Friday, January 14, 2011

Getting those plot lines to behave

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "Do you think the first ever novel is the hardest to write? Feels like that may be because it's overwhelming and can be frustrating."

This is a great question.

Several of you have talked to me about organizing a novel and being overwhelmed. This is completely normal. In every project I work on, somewhere around the 75% mark, I think to myself, "Yikes! How can I wrap all this up in a satisfying way??? There's too much going on!!!" I'll frantically scroll through some pages and realize I completely dropped a plot line, or that I've forgotten about a character, or that I foreshadow something in the opening, and nothing has ever happened with it.

My first published novel, Me, Just Different, was the third novel I'd written. And I rewrote it about four times before it turned into a sell-able piece of fiction. That took me four years.

Out with the In Crowd and So Over It each took about four months and nobody has ever said to me, "Me Just Different was my favorite in the series." Usually people like one of the other two the best.

While all novels have their own unique challenges and complications, I still think Me, Just Different will always be the hardest book I ever had to write. I didn't know my genre, I didn't know what word count I was aiming for, and I was fuzzier on what kind of character traits worked and didn't, what kind of plot lines worked and didn't.

So, yes. Writing a novel is like anything else. The more you do it, the easier it gets. (Though certain dangers come with this comfort, but that's another discussion for another time.)

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all your ideas, here are a couple suggestions for chilling yourself out:

1. Stop worrying.

Okay, that's today's lesson. Hope it helped.

Just kidding. But that is a technique, particularly in the first draft. When I hit my 75%-done panic, I indulge for a minute or two, and then I just dive back in. I tell myself, "I can fix it in the second draft, let's just get this sucker done," and then I do it. If I forgot a plot line back at the 25% mark, I make a note to myself to fix it, and then write the rest of the book like I already did. Did that make sense? I don't go back through and weave in that plot - I wait until I do my second draft - but I write my ending with it included. Same with a forgotten character. I just bring 'em back like they've been there the whole time, and make a note to myself.

2. Make a list, then plot it out.

I've never been super-plotter-girl, so I can't really say this for a fact, but I think it's easier to get overwhelmed by plot lines when you're a seat-of-the-pants writer. If you feel you've lost a handle on your story, pull out a stack of index cards, and on each one write something that needs to happen between now and typing The End. If you've got multiple characters telling the story (also known as multiple POVs) you might consider using cards in a couple different colors.

Then either tack the cards up on a bulletin board in order, or you can arrange them in a stack.

3. Remember you don't have to write the whole novel right now, you just have to write the next sentence.

I love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's the first writing book I ever read, and it's proven to be an excellent stick against which all other craft books are measured. Ms. Lamott talks about the concept of short assignments. And I can't say it any better than her, so I'll just quote it:

Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of - oh, say - women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It's hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up....

Then there's like a page of really hilarious stuff she thinks about during her panic moments, like finding a boyfriend and orthodontia. Then she gets into solving the problem:

...and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame ... all I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown in the late fifties when the trains were still running.

These words are a great comfort to me when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I don't have to wrap everything up right now. All I have to do is write the next paragraph, the next scene.

Have a great weekend everybody! On Monday we'll have a new writing prompt, and the winners from last week's will be announced very soon!


  1. This post was timely for me,and I LOVE the advice about using the different colored index cards. I have also been thinking about getting Bird by Bird from the library, but maybe its a good one to purchase. So many people seem to love it.

  2. Fabulous advice, Stephanie, and something I had to do recently, too. My brain was so focused on what I wanted to get to in the second half that I couldn't figure out the first. But once I put aside the goal and focused on the getting-there, I could see how many fun things could happen during the "in the meantime." One inch at a time. =)

  3. Roseanna-
    That sounds like me. I have daydreamed EXTENSIVELY about the middle and end of my piece and it has almost immobilized me for the beginning. I get hung up on little things when I should really just plow thru and come back later.

  4. I just started mine and I haven't felt to much pressure.It might be because I'm not like rushing.Just doing it whenever and I feel like I'm having so much fun when I'm writing it.I think I'm just kind of experimenting right now.I'm still trying to get everything together figure out where everything is going that kind of thing.But I am definitely having fun.Sorry this is soooo long.I am about to read Me, Just soon as I get it in(I requested it).I'll have to see if what you said is right.Sierra

  5. Great advice! I tend to get caught in the worry moment & want to be perfect on the first draft. I need to work on just letting it go. My drive for wanting to get it right & be good probably hampers my ability to write well, actually. Like it stops some creativity for being to rigid.

    I really like the index cards idea! It's in the middle of seat-of-pants & outliner. You know certain things HAVE to happen but ate free to feel the flow of what could pop up!

  6. Nicole, you can always do both :) Check it out through the library, and then buy it when you realize how much you'll be underlining.

    Roseanna, I'm in the same place now. I've thought out later stuff, but am having difficulties figuring out how to get there. It's coming together, though.

    Tonya, letting go of wanting to make the first draft perfect is SO freeing. But it takes work to get there.

    Sierra, good for you, taking your time!

  7. I'm working on outlining my first draft right now. I did a basic outline (only like 5 points) for each of my top five or so characters, but now that I've got 50,000 words down I'm going back and making a detailed outline. Last year I tried using index cards, but that didn't work well for me. This time around I'm using a spreadsheet, which has been great! I can drag things around to reorder them easily, and save multiple versions.

    Thanks so much for doing this series, it has been great so far! I started a bulletin board based on yours. It's also digital (I have an iPad with virtual cork board--it's great because I don't have to print images I find online and I can copy/paste quotes and stuff!)

    As you can tell, I like technology ;)

  8. Jordan: that's awesome! I'm thinking about an iPad but want to wait to see what the second one is. Something I  just got that I love, love, love is an alphasmart! It's so light & fun to type on then hook it up to the comp & watch the words transfer :)

  9. Love this post. =) I'm actually pretty unsure about how one of my finished books pans out...
    Though after I finished it I knew I left out some certain things that needed to be tied.
    ...I'm embarrassed to say I haven't fixed it yet... haha
    But hey, everyone's writing is sloppy sometimes. =)

  10. I found this really encouraging - I just finished my first draft and actually achieved my word count goal. It was wonderful, but I found myself thinking, "Man, is it going to be this hard to finish Every Time?" That's nice, that just like everything, else, practice pays off.

  11. I really liked this post! For the Stop Worrying, it was like Deja Vu! When I was working on my second book (trust) I was freaking out because I was stuck on Chapter 11 and it wasn't going anywhere. Then I was just like "You know what, I really don't care if it sounds like a four year-old wrote it, I'm just gonna finish it, and fix it later." Two hours later, it was done.

    I hate plotting. Like, SO MUCH. My third book (deception) was the first one I plotted with, and it's already making things easier! I really wish I had done it with my first two... I just never figured out how! This'll help SO much!

    I have the "wanting to write whole novel" problem, too! Though some days, all I can really manage is two sentences. Some days, one.

    THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS BLOG!!! It's amazing!


  12. Rose, congrats on achieving your word count goal! That can be tricky.

    Nicole, so happy to have you! And I had the same plotting experience you did. I really resisted, but once I started, I was like, "Oh ... this saves me a lot of rewrites..."