Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning to Love Preplanning: Plot Talk, part 3

When I started this series on plot (in part an attempt to tackle my own challenges with preplanning a novel), I asked my Twitter buddies if they started out as pantsers, only to grow better at plotting in advance. Enter Rene Sears, a supportive Twitter friend and writer who agreed to share her thoughts on why she is growing fonder of plotting her fiction. Hope you enjoy her guest post, and when you're done, follow her on Twitter. Her contact info is below. Thanks for sharing, Rene!

Preplanning, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plot

Guest Post by Rene Sears

I've always written. In creative writing classes in high school, bits and pieces in journals, comics in my sketchbook, some truly appalling poetry in college which I then inflicted upon my fellow students at coffeehouse poetry readings. (You're welcome, fellow students!) But the vast majority of what I wrote weren't stories, as such, with beginnings, middles, and ends. I wrote character sketches, vignettes, slices of life that meandered  on for a few pages and then petered out. I took a short story writing class at the local university after I moved home from college; I produced some more rambling pages, but although the professor seemed to like them, they lacked resolution. They weren't satisfying.

About five years ago, I decided to get serious about writing, as a result of a conversation with my husband. We were talking about things we'd like to do, the kind of things you dream about getting around to, but haven't yet for whatever reason. One of mine was write a novel.

So I did. I sat down at the computer with a few vague ideas. I was going to write about an undead assassin who gets an assignment to kill the mistress of a political leader--only when he goes to kill her, she's the last descendant  of his lover, who's been dead for centuries. 

That was pretty much all I had getting started. After that, what I had in mind was "then they go on the run" with maybe "and they fight crime." It's an okay set-up (at least there's some inherent conflict and he has some sort of motivation), but what are they up against (besides the people who wanted her killed)? What changes? How does it end? What happens?

I didn't know, and I was too excited to wait. I plunged in, and ended up writing a completely different book, featuring the same main character, about how he became an undead assassin and how his lover died. In hindsight, the reason I ended up writing the 'prequel' instead of the book I intended to write was because I knew how it ended, and with the book I planned to write, I had no clue.

Like many first books, it was awful. The middle was extremely long and saggy (while I knew how it started and how it ended, I had no idea of the stops along the way), and it was packed with cliché upon cliché. The main character was too passive, and didn't change much (emotionally, that is; he did become undead) over the course of the novel. I went through the entire manuscript and made extensive notes on where I would revise it, but I never did. It had so many problems and I didn't love it enough to fix them all. On the plus side, I could look at the first chapter and the last and see the vast improvement I had made in sentence-level writing in that hundred thousand words.

On the greater level, structurally, I could tell that I needed to learn a lot. The best way to learn writing is to write; but there's no need to reinvent the wheel, either. I wanted to inform myself so that I could identify where I was going wrong. Writing with an eye to what you want to improve will bring your craft to a higher level more quickly than just seeking to produce a volume of words.

Luckily, there are many, many resources available to the aspiring novelist, both online and in your local bookstore. (I list some of my favorites below.)  I read extensively, trying to figure out what works for me and what doesn't.

I have come to the conclusion that, for me, what's important is not necessarily a scene-by-scene outline, but knowledge of the important emotional beats and the "hinges" of the action: where motivations change, where characters make important choices--plot points. One of the most important things my first book taught me (besides that I have the capability to improve) is the importance of knowing the end. The events might change in the process of getting there, but for me, it's vital to have something to aim toward. What matters is not so much the mechanics of figuring it out (beat sheets, scene cards, outline, synopsis--I've tried them all, and each has varying degrees of usefulness), but that I put the thought in beforehand.

There are writers who don't need to do this, who write as it comes, and who end up with publishable novels. I am not one of them. The more books I write, the more I see the value of pre-planning. It's not that I can't stray off the map, but with an idea of where I'm going and what I'm trying to do, leaving the path is more likely to be fruitful. Without it, I get stuck in the brambles.

Some resources for plotting that you might check out: -Larry Brooks' website on story planning. (He also has a book, Story Engineering.) - Alexandra Sokoloff's excellent site; she also has a book, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (And Screenwriters!) - Holly Lisle has a number of useful articles and workshops free on her website, in addition to some paid content.

Elements of Fiction Writing--Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress

How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Many thanks to Michele for inviting me to her blog! I am an unpublished writer constantly striving to improve my writing. I am also the editorial assistant to Lou Anders/ first reader at Pyr ( ). You can find me at @renesears on Twitter.


Yes, please give Rene some Twitter love! And if you have your own plotting resources, ideas, and stories to share, I want to hear about it. Next week, I'll talk about my own favorite plotting tools, as well as some honest comments on what hasn't worked for me (though it make work for you), and some more links to good plotting resources in print and online.

Read part 1 of this series, To Pants or Not to Pants.
Read part 2 of this series, Common Myths About Plots and Pants.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta for this post's intro and conclusion. Guest post titled "Preplanning, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Plot" copyright (c) 2012 by Rene Sears, with rights to share it on this blog. Thanks, Rene! And yes, all rights reserved.


  1. I just have to say...please tell me the title of this post is a nod to Dr. Strangelove? Please? lol

    (Also, great post!)

  2. Hahaha, yes, Lissa, it is! Glad you liked the post. Rene is super. Give her a follow on Twitter.

  3. Thank you for the resources. I used "90 Days to your Novel" by Sarah Domet. I'm not worried about finishing in 90 days, but I am about half-way through.

  4. Glad the resources are useful to you. Thanks to Rene for submitting them. :) I haven't seen the Sarah Domet book, but I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the tip!


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