If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have seen me talk about plotting before and the recent (in terms of my entire writing history) experiments I’ve been doing to try to find a plotting process that works with my drafting process rather than against it. You can read about how I’ve tried planning back in 2019 and the beginning (or maybe the middle) of the plotting experiments I’ve been doing with the third book in the Sword and Shields series this past year if you’re interested.
For most of the more than twenty years I’ve been writing fiction, I’d been what writing communities often call a pantser or a discovery writer. I have an idea and some characters, and I start writing. There’s no plan, no plot, just a vague idea of the inciting incident and the eventual end point. This works great for things I never finish, or for fanfiction where it doesn’t have to be very polished and can meander and change course and no one minds. This doesn’t work quite as well when the plan is to publish the book at the end of the process.
Most of my experience with plotting and outlining a book comes in the revision stage. After I have a big messy draft, I’ll do a brief summary of the scenes and make an outline of what’s there, and then work on adjusting that outline to work better. For the second and third books in the Swords and Shields series, I completely redrafted from an outline written after the initial draft of the book. I think this ended up being pretty successful for book two (which is out for another round of beta reading at the moment) and I’m fairly proud of how it’s turned out even if it does still need a bit of work.
I spent part of this week rereading book three, which still isn’t quite finished (as in the ending hasn’t been written yet), but is in a lot better shape than I remembered it being. I’ve spent somewhere between six months and a year away from the draft working on other projects, and in that time some of the problems I was having with the outline, the scene ordering, and the general pacing of the book seem to have fixed themselves in my head. I know what to do with the scenes now and how to structure the book in a way to keep reader interest while also laying out the story in a way that’s understandable. Now I just need to write a few scenes missing from the middle, possibly redraft whole sections of the middle as well, and then finish writing the big climactic ending which should be the fun part.
So I think those two plotting experiments have been successful. I think I’m beginning to get an idea of how to use plotting strategies and outlines to revise a book I’ve already drafted.
I’ve also recently experimented with some plotting before I started drafting. This was my NaNo 2020 project, which I started brainstorming, writing, and plotting for in October, wrote a little over 125k on in November, and continued working on well into February. It started out as one idea, which several story beats planned out, a cast of characters, and no antagonist. It was supposed to be something relatively light, fluffy, and happy. A slice-of-life anime style low stakes sort of plot. This is not what I ended up with. I now have partial drafts of three novels, totaling about 52k, 38k, and 11k respectively. The 11k one being the original story idea.
All the planning, prep, and plotting work I’d done in advance did help keep me writing for nearly five months on one project though. Yes I was bouncing between the three books and a good week of that time was pulling all the scenes out of the massive NaNo 2020 document into their respective books, but the outline wasn’t a stumbling block like I’ve experienced in the past. That’s a big deal, at least for me personally. I’ve been avoiding outlines for years (in fiction and non-fiction writing) because I think better as I write and my end products have been better when I draft them, then outline them, then revise them to have a better outline.
I think, this might be a practice thing. I need to practice writing outlines and then drafting them. I need to practice revising with outlines. I need to practice having a more structured writing process. The reason the drafting method worked so well is because I’d been doing it for more than twenty years. So plotting and outlining is something I need to keep trying, keep working on, and keep practicing so I can get better at it. Practice makes you better at almost everything.
While I may not have a completed book based on any of my plotting experiments yet, I do have some very positive forward progress. I call that a success, or at least a success so far. I’ll likely still do some discovery writing during my outlining process to get to know my characters and better think through who they are so I can better know how they’ll react in various circumstances in the outline. I’ll probably deviate from and rewrite my outlines as I go. I’ll occasionally go completely off the rails and write a completely different book (or two) as I did in November. But that’s okay. That’s still practice.
I’m going to keep practicing and keep trying out plotting options and planning tools and seeing how they work for me. I’ll always keep writing no matter what my process looks like. With any luck, those two things will eventually turn into new books I can share with everyone.