drivel! I think writing in order is better for me too. Thanks for visiting!

  3. Good luck with your proposals!

    I definitely need to plan but I also find myself having to redraft the plan frequently when I deviate. So I'm probably a bit of both. No matter how much I tried to get to know my characters on my current WIP before I started writing, once I got going, I realised they just wouldn't do what I'd planned. So then I had to replot.

    1. Hi Tora! I think thats a good way of working, you should always be able to deviate from the plan if the story works that way. And I know what you mean about the characters, I feel like I know them inside out by the end, but at the beginning I have to consciously ask myself how they would act in that situation and why. I know more naturally how they'll respond the further I get.

      Thanks for stopping by! :0)

  4. Great blog!

    I try to plan but it doesn't work. I think your board is a brill idea.
    Whatever your process is now obviously works well. Can't wait to read 'Secrets of the Rich and Famous'.
    Best of luck with the proposals.

    1. Hi Tracey! Thanks so much for dropping by. The board was great fun and worth a go, even if it just helps you get the plot clear in your head. But the pants/plot thing is so individual, we all have to find what works for us - maybe you are destined to be a pantser! :0)