Writing Tips

4 Plotting Lessons & Writing Update

By April 18, 2015 19 Comments

This is the first installment of the I’m Writing A Book series.

I finished plotting my book, so in true Millie fashion I’m summarizing the four lessons I learned during the process. I made a video to better rant about show my thinking process.

Here’s a summary of the four plotting lessons:

Lesson #1: Get rid of notes

This was a critical step for me given my history with writing perfectionism. Getting rid of notes, ironically, is all about quality control. I had mountains of notes that added little value to the plotting process and were mentally exhausting to winnow through.

The most important story elements will stay with you, with or without notes. Don’t get suffocated by extraneous post-its you really don’t need. You already know your story, so work off of what you know organically.

Lesson #2: Summarize your story arcs

Keep your eyes on the big picture. What’s the main point you want to make? What’s the overarching theme?

Using Steven Spielberg’s advice, I summarized each of my three story arcs using less than 25 words to capture the essence of what I’m writing.

A concise summary helps you focus on the forest instead of the trees, which is the whole point of plotting.

Lesson #3: Plot consistently!

When I designated plotting to weekends only, I had no energy and secretly resented writing. Plot every day and make time for working on your book if you don’t have time.

By making plotting a daily habit, you will sustain your momentum and decrease the need to constantly reference past work since the story is still fresh in your mind. Hassle-free productivity, I tell you.

Lesson #4: Don’t change your plot once it’s done

Trust your past self. Your past self knew what s/he was doing. Resist the temptation to look for improvements, because you will always find them, and editing is best saved for the actual writing itself.

Don’t change the blueprint once it’s done, or else you’ll be stunting your progress and fixated on details that might not even matter in the final draft of your book.

Millie’s Note: Got advice about plotting and writing for me? Please share below!

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Rose Red says:

    Great, practical advice. I have been stuck in a holding pattern for months with my revision. I look forward to reading/ listening to more.

  • kvennarad says:

    Yes I take notes, and no I don’t get rid of them. I have memory problems and mental processing problems, and if I don’t take notes about something when the thought occurs to me, it might get lost somewhere along the way. Not all of the notes make it into the structure or plot of the story, but they always help me sort out my mental processes.

    Yes I change my plot! Spanish author Juan Mayorga pointed out that the conclusion of a story must be two things – inevitable and surprising. The first of those qualities can be applied to a plot. Unfortunately that can make a plot end-driven, and life ISN’T end-driven. A story can be a downright lie, impossible, because nothing in life is ever end-driven like that. So basically, when I’m writing, and I get to a point that I have plotted, I can find myself saying “Hold on… THAT couldn’t happen, THIS must happen instead!” So I find myself following a different path. Maybe it still gets me to an end roughly approximate to where I wanted to be (given that the end now has to be inevitable all over again) but sometimes it doesn’t.

    Do you follow?

    • Millie Ho says:

      I like that you apply a lot of rationale when you do need to plot, and that gives your story added structure. The “inevitable and surprising” ending makes total sense. I think the inevitability of the resolution speaks to the established laws of the narrative (Character A will always behave like a reckless idiot, there aren’t ghosts floating around, etc) while the surprise lies in the execution. HOW something happens is different from what DOES happen.

  • jgiambrone says:

    I always remember an old adage about each scene causing the next, rather than merely following it. Causation, as in a chain of events from beginning to end, is the goal.

  • It is so difficult to change up trusted working patterns. Congrats on your new approach, new clarity. Great to see your excitement.

  • aetherhouse says:

    I am a note/writing hoarder, so not sure I can achieve #1. My mind also jumps ahead to books 2 and 3 in my trilogy, and if I’m not writing those books until a few YEARS from now, I will definitely forget some cool stuff! However, I do have good sense to differentiate “off the wall/what if?” ideas and “okay, this is awesome, I am definitely using this” ideas. The “what if?” page might be helpful to consult if I get stuck somewhere, but those tidbits don’t belong in the outline proper. It’s there if I need it, but it’s not in my way.

    I live by 2! The Snowflake method advocates a similar way of thinking. I’ve never done Snowflake from start to finish, but I use elements of it in my plotting. 3 is such a good idea, although difficult for me to achieve. I’m striving towards it, anyway. I do find plotting to be the most fun part of writing, so I’m much more willing to do it on weekdays. It’s the narrative stuff I struggle to put out.

    I am waffling over 4 at the moment, as I’m plugging forward with a better outline, but part of me is like “is this hurting the book in someway? Am I actually hurting the characters by making the plot this way? Was it a more fun book in previous drafts?” I feel like in theory, the book should be BETTER for having more sensible character motivations fueling the plot forward, but it’s almost taking the joy out of the story in a way (I’m not tired of writing it, it just reads so much more…blandly now). I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but I know I can’t just go back to the previous iteration. The previous iteration was so weak that it barely held the book together. :/

    • Millie Ho says:

      Hmm, I think anything that takes the joy out of the story should be eliminated or at least set aside to tackle later. The most important parts of the story are naturally what I’m most excited to write about, so notes be damned, at least during this part of the process. The filler details and backstory are to be added later, when the essence of the story has already been fleshed out.

      • aetherhouse says:

        I think this particular story is somewhat unique in that the backstory has to be researched rather than created. I’m responsibile for making it all cohesive but human history has done the rest. I’m actually trying to get a story bible going but the information is so dense that I haven’t been successful in that.

        Unfortunately the joyless parts aren’t really things I can put my finger on and cut. It’s more like “my betas hated my characters, I tried to change them, and now they’re boring/they don’t make any sense/etc.” I think some of the tone was also darkened by the fact that I open with a death now too. I don’t want it to be a glum, dull story but it’s overall become that.

  • dekutree41 says:

    Great points! I’m such a big-picture thinker that I only want to paint in broad strokes…so I actually need my copious pages of notes to help me fill in all the details because I think otherwise my books would just read like the Silmarillion. But yeah, I love the bit about trusting your past self, even when that person seems in retrospect like a crazy person. It’s so crucial to honor those initial strong narrative impulses, even if your characters decide they’re going to embellish and complicate them.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Heh, we’re terrible at predicting our futures, and also terrible at remembering our pasts. Sometimes it’s helpful to write down “DO NOT OVERTHINK THIS” or “DO NOT REVISE” over story elements you think are truly golden. I wonder how many great stories are lost because the writer threw up his/her hands and thought, “What the hell was I thinking?” So I completely agree with you about honouring the initial narrative impulses!

  • Great advises for plotting your story. The need to make everything perfect – as I write in my latest blog post as it came to be – is really the big distraction. It’s so easy to get caught up in details and remaking and not thinking it’s good enough. I think plotting is best done quickly without too much thinking. As you say; the editing and the refining is best left for the actual writing.

  • First off, I liked your video here, I think you’re giving a rather articulate account of the current issues you might face, so nicely done. Next, what struck me is that it seems you might be over emphasizing the plot, (though I know it is talked about often as one of those critical elements), I don’t believe it comes so much from a deliberate effort as simply what the characters of the story are dictating. That’s what I”ve “heard on the street” from various quoted writers (which I can’t name now). I’d say if the plot doesn’t write itself, then maybe there’s something unique about your story that isn’t plot driven, and maybe you should run with that. My point is I’d listen to the characters first. For what its’ worth..

    • Millie Ho says:

      Really interesting that you mentioned the overemphasis on the plot. I agree with you that we should listen to the characters first and foremost. I wrote a post about the character vs. plot driven narrative recently, though that was during a point when I was still figuring out what writing method worked best for me. So you’re right, the deliberate effort should be less deliberate. I always need to remind myself not to overthink things and just work with what is instinctual and speaks to me the loudest. Thanks, by the way!

  • Hello Millie,

    I found you here via your fine comment on ‘terribleminds’ regarding creating a ‘Frankenstein’ of your own from the various methods of preparing the shape of a story. Having watched your video here it is plain you are full of ideas and energy, and I wish you well in creating something that will stand on its own.

    I would say to you, don’t get too hung up on plotting per se. It is shaping and selection that really matter. And these encompass plotting, character, theme, setting, pov, etc etc. Stories that work are more akin to haiku than anything else. A creative mind could fill the world with page upon page of events and characters and dialogue, indeed it could create enough pages to strip Canada of its trees. But would those multitude of pages be a story?

    You are right. Having your own personal methodology, or toolbox, for the organizing of you story is vital. In essence it limits and cuts out what is extraneous or superfluous, shaping and focusing the story to serve itself. Plotting is part of this, but it is not all. Character, theme, situation, these things determine plot in a well told tale. Plotting from the outside in works for pot boilers and self publishers, but plotting arising from the inside of characters, to serve an overriding theme creates art.

    To create a believable and compelling world in four hundred pages takes many thousands of pages of creation. The artist’s task in this is to select the right pages to serve the work, and disregard the rest. Less is always more I find.

    I admire your blog. I wish you happiness and joy in your creation. Good luck.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Good haiku analogy! A story is comprised of more than just plot, which was why I wanted to get it out of the way quickly and in the most organized fashion possible, before I start taking it too seriously. A plot is simply the blueprint. What comes next is where the real hard work is.

      A character-driven story is an honest story. I agree with you that a plot arising from inside the characters, combined with a well-executed theme, is more akin to art than a plot that does not. Writers that have mastered such a story rely more on instincts than something formulaic, I find. I am still working on sharpening my instincts.

      Thank you for your insights, Son. I’ll add them to my toolbox.

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