Losing The Plot — It Works For Me

Losing The Plot — It Works For Me

Due to a potential shortage of internet while I’m away in Guernsey (Tuesday to Saturday), I’m scheduling this post just in case I’m unable to post it. So I actually wrote this on Monday. Time travel, dude.

As you may be aware, I’ve been working on what I like to refer to as assassin!novel for Camp NaNoWriMo this July. Okay, so assassin!novel turned into assassin!trilogy book 1, but that’s to be expected, right? Its working title is, in fact, Butterfly Of Night, and as of writing this post, it stands at 83,014 words. It’s not finished yet, but I’m getting there, and there’s even a slight chance that by the time you read this post, it’ll be finished. But I doubt that.

This wordcount screenshot from the other day shows a level of consistency in my writing that I don't normally achieve...
This wordcount screenshot from the other day shows a level of consistency in my writing that I don’t normally achieve…

It’s been a slightly weird process for me, yet in many ways it resembles the route I took writing Weapons Of Chaos for NaNo 2012, albeit about a sixth of the speed, given that I wrote that thing in less than a week. Maybe it’s something about planning NaNo novels before I start which ensures that I won’t end up following the plan nearly as much as I expect to.

I’ve already written on this blog how I wrote a plan and sent it to a beta reader, Cathryn, for critique, and she pointed out that it was two books. Thus, assassin!trilogy became a thing. So far, so good. The plot I wrote for book one wasn’t exactly detailed in places, but it provided a solid synopsis of what was going to happen, and I was fairly proud of it.

Now, I wasn’t planning to work on this novel so soon. My intention was to finish editing The Quiet Ones and to query it come August or September. I got suddenly carried away with the idea of this novel, though, and wanted a break from editing to work on a first draft, so I decided on the 1st July that I was going to do Camp after all, and I wrote the plan there and then. It was a little rushed, and because I was doing Camp, I didn’t have time to seek feedback on my outline the way I’d hoped to, so I just dived straight in.

You can see what’s coming, can’t you? A minor character by the name of Emma turned up, in that way that minor characters do. Much like Nathaniel in Forget My Wings or Mel in one of the later Death and Fairies books, she quickly outgrew the role I’d planned for her, becoming an absolute rock in the protagonist’s life.

I liked Emma. She was a fun, interesting character whose backstory wasn’t overly tragic in the context of the novel, but it gave her depth. She became the brightest and best thing in the protagonist Isabel’s life, and I was glad of that, because Isabel’s life seemed fairly miserable and I had hoped I’d figure out a way to give her a break soon enough. Emma was that break, and she blossomed into a major character before I’d even realised what was happening.

But Emma wasn’t in my plot outline.

In fact, she was just one more character in a list of people who weren’t in the plan. Dr Vernant. Graham Whittock. Toni Rolleston. Mortimer. Daragh. Ronan. Michael. Angela. Ms Cunliffe. None of them were people I planned for in the slightest. In a time-honoured tradition of desperately seeking names at short notice, they mostly ended up named after the authors of the Celtic mythology books on the shelf directly to the right of the desk where I work, but that’s a small matter, I think.

And all of them I could work around because they didn’t mess up my plot too much, but Emma. Oh, Emma. She threw a major spanner in the works. Solved a plot hole in the problem, but only by completely derailing what I’d planned and forcing me to make a lot of changes as I went along. I suddenly remembered why I’m a pantser.

I've had a major clear-up of this board since this photo was taken, so there's less junk, but the newer pictures had major spoilers and I didn't want to share them.
I’ve had a major clear-up of this board since this photo was taken, so there’s less junk, but the newer pictures had major spoilers and I didn’t want to share them.

See, I like planning as I go along. I’ve got a whiteboard on my wall where I’ll scrawl ideas, even if they’re as simple as questions like Is Daragh a good guy? Once I’ve written them down, I’ll stew them over in my head, and add bullet points or ideas to the board as and when I figure them out. I’ll plan the resolution to a subplot without actually knowing how the novel’s going to finish, and I’ll talk to myself until I’ve got a few chapters sorted in my brain before I write them, but I’ll never be certain where I’m going after that.

In a way, having a pre-written plot has helped me, because when I got completely stuck I could look back. Bearing in mind this is a novel about assassins, a question that came up more than once was, “Who is she meant to be killing next?” Fortunately, I worked that one out in my plan, so I could have a look, even if the event itself had been moved to another place in the novel or the details were changed. It stopped me from getting too stuck on little details and too caught up with the things I hadn’t got around to figuring out.

But trying to stick to that plot would have ruined the novel. Emma was needed. Graham was needed. Michael was needed. These characters that I didn’t plan for added depth and intensity to a plot that was otherwise shallow and simplistic, drawing my protagonist deeper into a net. I’ve spent so many years claiming that my characters write the story and I just try to keep up, so I’m amazed that I still don’t trust them to carry my plot. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when a minor character tries to steal the show, let them: they’ll make it better.

Maybe I shouldn’t call myself a plotter or a pantser. Maybe I’m both. Is there a word for that kind of thing: a plotser? Whatever it is, that seems to be what I am. Write a plot. Try and follow the plot. Give up and let the secondary characters invent the plot. Figure out an ending when you’re ten thousand words away from it and desperately trying to remember all the subplot strands you didn’t put in intentionally.

It's not a new technique on my part.
It’s not a new technique on my part.

It’s worked for the last few years, so who knows? Maybe it worked this time. I’ll have to finish the novel and read it through to find out.

What about you — plotter? Pantser? Or a bit of both?

9 thoughts on “Losing The Plot — It Works For Me

  1. I’m definitely a plantser (that’s what I call the mixture). Occasionally I find a book that I can plot really successfully. More often, I don’t have a plot and just have fun with it. More and more I’m seeing that you can’t be one or the other, and neither is inherently better or worse. I love the idea of being a plotter, being able to spot all the problems before they appear on the page, but my enthusiasm goes with pantsing, being able to improvise and make things unexpected. I want to do both. I want to spot all the problems before they appear, but I also want to be unexpected as I can. It’s a hard mixture and I’m still trying to figure it out, but one thing’s for certain: I can’t expect anything to work twice. I have to be flexible in that as much as anything.

    1. That’s true. I have a slightly different process with every novel — the Death and Fairies series has been written in totally the wrong order and I’ll end up knitting together a whole load of disconnected scenes eventually, whereas my current WIP was written in a totally linear manner with no deviation from the right order. Just goes to show…

  2. Is assassin!trilogy YA? Amusing point: I plan to finish my story at 80K, which you’ve already surpassed :P I’m not surprised. ;)
    “she quickly outgrew the role I’d planned for her.” Even when I plan, this doesn’t usually happen to me, but I happened this time, when the entire crew of a dirigible developed beyond being minor characters.
    (And the cartographer may or may not be a lesbian, yay! You got me thinking.)
    Never had a name problem, though I did end up with a very minor character sharing the name of the antagonist. Whoops.
    Oh, and FYI, I’m a plotser. Have always been.

    1. I don’t know if it’s YA. Probably? I mean, the protag is 16, and it’s kind of about her trying to figure things out and be the person she wants to be and get shot of her parents, so yeah, probably. Though book two takes place, like, six years later. Heh.

      Lesbian cartographers! Man, I told you, you just gotta put the queer goggles on and then you’ll find them. They’re always there.

      1. Mmm, I have a similar problem in that I have a YA mystery that I might write a 10-yrs-later sequel to… I think, however, we can get away with those sorts of things for series. There are whole series out there where the MC ages extensively over the books.

        “Put the queer goggles on” – literally! xD

        1. Couldn’t resist the pun when it’s steampunk and goggles are basically a given! ;)
          (Sorry, comment filter put this in spam and didn’t see it until now.)
          Yeah, exactly. And I’ve realised it actually happens only four years later, so she’s twenty by then, which isn’t too far out of the YA age bracket. I’d almost definitely categorise it as YA in style and content — there’s a lot of murder, but no sex, and sex tends to be a feature of NA, for example.

  3. My! You write fast. :) I believe the term is plantser. I think most people are plantsers. I write a loose summary of the story and get to know my characters, then I write and let the story be however feels right. I’ve had to give my stories total revamps because the main character refuses to behave how he’s supposed to, changing everything else.

    1. Yeah, my main characters do that. And I do tend to write fast — I think that’s why NaNo works so well for me. I talk fast, and do other tasks fast too, so I think my brain just works quickly. Then it’s just a case of getting it onto the document…

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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