Hosted by: Cynthia Swanson & Andrew Swanson

To Plot or Not… The Organized vs. Organic Approach to Writing a Novel

I first became serious about writing a novel years ago because of a story a coworker told me. It was supposedly a true story, but there were unearthly elements in it worthy of a horror novel (or one of my dreams).

Regardless whether it was true or not, the story captured my imagination.  I decided I had to write about what led up to it.  After spending some time developing characters, I plunged straight into writing–and promptly got stuck in chapter one.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a linear writer.  Writing is as much about discovery as it is about orchestrating the lives and interactions of the characters, and like readers, I want to know what happens next.

But shouldn’t I know that already?

During that first book, no, I didn’t know.  I knew a few key points, but had no roadmap for the entirety of the novel.  I was on a journey to discover what magic would flow from my fingers, to enthrall myself with a story I wanted to read.

What I did know was that the first chapter wasn’t right.  And it took a dozen rewrites before I felt it was close enough to where I wanted it to be, to move on to Chapter two.  The story was complicated, had multiple characters, and at times it was very difficult to keep on track, as the character conversations would get away from me and go in directions I didn’t plan on.

Ever had that happen to you?

It was a torturous process, but I finished the book, which ended up being over six hundred manuscript pages.  I learned so much that when I went to review it, I knew it needed so much rework that I couldn’t face it at the time.  It still sits on my shelf.  I’ll never get rid of it, as it was my first.  And I will never forget the lessons I learned while writing it.

More books came along, but I lost my way and wasn’t happy with writing.  Due to some compelling personal reasons, I decided to put the writing aside for a while.

Fast forward to now.  I’m a different person than I was then.  I’ve spent a great deal of time writing for business purposes, and my work life is consumed with keeping myself and everyone else organized.  Over the years, writing kept calling to me, but I couldn’t find the time, or the right story.  And then the right story appeared during a fateful driving trip through Montana with the husband.

This time around, knowing the story was going to be complicated and have multiple viewpoint characters, I knew I needed to map it out.  I spent time building character sheets filled with individual character information, major place sheets, background information galore, and yes, I even plotted out much of the story.  But since I also still need that sense of discovery, I left myself room to maneuver.

Because of all the additional plotting, I thought that the writing part of it would be easy.  Big surprise–it’s not any easier.  I’ve come to believe this: for some people, if they know the plot the words just flow from their fingers; for me, except for rare moments I get in the zone, it’s like cutting open a vein and trying to keep the blood flowing when it wants to clot.

So was it a waste to spend so much time plotting and researching the book?  Absolutely not.  Having a deeper understanding of the drivers of the characters in relation to the plot gave me new insight, which helped me to understand when two characters whom I had intended to be major characters, were supplanted by different characters who came alive for me, and better served the story.

And even better, when I reread the story from the beginning recently, there were times when I forgot that I was reading something I wrote, and just got involved in the story.  That tells me that I’m close.  And it’s a wonderful feeling.

Because it’s been awhile, here’s a few paragraphs written tonight:

For a split second Sam thought about just driving on.  This wasn’t her problem anymore.  All this was meant to have been was a quick stopover to make peace with her dad, let him know she was alive, and to give herself a few days of respite from running so she could figure out her next move.  None of that was working out, so why should she bother to stick around?

A car horn honked behind her, jolting her out of her thoughts, and she looked up with surprise to find that not only was she idling at an intersection, but a car had come up behind her without her being aware of it.  Worse, she suddenly wasn’t sure she had the energy to maneuver the car out of the way.  Exhaustion had silently crept into her bones until she felt too lethargic to move.  There was no way she could go back on the run in this condition; Mandala-Steele could get lucky and find her, and she wouldn’t even see them coming.

Happy writing.

Categories: Writing


1 reply

  1. I had to chuckle as I began to read your post. That very same thing happened to me when I wrote my first novel. Like yours it still sits on a shelf. As I’ve written more over the years, my process is somewhat similar to yours. I just wrote a post about it today as I’m frustrated that outlines don’t work for me. Your current project sounds very good. Best of luck with it!

Tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s