Fear of Plotting

Jun 04, 2017

Almost every one of my writers upon joining the Kritikme.com Ninety Day novel course tells me that plotting is their concern. They don't have that concern for very long.

The Novelry has a no nonsense approach to plotting. Stop it, and write.

My writers will find a great deal in the course that allays their concerns more gently than this, but in a nutshell that is what you need to do. You need to stop plotting and start writing. Let me explain.

Some writers do prepare an outline and some don’t. I think more writers across all genres don't prepare a detailed plot than do. It's a received idea that thriller writers must work to a plot. Yet even someone like Stephen King avoids plotting.

"I start a book ... knowing just two things: the basic situation and that the story will create its own patterns naturally and organically if I follow it fairly...and by fairly I mean never forcing characters to do things they wouldn't do in real life...For me, the first draft is all about story. I trust that some other part of me—an undermind—will create certain patterns."

Instead, he chooses pace of creation, writing his first drafts of novels in a season or ninety days. 

I prepare a rough plot outline and then I ignore it. I work out what I’m doing in draft after draft probably because I love the mystery of the writing act and I write to find out what happens! J.M. Coetzee has said he too works things out in the writing. He prefers revision over plotting. So from mainstream to upstream, this is how many writers really write books.

I think beginners get stuck on the rocks of plot and stay there. That's why the preoccupation is dangerous.

The problem with outlining in detail is twofold. First, it gets in the way of writing and it becomes a bad habit and an activity in itself. Plotting is not writing. The zealous plotter is like the nervous swimmer pacing around the edge of the swimming pool and not getting in. Second - you sink under the burden of the meanness and confinement of the detail you have created and when you have finished the plotting you almost feel you are done with the book.

My best advice about plotting is to have one sentence for your concept, one page at most scrawled as a promise to yourself and the reader at the beginning of your notebook. There you will write where it’s going, but you can remain uncertain about the end and leave that special discovery, that particular joy yours to unfold.

Plotting is a false friend in an hour of doubt too. Even old hands may go to it as a comfort blanket at times, and I too will tinker with a plan a couple of times probably between drafts knowing I'm prevaricating because the real work is being done deep down inside me and needs time. I'm stalling that's all. It's ok, you need to pause and take breath at times. But don't get stuck again in the bad habit of plottery. Once I've drafted a plot a second time, I will allow myself again the willful liberty of diverting from it because I keep the mystery and magic of the tale foremost in my heart and mind when writing a novel, and that's how you build into your book an experience a reader enjoys too.

You’ll find plenty of advice from other writers at Kritikme on plotting and some spreadsheet type tools too if you don’t feel brave enough to jump in without a rubber ring.

Trust me, plotting is the least of it. So if that's your biggest concern, go and have a lovely day with that old chestnut well and truly roasted.

Showing up every day and loving the work to bits and forgiving yourself and seeing the way writing transforms your own experience of life is where it’s at. That's the essence of what I preach at The Novelry. Not tired old writerly clichés designed to keep you on the starters blocks addicted to doing courses and drafting plot outlines, but a way to get your novel done and set you free of me and my course.  When I've done with you, you won't need me. You may need your comrades in arms at The Novelry, but you'll have a thing or two you can teach me by the end of your ninety days.

Let go of the handrail, stop biting your nails. Sit down at your desk, begin with three or four words that came to you today and be at peace.

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