The Art of Mirriam Neal

//plotting isn’t evil (just misunderstood)

I have a friend. Her name is Abby. She is fifteen, Canadian, and strings words together with the skill of Hemingway or Salinger. Sometimes I envy the way she’s able to gather a handful of adjectives like stardust and fling them into an evocative cosmos, and I told her so the other day. [Seriously, she was telling me how she missed the North while she was away and she said, “The ragged pines, the clear air, the nights of black ink and silver stars, the weathered mining veterans in plaid flannel and kodiak boots.” In a FACEBOOK MESSAGE.] Yet when I pestered her to write more, she told me her problem. “I CANNOT PLOT TO SAVE MY LIFE,” she said.

I began to type and give her advice, but quickly realized that it was going to be an extremely long message. I asked if it was okay if I did a blog post instead, and she was all for the idea. This may seem odd to you, if you recall my post on writing strengths + weaknesses. Plotting isn’t a strength of mine, or at least not a natural one – like character creation, or sarcasm. But it is a skill I’ve learned over many years of writing, and the least I can do is tell you what works for me.

  • PLOT THE END FIRST

Well, maybe not first. It’s always good to have your characters in place; but once you have them solidified, plot the end of your novel. You want to know where it will end up, or at least have an idea of it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there, as the Cheshire Cat would say.

  • PLOT THE BEGINNING.

You need a starting point. You can’t just say “Well, hey, I have two characters already, why not start with them making toast in the morning?” because if you try it that way, your novel will never get finished. I know this from personal experience, and the personal experience of multiple people I know.

  • YOU DON’T NEED TO PLOT THE MIDDLE.

You will reach the middle eventually, and then you can decide. Attempting to plot the middle before you’re finished with the beginning is nearly impossible as well as distracting. When you reach a spot that feels like the middle, mark it as the middle. [Also, it doesn’t need to be exactly in the middle of the novel. Just middle-ish.]

  • A LITTLE PANTSING IS A GOOD THING.

I write by the seat of my pants most of the time. I’ll have my vague outline, my beginning and ending, and I’ll know what subjects I want to cover and some events I want to happen – but I like to wing it. My writing flows more naturally. Also, if you take the time to plot out every tiny detail that happens between point B and point C, you’ll waste a lot of time when you could actually be writing in the novel instead of meticulously agonizing over who says what.

  • YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS NEED GOALS.

All the characters should have goals, in fact; even if you never mention them to the reader. It helps keep minor characters from being flat and two-dimensional. But it’s especially important for the main characters to have goals, even if they don’t realize it. For instance, in my WIP Acceso [currently on its fourth draft], Leila’s goal is to win a scholarship to Juilliard. Hyde doesn’t have a goal, but it’s his lack of aim that makes for half the story. He discovers something he wants, and he has to work for it. Both characters end up goal-oriented. In The Lord of the Rings, the goal for Frodo is ‘chuck the ring into Mount Doom.’ For Captain Jack, his ultimate prize is The Black Pearl, and the undoing of the curse. In reality, every story is about someone with a goal. You can’t just toss a handful of characters in a blender and hope their interaction magically springs into a plot somehow.

  • DON’T BE AFRAID TO GATHER INSPIRATION FROM OUTSIDE SOURCES.

I had a friend message me a few weeks ago and ask if I would take a look at her character bio. I said sure I would. She asked me to tell her if it sounded too much like Dustfinger. [While anything to do with Dustfinger is a bonus, in my personal opinion, I saw her concern.] Her character could wield fire, had scars, and she saw him as Paul Bettany – but her description of him, the way he used these things, the way he got the scars, were all different. If I had picked up this novel and read about his character, my brain wouldn’t have jumped to Dustfinger. Her character was inspired by Dustfinger, not a copy of him. When I’m worried I might be too close to copying another character, I create a list. I write down five of their similar characteristics, and then I change two.

  • A PLOT IS A FLUID THING.

When I start stressing over the plot not going the way I want it to go, or the characters behaving like hooligans, I have to remind myself – a plot is not solid. A plot is running water, flowing down the same path, but always changing. It doesn’t matter what draft you’re on – as long as it’s unpublished, you can change it. You can change it however you like. Why? It’s your writing, they are your characters, the plot belongs to you. If you don’t like something, fix it. If you aren’t sure, sleep on it. Give it time. It’s not a solid, it’s a liquid. It doesn’t have to be as stressful as you think it is.

What about you? Do you have any plotting tips? Do you have a pattern, or do you wing it? Let me [and Abby] know!

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