Saturday, May 8, 2010

Today, I spoke to the Apple Valley branch of the California Writer's Club about plotting a novel, or I should say about my difficulty in plotting novels. That's because I have never been a plotter. I'm what they call write-from-the-seat-of-my-pants type of writer. When I write, for example, I have ideas or themes that I want to explore and I base my book on these themes.

With Evenings at the Argentine Club I wanted to write about a woman who had weight issues. So many women feel insecure because they are not the perfect weight (whatever that is) or because they don't project the image that society ingrains in us that we have. I wanted the heroine to deal with the problems that were behind her weight gain and end up at the conclusion of the book with a new appreciation for herself. I wanted to show that perfection either in weight or any part of life, is impossible. Accepting our faults and ourselves with our faults is important, and our heroine (and we) have to accept that and be the best we can be anyway.

I also had another idea for a book floating around my head, and it was to write an immigrant story, based on letters that my father had written to my grandfather when he first immigrated to America from Argentina. I wanted to show the excitement and expectations of success that immigrants have when they first arrive. I wanted to demonstrate through the main character how the American dream of success is an exhausting challenge and does not come easy -- for anyone, but much less an immigrant.

I never expected these two idea to come together into one book, and really, it has turned out to be more of the second story than the first, but one thing that is obvious from looking at these germs of ideas for the book is that they do not make a plot. I have no structure and no scenes. The characters are barely "alive". I needed a plot.

So, what is a plot and why do I say I'm not a plotter? Simply, a plot is what happens in the story, and a plotter is able to create a plan for the story. They systematically write down what will happen first, second, third, and so on until they reach the end of the book. They generally use some type of structure, like the three act structure, or The Hero's Journey to plug the plot into.

Sitting behind my laptop with the three act structure firmly in mind, I found I couldn't write down a punch of made up plots, because I didn't know what was going to happen yet, I hadn't written it.

The way I usually approach writing is that I let my books develop as I write. One scene leads into the next and when I'm finished, the book just needs to be polished or fleshed out.

The problem with this type of story development is that it is impossible to share with an editor or agent what your story is going to look like. "Just wait and see" doesn't seem to work. Also, the novel itself tends to become the plot outline and you end up having to cut and add scenes late in the process that could impact the rest of the book

As I continued to chant that a plot was simply a plan, I realized that plotting a novel wasn't all that different than what I do personally when I goal set. Since I'm a huge believer in setting goals and would never dream of going through life just hoping to reach my ultimate goals, I started to ask myself why I was not wlling to do this when writing a novel. Why couldn't I write a set of plot points that were not set in stone, but that were possible stepping stones to get me to the final climax and resolusion of the story?

Well, the answer is that writing a book is a creative process, not a plan for life, and the way my brain works is that it wants to create, build and discover a story as I write. The creative process is difficult to explain. For me, the plot develops as I see the characters in action. I've also found that trying to stuff characters into a preconcived plot makes them less interesting
What I did with EVENINGS and with upcoming novels is compromise. I plotted possible events that could happen which would lead me to the the end of the book. I then went back and saw how those events might fit into the three act structure. If they fit, I left them alone, if they didn't, I added or deleted or moved certain plot points around. After that, I started writing the book the way I normally would and only looked at my plot points if I felt stuck or as I started my writing day each day. Amazingly, I followed the plot points pretty much the way I'd written them the first time.

I don't think I'll ever be one of these amazing authors who can plot, outline, and see their entire novel before it's written. However, I've been able to become a better plotter and become more organized and more efficient as a writer.

And that's good, right?


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