Dec 28, 2009

Plotting the Properly Paced Prose

(I'm sorry about the title; I just couldn't help myself...)

Plotting is one of those hit-or-miss kind of things. Sometimes, ideas will flood your mind with incredible possibilities of unbelievable (or completely, "well duh") images. But, then there are the days when you can't, for the life of you, think up one tiny, little scheme to foil the bad guys. Now, I've seen some writers tackle the plotting process like some football players tackle...oh, let's say Aaron Rodgers. Unfortunately, I am not one of those writers. I need highlighters, post-it notes, dry erase boards...divine even put a dent in my plots. Fortunately, once I get going, there's usually no stopping me. Usually.

Over time, I've found that I need to revisit the plotting-boards to make sure that everything is all-fine-and-dandy. Even then, after countless plot revisions and agonizing editing sessions, I'll discover a looming plothole that stands out despite the rest of the uber-cool plot. And, as most civilized writers would do, I simply flip my shit.

How could this happen? I've geared countless sticky notes with the sole purpose of protecting my unsuspecting manuscript from the evils of plotholes and--possibly worse--pacing problems. And yet, when editing fever rolls around...*wham, bam, thank you ma'am!* Houston, we have a problem.

Before I go any further, I feel I should warn you that while I'm not a perfectionist, I do have OCD tendancies. And I'm very visual. And I'm a masochist.

But I like plotting. In fact, I re-plot every five-or-so chapters just to make sure that my plot is the best it can possibly be. I've been meaning to do this post for a while now, but it's been a bit of a trouble maker for me. Everyone plots differently, and even I can't commit to a fool-proof way of doing it. I can, however, show you the jist of how I plot. I can only hope that it helps someone else to do their impossible plot.

  1. I start off with a package of post-its (extra sticky, because I move them around a lot!) then I take my trusty dry erase boards (two of them), a few markers, and sit down with a glass of wine (or the whole bottle) to get started.

  2. As the juices start flowing, I write down each idea onto a post-it and stick it to the dry erase board. At this point, it doesn't matter what order they are in so long as I've got them written down and stuck to my handy-dandy white board.
  3. Once my imagination dries up, I grab my second dry erase board--and even more post-it notes--and start to organize the chaos. I start re-writing the plots-points on different stickies based on what they mean to the story I have in my head.

    • Main plot points are on blue post-its.
    • Secondary storylines are on green post-its.
    • Romance plot points are written on pick stickies.
    • Comments/questions are on yellow.
    • Ideas that I'm not so sure about get put on purple.

    I place them all on the second board in a logical order...

  4. ...then go through the pointless step of writing them down again, by hand, on the freshly cleaned, first white board--by coordinating colors, of course. There's no point in telling me how utterly stupid this step is--I'm well aware it is repetitive and tedious--but this is one of those OCD/Masochistic tendencies I warned you about earlier. Normal people, feel free to skip step 4.

    Step 4 ends up looking like the picture to the right.

  5. Once all of that is done and I've started the actual writing, I keep a spreadsheet of my word that helps to keep everything in order and tracks the pacing of the novel. This log tells me all the major details of my plot, starting with the act, chapter, chapter-summary, the time and date of the chapter, the point of view, setting and chapter word count. I also have two extra columns called "Point of Chapter", which helps to keep me from including pointless scenes, and "Changes".
    The Changes column is there to help me keep track of what I need to change based on my instincts, and what my critique partner and critique group thinks I should change.
    The last column is the Total Wordage column which uses an auto-formula to tally up the total word count of the whole novel.
    Here's a screenprint of what my spreadsheet log looks like:

Now that I've shown you how I do it, why don't you drop me a comment and tell me how you do it?

Want your own plotting-spreadsheet? Here's my template.


  1. Holy cow...I'm impressed. That is serious plotting. Talk about organization. I'm such a disorganized writer, it's amazing I manage to get to the end of a book. Seriously, I'm a wreck. I use sticky notes, too, but they are pinned haphazardly all over my desk. But now you've gone and done it. Now I'm gonna have to get organized. You've peaked the interest of the OCD demon within. Dang...thanks Courtney. ;)

    Great post, by the way.

  2. Good. Lord.

    Since I've mainly dabbled in flash fiction and short stories, can I just say that now I'm a bit intimidated by the thought of starting a novel? Whoo! That's quite a process, good lady.

    Come next March I might have a better comment for you, but right now I'm a bit in awe, so I'll be quiet and think for a bit...

  3. Wow. You are AWESOME! I'm outlining my new project and, though I was already ripping a page from your plotting book, I think I may have to up my game to compete, haha.

    I love the idea of different colored post-its for the different strands throughout the manuscript!

  4. Wow! Or maybe, Yikes!!!

    Having said that, I say if it works, it works :)

    My system is far more simple - don't plot in advance. :) Seriously, I start with the ending scene in mind, then the first scene. Then I just write.

    After the novel is done, I go through and make a file of scene highlights. One line per chapter including pov, main plot development.

    I think we all do plotting differently - and we all find a method that works best for us. I'm glad you've got yours. I love your post it colour coordination btw :)

  5. Wow, I must say, I'm impressed. I wrote a basic plot in a spiral! lol Then I just wrote. I guess I am a loose plotter/seat of the pants gal. The next book I write will be plotted similar to yours, with colored post-its and a white board. I have everything ready to go. (as soon as I finish editing!)

  6. Wow... That, was a seriously good post!

    As I'm a pantser, this is going to be very helpful indeed.

    Can't stay for long, off to the local stationers to buy post-it-notes :)

    Thanks for that!

  7. Carol- I've had my times when I stick the post its to my desk (and around the edges of my monitor) but for some reason, this novel---maybe because it's a series?---is really kicking my butt into plotting-overdrive.

    Simon- But don't you see, Simon? Novels suck the life out of you :P You kick serious butt at flash, you'll do even better with a novel. You just wait, I'll be the one in the front row saying "I told you so".

    Sara- Thank you ma'am. I actually stole the different post-it note colors from writer Rachel Vincent, so I can't take all the credit. But I did love the idea so I incorporated it in my plotting process and it worked WONDERFULLY. It really helps you to see what's going on and what's just overkill. <3

    Jemi- I used to be the same way ;) It was so nice to just sit down and write. But over the last few years, I get to the end of a scene and my mind just ... zonks out, if that makes sense. I know several writers who don't plot at all and others who can't write squat without a plotting. I've gone from one extreme to the other. I think it all depends on the writer. I've become such a "control freak", for lack of a better word, that if I don't have a road map, I completely shut down (aka freak out).
    I like how you start with the end scene. I usually start somewhere in the middle, but I always end up going back to the prologue to start from the beginning.

    Sherrinda- Believe it or not, I used to be that kind of gal too. Oh I wish I could go back to those good ole days.. This is actually my first seriously plotted novel. Like I told Carol, I think it's because its a series but who knows. xoxo
    p.s. I'll be back to the group soon. My mind has been wandering to your WIPs and wondering what happens next?! I need to catch up!

    Wendy- Thank you! That was seriously a tough post to write. I sat there, numbering the steps and asking myself "why do I go through all this?" Glad I could help!

  8. I'm kind of a write down everything and put it in a folder, type writer. This post was exactly what I needed though. I think I'm goning to try thins. I'm having issues with the piece I'm editing. Hopefully your detailed method will help fix it all up. Thanks for stopping by my blog and becoming a follower!

  9. Great idea. This looks like it would really work. I'll take it into consideration. I usually do it the old fashion way by writing it down.

    Very clever of you :)

  10. I do the same thing as Jemi! I get an idea in my head, and it's just this vague, shapeless thing at first - but then as I write, it takes shape. I have tried planning my plot points before, and no matter how long I spend or how hard I work on it, they always get thrown out the window within 5 chapters because I've stumbled upon something far better. This is why I did not outline ANYTHING until recently, when I started my 5th or so round of edits. I wish I was as organized as you, Courtney!

  11. Bethany- I love folders! I keep a working folder (which I've now transformed into an actual box) of all the things that I want to remember for my MS or future novels. Its packed with clippings from magazines, newspapers, computer print outs--basically anything that gives me ideas or inspiration.
    In fact, I even started a blog, To Keep it Going, where I post things I find on the Internet that inspire me to write, or give me ideas to write about.

    Vicky- Thank you, but there is nothing wrong with the old fashion way ;) Whatever haha! I just started working with different ways of plotting to see where I went with it. And this way has been the most "inspiring" way for me. For some strange reason, my ideas seem to flow easier when I plot this way.

    Anne- Haha! I know what you mean about ideas getting thrown out the window within a few chapters. I have the same...problem? luck? random inspiration? That's why I have to re-plot every few chapters, but I like that the characters, and the story really "speaks for itself".

    Thanks for the comments ladies!! xoxo

  12. I'm really impressed. Want to know my problem (of COURSE you do)? I can't even come up with a good story idea. Up 'til now, all I've written is non-fiction and flash. And I'm trying to get rolling on an actual novel. Yeah. I got nuffin. NUFFIN, I tell ya. If an idea ever strikes, I think I may give your method a try.

  13. I like your organization and spreadsheet. I have a similar layout, but I don't have the point of chapter or POV - great ideas.

  14. I love the whole idea of using the sticky notes. Maybe that will help me with a problem I'm having now in my WIP. Not sure about the spreadsheet. Those things always confuse me.

  15. Sara- I'll be honest with you, I SUCK at coming up with story lines. Most of my novel ideas come from dreams I've had. I have no problem adding onto the ideas, but coming up with them? No flipping way. Thanks for commenting!

    Mary- I'm glad to hear I'm not the only crazy spreadsheeter in the writing community! Thanks for commenting!

    Melissa- Eh, use what works. I happen to be a huge fan of stickies--especially the colorful kind ;) Thanks for commenting!

  16. I love your OCD ways. Sadly, by the end of college I was using the same method for my longer psych papers. Looking back our methods are creepily similar. Also, the spreadsheet is such a great idea!

  17. Oh my, oh MY. If I did this I'd probably end up designing some weird art piece and forget what I first set out to do. I'm less OCD and more ADD. I tried to do something along these lines with colored pens and gave that up, too. Now what I do is free associate in pages and pages of "what ifs". What if the bad guy is the good guy's brother. What if he has to kill his own brother. On and on and on, until I have the next few chapters figured out. Then I make notes about what I have to foreshadow in the earlier chapters. I find if I make things too visual, even though I am an artist by training, I get SO confused. My first drafts get done very quickly and as I was telling a writer pal today, my second drafts are like getting ketchup from a bottle—slow and endless. Maybe I should try some post-it notes.

    Oh, and thanks for following my blog, Courtney! I like what I found on yours and I'll be sure to come back again!

  18. Wowee you are so organized! I am seriously gaping at the process you go through! I am very much like Jemi Fraser - get an idea, opening scene, possibly end scene, and charge at the novel screaming blue murder. Plot points come later ;)

  19. Hi Courtney,

    Nice to meet you! I am mightily impressed by your organized process. My process is a little more organic or...messy, perhaps. I began with a spiral notebook and as things popped into my head, I wrote them down. But, I didn't always have my notebook with me, so as a mom on the constant road, I used receipts, envelopes, whatever was handy and then tucked it into my notebook. Then, there was the chronological problem, since my brain jumped around to various parts of the book. When I needed them, I had to dig around my little notebook. I came up with spiral index cards that I sectioned into various parts and it helped. So looking forward to perusing your blog!

  20. Kelly- College papers? That's so awesome! Of course we think alike--that's why you make sure a stellar CP! I love you cuz!

    Lisa- LOL I love the "what if" brainstorming process! That's what I use to come up with the different post-its, then I fill in the details during steps 3 and 4. As organized as I can be, I struggle with ADD too. Its quite the combination... Thanks for the comment :P

    Anonymous- That's how I usually come up with my story ideas. I see a scene in my head (usually somewhere in the middle) and create the story around the scene. Like I told Sara, most of my original ideas come from dreams that I've had. I'm not as creative as some people but I can at least create a good backstory ;P

    Joann- Organic! haha! I try to be organized, and it works on somethings. But just like you, I'm on the go a lot, and my best ideas always seem to strike at the most inopportune times. I end up text messaging myself if I have my cell with me. Other than that--I grab those receipts and envelopes too. I've even been know to write on my arms... ;)
    BTW, I LOVE your blog!

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

  21. Now THAT is organization after my own heart!

  22. What a cool way to plot!!! I might try the sticky notes thing some time. I usually come up with a 'big picture' plot, then brainstorm like crazy and take a million notes about the little things. ...but my way sounds lame compared to your awesome one! :)

  23. ohhh I REALLY like that and am totally going to steal. Thanks girl!

  24. Well I assent to but I contemplate the post should have more info then it has.

  25. Anonymous- Such as what, Anonymous? This post was meant to show a peek at how I plot my novels, and I think I did just that -- in vivid detail. I could not have written much more without going into the specifics of my WIP, and that is not something I am willing to do.
    Please comment further with any questions and I will be happy to write a follow up post to help.
    Thanks for commenting, Anonymous!


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