Do you dislike plotting fiction? Many authors do. No matter how many novels you’ve written, plotting can be an anxiety-inducing experience.
Here’s the thing. To plot efficiently, whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, you need a process.
Without a process, you’ll struggle. Chances are that you’ll:
- Get fed up, and will give up on the novel;
- Procrastinate: the novel takes you forever to finish;
- Finish the novel, but the amount of editing required will be so overwhelming that you can’t face it;
- Complete and publish the novel, but… It will be a disappointment.
A tip: if you’re disappointed in your novel’s sales, it’s NOT a disaster. A failed novel builds your skills and teaches you a lot. Your new skills will help immensely when you write your next novel. Plus: a year or two from now, those acquired skills will ensure that you can rescue your novel, should you wish to do that.
Let’s put your struggles to one side for a moment, and think about plotting.
Many elements go into successful fiction.
An efficient plotting process allows you to focus on elements, like character development, scenes, setting, and pacing, because you know where the novel is headed.
But why would you want your plotting process to take no longer than an hour?
When you’re plotting fiction in an hour or less, you maintain your motivation and inspiration
Plotting fiction in an hour (or less, if you’re writing a novella) ensures that your motivation stays high. So does your inspiration.
Something else: motivation and inspiration ensure that you maintain the feeling of your novel. Many authors will tell you that their most successful novels didn’t take days or weeks to plot. They scribbled an idea on their phone, or on the back of a receipt: they had the seed of a plot.
Let’s look at why you should aim to spend no longer than an hour plotting a novel… Or a series of novels, for that matter.
1. A novel grows as it goes: even the best outline morphs
Way back when I wrote fiction for traditional publishers, I knew I had to develop an outline to get a contract. Before too long however, I realized there was no point in torturing myself with endless struggles and frustration.
Here’s why. Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, so no outline survives the writing process. Your outline morphs while you write. As long as the bones of your outline are there, you are headed in the right direction; adjustments are simple.
2. Characters and plots are entwined: your plot is what your characters DO
Which matters most: characters or plot? Every author has a different answer. However, essentially your plot is what your characters do.
At the outline stage, when you’re preparing to write, you know little about your characters. Please don’t use those time-wasting “character bios”: knowing what flavor of ice cream a character prefers or their favorite color is never helpful. (On the other hand… if your murderer poisons the ice cream in your mystery novel, it may well be helpful…)
When outlining, you may know a character’s positive and negative attributes, but you can’t tell your readers: you need to show them, in scenes. I look on the first 10,000 words of a novel as prewriting: getting to know the characters and show readers. After that, you’ll get an inkling of how to show the story question, and why a character must achieve his goals, or die in the attempt.
3. Emotion and suspense: you create them while you’re writing
Suspense is essential if you want to write successful fiction. If readers stop caring about what happens next, they’ll put your novel down. They may never go back to it.
However, developing ongoing suspense, so that readers breathlessly read from one scene to the next, happens while you’re writing. You open loops, then you close them, while opening other loops. Extensive outlining can’t help with that. It’s a matter of giving and withholding information while you’re writing.
Plotting fiction: develop a working outline
Pantser or not, you need an outline.
All fiction morphs, so without an outline—knowledge of where you’re headed—you’ll write more than you need. The “more” may well destroy your novel’s potential. Editing will be a nightmare.
An efficient outline, which you can create in an hour, guides you through the shoals and storms of writing a novel.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.